Not Fade Away: How Dragon Age Origins Got Evil Right

The difficulty with explaining why Dragon Age: Origins was super-duper top dog stuff is that on a surface level it was all a bit boring. Nasty creatures are coming to destroy your green, faintly damp-looking world! You’ve got to save the realm, perhaps because prophecies? Prophecies might be a thing, I suppose. Also: dwarves and elves and sometimes magic.

Thematically there’s very little going on in Ferelden that hadn’t already been flogged to oblivion by the rest of the genre, which makes Origins an even tougher sell to a culture now fixated with Game of Thrones. Decapitation makes an occasional appearance, but Origins is largely po-faced fare. What helps it succeed anyway is the one cliché it skewers beautifully, through its depiction of evil and a place called ‘the fade’.

They say that everyone has their demons, but in Origins some people genuinely did. Believably mapping out the transition between ‘bit of a wrong-un’ to ‘oh no everyone is dead’ is a struggle that videogames routinely fumble. The problem is, it’s an essential part of the formula for what needs to come next: Sexy Hero Saves Day With Morally Approved Murder.

For a game that showed you little more than a highlight reel of the realm you aimed to save, Origin’s world created a sense of sturdiness. Watching as the blight encroached, wiping out settlements across the world map created an atmosphere of tension and dread that obviously felt at odds with the traditional RPG opportunity to meander on an apparently infinite basis. Yet within a handful of hours you’re under the game’s spell, your mind slipping easily into the fiction like a buttered rubber duck sliding into a bath.

The get out of jail card that Origins played beautifully all came from a place known as the fade – an ethereal realm full of magical fun. Only magic users can explore the fade of their own will, but others can often tap into it without really knowing what they’re doing. While dreaming at night most of Dragon Age’s races tap into the fade while fast asleep, opening up their thoughts and fears to monsters window-shopping for delicious nightmares.

Demons themselves have a simple hierarchy: Demons that latch onto specific, subtle emotions are far more powerful than those who prey on minds afflicted by more basic sins. Someone possessed by a lust demon, for example, wouldn’t be terribly difficult to spot in the real world – imagine a Cheeky Girls album without any of the nuance.

Rage demons don’t tend to last long either, chucking sanity out of the window and turning their victims into bloodthirsty mugs. Only powerful demons can make the leap into the mere-ole-mortally realm without losing a substantial number of marbles, and worryingly it’s these chaps that are the hardest to spot. Despite the lore’s chatter of Demons being linked to “sin” the reality in Origins is often a hell of a lot sadder, with people with often good intentions sliding slowly into the gloopy depths of evil. Wanting a loved one not to die – for example – could potentially see you getting possessed by a desire demon. Rough.

Videogames struggle with subtlety at the best of times, and shifts in character motivations often feel like they’ve been approached by a man wearing boxing gloves made of ham. The demons of the fade always struck me as a clever method of occasionally avoiding this common pitfall – allowing the game’s narrative to shunt character motivations to the extremities required without the progression feeling jarring. Believable villains aren’t easy to create, and videogames traditionally require fresh ones to be pumped-in almost inexhaustibly.

There’s a degree of having your cake and eating it here, too – characters being possessed against their will allows you both the desire to destroy and the ability to feel a sense of pity. I’ve always felt that the very best villains should fill you with a sense of melancholy, leaving part of your brain always hopelessly wishing that there might be a way to repair what was broken. Origins allowed you this cliche, but always at a serious price. Pulling someone from the clutches of a demon was rarely achieved without nasty costs.

In the same way that Origins handled the theme of racial tensions well when it turned out that humans behaved like total dicks to elves, the way that the fade acted as physical manifestation of psychological issues resonated strongly with me. It’s a crude but powerful amplification of the idea that bottling up dark thoughts and emotions eventually see you consumed by your own obsessions, causing yourself and those around you harm.

Universally available sexy fun-times aren’t the only byproduct of game design influenced by empathetic minds. Fabricated worlds can only ever feel as real as the characters that they play host to, and beneath the melodramatic mind-games of Origins’ demons, it was the faint sadness of human flaws that always shone through. It’s the game’s humanity that makes the it so special in the first place.

If demons were the fiends behind every single pickle, then naturally Dragon Age would have been a pile of guffsticks. Thankfully the world contained plenty of traditional bastards too, letting you enter every encounter playing the mental game of ‘Demon or Dick?’

Fantasy dream-lands like the fade can so easily exist in a vacuum, too – narrative tools for a fun change in scenery, loosely tied in as throwaway lore. Crucially, the fade sits comfortably within Origins, its consequences rippling through the make-up of the world’s races and their cultures. Mages must prove themselves mentally strong enough to fend off demons before earning the right to tap into its powers, for example – a legal restriction with implications echoed clearly throughout the rest of the world. Meanwhile, given that they reside underground and are socially detached from the outside world, it’s hugely fitting that the dwarves don’t dream; the back-stabbing gits with their insular politics are left to brew in subterranean mines, creating stubby, stoic characters that are even tougher to trust.

Outwardly vanilla and muddy-green stuff, few elements of Dragon Age Origins’ setting and lore seem unique enough to explain why it meant so much to so many, but the difficulty of celebrating single aspects of the game without spiralling off to talk about everything else is indicative of its ultimate strength: Origins was a carefully woven mesh, a collection of themes, characters, and ideas seamlessly tied together in a way that made sense.

