Like many others, yesterday I cracked open my copy of Dragon Age: Origins, excited to finally get a chance to play a game that I'd looked forward to for a while. I've thought very highly of Bioware and Mass Effect was one of my favorite recent titles, so I've got very high expectations for this game.
In a previous entry I talked about the way many games implement "moral choices" these days and how lackluster I generally find that implementation to be. While most games tend to make the player choose between whether or not they give a hug to an orphan or eat a baby, with little to no relevance to the game whichever route you decide, the typical manifestation of morality in video games generally manages to come across as a very stark black/white system that doesn't resemble the way human beings actually are. One of the things Bioware has advertised about regarding Dragon Age is that their story will be much more nuanced and realistic, not pigeonholing players into these sock-puppets of emotions.
While I'm no where near far along enough in the campaign to make a qualified statement on things, I wanted to break for a moment and explore my previous point a bit further using this game as an example. Taking the origin story for the Human Mage, this is going to be extremely spoilerific for anyone who hasn't played it yet. I'm going to put that in bold, just so there's no confusion. Do not read further if you're unprepared for spoilers.
In Dragon Age: Origins, mages are looked at with a certain level of mistrust. With magic and the hubris of man responsible for the cataclysm that affected their world long ago, mages were pushed into a sort of controlled slavery under the authority of the Chantry– the main organized religion of humans in the story. While being trained at the Circle of Magi, apprentices take their rite of passage through a ritual called the Harrowing, projecting themselves into the world of the Fade: a dream-realm of demons and spirits where those who use magic draw their powers from. (The Fade reminds me heavily of the Warp from Warhammer 40k, but shh.) In the Harrowing a mage enters the Fade to defeat a demon and return to their bodies. If they fail, they could be used as a vehicle for a demon to enter our world, and the watchful Templars of the Chantry wait nearby to kill the failed initiate if this happens. The rite of the Harrowing is the only way an apprentice becomes a full mage; death or Tranquility are left to those who are unprepared.
The Rite of Tranquility is a ritual that severs a mage's connection to the Fade. Used for apprentices too frightened to undertake the Harrowing or for mages the Circle feels are too dangerous, the ritual disconnects a person from their emotions, leaving them a robotic shell of their former selves. They're no longer tied to the Fade and cannot use magic or be possessed in turn, but they're barely considered people any longer.
In the mage Origin story, you are tasked with completing your Harrowing and becoming a full member of the Circle. Upon doing so successfully you learn that your friend Jowan has been involved in a forbidden love affair with a Chantry initiate named Lily. Because of their sneaking around, a rumor has spread that Jowan has dabbled in blood magic and is to be made Tranquil as punishment. It's at this point that you're given a choice between helping your friend destroy his phylactery (a vial of blood that the Templars can use to track down and kill rogue mages) or turning him in to the Circle as would be the expected thing for a proper mage to do. There's also the option of refusing to help him entirely, but if you pick that route you're still required to turn the pair in or the game simply won't let you progress any further.
I played the Origin sequence six times, which is a record for me. Part of this was for experimentation for this article, part of it was because there are just so many nuanced routes you can take from action to dialog choice.
On my first run through I decided to tell Jowan and Lily that I needed to think things over before I could agree to help them. A nearby senior enchanter had a problem with a spider infestation in the storage tunnels and in exchange for helping her I got her promise of a "big favor" in the future. After this detour I went back to Irving, the leader of the Circle, and confessed that something was up. The distinguished mage already knew about their affair and had an inkling that they were intending to escape– instead of hauling them off to be punished, he tasked me with gaining their trust and helping them break into the repository to destroy Jowan's phylactery. The reason for this was because Gregoir, in charge of the Templars, wouldn't take the word of my character or Irving if we turned Lily in. He would claim that Jowan had coerced her into helping him, letting her get away without punishment. Irving wanted her to be caught in the act, red-handed, and he wanted me to help make it happen.
You have no choice at this point; no chance to tell Jowan and Lily that Irving already knew, no opportunity to confess that you'd ratted them out. Your only option is to continue the masquerade and help execute their plan.
I did so, breaking into the repository and reaching Jowan's phylactery. It wasn't until this point that the game finally let me confess to what had happened, receiving the expected outrage from my friend for betraying him and setting them both up to be captured. The pair escape the repository ahead of me where Gregoir, Irving and a contingent of Templars are waiting for them. A fearful Jowan casts a spell towards them, incapacitating the advancing guards, revealing that the rumors (and that his promises to the contrary were lies) of him being a blood mage were real. Lily rebukes him for this deception and casts him away, where he escapes the scene and leaves my character and his love behind. When Gregoir and Irving recover they arrest Lily and Gregoir gives me verbal lectures that he doesn't trust me, even though I was only following Irving's orders. At a certain point Duncan, the representative from the Grey Wardens tasked with convincing the Circle to cough up some more mages to aid in a conflict against an upcoming threat, informs the two squabbling men that he wants to recruit me and leave the tower. After further debate all agree to let it happen and I leave with him to continue the rest of the story. Origin complete.
