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

Thanks, Cory. You finally pointed out something I had noticed, but hadn't really verbalized. I've always thought the Mass Effect characters were very uninteresting, relatively speaking. I found the conversations in ME1 to be very unrewarding, and the ones in ME2 only slightly better. I saw that the NPCs were also much less interesting in DA2, but I didn't pick out that it was because Bioware's focus as a company has shifted completely to the character that you're driving around, without truly controlling.

The DA2 story is very good; I do like the smaller scale of it, on the whole. I think it's great that it's not an epic Save The World quest. And I love the party banter. But I wish there were more conversations with the NPCs, and that those conversations drove the story itself more.

I always enjoyed three things about CRPGs... the sense of exploration, the rich interactions with your companions, and to a lesser degree, the number-crunching in making your party really dangerous. And all three of those things are missing from DA2.

Malor wrote:

Thanks, Cory. You finally pointed out something I had noticed, but hadn't really verbalized. I've always thought the Mass Effect characters were very uninteresting, relatively speaking. I found the conversations in ME1 to be very unrewarding, and the ones in ME2 only slightly better. I saw that the NPCs were also much less interesting in DA2, but I didn't pick out that it was because Bioware's focus as a company has shifted completely to the character that you're driving around, without truly controlling.

Did we ever truly control our heroes in those games, or is it that in the absence of a developer defined voice it was easier to maintain the illusion of it? The Bhaalspawn in the BG games had the appearance of being a blank slate, but the story that he was involved in and choices presented to the player we're as rigidly defined by the developer as they were in ME2 and DA2. For me because Hawke and Shephard talk now I feel more involved in the story, the fulcrum that enhances the characters and events revolving around her, rather than a black hole that sucks the colour and feeling out of interactions and choices. It's obvious that for a lot of people my view of things is around the wrong way. To each his own.

Malor wrote:

The DA2 story is very good; I do like the smaller scale of it, on the whole. I think it's great that it's not an epic Save The World quest. And I love the party banter. But I wish there were more conversations with the NPCs, and that those conversations drove the story itself more.

The conversations that Hawke has with her companions all relate to their own personal stories and are tied directly to their personal quests, of which there is one in each act of the game. Each of these companion quests relates either directly to the overall story, or adds a personal dimension to the grander, more philosphical issues that the story explores. In every single instance Hawke determines how things play out and has to live the consequences of her choices.

I've played BG2 a lot over the years and I remember it with great fondness, but to compare the personal quests, conversations and story integration of characters like Jaheira and Keldorn to those of Merrill and Anders, as some people have, is like comparing the Ford Model-T to an E-Type Jaguar in my opinion.

Malor wrote:

I always enjoyed three things about CRPGs... the sense of exploration, the rich interactions with your companions, and to a lesser degree, the number-crunching in making your party really dangerous. And all three of those things are missing from DA2.

I'll grant you the lack of exploration and I think I've shown that my view of the companion interactions is quite different from yours, but the apparent lack of number crunching is something that most people won't miss. It's still there in the higher difficulty settings for RPG grognards to investigate if they wish, but success in DA2 and ME2 has less to do with collecting game winning equipment than it has with what your characters do. To me that's a good thing but people are free to disagree.

I've never understood the concept that Baldur's Gate somehow had great characters. Maybe other people filled in the gaps with amazing lore from the D&D universe, but I didn't really know any of them at all. None of their character bios would fill the back of a Certis is awesome packet, and none of them are more than flat sketches to me.

You may love Minsc, but could you imagine him working in something more acted out like Dragon Age? It would be like grouping with Bobcat Goldthwait's character in Police Academy 2. You'd stamp on his rodent and push him down a well the first chance you got.

DudleySmith wrote:

Certis is awesome packet,

Great side effects of filtering.

DudleySmith wrote:

You may love Minsc, but could you imagine him working in something more acted out like Dragon Age? It would be like grouping with Bobcat Goldthwait's character in Police Academy 2. You'd stamp on his rodent and push him down a well the first chance you got.

