The Two BioWares

BioWare Logo from Baldur's Gate

I missed most of the hype leading into Dragon Age 2. I never played it at the conventions. I didn’t read their carefully-worded PR blasts. Not once did I read a biography detailing the backstory of the game’s colorful cast of characters.

In fact, until I had to play the demo for a podcast recording two weeks ago, I fully intended to go blind into the sequel to one of my favorite games. Yes, I knew that they were changing things—combat would be faster, color would be brighter—but how different could it really be?

After 13 hours of play time, the differences really start to sink in. Not the differences between Dragon Age: Origins and its sequel, but the differences between the two different developers.

Yes, Captain Technicality, you’re right. BioWare is the once and future developer of all things Dragon Age. But BioWare ain’t what it used to be—it’s a completely different developer than when it started.

When Baldur’s Gate came out in 1998, the genre of computer role-playing game was about as fresh as Latin. Those relics had died with Sir-Tech and SSI. Micromanaging a party and digging through dialog trees were gameplay mechanics out of time, replaced by high-intensity shooters and frenetic action RPGs. There were those who sneered at attribute stats. Those who didn’t—like me—kept quiet about it.

Baldur’s Gate was an improbable success. That a game based on 2nd Edition AD&D made it to market in the climate of the late '90s is enough of a surprise. That it sold—that I couldn’t find a copy in my local stores for the first week—is nothing short of miraculous.

What saved CRPGs wasn’t any of the technical achievements of the Infinity Engine or the sheer epic scale of the game (shipped on five discs!) but BioWare’s absolute devotion to creating complex characters and placing them in believable worlds. Party members and quest givers were fleshed out, with true backstories and interesting responses to the player’s actions—so much so that their stories were more meaningful to me than my own. It was as if you really were sitting down with an epic-level dungeon master, someone who really designed a story to tell instead of merely a set of maps in which to play.

Dragon Age: Origins was meant as a return to those BioWare roots. It was a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate: an evolution of the concepts that made its first game so popular, now set in the company’s first original intellectual property. But development on Origins started in 2004, right around the same time the development studio changed focus. It started with Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare’s first console RPG. But the change wasn’t solidified until Mass Effect.

This is the new BioWare.

Mass Effect introduced the defined protagonist to BioWare’s repertoire. Instead of treating the main character as a blank canvas to be filled by the player, Commander Shepard is a nearly completed portrait. Call it 3/4s full, with the last quarter of the character filled in by dialog decisions.

These changes alter the relationship between player and character, but the real revolution is how they change the main character's relationship to the narrative. From just the voice acting alone, it’s easy to see that the journey in Mass Effect is about Shepard—her quest to save the universe, her life-or-death situations and her relationships with her crew.

Baldur’s Gate didn’t work that way. In fact, because the main character was left so blank (either by technical necessity or accidently), the game focused far more on the side characters. I don’t remember much about the fighter/cleric I played in Baldur’s Gate, but I distinctly remember Minsc and Boo, Jaheira and Khalid. Much more so than my place in the world, Baldur’s Gate is defined by those party-members' perceptions of the world. In television, it’s the difference between having an ensemble cast or a clear star. Baldur’s Gate is to West Wing what Mass Effect is to Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Dragon Age: Origins was a return to that Baldur’s Gate style, with the focus on the party instead of the hero. Likely because the game entered development in 2004, before Mass Effect’s formula succeeded. But while Origins was a critical and commercial success, the new BioWare is much more in-tune with telling controllable stories.

And so it is that Dragon Age 2 features Hawke: a character whose race is locked at human, whose voice acting differs only in the first selected dialogue choice between three distinct tones, and whose story is far easier to tell. And as a result, 10 hours in Hawke’s story is much more interesting than his companions’.

I don’t remember my hero’s story in Origins. I think he defeated an arch demon or something. What I remember is Alistair’s light-hearted approach to life, masking his guilt over those left behind. I remember Leliana’s betrayal of an Orlesian assassin’s guild. I remember Morrigan’s search for identity in a world that she didn’t comprehend, and her dark plot to usurp her mother, the Witch of the Wilds.

I don’t doubt that I’ll enjoy Dragon Age 2 all the way to completion—a rare occurrence these days. But I’ll mourn the loss of the ensemble RPG’s more open narrative. But the BioWare that made those games is dead, or at least evolved. The BioWare in its place has a sharper focus, for better and for worse.

