Codes, Conventions, Narrative & Representation

The game I have chosen is Dragon Age: Origins, an epic fantasy-RPG from BioWare, the makers of Baldur’s Gate, Jade Empire and Mass Effect. While it includes some familiar fantasy tropes such elves, wizards, dwarves, ancient evils and humans as a ruling class, it manages to put a unique spin on nearly all aspects with a hugely detailed backstory that gives the sense that the world of Thedas, in which the game takes place, has existed for hundreds of years before the player and will be around for a long time to come.

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I will be covering codes and conventions and how this relates to Dragon Age. Codes are split between technical and symbolic. Technical codes are the way in which equipment is used to tell a story so for video games it would involve camera angles during gameplay and cutscenes. Symbolic codes refer to information that is not explicitly stated but that conveys information to the viewer or player.

In films a good example of this would be that because he is dressed all in black, Darth Vader is immediately seen as a villain. Meanwhile conventions refer to the generally accepted way of doing things and while there can be conventions that are media specific like credits at the end of a film, tv show or game, there can be genre specific conventions such as the use of dark and moody lighting in horror movies or games.

The world and lore of Dragon Age: Origins (DAO) is told primarily through fully voiced cut scenes, codex entries that can be read at any time ambient and dynamic dialogue from NPCs as you walk around the world and spontaneous conversations between your party members. During the conversations the game uses static camera angles, a technical limitation with the engine they were using at the time, although the game does use some cut scenes with dynamic camera angles and movement to tell the story during non-interactive sequences. During combat, if a character lands the killing blow on an especially powerful enemy, a cinematic camera will be used to accentuate the “kill” and providing a spectacular and memorable sequence for the player.

While the game uses a fairly traditional set of camera angles, it does allow you to zoom out to an overhead view on the PC version. This is to help give an extra tactical element as BioWare have said that with Dragon Age Origins it was their first chance to work on a wholly original fantasy IP, having made D&D games like Baldurs Gate in addition to licensed games like Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic. In short it was a way to help it stand out from typical fantasy RPG fare and add an extra tactical element that hadn’t been seen in a mainstream game for many years, while also allowing BioWare to expand upon what they’d made before and take the lesson they’d learnt while moving the genre forward.

Some scenes are well lit, interiors and caves specifically feel very cinematic, however the majority of the game feels as if it has quite “flat” lighting which makes some areas blend together rather than stand out and feel unique, and doesn’t help distinguish the hundreds of NPCs from one another.

You can create your character in Dragon Age Origins and customize their look and voice (as you evolve their personality through your dialogue choices). When choosing a voice you can pick from several different tones such as; Wise, Cocky, Experienced, Mystical, Suave and Violent. This helps give the character a unique personality as it is of your choosing while party members and NPCs have pre defined personalities and reactions to situations.

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While some of the NPCs in the game react to choices you have made the companions in your party approve or disapprove of your actions. This is measured by a metre as shown in the image above, with various choices influencing their opinion of you, and also whether or not you give them certain gifts or presents. The higher a character’s approval and the more likely you would be able to romance them, although every 25 points also unlocked a new conversation that uncovered more of their backstory. This in turns unlocks new abilities for the character and also changes their opinion of your in conversations and in if you’re hurt in combat they will remark upon it so there is a tangible consequence on every conceivable level.

The lead writer of the game, David Gaider, has stated (Chart 1, halfway down) that this was implemented in order to “gate” the progress you made and to avoid you spending a few hours at the start of the game talking to them and never again. This is a novel concept for a genre that at the time was quite linear in terms of interaction, as you would usually be restricted to conversations in the story rather than this wholly optional aspect of the storytelling.

However he also admitted that while that sort of progression in dialogue has become a staple of BioWare games they are now aiming for something more organic that can’t be measured by a metric, realising that while they once advanced the genre forward it also came with inherent weaknesses.

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The world of Thedas is large and varied, although the game splits it up into various areas including; cities, caves, forests, ethereal realms and more. This helps keep the game diverse in setting even if the “surface details” of the setting and overall narrative are quite cliché. Above is a screenshot of Denerim, the capital city of one of Thedas’ countries. It’s a huge city set against the side of a mountain, and having one seen better days you can see degradation in the walls and a general slightly “run-down” look about the place. The game uses these details to help tell the story in a prime example of “show, don’t tell” as it allows the player to absorb information passively (Hypodermic Needle Theory) rather than having to be told everything through dialogue and cutscenes.

