Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.
This week we’ll be becoming closely acquainted with the history of Dragon Age. Cover art is from MobyGames unless otherwise indicated. Please consider supporting that website, as its staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. For more on the history of BioWare, please see Franchise Festival #9: Mass Effect.
Note that there will be some spoilers throughout this article, as it’s impossible to discuss such a narrative-heavy franchise without identifying some key moments in its ongoing plot.
Canada’s BioWare became the standard-bearer for complex, narrative-heavy computer role-playing games (RPGs) with Baldur’s Gate in 1998. It built upon this foundation with other titles set in Dungeons and Dragons‘ Forgotten Realms – Baldur’s Gate 2 (2000) and Neverwinter Nights (2002) were major critical and commercial successes – before branching out into the Star Wars universe with Knights of the Old Republic in 2003. Lest the license-holders for these properties become an albatross around the studio’s neck, BioWare began developing original titles in the early 2000s.
Dragon Age: Origins (2009)
Dragon Age: Origins began pre-production under the care of writer Dave Haider. An initial build that used the Neverwinter Nights engine was shown off at E3 2004, but was abandoned by late 2004 in favor of an original game engine designed by BioWare’s Technical Architecture Group when that division was merged with the Dragon Age team; this resulted in the slashing of planned multiplayer and dungeon master elements. Unfortunately, production soon threatened to stall out as the increasingly sprawling team lost sight of its original goals.
Having already served as co-writer on Jade Empire (2005) and Mass Effect (2007) after joining the studio in December 2002, Mike Laidlaw was made lead designer on the project around 2005 in an effort to streamline development. Director Dan Trudge’s announcement that the game would be a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate likewise provided some much-needed momentum for the now-180 person team. Roughly six years after development began, Dragon Age: Origins launched on the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 platforms in November 2009.
Its dense narrative is as inspired by A Song of Ice and Fire as The Lord of the Rings. The player experiences one of six origin stories (Dalish Elf, City Elf, Dwarf Commoner, Dwarf Noble, Human Mage, or Human Noble) in Ferelden, one country among many in the world of Thedas. Thedas’ elves live either in ghettos or the wild while mages are corralled in a central academy for observation by the Chantry – Thedas’ most powerful religious order – in an effort to prevent them from being possessed by the creatures that inhabit the Fade, a parallel dimension accessed when magic is performed. This tenuous arrangement is soon threatened by the Darkspawn, a race of demons that has recently begun to overrun Ferelden’s countryside after arising from the subterranean Dark Roads.
Shortly after the player character is drafted into the Grey Wardens, Thedas’ heavily-diminished warrior guild, Ferelden’s King Cailan is betrayed and killed by Darkspawn when his lieutenant abandons him during battle. The player is tasked with uniting the people of Ferelden, dethroning the treacherous Loghain, and defeating the Darkspawn Archdemon. They are aided in this task by a cast of recruitable allies, including a Mabari warhound, sorceress Morrigan, Chantry sister Leliana, Dwarf warrior Oghren, sarcastic Grey Warden Alistair, mage Wynne, Elf assassin Zevran, and stoic Qunari Sten; the Qunari are a nomadic Viking-inspired race who are peripheral in this game but play an outsized role in later series entries.
Gameplay is influenced by Baldur’s Gate, though a default close third-person perspective when playing on home console can obscure it from immediate notice. The player controls only one character at a time while up to three party members are directed by customizable AI scripts during real-time combat. At any time, the player can pause to issue specific orders or switch control to another party member. Every character has access to class-based skills that can be assigned to hotkeys bound either to keys or controller buttons and use up stamina when executed. New skills can be selected from a skill tree when characters level up, which occurs once the party has acquired enough experience points from battle or completing quests.
Much of the player character’s remaining time is spent engaging in conversations either with non-player characters (NPC) throughout Ferelden or with party members at a camp accessible from the world map screen. Conversations require the player to select dialogue options rather than general response mood, in contrast to Mass Effect, which precludes a voiced protagonist but offers a greater abundance of choices. Major inflection points in the story likewise allow the player to make consequential decisions that alter Ferelden’s balance of power. Allies can become close friends, fall in love with the player character, or even abandon the party depending on the protagonist’s choices.
Dragon Age‘s sales fell short of Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, but were respectable enough to merit a handful of downloadable content (DLC) packages and a large expansion in 2010. Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening sees the player character taking control of a besieged Grey Warden fortress called Vigil’s Keep, recruiting five new characters – including controversial Dragon Age II character Anders – and defending the Ferelden city of Amaranthine from a Darkspawn assault; along the way, the protagonist encounters a non-aggressive Darkspawn called The Architect and eventually chooses to side with or against this mysterious figure.