We always approach fantasy fiction with a desire to be tricked, to fall under its spell – but it’s rare that this intoxicating lure is met by games that truly manage to live up to the task. The world of Origins – where damaged dreams could play host to demons – resonated with me in an unexpected fashion. Blood adorned the box while cleavage and gore dominated the screenshots, but beneath the same-old surface was a subtle game that’s still worth playing today.

93 Comments

  1. amateurviking says:

    Not read the article yet, but saw the byline and just popped down here to say ‘hooray’.

    Hooray.

    Edit: It’s DA:O’s internal consistency is what makes it stick in the mind for me. It’s relatively logical within it’s own world framework. I just (finally) finished Origins and started Awakening and it’s got to be up there with my favourite games. Took a while for the combat to click for me though.

    • ReV_VAdAUL says:

      Yeah, I’m a huge fan of Matt’s work at Videogamer and now his solo stuff. Having his stuff on RPS is just great and I hope we get to see plenty more of his articles in the future!

    • akstro says:

      Yes, I demand to see more from Matt and his dreamy hair.

    • Jockie says:

      Matt’s hair may be my favourite videogame journalist.

  2. Tom De Roeck says:

    Id say the expansion got evil “righter” though.

  3. SMGreer says:

    Cracking good read! Though most of the sections where you actually play through the fade are undoubtedly some of the worst sections of the game, the Fade itself (like the similarly strange and fascinating presence of the Qunari in the 2nd game) was a great bit of the lore and much more interesting than many of the other “dark” aspects in Origins. It nicely elevated the Redcliffe section above the far more generic segments with the Elves and Dwarves, though they had their charms.

    So yeah, wonder if it’s going to be as interesting in Inquisition given that it’s now the centre of the story.

    • Hex says:

      Seriously. Hated that shit. (Playing through the Fade bits.)

      • Ross Angus says:

        I bounced off right at the start (that’s the Fade, right?).

        I still haven’t found the article which unlocks the mechanics of both Dragon Age and The Witcher.

        • Robert Post's Child says:

          That is something I feel like hasn’t been addressed much. DA’s Fade – and the whole lore behind the Golden City, dragon/gods, etc – is definitely one of it’s stronger aspects. I only know about Witcherverse from the second game, so while I understand them not wanting to retread old material, the way they kind of only briefly mention the Conjunction of the Spheres (and the Wild Hunt’s real nature) in books you might not even find, was kind of frustrating. That and the Fade seem like very similar concepts, although the psychological aspect that gets addressed in the article does seem to distinguish it just enough.

          • SMGreer says:

            The Witcher series (which cards on the table, I adore) is a funny one like that. As someone who did not read the books until after playing the games, I must admit I actually enjoyed being a bit clueless to everything but the essential story elements. The lack of exposition felt refreshing. It worked for me partly because of how convincing the Witcher’s world generally is, how well rounded the characters populating it are that when they start talking about stuff I don’t understand (though Geralt seems to) I kind of just got immersed in it. Plus The Witcher 2 stands up well as a mostly stand alone affair.

            It is somewhat a problem though. They’ve tried to address it with in-game books, codex, some flashbacks and conversation options but largely the rich universe goes untouched in the majority of the games spoken dialogue. Dragon Age has always had this issue too. In The Witcher’s defence, they’re based on a book series that I’m told is as big and as popular as Lord of the Rings in its native Poland so I can somewhat understand their reluctance to spend precious dialogue retreading narrative ground covered elsewhere. Dragon Age just seems comfortable getting on with things and leaving its Codex entries for the curious.

            But if the detail is there and the characters or story are right, I’ll happily risk the initial alienation and take the time to learn what’s going on beyond the central plot later. It never did Dark Souls any harm after all.

        • Hex says:

          Yes, I’m not sure if it’s necessary to do it right away, but I went through the initial Fade bit very close to the start of the game. I’m glad to have gotten it over with then — the rest of the game was pretty fun.

      • Holysheep says:

        This, ugh. I wonder what I hate the most, oblivion gates or the fade.

      • Edwin says:

        Thank god there is a mod to skip the fade for PC players. link to nexusmods.com?

  4. Guvornator says:

    “…Origins handled the theme of racial tensions well when it turned out that humans behaved like total dicks to elves”

    …and then fumbled it by having no black people in it.

    • Batolemaeus says:

      Because using allegory isn’t enough these days. Things must never be subtle, or approached from another angle to make them more relatable. They must be spelt out so clearly even the dumbest of the dumb gets the message. It just isn’t enough to create a fantasy world with commentary on institutionalized racism, everything down to the color of their skin must be the exact same thing as real life.

      • Nevard says:

        This wasn’t a criticism of “they didn’t use black people for their example of racism”, but that they tried to make a point about racism while cheerfully and obliviously creating a world where humans are universally coloured the same.
        With so many NPCs, changing the tone on a skin texture wouldn’t be any more work than they were already putting in.

        • Archonsod says:

          Given the setting I don’t think having black characters would make much sense, unless someone has invented the aeroplane or Ferelden has underwent a recent climate change and nobody bothered mentioning it.

