BioWare is a video game studio that places a great deal of emphasis on crafting an incredible story for their games. This is a fact that is obvious to anyone who has played any of their products, such as Knights of the Old Republic, the Mass Effect series, or the Dragon Age series. Most BioWare games are structured in a similar way when it comes to narrative structure. The structure is only slightly varied from normal movie narrative structures. However, because games and movie share many narrative techniques, it is easy to see the similarities between the two. Dragon Age: Origins is no exception to these self-imposed rules.
The BioWare narrative structure has five main sections to the plot, which could simply be referred to as the beginning, which contains the first three sections, the middle, and the end. In BioWare terms these are the introduction, the prelude, the Linear Start, the Wide Open World, and the Linear Finale. It would be easy to assume that the five sections of BioWare’s narrative blueprint would match up with Freytag’s Dramatic Pyramid, however this is not the case.
The introduction, prelude, and Linear Start would all fall under the Exposition of Freytag’s Pyramid. The Wide Open World would include the Rising Action, the Climax, and the Falling Action. The Linear Finale would be the Denouement.
While the story falls nicely into Freytag’s Pyramid, there is difficulty in a direct translation between the two paradigms. The problem is that BioWare games are “active narratives” (Remo). This means that the player is in control of when and how things actually occur. In spite of this, there is a statistically recommended order of events in Dragon Age: Origins that I will be following for the purpose of this essay. I will also be only focusing on the main elements of the plot that occur no matter what decisions the players makes, other than the origins stories.
Dragon Age: Origins is unique from other BioWare games because the introduction to the game is more than just a video or cutscene and is different dependent on choices that the player makes before the game even begins. The introduction, in this case, is more like a prologue to the story than strictly a part of the narrative. Each of the six different origin stories concludes with the result of the player character, known simply as the Warden, being recruited into the Grey Wardens. Effectively transitioning the game into the prelude part of the Exposition.
The prelude begins with the Warden traveling to Ostagar on the eve of a major battle against the darkspawn, the primary antagonists of the game. The Warden is sent into the Kocari Wilds with two other recruits and a Grey Warden named Alistair to find items needed for the Joining ritual. While in the Wilds the Warden is introduced to Morrigan and her mother Flemeth, two Witches of the Wilds. After receiving all of the necessary items the Warden and his companions return to the camp at Ostagar and go through the Joining. The Warden is the only recruit to survive.
What follows is the Linear Start which occurs during the Battle of Ostagar. The Warden and Alistair are tasked with lighting a beacon in the Tower of Ishal in order to signal the reinforcements to advance onto the battlefield. However, as they complete their task the leader of the reinforcements, Teryn Loghain Mac Tir, abandons the battlefield with his troops and leaves the King of Ferelden and the rest of the army to die at the hand of the darkspawn army. In the tower, the Warden and Alistair are saved by Flemeth as they are overwhelmed by darkspawn. When the Warden regains consciousness he and Alistair are at Flemeth’s hut in the Wilds. They realize that they need to expose Loghain and unite Ferelden against the darkspawn so the two Grey Wardens set out with Morrigan to accomplish just that.
Their first destination is the town of Lothering. On the way there, they encounter a Mabari War Hound who joins them on their journey. While in Lothering, they finalize their plan to unite Ferelden. They decide to use ancient Grey Warden treaties to secure the loyalty of the dwarves, the elves, the mages, and the Arl of Redcliffe and his men in the fight against the darkspawn and Loghain. Also while in Lothering, the travelers encounter two new companions, Sten and Leliana. As they depart from Lothering it is burned to the ground behind them at the hands of the darkspawn. This ends the Linear Start and transitions the story into the Rising Action part of the Wide Open World.
The next destination for the Warden and his companions is the Circle Tower where the mages live. The warden and his companions arrive at the tower in a time of great distress. The tower has been commandeered by demons and the Templars who guard the mages are attempting to get permission to purge the entire tower. The Warden decide that he and his companions will clear out the tower themselves in order to get the mages and Templars on their side. As they make their way through the tower they recruit a new companion, a mage named Wynne. The Warden and his companions spend some time in the dream world, known as the Fade, but ultimately complete their goal and head to the next location, Redcliffe Village.
In true BioWare narrative fashion, when the Warden arrives at Redcliffe Village it is also in a state of turmoil. Arl Howe has fallen ill and the village is suffering nightly attacks by supernatural creatures. The Warden accepts the task of defending the village and and healing Arl Howe in Redcliffe Castle. Upon saving the village, the Warden proceeds to clear the castle and remove a demon from Arl Howe’s son. The Warden realizes that the Arl’s condition can not be improved at the time and leaves for the Brecilian Forest.
On the way to the forest, The Warden and his companions are ambushed by a group of assassins. The leader of the assassins, an Antivan elf named Zevran, is recruited by the Warden to join on the journey due to his unique set of skills. The Warden arrives in the forest to recruit the Dalish elves to his cause. He does so buy helping to solve an ancient dispute between the elves and some werewolves. Once he secures their loyalty the Warden moves on to the town of Haven in order to find what he needs to cure Arl Howe.
