Joystiq interview: Dragon Age storytelling

BioWare's return to PC as a primary platform has been met with rapture and glee from the PC gaming crowd. The development chops of the Canadian company are almost impossible to question, with hit after hit being released from its Edmonton headquarters. Now the reunion with keyboard and mouse is accompanied by the most ambitious fantasy RPG BioWare has attempted since the original Baldur's Gate. Dragon Age: Origins is a true return to roots for the company, a homecoming with its dearest fans.

It makes sense then to find David Gaider, one of the original writers of the Baldur's Gate plot, at the keyboard behind Dragon Age. We had the chance to talk briefly with the author about what this highly-anticipated title will offer. Though he couldn't reveal much in the way of story components, he did offer a tantalizing view into the world's history. Join us as we talk with Gaider about stepping back from Mass Effect's advances, the joys of returning to PC gaming, and what he considers required reading for any Dragon Age fan.

There are a lot of PC gamers looking forward to Dragon Age, and not a lot about the story has come out yet. What can you tell us about it?

David Gaider: Well, we can't say much about the story yet. But we can talk about the darkspawn, the enemies in the game. That's sort of the basis for everything that follows. And we can talk about the game in general.

Dragon Age is our first party-based PC RPG since Baldur's Gate, basically. We had KOTOR for the PC, but that had a limited number of followers with you at a time, I think. This is the first time we're going back to a party of three that will join you on your adventures.

There was a huge amount of writing for this game, the most I think I've done since Baldur's Gate. The characters talk amongst themselves, they talk to you, they comment on the world as you travel. The idea is that these are full-blown companions, there's an epic plot to follow ... I hate to use the word epic, but it's there. It feels that way because it's so big! I had the largest hand in creating the world to begin with, and so I have a lot of emotional stake in the game.

As far as the Darkspawn, what we can say about those now: A long time ago mages used to rule the land. They reached a point where they basically decided to open a gateway into heaven and usurp the rule of the gods. I should say, as an aside, that this is what the priests of the world say, this is their line ... anyway, the mages stepped out into heaven and – since Man is an imperfect creature – they tainted the place and turned it into a place called "The Black City." They tainted themselves in the process, and became the first Darkspawn. The Maker threw them down from Heaven to Earth, to suffer for their crimes. The Darkspawn couldn't stand the light and burrowed down into the earth to get away from it.

They began a search for the Old Gods, essentially. Long before the wizards, people used to worship dragons as deities, but the Maker shackled them under the earth supposedly to sleep for all time. The Darkspawn search for these Old Gods, and when they find them they extend the taint to the dragons. The dragons are transformed into an archdemon, and when one rises from below the Darkspawn come with it as sort of a blight. They're almost like locusts in that way. When a blight occurs they come to the surface and spread, corrupting it as they go.
Humanity realizes they have to defend themselves against these things, and that's sort of what's going on as the game starts.

How would you compare the storytelling voice in Dragon Age to the cinematic tone of BioWare's most recent game, Mass Effect?

GD: There are a few differences. We've taken a few things like the digital actors to add to the game. We like that. We like that when you talk to somebody you see their emotions on their face, there's much more nuance. The uncanny valley is always a problem, right? I think we're getting over that now, with the animations doing the nuance of eye movement. It's much easier to empathize with that kind of character.

Where we differ with Mass Effect is that it did have a much more cinematic style. It gave voice to your character, for one, which was appropriate for the game. You were Commander Shephard, a military man or woman, and you had a voice that was really appropriate for that character. In Dragon Age we're focusing much more on character customization. You have a choice of gender, of race, one voice wouldn't cut it.

There's so much writing that if we had just one option for each gender/race combination it would be so much voice recording we'd need to include like two more DVDs. There's the physical limitations, then, and then there's also the fact that players give their own voice to characters they create. We said to ourselves, "the worst thing that could happen would be to have a voice that doesn't match up to the one inside your head."

Mass Effect also had the dialogue system where they just gave the intent of the choice as opposed to the full wording. The idea is that you can pick your dialogue option before the character stopped talking, and have a cinematic flow to the conversation. We've gone back to our Baldur's Gate–style discussions with Dragon Age, where you see exactly what kind of choice you're making. The idea there is that the player has to have full control over the voice in his head.

We're okay with that, with "going back" on that. Some people might say, "Aren't you reversing progress?" Mass Effect is great, but what we're talking about here is much more of a classic-style game. It just works better for our game.