Sunday, March 27, 2011

Good Writing, Dragon Age II

I recently finished playing Dragon Age II. What does this have to do with writing one could ask? It's a video game.

Well, I started writing because of video games.

I suppose if one goes back to the very first time I tired to write fiction it was really cartoons and toys, but when I was twelve, I played a particular video game and decided I wanted to write a story about it. It took me six months of on and off writing, but I finished that story, and decided then that I wanted to be a writer.

Video games have been a part of my storytelling consumption ever since. While I read books and watch the occasional movie, video games have always been one of my favorite methods of storytelling and probably always will be. Sometimes the quality isn't that good, not every game focuses on the plot, but a story adds something. It gives running through levels and fighting bad guys meaning.

I've watched storytelling in games rise from simple plot setups in the game manual, maybe in the game itself, to full fledged epics. I remember the first time I played a game and I felt my eyes water. I couldn't believe it. A game was moving me to tears.

Dragon Age II didn't make me cry, but it has been one of the best written games I've played in a long time and I attribute that to the excellent writing team at Bioware. There are moments I want to revisit again and again because they left such an impact on me.

In all role-playing games there is always a balance that has to be struck between player freedom and the need to serve the story. Some RPGs such as the Elder Scrolls series allow a great amount of player freedom, so much so that the story can be all but forgotten as the player roams a giant sandbox playing with whatever catches their interest. If there are other party members, they might simply be window dressing so the player has more people to control in battle.

On the other side are games such as the Final Fantasy series which are carefully scripted to the point where the player can only go to certain places and do things as dictated by the story. Choice is an illusion and the main character is quite likely a defined character on his or her own. There is only one way to save the world, one way to go through a cave, one destiny for a character to have, and the player will perform it in that fashion.

DA2 let me decide who I wanted my character to be within the confines dictated by the plot. While I could not make game-breaking decisions like pack up and move to another country, what choices were available did matter and I could not take the team of people I wanted to work together the most into my character's final battle because I had to make a choice.


My version of Hawke, the main character, was played as a kind and helpful person; sympathetic to the oppression of mages. As an apostate (illegal) mage herself it made sense she would feel for those mages trapped within the Circle and managed by the templars, out of fear they could hurt themselves or others.

She met Anders, a fellow apostate with a kind heart working in a clinic for the poor; a healer. Anders had a problem, being possessed by a formerly well-meaning spirit that had been warped into a spirit of vengeance, but it was clear he was a good man. She liked him quite a bit.

At the same time, she met Sebastian, a former prince and brother in the chantry (church). He had lapsed in his vows to the chantry, but wanted to convince the grand cleric that he was ready to be committed again.

The way DA2 works, is that as the player and their party members roam around, the companion characters can talk to each other, so it's possible to hear what their views are, how they live, what they think of each other. Anders and Sebastian are only two of them, but they turned out to be favorites of mine so I had them in my party almost all the time. As the game progresses, there are special quests that are specifically assigned to each companion, allowing the player to find out more of that character's backstory and move their personal plot along.

The mechanics of the quest are the same for each player, but the dialogue changes depending on choices the player has made, giving the player something of a personal investment in how the story plays out.

For instance, Sebastian knew that my Hawke and Anders had entered a relationship with each other, so after I helped him with something he warned her that "He's a dangerous man. And selfish. Whatever he promised, don't believe that he will ever put your needs above his own."

And that bothered me as the player. At this point in the story I already knew that Anders was losing the battle keeping his own mind separate from that of the spirit inside of him, but Anders had been so kind earlier on that I couldn't put what Sebastian was saying together with the Anders I knew.

But then I did one of Anders's quests and found out that he lied about the reason he needed certain ingredients gathered, and he wanted Hawke to do something very shady for a reason he wouldn't tell her. He asked if she could simply trust him, and that what he was doing was for the good of all mages.

It was a very ominous thing, and suddenly I knew what Sebastian was warning Hawke about. But the order of the scenes, the way the dialogue came out, it wouldn't have been the same for every player. Not every player would even get the warning from Sebastian because not every player would have started a romance with Anders, not every player would become good enough friends with Sebastian, not every player would even meet Sebastian in the first place. While certainly there are a good deal of people who saw exactly what I did, it made what Anders was doing very personal.

The final straw came near the end of the game, when the mages of the city are arguing with the templars, and it looks like they will come to blows. There is a power vacuum in the city and the mages are sick of their templar overlords. In desperation, the mage leader says he will go to the grand cleric of the chantry to ask her to rein in the templars, and the templar knight-commander tries to stop him.

But the one who really stops them both is Anders. The chantry lights up in a magical explosion, an explosion Hawke unwittingly helped set up, because she agreed to trust him.

Anders had been slipping throughout the story. Particularly in the last third it had become apparent. He wasn't getting along with most of Hawke's companions, he was frequently irritable, and he was becoming more extreme in his belief that mages needed to be free of the templars. Was it really him, or the spirit inside of him? Hawke had been warned that getting involved with the possessed mage had been a bad idea, but he had been such a kind person, especially to Hawke when her mother had died.

Now an entire city block was destroyed and the grand cleric killed to remove any illusion of compromise. It was now war between the templars and the mages.

And I had to choose more than whether I would side with Knight-Commander Meredith or First Enchanter Orsino. I had to choose between Anders and Sebastian, both of whom were my dearest companions.

Anders expected to die for what he'd done, and Sebastian wanted him dead as punishment for killing the grand cleric and who knew how many innocent lives, but the choice is left to the player. It is possible to spare Anders.

I thought about it, and asked the other companion characters what they thought, and though the majority of them said he should die, one of them pointed out that if he lived he could work to put things right. After some deliberation, I decided this companion was right. Anders was clearly a tormented man who had done a horrible thing for what was probably in the grand scheme of things, the right reason. The mages would fight for their freedom now, because they had no choice. And there can be no redemption for Anders if he does not live.

Unfortunately Sebastian would have none of it, and he walked out on my party.

I can't say the choices I made throughout the game were in my favor, but they mattered. Would I have cared nearly as much about what happened to Anders if my character had not chosen to love him? Would Anders's betrayal have hurt as much if Hawke had merely been his friend? And then I lost Sebastian. It was an either/or with him and Anders. There was no way they could ever have come to common ground and gone into the final battle together.

A story, whether in a book or in a game, matters when the audience cares about what happens. It doesn't matter whether they are a player or a reader. I had become invested in these characters to the point where I wanted them to succeed. I wanted Anders to become whole again. I wanted Sebastian to find out for himself whether he should remain a chantry brother or reclaim his title as prince.

I looked on the Bioware forums and there is a thread over 300 posts long talking about Anders. Some players hate him. Some players love him. The fact that there is so much discussion about a character in a video game shows how much he moved us, one way or another.

A tip of the hat to Ms. Jennifer Hepler and rest of the Bioware writing team, for writing such a fascinating character. Traveling with Anders has been a painful journey, but a memorable one. Every now and then I meet a character who I consider an inspiration for what I hope to do in my own work. Anders is one of them.