Interview / David Gaider, senior writer for Dragon Age: Origins (Part 1)

On the last day of GDC, less than an hour after speaking with Nintendo’s Marc Franklin, I made a 25-minute trip through some streets (Why so far, BioWare? WHY!?) to reach the hotel where BioWare was demoing some new goodies on their upcoming fantasy RPG and spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate 2, Dragon Age: Origins. I got a spiffy gameplay sampling that showed off a lot of the dialogue and quest options that are the staple of any great BioWare game, as well as a good look at the combat system, which will be familiar to any Baldur’s Gate fan.

While I was there, I got to talk with the lead writer for the game, David Gaider. On top of writing for this game, he also has a book coming out that ties into the Dragon Age universe. We had a good talk, where he reveals not only a few details behind some of the core game mechanics, but also the motivation behind a lot of them and how he aims to make this game evoke some real emotion and concern from the player. From there we got to talking a little bit about the general challenge of storytelling in games, when the unthinkable happened and we ran out of time.

Because Gaider had so much to say, we’re breaking this down into two parts for you. In this first part, we talk a lot about the game’s fantasy setting and how it both does and doesn’t stand out. On top of that, we talk a little about the game’s mechanics, specifically the changes in the morality meter that’s become a bit of a BioWare staple until now.

It was a treat to pick his brain for a little while. So sit back, grab some tea, and read away.

Tommy Lawler (TVGB): If you could just start with your name and your position at BioWare?

David Gaider (DG): My name is David Gaider. I am the lead writer on Dragon Age. The position is called Senior Writer, which is one of many, but the lead of this particular project.

TVGB: And how long have you been writing for games?

DG: I’ve been with Bioware since 1999, so ten years. My first game was Baldur’s Gate 2. I think that was the best experience.

TVGB: Was it all just downhill from there?

DG: No… it’s different. Baldur’s Gate 2 was kind of an awesome experience because we were feeling our way through some unexplored territory in terms of like “Oh, maybe we can do a romance!” We were experimenting. Since then we were trying different things, but it’s never quite the same as your first, you know what I mean? So that was my introduction to the game industry and it worked out really well.

TVGB: A learning experience for all?

DG: Yeah. I’m hoping Dragon Age will be a similar experience. It’s the first major project that I’ve been lead on. Though I was lead on a few expansion projects such as [Baldur’s Gate 2 expansion] Throne of Bhaal, and some of the Neverwinter Nights expansions, that sort of thing. I [also] did a lot of work for Knights of the Old Republic 2, but here there’s one full game release as lead writer. I had a chance to sit down and actually design the world when we started doing the concept stuff. The guys sat me down and said “Make a setting for a fantasy game that’s very traditional, almost D&D [or Dungeons & Dragons]-like.” You know, elves, swords, that sort of thing, and luckily I didn’t see that as a limitation. Thankfully, I enjoy that kind of scene. But you’re given that area within which to work, so I sat down, made the setting, and they kind of let me have my “free reign” within those boundaries, and that was really neat. I guess I sort of assumed that once it was done, that everybody would want to have their particular hand, or hands, or fingers in the pie. But no, I made this particular setting, and everybody wanted to know what it was that I had created. Eventually they came in and modified certain things to fit required gameplay or whatever. But they left the sort of philosophy of the game world very intact. It was very respectful and a great experience.

TVGB: Kind of tying in with that, you said it’s supposed to be very D&D based. Do you ever deviate? Or rather, how does it differ?

DG: Differ as opposed to say The Forgotten Realms?

TVGB: Yeah, or what would people see in this game that they would not see in or experience in other fantasy settings.

DG: Well if you look at it on the surface you’re going to see… a lot of people just get that superficial glance and say “that looks like D&D” and I think that’s on purpose. We want it to look traditional, maybe reminiscent a little bit of Tolkien or D&D and that is traditional fantasy, I think. There are a lot of people who enjoy that out there — I do. But at the same time, we take certain elements and put our own spin on those. For example, our elves are quite different. There is a time when they were enslaved by humanity, their homeland was destroyed. During these centuries that they were slaves, they lost their culture and their history. It reached a point that when they finally were free, some of them tried to rebuild what had been lost. I think they became very resentful of humanity and those who still live among humanity are sort of treated like second class citizens. And the dwarves are done a bit differently. Sure, they live underground, they are the miners and craftsmen, but at the same time they have this Byzantine cast system. And the politics of the dwarven nobility spend a lot of time trying to kill each other and vie for their houses to rise in the strata of the dwarven cast. You have the cast, which are sort of the untouchables of their society. [And this view is] opposed to the more traditional view of dwarves where they’re all very honorable and basically well-aligned. Let’s take our elves and dwarves and the various facets of fantasy tropes, let’s say, and cast a light on them which [asks] “What if they existed in actual human history?”

One thing we’ve done with the game and that setting is look at things as “There’s no absolute right.” There are people who do good things and they’re not always cast in this pure way. Their morality isn’t always absolute, let me say it that way. Like when the elves were enslaved there are some people who can look back on that in history and say that maybe the elves were somewhat responsible for their predicament, or maybe it wasn’t as bad as they claim. When the elves finally did form their homeland, their second homeland was destroyed as well. The humans say the elves were very anti-human at that point, and they had started a war with humans, so we’re not responsible for doing this to them, that was done a long time ago. In actual human history it’s never absolutely this way, there are always different viewpoints involved in what’s happened. There are always viewpoints on the dwarven history, elven history, and human history as well. We have religion, where instead of the more traditional fantasy pantheon of gods, we have one more reminiscent of the Catholic church. It’s a monotheistic religion, and it would have been very hard for us to paint it as a villainous organization instead of like everything else. There are some things the Chantry (That’s what the church is called) has done, which could be argued as being tyrannical or intended solely to spread their religion. But then there’s also a lot of people within the church, and within the game as well, who are good well-meaning people who have faith, and faith itself is not a bad thing. You know, in any large organization you’re going to have the potential for corruption. [We don’t] want to get to a point where we are painting any particular group or organization with too broad a brush. There’s some room for nuance, there’s some room for opinion, and that’s also going to leave room for the player to take their own stance on it. We’re not instructing them how to feel about things.