Dragon Age II (2011)
According to interviews published in Jason Schreier’s Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made (2017), the second Dragon Age began pre-production shortly after Origins shipped and would focus on an Inquisition being conducted to root out Chantry opposition in the wake of the Darkspawn invasion. Director Mark Durrah and lead designer Mike Laidlaw, however, had their plans altered when BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic (2011) was delayed out of its launch window. Publisher Electronic Arts (EA) demanded that BioWare fill the gap with Dragon Age II. Darrah lobbied for the name to be changed to Dragon Age: Exodus, but EA executives insisted that it retain a title that conveyed its status as a direct sequel to Origins.
With its development period shortened to just over a year, Dragon Age II‘s scale was dramatically slimmed down. The sprawling Inquisition plot was dropped in favor of a politically-charged narrative centered on a single location. Art director Matt Goldman, meanwhile, referenced Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s oil painting The Triumph of Death (1562) and Akira Kurosawa’s film Throne of Blood (1957) as he sought to distinguish the series’ visual style from competitors’ fantasy worlds; Darkspawn were rendered animalistic, landscapes took on more color, and the Qunari gained horns. Dragon Age II launched worldwide for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC in March 2011.
The story is set entirely in and around the city of Kirkwall, a port within Thedas’ independent Free Marches region. Players control either a male or female refugee named Hawke as they flee Ferelden during Origins‘ Darkspawn invasion and navigate Kirkwall’s political turmoil over the course of the following decade. The most significant issues, which Hawke can confront in very different ways depending on the player’s choices, involve a detachment of Qunari zealots trapped in the city and the ongoing conflict between apostate mages and the Chantry. Choices made in each of the game’s three chapters determine the world state in subsequent chapters and the ending.
A new camera and snappier combat reveal Dragon Age II‘s console-first design philosophy. Battles can still be paused so the player can issue direct commands, but Hawke’s allies execute assigned behavioral roles more reliably than the Grey Warden’s party. Conversations have adopted the disposition system from Mass Effect, which reduces player control but offers the addition of voiced dialogue, while Hawke’s choices now lead to party members regarding them as either a friend or rival rather than impacting an overall approval score. Party members who are pushed too far away will either leave the party or try to kill Hawke at major inflection points in the story.
Dragon Age II was received very poorly at the time of its release, with critics and fans expressing disappointment at the limited scale and heavily reused art assets. A planned expansion called The Exalted March was subsequently cancelled as its developers moved on to a full sequel. Even so, its unique look at a single city’s evolution over time has made it something of a cult classic among Western RPG fans in recent years.
Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014)
Dragon Age: Inquisition began pre-production in mid-2011 by repurposing Dragon Age II‘s abandoned original concept, but active development only got underway in 2012 once BioWare determined that it would use a game engine designed by fellow EA-owned studio DICE rather than the aging technology that had powered Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II. Unfortunately, the Frostbite 3 engine had been built for first-person shooters (FPSs) like Battlefield 4 (2013) rather than RPGs; it lacked the ability to display the player character from a third-person perspective at the time that it was adopted by BioWare. Building features into Frostbite, especially given the eight-hour time difference between Edmonton-based BioWare and Stockholm-based DICE, proved daunting enough to delay the project out of its 2013 release window.
The game hit further snags when playtesters reported that its plot was incoherent and battles were boring during sessions in December 2013. Lead encounter designer Daniel Kading stepped in to resolve these issues, beginning a rigorous series of weekly meetings in which the entire Dragon Age: Inquisition team playtested combat and tweaked any element that felt less than perfect. Early 2014 also saw BioWare refining the game to ensure that it would run well on both seventh-generation and eighth-generation home consoles.
Three years into development, however, Dragon Age: Inquisition was still in a shoddy state; active programming for a full party of four characters wasn’t even implemented eight months out from the game’s planned Fall 2014 publication. To avoid shipping an incomplete game, BioWare implemented a brutal crunch schedule in which many members of the 200+ person team were encouraged to turn in 12-14 hour days. The studio’s abuse of its employees and contractors had the intended result – Dragon Age: Inquisition was published by EA for the Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PC in November 2014.
Players begin the game by customizing the race and class – either rogue, warrior, or mage – of a new protagonist known as the Herald of Andraste. The Herald is immediately plunged into open war between a destabilized Chantry and a mage rebellion after the Chantry’s leader is assassinated in a terrorist attack at the end of Dragon Age II. That attack has also led to the Breach, a cataclysmic rending of the veil between Thedas and the Fade, resulting in the spread of otherworldly demons across the region. The Herald is tasked with ending the war, closing dimensional rifts across Thedas, and defeating a sinister Darkspawn mage named Corypheus through their leadership of the eponymous Inquisition.
For the first time, the series’ third title lets players build and import a unique world state into the game using a dedicated website. This was a technical concession to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions not allowing the player to directly import their Dragon Age II save file from previous-generation hardware. Party members also connect Dragon Age: Inquisition to its predecessors, as the Herald and their new allies – including elvish mage Solas, human inquisitor Cassandra, and Qunari chieftain Iron Bull – are joined by Origins’ bard Leliana and Dragon Age II‘s acerbic rogue Varric. Many of these characters can enter into a romantic relationship with the Herald if the player behaves towards them in an appealing way.
