Interview / David Gaider, senior writer for Dragon Age: Origins (Part 2)

Following up on yesterday’s first portion of my brief chat with David Gaider, senior writer for Dragon Age: Origins, we now happily present the sequel… or the second half, whatever you want to call it.

In this part, we talk about what it took to write a game like Dragon Age, where the player can start in one of six different origins, discussing not just the what but also the why. I ask him about his influences in working on the game, and the challenge in trying to get a meaningful, emotional response from a player through a videogame.

Like last time, Gaider is clearly a passionate guy with a lot to say on the subject of his work, so have another cup of tea, and maybe learn a little about the game design process, and certainly a thing or two about the ambitions behind this game.

TVGB: I wanted to talk a little bit about the story. Sorry I don’t have it down here. This game has nine different story arches?

DG: Six origins.

TVGB: That’s what I’m thinking of.

DG: The origins are when you start your character. You’re given a choice of race and class, and as a result of that you have an option of one to two origins that are specific to the race and class that you chose. Say if you’re a dwarf: you can start as either a dwarf commoner or a dwarf noble. So you’re either a castless dwarf right on the bottom rung of dwarven society, or a dwarven noble where you’re a member of the royal house. And it’s a full chapter.

[It’s like] Temple of Elemental Evil. You’re given an opening vignette, or a minute or two of gameplay that was specific to the line that you chose and it sort of outlayed your route into the story, but it was very short. The difference here is that we have a full chapter worth — several hours of play — and you can see a unique sort of opening area to the game. Eventually, all the origins do sort of join up to a single plot thread when you join the Great Wardens. But the idea is that once that opening chapter is done, your origin choice will continue to have effects throughout the game. Say you’re a dwarf and you return later on, and you will, to the land of the dwarves, your experience at that point is going to be very different from other players. In other parts of the game, the effects of your origin will vary from being very small, like maybe someone just says “Oh, you’re a dwarf!” to much larger. Sometimes, being a dwarf, elf, human, or noble, for instance, will have a larger effect. It varies, and it carries right through to the ending.

TVGB: Now, does that, as a writer…

DG: It makes things incredibly complicated.

TVGB: [laughs] That’s what I was going to ask.

DG: But I mean the idea was that Dragon Age harkens back to the Baldur’s Gate era, and part of that is a game where it is about the writing. And I know that marketers have a kind of a hard time trying to figure out how to show it off. You can’t show a screenshot of writing, story, and character. But story and character are what Dragon Age is about just as it’s what Baldur’s Gate 2 is about. I’m hoping that once people start getting to play and actually take a close look as opposed to just the superficial look you get in the trailer, they will see all the stuff that’s there. The amount of writing that has gone into the setting, the story, and the depth that that creates. There are people who are going to pick their origin and they’re going to play through once, and they’ll be satisfied — I hope. There are also people that are going to look at that and say “Oh! Six completely unique opening chapters! Obviously I’ll have to play the game six times!” Some people are going to do that and they’re going to see, better than anyone else, the amount of variation that happens with each of those choices. I think that’s very exciting. There will be people who will go into our forums, for instance, and they’ll have at least somebody talking about “oh wow, I had this happen to me” and another will be like “That didn’t happen to me at all!” I’ve seen that in other games, and I always find that very cool.