If someone makes this mod, I will install it and never stop playing it. In fact, I'd like a DA:2 mod consisting of nothing but NPCs drawn from the Police Academy series.

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.

This is pretty true. One of the fun things about these older games, particularly games like X-COM and such was how the story went more the way you wanted it to. That's half the fun of reading someone else's Let's Play online for these older games. Sitting there and reading about someone else's Mass Effect? It's... A lot less dynamic.

I find Dragon Age 2 to be a leap forward from Dragon Age Origins. Combat feels smoother, the art direction is worlds better, the story is far more engaging, and I find the companions to be - on a whole - more interesting. For DA:O, while I tried to learn about all my companions, I was only really interested in Morrigain and Alistair. In DA2, I was interested in seeing my companions story arc played through - Anders and his obsession with freeing mages, Fenris and his need to free himself fully from his master, Merrill and her desire to fix her artifact, etc.

I also find that DA2 really makes Hawke a worthwhile character. The Warden in DA:O felt like a hollow puppet. Perhaps that's a failure of the story telling, but I never felt connected to my Warden in DA:O. To me, the Warden was just a way to spur hilarious dialogue out of Morrigain and Alistair. This all comes from Bioware deciding to make Hawke a real character in the story, giving him his own look and voice. It makes for a tighter story, which keeps me more engaged with the hero and his companions overall.

I'm more than satisfied with the direction Bioware is taking with their games. There are those who enjoy the minutia of micromanaging every action, sifting through hundreds of nearly identical weapons and armours to hand pick the very best for the radical build they've come up with. For these games, I am not one of those people. I don't play Bioware games for the hyper granular gameplay. I play it for the companions and for the adventure. That's what makes DA2 such a success for me, and I hope this trend continues.

But while Origins was a critical and commercial success, the new BioWare is much more in-tune with telling controllable stories.

For some reason, this is the one sentence in the piece that stuck out to me. I sort of think that "controllable" is the wrong word. I, the player, don't "control" the story in New Bioware games, but I do feel like I have much more agency to "influence" it than I did with Old Bioware.

The NPCs in an Old Bioware game are what they are; I don't feel like I influence them in any meaningful way. And rather than imagining that my cipher of a player character is myself, that character simply doesn't exist to me because s/he doesn't play an active role in the story or the lives of the NPCs. 100% control of the definition of that character is functionally identical to 0%.

In a New Bioware game, I might have only 25% leeway to define my player character, but that 25% is mine to do with as I will, and so I get a much greater sense of who that character is and how they fit with the rest of the cast. And because I have a greater influence on my character's relationship with the cast, I have a greater influence on the NPCs, too; everyone is defined by their relationships, after all. I may have fewer decisions, but those decisions I do have feel all the more meaningful because of it.

Also, FemShep for life. I just got DA2 in the mail today, and I can't imagine trying to jump into that nonsense with a dude. Time to get my LadyHawke on.

hbi2k wrote:

Time to get my LadyHawke on.

That's what Isabela said.

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'm getting this feeling too as I progress towards the end of the game. I miss the ability to right click on my characters anywhere and start up a dialogue in which I can ask them about their backstory or if they know anything about the area. Instead, I'm relegated to visting a house for a very brief conversation or listening to party dialogue, in which I'm just the third wheel eavesdropping to possibly get some idea of who these people are. I can't interrupt that dialogue exchange to press a topic further, call a person out, or smack someone for going too far.

I tried the 360 demo and the combat was pretty good with the mage and the warrior, but it still wasn't much fun for me. I just have a real hard time with the way these types of games handle combat. It looks completely unrealistic with everybody piled up in one spot swinging, throwing, and casting as their cooldowns allow. The camera is wonky at times, as well, and it ends up feeling more like playing a simple but chaotic chess match than actually being a master swordsman or magic user. The story and character development might be quite good (not sure), but the combat is not the cool visceral experience I was hoping for. I was much more satisfied playing the mage/adept in Mass Effect 2, for example, than in the DA2 demo.

