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Some time ago, the writers at BioWare revealed that the protagonist of the next installment in the Dragon Age series – Dragon Age III: Inquisition – will have a fixed race (human), but with the addition of different non-playable backgrounds to choose from, each of which will (supposedly) have major impact on the story. This is a bit of a departure from Dragon Age II – where Hawke had a very fixed origin – but not quite the same as the approach in Dragon Age: Origins either – the Warden had many different playable origins to choose from, each of which affected the rest of the game in certain ways, and could be from either of the three primary races (but was also left un-voiced in dialogue – in combat he/she would actually speak quite often, with many different voice sets to choose from). It seems like a compromise between the two prior approaches – this way, BW may be able to win over the crowd who preferred the origins, without losing the voiced, human player character that they themselves seem to prefer.
But is it a viable system in its own right? Will it win over the desired crowd? Will it prove superior to both prior systems? Or will it crash and burn, unable to please either side of the divided fanbase?
After asking myself these questions (and taking some inspiration from The Milkman and his well-written and informative blogs on the site), I’ve decided to try and weigh the pros and cons of these three approaches to character creation/customization and whether they fit the stated theme of the series – “to tell the story of an era in the world of Thedas”. After that, I’ll add some other possibilities that haven’t been tried yet, and attempt to determine whether they’re worth trying in the future. Lastly, I’ll give my own opinion, and add a poll where anyone else may chime in with theirs.
Now, I’ll admit upfront that so far I prefer the Origins system (for reasons I’ll get into later - though I do think some as of yet untried systems could potentially have more merit) – I’m by no means unbiased. That said, there are aspects of the DA2 and Inquisition systems I appreciate as well, and the Origins system was hardly perfect. So, I’ll do my best to be objective outside of the “Personal opinion” heading. As any other human being, however, I’m not perfect (as close to perfect as humanly possible, of course – otherwise I wouldn’t be on this site – but still not 100%).
Anyway, let’s get to it!
Origins – The Six Wardens
As you (most of you?) know, in DAO you have six different origins to choose from: the Human Noble, Dalish Elf, City Elf, Dwarf Noble, Dwarf Commoner, and Magi (both elves and humans can choose this one). After finishing character creation, you get thrust into each of their home environments and get to spend a short time there before (s)he’s spirited away by Duncan for the main plot – but your heritage never fully leaves you, and you get to return to your roots again later in the game (the Human Noble and Dalish Elf are arguably exceptions, though). Through these origins, we were introduced to six different cultural groups effectively in a single game, all the while working to halt a brutal civil war and an ancient evil on the side, and without a voice in cutscenes to boot (and with an ever-present creepy blank facial expression)!
- The largest pro of this approach is the sheer amount of customization it enables for the player. He/she can choose to be poor or rich, oppressed or privileged, etc., as well as which combination of family, friends and overall culture your character’s been raised in. This is in addition to the choice of race and class which most RPGs (used to?) offer. This increased selection of choices allows the players to shape their character (or “role” if you will) in more ways than traditionally possible in video games.
- Along with more choices, the varied origins allows the player to experience many different aspects of the setting in a single game – rather than just hearing about how rough the elves have it ever since losing their nation a second time, you can be a Dalish or City elf and experience for yourself what problems they may encounter (darkspawn, cursed artifacts, demons and possessed tress, and humans hunting them for the Dalish, and more good old-fashioned oppression by their human overlords for the elves of the cities). By choosing the Dwarf Noble or Commoner, you get to live a day in Orzammar, personally experiencing dwarven politics and backstabbing, and the divide between the castes. It’s an excellent way to quickly introduce the players to most important aspects of the setting.
- Having this many choices in how to shape your character and from which perspective you view the world as the character embarks on his/her shared destiny of quelling the blight naturally provides significant replayability value. How would my Dalish Warden differ from my Cousland Warden? What choices will he make differently? Does his personality significantly differ? Will he/she romance anyone, and if so, who? And if you happen to dislike an origin for whatever reason (not liking to play as dwarves and/or elves, or prefer warriors over mages, or simply finding one origin story boring compared to the others), you can simply choose another one! It’s like – pardon my distasteful choice of metaphor – having a wide selection of gorgeous women (or handsome men) to have sex with; you can pick one first, and if you like her (or him), you can pick him/her again later, or you can have a try with one of the others, whether to find the one you like the most, or to simply experience everything on the “menu”.
