Dragon Age: Origins, cold turkey edition

In general, I am a better starter than a finisher, and I always find that when I have a big project to finish up, I have to stop doing the things I am normally doing so that I can concentrate. At the moment, I have had to stop playing DA:O while I finish a project that needs to get done in the next week. Tomorrow or so, it will be out of my system and I’ll be able to have a clear head about the task at hand. Today, though, I still have that residual twinge of wanting to fire up DA:O and have a nice tactical battle to blow off some steam.

There are a lot of things I like about DA:O. The combat is about as difficult as it should be: tough, but not as brutal as some of the Infinity Engine games were at points. Much of the dialogue is well written, and there are some really thoughtful, interesting encounters along the way (the characterization of the various demons is particularly nice). I think it’s easier to appreciate the dialogue in DA:O than it is in the Infinity Engine games. For one, it’s always tempting to skim, but I also think the Bioware games may be better written now than they used to be. On occasion, the Bioware games achieve a level of polish that most other games gesture towards but never quite achieve.

Four character slots seemed too few at first, but I think one strength of DA:O is that most NPC combinations are actually quite viable– even the characters that are less powerful add interesting play dynamics.

It’s not perfect, of course. Rogues are a particular weakness, I think. They’re much less fun than a lot of other RPGs– they have less to do, have fewer interesting tactical options, and the stealth experience is somewhat underwhelming. There’s less tactical depth to playing mages than in the Infinity Engine stuff, but that’s made up for by the visceral fun of spellcasting. And finally, their decision to go with a threat system is disappointing. I get the appeal– aggro-based combat systems make for good action sequences, when your opponent turns on the mage who’s just smacked them– but it makes for combat that’s too removed from the wargaming roots of RPGs for my taste.

Playing DA:O has brought me to a realization, though, which is that I’m just generally weak at coming up with good characters. I would like to link it to what Auden says about poets (I wanted to be one, once!) in his letter to Lord Byron: “His sense of other people’s very hazy.” I could make some claim that some of my male characters are Don Draper figures, ciphers that allow for the thinking-through of ideas of masculinity. That’s probably bullshit, honestly– I think they’re really just recycled noir/Hemingway/Western characters, because I’m kind of “unobservant, immature, and lazy” by temperament. (Though I hope that there’s some nuance there.)

I think it’s particularly difficult to play a CRPG with a character concept, though. For one, pragmatic concerns often deform my character concepts: I frequently want to hit as much content in on a single playthrough, and therefore my morally dubious mage has a spate of pious behavior, or my paladin takes a chaotic neutral turn halfway through. On the other hand, it’s hard to form compelling, independent narratives within a Bioware-style CRPG narrative, and maybe in CRPGs in general. You can have a character trajectory in mind, but follow-through becomes difficult without opportunities for your character to move in that direction. You can’t throw in with a particular faction unless the game has specifically allowed for that possibility, for example, and there’s little occasion for your character to show her animus against the goblins who killed her brother if it never comes up (or if you just kill them like everything else). At best, you can make your character into a broad archetype: paladin, mercenary, asshole. I appreciate that DA:O compels you to make role-playing choices, but you’re still left with a broad, fluid character at the end of the day.