Are Player-Characters Blank Slates in DA:O?

In her article, “Game Characters as Narrative Devices. A Comparative Analysis of Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect,” Kristine Jørgensen examines the way that Dragon Age: Origins uses supporting characters to drive its plot. Namely, she claims the game leaves the player-character “relatively open for the player’s interpretation, only leaving certain clues that point in…

Read More »

In her article, “Game Characters as Narrative Devices. A Comparative Analysis of Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect,” Kristine Jørgensen examines the way that Dragon Age: Origins uses supporting characters to drive its plot. Namely, she claims the game leaves the player-character “relatively open for the player’s interpretation, only leaving certain clues that point in the direction of a fictional individual.” In other words, the player-character gets influenced by the situations affecting supporting characters, but how characters react to these scenarios though gets left entirely up to who the player thinks the player-character ought to be.

I agree with Jørgensen that within the game “depth is hinted at in dialogue options, as each option reflects a different attitude and emotion, but it is up to the player to fill in motivations behind the choices that the PC is making.” The dialogue options give the players the ability to react to in-game events. They can threaten people they disagree with and get into fights, handle a situation rationally and peacefully, or try and bargain and make a profit. These choices then reflect back on the player’s perception of the player-character’s personality.

The dialogue options include being polite or threatening. The player's choice of dialogue then

The dialogue options include being polite or threatening. The player’s choice of dialogue then “forms” the player-character’s personality.

I disagree though that the player-character “is more of a blank canvas that the players can add a greater variety of personalities onto.” For example, depending on the race (human, elf, dwarf) and class (warrior, mage, rogue) the player chooses, they may have limited options of origin story. If the player wishes to play a mage they get locked into the single mage route, a human non-mage also gets locked into a route. Only non-mage elves and dwarves have choices, and then they only get to pick between two options. These origins can shape the narrative and personality of a character. For example, in the human route, the player-character loses their entire family, while in one of the elf origins, a journey through the forest goes terribly wrong. Additionally, at times in the game, certain characters with the player-character as if they know them, even if the player has had no previous exposure to them. In the human origin, when first meeting the king he speaks with you as if he knows your family and you know him, despite the player having little information on the character. While it makes sense for the player-character’s backstory, as a member of the noble family, to know of the king, the player won’t have the information, making the scene strange. The player themselves doesn’t know the character, but is expected to based on the player-character’s origin. This makes the character less of a blank slate, and more of a structure already built but waiting to be finished. It gives the player freedom to flesh out the player-character, but only via a world that has already been constructed.

Character origins gets determined by these choices, which then impacts what happens to the player-character, and therefore shapes their personality.

Character origins gets determined by these choices, which then impacts what happens to the player-character, and therefore shapes their personality.

 

Sources:
JøRGENSEN, K.. Game Characters as Narrative Devices. A Comparative Analysis of Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2. Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture, North America, 4, nov. 2010. Available at: http://www.eludamos.org/index.php/eludamos/article/view/vol4no2-13/192. Date accessed: 03 Oct. 2016.

Relationship Games: Aarseth Now Obsolete

In his article, “Genre Trouble,” Espen Aarseth argues that games “focus on self-mastery and exploration of the external world, not exploration of interpersonal relationships.” He makes exceptions for multi-player games and those where the player is god-like. However, Dragon Age: Origins falls into neither of these, but defies the second part of Aarseth’s claim, for…

Read More »

In his article, “Genre Trouble,” Espen Aarseth argues that games “focus on self-mastery and exploration of the external world, not exploration of interpersonal relationships.” He makes exceptions for multi-player games and those where the player is god-like. However, Dragon Age: Origins falls into neither of these, but defies the second part of Aarseth’s claim, for interpersonal relationships play a key role in the progress of the game.

Players can converse with their companions (and anyone they meet) at will, and those conversations change and develop as the game progresses. Companions gain approval when the player make decisions they agree with, and disapproval when they disagree with the player’s actions. As a result, they either open up to the player, or shut them out. If a player gains high enough approval, they can unlock the companion’s personal quests, providing them with more gameplay material. If their approval falls too low however, the companion may opt to leave the party and the player loses them forever. While the player can monitor approval (and thus avoid these options) certain decisions automatically cause a companion to leave. In other words, companions act as independent people, with their own opinions and actions.

Depending on the answer the player chooses, the character will react differently.

Depending on the answer the player chooses, the character will react differently.

Additionally, one of the companion’s key roles is how their presence alters the options of gameplay. For example, when in the village of Lothering, if the player tries to free an imprisoned man without high enough persuasion, the woman in charge will refuse, and thus he cannot be unlocked as a companion. However, if you happen to bring along Leliana (another companion), the player automatically gets permission to free the man.

The imprisoned man can only be released from the cage (and join the party) if certain decisions are made.

The imprisoned man can only be released from the cage (and join the party) if certain decisions are made.

Aarseth would likely argue that these moments fall more under film, rather than his notion of “simulation” which makes games different from other media. Yet, during these “cut-scenes,” the player still gets to choose dialogue options, which the companions then react to accordingly. The player simulates speaking. Granted, Aarseth wrote his article several years before Dragon Age: Origins, and other games like it had hit the shelves. Back then the capacity of choice in games was usually limited to “yes” and “no” answers for accepting quests, or featured dialogue answers that had no real effect on the characters spoken to. However, nowadays, his argument no longer stands as games like Dragon Age, Skyrim, and others have shown.

How Open-World is Dragon Age: Origins?

The 2009 Bioware game Dragon Age: Origins tries to present a free, open game space that players can navigate at will, but at certain moments in the game, that illusion breaks. Once past the initial cut scenes, a player can move around the freely and talk to anyone they encounter. Depending on who the person…

Read More »

The 2009 Bioware game Dragon Age: Origins tries to present a free, open game space that players can navigate at will, but at certain moments in the game, that illusion breaks. Once past the initial cut scenes, a player can move around the freely and talk to anyone they encounter. Depending on who the person is, the player may be able to have a full conversation with them or they may just get a simple response. The longer dialogues usually reveal important information or at least deepen knowledge about the game world. Some of these dialogue exchanges trigger automatically, when the player enters a certain area or approaches a character, while other must be actively sought out. The automatic triggers do not violate the freedom of the game because they normally make sense in context (your mother stops you to speak with you about a pressing issue, a guard calls you over to deliver a message, etc.) and the others allow the player to express their freedom by choosing who to talk to.

Your mother introducing the player to her friends.

Your mother introducing the player to her friends.

However, the simple response conversations jar the player from the game. When speaking to the guards at the Cousland Castle, almost every one responds to a female player character with “Good day, my lady” in the exact same voice. The guards essentially exist as mindless clones, repeating the same phrase over and over again, regardless of how many times they’re spoken to. Some of these characters say different things each time, but even then a player can cycle through the responses with repeated clicks. It makes the player aware that the game world is not actually real. Similarly, while the player can move from place to place within a given area, they cannot always leave that area. In the Cousland Castle, the player can move about its rooms, but cannot go out into the rest of the world. The player is given the illusion of freedom, but only to a certain extent.

A map of the area you can explore when first starting a Cousland playthrough.

A map of the area you can explore when first starting a Cousland playthrough.

Dragon Age: Origins seems to suggest the coming of the open-world genre. It seems then that these jarring moments come from a lack of computing power, as well as to force narrative. In 2009, the game and the computers it was played on didn’t have the memory to handle a full open world with every character being different. The player also cannot always go where they wish because then the story could not progress in the chronological order the writers laid out.