          Given the geography of Thedas the only black populations would be to the North. Sten hails from Seheron, which explains his darker complexion. This somewhat points to the Qunari dominion as being Thedas’ equivalent of Africa, and given how they feel about tourism …

          • Frank says:

            “Given the setting…”

            Are they not responsible for the setting? I thought this was a BioWare property.

          • Ada says:

            The setting’s full of goddamn dragons and you’re here talking some nonsensical guff about genetics and climate as if it even applies in the fictional world that Bioware invented. Black people can exist anywhere that dragons can. It’s a fact.

          • airmikee says:

            link to washingtonpost.com

            The majority of human history has been dominated by darker skin tones, evolution brought about lighter skin in order to allow our ancestors to absorb more vitamin D. Since there has been a reality of a planet consisting entirely of brown people, what’s so hard to imagine about a fictional planet consisting entirely of white people? The racial dynamic was clearly addressed with peoples that had a slightly different appearance from one another, why was that not enough?

          • jrodman says:

            What’s the point of inclusivity? I don’t get it.

      • Guvornator says:

        “Things must never be subtle, or approached from another angle to make them more relatable.”

        Eh? Elves are more relatable than black people? Hmmm, I think you might be on some slightly iffy ground there…
        Look, I’m not saying that that storyline doesn’t make some good points about prejudice, but in my humble opinion you can’t say “we’re tackling racism” unless your fictional world has got a better racial mix than white people and slightly darker looking white people. I mean X-Men was using the same technique to tackle the same subject in the 60s.

    • Ross Mills says:

      Duncan and Isabella, even if the lighting in the room Isabella’s in doesn’t make it obvious. Duncan being the guy at the top of this very article.

      • RedViv says:

        They’re more… swarthy than black. Which seems to be the most common skin in their lands of origin, Rivain. Which is the fantastic equivalent of the Iberians during medieval Moorish times.

      • Premium User Badge

        Wisq says:

        To be fair, Duncan did sorta end up being DA:O’s “Magical Negro“, the one that gives the protagonists the tools and wisdom they need to survive and then goes off and nobly sacrifices himself so that the (typically white) protagonists can secure the real victory.

        • Seraphithan says:

          He is a very weak example, if at all, of a “Magical Negro”. His abilities have nothing to do with his ethnicity, culture, spirituality or some other form of inherent otherness. He just happens to be a Warden who is black. Also he neither deliberately steps aside or waits for the (white) protagonist to solve his problems. If he hadn’t died (in the line of duty, not as a sacrifice to enable the protagonist) he would have been the hero to unite Ferelden against the Darkspawn.

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            Wisq says:

            True. But I do feel like he fits into that “one black (or at least non-white) guy that nobly sacrifices himself” trope. Probably not intentionally, but tropes are things we fall into unless specifically trying not to, and not (usually) things we deliberately invoke.

          • Seraphithan says:

            Okay I can see that.

          • Supahewok says:

            Except Duncan didn’t sacrifice himself. His last action was to avenge the death of King Cailan, after that he got swarmed. He saved nobody. The battle would have gone the exact same way if he’d been up on the tower with the protagonist. His purpose was to give a sympathetic face to the doomed, betrayed army, not set the protagonist up for success with stereotypical magic mumbo jumbo nonsense.

            Seriously, Obi Wan Kenobi in Episode IV fulfills more criteria of the Magical Negro than Duncan ever did. Calling Duncan one is really stretching to try to make a point that isn’t there.

        • Holysheep says:

          “the real victory…” Which is about dying when you kill the end boss…

      • Jimbo says:

        Duncan and Isabela are both white?

      • Guvornator says:

        Eh? That’s a proper honkey nose if ever I saw one (Being half Jewish, I see it in the mirror everyday :) ). Duncan isn’t black, although I think his status as a member of another ethnic minority is more debatable. He’s acted by Peter Renaday* who is Caucasian, although in the world of VOs that’s obviously not the open and shut case as live action. According to the cast list he doesn’t do any other voices, though.

        *He also does a bunch of voices for Disneyland.

        • Fanbuoy says:

          “He’s acted by Peter Renaday* who is Caucasian, although in the world of VOs that’s obviously not the open and shut case as live action.”

          You’ve obviously not spent time in the Netherlands around Christmas.

    • avtrspirit says:

      It did have black people in it. Though if you are saying that they did not have African-American stereotypes, then no they did not.

      In fact, the racial makeup of the world is perfectly in keeping with the geography of Thedas. Orlais=medieval France and Ferelden= medieval UK. On the other hand, the more equatorial countries (Antiva, Rivain, Navarra) all had dark skinned characters. It just makes sense that if you have a story in either Ferelden or Orlais, then the majority of your characters will be light-skinned. All the foreigners from the north (including major characters like Duncan and Isabela) are dark-skinned.

      This also makes sense with the “colder climate, whiter skin” trope, because Thedas is in the southern hemisphere. So, south is home to the whiter races, while north is home to the darker-skinned.

      • Jamesworkshop says:

        I’d say it’s more in keeping with being pseudo-medieval, unlike the modern world with mass transport you’d have much more regional homogeneity, groups like the grey wardens would be some of the most far traveled, whereas most citizens probably live their whole lives in the places where they were born.