Gameplay offers more tactical considerations than had been present in the action-heavy Dragon Age II, including an overhead camera designed to make crowded battlefields more easily read. A war table at Skyhold, the Inquisition’s home base, also offers the player myriad opportunities to influence major events by directing their team of advisors to resolve conflicts and support factions around Thedas. When quests require direct action, of course, the Herald and a team of three additional party members can explore vast open areas in person.
Dragon Age: Inquisition was a critical and commercial blockbuster, shattering sales records held by earlier series entries. A dungeon-crawling online multiplayer mode and an anticlimactic ending were the weakest parts of the experience, though the Trespasser DLC package more or less resolved the latter issue when it launched in September 2015. This was later bundled alongside all other DLC in a Game of the Year Edition.
Despite its humble origins as a free Flash-based browser game developed by San Francisco’s EA2D, Dragon Age: Journeys (2009) was an impressively robust distillation of the core Dragon Age experience. Players would customize an avatar’s race and job class before setting out on an adventure through the Deep Roads to the Dwarven Capital of Orzammar. Party members – including mage/healer Ardum, rogue/bard Ryanth, and warrior/champion Martine – could be recruited to the player character’s cause and join them in battle against the Darkspawn.
Gameplay was expressed primarily through side-view turn-based tactical combat scenes in the style of Heroes of Might and Magic. Between these encounters, players could select dialogue options that altered the course of the story. Unfortunately, plans for a second and third chapter were abandoned before the plot was complete. The game is now only accessible through emulation options like BlueMaxima’s Flashpoint preservation project.
EA2D was next assigned to develop Dragon Age Legends (2011), another Flash-based spinoff, as a tie-in to Dragon Age II. Gameplay was similar to their previous effort, though combat no longer involved moving fighters and a world map now depicted each encounter or conversation as a node that the player expends energy points to activate; energy points replenished over time or could be bought using real-world currency. A home fortress called Kaiten Castle, meanwhile, offered the opportunity to craft items and manage a population of serfs. The game’s integration with Facebook also allowed players to recruit their friends’ avatars to fight alongside them.
Dragon Age Legends: Remix 01, an iteration of the game with rhythm-based real-time combat inspired by EA2D developer Ethan Levy’s love of electronic dance music, was produced in collaboration with Evan “PixelAnte” Miller and published through the IGN website in May 2011. Sadly, support for Dragon Age Legends and Remix 01 was discontinued by EA in June 2012. In a rare twist for the oft-ephemeral Flash format, however, a downloadable version of the original game that stripped out microtransactions was made available when the online versions were shut down. At the time of writing, this standalone edition remains accessible through Archive.org.
Dragon Age‘s next spinoff was developed by Sacramento’s EA Capital Games and published for Android and iOS devices in December 2013 following a soft launch in Singapore, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, and Russia during the preceding October. In contrast with Journeys and Legends, Heroes of Dragon Age was a fully polygonal 3D title that offered 16 counterfactual retellings of core series events rather than its own unique story. Gameplay saw the player assembling a squad using a randomized microtransaction-based gacha system and throwing them into battle, where the AI would take over in the manner of Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber (1999/2000) or Auto Chess (2019). Competitive multiplayer and regular content updates have kept the game active for nearly a decade since its original release.
The series’ latest spinoff was a text-based browser game developed by Failbetter Games as an interquel designed to bridge the gap between the events of Dragon Age II and Dragon Age: Inquisition. In Dragon Age: The Last Court, players controlled a marquis guiding the Orlesian region of Serault through seven difficult days shortly before the Kirkwall Chantry explosion. The course of the story would change based on the player’s choices and the resources that they managed to accumulate during the seven real-world days it took to play the game. Since support was discontinued by EA in December 2020, the game can only be experienced by accessing preserved copies of its individual events maintained by the Dragon Age fan community.
Dragon Age has become one of EA’s most popular properties in spite of ongoing production issues. Much of that is down to its rich lore, which was inspired by Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire but eventually distinguished itself from its influences. Its branching narratives and well-written characters have likewise attracted fans who enjoy having more direct control over the story’s development than many contemporary RPGs. Dragon Age 4 is poised to strengthen this evolving identity still further when it launches for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC in the 2020s.
What do you think about Dragon Age? What’s your favorite series entry and why? How about your favorite companion character? What base have you gotten to with your in-game partner? Let’s discuss in the comments below.
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As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:
- #118: Time Crisis – February 25
- #119: Kentucky Route Zero – March 11
- #120: Fallout – March 25
- #121: Snowboard Kids – April 8
- #122: Drakengard / Nier – April 22