I think I’ve restarted Dragon Age: Origins about three times in the years that I’ve owned it. Whenever I get an itch to experience a traditional western-style high fantasy, I always gravitate back, and each time I am quickly reminded how unsatisfying and generally dull I find this game to be. It’s funny, because I realize that a lot of people love Dragon Age and really get swept up by its world and lore. I’ve never really been a fan of Bioware; I feel like each of their games is executed in more or less the same way, and those traits, that common DNA, is exactly the stuff I don’t really like. But I’m still in a fantasy mood, and I hate the feeling of having left this game unfinished for so long. I was hoping it would keep me in the right mindset, and there were segments where I was certainly entertained. On the whole, however, I’m glad that the game is over, and I don’t see myself going back to it anytime soon.
There’s already a lot of annoying negativity when it comes to discussions about video games, so when I start a new game, I try not to think about it on a “good” to “bad” spectrum, because that’s incredibly reductive and hardly describes the experience of playing something. Dragon Age tries a lot of things, some of which succeed, I think, while others certainly do not. I’m not sure that it was trying to be the game that I was personally looking for. Instead, it was trying to satisfy another audience, one that already exists elsewhere, whose tastes have been shaped by previous efforts very similar to this one. My main problem with the game, I guess, is that the world seems incredibly bland to me. I feel like Dragon Age has no style of its own. When I conjure images of it in my mind, everything is brown and gray, the colors of tedium. It’s sort of a perfect storm of boring dialogue, uninteresting plot, and plain graphics that really turns me off. I think if any one of those aspects were done with a little more flair or efficiency or something, I would be way more into this game. But instead it gives me nothing to latch onto, and I feel like I’m doing work to push the characters forward. So much of Dragon Age, the main quest and the abundant side-diversions, felt like a chore to me, which is the opposite of what I was hoping to experience. I wanted to get pulled into the adventure, to be invested in the characters, but the unpleasant surface blemishes of the game would drag me back out.
The plot is noticeably derivative of other popular franchises, a mish-mash of tropes from western fantasy stock, most prominently the Lord of the Rings, A Song of Fire and Ice, and Dungeons & Dragons. I realize that this is a matter of taste—that for whatever reason I have a much higher tolerance for JRPG clichés than I do for western ones. But Dragon Age does nothing for me. I never felt transported, and I never felt genuinely intrigued by the world that Bioware was trying to create (and in fact, I got tired of the amount of lore and minutiae they packed into the game via notes and other text accessible through menu navigation). Part of this might be that they do a lot of telling, and not a lot of showing. I mean, of course, we see the world, we inhabit in as much as the game allows us to, but a lot of the facts and history are conveyed to us through written back-matter or through leaden, unpleasant dialogue. I felt like Vagrant Story really transported me, and that’s a PS1 game. I cared about the characters, as thin as they were, and I thought the world itself possessed a kind of collapsing, haunted beauty. Nothing in Dragon Age really approaches that level of craftsmanship in a visual sense, though there are certainly comparable locations, and the narrative fails to really convey any kind of dread, or longing, or melancholy, or whatever emotion we are supposed to be feeling.
What I like most about fantasy is world-building. There’s a pleasant alienation that comes from being introduced to a world that feels plausible but different from our own, a kind of genuine magic, like we’re peering through space and time into a unique but comprehensible place. My mileage varies depending on the kind of fantasy world we’re talking about, but it might be that Dragon Age clings a little too closely to the standards of the past. The worlds of Ivalice, or Suikoden or the early Phantasy Star games really interested me, but Ferelden lacks something that those other, older games had. Their worlds felt a little weirder, perhaps more eccentric. They were a little more daring, mashing styles together more readily and creatively. Maybe I’ve just had my fill of elves and dwarves, but I wanted something more, something different, but I felt like Dragon Age was too obviously descended from the pillars of western fantasy canon.
And the dialogue, to my ear at least, is painfully over-written and clunky. This is true of all of Bioware’s games, and really almost all videogames. There are very few games that really get spoken dialogue right. I guess video games, as an art form and as an industry, are still developing those rules of thumb for how much is too much, and things like that. I don’t think we’ve yet found our Mamet or our Tarantino or whatever. Most of the time dialogue is serviceable; often cringe-worthy, if it’s trying to be funny.
So, the confluence of all these forces together made the game a chore for me, and I was either bored or frustrated most of the time. I don’t think I ever really lost myself. I never felt a spark of curiosity about where a story might go. The only impulse of pleasure was accumulation, acquiring stronger weapons or leveling into a new skill or whatever. But that was it. The feeling of being immersed into a world or the motivation to really win this war against the darkspawn wasn’t there. My character did end up being impressively powerful, glowing at all times with an ethereal aura, but throughout the game he remained such a distant, cold thing, this mannequin avatar that I was clumsily piloting through a dreary medieval set. I’ll admit a fondness for a few of the characters (the obvious ones, Morrigan and Alistair), but even that affection was limited by their overwritten dialogue and the weird choices those characters in particular make by the end of the game. I think I would have liked Dragon Age if there was a little more developer control over the advancement of the plot, if it wasn’t trying to maintain the illusion that my choices were what mattered. Creating an environment where my agency trumps everything else, by necessity, sanitizes the experience of so many narrative techniques, so that allegory, or foreshadowing, or others have little use where the plot can’t be predicted by the creator. Instead it sort of levels everything out, and prepares obvious junction points where choices can be made. I guess the seams were too obvious for me, and so I couldn’t really fully commit myself.