In an essay on the genre, fantasy and science fiction author Richard K. Morgan, who is “not much of a Tolkien fan”, called the Lord of the Rings a “ponderous epic (of) Towering Archetypal Evil pitted against Irritatingly Radiant Good”.
It’s a complaint echoed against most classic works of fantasy—that the realpolitik of their worlds is often glossed over in favour of a simple black and white fable. Video games, informed as they are by fantasy more than any other literary genre, are guilty of this as well.
Epic: Dragon Age channels the best and worst in fantasy.
Dragon Age is gaming’s attempt to move away from that fold. It belongs to the milieu being established by a new wave of fantasy authors—George R.R. Martin, Elizabeth Bear, Morgan himself—creating worlds that are dark, intensely political and morally ambiguous.
The result is a game that, while firmly placed on the bedrock of standard fantasy tropes (elves and dwarfs, anyone?), refuses to stay there. The dwarfs are ravaged by an internal class war. The elves congregate in inner-city ghettos. The humans are unable to cooperate even in the face of an external crisis.
It’s played like most role-playing games—a large world to explore and unfold, characters and companions to talk to and fight along with, and hordes of monsters and problems to deal with. To make things comprehensible, the game is broken down into a series of “quests” that take the story forward, with implications for how and when you complete the quests.
Dragon Age‘s cosmos is bleak, featuring a cast of characters dealing with loss, violence and betrayal in a world losing all sense of hope. At its best, it’s a powerful, moving game.
At the same time, it also stands halfway between progressive genius and playing safe—the forward-looking parts of it grating against the clichés and archaic mechanics.
Half the time, it demands that you play it differently from other games. Being the “irritatingly radiant” goody two-shoes, usually an easy task in a game, proved quite difficult in Dragon Age. One of my companions, the shapeshifter Morrigan, met my constant angelic meddling with intense disapproval. “Must we solve every little meaningless squabble among these people?” she asked me. I had no answer.
The evolving relationships between the main characters were surprisingly deep, and realistically volatile. They confronted you about decisions, interrupted if you seemed to be leading them down a suicidal path, and argued and debated among each other, their personalities and world views clashing and colliding. Your own connection to them, and to the institutions you face in the game, seemed somehow earned, even believable. And yet, for every surprising turn, Dragon Age reveals a well-worn stereotype. The larger machinations of the plot refuse to leave behind the worst excesses of epic fantasy—there’s a evil Dark Lord from the netherworld, and spirits and demons aplenty. The supposedly ravaged world, filled with bleak scenes of hunger and scarcity, is filled with glowing crates full of loot for you and your party alone.
Dragon Age refuses to be a revolutionary game, although it could have been. There’s a needless fascination with blood that mars it, and a convoluted control system ill-explained by the tutorials.
But it’s impossible to ignore what it does do. It has quite possibly gaming’s first specially-abled character—a savant dwarf—with a deep, complex story of his own. While some of its larger political points come across as heavy-handed and juvenile, here is a game that tries to grapple with issues of gender, inequality and sexuality.
It’s a game that makes you think of your fellow characters as more than just lumps of statistics—for instance, the times I berated brash Alistair for his impatient bravado in combat, or the expected dread with which I received Morrigan’s objections to my every action.
Dragon Age is both a marker and a signpost—a telling example of what the medium needs to leave behind, and where it should be heading. While its craft is head and shoulders above most games today, we shouldn’t call it a masterpiece. It’s the bare minimum we should come to expect in the future.
Dragon Age: Origins is available for the PC at Rs999.