I think it’s great having a linear story. Linearity has its place. Even in Dragon Age there’s a certain amount of linearity because we are talking about a story driven game as opposed to a world sim game like, say, Oblivion for instance. It’s wide open and allows for maybe a lot more exploration, but you’re also giving up something as well. You’re giving up the benefit of the directed story and experience. It’s a sacrifice on one side, gain on another. We always go more towards the story side, but in the midst of the linearity in the story-driven experience [is] the ability to have variations. There’s reactivity to what the player is doing and who they are bringing with them. There are characters they get to know and the things they do. We have allowed the player to take some very different actions. For example, in the demo, you’re at this village called Red Cliff, and you’re being asked to help save it. But we asked the questions while we were starting, “What if the player doesn’t save the village? Is that OK? Do we force the player to be the hero?” I mean ultimately it’s a heroic fantasy game, so what you are doing is ultimately heroic. You can take the anti-hero skew or the noble paladin skew, but that’s up to the player. But if we allow him to choose how he performs the overall quest, is it possible for him to say “You know what? I don’t have time to take this route. Let the village burn. I’m more interested in keeping my mind on the ultimate goal post, the stuff that’s more important than saving these villagers.” And the answer, invariably, was yeah, we totally want to do that. And I don’t think we want to do it in a way that says “Oh I just skipped this quest and thus I miss out on content,” the idea is to have it be a different experience, right? Still a valid one, and have the repercussions be… well if you don’t save the village, maybe you have followers with you that are more heroically inclined, that they’ll be angry with you. Like “Why didn’t we help these people? We have the power to help these people.” You’ll have other followers who are interested in the ultimate goal and are like “We have no time to help these people! Some of us could die. Why would we make that sacrifice doing things that are pointless?” Let them be the cipher through which the story is told, forcing the player to think about his actions, and then have those decisions you made sort of called on later. If you didn’t save the village, you could have characters later on who are like “Well you’re saying this, but what about that village you allowed to burn?” or maybe it will affect the ending later on, that this is how the world changed as a result of what you did.

Fallout was one instance I always think of in terms of endings that I like, in that after the game was done, it brought you to all these places in the world and kind of laid out how what you did changed the world. Even when it comes to minor permutations, I think that’s awesome. I think that’s an excellent way to tell the player that even their small decisions sometimes had big effects.

TVGB: This question is one of numbers now. Is this game going to be loaded with the absolute most dialogue, then, of any past game?

DG: Well, it’s less than Baldur’s Gate 2, because BG2 was a really huge game. But BG2 also had an advantage because it was a sequel. That’s a good position to be in. Mass Effect 2 is in that place right now. They know what their engine is capable of. They’re able to put in final content from day one. It’s a nice place to be. Hopefully, we’ll be in that position someday soon. Regardless, that allowed us to create a huge amount of content. So this isn’t quite as large, but even considering that this is a first engine version, it is pretty large. I don’t know how many gameplay hours [Dragon Age will be], that’s something we decide and test later on. It’s hard to judge, because some people will play slowly, and some much more quickly. I’m sure some people will burn through the game in twenty hours, who knows? But in terms of absolute content and the amount of writing that’s gone into Dragon Age, it’s the largest game we’ve done so far. Without a doubt.

TVGB: Out of curiosity, what are some of your personal inspirations when writing a project like this?

DG: Well, if you look in terms of other creative works, there are books by George R. R. Martin like Song of Ice and Fire. Now, some have come into our forums and ask “Well, how is this like George R. R. Martin books?” I don’t try to copy them. As a source of inspiration, when something inspires you, you’re not going to copy it, you’re going to look at those elements that are sort of “Oh, wow! That’s really cool!” and take that away from it. I know there was a period a number of years ago where I was kind of “fantasied out” a little bit. I’d read The Wheel of Time and The Balgariad by David Eddings, and I enjoyed them just fine, but they kind of started the same way. They kind of are both about this young man in some remote village, you know, kind of pastoral existence and then some people swoop in, spirit him away because he’s the chosen one, and just as his village is destroyed. I mean they both start exactly the same way and they’re both very like, “Chosen One! Capital C, capital O! Ooh! You’re the only one who can fulfill the prophecy!” Good Lord, another prophecy. I mean, that has its place, and I like high fantasy, too, but after two major things like that I was kind of like “Oh God, does all fantasy have to be ‘Chosen One?’ Does it all have to be ‘Prophecy? Predestination?’”

TVGB: Questions of fate?

DG: Exactly, and those are decent questions you can ask, but does all fantasy have to revolve around that? I had a friend of mine point out the George R. R. Martin books, and at the time, I was thinking “Oh, I don’t know.” But I picked up A Game of Thrones, the first in the series, and I really enjoyed it. Low fantasy, high fantasy aside, I think his skews more toward the lower end. Magic exists but it’s more in the background, though it has its high fantasy elements as well. But the storytelling was more mature. There was this political element to the story, like here’s this kingdom in civil war. Here are flawed characters, and it’s a character driven story where the flaws or the character flaws are sort of driving forward the world events as opposed to the other way around. Take something like Tolkien, where he focuses so much more on the world and the events that drive the characters. For me, it was sort of a breath of fresh air. You had good characters, who sometimes did bad things, and you had evil characters, despicable characters that, through the course of the story, get redeemed. I thought “Wow!” Personally I hadn’t really read fantasy like that. I know that there’s probably some out there, but I hadn’t read any, and it was neat to see that fantasy didn’t have to be tired. So there’s that. Another example would be Battlestar Galactica, the new version. I just watched the finale not that long ago and was just blown away.