      • Jungle Rhino says:

        How is colder climate = white skin a ‘trope’? It is common sense and biology. Dark skin is caused by melanin which is basically a function of how much sun people are exposed to. Criticising DaO for not having black people in it is like criticising HBOs The Vikings for not having any black people?

        Maybe I’m just getting old but people just read way too much into things these days.

          • Premium User Badge

            Jdopus says:

            Specifically trying to find as many instances of people from distant lands appearing in western art tells you absolutely nothing about the frequency with which those people were actually present within European culture or populations. It’s a data-hunt.

            Everything we know about the low rates of migration within that time period between cultures; outside of trade and when lands were conquered, suggests that yes, you were extremely unlikely to run into Chinese or African people in medieval England or France. No one is saying absolutely no people moved across the world or interacted, but they were rare and those who were actually able to would almost have certainly been of the upper echelons of society.

            The breathtaking arrogance of that blog’s author does them no good either.

        • malkav11 says:

          To nitpick, Vikings is the History Channel, not HBO.

    • Holysheep says:

      Which is false, as the very first screenshot shows.

      Not only this kind of comment is stupid, but also it’s wrong… Disregard good games, the shrines of “tolerance” needs sacrifices, apparently.

    • Tim Ward says:

      So, what I want to know is this:

      why are people always on at fantasy for having few or none non-white characters when they’re typically set in medieval europe analogues which, logically, would have very few non-white characters yet give shows like Star Trek or Babylon 5 a pass when they’re set in the future where Earth is united under a world government and it is a matter of canon in those settings that both racism and sexism is a thing of the past and yet 90% of the characters white and male when, logically, approximately half should be women and, going by modern day populations, about half should be asian, with the rest divided roughly evenly between middle-easterns, africans and europeans? Seriously, the average Federation ship would have like three white people in the senior officer cadre at most.

      So, what’s the real racism here: the story that says, yes, in a time before globalisation and mass immigration, there aren’t going to be too many people running around in your England-analog who don’t have white skin or the story that says, earth is united under one government, and we have outgrown racism and only one non-white dude could make it onto the senior command staff of the enterprise by merit.

      Of course, you could just as easily reverse that and wonder why people who say it’s ok for Dragon Age or Game of Thrones to have no non-whites in it because of their setting, but don’t criticize traditional sci-fi when they have an almost exclusively white cast even though that doesn’t make any sense for the setting :o

      p.s. duncan is mixed-race.
      p.p.s his mum comes from a place called rivain, which is a bit like spain or italy, apparently.
      p.p.p.s spaniards and italians are ‘white’ even though they have a darker skin complexion than northern europeans, so he’s not mixed race
      p.p.p.p.s unless you’re American and apparently consider “latino” (descendants of spanish colonists) a seperate race to “white”
      p.p.p.p.p.s except, hang on, the spanish colonists interbred a fair bit with the native populations so maybe they *are* a different ‘race’
      p.p.p.p.p.p.s so maybe the concept of race is a bit more socially constructed than we think? maybe duncan *is* mixed race if the people of thadas generally consider people of antiva and rivian a seperate race to the southern, white skinned fereldens or orleisians
      p.p.p.p.p.p.p.s they probably wouldn’t though, because in the time-period Dragon Age represents, the modern concept of ‘race’ simply did not exist – people had prejudices, sure, and some of those might have revolved around skin colour but the idea of the population categorized into distinct races is pretty modern, it dates from the 19th century and his a product of the ideology of colonialism. instead, they would just recognize his features as being typically rivianian with a hint of ferelden in the same way we might recognize someone with certain facial features and blond hair as looking typically scandinavian.
      p.p.p.p.p.p.p.p.s to what extent does it even make sense to apply concepts like ‘African’ or ‘European’ to a world with no Africa or a Europe, and at a time where they hadn’t even heard of the idea that Africans and Europeans might have different characteristics beyond looking a certain way?

  5. Jamesworkshop says:

    the fade itself is corrupted by sentient beings emotions, the demons are just looking for food

  6. Scumbag says:

    “like a buttered rubber duck sliding into a bath.”

    Ban this sick filth!

  7. malkav11 says:

    There’s some sense that not all the spirits of the Fade are villainous, either, although the realities of their situation mean that their methods aren’t the most acceptable and their motives simply aren’t human either way.

    • Brinx says:

      Well of course they aren’t all villainous. They merely represent different part of the human psyche. In the lore of Dragon Age there are also spirits of love and compassion. Those don’t try to cross the border into the real world because they don’t have interest in power over others.
      But especially interesting are the spirits that are even harder to categorize morally like spirits of Justice. (See the character in Awakening or Anders in the not as bad as most say Dragon Age II.) In that sense I also liked the conversation with Wynne about possession, turning into abominations and keeping parts of your human self one could have in Origins. (I’m currently playing through it again in preparation for Inquisition, that’s why this conversation springs to mind immediately.) One of the possible answers is that one might be possessed by an evil demon but still be able to stay human, which poses new problems regarding the complete evilness of the darker demons.
      So in a sense Origins didn’t just get evil right but also morality in the sense that, if you really look deeper in the lore (i.e. read the codex entries) there are no absolutes not even with the things that are universally seen as evil in the world of Thedas.

      Edit: Also see Wynne being “possessed” by a spirit of Faith.