Developers like Valve are famed for generally having cutscenes only to bookend the game, one to introduce and one to end the game. While the weakness of this method is that players often miss crucial bits of information as you can’t control where they are looking etc, it does allow them a huge amount of freedom and feels far less restrictive than something like Dragon Age where cutscenes are the primary method of story deliverance. However, BioWare, Valve and other developers acknowledge that there’s no perfect answer and that storytelling is an inherent weakness of the medium as there’s no set standard as in books, films or TV.

This is especially true in RPGs where there is typically a huge amount of story and lore to consume and the most effective way is to sit the player down and make them watch a cutscene. As technology progresses the method of “show, don’t tell” is more effective because the developers are able to more accurately convey a message to the player while previously primitive graphics may have prohibited this kind of environmental storytelling.

As in many fantasy stories, there is a class divide in the world of Dragon Age. While this applies to the races, with humans generally being the equivalent of a “master race” while the downtrodden elves are confined to alienages in the cities or nomadic camps in the hostile wilds with every other race in the game falling somewhere in between.

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This is also shown through the clothes and outfits people wear as you can see “nobles” in the background of the image above wearing very elaborate and colourful outfits and during combat they may tend to wear more polished armors. In contrast, those of the poorer working class tends to wear far simpler and more threadbare clothing as shown in the image below.

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These methods all help to give Dragon Age a detailed world and story that is communicated in a variety of ways. While further titles in the series would go on to evolve the narrative formula of Dragon Age, leading more towards the “show, don’t tell” method of storytelling, DAO still proves effective as an evolution of the BioWare formula of storytelling; cutscenes, ambient dialogue and environmental storytelling. Since RPGs are typically text heavy, with lots of cutscenes and NPCs, DAO tries to move the genre forward by given greater relevance to your choices and have the world around you reflect the decisions you have made.

Due to Dragon Age’s relatively non-linear structure means that while it adheres to the traditional narrative structure of beginning, middle and end the representation of this through gameplay is quite different. Following Todorov’s narrative theory the game follows the equilibrium/happy start before this is dirsupted by the emergence of a threateningly apocalyptic scenario, the disruption of the equilibrium.

The player and characters then come to a realization of the new status quo and the large part of the game tells the story of how they travel to the four corners of the game world to gather allies and eventually defeat that which disrupted the equilibrium. With peace restored the game’s narrative ends with a happy epilogue that let’s the player know the immediate futures of all the major characters they have met.

The core story of the game is quite simple as it is a case of a hero rising up, gathering allies to defeat an onslaught of a monstrous horde. As mentioned it also follows the 3-part structure of equilibrium, disruption and a return to equilibrium. However the game maintains a relatively open ended narrative as while all “roads” have the same ending with the hero saving the world, the order in which you complete the missions to get there is up to the player. Your choices throughout the game also change the minutiae of how the larger story plays out so a choice you made in a mission may effect who turns up in the end of the game.

Due to this, the game encourages replayability to explore different narrative outcomes and while this might not change what ultimately happens it does happen how it plays out.

Representation involves how social groups, genders, occupations, ethnicities and more are portrayed in media, and in this particular case video games. In relation to representation in Dragon Age I will be focusing on how women are represented and portrayed as they play a significant role in the game and the world’s history as while some men in the game may treat it as a “man’s world” the history of Dragon Age, and the present, is littered with independent and strong women of power, although cliched roles still remain.

In terms of gender representation, DAO does a good job as a whole but its almost-over reliance on some stereotypes have actually led to it being called out by critic Anita Sarkeesian in one of her YouTube videos in “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” which David Gaider responded to. His reasoning was that while he sees and accepts some of Sarkeesian’s critques of DAO and it’s represntation of women, he is fine with “repugnant elements in our settings and our stories – so long as those elements are repugnant by design, and not by accident”.

In DAO women are not entirely downtrodden. There have been Boudicia-esque rebel leaders in the past, the country of Ferelden currently (in DAOs time period) has a Queen and no King. While there is a degree of sexism from some of the men towards women, women tend to occupy positions of power and respect, in the religion of DAO especially (The Chantry). However if one of the criticisms is that in some games women exist only as background decorations, to try and prove how dark and gritty a game world is, then that is partly true in DAO. However as the writer noted, it is essentially part of world building and and the point is not for the developers to say “This is how we view women” but to show that the world of DAO is horrible and sexist and it gives them a chance to improve upon it in future installments.

I suppose the necessity for this sort of narrative storytelling for representation is related to women’s rights and the suffragette movement that started in the late 19th century. Some developers use this narrative evolution to tell a story about their game world that somewhat mirrors our own, that if at one point women had little or no rights and were looked down on by society and it gives them a chance to tell the story of how a culture evolved.

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