The Two BioWares
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.