- Leaving the character un-voiced lessens the concern about cost, since it’s unnecessary to hire voice actors to record the PC’s lines – thus making it more likely for the player to get more responses in conversations, in turn giving more freedom over how to develop the character. It also allows the player to more easily imagine the character’s voice and come up with their own motivations for his/her responses/actions.
- The large amount of choices of race and origin can be troublesome for the developers as it increases production costs – thus leaving less for other things. For example, having six full origins may have come at the cost of cutting certain quests which may have improved the main plot or helped develop the PC and/or his/her companions. And while the PC him/herself never speaks in cutscenes, there are many other characters in the origin stories that do – thus requiring more lines to be recorded with more actors, who in turn require payment for their work (unless they’re trapped in the recording studio, I guess – but that might negatively impact the quality of their work). And the different starting locations obviously result in more work for the designers – and in addition to a limited budget, games also have a schedule to keep track of.
- Allowing the PC to come from many different places and cultures limits the possible choices for main story. The main quest has to involve the PC in meaningful ways if the players are going to feel invested in it, but it can be difficult to come up with a story that involves people from wildly different origins relatively equally, without having one or more choices feel tacked-on or redundant. In DAO, the blight is a threat to all Wardens and their peoples, but for many, “save the world” stories have been done too often at this point, and those people are eager for something new. If, for example, the story was about Denerim’s internal politics and class divide, origins for a Human Noble, City Elf and Surfacer Dwarf (affiliated with the Merchants’ Guild) would make perfect sense, but a Dalish elf, Dwarf from Orzammar or Circle mage wouldn’t have the same stake in such a story, and thus feel out of place. To tell certain kinds of stories, having too many origins can be a bit inconvenient.
- For many, having the PC not talk when every other character in the game does is a serious disconnect, and makes the character feel lifeless. The fact that The Warden most of the time had a lifeless expression on his/her face when it was seen makes this point more poignant. For many, it’s simply easier to relate to a character that can talk and express emotions (though this also depends on the actors).
Fixed character – The Champion of Kirkwall
The protagonist in DA2 – Hawke – turned out to be a far more linear pixelated creature than the warden – in fact, he/she was almost a polar opposite of the Warden. Hawke could only be human and had only one origin – and what little difference was possible to achieve in the origin (IE the choice of class) was not playable and only affected a codex entry and which sibling dies horribly at the hands of a DA2-style ogre. Whereas the warden more often than not looked like a zombie and became mute when (s)he entered a cutscene, Hawke was pretty talkative and could make expressions to go along with his/her lines or as reactions to stuff (including a rather inappropriate O-face when seeing the walking corpse of their mother, but I guess it’s better than a stoic glare...). Sometimes Hawke would even talk or express certain emotions without player input!
- Narrowing down the details of the protagonist can enable the developers to better shape the story to fit the character (or make it easier to write a character to partake in the specific story the writer(s) wants to tell), as there are less variables they have to account for. They don’t have to account for getting elven, dwarven or kossith protagonists invested in the story – so they can ideally spend more time giving the fixed protagonist interesting ways to interact with the story (possibly even enabling a more branching narrative), or give the players more options to define/develop the character they get.
- With one origin, the designers don’t have to spend time designing multiple different starting points and can focus more on designing content later in the game. Also, as the multiple origins each featured their fair share of original characters, there’s a chance that less voice actors are required overall, or that more characters can be added/developed throughout the game.
- Allowing the protagonist to speak in dialogue and make facial expressions can help with immersion and make the character feel more alive. If done correctly, it can get the player just as or maybe more emotionally invested than if they had to imagine the character’s voice, because the character starts to feel alive – someone the audience can relate to. And good actors who can pull off all kinds of emotions, along with a script that accounts for player choice, can strengthen that bond between player and character even further, by giving the impression that the player is shaping a more alive character.
- Forcing all players into choosing the same origin for their character can seriously limit replayability value for the game and customization for the character. A story involving a protagonist whose features are set in stone can very well be a good one, but if there’s little variety, the players will have less reason to replay the game. This can be remedied if the story is allowed to branch more to counter the lack of different starting points, but that still leaves the problem of the players being deprived of many customization options (choice of race and choice of origin), which in turn makes it more difficult to make each playthrough feel like a different experience with a different character – especially if the character is always called by the same name regardless of how you play him/her.