      • Brinx says:

        That sounded incredibly nerdy.
        I like it. : )

        • avtrspirit says:

          I too like that you’re nerdy. :)

          If you haven’t already, try to read Dragon Age: Asunder. It casts some more doubt in the traditional idea that abomination=bad.

          • Brinx says:

            Is it any good? I’m asking because a lot of video game novels are bloody awful.
            (And now I’m rembering the Baldur’s Gate novels… :( )

          • avtrspirit says:

            Thankfully, they didn’t outsource it. It is written by the lead writer David Gaider. In my opinion? It’s very good.

            The one big caveat with all the Dragon Age side material is that you have to accept their canon. In most cases, these are good endings where everyone lives. As long as you can accept that a companion you killed is alive in the novel, you’ll enjoy it.

  8. Drake Sigar says:

    Alright I’ll play, why do you butter your rubber ducks?

    • Ejia says:

      Maybe because they’re not as fatty and tender as rubber geese?

  9. forddent says:

    I always found the beginning of Origin, where Duncan just cold murders a man for trying to escape the rite of initiation, to be an interesting way to characterize the Wardens. The whole idea of an organization that essentially dooms its members to madness in order to fight against a greater foe is fascinating–and the cold truth that even if you decide to make a god-baby with Morrigan to live a little longer, you’re still going to end up dead in the Deep Roads with only a vague memory of what the sun looked like is… grim, but in a way that worked for me more than any other similar attempts to be grim have managed.

    • Agnol117 says:

      I always found it unfortunate that they never really expanded on that aspect of the Wardens. The idea that they’re willing to go to any lengths to win is touched upon a few times, but the game provides an out for the most direct bit of this (admittedly, you don’t have to perform the Dark Ritual but the option’s there), and otherwise doesn’t provide much opportunity for it in the narrative (with blood magic being the most obvious missed opportunity). It’s done better in some of the novels, but the games largely dropped the ball.

      • Premium User Badge

        Jdopus says:

        The game does provide you with opportunities to do that though, *MAJOR SPOILERS*

        I’m playing that way on my current playthrough and have done the following:

        – Used Blood magic to sacrifice Eamon’s wife in order to save his son.
        – Directly interfered with Dwarven politics and let Bhalen murder Harrowmont just so they could live up to their treaty.
        – Killed Shale and Caridim so as to secure the anvil of the void for fighting the darkspawn.
        – Banished Alistair and accepted Loghain as a Grey Warden.

        I do agree with you that it’s pretty lame that there’s a “Good” ending where you avoid these hard choices and still have a glorious victory, but it still makes a reasonable effort – it just compares poorly to other games like The Witcher series in my opinion.

  10. DatonKallandor says:

    You do realize the Fade is just the Warp from Warhammer right? Bioware didn’t invent anything original here.

    • zakabi says:

      Its not really depending on whats original, as it depends on executions And that is what Matt is praising here. He is praising how the fade is tied to Thedas in the lore and how the demons in it can affect its citizens.

  11. chargen says:

    I feel the Fade overtaking me. It is a good pain.

    What I’m saying is that it’s a derivative idea, done to death in other settings. If this was one’s first encounter with the Fwarp, then I guess it would seem pretty novel, and not deadly dull as I found it.

  12. Random Integer says:

    Isnt what you’ve just described almost exactly Chaos from Warhammer? (Which I’m sure is in turn derived from something else but its the one that leaps out to me)

    • Snidesworth says:

      Pretty much, though it isn’t as outright malicious as the warp from the two Warhammers. I felt that it distinguished itself well enough: the Fade isn’t corrosive unreality, there are no obvious dark gods that dwell within it, it’s influence is usually felt on an individual basis, etc. That and there’s the whole deal with the Darkspawn and how they came about.

  13. Latro says:

    Yes, I like the part about the fade and the reading of the article, but I think the game does better with the subtle poking of the whole “hard men making hard decisions” trope.

    You can see that most of the time, all of the different groups in the game have very good reasons to think they have to take a hard decision and do something not very ethical if they want to survive.

    9 times out of 10 it just makes things worse.

    “We need to have mage concentration camps, I’m sorry, some of my best friends are mages, but man, abominations are too much of a risk”. End result, mages get mistreated and abused and fall into blood magic and demonic deals because fuck the system that oppresses us.

    “I want to be free, so I revel against the Chantry!” End result, look, pal, I was with you till you became a monster.

    “The Grey Wardens need to do stuff like this to ensure we can end the Blights”. Stuff like what, exactly, lying to me, threatening to kill me, revealing WAY TOO LATE that my selfless sacrifice to a suicide mission is actually a foregone conclusion because I’m going to become crazy? Lets say my view of the Grey Wardens at the end of the game was “now that the blight is done my only regret is that you all died because I would like to introduce you to my sword, bunch of assholes”. Yes, I did the right thing, but the feeling that i was robed of heroism because nobody actually gave me the opportunity to evaluate things and decide by myself…

    So, the hard men do the hard stuff, and we end with a world that sucks because everybody is doing so many hard stuff to others, treating them like objects and justifing it because “it was necessary”, that frankly, the darkspawn thing looks like the less of the worries. At least that is a problem with a known solution, kill all of them. Having a place that is worth living for, thats kinda more difficult.

    • Lahsbee says:

      Spot on! Cool analysis.

