Spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins exist in this post.
I’ve previously stated I’m not a fan of games who give me my morality on a scale with two polar ends. It is making me roll my eyes at my current playthroughs of both Mass Effect and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but it made my time with Dragon Age: Origins particularly meaningful. Instead of aligning myself with an abstract concept of good or evil which was actualized on a scale with points, my actions became tied to my companions (with points that I was able to see…).
My stock of characters evolves in various ways, depending on the game. At this point, when faced with problems in most games, I can pinpoint how they’d react. Even if the game might hone the specifics, the generalities are easy to gauge and plan before the game has even gotten past its introductory stage.
Dragon Age threw a wrench in that expectation. Twice.
The first was with Shale. When finding the Anvil of the Void, the choice is presented of using the Anvil to create an army of golems, or to destroy it. As I wrote on The Border House, Shale is a character I deeply respected and enjoyed. The fact that she was being serious in this situation with the Anvil put a pause on my pressing the number corresponding with the dialog option I knew Aeazel would take. Aeazel is an opportunist, and wanted to agree with Morrigan, who enticed him with the thought of having an army at his behest.
Slavery of people to the cause? Did not bother him. An elitist misanthrope, he believes some people are useful for only his gain, and that they’d squander their lives anyway.
He fought off Branka, destroyed the Anvil, and faced disappointment from Morrigan. Shale thanked him. Shale had earned his respect, and he knew he could not disappoint her. After her burly and often hysterical comments and childlike lines of questions she would ask the other companions, to suddenly have a dramatic shift in her tone and manner made him realize he could not fathom facing her story himself.
Then came Zevran’s admonition during the Alienage in Denerim. Zevran’s constant wit and comedic relief served to make Aeazel appreciate him beyond his services in the tent. At first he was annoyed by Zevran’s braggadocio, then pleased at his desire to remain NSA (no strings attached), and touched when Zevran round-aboutly asked him to stop his sleeping with Morrigan (Aeazel is bisexual).
In fact, out of game, I was growing anxious that Zevran was not asking me this beforehand, though Morrigan had already derisively noted my relationship to Zevran. It is hard to explicate whether my heart was bleeding all over my sleeve because I wanted to see if Zevran would continue this relationship, offering me the first queer long-term relationship in an RPG, or if I felt Aeazel would actually fall in love with the Antivan Crow who had made an attempt at his life.
However, as the relationship continued, it became more clear that Aeazel, based on the circumstances of his origin story, wanted these friends. He despised people because he had been shut away and told they would fear him, and now he was able to have people respect and honor him. They also weren’t helpless and capable of making their own decisions. They could leave him. Zevran loved him.
So when Zevran quickly condemned the initial step of allowing the Tevinter mage to abscond with the elven slaves, I knew what Aeazel would choose, despite the fact that he would be offered more power through a blood magic ritual.
These two interactions gave me room for reflection, paralyzing me with the options. I would be able to finish the game fairly easily either way. Tanks other than Shale existed, the loss of Zevran meant that I would just use another person for my DPS. Yet, both characters meant more than their respective roles to me. It was easy to get involved and care about their stories because they had them.
They had lives outside of what happened with my character, they had their own motives, their own desires, and were written to be fully-dimensioned. To see their positive approval ratings meant Aeazel would learn more about their stories, would open up new conversation options. In an almost Pavlovian style, my initial reactions to events was countered by the desire to see their approval ratings. In many respects, this is switching one set of rules/sliders for another.
However, instead of having an overarching good/evil hierarchy that everyone could invisibly detect because they could see the 1s and 0s a la The Matrix when they saw me, all that really mattered was my personal interactions, which not only enhanced my giggling over the decisions I made with characters, but over the decision on which characters I would take with me.
BioWare has been building up to this steadily, as I am just now halfway through Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and am a good ten or so hours into Mass Effect, and can tell that having certain companions with me during certain worlds and quests has an effect, and nets me extra dialog options. But it has thus far encouraged me to ‘game’ the system so that I get all possible ‘key points’ with characters.
Perhaps this is possible with Dragon Age, but I felt myself more invested in the characters because of a set of numbers that readily told me how reactions were poised. It is, of course, still possible to game that system, but I, in particular, had no desire to do so.
Acting the part of Aeazel meant considering the other actors on stage for their own stakes, and not just for his personal gain. If the game had a morality scale, he would very easily have been evil, but considering how he changed in this game, I am not sure such a label or assertion has much merit.