[Gamasutra examines the writing process behind the Dragon Age series by speaking with lead writer David Gaider, delving into how the team wanted to focus more on the "dark" in "dark heroic" and balance player choice throughout the game.]
In late 2009, BioWare booted up a new fantasy RPG franchise with Dragon Age: Origins, which rose to become one of the top games of that year. The game received particular accolades for its writing, which used a decision-based narrative structure and weighty, nuanced dialogue to tell an epic, emotionally-driven story. The writing went on to win a number of awards, and was a key component in the game's success.
Not surprisingly, BioWare moved quickly on a sequel. Dragon Age II was released in early 2011, delivering a new story that expanded on the original's rich game world. However, the game represented a departure from its predecessor, in a narrative sense. BioWare decided to ignore its own blueprint for success with Dragon Age II.
Gamasutra spent some time with David Gaider, lead writer on the Dragon Age franchise, who explained the ins and outs of how Dragon Age II was written.
Concept for a Sequel
"It's an interesting process, approaching the story for a sequel," says Gaider. "There's a certain level of expectation among fans, and especially with a game like Dragon Age: Origins that follows so many different story branches, only so many options we could consider.
"Do we pick one branch and continue the story of the Warden, excluding all others? Do we try to accommodate multiple storylines from the outset? Do we start a new main character with a different story branch? Or do we try something new?"
Gaider and lead designer Mike Laidlaw decided they didn't want to tell the same story with new names and faces. If there was one thing about Origins' writing that was often criticized, it was that the plot followed a predictable Hero's Journey. So they decided to focus more on the "dark" than the "heroic" in their "dark heroic" fantasy sequel, and go for a grimmer, more personal tale.
It was Laidlaw who first proposed the new game concept. His idea was this: instead of telling a linear, he suggested they modify the structure on a high level and jump between the major moments of a character's life. Instead of telling a story over a short span of time in a wide open world, they would set the game within a single city, and jump through an epic ten-year period. This would be accomplished with the help of a framing device, allowing for the time jumps to be implemented as flashbacks.
"[The new approach] definitely allowed us some unique opportunities," Gaider says. "Sometimes the lack of an ability to hand-wave time passing means we end up with a lot of events happening in an unrealistically short span, or repercussions for a player's actions that either need to occur instantly or be relegated to the epilogue. So this offered us the chance to give a sense of greater scope."
However, there were also unknowns. What would it feel like to play a game where you don't see time's gradual passage? Would jumping through time break narrative unity and pull the player out of the story? And how would this work from an implementation standpoint? Would creative resources get bogged down trying to account for the long-term impact of minor decisions that the player made five years ago in game time?
These questions began to work themselves out as the process unfolded. In some ways, the new concept worked just as planned. But in others, the team found that certain RPG elements emerged naturally, as a function of the genre, rather than as a matter of tradition. The game ultimately came to reflect a blend of these ideas – the concept as it was originally envisioned, and the actual limitations revealed by the writing process.
The Nature of the Game
Dragon Age II, like its predecessor, is played on two levels. On the one hand, it's a party-based dungeon-crawler, full of stats and levels and weapons and upgrades and so forth. However, the more unique and compelling aspect of the game is its decision-making component: every interaction involves complex dialogue choices that let the affect how plots evolve down the road. There are hundreds of such interactions across the game, which means players end up making hundreds of choices.
"The guiding principle," says Gaider about how all these choices are handled, "is degrees of consequence. You can actually split choices up into several categories. Many are going to be flavor. You're asking the player to make a choice, but either there is no 'real' effect, or it's immediate. The player doesn't necessarily know that, however, and for them the fact they're being asked to decide something gives it weight.
"Other choices are going to be local in their effect; you see a repercussion after the choice is made, but it's confined to the plot or the region the choice occurs in. Then a smaller number of choices are global; they have effects down the line, affecting the critical path in small and large ways."
"What's important is that there's a balance," he continues. "Not necessarily balance in the number of choices, but more that you have a spread among the types of choices. Too many flavor, or local, choices, and the player begins to lose a feeling of agency."
The sum total is this: in the Dragon Age games, decisions matter. The player knows that not every choice will have a lasting impact, but any choice could have one. Combine this with a deep back story, a gritty world of thorny conflicts, and a cast of nuanced characters, and you get a game that, for better or for worse, develops different for each player, delivering a highly individualized gameplay experience.
The challenge, of course, lies in the implementation.
Writing the Game
Once the concept for the sequel was ready to go, it was time to bring on a staff. Gaider led a five-person writing team (consisting of screenwriters, prose-writers, and modders) that would develop all the written material. That includes everything from dialogue trees to cinematics to background chatter to the hundreds of collectible codex pages that appear throughout the game.
