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Establishing a Story: Problems from Dragon Age's Dalish Origin

by Basil Allen on 09/07/11 09:43:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

            Minor Spoilers Ahead         

            Among the things that Bioware does with its game Dragon Age: Origins, the most interesting are what the game is named for: the origin stories.  Games have been experimenting with how to facilitate a role-playing experience, and the origin story is certainly a creative choice.  Though it has the side effect of an increased development time, it has the advantage of establishing a variety of backstories that can influence how the rest of the game proceeds and is interpreted.

            However, among the six origin stories, there is one that I believe does not work well in its current form.  It is unfortunate, given the impressive quality of most of the others, that the origin for the Dalish Elves simply does not succeed to the same degree.  The purpose of this essay is to highlight what I believe are its main structural problems.

The purpose of an origin story is as follows:

a)      To establish your character’s relationship to the people and the world around him

b)      To show how you character gets thrust into the main story (i.e. becomes a Grey Warden)

             These two elements are not simply matters of information; otherwise, the origin story’s presentation could easily be replaced by a few paragraphs of blanket text.  The strength of these elements, especially the first, is in making them feel inseparable from your character, firmly rooting them in the Who, What and Why of your character’s identity, rather than forcing them onto him from the outside.  Hopefully, by the origin’s end, you feel that its events and people truly are part of what defines your chosen champion.

             Sadly, the Dalish origin has very little besides information.  It presents its own unique events and characters, but almost none of them make a lasting impression, for clear structural reasons.

Pacing

            Looking at the other origin stories, there is a clear pattern to their structure.  First establish a setting, through people, places, and general exposition; second, throw in an important event: the big plot element.  The setup leads into the action.

            The Dalish origin, on the other hand, uses inverse pacing.  Introduce an event (finding the lost humans, exploration of the ruins and the mirror), followed by the setting (walking around the Dalish camp, talking with other Dalish, learning about Dalish culture).  It’s completely backwards, and presents a major problem: the action has a harder time making an impact when we don’t fully understand what or who is at stake.  It’s an event without any context.

            For example: in the very beginning, your companion, Tamlen, acts in a very hostile manner towards three lost, unarmed humans.  Are his threats typical for a Dalish defending his people, or just the actions of a snotty young lad getting too big for his britches?  If you join in the abuse, are your actions in agreement or in conflict with the societal norm of your people?  Since you have yet to meet your own culture, there is no way to tell.

            This sort of reverse pacing can work in a cinematic context (see The Matrix), as we, the audience, have little control over the story or the even the history, actions, or motivations of the main character.  In role-playing games like Dragon Age, however, you as a player have a great deal of say over your own character, and both decisions and interpretations are harder to internalize without a proper story framework to work from.

Show and Tell

            There are certainly many ways to tell a story in a narrative structure, but the Dalish origin overwhelmingly does so by one method: exposition.  A character tells you the story of how humans enslaved the elves.  A character tells you about the importance of the stag-like halla to the Dalish, though you only see them standing in their pen.  A character tells you that the threat of neighboring humans is forcing the clan to move, despite never seeing any humans past the first five minutes of the adventure.  Information is conveyed, but remains passive.

            In so many instances, the old adage ‘show, don’t tell’ could save what is otherwise a simple infodump.  Exposition can get information across, but that information is much harder to internalize if it is not demonstrated.  In conversation, I may be told about Dalish culture, but without seeing it in practice, the information has little substance.  Without a demonstration, the Dalish remain a group bound together by little more than words.

            Probably the most unfortunate offender occurs when Duncan tells you that there is an evil taint inside of you, and only by joining the Grey Wardens can you cure it.  This taint is the one thing that is forcing you to leave the only life you’ve ever known and spend the rest of your days protecting humans who hate you, and we never see its impact through the entire origin story.   True, you see how the mirror attracts evil creatures, terrifies your friend Tamlen and knocks out your character, but the taint is never shown.  When such an important factor is revealed simply by expository dialogue, the audience senses that what is at stake carries little weight.  We understand the situation, but it has no teeth.

Pacing, part II

            Of course, exposition is also a necessary tool, since not everything can be conveyed by actions.  This is particularly so for backstory and history; exposition is unavoidable.  However, there are ways to implement it that work better than others.

            One very effective method is to integrate exposition into the narrative, known in literary terms as ‘Incluing’.  Characters reveal information when it relates to the story at hand, and in this way, the information feels like a natural outgrowth of the story.  For instance, in the beginning of Deus Ex, a conversation with your brother Paul about the current hostage situation occasionally reveals information about your parents and your status as a new agent.  The transition from one to the other is seamless and nonintrusive.

