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[Gamasutra examines the writing process behind the Dragon Age series by speaking with lead writer David Gaider, delving into how the team wanted to focus more on the "dark" in "dark heroic" and balance player choice throughout the game.]
In late 2009, BioWare booted up a new fantasy RPG franchise with Dragon Age: Origins, which rose to become one of the top games of that year. The game received particular accolades for its writing, which used a decision-based narrative structure and weighty, nuanced dialogue to tell an epic, emotionally-driven story. The writing went on to win a number of awards, and was a key component in the game's success.
Not surprisingly, BioWare moved quickly on a sequel. Dragon Age II was released in early 2011, delivering a new story that expanded on the original's rich game world. However, the game represented a departure from its predecessor, in a narrative sense. BioWare decided to ignore its own blueprint for success with Dragon Age II.
Gamasutra spent some time with David Gaider, lead writer on the Dragon Age franchise, who explained the ins and outs of how Dragon Age II was written.
"It's an interesting process, approaching the story for a sequel," says Gaider. "There's a certain level of expectation among fans, and especially with a game like Dragon Age: Origins that follows so many different story branches, only so many options we could consider.
"Do we pick one branch and continue the story of the Warden, excluding all others? Do we try to accommodate multiple storylines from the outset? Do we start a new main character with a different story branch? Or do we try something new?"
Gaider and lead designer Mike Laidlaw decided they didn't want to tell the same story with new names and faces. If there was one thing about Origins' writing that was often criticized, it was that the plot followed a predictable Hero's Journey. So they decided to focus more on the "dark" than the "heroic" in their "dark heroic" fantasy sequel, and go for a grimmer, more personal tale.
It was Laidlaw who first proposed the new game concept. His idea was this: instead of telling a linear, he suggested they modify the structure on a high level and jump between the major moments of a character's life. Instead of telling a story over a short span of time in a wide open world, they would set the game within a single city, and jump through an epic ten-year period. This would be accomplished with the help of a framing device, allowing for the time jumps to be implemented as flashbacks.
"[The new approach] definitely allowed us some unique opportunities," Gaider says. "Sometimes the lack of an ability to hand-wave time passing means we end up with a lot of events happening in an unrealistically short span, or repercussions for a player's actions that either need to occur instantly or be relegated to the epilogue. So this offered us the chance to give a sense of greater scope."
However, there were also unknowns. What would it feel like to play a game where you don't see time's gradual passage? Would jumping through time break narrative unity and pull the player out of the story? And how would this work from an implementation standpoint? Would creative resources get bogged down trying to account for the long-term impact of minor decisions that the player made five years ago in game time?
These questions began to work themselves out as the process unfolded. In some ways, the new concept worked just as planned. But in others, the team found that certain RPG elements emerged naturally, as a function of the genre, rather than as a matter of tradition. The game ultimately came to reflect a blend of these ideas – the concept as it was originally envisioned, and the actual limitations revealed by the writing process.