TVGB: And kind of going along with that, it seems like there’s a recurring theme from what you were just telling me about kind of a gray morality area. It seems like that’s something you guys kind of attack more and more with your games. Like in Jade Empire or Mass Effect.

DG: I guess part of it is that we’re getting older. [laughs] I mean older and more experienced. I look at it like in Knights of the Old Republic for instance. Star Wars, and even D&D, specialize in having that dichotomy, right? That’s part of the setting. Light Side and Dark Side… Jade Empire had the Open Palm and Clenched Fist. Having a dichotomy is fine, it’s good, but it also limits you. As soon as you have that sort of good/evil meter, it becomes a gameplay element. If you make it a gameplay element, suddenly you have to have those dichotomies present in every quest, every dialogue, etc. In KOTOR [Knights of the Old Republic], for instance you have the dialog or quest options that are clearly Light Side, and here’s the ones that are clearly Dark Side. And you need that, because the player’s going to need to know how to get their meter to move one way or another, because they have their benefits for being one side or the other. But for Dragon Age we decided to eschew the gameplay element of morality and go for the gray morality just because then, it allowed us to just put in options for quests, dialogues, etc. [that are] logical and have those options that are “Maybe you could think of this as a good option, but there are bad things about it,” or, “Maybe you could think of this as the evil option, but it has a solid reasoning behind it,” and it’s not just there to be evil. This is something you could argue to be a reasonable course of action to take, right? There are people who complain about some of the evil choices and stuff we’ve done in the past as “It’s there just to provide an evil option or good option” instead of making more sense in and of itself. So yeah, we have sort of skewed more towards mature storytelling as opposed to something more simplistic and I guess that’s just because we’ve been doing this for a while, and we’re trying to branch out.

One thing we would try to avoid, though, is making everything sort of deliberately gray. I think if you did that, you could run into this weird little spot where there was no good and there was no evil. If everything was just kind of grayed out and morally ambiguous, I think that would be just as much a problem as having everything sharply delineated. So I think we just sort of focus, instead, on making everything logical choices that make sense, and only split up in terms of their relative morality.

TVGB: So it almost sounds like going with just logical choices, and the morality aspects just fall into place on their own?

DG: Right. If you look at the choices you need to make in terms of the consequences, you’d have a bunch of followers with you. And actually, about a third of the writing has gone into the followers and so they have a lot to say. And they chime in when you make decisions, they react. Sometimes they’ll try to stop you.

TVGB: Are they able to?

DG: Oh yeah. Sometimes they will actually leave the party, or fight you if they feel strongly enough about it. That does happen. And we don’t want to surprise you. I don’t like, from a game design perspective, what they call “gotchas.” When the player thinks they’re making one decision, and yet they get surprised instead and “Oh you thought you were doing something good, but haha! Gotcha! You were doing something evil!” You know, that sort of thing. We do like to let them know “this could happen,” when it is going to. But say the followers are one cipher, through which the player discovers what the consequences for their actions are. You surround yourself with party members that you like, because they have so much personality, so much to say, a lot of players will develop an affinity for them, and will care about their opinions. If they start to say “Why are you doing this? If you do this, I don’t really appreciate it.” You can have a player character that is more persuasive, but sometimes that is just not going to work, right? And instead of dictating morality to the player through a sort of meta-gaming element like a good/evil meter, we focus instead on consequences in terms of the followers, in terms of how the world is going to react, how your reputation is going to change. I think that frees up the player a little bit to think about why they’re doing what they’re doing instead of how it’s going to affect a gameplay element.

A QA tester would come to my office and they’d get to this point where they’re presented with the option, say, for a major quest. Because there was nothing telling them, “If you’re a good player, do this. If you’re a evil player, do this.” You know, that sort of thing. Then all the choices seemed reasonable if very different. But they sat back and had to think “Wow, what do I do?” They have to think about how they, personally, felt about it. Sometimes there will be very obvious consequences to your decision. You’ll have followers who will say “this is going to happen,” or you can see very logically what the result of a situation will be. Sometimes, it’s really just left to the player like, “here’s the reaction” and maybe you’ve made someone sad, or nobody knows what you did and you’ll have to decide for yourself how you feel about the action. I think it allows us to write something that’s a little bit more complex because we’re not instructing the player, we’re leaving it to [them] to have an emotional reaction as opposed to being able to just resign it to “I did it because that gave me three evil points.” That allows them to just ignore the whole emotional reaction.

TVGB: So the whole morality gauge as a mechanic in the game is just gone?

DG: Just gone. The various followers have an approval bar that marks how they feel towards you currently. You can have friendships or rivalries with them. There’s also romance. So you can see their relative feelings towards you. That’s there for feedback purposes. But the followers themselves have very different standards. Some of them are going to be more amoral, and some of them are going to want to help people. That’s not so much a morality bar as a feedback for a particular follower. But yeah, as far as the overall morality meter — totally gone.

Check back tomorrow for part 2 of this interview.