- By giving the protagonist a voice, and supposing that on average when the PC gets a response he/she has three choices (as in DA2), this amounts to a lot of lines for the prospective PC’s actor(s) to record – even more so if the story’s allowed to branch into different outcomes. This can end up becoming costly – especially if the devs still offer the choice of gender (fixed gender like in Alpha Protocol makes this less of an issue, but brings up its own problems in the form of depriving the player of customization choices), as that requires two actors to record all those lines. Devs may therefore be tempted to not branch the story or give the players more choices than necessary – which runs counter to the pros enabled by a single origin, meaning you may not actually get more depth, but the same amount of depth as (or less than) before – but with the character having a voice. Whether that's a worthy pay-off is of course up to the individual - do you want a voiced character more than a character whom you can customize more?
- Outside of cost concerns, to voice many different kinds of lines – each loaded with different emotion – can be challenging for even the greatest actors (and big-name actors are unlikely to be given a role like Hawke or Shepard, as they would be costly). Hawke for example effectively has three different personalities that the player can choose from – the actors therefore had to portray effectively three different Hawkes on their own. If the actors aren’t very good, or are specialized for certain kinds of roles, this can end up hurting immersion instead of strengthening it (for example, many people point out that Mark Meer is good as Renegade Shepard, but less so as Paragon Shep, and to a lesser extent the opposite is said about Jennifer Hale). To properly immerse the players and get them invested in the character, the actors have to do a good job (and need to have a good script, so the writers have to be good too).
- Having Hawke randomly talk without direct player input also hampered many people’s immersion, as often whatever Hawke would say or do wouldn’t match with how the player had tried to shape the character up until that point (in other words, it’s difficult to get personality nuances across – such as being diplomatic and helpful to mages/mage supporters and rude/aggressive towards Templars/Templar supporters, as automatic dialogue depend on the personality most often used before – similarly, it’s hard to change the character’s personality, therefore limiting roleplaying character development). To take away choice is an easy way to upset an RPG gamer.
- Using a few set personalities to choose from can be very limiting. It can easily give the impression that there are only that many options to make Hawke different – the feeling of nuancing personalities can be lost. In addition, people rarely use only three different tones in real life – sometimes a different tone is more proper or simply suit a particular conversation better (and sometimes we have bad periods, so we may be rude to people for a week or two, only to be nice again the following week once we feel better), so a rigid system like the one in DA2 can come across as simple and inflexible. Not to mention, tone is not always a good indicator of one’s personality – for example, one can be polite but still ruthless or outright villainous at heart (Littlefinger from ASOIAF comes to mind), or rude but well-intentioned – so equating the “Diplomatic/Helpful” tone of dialogue responses with having a diplomatic/helpful personality feels even more constricting.
Backgrounds – The Inquisitor
And now, our protagonist-to-be – The Inquisitor! From what we can tell from the hints provided by our well-loved and not at all controversial devs over at BioWare, the Inquisitor will be human-only and be voiced like Hawke. However, unlike Hawke, the Inquisitor will have more customization in the form of an unknown amount of background choices, which won’t be playable like the origins in DAO, but will (supposedly) still impact the story (hmm, now where have I seen that before?). Admittedly, we have no idea how exactly this is going to end up, so I’m just making qualified guesses here based on the information we currently have.
- Most of the pros of a fixed protagonist still more or less apply here – especially the voice acting and facial expressions aiding immersion, and the designers not needing to design different starting areas. In addition, these choices could provide increased replayability and more customization of the PC like the origins in DAO enabled. Even if you don’t play through the origin stories, just having the choice could aid in character building, giving the character a new perspective in each playthrough.
- On the other hand, most of the cons of a fixed protagonist still apply as well – such as the inability to choose race, and the potential cost of the voice acting (the latter which could get even more costly in this case, as there now needs to be different dialogue depending on background in addition to gender and class). And as with the DAO approach, adding too many background choices also runs the risk of limiting the choices for the main storyline (or on the flipside, the backgrounds may have to be defined by the storyline – such as the mage-templar storyline forcing all backgrounds to have connection to the conflict in some fashion, which can limit variety in the perspectives the player can experience – a warrior inquisitor would have to be a templar or knight affiliated with the chantry, a rogue an agent of the divine or a seeker, and a mage a circle mage or an apostate, for example).