I went through to attempt it a second way, this time not turning Jowan in and not letting anyone know what was going on– the way a good friend should. In order to break into the repository we needed a rod of fire from the Circle's stores, but the Tranquil in charge of turning it over refused without a requisition form signed by a senior enchanter. After cashing in the favor from the woman with the spider problem, we were in business progressing towards the repository just like last time. You help him destroy his phylactery and the three of you run away just in time to discover Irving and Gregoir waiting for you– total deja vu. The scene progresses about the same as before with Jowan revealing his blood magic in the same way and Lily telling him to get out of her sight. Irving chastises you for not coming to him with what you knew and Gregoir wants you arrested, but his desires for punishment are interrupted by Duncan arriving to tell him that he wants to recruit your character. There's a bunch of variation in dialog here: you can either be a jerk about it, unrepentant for what you did in aiding a fugitive, and Duncan tells a pissed Gregoir that the Grey Wardens have ultimate authority on conscription and no one, be they Templars nor kings, can prevent that if they want to add someone to their ranks. You can be more apologetic for what you've done and the tone of everyone else is a bit softer, but the ultimate result is the same no matter how you go: you end up leaving the tower as the latest recruit for the Grey Wardens.
My opinion of this is split in two minds. On the one hand the level of writing was so immaculate that I was really impressed, which is what drove me to repeat the same content so many times to try out every variation in action and dialog. On the other hand, it didn't make a difference what I did, because the end amounted to the same thing: Jowan escapes, I leave the tower as a new Grey Warden.
Even though the choices presented to me were easy to attach emotional resonance to– do I stick to my loyalty to my friend and help him out, or do I help out the higher authority in my life and turn him in to the Circle– I was disappointed to realize that it made no difference for what happened whichever route I took. I was surprised when Jowan revealed himself as a blood mage, saddened when Lily rejected him for it (after all, he did promise to her previously that he was going to give up all magic entirely just to be with her and he didn't want to become Tranquil because it would sever his love for her), but at the end of the sequence it didn't make a difference. I could leave with Duncan voluntarily, I could leave with him thumbing my nose at Gregoir for escaping arrest, or I could leave against my will kicking and screaming– (slightly confusing me as to why the Grey Wardens wanted to take someone who was so dead set against leaving)– but no matter what, I was leaving.
I know that most people are probably not likely to know this, since most people are going to play the game just once. But for me personally, if I had gone back to replay things helping him and not turning him in, my first choice to rat him out would have given me a much deeper and significant emotional response knowing that I had a choice between helping him or hurting him. Whether or not this ever manifested further on in the campaign or not would have been irrelevant– Jowan needn't come back as a super villain I have to fight, but the very fact that I would've looked on my "betrayal" of him with a tangible repercussion of knowing "He could have gone free" would have hit me on a visceral level.
Of course, I could just be reading way too into this. It's easy to justify the ultimate linearity of the plot; after all, Irving told you that he'd already known something was going on, even if he didn't have specifics. It's justified in the story that you would be caught no matter what you did, regardless of my pseudo time-traveling attempts at going back and attempting to change things. By no means has this affected my enjoyment of the game, and so far I am loving it to a degree that keeps giving me goosebumps. I am also well and truly in the beginning, so there could be something I come across later in the story that references what happened here– meeting Jowan who thanks me for letting him escape, or meeting an embittered Jowan who hates me for ratting him out and holds me responsible for losing Lily. I haven't played any of the other Origins so I don't know if they're different, though somehow I doubt that the ultimate finality of their plotlines don't end in a similar way regardless of what player choices you make. For the mage one, it likely would have been harder to come up with an impetus to get you out of the tower if Jowan escaped scott-free with Lily hand-in-hand, or if you simply rejected helping them entirely, so I can concede that towards the game as a necessity.
But still. Reading pre-release interviews talking about how the initial intent was to have the game interface with the social network page and show you where your character split along different plot "road forks" like a winding family tree, it makes me think variations like this would have been perfectly fitting for a game touting "complex moral choices." If I had to "live" with myself playing forward knowing that I could have let my friend escape, or that I'd set loose a dangerous blood mage, I would have cared a lot more than I do feeling like it didn't make a difference either way.
So, a recap. I do feel that, so far, Bioware is making good on their claims that morality in Dragon Age would be less about tropes and more about real people, but I still feel the "what relevance does it have?" test is falling short of expectations. But like I said, this doesn't ruin the game for me, nor is it even really a criticism, since I've so far found the writing so spectacular (and appreciated the fact that my first choice didn't make me choose between acting like an angel or a demon on the do-gooder spectrum), but I do feel like things could have gone further. Whether or not they do as I progress through the main campaign, I don't know, but I am still looking forward to finding out.