TVGB: Don’t spoil it, I just started the first season.

DG: [laughs] I won’t spoil it! I wouldn’t dream of it! However, I love the fact that BSG is a character drama that just happens to be science fiction. What a revelation! I think we should be rewarding BSG, giving them awards and recognizing the fact that this is legitimate, real storytelling and not just having the popular culture just sort of dismissing it because it’s science fiction. No, it’s not! This is…

TVGB: Kind of like the way people have embraced The Watchmen?

DG: Yeah, exactly. I mean, does Dragon Age reach that level? I don’t know. I guess other people will be the judge of that. I wouldn’t want to sound like I was tooting my own horn or anything. But, in terms of inspiration, the idea that you can take something that’s genre fiction and tell more human stories within that context, I think, is the only way you’re going to have true, mature storytelling. I mean, it is still epic fantasy. You are saving the world. There is no chosen one and no prophecy, at least [laughs]. Yay! A minor victory, I guess! Even in that context, if we focus on the stories and the followers, then there’s some emotional drama and that is not just about… I mean, there is a horde of evil creatures. An event called the Blight. And you are part Grey Warden who is there to stop, to defeat the dark spawn. But, if that were the entirety of the story, this would not be mature storytelling. What we’re trying to do with Dragon Age is have, I don’t know about a character drama, but a human story. A more complicated tale that’s being told in the context of an event that is occurring, but it’s not just about that. Ultimately, that is your goal, and what is happening is happening, but that’s sort of going on in the background, much like BSG. It’s more about the player story, and these political events that are going on, and how you need to ultimately face the Blight. In our minds we sort of view the Blight as a symbol of a larger struggle with morality.

I guess, in the end, the proof will be in the pudding. How’s it go? The proof will be in the eating of the pudding. [laughs] The proof isn’t actually in the pudding, is it?

TVGB: What people taste in the pudding?

DG: Yeah. In the end, once it’s released, people will be the judge of how well we’ve [made the characters matter]. But I think, again, we can sort of look at [BSG and George R. R. Martin] as inspirations, as in “This is where we we’re trying to go.”

TVGB: Now, in the spirit of GDC, and going along those lines. As a writer, do you find a rift between playing a game and telling a story?

DG: Sometimes. I mean, we’re not in this to just tell a story. I just finished writing a book that’s a tie-in for Dragon Age, and that was an interesting experience because at that point writing a book, making a movie is all about storytelling, right? The writer is the creator. In a game environment, the writer is not always the creator. It’d be nice if that were the case, but, you know, the game has to serve different mistresses. You have to have gameplay. You have to have gameplay. I can tell the best story in the world, but if it’s not a fun game, no one is going to enjoy it. I’ve played games before where you sort of get this sense that “Wow, this writer was really impressed with their own story!” [laughs] It’s not as much about my story as it is about the player’s, right? You have to keep that in mind. It’s about the game design. There are technological limitations you need to work with, there a limitations as in you don’t necessarily know who the protagonist is. We have types of protagonists. We have the origin stories. Those are used to tell a story. We know that they’re a Grey Warden. That’s another hook, but we don’t know, necessarily, what the player’s motivations are or where they stand on morality. We need those ciphers of the followers and the world and the reactivity to tell the story, which is something that is very different when it comes to a book or a movie where you do have a set protagonist. So it presents challenges. I think the challenge in terms of being a game developer is, and I think that it’s something being recognized, is the need to create a narrative in tandem with those other disciplines. And that’s something that, slowly, as time goes on, I think the industry is getting better and better at. Well, hopefully.

TVGB: So is your craft of writing, for a game, a kind of a skeleton or springboard in which different personalities or backgrounds of the player can put themselves?

DG: Yeah, I think what we’re trying to keep in mind in the writing is not to assume things about the player. As soon as you start assuming the player is “this,” we’re forcing them into one particular mold. And we only have so many molds available, right?