History of Dragon Age with Bioware Lead Writer David Gaider- Dragon Age Origins “You Won’t BELIEVE What We Cut!”

This week on VGS….

We continue our Bioware interview session with the former lead writer of Dragon Age Inquisition, David Gaider.  We’ve already talked with David about the importance of sexual representation in gaming, now let’s get to the history of Dragon Age.

In this hour long sit down with David we jump into the beginning of the series Dragon Age Origins. Beginning with where the concept of Dragon Age began David originally had some very different idea with how Mages should be treated in the world.

David Gaider: Well, in cities. Unless you received prescription from the Circle, you weren’t allowed to use it. The idea was that you would get that prescription, but using it in a city or anything that – I think the sentiment against mages was eventually supposed to be a lot more like somebody saying that you’re mage is like somebody saying you’re a vampire.

That just had to be loosened up, not only to let the mage or the player who is playing the mage have a little bit more freedom but also so that we didn’t have to worry so much about encountering enemy mages, so that they could exist around the world.

And as I recall, the darkspawn weren’t initially a thing either. I didn’t account for them in the world in that first draft. They were no Grey Wardens. I think we didn’t really have a story because I went and made a world and I tried to seed in different part of that world like this is an interesting kind of conflict so it could be a game. But we didn’t know the first game took place in Ferelden. That was not a thing.

It was a matter of here’s our world. It has some interesting places within it. What are some stories we could tell? And I remember the idea of the darkspawn came up, and that was a big thing obviously because that was like, okay, let’s incorporate this into the history. How would these constant attacks by the darkspawn, how would that change history? What would that do? That spawned the Grey Wardens, and I think it was James who said he liked the Grey Warden idea, the idea of being part of an order that is in modern times reduced in relevance. They’re sort of ancient heroes.  So, he was like, let’s go with that. And so the idea of a new Blight starting in Ferelden became our first story, but that wasn’t where we started.

Dragon Age Origins Logo

As for the characters you know and love in Dragon Age Origins, David really didn’t believe some would as popular as they eventually became.

In the process of writer this game Bioware introduce the option of individualized “Origins” that would create a starting point and additional motivation for your player in the game, over a decade ago looking back, that process was intended to be A LOT more expansive.

DG: I think initially we had a human commoner origin, sort of a Luke Skywalker beginning where you were growing up on a farm and it got attacked by a darkspawn. And I think there was a barbarian origin where you played an Avvar. That one was weird but kind of interesting. It made less sense because then you’re coming into a world where even as a human you wouldn’t know a lot about human society so it required all sort of Avvar specific options. It was kind of difficult.

I think those were the two that went furthest, that went past the concept stage. Because I remember the human commoner especially we had like five different versions we tried until we realized that human commoner humble origins beginning worked best if you were in a Chosen One kind of scenario, not so much with what we were going for.

Once we settled on the ones we had, we wanted for them to have reactivity once you were finished playing the origin. So that you would have dialogue specific and at least something happened during the course, whether you meet someone like Gorim, you meet up with that character again. Or if you’re Dalish you find out what exactly happened to Tamlin. Or the human noble, you had a much personal connection to Arl Howe. He was your initial nemesis. They have some reactivity – the whole game was about reactivity, not just to your choices but to who you were. If you were an elf, we wanted you to experience the racism that would accompany that. That was all intentional.

Dragon Age: Origins was sort of an exercise in scope creep. That’s what we call it just because we had ideas. Oh, that’s great! Let’s put it in! And then I think about three quarters of the way through production it was like, wow. Maybe we need to stop putting things into the game or we will never ever finish.

Dragon Age Origins Dragon

When making a title this large your mind is going to wander. As a result David had some really out of the box ideas for the franchise that he still see’s as cannon, the concepts of Morrigan and the Dark ritual was one of the first things discussed but it was meant to be a little more open and inclusive for all characters, an entire subplot involving Empress Celene was scrapped, not to mention MORRIGAN was actually intended to be Flemeth! What! Read below

DG: Initially I think everyone could have a baby with Morrigan, even female players. That was on the table at one point. A lot of it, I think, boiled down to that we had so many pokers in the fire that we just couldn’t fulfill all of them. And a lot of it was cut just due to space. Like, there was an entire other version of the encounter with Morrigan at the end if you were in love with her or were her friend as opposed to having one version that kind of fit all. And we just couldn’t do them. 