Writing a game like this is a top-down process. "We start with what we call a one-pager," explains Gaider, "which lays out the flow of the plot in general, and then slowly begin expanding on that in more and more detail. We end up with a very detailed overview, break it up into segments, and split the work among writers who in turn break up those segments into workable sections. Any required assets (such as a codex or a description) will be identified as the work is ongoing, and eventually all this information simply accumulates."
Every plot line – whether it's the spine, a particular chapter, or a subplot – has what Gaider calls its own "narrative overview." The overview lists all the beats for that section of story, including the choices involved, the gameplay elements, and the resources needed – along with the required budget. Once approved, the narrative overview serves as a blueprint that can be shared by writers, combat designers, level artists, and so on.
"The trick is to keep track of it all," says Gaider. "We have a wiki on our internal network that houses our accumulated lore, and our in-house editors devote a fair amount of time to trying to keep it all organized and searchable. You get a lot of outdated legacy information in there, which can make it a real challenge to keep up-to-date as things inevitably change over time."
Ensuring the tone and consistency of what gets written is an endeavor unto itself. Each completed game section first gets sent to one of BioWare's in-house editors, whose job is to check dialogue for errors and consistency. These people see every line in the game, and end up being the de facto "masters of the lore" who point out when a word is misused or when information is incorrect or inconsistent.
Then comes the first review, which the team at BioWare calls "white box." "Nothing's recorded, models are placeholders, level art is all simple geometry," says Gaider. "All we're looking for is whether the broad strokes make sense. Is the pacing good? Are there enough choices? Does the player receive enough information to know what to do? From that review, I'll work with the writer (unless the writer is myself) to come up with a list of changes."
Further down the line, story segments come back for an "orange box" review. "Now we comment on more specific things," he says. "Does the story feel right? Is it exciting? Did the player get the chance to ask the questions they wanted to? Do specific lines of dialogue make sense? This is where we would start looking for things to add polish. Maybe a follower should comment on that strange statue they pass by, or here's this section of the level where nothing happens and we should add something there? Things like that."
The Finished Product
Eventually, these pieces all come together and form a finished game. Dialogue gets recorded, cinematics get rendered, code gets compiled, the game gets shipped. And what remains of the actual physical writing process?
Not a script, it turns out. Several years ago, the WGA (Writer's Guild of America) announced the creation of a Best Game Writing category for their annual writing awards. This decision was hailed as a milestone for the games industry – until several companies deserving of nominations, including BioWare, found they were unable to participate because they could not produce a physical script. The reason is that there is no script – only the game itself. And so Dragon Age II, like Origins, is ineligible for the award.
The writing team doesn't seem bothered by this. A play-through of Dragon Age II has so many potential permutations that its story can't be evaluated as a single piece of screenwriting. This is a format that defies Hollywood standards. BioWare's response to the WGA: the only way to know the full extent of the writing is to play the game.
For better or for worse, the WGA can't spare the time. On the other hand, millions of players were eager to do just that.
Release and Reviews
Dragon Age II hit the shelves in March 2011, and controversy quickly erupted. Critics hailed the game as setting a new bar in RPG storytelling, whereas fans -- particularly hardcore fans -- lambasted the game for changes to its core mechanic. (The specific critiques centered largely on gameplay issues that are beyond the scope of this article.)
The polarized opinions didn't come as a surprise to Gaider and the DAII team. "If there's anything that's surprising," says Gaider, "it's just how polarized some of the reaction has been. There's a lot of love for Dragon Age among our fans, and that love can translate into passion.
"In my opinion, that's better than apathy, even if it forces you to filter out the extremes. However, the criticism should not be dismissed as simple nostalgia. There are fans who felt disappointed... and there's a feeling [on our team] that we want to improve from the groundwork we've laid down. At the end of the day, Dragon Age can't be everything to everyone – so we simply have to pick a direction and make it the best experience we can."
In short, Dragon Age II was an experiment, and one executed over a relatively short time frame. As with any experiment, some things worked, and some did not. However, the writing team certainly stepped outside the box and attempted redefined how game developers can tell a complex game narrative. "This is something games have the potential for," says Gaider, "but which we as an industry constantly underestimate."
How will the lessons of Dragon Age II get integrated into future BioWare efforts? For now, we'll have to wait and see -- but the wait might not be long. Only sixteen months passed between the release of Origins and Dragon Age II, including a number of expansion packs released along the way, and with the continued popularity of the franchise, it's a safe bet that we'll see another game on the shelves fairly soon.
BioWare remains committed to prioritizing game writing, and players continue to demonstrate their desire for well-crafted narrative, so it seems fair to guess that Gaider and his team will keep pushing the envelope in development cycles to come.