Comments

Do you think this approach is more successful because it fits with an increasing narcissistic attitude by the general population towards the world?

Talking about broad strokes here, of course, but current society seems to be going towards an increasingly egotistical view of the world.

I think once you've finished DA2 you might reassess some of this. For me, the DA2 plot delivered both for Hawke and the companions. Their participation in the story isn't just Hawke's healer, or Hawke's tank, but some of them personally have permanent and surprising effects on the story and the world as a result of the plot. I can't think of another Bioware game which you could say has multiple active protagonists in the plot, rather that just a hero and some sidekicks.

How successful they were is is a matter of long and tedious debate, of course, but I think they tried something I haven't really seen before to this degree from Bioware.

From just the voice acting alone, it’s easy to see that the journey in Mass Effect is about Shepard—her quest to save the universe, her life-or-death situations and her relationships with her crew.

Yes!

Baldur’s Gate is to West Wing what Mass Effect is to Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Also yes!

I don’t remember my hero’s story in Origins. I think he defeated an arch demon or something. What I remember is Allistar’s light-hearted approach to life, masking his guilt over those left behind. I remember Leliana’s betrayal of an Orlesian assassin’s guild. I remember Morrigan’s search for identity in a world that she didn’t comprehend, and her dark plot to usurp her mother, the Witch of the Wilds.

What's interesting is I remember all of this, but I also remember my character's story as defined through my choices, specifically those from my Origin story and how it played out in the main campaign.

That's about all I have to say because all I've played is about a half hour of the DA2 demo. That was enough to tell me that I'll just wait for a packaged deal on it and get around to it sometime. Hell, the most striking thing about the demo was just how smooth it played on my pc when compared to DA:O. They tightened that code up. Then again, maybe I need that high res pack for the "true" pc experience.

I agree with DA2 that the side characters are not as great as ones in the past, but I definitely look at ME2 as a story of Shepherd and the entire crew, as I loved all of those side characters (with the exception of Sayeed who was pretty boring). I can't wait for ME3 to see what happens to everyone.

I think generally Bioware was successful in what it was trying to achieve, although the game is not without its faults, most of them stemming from the '2' that is tacked onto the end of the title. If Bioware was trying to make a Mass Effect version of the first game, then they succeeded, and if not, well, then they wound up with something else entirely.

As to the the effects of your companions:

Spoiler:

Anders is a biggie, basically causing the ending to unfold like it did, whether you want it to or not, and in some ways barring any rationality.

My understanding is that you don't even have to pick up Isabella at all? Does anyone know how this affects Act II? Her steal everything that isn't on fire nature is pretty much crucial there, I'm curious how different it is without her.

The others seem relatively minor in comparison though, and I've noticed this in Bioware games, with only a few people really affecting the plot and the others just coming along for the ride.

If anyone knows differently, feel free to remind me of all the things I missed.

ok no spoilers but... I really really think you need to finish this game to its conclusion. Let me put it to you this way at least 1 of your companions is going to make an impression. A big impression, a huge impression. I was caught off guard and ... I will never forget this character ever.

Hawke's story is still the central focus but in Act 2 and 3 you really start to get to know your companions and the ending IMO is pretty epic in terms of how it affects the world of Dragon Age. But one flaw in DA2 is how slow Act 1 (Pre-deeproads) seems in comparison to the other 2 acts and how little companion development you seem to have prior to Act 2.

Finally, listen close to the epilogue.

Spoiler:

It basically sets the stage for Dragon Age 3. Which has majority waiting with baited breath. Both the Champion of Kirkwall and Hero of Feraldin have disappeared and its not a coincidence?

Demiurge wrote:

Mass Effect introduced the defined protagonist to BioWare’s repertoire. Instead of treating the main character as a blank canvas to be filled by the player, Commander Shepard is a nearly completed portrait. Call it 3/4s full, with the last quarter of the character filled in by dialog decisions.

An interesting assessment! I'm inclined to agree. Although I can't help but wish, on some level, BioWare had filled the cup to the brim—even though that would've broken a major gameplay mechanic.

