So finally, Dragon Age: Origins offers an open ended, branching narrative without a karma system. This is something that gamers have long asked for from BioWare, a company known for making games that focus on choice and consequence. We know our actions have consequences because we see those consequences play out in the plot and character development. This combination of a branching narrative and plot related consequence is so effective at making our decisions feel significant that at times it seems like every little choice that we make will have a dire impact on the world. But what’s most remarkable about Dragon Age is how it can create this feeling of importance in us, and then take it all away when we actually get to see the long term effects of our actions.
There’s no explicit morality attached to our choices, and the story reinforces this ambiguity by putting us in situations that seemingly have no easy solution. A child is possessed by a demon. Do we kill the child or sacrifice his mother to kill the demon? This moral ambiguity makes any consequence more meaningful to the player since we’re not doing what the game thinks is best, but what we think is best. We’re not influenced by outside forces when making a decision, it seems.
But there are outside forces influencing us. There’s still a karma system of sorts in the game but one that is hidden by character development. Characters in your party have their own opinions on things and are not shy about telling you what they think. Some characters are more altruistic than others and encourage you to help people when given the opportunity. If you do, their affection for you will grow, but then the less altruistic members of your party will respect you less. “Good” acts make the “good” characters like you, “bad” acts make the “bad” characters like you. The karma system in Dragon Age is implemented as a form of social interaction, more specifically as a form of party politics.
The more that a character likes us, trusts us, the more we’ll learn about his or her past. Each choice rewards us with character development instead of arbitrary karma points, so even though we’re still influenced by this system, it feels natural since we’re being influenced by characters instead of a game mechanic. And we’re rewarded equally whether we act good or bad, the only difference being what party member opens up to us. Because of this context, we’re free to ignore the typical good/bad dichotomy that games like this usually set before us. If we don’t like a party member we can purposefully do the opposite of what they like just to make them angry. Notions of right and wrong are replaced with more personal concerns. Do I want Morrigan (the bad girl) to approve of me, or Leliana (the good girl), or Zevran (the bad boy), or Alistair (the good boy)?
All this politicking makes us feel important. Whether we’re choosing to kill a little boy or kiss the bad witch, the game teaches us that every choice has a consequence. Some choices will impact the world, some a single person; some consequences will work in our favor, some against us, but every little choice that we make matters.
After making any choice, we get to watch it play out it in three ways. First, we hear the instant reaction from our party members. Second, we watch as the plot slowly reveals the long-term effects. Third, once we beat the game, there’s a comprehensive epilogue that describes the far-reaching consequences of every major (and even some minor) decision that we made. And this epilogue quickly undermines our feelings of importance with the harsh reality of the status quo.
Throughout the game, we’re trying to unite disparate forces against the evil darkspawn. Elves were once enslaved by humans, so there are obvious trust issues there, dwarves are natural isolationists, mages are in danger of being wiped out and the main antagonist is trying to drum up a civil war. It’s our goal to unite these groups against the greater evil, and if you beat the game, then you’ve obviously succeeded in that goal. But the epilogue shows us how such bonds can never last. Old animosities return, what seemed like a good decision at the time is used as an excuse to sever ties, and our attempt to unite the land is eventually undone by the same social stigmas we fought so hard against. It’s not all bad however, some sub-plots have a happy ending, but overall, we’re left with a feeling of bittersweet success. Sure, we brought the land together for a while, but in the end, nothing has really changed. We’re not as powerful or important as we were made to think.
This emphasis on a bittersweet ending sets Dragon Age apart from the many other “choice” games. While in the midst of our adventure we feel like a hero, but afterwards, we see how unimportant we are in the greater historical picture. But rather than make the player angry, rather than make us think that the entire game was a waste of time, our successes still retain their importance because we were still able to defeat the darkspawn. No matter what happens after that, we accomplished our goal. So we’re not angry when reading the epilogue, just saddened. It’s a fitting end to a game that often seemed to give us no good option.