I haven’t played Star Wars: The Old Republic myself (only watched videos on youtube), so I don’t know how well the game’s approach to PC-creation was executed, but personally I consider a similar system at least worth considering. What I mean is, to choose different characters from different walks of life and play through separate storylines that may converge at points (like by the middle or near the end) sounds pretty interesting. Think back to the six origins of DAO, but then imagine that each origin continued into separate storylines running concurrently but mostly separated from the others, connected loosely by the Blight and the Fereldan Civil War running in the background to define the storylines to different degrees. For example, the Human Noble’s storyline could’ve been about aiding the civil war against Howe and Loghain, the Dwarf Noble could’ve joined the Legion of the Dead in the Deep Roads and taken the fight to the darkspawn, the city elf working to protect his/her people in Denerim from Howe & Co.’s dastardly plots, the mage using the chaos of the blight and civil war to rebel against the chantry or aid the chantry/templars in suppressing the mage coup, the dwarf commoner being freed by and running errands for Bhelen in Orzammar and/or on the surface, and the Dalish elf trying to find a cure for his/her blight sickness and/or the answer to the eluvian mystery. Oh, the possibilities!
I think this could work very well in the DA setting, as it gives many different viewpoints and perspectives to choose from and a lot of replayability, all of which benefits the goal of telling the story of the world and not individual characters. On the other hand, to have multiple mini-main questlines running separately from each other would require a lot of resources, especially if the protagonist was to be voiced. Either that, or each storyline would have to be pretty short (like 10-15 hours each). Or it would be turned into an MMO like TOR, I guess. Still, it couldn't hurt to try somewhere down the line.
Another possibility would be a different kind of compromise between the DAO and DA2 styles – having different origins, but limiting the variables of each origin. For example, let’s assume that in DAO there were only three origins: Human Noble, Dalish Elf and Dwarf Commoner, and for each origin, the gender is set (for cliché’s sake, let’s say Human Noble = Male, Dalish Elf = Female and Dwarf Commoner = Male). That way, only three actors for the PC would be required – which wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility – and there would still be race and origin choice, allowing for aesthetic and cultural customization not present in the DA2 approach. If necessary, each of these origins could also be limited in their choice of class, or even be locked into one class, but have an increased emphasis on specializations (for example, Human Noble = Warrior, Dalish Elf = Mage, Dwarf Commoner = Rogue), which would limit player choice somewhat, but perhaps ensure that each origin is a fundamentally different experience.
Or, one could go the opposite direction, I guess, take a leaf out of The Witcher (which I for some reason have never gotten around to buy and play, even though I really want to) or Alpha Protocol and make the protagonist completely fixed in gender and background (and possibly even overall personality, appearance and class, like Geralt). It would certainly cut the costs of voice acting for the PC in half, if not more, and could allow for the character to be even more deeply/personally connected to the story, and/or for the story itself to branch even more. On the other hand, the idea of exploring different aspects of the setting through the PC gets lost with that approach (though the premise of the DA-verse could still be fulfilled in the long term if each such game focused on different kinds of protagonists – like one game focuses on a human refugee, the next a dwarf in Kal-Sharok, and after that a game about an elven slave in Tevinter, etc. – but I kind of doubt that would happen).
As I stated above, of the two different protagonists we’ve gotten from the DA-verse thus far (three if we count the Inquisitor, whom we’ve heard vaguely about), I prefer the way the Warden was handled. I simply believe that it suited the franchise very well and helped set it apart from Mass Effect, which I was playing around the same time. Through those origin stories, I got immersed into a deep, layered world that I wanted to play through again and again, to explore it with different characters with different outlooks on life and who I thought would interact differently with the companions – and in turn, the companions occasionally said some things differently depending on who and what you chose to be. Exploring the world through the eyes of representatives of different cultural origins simply made it more developed.
That doesn’t mean I think DAO was perfect – the Warden’s stoic glare is creepy as hell, and the fact that the warden is mute while everybody else speaks can feel a bit weird at times. And I can understand if the devs find it difficult to come up with new storylines every game that concerns different races and cultures, and would rather try something a little more narrow. But I didn’t pay much attention to those faults because I got so into the rest of the game – I just wanted to proceed, see how things would turn out, then make a new character and do things differently. So what if all of them stare at people like zombies and hump their love interest(s) with their smallclothes still on!?