In my series on Deadly Premonition I described Shepard as an "impassive cipher" compared to York. As much as I loved the Mass Effect games, Shepard always struck me as weirdly incomplete. It's like the uncanny valley effect, but with dialog and mannerism instead of graphics. There was a little too much room, in my view, for the player to project him/herself into the character. Does that make any sense?

kincher skolfax wrote:
Demiurge wrote:

Mass Effect introduced the defined protagonist to BioWare’s repertoire. Instead of treating the main character as a blank canvas to be filled by the player, Commander Shepard is a nearly completed portrait. Call it 3/4s full, with the last quarter of the character filled in by dialog decisions.

An interesting assessment! I'm inclined to agree. Although I can't help but wish, on some level, BioWare had filled the cup to the brim—even though that would've broken a major gameplay mechanic.

In my series on Deadly Premonition I described Shepard as an "impassive cipher" compared to York. As much as I loved the Mass Effect games, Shepard always struck me as weirdly incomplete. It's like the uncanny valley effect, but with dialog and mannerism instead of graphics. There was a little too much room, in my view, for the player to project him/herself into the character. Does that make any sense?

Absolutely.

oMonarca wrote:

Do you think this approach is more successful because it fits with an increasing narcissistic attitude by the general population towards the world?

Talking about broad strokes here, of course, but current society seems to be going towards an increasingly egotistical view of the world.

I think you're just upset that the general population isn't paying more attention to you.

wordsmythe wrote:
oMonarca wrote:

Do you think this approach is more successful because it fits with an increasing narcissistic attitude by the general population towards the world?

Talking about broad strokes here, of course, but current society seems to be going towards an increasingly egotistical view of the world.

I think you're just upset that the general population isn't paying more attention to you.

I really need to be back on tour again.

I think I'm missing out because I haven't played any of those games listed.

cryptic_code wrote:

I think I'm missing out because I haven't played any of those games listed.

Yes, you absolutely are.

Allow me to disagree, but I found Dragon Age: Origins kind of boring. Maybe a bit too much of Deep Roads, but aside from the Q'unari guy (don't remember the name) and Morrigan (to a point), I found most of the characters wooden.

Shale was a nice comic relief tho.

I blame George R. R. Martin!

I don't mind the focused hero so much at all, and I understand why they went that way. To me, the real tale of the "Two BioWares" isn't this move, but rather their move away from tactical, statistical and inventory-focused RPGs towards action RPGs. I thought I'd accepted that, and then DAO came as a cruel, cruel tease. Now I'm mourning the loss all over again.

While I like Demiurge's article, part of me mourns the days gone by where we were able to save some of the tale being told through a computer game for our imagination. Baldur's Gate let our imagination shape and form our main character and his story in our mind. Even games like X-Com, let us imagine what our little sprites would look like in real life as they burst through doors and wasted aliens. Even Bioshock allowed us the freedom to envision ourselves in the place of the main character.

I enjoy ME and games like that, but it seems that as we proceed further down this road, the more we get spoon fed and the less we need to think for ourselves.

You know what I remember about Dragon Age Origins? Two chicks at the same time.

I haven't played the new game, and didn't make it through Origins, but I do want to say I thought Cory's piece above was particularly well written. Bravo.

Nevin73 wrote:

While I like Demiurge's article, part of me mourns the days gone by where we were able to save some of the tale being told through a computer game for our imagination. Baldur's Gate let our imagination shape and form our main character and his story in our mind. Even games like X-Com, let us imagine what our little sprites would look like in real life as they burst through doors and wasted aliens. Even Bioshock allowed us the freedom to envision ourselves in the place of the main character.

I enjoy ME and games like that, but it seems that as we proceed further down this road, the more we get spoon fed and the less we need to think for ourselves.

I'm having some trouble putting my feelings into words so I apologize in advance if some of the things I say below seem illogical or contradictory, but here goes.

In spite of the improvements they have made I still don't find the narratives of Bioware's (or pretty much any other developer's) games to be compelling enough to drive me to complete them for the sake of experiencing the story. Perhaps it is an indication that my heart is black and cold inside but I can't seem to get invested in the supposedly "deep" story lines and "intricate" characterizations that Bioware has become known for.

I know that "old -school" dialogue trees are limited, what with their "click every question until there are no more" design but that was a limitation in the structure rather than the foundation. At least with those I see the whole choice before me so the response feels premeditated. I find the current Wheel of Intent that Bioware now uses to be annoying because it is never entirely clear what will come out of your character's mouth. While many seem to enjoy that as it makes the character a walking talking entity in their own right rather than a puppet, it takes me out of the game because it makes me feel like I am merely winding up a talking doll and letting whatever comes out of his mouth come out. I want to own my character. And let's be honest here - the wheel is simply a dialogue tree with partially obscured responses. It's not some revolutionary way of creating branching consequences. The original Dragon Age proved to that that dialogue trees could provide a great experience given enough branches of the tree.

