Andraste’s knickerweasels! It’s time to get personal. It’s time for fanboy-gushing. Readers of this blog may have noticed, or at least suspects, that I am an avid fan of Dragon Age and most things BioWare. So let’s talk about that. This will get ugly.
The Mass Effect fans, including myself, have celebrated N7-day for years, but nothing similar has quite appeared for Dragon Age. This may be about to change as a group of fans have picked a date and kindly organized an unofficial celebration for the rest of us.
December 4 to celebrate Dragon 4ge? (bless leet speak for giving us a day to aim for)
— Ser T, Champion of Ferelden, Guard of the Cheese (@ImaSithDuh) August 15, 2018
The fourth of December, the unofficial Dragon Age Day, is celebrated for the first time in 2018. Fans are encouraged to reflect on what the franchise means to them and post stories and art using the #Dragon4geDay hashtag on this day.
So, why is this important to me?
My History With Dragon Age
Dragon Age has taught me many things. The first lesson was perhaps patience. I was a fan of the Baldur’s Gate series back in 2000-2002 and was thrilled when BioWare began to talk about a successor, and I eagerly awaited more news.
Dragon Age: Origins
Years passed, and I had mostly forgotten about the whole thing when Dragon Age: Origins finally arrived in stores in 2009.
I did not know what to expect from Dragon Age: Origins after the odd Marilyn Manson trailer, even if I am a fan of Mr. Manson, but I immediately got into it when I started playing.
The noble origin story and the story onwards hit all my buttons for a dark high magic fantasy tale. Nothing I read or played before, D&D and Tolkien included, comes closer. Monsters, politics, love, betrayal, intrigue, secrets, corruption and humor. It got it all.
Dragon Age II
If Dragon Age: Origins was a leap forward from Baldur’s Gate, Dragon Age II (2011) was a step sideways and perhaps back.
I had preordered Dragon Age II, of course, and eagerly awaited the release date for the game would unlock. My first playthrough was a mixed experience. First, both the art style and gameplay was changed, and worse, the game was clearly rushed. Some of the criticism that followed was warranted. Although some of the reused maps made sense, such as the Sundermount Caves layout not changing when you enter at different times, most of the reused maps did not.
The story was interesting. Dragon Age II is a framed narrative with Varric as an unreliable narrator, which means we still do not know what actually happened in Kirkwall. It is a personal story about someone fighting to save their family in a city going mad. This is also where the overall setting story kicks into high gear, with the mage-templar war, the Qunari and the set-up for Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Dragon Age II’s redeeming qualities was brilliant writing and voice acting, and the game remains my favorite of the series after the patches and DLCs.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
BioWare learned from the criticism and took their time with Dragon Age: Inquistion (2014). The story was safer with a save-the-world plot and the toned down art-style. The game had the polish the previous outing lacked and still looks gorgeous four years later.
Again the writing is what sets BioWare apart, at least in my mind. I became invested in the characters and I dearly want to know what happens next. The writers add to the lore of the setting, and stuff I thought was settled in Origins – like the darkspawn, the tranquil, and the dalish – receive new layers of secrets
Lessons from Dragon Age
Shave my back and call me an elf!
– Oghren, Dragon Age Origins
Dragon Age has many lessons for game masters, writers, and storytellers everywhere.
Old Tropes, One More Time
Dragon Age embraces some old fantasy tropes, including elves, dwarves, and what appears to be an orcish threat. Sound familiar? Yet, all three are different from what I expected. It did not feel contrived or like a gimmick. Everything made sense in the setting and the story. Dragon Age uses tropes you know, and perhaps love, and yet gives you something different and fresh.
The elves may have wisdom but have lost much of the lore of the past. They are not the protectors against some great Enemy, and characters like Solas and Zathrian are not mentors offering gifts and guidance, although they may claim otherwise.
The dwarves of Thedas initially lived in the mountain, and many still do and are great smiths, but then it becomes more nuanced. The dwarves are clannish, conservative, and ruthless. Eventually, the dwarves feel more like something from The Godfather rather than Tolkien, as anyone who has played both dwarf origin stories can verify.
The darkspawn may appear as orc-knockoffs, and you learn about their origin up front in the Dragon Age: Origins prologue, and yet both sequels add details and twists hardly touched upon in the first game, and for each revelation, the mystery grows.
Simple Stories Should be Layered
Life is never simple. There are always reasons, and sometimes the best intentions are not enough.
All three Dragon Age games have simple stories at first glance, Origins and Inquisition are about saving the world, while Dragon Age II is about saving your family. Both straightforward, simple, yet worthy goals for sure.
The stories have more depth, however, when you start peeling the layers.
Companion Character Arcs
The companions you pick up throughout the games have complex motivations and interactions. All have potential character arcs if you choose to interact and explore them.
Alistair, the wise-cracking awkward Grey Warden, is horrified of claiming power and looks to you for guidance. Yet, this may be the qualities that make him the best leader.