The next section of the plot is what would be considered the Climax of the story in Freytag’s Dramatic Pyramid. The discovery of the Urn of Sacred Ashes is a turning point in the Warden’s journey because Arl Howe is the one man who can assist with taking on Loghain. The urn contains the ashes of Andraste, the wife of the Maker in the main religion of the Dragon Age universe. The Warden takes the ashes back to Redcliffe Castle and cure the Arl. The Arl is informed of what happened while he was ill and decides to call a Landsmeet, a meeting between all of Ferelden’s noble humans. However, the Warden’s decide to finish their plan of recruiting the forces of Ferelden by visiting Orzammar, the home of the dwarves.
This is now the Falling Action section of the narrative. The problem in Orzammar when the Warden and his companions arrive is that the old king is dead and there are two candidates vying for the position. The Warden meets a dwarf, Oghren, who decides to join him on his journey and an expedition to find a missing Dwarven Paragon. Upon completing the expedition the Warden helps declare a new king and secure the loyalty of the dwarves.
The Warden returns to Arl Howe to make the trip to Denerim, the Capital City of Ferelden, for the Landsmeet. He and his companions spend some time gathering evidence of Loghain’s betrayal before leaving the decision of who should decide the fate of Ferelden up to the nobles. Once the nobles make their decision and a ruler is named for Ferelden the story moves on to the Denouement.
The Denouement begins with the Battle of Denerim. The Warden and his companions make their last stand against the invading darkspawn army as only Grey Wardens can. The Warden finds out that the Grey Wardens are the only ones that can end the invasion by killing the archdemon, the leader of the darkspawn. The Warden and his companions successfully fight their way through Denerim and kill the archdemon. After the battle the Warden is honored as the Hero of Ferelden and is given land to rebuild the Grey Warden Order in Ferelden. Each of the companions that were recruited decide to go their own ways for the time being but believe they will meet up again in the future. That is the way the narrative of the game draws to a close.
Even with the inclusion of player interaction the story element of video games is very similar to that of film or any other story based medium. This is especially true for BioWare games. BioWare “spends over one year just world-building… then the story arcs are built” (Dalmau) all before they create any of the actual video game elements to support the story. With a full permanent staff of writers, BioWare is getting ever closer to the “best story-driven games in the world” (Narcisse). BioWare’s formula may not be an exact match to the storytelling paradigms of screenplay writer’s, but the elements are still the same.
There are other ways that the narrative of a game is like that of film. Techniques used during cutscenes can replicate that of animated movies as well as movies in general. The use of editing and “camera” work is in every way similar to that of film. The process starts with concepts and storyboards, then the scenes are recorded and assembled in the proper order.
Pudovkin and Eisenstein were both major proponents for the use of montage to help tell a story. Pudovkin believed that an event can be “dissected by the onlooker into dozens… of separate incidents” (Pudovkin) and the director “chooses only six of them” (Pudovkin). What he is attempting to say is that the narrative of a movie is greater than the sum of its parts. It is this construction of the story that is similar to both movie and games through the use of cutscenes. Eisenstein believed “the dynamics of montage serve as impulses driving forward the total film” (Eisenstein). In the same way that montage drives the visual narrative of a film, it is the cutscenes in Dragon Age: Origins that truly drives the narrative of the game. The B-stories within the A-story may be left up to player choices, but at the heart of the A-story the player is only experiencing a narrative already in place.
Another aspect of film storytelling that is harnessed throughout Dragon Age: Origins both in cutscenes and regular gameplay is the close-up shot for emphasis. Within the game most conversations are shown in a sequence of close-ups to show emphasis on the emotions and physical reactions of the characters. Balasz states “good close-ups radiate a tender human attitude in the contemplation of hidden things, a delicate solicitude, a gentle bending over the intimacies of life-in-a-miniature, a warm sensibility” (Balasz). This rings true for the use of the shot in the game. No matter how the player situates the camera during gameplay, zoomed in/zoomed out or high angle/low angle. Every conversation and important scene brings the camera into a close-up shot.
The narrative techniques used in both movies and games are incredibly similar. There is much tension between the two industries because games are not viewed in the same light as movies. However, it would seem that in this aspect of the two industries they are hardly different. The way that the narrative plays out is dependent on different factors but the structure and nature of the narrative is largely the same.
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Eisenstein, S. “Collision of Ideas.” TFM 310 Course Reader (2010): 9-10. Print.
Magrino, Tom. “Double Fine, BioWare, Silicon Knights, Bungie on Storytelling - PC News at
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Narcisse, Evan. “So What’s Your Story?: BioWare’s Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk.” Crispy Gamer. 21 Apr. 2009. Web. 15 Apr. 2011. <http://www.crispygamer.com/interviews/2009- 04-21/so-whats-your-story-biowares-ray-muzyka-and-greg-zeschuk.aspx>.
Pudovkin, V.I. “The Plastic Material.” TFM 310 Course Reader (2010): 3-8. Print.
Remo, Chris. “Gamasutra - News - GDC Canada: BioWare Bosses Talk The Future Of Storytelling.” Gamasutra - The Art & Business of Making Games. 13 May 2009. Web. 15 Apr. 2011. <http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=23611>.