While I could come up with several pros for the DA2 approach (and indeed, before the game came out I actually defended BW’s decision), many of which were things that the game actually promised we were going to get in return for what was sacrificed (similarly to how we were promised that limiting the game to a single city over a long period of time would allow for more reactivity to choices and changes over time), I don’t really think the game managed to take advantage of these strengths. Rather than getting a more personal story with more emphasis on meaningful choices which making a fixed protagonist should’ve enabled, IMO what we got was a PC who often said things we didn’t want him/her to say or do things we didn’t want him/her to do, whose choices didn’t matter 99 % of the time and who felt left out of his/her own party. Oh, and whose family members got killed off at regular intervals for no reason other than shock value (and inadvertently weakening the narrative by depriving it of one of its potentially most interesting elements and removing any reasons for Hawke to remain in that cursed city). Most of the acting for Hawke was good, or at least decent, but I think the script and the extremely linear but still fragmented story held back whatever positive aspects remained of the switch. From the looks of things (I haven’t played them myself yet), Legacy and MoTA fix some of those problems by focusing more on Hawke and Family, as well as taking advantage of the set personalities to allow Hawke to participate in party banter (some probably don’t like that, as it’s even more of Hawke saying things they may not want him/her to say, but for me it works in this particular instance because it helps give Hawke a closer connection to the companions), but ultimately, I think DAO’s way simply works better overall.
As for the impression I get from DA3’s system – I’m not sure what to think exactly. On the one hand, it’s good to have at least some choice regarding the character’s background back, especially if it will have impact on the story. And I’m not opposed to voiced protagonists on principle. On the other hand, I fear it won’t work as well when we don’t get to play through it (and the pessimist in me is saying that Gaider was probably lying more than the seediest of newspaper articles and the backgrounds will at most affect a few codex entries and 2-3 lines of dialogue - then again, the pessimist in me also says I will probably remain single for the rest of my life, so take that with a grain of salt). And as I implied in the DA3 section, there’s the possibility that the backgrounds will be limited so that they fit in with the mage-templar storyline – a story which I by this point don’t care much about for various reasons (you can find them on various assorted forums or ask me in the comments if you’re curious). Also, there’s the fact that it just feels like blatant copying of Mass Effect. Looking back, many changes in DA2 (including Hawke) felt like attempts to imitate things from ME rather than let DA go in its own direction, but to be fair Hawke was handled a little differently from Shepard (for one he/she was far less important *badum-tish*). The Inquisitor just sounds like a Shepard clone, only
IN SPACE IN DRAGON AGE! I know it’s not rational to make such an assumption based on so little information, but it’s the impression I get (different backgrounds, always human, part of an elite order...). If it turns out to be different in some way, I’ll retract this opinion.
Finally, the inquisitor still has to be a human. To me, that’s a bummer. In DAO, I really got into the other races, because they felt like an active part of the setting. But in DA2, they suddenly turned into background fluff (and fanservice – I mean, why else would they add Orana?). That’s not necessarily a consequence of a human-only PC, but I think it encouraged that development. By making the PC human, the devs could suddenly, and chose to, focus on human-centric stories, which don’t concern the other races much (if at all). Frankly, I think that’s a huge waste – the human nations and cultures are certainly interesting, but the elves and dwarves (and kossith) are just as, if not more, interesting, so for them to just fade away into the background while humans in different-colored skirts murder each other for complex generational hatred-related reasons I would much rather read about in a book or two than have to play through two games to solve even though it shouldn’t logically be possible to solve such a thing through just killing stuff and yelling at people, which is no doubt how it’s going to be handled – that blows lyrium fumes. Though that’s just my opinion. If you like the M-TW story, great. It's just not my cup of tea, at least not the way it's been handled so far.
Personally, I would really like to see the SWTOR approach tried in the DA-verse (minus the MMO bits) at some point. It doesn’t have to be too advanced – just find an interesting event to use as a backdrop (my favorite idea would be a five-way civil war in the Anderfels between the Monarchy, the Wardens, the Chantry, the Circle and the Dalish, with roving bands of darkspawn - whether leaderless or lead by intelligent darkspawn like the disciples or Corypheus or not - thrown in for good measure, but that's never going to happen), base a few different storylines around it, make a main character and companions for said guy/gal for each storyline, and go on from there (a climactic ending with random explosions and inexplicable revealing people as aliens not necessary). For similar reasons as my enjoyment of the origins in DAO, I also kinda like the “multiple fixed origins” alternative too. Or maybe even to merge these two – like, have 2-3 fixed character choices, but each play out into separate, though connected, storylines (I think that’s how the Game of Thrones RPG played – always liked the idea of that). Whatever, so long as we get variety (in appearance, race, and especially in cultural origins), replayability value and choice back.
I hope some people found this, read it, didn't die of boredom from reading it and actually found it informative. And if not, well, at least I got to write down my thoughts somewhere ;)
Happy holiday season, fanboys and fangirls! :)