So now to the mechanical aspect of RPGs. I already mentioned that I still don't find the stories to match up to the stories of all but the most hackneyed novels, but more often than not the story is secondary to my enjoyment of the mechanics of an RPG. Even in the case of a game with limited dialogue and storyline, I find the ability to build a complex and evolving character in the mechanical sense allows me to invest imagination into the thoughts and beliefs of the PC. The Infinity Engine games keep me coming back playthrough after playthrough because the character customization is deep enough that, like Nevin said, I can pour imagination into the gaps to create a character that feels unique. There are a number of indie RPGs that scratch the same itch, but it looks like the heavy hitters have abandoned that concept. I had hopes for the Dragon Age series as it was pitched as a return to the Baldur's Gate style of game, which was a idea that original largely lived up to. Sadly, as it did with Mass Effect, it seems Bioware will continue to remove or hide more of the system, in the name of streamlining for mass appeal (I guess that's the real "Mass Effect" the title alludes to).

Edit: I'll not lie - I do rather enjoy the characters in the Baldur's Gate series, but the fact that I enjoy Icewind Dale equally shows that depth of character is not really the driving force there. My party barely speaks a word in that game, but I know what they are thinking because I have absolute control over their every move on screen (pathfinding issues aside :p )as well as their evolution from 1st level rookies to high level veterans.

Ok - I played and loved Wing Commander III and IV, so I'm totally cool with the idea of a largely predefined main character.

Also, I don't think computer games have ever been, or are likely to be able to match P&P for your ability to invest something of yourself into your character, give him/her a personality of their own, etc..

That said, Jennifer Hale gives FemShep *so* much personality, that I can't understand not being interested in playing her story, and tweaking her between nice and naughty. If the evolution of Bioware going forward means a defined main character, and interesting NPC stories, like Morrigan, Tali, Garrus and Lelliana, then I have a whole lot of happy about their direction.

I played as DudeShep, maybe that was my mistake.

imbiginjapan wrote:

I played as DudeShep, maybe that was my mistake.

Yup. DudeShep is fail.

Hey I'll join any thread that let's me voice my love for Jennifer Hale and femShep. 2 of my 3 ME2 runs were with her. And if I do a 4th one before ME3, it will be her again.

For the record, I don't hate Meer. I just love Hale

imbiginjapan wrote:

I played as DudeShep, maybe that was my mistake.

I liked dudeshep, and am looking forward to finishing his story arc in ME3.

I always smile when I read someone talking about Shepard and they say "her story." Bioware really ought to change that box art ;).

wordsmythe wrote:

I don't know if Demi noticed, but in proofreading, I corrected the pronouns to reflect femshep.

The Second BioWare trick that I currently find most interesting is that the ME/DA2 conversation system makes the main character more interesting by partially taking control away from the player.

I have complete control over Shepherd in combat and when just walking around, but in conversation, she sometimes surprises me. When an innocuous-seeming dialogue choice leads to a threat or flirtation, that's an interesting surprise and the character revealing something about herself; but a similar loss of control outside of conversation is annoying.

wordsmythe wrote:

I don't know if Demi noticed, but in proofreading, I changed the pronouns to reflect femshep.

Good decision.

I take it back! Look how wise the GWJ writers are!

RPGs are in flux right now. A lot of old school baggage is being left behind and the idea of keeping the player in the world and engaged in the story is coming more to the forefront. Games like Fallout 3 feel more like sandbox experiences, whereas games like Mass Effect 2 bring some real emotional heft to their experience. I played Mass Effect 2 as a character with a mission and a purpose, but I felt more akin to a puppet master or a mad scientist when I played Fallout 3.

I dunno... I feel like this game is sort of a mesh of the two styles. I like Hawk's personality, but I am also really intrigued by most of the companions. While Hawk's story is very well defined, her companions seem to play a large part in the unfolding narrative. I especially like the dialogue options that ask the companions for input. I am still just starting out the deep roads, so I'll see how I feel after a few more hours.