Leliana starts out as a girly sidekick, who turns out to have a darker past. Her arc twists multiple times throughout the games as you learn her secrets, she is possibly hardened, and one of her possible end states is outright frightening.
Morrigan, the no-nonsense and off-putting mage, starts as a young woman at odds with her mother, but later learns that she never knew her mother’s true nature or the power she craves. Morrigan’s relationship changes her in ways she did not expect, and she may grow up in the best way possible.
Cassandra, the tough warrior leader, struggles with honor and duty, and the fact that she may have betrayed her beliefs. Later you may learn she has a softer side, although it does not make her any less efficient or formidable, and it’s sweeter still when you realize Cass is probably pushing forty.
Sera, the anarchistic and childish rebel, turn out by being very conservative in her own way. I never saw that coming.
Isabela, the sexy pirate rogue, slowly changed my perception of her as I got to know her. I had foolishly underestimated her because of her looks and flirtations but eventually learned that she is both fiercely independent and perhaps regretful, and she became even more appealing as I got to know her. The best thing is that you may miss this entirely because of the subtle writing.
Dorian, the flamboyant rock star mage, deals with conflicting feelings with his homeland, family, and sexuality. He can, with your guidance, become that which he loathes and be at peace with it.
Sten appears to be a strong barbarian joke character, albeit a little scary. Later you realize he was mostly just scary when you progress to Dragon Age II and learn more of where he came from.
Those are just examples, and the list goes on. For a writer, game master, or any storyteller really, character arcs are crucial to understand and practice.
What Dragon Age Means To Me
– Sandal, Dragon Age Origins
So why is this more than just a great story? Why is this meaningful? Why is this important?
I have played through the whole series four times over the years – once of each voice actor in Dragon Age: Inquisition – which probably exceeds 1500 hours of gameplay across all three games. Obsessing over characters and story choices, and looking for new ways to play.
BioWare clearly got to me. Why?
Dragon Age has secrets, the more I learn, the less I know, and this appeals to me. The games and books reward you for taking the time and effort to explore the setting. There are always more to learn and uncover, and first impressions are rarely correct.
For example, check out some of the many codex entries through the games, like the Band of Three entries from Dragon Age II, here collected and read by Caitie.
This is some interesting bits of lore hidden in the game, beautifully written, and easily missed. Best of all, this is not critical in the enjoyment of the game but is a huge boon to anyone who cares to look.
What is even going on here?
Good computer games, like tabletop roleplaying games, is not passive entertainment. It engages you, lets you make decisions, and you choose the tactics. You do not merely watch a scripted scene, you participate to some extent, and the story draws you in.
Who wouldn’t want to save Merrill from herself? How can anyone not fall in love with Sarcastic FemHawke? Who would not care what happens to the folks of Redcliffe? What is the truth of the Black City? What really happened to the ancient elves? Who the heck is Sandal?
I eagerly await what happens next.
Comfort and Hope
Great stories and art matters because it makes us grow, gives comfort in hard times, and sparks the imagination. Escapism may not the answer to most of your problems, far from it, but it may be the very thing that keeps a person sane.
People have shared bits of personal stories restored hope and comfort from Dragon Age over the years, and I’m sure we will see more as part of the Dragon Age Day celebration. Escapism is healthy, or at least to some extent. That is my experience, and there are plenty of stories from folks saying the same, if you care to look.
Good stories inspire you to create stories of your own. The impact is evident in all the fan work produced by the Dragon Age community, which is inspiring in itself. The community has some really creative people who create content. There are so many talented folks out there, you are all a huge inspiration.
I have not participated in the community, but I have devoured the content from YouTubers Lady Insanity, BioFan, Jackdaw, Exalted March, and Caitie whenever they put up something new. I do not know these guys, but I love what they are doing. Absolutely brilliant.
The impact is also evident in the fan art available online. Again the skill and dedication are amazing. My Dragon Age Pinterest board is found below.
The Reading List
Welcome to the Wonders of Thedas
– Magic item shop proprietor, Dragon Age Origins
I’ve never had time to really dig into blogs and fan fiction, but both are undoubtedly worth checking out if you have time. Dumped, Drunk and Dalish‘s blog seems to be an excellent place to start. Her Dragon Age timeline should be mandatory reading for all world builders, not just Dragon Age fans.
Fanfiction.net and the Archive of Our Own both have huge Dragon Age categories for fan fiction. The best fan fiction, I imagine, is where you can hear the voices of the characters, and they sound right. Every author needs to know their characters, and that goes double for fan fiction.
Under an Emerald Sky by Ravenas is an excellent place to start, if you’re interested.
Dark Horse Comics has produced Dragon Age comics, art books, and novels. I’ve enjoyed it all immensely and is well worth checking out.
Too much? Yeah, probably. I can take it.
Did I mention the music? The scores and the bard songs…? No?
Feel free to comment below if I missed anything or want to share your views.