      At least one of the companions in DA:I will probably be making that point in-game, too.

    • Lycan says:

      Aaaah, but…*puts on best impression of the Oracle’s voice from the Matrix*

      Is it the best form of heroism if you expect (and want / need) to feel like a hero for doing it ?

  14. Bradamantium says:

    Came for the byline, stayed for the article. Excellent.

    This goes a long way to explaining why I enjoyed DA2 more than Origins. It might just be the proximity of Current Me to my playthroughs, but Origins always struck me as a delectable cake frosted with dull mediocrity. It looks like generic fantasy from every angle, ’til you dig in and find something more. DA2 hit the ground running with more style and color on the way to the lovely innards, and for that it always sat better with me. (Plz no one tell me how wrong I am. I have been thoroughly told this before.)

  15. Ubik2000 says:

    Goddamn it. I am going to play the hell out of DA: Inquisition, because I loved Origins. But I never finished DA2 (for, uh, obvious reasons), and my conscience is bugging me to tie up loose ends.

    Reading this, though, it occurs to me what I REALLY want to do it play through DA:O again. I only ever played as a Sword-and-Shield Human Noble – might be time to give Magic-User a go, before taking care of DA2 unfinished business. But where will I find the TIME to do all of these things?

    • qutayba7 says:

      Despite its many problems, DA2 did get the ambiguity of mages right. The hero is constantly asked to undertake a “discernment of spirits” (to use a Biblical term), deciding which mages are going to give into temptation and reach out for demonic help – even and especially when their cause seems otherwise just and understandable – and how to deal with such cases. All of the “evil” in the story derives from the characters’ firm and too-inflexible belief that they’re doing the right thing. If you can stomach running through the same cave 50 times, there’s actually a complex and very dark set of themes.

  16. Robert Post's Child says:

    Dragon Age lore is weird, because everything you can point to could arguably be just ripped from other sci-fi/fantasy series, but the actual background explanations are still kind of clever. Grey Wardens might be fake-Jedi, and the Darkspawn are fake-Orcs, but their connection with each other, and in turn with the Old Gods/dragons, is an interesting twist. And Qunari might just be Vulcan+Borg hybrids, but… that’s actually a cool idea.

    • Ieolus says:

      Man I wish people would stop over-analyzing stories against each other. Of course everything is derivative of something; there is basically no unique stories anymore when you boil it all down. Unless you have 1 for 1 rip-offs (Mountains of Mist vs Misty Mountains; Wheel of Time vs LOTR) then give the story a break.

      I guess I just don’t understand why people can’t enjoy a story for what it is.

      Oh, and the Grey Wardens are supposedly the Night’s Watch from ASoIaF, not Jedi :P

      • qutayba7 says:

        I actually get some of my enjoyment from just such comparisons. How will the current storyteller take old tropes and cliches and weave something that will make me see them anew? Storytelling is less about originality and more about shifting the audience’s perspective on old material in interesting ways.

      • Robert Post's Child says:

        Why do analyzing a story and enjoying it for what it is have to be mutually exclusive, instead of being basically the same thing? I just said I was appreciating it! I wasn’t even complaining! Like, they managed to make it a bit more than just a palette swap, DA being the Warhammer to Mass Effect’s 40k and all.

        Your point about the Night’s Watch makes sense though. I was mostly just thinking about it in terms of special warrior group outside the bounds of society in general that has a degree of political influence.

    • bleeters says:

      I’m not sure I’d really call the Grey Wardens Jedi like. They’ve pulled some horrific stunts in the name of victory, from forcing conscripts to drink what is essentially poison to abandoning entire nations to the darkspawn in order to buy time to bolster the defense of others. As much as Wynne and Alistair might stress otherwise, they’re not an organisation of selfless, noble heroes. They’re ‘victory at all costs’ ruthless pragmatists, albiet it ones that serve an ultimately sacrificial role.

      • Hmm-Hmm. says:

        And it sort of makes sense that they are that way (and hence so different from Jedi). They were found on the basis that well, the world needs champions to fight back the Taint. Desperately. Hence the cause of Wardens is far more urgent and has less space for buts and ifs. Kinda like the Night’s Watch from A Song of Ice and Fire.

  17. Koozer says:

    Unfortunately the whole black and white darkspawn business was dull as anything. I managed to battle through the Deep Road then just couldn’t be bothered finishing it.

  18. Premium User Badge

    NationOfThizzlam says:

    Remember when DA:O was PC-only and the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate?

    /rant

    • Dys Does Dakka says:

      I do, yes. Then EA bought Bioware, and the next thing we got was the “This is the new shit” marketing campaign…

  19. onodera says:

    What I liked about DA:O the most was its length. There are two episodes that are too long, namely the Fade and the Deep Roads, but otherwise the game is quite short, which enables multiple playthroughs.

    • strangeloup says:

      I finished DA:O for the third or fourth time last night.

      I’d like to know in what universe forty-nine hours’ playtime can be considered short.

      • onodera says:

        In the universe where Skyrim exists. I will never play this game a second time, even with all the survival mods installed the second playthrough is too much like the first.

  20. strangeloup says:

    I’m grudgingly willing to admit, having just gone through Origins for the third or fourth time and getting ready to tackle Awakening, DA2, and then probably Inquisition at Xmas or whenever I’m finished, that Dragon Age is maybe kind of an okay series.

