Alright let’s just say it Dragon Age is pretty damn unimaginative. One would have assumed part of the reason Bioware made a new fantasy IP was because they wanted to get away from the “boring” Dungeons and Dragons license. If that was the case then Bioware failed hard, Dragon Age is a lot more generic than Dungeons and Dragons ever was.
Need I remind you Dungeons and Dragons contains creatures like these. Okay so they’re kind of stupid but at least they’re original.
In Dragon Age you will fight humans, darkspawn (orcs), abominations (daemons), corpses (zombies) and in one mission werewolfs. Holy crap dude don’t strain your creative muscles there. As for the human races you’ve got Fereldans (British), Antivians (Sicilian gangsters) and Orlesians (French). The non-humans are dwarfs who have tragically lost their once powerful empire and elves who have tragically lost their once powerful empire.
If Bioware had stayed at the Dungeons and Dragons teat they could have used the Giff. They’re friggin mercenary hippopotamuses that wield black power weapons and come from space! Make that a playable race damn it. Hell just make a Spelljammer game already.
Then we could get our giant space hamster on.
In comparison as a work of imagineering Dragon Age is freaking dull. That’s not to say it’s poorly written cause it’s not, it’s just that it’s very safe. Which to me sums up the last ten years of videogame writing. The craft is constantly improving, but becoming more dull and course in subject matter.
Let me give you an example. During the first dungeon of Baldur’s Gate 2 you come across a room filled with vats. Floating inside these vats are a series of identical women. When you let one of the women out of the tanks you discover she is a clone of a woman the evil sorcerer who runs the place was once in love with. Having lost his only love, the sorcerer tried to clone his former flame but failed. Even thought the clone was identical to the woman he did not love her. He killed the clone and continued to breed more hoping to one day solve the puzzle. Eventually he gave up and left the clones to rot away alone, there they remained sentient and miserable knowing that they have failed to perform the only function for which they were created.
It’s a sad tale and simultaneously manages to paint the sorcerer as sympathetic and totally evil. It’s a story that can only exist in speculative fiction.
In contrast the villain in the origin story of my Dwarf was a dwarven crime lord who the game made me hate by having him give his minions permission to rape my character’s sister. Ooh how dark and mature, why don’t you just have him curb stomp a puppy while you’re at it?
It would be tempting to just blame this all on the increasing homogenisation of videogames, dust off my hands and go to lunch. But I don’t think that’s the whole truth. Compare and contrast.
This rather lovely image is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ batshit insane A Princess on Mars. The novel was written in 1917 a long time before JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I have not read it.
Obviously this is the cover to Robert Jordan’s A New Spring written in 2004 a long time after JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I have not read it.
I’m going to generalise like heck right now so stay calm. Since the explosive popularity of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings fantasy fiction has become increasingly generic, which is to say it’s become increasingly like Tolkien. Pre-Tolkien fantasy was a demented hybrid of westerns, science fiction, and mythology. It was ludicrous and at times pretty stupid but at least there wasn’t an elf to be found. Now all our fantasy fiction appears to be set in middle earth and the only creatures we fight are the ones Tolkien popularised.
The process did not occur over night. Michael Moorcock wrote energetic, original material and along with Tolkien his work is seminal in influencing both the Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer game worlds. Other truly visionary fantasy writers like Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe also had influence shaping early fantasy games. But the problem is that everyone who is interested in fantasy fiction has read Tolkien, it’s the touch stone, the common link and as Moorcock, Vance and Wolfe become increasingly antiquated Tolkien continues to be exposed to new generations.
Tolkien endures, while the rest is forgotten, to the point where Tolkien is all we’ve got left.
But there are indeed current fantasy writers who are breaking the mould, China Mieville and Neil Gaiman write wonderful inventive fiction. Sadly their work is in the minority and so far it’s influence has failed to trickle into our game worlds.
But what happens when fantasy writers end up constantly recreating middle earth? Well interestingly they begin to focus more on character and politics. Recent fantasy writers like Robin Hobb and Robert Jordan may not craft worlds as original and mind blowing as Moorcock, Vance and Wolfe but they do write about characters and themes that are far more engaging and real than their predecessors. Freed from the burden of creating interesting creatures or metaphysical systems of magic recent fantasy writers have instead decided to reflect on the complexity of the real world.
Which is what Dragon Age does, the world of Ferelden isn’t anything you haven’t seen before but it’s people and themes are. At least for a videogame they’re pretty original.
This is part of an ongoing series about Dragon Age: Origins to read the first entry click here.