By : William Chandler
Day 1 of the Write A Stupid Thing Every Day, or W.A.S.T.E.D, quarantine challenge that I’ve imposed on myself.
Some loose thoughts on Dragon: Age Origins and its expansion, Awakening.
Dragon Age: Origins is, unlike KOTOR, Jade Empire, or the Mass Effects, a slow burn of a story that really only gets better as it goes on. The beginning is a dreary, morose origin of your choosing that doesn’t skimp on the spectacle, but does cut back on the Golden Age Bioware bombast ™, at least in the plot department. In my particular case, a collegiate wizarding dropout that is forced to enlist in the military after his friend gets cancelled for not telling his GF about his blood fetish. The end of the world makes an unceremonious return to a bunch of people who know it’s there and just can’t be arsed to deal with it. There’s regular shit to do, haven’t ye heard? Fields to till and politicking to bungle. All the cards are laid out on the table after the battle at Ostagar which is roughly four hours into the game. I’ve seen the end already and know exactly the form it takes. No mystery, no suspense. This stands in stark contrast to the hushed whispers and conspiratorial end of the known universe in Mass Effect, the true nature of which presents as a third act reveal. For this reason, I think, Origins has a much less gripping early game but it only goes up from here.
Not mechanically speaking, though. The game is much the same at hour 50 as it is hour 1, with the exception of more frequent difficulty brick walls to careen into once you’ve lulled yourself into a false sense of security with the combat systems. Nay, the game truly shines in just how in control of the whole experience you feel. Decisions are laid at your feet at a regular pace from the very beginning and it’s difficult to tell that they are even decisions sometimes, much less which of them might just come back to haunt you later. The ending also changes in its fine details to reflect exactly what you have or have not done. In my first full playthrough of the game, completed last month, I realized that I didn’t care for Zevran all that much. I didn’t want him out of the story or dead or anything but he’d just be that party member in an RPG whom you mostly ignore through the end of the game unless you really need something lockpicked. I’d chat with him on occasion but his particular brand of ‘I’m a silly and horny assassin boy with a lonely backstory’ just didn’t do it for me. He betrayed me later on, like he knew exactly how I felt about him, and I had to set him on fire. Whoops. Guess I won’t see you in the sequels.
The Awakening expansion picks up canonically some six months after the base game’s conclusion and continues the ascent up the mountain of quality. You have the option to import your character from Origins and I am glad I did because it, along with the Witch Hunt DLC that picks up after Awakening, felt like a truly satisfying send off for my Grey Warden. Origins’ story, while immensely dense with lore and packed with great character arcs, lacked nuance in some ways. Particularly, the handling of the Darkspawn felt tropey and one dimensional in a game that managed to mostly avoid those pitfalls when developing characters or races similar to fantasy standards. Awakening only improves on these things and is very curious to explore just what it means to be on opposing sides of a war. The Darkspawn in Awakening have fractured into different factions with different beliefs. The Architect is a sentient Darkspawn who has tasked himself with freeing the rest of his people from their forced eternity of bloodshed. The Mother is a Darkspawn broodmother given free will by the Architect and driven mad by the horrific nature of her transformation from her human form. She claims to only want to hear the Call of the Old Gods again which gave her, and the rest of the hivemind, the purpose of endless war.
My Warden, as well as the land granted to him by King Alistair at the end of Origins, is caught up in the Darkspawn power struggle and in danger of annihilation. As a mirror to the Darkspawn conflict, the land of Amaranthine is politically divided due to its recent change of ownership. The previous Arl, Rendon Howe, was a political wheeler-and-dealer of sorts who did what he wanted, irrespective of the law, in order to further his agenda. Some of his constituents agreed with this methodology and they now hate you for your interruption of Howe’s perceived success. A violent coup was attempted at some point in my campaign and I was forced to set them on fire but I’m sure it could have been handled differently (read: better). To add an extra layer of deliciousness on top of this politically scandalous cake, Rendon Howe’s son, Nathaniel, attempted to assassinate my Warden for taking the Arling and disgracing his family. His plan was thwarted and, presented with a choice on how to proceed with him, I forcefully conscripted him into my military and he began to see the error of his own father’s ways. A major theme of Awakening is challenging your beliefs and preconceived notions in order to become better. This is presented best in the final moments of Awakening when you are asked to set aside your prejudices against the Darkspawn and to help the Architect in his goal to grant the Darkspawn free will. And, well, I didn’t. My Warden chooses to listen to his calling as a slayer of Darkspawn because he doesn’t understand how things could be different after the monstrous and vile things he has seen the Darkspawn do. I set the Architect and the Mother on fire. This seemed on par for the character in my eyes.
And I think that is what, somewhat unfairly, makes Awakening better than Origins almost by default. Like Hearts of Stone or Blood and Wine to the Witcher 3, Awakening represents the winding down final chapters of a story in which you’ve invested so much. You feel aligned with the Warden as a character because you’ve spent so much time together on this journey. Don’t get me wrong, after Mass Effect 3 it is pretty clear that Bioware could have messed this up, but they didn’t. The world was never going to end in Awakening and despite the smaller stakes, people do live or die depending on choices that have no correct answers and these choices are referenced in later games. This satisfying payoff doesn’t just help the tale of the Warden come to a close but also your tale as a player of Dragon Age: Origins.