    Someone above made a similar point, but certainly with Origins — less so with DA2, but still to an extent — there’s a core of interesting ideas slathered in a load of hoary old fantasy tropes, so that on first glance, and indeed until you dig into it, it seems like Generic Fantasy World #156897. The tropey bits are certainly servicable, but I wish all of it was as interesting as, well, the interesting bits.

    Also, Ferelden seems incredibly boring compared to literally every other place in the world you ever hear about. Give me a game in Orlais or Antiva, please.

  21. aircool says:

    What’s the combat like? Is it turn based, real time, or that annoying combination of both that was present in Origins?

    Nice review, but leaving out an explanation and example of combat hasn’t helped me get off the fence.

    • thebigJ_A says:

      What?

      Did this person really think they were reading a review of a really old game? Or do they somehow think this is about the new game??

      They’re so confused!

  22. HisDivineOrder says:

    It’s funny. Everything that was wrong with Origins was made right with Dragon Age 2. Everything that was right with Origins was undone with Dragon Age 2. They literally went so hard in the other direction with the sequel, it went completely off the rails, not unlike one of your people with good intentions accepting a demon’s deal.

    If you felt like you had no connection to family in the first game, you’ll find it in the second. If you felt like you had no REAL connection to any of the cities you visited (save MAAAAYBE Denerim) or a feeling you visited the Cliff’s Notes, well you won’t feel that way about Kirkwall. If you felt like everything was cliche and easy as pie–too easy really–when you were out trying to make disparate groups coexist and work together, then Dragon Age 2 is not that. In fact, the world is so screwed up before you get there, Kirkwall is pretty much toast from the get-go, but nothing you do makes things all THAT much better. You save a few lives and ruin a few more, but on the balance the most important things you do are revealed at the end of the game. One of them involves your mistakes and some red [REDACTED].

    But more than Origins could accomplish, Hawke really had a family. He had to deal with that in a city full of horrors. You really felt the Templar vs Mage divide in a way that wasn’t as simple as a middle-ground and a wink and a nudge. This was damage done well before you by the first Inquisition and you weren’t resolving it with a kind word and a pat on the back and a nudge away from silly Annulments. No, here you were dealing with the mistakes of the first Inquisition’s imperfect solution to “The Mage Problem.” Simply villifying all mages as the darkeners of the Golden City, then locking them away for the rest of their lives, and condemning them to a fate of servitude and self-doubt and fear was the absolute most perfect way to ensure mages were even more prone to falling to the temptations of the Fade than them being trained in a place where magic was valued and treasured. The problem was, such a place existed and Tevinter inevitably showed that magic could be misused and taken to the extreme in the other direction, too. The Templars too were a thorny problem. To put people as watchers of powerful mages, they too must be powerful, but how do you keep your new powerful force in line? How do you ensure the watchers themselves do not need watchers 24/7? For if mages could not be trusted, why would you trust Templars any more? Surely, if some mages can fall then so would some Templars. Lyrium addiction is a convenient solution, but again like the Circle, it only solves SOME of the problems.

    Given enough time and enough misery, lyrium addiction and Circle protocols were only a temporary solution. You had to make it stick. So you throw in a religion around the whole mess to justify doing it. Mages are the cause of great suffering (broadly true though the specifics are likely not true) and Templars are the lock that keeps the mages at bay. Templars are hyper-religious about their importance in the world and are taught not to let their guard drop around mages for mages will and often do fall to temptation. They need to have their hands on their swords at all times and not feel for their charges in any way other than as the guard watching a prisoner, not trusting and not unwilling to do what is necessary. Eventually, the dogma and the constant waiting for something to happen (and those times when something does happen) convince a silent majority that the Mages themselves are to blame for all the misery that comes from their care.

    Wouldn’t it be easier and better if there were no mages? Wouldn’t it be a simpler, more thorough solution to the problem the Chantry constantly preach about to just remove them entirely from the world? As if to respond to the notion that mages were put there by the Creator, you have Andraste teaching that mages were the ones who drove Him away and created the first Darkspawn (though the truth of that is dubious).

    So much of the finer points of this are lost in Dragon Age Origins, which essentially takes place over the course of a year and allows for middle grounds and halfway points that let you have your cake and eat it, too. The mages and templars can be made reasonably happy and satisfied, partly because everyone involved is so moderate and mellow. And partly because there is this huge thing happening that makes these moderates more afraid than their mages vs templars conflict.

    But in Dragon Age 2 the Mages vs Templars spark is the beginning of a much bigger powder keg. The explosion is obvious for anyone to see right from the get-go. The first game was very much a game about killing darkspawn. Mages and Templars are there, bubbling under the surface, but only just. In Dragon Age 2, the Mages and Templars seem like a red herring as they aren’t so prominent at first, but the more side missions you do, the more missions in general you do, eventually you realize the game has been helping you see something the first game did not.

    The Templars and their distrust of mages is justified to some degree. Mages can go bad. They can go really, really bad. Not all of them become abominations. From Fenris and his master in Tevinter to the storyline with your mother to your own backstory as an apostate (or your sister as an apostate) on the run from the Circle in Ferelden because when the Hero of Ferelden was taken to the Circle as a child, your mother (the Hero of Ferelden’s aunt) swore that HER child would not have the same done. You (or your sister) would not be taken to the Circle and possibly made Tranquil.

