this is not the greatest song in the world

Dragon Age: Remember when I said of Mass Effect that I’d almost rather read a novel set in that universe than play a game in it? With Dragon Age, I feel as if I’ve already read that novel.

Follow along: in a world where magic is heavily regulated by a religious order (Wheel of Time), a secretive order of knights defends against irregular incursions of demonic creatures (A Song of Ice and Fire). Our young hero sets off from the home he once knew into the unknown world (everything, really; it’s Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces monomyth, but just to keep to the trope I’ll pin it to Edding’s Belgariad) and meets exotic strangers along the way (The Lord of the Rings). And so on.

Dragon Age turns a genre convention from previous Bioware games into an outright, obvious flaw. I’ll explain by way of example: one of the lands you can explore is Redcliffe Village, a hamlet under siege from hordes of undead that pour out of its castle every night. Here’s how a talented production team with an eye for direction might have introduced you to this dilemma.

How It Might Have Gone

(The party approaches the village at night, fog wafting up from the canyon on which Redcliffe sits. Suddenly, a shambling figure bolts from the mist – a miller from the village, bleeding from many wounds!)

Miller: The … hordes … (dies)

(Suddenly, a bunch of skeletons show up. AWESOME FIGHT SCENE!)

(As the skeletons are dispatched, the village mayor, Murdock, runs up, his blade black with the ooze of the undead)

Murdock: Thank the Maker! Whoever you are, we’re in dire need of help. Walking corpses are assaulting our town!

(The party follows Murdock into the village, where skeletons assail panicked knots of spear-carrying villagers. ANOTHER AWESOME FIGHT SCENE!)

(Once the last corpse is put down, Murdock approaches)

Murdock: Thank you again for your aid. This was the closest battle yet. If any more of those creatures had come out of the castle, we’d’ve been done for.
You: Out of the castle?
Murdock: I’ll explain. For the last three nights, (EXPOSITION DUMP)

Fun, right? It puts you right in the heart of the crisis and starts the action at a good pitch.

How Bioware Actually Did It

(Heroes amble up to village in broad daylight)
Alistair (who’s in your party): By the way, when we get to the castle, there might be some awkwardness. Regarding me. You see, (EXPOSITION DUMP).
You: Ah. Well, thanks.

(Heroes walk another five feet)

Town Guard: Thank the Maker you’re here! Our town is under assault by the undead.
You: What, now?
Town Guard: No, at night. Every night. You see, (EXPOSITION DUMP).
You: Ah.
Town Guard: You should go speak to our Mayor.
You: Right.
Town Guard: And to Bann Teagan, who’s in the Chantry.
You: Right.
Town Guard: And to Ser Perth, who’s leading the defense.
You: Okay, got it.

And so on. There’s a minimum of twenty minutes of conversation – dialogue trees, running up and down hills, fetching and delivering items for NPCs – before you slay your first walking corpse. I don’t know why this didn’t bother me more in prior Bioware games, but it’s exasperating now.

Though the plot may be cliched, Dragon Age tries to innovate a little in combining MMORPG gameplay with console controls. But the result confused me more than it helped. Take crafting, for instance. As you level your characters up, they can learn how to combine herbs and make useful potions. So let’s say you’ve gathered a mess of herbs and want to start brewing healing salves. Do you click on an herb? No. Do you go to the Character Record screen and click on your Herbalism talent? No. Do you click on an empty flask? No. You open up the radial menu using the left trigger, select Potions, then select the Herbalism talent – oh, you’re already on a character who knows Herbalism, right? if not, back out and start again – and then pick the potion you want to brew. It makes a certain kind of sense, but why the designers felt the need to get creative was beyond me.

What bugs me the most is my lack of investment in the story. You start with one of six origins, depending on the race and class you pick. I was a Human Noble, schooled in the arts of war. I played through a little vignette where my noble father sent off a detachment of retainers to fight against some darkspawn. A Gray Warden, one of the knights traditionally charged with defending against darkspawn incursions, shows up at the house. When a treacherous relative betrays my family, the Gray Warden helps me escape, on the condition that I join his order. My father, with his dying breath, agrees. (You have enough control to decide whether to join reluctantly or willingly, but you have to follow this guy out of the house)

This backstory complete, I’m now thrust into the middle of a demonic invasion. I have almost no investment in how this turns out: the war sounds nasty, sure, but a traitor sits in my ancestral keep! And shortly thereafter, I’m given the quest to travel to various points around the country and draw more recruits for the Gray Wardens. But I’ve seen nothing yet to suggest they’re more capable of defeating darkspawn than anyone else.

All I know is that I have to go to these three cities because the game won’t progress until I do. Contrast this to Mass Effect, where I was getting evidence to bring in a rogue Spectre, or Jade Empire, where I was rescuing my kidnapped master, or Knights of the Old Republic, where I at least saw evidence of what the main villain was capable of in the destruction of Taris.

I’m only eight hours or so into the game, maybe 20% of the way through, so I’m not passing final judgment yet. But Bioware’s starting to remind me of Kevin Smith. We all got excited by Clerks: what a bold voice! what a creative talent! Then each succeeding movie grinds the shine off his reputation, until he’s producing unremarkable stuff like Dogma and Jersey Girl. Dragon Age isn’t quite Dogma-bad, yet. And, again, I haven’t finished the game entirely. But Dragon Age reminds me a lot of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back: a whirlwind tour of cliches and genre elements, a series of entertaining moments with a threadbare plot to wrap them together.

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