Be Careful What You Say: Conversation in the ‘Dragon Age’ Series

Just like any game, conversation can be a pleasure, but you need to consider a few basic rules, boundaries, and the like in order to effectively achieve goals — for one, not alienating the other “players”.

Which is one of the things that I like about the Dragon Age series, its ability to integrate having a conversation into the gaming experience itself. While Bioware’s other series, like Mass Effect, also create a game-like quality to conversation itself, that other series tends to isolate conversation, favoring developing relationships with characters on a one-on-one basis.

Doing so makes the “game” a fair amount easier. Since most of the relationships in Mass Effect are nurtured between missions by visiting crew members by yourself, you don’t have to be all that careful about what you say to people. As long as you know what they want to hear, you can foster relationships of any sort, shifting your own “attitudes” to suit the expectations of who you are speaking to at any given moment. Know this guy is a real sweetheart? Be one yourself. The laconic, bad ass that you were grunting with down the hall a few minutes earlier will never know that you have a fondness for rainbows and unicorns.

The original Dragon Age was a bit of a revelation for me (indeed, I never played much of the first game beyond “playing” in the dialogue screens, having abandoned the game after only a few hours with nary a battle fought but a lot of dialogue trees bravely hewn through) as far as conversation itself went. The idea that you could absolutely alienate a member of your own party because of what you said to another member resulted in playing careful games with organizing discussion itself.

Indeed, Dragon Age puts the “play” in player. Want to seduce a member of your party? Better not do so while another potential paramour might overhear. Future relationships can be made rocky in the game whether you are discussing love or money or politics, depending on who is listening in and how they feel about your pronouncements about such topics.

This sense of being careful about what you say leads to very different decision making than in Mass Effect about what you should say at any given moment and who you hang out with generally. In Mass Effect where dialogue options largely reflect your own moral standing and not so much your relations with your crew, “gaming” the system merely becomes a matter of whether you want to appear to the world as a “Paragon” or “Renegade”. However, crew members that might have their own feelings about whether or not one should follow the rules or violate them are pretty willing to put up with anything you say in front of them on missions. It is only in private that (arbitrarily enough) they tend to shape their own opinions about whether they like or dislike you.

Since Dragon Age focuses less on some sort of essential ethical standard that its protagonist is supposed to represent, the player is largely allowed to rather cynically “play the game”, organizing parties of adventurers, not merely around who is the most effective combatant or who a player tends to like as characters, but, instead, on who will or won’t put up with whatever you are doing at the moment and what you say about it.

This leads to a greater desire on my own part to switch up party members in the Dragon Age series than in Mass Effect. In Mass Effect, I tend to find a few characters that I like rather well and have developed as combatants in a particular way and then stick with them largely through the whole of the game (barring missions that require the attendance of a specific character). This is easy to do, since I am well aware that I only really influence characters attitudes between missions.

When playing Dragon Age 2, I am certainly still concerned with combat strategy and the characters that I just prefer more. However, potential conversation has a much greater (and maybe the greatest) impact on party formation. Running missions in Lowtown or Darktown? I’m probably bringing along both Isabela and Varric. Not so much because I love either character (or that having two rogues along on a mission is really that great a combat strategy) but because I realize that both characters are going to be a lot less put off when I say things that may be less than admirable as I deal with the denizens of those parts of Kirkwall. Likewise, I frequently change up my roster when running missions on behalf of the Templars or on behalf of mages because the kinds of verbal commitments that I will need to make will definitely be more acceptable to some party members than others as I make deals, decide on courses of action, and either defend or betray those that I encounter.

Such initial strategizing about social situations gives way to the tactical circumstances of conversation itself. Unlike in Mass Effect, in which I tend to merely favor conversation options if I am playing as a Paragon or Renegade (making “my choices” completely plain, straightforward, and really not choices at all), once I am enmeshed in dialogue in a Dragon Age game, I am pausing more often to consider who is behind me listening in. I don’t always choose what I really want to say or think is necessarily the right way for my character to speak. Instead, I think about what is going to impress or disappoint or put put off or attract others that surround me. Sometimes I say something for the sake of one member of the party, knowing another will be disgruntled by my attitude, sometimes I make an effort to please everyone, sometimes I don’t care what anyone thinks. These moments are like being conscious of real conversations, knowing that both what you say and how you say it shapes others’ attitudes about you. And frankly, we don’t always say what we want to, more often than not, we consider what works best for those around us, as those things will shape our social relationships more so in the long term.

This leads to a rather cynical attitude about the world of Dragon Age. Unlike other heroes that I have played, the hero of Kirkwall is one who is more often a people pleaser, a politician rather than a noble paragon and idealist. One moment in a mission during Act 1 was a notable exception to this rule.

In that mission, Hawke has been charged with tracking down a fugitive in the lair of some giant spiders. His contact wants the fugitive, a man charged with the kidnapping (and probable assault) of elven children, brought in alive. When I reached the fugitive, the man had excuses aplenty for me, justifying the kidnappings — demons made him do it, strangely a probable enough explanation in a high fantasy setting like Dragon Age. I was a little concerned because I had brought along a few party members that just might not be cool with me executing this man that I was convinced was a pedophile. In particular, it seemed to me that the rather kind hearted and innocent Merill may have been swayed by the fugitive’s words. But I just didn’t care, the man had to go.

That ultimately my choice to voice my desire to have the man executed actually improved my relationship with Merill (probably — from a “programming” perspective — due to her own Elven heritage) was satisfying, but I would have played this scenario the same way regardless of whether Merill would have formed a negative attitude towards me as a result of what I said. The “game” of fostering a relationship with her just didn’t matter when it came down to what I saw as a fundamental issue of justice needing to be served.

Strangely, while this moment was an outlier as an experience for me in the game, since most of what I say in Dragon Age is calculated to have the greatest positive effect on the people around me at any given moment, it made this moment seem more significant than countless other “moral decisions” that I consistently follow when playing as a Paragon in Mass Effect. The knowledge that most conversation is merely a game and many choices made are largely trivial as a result made the one time that I didn’t care about not “playing well” seem more significant and meaningful, making those particular words that were this once devoid of all strategy seem all the more important a pronouncement.