Monday, December 28, 2009

Interactive Fiction Review: Dragon Age: Origins

There are plenty of reviews of the computer role playing game Dragon Age: Origins, but I wanted to take a look at the software as a piece of interactive fiction.


The main story arc of a fantasy hero or heroine facing down a world threatening evil is the spine of any story you can experience in Dragon Age: Origins. It is the personalities, relationships, and the details that are under the player's control. Your choices determine what kind of person the hero is, good or evil, pure or corrupt, innocent or hedonistic rake hell. And what kind of hero you have brings out different qualities in the supporting cast of the story.

Conversation is by "pick a line." The screen shows a close up of the person you are talking to. You click on what to say at the bottom of your screen. If the game designers don't provide an option, you can't create your own. Most of the time there is a "cut to the chase" option, where you focus on the main story problem, a few probing questions that can give you deeper understanding of the situation, and a snarky insult or two.

Once you say something, the supporting character replies in smooth animation, and you hear it spoken by a voice actor and see the text at the top of your screen. It can be as short as a "No." or as long as a song.

Sometimes your options include actions, such as "Kiss her" instead of dialog. When she deflects your kiss with a joke, you have the option of laughing it off or showing her how serious you are. It's amazing how easy it is to flirt if your dialog is all chosen from a menu. There is no problem telling in advance which response is going to piss her off when you see it in text, juxtaposed with some serious heart-felt sentiments. If real life were like this, my dating days would have been much less stressful.

The graphics are very good, and can show a lot of emotion. Morrigan appears cold and callus almost all of the time, but every once in a while her face registers a deep sadness and regret if what you tell
her pierces her defenses.

Most of the time, the choices that you have made in the past are reflected in how people treat you and what your current choices are. You get so used to that, that when it doesn't happen, you are thrown out of the illusion and are slapped in the face that you are just dealing with a piece of software. The worst example of that I ran into was in the elven ghetto called the alienage. I had just defeated a secret conspiracy, came out a back door, and ran into a blind man who wanted to give me a quest to look for a secret conspiracy. I wanted to say "I just did it!" but that was not an option.

As the supporting cast reacts to you, their attitude changes. If they like you a lot, it might lead to romance depending on the person and your reactions. Anyone who likes and trusts you more becomes more powerful in the action scenes. You can find or buy gift items and then give them to your friends to further improve their mood. Different characters respond to different gifts in unique ways. Their dialog will often include throw away lines that are clues to what items would please them most.

At it's heart, Dragon Age: Origins, is a game. You can't not save the world, except by putting the game down. You can't just do the interactive fiction bits and not play the game. But if you like the game anyway, the story will drag you into the interaction. Which is done well enough to make you forget you are playing a game.

My wife walked by while I was conversing with a character, saw them speaking, and asked "Are you watching a movie?"

No, I was in the movie.

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