Danger! Dragon Age spoilers follow, of a spoiler-y nature. Don’t read unless you want to be spoiled, or require reduced lift and increased traction.
The structure of Dragon Age, and indeed many CRPGs, invokes predestination; with finite time and resources (especially the voice acting, I imagine), the game obviously can’t represent every possible outcome of every decision and has to guide you through certain set pieces. It’s like an inverse butterfly effect, you’re going to go to the Circle of Magi, the Dwarves and the Elves, and there’s going to be a fight with the Archdemon at the end of it, no matter how many butterflies flap their wings. What’s interesting is how the game offers you decisions which simultaneously have an effect on the outcome, but can fit within that overall structure to minimise the amount of assets and testing required.
I was pretty happy with the way things were going up to the Landsmeet. I’d secured the requisite allies, with dollops of noble self-sacrifice: I’d cleared the demons out of the Circle, saving as many mages as I could; I’d freed the werewolves from their ancient curse (noble self-sacrifice: Zarathian, albeit he needed to be persuaded with a bit of stabbing); I’d destroyed the Anvil of the Void, on the grounds that Branka was more of a fruitloop than a loop constructed entirely of fruit (noble self-sacrifice: Caridin bungee jumping over a lava pit, but forgetting to attach the bungee). I slightly kicked myself at missing out on a noble self-sacrifice when releasing the Arl’s son from demonic possession, as I brought the Circle in rather than getting the mother involved in a blood magic ritual, but everyone seemed happy enough with the outcome.
Generally, the earlier in the game something happens the more fixed it is; the origin stories all end up with you at Ostegar and once there I’m sure you can’t decide that being a Gray Warden doesn’t really fit into your career plans after all, and you’d like to go into insurance instead, possibly via banking. It’s the storyline equivalent of the fallen tree or overturned table that present an insurmountable barrier to your character, the conversation options are there hinting at the wide open spaces of infinite possibility (“I’m not ready to become a Gray Warden!”), but you know where it’s going really (“Yes you are, now shut up and drink your darkspawn blood or you can’t have any pudding”). It might be a problem if you’re wanting an open world with (nigh) limitless choice, but it’s the price you pay for an involving story.
Though a particularly trenchant commenter previously insisted that the game was AWESOME because it forced you into tough decisions where sometimes there’s no right choice, for those main quests I’d suggest it’s actually the reverse: there’s no wrong choice. You have to come out of the quests with allies of some sort (interesting as it would be to have options that totally screw everything up, to destroy all mages then refuse the help of templars, to slaughter the elves but still release the werewolves from their curse, to leave the dwarves in the grip of isolationism, the Final Battle might be a bit shorter if it’s just four of you against the entire Blight), and from the options presented, and doing a bit of reading around, I think I could live with any of the alternative outcomes. Saving the mages presumes the survivors really are a nice bunch after all, as opposed to hideous demon-things just pretending to be nice until they eat your brain, so you can understand the reason for the Right of Annulment and it wouldn’t be too tricky to support it:
“I’m sorry, Warden, I have called for the Right of Annulment. It is my only option.”
“Yes, I agree.”
“Are you sure?”
“Definitely. Can’t take any risks with these demons. Take off, nuke the place from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”
“You don’t want to plead with me at all? ‘Just give me an hour, if I don’t come back then cleanse the whole place, but I have to try’, something like that?”
“Crikey, no, you just told me there’s all sorts of nasty stuff on the loose in there, I don’t want my brain eaten.”
“Oh. Right. It could be terribly exciting, though? I was thinking we could have all the templars out here, maybe some siege weapons with flaming ammunition, very dramatic against the night sky, and I’d be all, like, ‘Prepare to fire!’ and have my arm raised, and then somebody would be all ‘Wait! What’s that?’, and these silhouettes would emerge from the tower, and as the light from the flames played across them we’d see it was you, supporting the bloodied but defiant First Enchanter, and we’d all cheer and stuff.”
“To be honest, if the timing is that tight then even if I do triumph against the forces of darkness it sounds like a better than evens chance of you levelling the place anyway, especially if I dawdle a bit when coming down the stairs, you’re not selling it y’know.”
The elves and the werewolves, well, I don’t think you could ask for a better illustration of why you might side with the Spirit of the Forest. I could even *just about* see my way to supporting Branka, on the grounds that golems are really, really awesome. “The end justifies the means”, after all; the main problem here is that “the means” are not only horrifically unpleasant on two counts (the way golems are created and Brankas efforts to secure the anvil), but the latter is also batshit insane:
“The Anvil is protected my many devious traps, Paragon.”
“Right, traps. Presumably for many centuries they’ve kept the Anvil safe from the Darkspawn hordes that infest these tunnels?”
“Yes, Paragon. The craftsmanship of the traps is amazing, it must have taken an amazingly skilled Dwarf to construct them.”
“Hmm. Something this cunning, it would take another exceptional engineer or smith to have any chance of getting through, right?”
“Definitely. Gibbering wretches like the Darkspawn have no chance, that’s why the Anvil has remained safe until now.”
“Right, I’ve got a plan! I’m going to create loads of Darkspawn.”
“Yes, we should bring the most skilled… wait, what?”
“Create loads of Darkspawn. Obviously in this tunnel system riddled with Darkspawn, where us Dwarves constantly fight to hold the Darkspawn back, the never-ending waves of Darkspawn who can never be totally eradicated, what’s been missing is Darkspawn. I’ll make a load of them.”
Still, in the dim mists of time there’s some sort of twisted logic to her motivation that you could just about rationalise to get hold of an army of golems to fight the Blight, though you’d want to shuffle Branka off to a nice padded room rather than involving her in any military planning…
“So that’s the situation, the Darkspawn are marching on Denerim. Does anybody have a plan? Anybody *apart* from Branka? No? All right, Paragon, what do you suggest?”
“The Darkspawn have a day on us, and are moving quickly. We have only one choice. We must teach a load of pigs to play the banjo. Ding ding ding ding ding oink oink ding ding ding ding ding oink ding.”
“How does that…”
“Wait! How could I be so foolish! There is another option: we could make a really big pancake. I mean, like, five metres across, or whatever the fantasy equivalent of a metre is in this setting, and then cover it in gravy.”
So I had my allies. Things were even going well sartorially; the massive armour sets get progressively more awesome, and all the warriors in the party looked fantastic, clanking around in their heavy metal. My rogue, meanwhile, had gone through a period of looking like a cut-price Roman re-enactor from an episode of Time Team, but settled on a Dalish armour set that looked pretty good (Dalish tailors clearly taking heavy inspiration from Louise Jameson as Leela in Doctor Who), even if the exposed midriff didn’t seem terribly practical. As I’d done the Warden’s Keep DLC very early on, though, the Warden Commander plate armour was only Tier 3, which meant my rogue met its strength requirements in the latter stages of the game, and that looked better still. The mages still got the short end of the stylish clothing stick, but we kept them at the back of any group photos behind Shale and Sten, and they made up for it by being ludicrously overpowered anyway.
So everything was proceeding according to plan, we called the Landsmeet, and that’s when things went slightly out of control…
(To be continued…)