I’ve put over 100 hours into playing Dragon Age: Origins, having fought, talked, and quested my way through two complete games. Its combat is a little wonky, its animations very stiff. It doesn’t look gorgeous and any level set in the blurry, magical dimension of The Fade gives me a headache. But I keep coming back. Part of me wants to start a third game. I’ve become seemingly addicted to all the choices that it offers and the serious consequences that this game attaches to them.
A number of games highlight moral choice systems, including the recent superhero zap-em-up, InFamous, and Bioware’s own console RPG classic, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Both of these games suffer from offering simplistic choices, though. With their binary sense of good and evil, light and dark, the only effective way to play the game is to choose one side and stick with it. The games reward going as far in one direction as you can and really the “moral choice” boils down to just one more system for creating your character, like picking “fighter” or “wizard.” Other games, like Fallout 3 and Fable 2, take a slightly more nuanced approach and let you maintain an overall reputation in the game world of good, evil, or neutral. There are trade-offs to each stance, and it’s possible to swing back and forth between them over the course of the game without effecting your character’s abilities in any permanent way. Even here, though, your reputation is global and its consequences are felt in mostly superficial ways, divorced from the central story.
The challenge of giving players a “moral choice” along such broad lines is that the story is still told within the context of a game, and you still have to fight the bad guy at the end. Thus, the villain has to be abhorrent to good and evil players alike. Games with binary morals often have two endings, one for good guys and one for bad, and that’s a perfectly workable solution to such a problem. Where I think Dragon Age: Origins succeeds better than most is that they’ve largely removed any “macro-level morality” from their game. There’s no universal goodness rating, and in many cases, there is no obviously right and wrong answer. Throughout the game the player gets to make moral choices based not on some system but rather guided by their own moral compass or that of the character they’ve created.
Dragon Age: Origins still has the big, bad enemy that anyone, playing either as good or evil, will want to fight. The demonic Blight, led by an arch-demon, doesn’t even have a voice or character. Fighting it is like doing battle with a hurricane, a natural disaster that will tear apart good-hearted Arl Eamon and traitorous Loghain without distinguishing between the two. The game gives you no options about who you’re going to fight at the end, but it gives you plenty of choices along the way that will determine who is standing beside you at the final hour. That more than anything is Dragon Age: Origin‘s triumph.
Faced with a choice between backing one of two rival claimants to the Dwarven throne, you get to hear both sides. They each have solid reasons for their claim (although if you’re playing a Dwarf, you probably already have some thoughts on the matter) and each sees the world and their place in it in different terms. The choice of one or the other is only obvious if you’re coming to the decision with your own strong set of values. Is it about who will help in the battle against the Blight most or who has the more legitimate claim? Is integrating the dwarves with the rest of the world more important or keeping them isolated from the world?
The answers depend entirely on who you’re asking, which is to say, how you’re playing your character. My only complaint is that I wish that there were more decisions like this one in the game. For example, unless your character has both a high Persuade level and a genocidal streak, there’s not much of a real choice in the Elf storyline. However, in general, Dragon Age: Origins manages to make the payoffs for your choice great, both in story terms and at the finale, when the composition of your army depends on the choices that you have made.
There are systematized moral axes in Dragon Age: Origins as well, although never a single one for the whole world. Each individual party member has an attitude towards you that adjusts based on your actions in the game, what you say when you talk to them and what gifts you have give them. Earning favor with them gives them skill and ability bonuses, unlocks special quests, and can instigate romances. Bioware has used similar systems in previous games, like Mass Effect, but it has provided more layers here than ever before. I just wish the way that this is implemented wasn’t an abstracted, score-based system. I’d have preferred it if specific actions had specific consequences, as with the moral choices in the big quests. Here you can game the system with gifts, which isn’t great, although it’s fun to find that perfect present for someone.
One side-effect of this relationship system is that it can effect the choice of who you bring along in your party at any one time. Want to do something morally questionable but necessary? Bring Morrigan along. However, if your relationship with her is important to you, then she should stay in camp when it comes time for kitten-saving side quests that she’s so disdainful of. Making me think about that kind of thing as a player (considering how other characters might feel about my own choices) is a kind of triumph in my book.
Dragon Age: Origins is a game full of minor faults, but I willingly, even joyfully overlook a lot of little things for a game that gets big things right. This is my favorite application of a morality system in any game that I’ve played, largely because I felt that more than ever before I could make those decisions based upon what I thought was right and wrong for my characters rather than what I thought would best “game” the system. Of course with a little freedom like that, I always want more, and Dragon Age constricts your choices more than I would like from time to time. Still, I hope that this game’s success marks a move away from binary moral standing systems in other games as well.
That would be my choice anyway. Others might choose differently.