They may have decided to go with a Mass Effect 2 type story structure, but it still has a way to go in terms of mechanics. If the story is more character focussed and emotional, why not extend that theme to the combat as well and model it after a good third person action game. The god's eye view is just very impersonal. It feels really out of place to me. I want to feel like I am in a battle, not just watching it from afar as the puppet master. I know the game is more "in-close" than the last one, but the combat is still way more akin to a board game than an action game, in my opinion. I actually died once and all I had to do was switch to a different character and carry on. It doesn't get my blood pumping at all.

Mass Effect 2's combat played like Gears of War with magic and provided me with a lot of tactical options throughout the game. Taking down a room any number of ways was very satisfying and fun. In this game it just feels like work.

Love the article, and just want to echo Malor's comment from up above. I love old school bioware/CRPGs for all of the reasons he listed, and hope for some more good gaming along those lines in the future.

I really dig Mass Effect and DA2, too, but it seems like a different genre card that Bioware is playing nowadays. It's entertaining as hell, but it doesn't scratch the same gaming itch. At least all the old games are coming out for digital distribution now.

I cant help but think that the change in character focus is intentional to move the story along in a certain direction. Hawke, as a character, could be part of a critical plot for Dragon Age 3 and BioWare needed this story to be told through this specific character. Then, for DA 3, your character(s) from DA:O will be brought back, along with Hawke.

It might seem a little far fetched but I actually like the idea of that.

Click Click Boom.

cube wrote:
hbi2k wrote:

The NPCs in an Old Bioware game are what they are; I don't feel like I influence them in any meaningful way. And rather than imagining that my cipher of a player character is myself, that character simply doesn't exist to me because s/he doesn't play an active role in the story or the lives of the NPCs. 100% control of the definition of that character is functionally identical to 0%.

In a New Bioware game, I might have only 25% leeway to define my player character, but that 25% is mine to do with as I will, and so I get a much greater sense of who that character is and how they fit with the rest of the cast.

I think the greatest storytelling benefit that the ME-style dialog wheel has is that it changes the player's role in the game from directly roleplaying the character to being a director for the character.

One of the annoying things about the traditional CRPG dialog tree is that there are always a few points where none of the dialog choices work with the character that the player has created up to that point. When those points occur, it pretty much pulls the player completely out of the game. The ME-style system reduces this issue, because the players are deciding how they want Shepard or Hawke to respond instead of exactly what they want the characters to say.

Player = superego.

DudleySmith wrote:

You may love Minsc, but could you imagine him working in something more acted out like Dragon Age? It would be like grouping with Bobcat Goldthwait's character in Police Academy 2. You'd stamp on his rodent and push him down a well the first chance you got.

I would pay for an add-on that added Zed to Dragon Age 2, but only if Sweetchuck came with him.
IMAGE(http://urbanspectator.typepad.com/.a/6a00e5514b809488340128759674f6970c-320wi)

hbi2k wrote:

The NPCs in an Old Bioware game are what they are; I don't feel like I influence them in any meaningful way. And rather than imagining that my cipher of a player character is myself, that character simply doesn't exist to me because s/he doesn't play an active role in the story or the lives of the NPCs. 100% control of the definition of that character is functionally identical to 0%.

In a New Bioware game, I might have only 25% leeway to define my player character, but that 25% is mine to do with as I will, and so I get a much greater sense of who that character is and how they fit with the rest of the cast.

I think the greatest storytelling benefit that the ME-style dialog wheel has is that it changes the player's role in the game from directly roleplaying the character to being a director for the character.

One of the annoying things about the traditional CRPG dialog tree is that there are always a few points where none of the dialog choices work with the character that the player has created up to that point. When those points occur, it pretty much pulls the player completely out of the game. The ME-style system reduces this issue, because the players are deciding how they want Shepard or Hawke to respond instead of exactly what they want the characters to say.

So, while the end effect might be this:
IMAGE(http://threepanelsoul.com/comics/2007-12-29-065.jpg)
The player still feels that they have made a meaningful choice, even if the difference is the one-liner that the character says before or after they pull the trigger.

