Ever since playing Dragon Age 2 and having finished the Mass Effect trilogy more times than I can recall, I have been plagued by one question: why does the Dragon Age series change the playable protagonist with each instalment? Post-Trespasser, this rhetorical question was followed by: I hope they don’t continue this pattern in Dragon Age 4…
Why? Because Bioware focusses on player-character connection through participation in in-game relationships, and where Mass Effect keep these in-tact through one player character for all, Dragon Age creates narrative discord by forcing the player to assume a new role in each instalment. To continue in this way, after the events of Inquisition’s Trespasser expansion, I feel will shatter any emotional impact from this instalment’s greater whole, and could go on to fracture any future narrative’s structural experience as well.
[Though we know nothing yet of the series’ future, save for a rumoured plan for a fourth and fifth instalment, I am going to assume that the story of ‘DA4’ will carry over in this post, not just because the series does this historically but because Trespasser clearly, and seemingly deliberately, set the groundwork for several potential conflicts including but not limited to: Solas.]
Bioware is an interesting studio. They continue to create experiences in which the prime object, besides to have fun, is to make role-playing games feel more organic, nuanced, and much more like real interaction. In short Bioware encourages player connection in its own unique way.
You needn’t look any further than the original Mass Effect trilogy to see just how effectively Bioware can and does this.
Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3 all centre around the player created hero called Shepard, from which the player will form bonds and relationships with its fictional cast in an expansive universe. Through Shepard we get to know supporting characters like Liara, Tali and Garrus who some consider to be the real ‘stars of the show’.
Players are able to spend three games with the aforementioned characters – that’s roughly 90+ hours, if you aren’t going the completionist route. This time is spent travelling with, learning from/about, and helping said cast of characters, all whilst protecting the galaxy from an assortment of foes and problems. Even smaller NPCs such as Aria T’loak, Conrad Verner, Ambassador Udina or Emily Wong are considered ‘part of the family’ by fans because you often have to deal with them, too, throughout the series at large (though to a much lesser extent).
By contrast, sudden appearances such as that of Diana Allers, Vega, Javik and Samantha Trainor are generally met with lukewarm receptions (check out the Diana Allers BeGone Nexusmod if you really don’t want to contend with her at all… just doing my bit for humanity).
These characters aren’t badly written or even uninteresting. Players simply don’t know or trust them in quite the same way as say Joker or Garrus, which is unsurprising when you consider that these additions to the crew are first introduced in the third and final instalment in the series – that’s a mere 15-20 hours spent with the likes of Allers and Vega, if that. Kaiden and Ashley as well, former crew members from the first game, are largely absent in Mass Effect 2, which resulted a large number of new romances, begun simply because of the betrayal.
This direct impact of the narrative on player-choice makes a lot of sense: the rest of your crew mates return to the ‘enemy’ NR2 without question (barring Wrex and Liara who have perfectly legitimate reasons to stay on Tuchanka and Omega, respectively). Garrus, Joker and Tali join the ranks of the enemy out of trust and respect for you/your Shepard. Alenko and Williams’ refusal on the other hand speaks volumes. Similarly, romanceable squad mates in Mass Effect 2 that later abandon you in Mass Effect 3 are just as reviled by players… Jacob, I am looking at you.
All that said Bioware doesn’t simply develop player connection in Mass Effect through direct participation in interaction but does so over time, across many games, seamlessly connecting planes of the structural (rule-based), fictional and play. They are able to do all of this, however, through the playable character commander Shepard.
This leads me to Bioware’s other popular franchise and the main subject of this post: Dragon Age.
Each new Dragon Age game sees a different hero or heroine at the centre of its story; though the world and lore remain steadfast, players instead hop from hero to hero through Thedas’ long timeline (three games in total).
This can actually benefit a story of such large scope seeing as players are not limited to any one place, time period, or conflict. But where the science-fiction trilogy can credit a consistent base structure within its immediate cast for its cohesion across planes, the series of fantasy epics has a harder time maintaining harmony (barring the history or ‘lore’).
For example, much like Tali, Wrex et al., when Varric, Cassandra, Leliana and Cullen return in Dragon Age: Inquisition these characters bring depth and texture to the world and the player’s personal history with the games. Unlike Mass Effect, however, when you meet the likes of Cassandra or Leliana again you are doing so as a stranger.
This is one of the ways in which this series works against Bioware’s core focus on player-character connection. Since participation in in-game relationships directly conflicts with the player’s own internal narrative consistency, powered by the game’s mediated space, there is a fissure across said space as well as play and others.
The same is true for new characters.
Take Solas, the main subject of this post whose true identity is one of the most significant and far-reaching twists in Inquisition.
Introduced for the first time in the third game, he is a member of your party until Corypheus has been defeated, where he is later revealed to be the ‘Dread Wolf’ of elven legend and may in effect have been the main antagonist all along.
In a sense this character reveal/arc is contained to one title and so requires no prior link (emotional or other) from the player, save for their knowledge of the fictional world and its history: the oppression of the elves, mages etc. His story then is consistent across all spaces.
However, and as I said at the beginning of this post, it could pose a problem going forward.