            As a Dalish, almost all exposition occurs in bulk at the Dalish camp.  You learn very little while traveling to the ruins or exploring the ruins, where the majority of the actual story occurs.  In this way, the adventure and the backstory are divorced from each other, and so pacing feels unnatural.  Instead of one seamless experience, the adventure begins with action without context and moves into exposition that grinds the story to a halt.

Gating

            If you explore the origin story to its fullest, there actually are a few instances of effective description and establishment of setting.  However, most of these elements are hidden to the majority of players, held back by the necessity of non-standard actions.

            For example, the former city elf, Pol, has much to say about what is, to him, the unfamiliar culture of the Dalish.  Through his comparisons to City Elf life, we learn much about our own culture as well.  However, you cannot experience this well-crafted storytelling unless you engage in conversation with Pol twice.  Most players will not understand how this works, and only talk to him once, missing the best part of what he has to offer.

            Similarly, your guardian, Ashalle, tells a story about your parents, but only if you have allocated enough skill in Persuasion. 

             In the ruins, you can speak with Tamlen about some interesting aspects of your daily lives, but only if you actively talk to him in a hostile, action-laced environment (Tamlen himself often cuts off the conversation by saying that the two of you should continue exploring).

            While this sort of gating can be effective in letting players discover parts of a story on their own, it is pointless in the first couple hours of the game.  Players are still learning about the gameplay elements, the setting, the people, and their character’s relationships to others.  Limiting the player’s exposure to them at this point is solely to a game’s detriment.

Time

            Finally, the Dalish origin has the sad fate of being one of the shortest origin stories of Dragon Age.  It’s a simple problem, but worth noting nonetheless.  When adequate time isn’t provided to the story, there simply isn’t room to properly establish backstory and setting.

Strengths

            Despite my criticisms, there are a few things that the Dalish origin does right.  For one, the dialogue is crafted in a way that the player can choose different ways to react to and interpret events.  Players can embrace Dalish history or dismiss it, show mercy to humans or kill them off, embrace a new clan member or show restraint until he proves himself.  The story does not assume how the player will react to it, and so the potential of role-playing strengthens.

            There is one other thing I would like to highlight: the Aravel.  The sight of these small wheeled caravans dotting the camp tells us more about Dalish life than most conversations; the idea of a nomadic people is well established with a single look.

Fixing

           To close, I’d like to present some ways that these problems could be alleviated.  The main issue, I believe, is one of establishing the Dalish in fully-fleshed and nonintrusive ways, and I’m sure there are many, many ways to accomplish this.  There are, however, some challenges to the process.

            For one, Dalish culture, unlike almost every society in Ferelden, is not particularly analogous to the Western culture familiar to the majority of Dragon Age’s audience.  Unlike the caste system of the dwarves or the feudal system of the humans, the way of the Dalish does not easily relate to a well-known Western framework, and so, is harder to understand for a majority of players.  Communicating this culture effectively takes more time and preparation than usual.

            For another, since the main story of the origin (i.e. a warrior is cursed by an ancient mirror) has little relation to the Dalish elves or the wilderness in which they live, establishing backstory and setting are harder to accomplish naturally, in a way that emerges from the narrative and not from outside of it.

Here are some potential fixes, both large and small:

  • Begin the story in the Dalish camp.  Show how life and relationships stand before the major event that changes all of your lives.  This gives context to both the rest of the origin and the rest of the game.
  • Implement some big event related to Dalish culture.  It could be a ceremony for one of their lost, ancient gods, or the beginning of a great hunt as your character’s rite of passage.  This would serve not only to introduce information in less expository way, but also to more firmly establish your character’s culture and relationships as a Dalish elf.
  • Show the effects of the evil taint your character is affected by.  It could be a blurring of your character’s vision, or seeing another tainted elf wander back into camp with some visual cue (e.g. a dark, unnatural growth where his arm should be).  By doing so, the consequences for not joining the Grey Wardens becomes clear and holds immediate drama.
  • When Tamlen goes missing, some characters could express why they miss him or are worried about him in specific ways.  While expressing concern, Master Ilen could reveal how he was crafting a special bow for Tamlen.  This is one way the main story and exposition on the Dalish could be naturally integrated.
  • Have every character in the Dalish camp actively doing something.  The keeper of the halla actually speaks to and watches the halla; the master craftsman examines, creates, or demonstrates his weapons; the villagers set out clothes for drying or gather vegetables into baskets or pack up belongings for the trip ahead of them.  This would visually establish daily life for the Dalish and solidify them as a tight-knit group working together.  The major problem with this, of course, is how costly and time consuming it would be to program all of these myriad actions into the game.  Given the length of the origins, it hardly seems worth the effort.

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