An interesting piece. And yeah with DA2 I've finally realised that the Bioware I liked is dead. Which is sad as there are so few RPG developers around these days.

It seems now all that's left is action/rpg hybrids. The exception seems to be Japan.

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.

Seems like a big reduction in scope to me. I hardly played the first game but remember quite a few options in the character building screens. Couple that with reports that the game was rushed or unfinished and I'd say the pressure was on to make more (or some) money.

Virduk wrote:

An interesting piece. And yeah with DA2 I've finally realised that the Bioware I liked is dead. Which is sad as there are so few RPG developers around these days.

It seems now all that's left is action/rpg hybrids. The exception seems to be Japan.

There are certainly RPGs out there that deemphasize action, but they're almost entirely indie titles.

Then again, this all circles around the semantic issue of "RPG."

I can appreciate everything Cory wrote as I felt practically identical during my play-through. Having now finished DA2 I'm pretty confident that his tune will change once he gets to the end though.

I bought DA:O when it first came out but for the life of me I couldn't endure the multitude of attempts at it until the impending release of DA2, and only I wanted to finish it prior to playing the sequel to know what happened (little did I know it was nearly entirely irrelevant).

I found the battles exhausting, managing the mountains of inventory laborious, keeping tabs on character stats and equipment tiresome, and figuring out where to go and what to do next work. The entire game made you fight tooth and nail for even a tidbit of story. All I wanted was the story and I had to resort to cheats to get it, which is something I do as often as possible in most games. I rarely buy games for their mechanics (Katamari Damacy being a notable exception), it's usually for their story.

One way I've explained DA2 to friends is to compare it to Empire Strikes Back, in that it's a bridging story encapsulating all of the things a bridging story does. I think we can all agree that the first act of DA2 is slow and having completed the game I can appreciate them doing this. The entire cast of characters is unknown and while we're all running around doing various quests we're also getting to love/hate the characters we're with. In retrospect it seems like classic storytelling: building relationships that can later be used to manipulate you.

If you had no relationships with other characters the following would have meant nothing:

Spoiler:

Your brother/sister (it can be either) dying in the deep roads. The sibling death in the very beginning of the game felt very hollow but it made sense for it to happen after this because the second death then had more impact

or

Spoiler:

The monstrous end of your mother, having now lost absolutely everyone. I could empathise that he was utterly destroyed after this because I felt it too

or

Spoiler:

Your love/hate relationship with your uncle, who doesn't count as family in my personal opinion, and finding out you have a cousin who isn't a tosser

or most of all

Spoiler:

Anders' ultimate betrayal (moreso for me because I'd had a gay relationship with him!)

I found choices presented in the beginning of the game to be very binary and, after the wonderful variety of grey dialog choices in DA:O, was concerned. It does open up more as the game progresses, but I just wanted to say that having finished the game it makes more sense to me why they did it the way they did.

Thanks for the posts everyone, I've enjoyed reading what different people have liked about both DA games, it further illuminates to me that differences of opinion don't negate each other.

PS I found battles in DA2 exhausting pretty quickly but fortunately the difficulty level wasn't quite so high this time around (I only had to retry a few battles).

PPS We really need that spoiler section I desperately need to talk about the game to someone and none of my friends have played it.

PPS We really need that spoiler section I desperately need to talk about the game to someone and none of my friends have played it.

We just recorded an hour long spoiler section that will go up on the podcast this week. An hour and we still couldn't hit every element we wanted to. Yikes!

harrisben wrote:

PPS We really need that spoiler section I desperately need to talk about the game to someone and none of my friends have played it.

You're more than welcome to gab on and on about the game here if you haven't yet.

http://www.gamerswithjobs.com/node/1...

I second the suggestion for more gabbing in the thread. I'd like it very much if I wasn't the guy putting the most button strokes on that thread.

LarryC wrote:

I'd like it very much if I wasn't the guy putting the most button strokes on that thread.

Well hello there new signature.