Should Solas be the primary antagonist of Dragon Age 4 and a new playable character be ‘assumed’ as is typical in the Dragon Age series, Solas and his misdeeds/betrayals/friendships too, would need to be re-introduced within the fictional space, either directly or indirectly. The game would have to make up for lost time.
Time of course isn’t solely responsible for the fundamental discord a new-hero-new-story element poses across games and planes. The severing of player-connection in the narrative and mechanically is far worse; fundamentally it contradicts what Bioware generally aims to do.
‘We want the player to care about what happens. That’s impossible without conveying, and transferring, a strong emotional experience’.
– Mac Walters on the importance of emotion in Bioware games.
Changing up the player character’s role within events, with each new game, snatches players straight out of previously established ’emotional’ relationships, which affects their experience overall because play hinges on direct participation in those same relationships.
Bonds are broken, forgotten and rebuilt over the course of one game or central narrative arc – albeit one that can take up to 100 hours to complete.
In Inquisition I experienced this dissonance myself with characters from Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2.
When I saw Alistair and Hawke again obviously I couldn’t speak to them with familiarity through dialogue options, though I wanted to. Instead I could only act as though I knew next to nothing about these characters. So, as a player of the game, I was boxed into a corner by the system. The way to emotional connection had been barred. Or perhaps I should say that the direct connection had been severed.
No clearer was this disharmony more apparent for me than in the Grey Warden quest, Here Lies the Abyss. It was then that my loyalties were severely tested: do you exile the Wardens, in accordance with your new allies opinions? Or do you side with your old allies and preserve the organisation of which you were once an integral part to save Thedas from the Darkspawn? The resulting moral choice didn’t present an emotional quandary but a stalemate. How could I make a choice at all when I had invested in both parties, especially when said choice is a ‘black or white’, ‘yes or no’, Wardens or not?
You could argue that some party members in Inquisition fall on different sides of the argument (not all agree or disagree) however the point still stands as your affinity rating with certain characters will be either positively or negatively affected by choices such as this, oftentimes greatly. If you want to keep your allies happy -for reasons that may bear fruit later, mind you- choose wisely.
For a new player I suppose the choice wouldn’t be all that difficult. That said, the mightiest argument for the creation of a new playable character is that it allows newcomers to jump in at anytime.
Old characters can be presented efficiently and succinctly to the unfamiliar; story arcs and choice-related world-building can be explained away or imported via a survey-like ‘Tapestry’. This isn’t necessarily a bad idea!
I do wonder though if catering to newcomers and longtime players isn’t a conflict of interests, especially in a series that uniquely prioritizes player connection and does so through both the transference of cyclical and continuous arcs of narrative through rule-based play and the fictional space.
So when I ask: why does the Dragon Age series change the playable protagonist with each instalment? Should I also be questioning whether or not this might conflict with the very systems that the story is built upon? In which case, should one be sacrificed for the other?
Mass Effect managed to toe the line by contrast – newcomer or grizzled veteran, game one or two, Shepard anchored the story in a standalone sense and as a part of the larger whole. The lore of Dragon Age acts as its anchor but that only goes so far in threading together other elements.
It should be fairly obvious by now that I am a rabid fan of Mass Effect. I have made countless videos on my channel analysing characters, I have written fan fiction in my downtime, but despite all that I actually played Mass Effect 2 first.
After hearing only good things, I decided to give the series a go but jumped in at the middle. It was a satisfactory experience, good enough that I decided to buy the first game; after I finished that, I didn’t hesitate in importing my character into the second game for another run-through and again in my third. By Mass Effect 3 I had built a unique character and a history around that character.
I have since played the games more times that I can count, created many different Shepards, tried (and failed miserably) to romance different crew mates, and made hundreds of different choices. I adore the series. It is important to note however that even though I love the series more having played all of them. Yes, the games still function as a self-contained experiences but taken as a trilogy they offer much more impact, across planes.
So why is it that they don’t apply the same structure to Dragon Age? In light of the Trespasser dlc I wonder if the studio should re-think their strategy. Especially considering that the emphasis on in-game relationships is present in DA, too, the focus the same across both franchises.
Fighting Solas or reuniting with others (Dorian Pavus is a great example here considering Tevinter plays a crucial role within the world of Thedas yet remains largely unexplored in-game) wouldn’t have the same effect without the Inquisitor’s direct participation, structurally and in relation to the narrative. Just as fighting the reapers on Earth as commander Shepard meant more when aided by long-standing friends and allies with whom the player shared (literally) years of history.
To see the Inquisitor relegated to a cameo, a passing mention or codex entry when his or her impact is so wide-reaching within the ‘verse’, to meet old companions again sans interpersonal relationships, would be a wasted opportunity. Thus presenting not just familiar narrative discord but potentially dampening perhaps one of the most intriguing storylines in a Bioware game since Saren/Sovereign.
Without the Inquisitor to serve as an anchor for the player and the game, emotional player-connection would be severed, narrative discord would not only affect the story but limit player choice as well, among other things. All this, in my view, contradicts the studio’s long-running aim: to create emotionally engaging experiences through connection and transference.