    Hell, the very act of making mages Tranquil is abhorrent to any culture that treasures free will and emotions that go with it. Choice. To some, it’s worse than death, but the mages are a clear and present threat, shown throughout the course of Dragon Age 2. Rarely are there times when the mages are NOT falling to some temptation, human or demon. There are a few times when it’s not the case, but more often than not, it happens.

    And there’s the rub. How many of those times are mages falling not because they want more money or women or to become an all-powerful sorcerer supreme? How many times are they falling because the Templars have made their lives a living hell? How many fall because of the very safeguards put in place to keep them from being allowed to fall? And how many would fall if those strict protocols were not there? If only a few need fall to truly destabilize the world, then how can you reasonably expect the regular people caught in the middle of the Templar’s fear (and secret resentment) and the Mage’s misery (and secret resentment) to not need protecting in some manner?

    That’s what Dragon Age 2 did well. What it didn’t do well was give us a broader world (especially after Dragon Age: Origins), a broad character choice of origin, or more than couple of randomized areas. It’s a shame they didn’t do more with the game because it’s focus on putting you in one city and watching it slowly spiral into chaos because of things that happened eons before you got there would have been more compelling had the details like more mission areas and more involved control methods from Origins made the way over.

    And I didn’t even talk about the Dalish.

    • malkav11 says:

      I would like to play the Dragon Age II you describe. One that had more subtlety about the whole thing than a rampaging ox, particularly in the final act. Unfortunately, that game doesn’t exist. In my book, Origins does a much better job of raising that particular uneasy arrangement’s ramifications with subtlety and sympathy for all sides. In Origins, you can see why a mage might choose to live with this arrangement, but you can also understand them going apostate. You can see why the templars are needed, but also recognize the problems with lyrium and their tendency to want to see the mages as enemies rather than the people that they are defending. And the mage origin scenario really personally roots you in the situation the way a mage Hawke never is. Sure, as a mage Hawke, you’re an apostate and theoretically this would be very bad for you, but in practice you blatantly use magic all over the place and neither you nor your companions ever catch any meaningful flak for it. Hell, you can still side with the frigging templars, even though they’re virtually all insanely prejudiced against mages and actively battle them in the late game. And I guess you can see why, to an extent, since basically every frigging mage in the game goes blood mage/abomination. Not only that, but even if you’ve supported the mages the entire game, they still flip out and attack you. It’s just so ridiculously forced and nuance-free. I’m hoping that Inquisition dials things back a bit. What I do think Dragon Age II handled well was the qunari presence and eventual conflict. I think that would have been a far more interesting and multidimensional thing to base the core of the game around. But alas, it’s merely an interim stop before crazytown.

  23. Monggerel says:

    In DAO in the mission where you save the bourgeoisie from the evil fuckdemon curse if you fixed the magic tower first you can ask for their help and they fix it up real good and everybody is happy except for the poor.

    But that’s fucking stupid so I went back and killed the kid.
    Can’t say I understand why I couldn’t just kill the guy and reanimate him under my command. Would be far more efficient than convincing his sorry ass to dance the famous jig of his family line in front of all the people staring.

    Oh yeah and I spat in Andraste’s dust bin and killed the Dragon anyway. And burnt down the orphanage in that one sidequest.
    What a bunch of dummies.

  24. SheffieldSteel says:

    The DA:O writers had some great ideas and the lore and universe setting is excellent. Unfortunately, the implementation was a huge let-down for me. The lore says that mages tread a perilous path, that with great power comes great risk of turning into a loathsome demon… and then the game quietly ignores that possibility. The effect was that mages were so OP it wasn’t funny. Each mage in the party made the game easier, by more than one difficulty level.

  25. intron says:

    The thing about the Fade is that it stems from the fundamentally traditional element of magic or demonic planes of AD&D, and I know was even mocked at the time for the simple idea of demons representing vices. That the realm of magic is the realm of dreams and is therefore called “the Fade” is firmly in the style of creating a “low-fantasy”, “realistic” version of traditional or obligatory magic elements. In that sense I found it a bit transparent (haha) and flimsy (haha) without necessarily denigrating where it came from or tried to do. I was really serious about trying to like the game before release, in fact, and getting into its ideas. It was okay, that’s all I have to say. I actually find it habitually hard to understand all the fond (or over-the-top, at the time) feelings it receives. I basically agree with the statements about how single aspects don’t warrant celebration (with some exceptions, like the Ned Stark rip-off, who I remember was a really neat character, for a short time – but I like most of the first battle anyway).

  26. rickenbacker says:

    Not sure I agree, though I see the point of this very well written article. For me, the demons and the Fade were simply a low background hum to a world where the real evil was done by normal people. People who did evil because it was necessary (like Duncan, or indeed the player) or because they believed it was right (like pretty much all the main antagonists, but especially Loghain, which is what made him so interesting). This is a world where the monsters are pretty much all people like you and me, and there really aren’t any good or bad sides. The actual invasion of evil creatures was just a backdrop against which this drama could play out, in my opinion.

  27. Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

    Wow I remember, like, none of this. Precisely zero. The advancing horde, yeah, but nothing beyond that.