Even though the fans never realize that, when it finally goes out the door you feel like you’ve put out this hacked, slap dashed thing covered in band aids. And you’re like, oh, god, it’s gonna seem terrible.

There’s an entire plot that involved Empress Celene of Orlais visiting Denerim and being caught in Denerim when the siege happens, and she was going to marry King Cailin but he’s dead now. So there’s an entire, giant plot that surrounded that, almost as big as some of the other ones. It’s like, don’t you wish you had put that in the game?

In order to do that, okay, if you think we should have done that, go back to all those other plots you loved and cut them down by half. Take half that story out and figure out how to make that work. Because that’s what would have had to be done. We have a finite amount of resources that does not change. So, if you want more shells to go into this basket, you have to pick where the shells come from elsewhere. 

I think the ultimate lesson was that we have to be a little bit more careful. What we intended with the epilogue slides was while they did tie things up, they’re meant to remain as subjective as everything else. A lot of it talks about this understood or it’s heard. There was a time when the origin story had a historical framing. It was being told as a story in the distance past by an old woman that you initially would have thought was Flemeth and at the end you realize is Morrigan many, many years later.

Dragon Age Origins Monster

Gaider has been working on this franchise for more than 10 years and with the magic beauty of hindsight, he has the option to opine on how Origins set the stage for the franchise going forward all the way to Inquisition.

WHY CAN’T ALL THESE CHARACTERS FROM DRAGON ORIGINS COME BACK IN INQUISITION

DG: Looking at Dragon Age: Inquisition, our initial plans, I think we had just about everyone from Origins and DA2 appearing at some point physically. And that was just too much. It was cumbersome from the story perspective. All of those characters had models that couldn’t be reused, which meant the artists would have had to create specific bodies. Okay, yes, we could have done those faces, if not bodies. Some characters like Fenris, who has a very specific appearance body wise as well as face, would have required more work than others. But, yes, they could have done all those faces.

And then, okay, now we’ve used this much resources for all these call backs to the previous games. Now what about all the new stuff we need for the story we’re currently doing? So, yeah, you have to make some hard decisions about what you need, like we leaned more toward the characters that we had present uses for. And still trying to, well, if this character doesn’t appear what could we do that is a shout out to those players who like that character? And then, of course, speaking to an individual fan, everybody has different priorities. They love this one character so much it’s so grossly unfair that why did this other character get an entire plot about them and this character didn’t even appear? They can rage.

And I totally get it. You love each of those characters that you worked on in different ways. And you’d love to have them all come together in some sort of massive – If we actually had all characters from previous games involved on the same level, I can’t imagine what kind of Age of Ultron – Can you imagine? I don’t even know what that would look like, how many different characters you would have popping up. And, god forbid you were somebody that hadn’t been with Dragon Age right from the beginning. You’d be like, what is this? Am I supposed to know who this character is?

Click Above to Listen to part 1 of our Interview with Bioware Lead Writer David Gaider!

Next up we have Part 2 of the interview where Gaider goes over what was left out of Dragon Age 2! To read a complete transcript of the hour long interview, scrolllll downnnnn.

What You Missed In the World of Gaming!

Complete Interview Transcript

We continue our journey into the minds behind games, and we have a wonderful opportunity today to talk all about one of my favorite gaming franchises and the lead writer behind it. One of the driving forces that really made Dragon Age what it is, lead writer from Dragon Age, Bioware senior writer, David Gaider. Thank you so much for joining the program.

David Gaider: Thanks for having me.

Well, first off, how did you get involved in this line of work?

DG: Wow. It’s a long and windy story. I didn’t really intend to get into games. I didn’t think that was really an option. I didn’t know that Bioware existed in Edmonton in Canada, which is my home town. That seemed weird. Games were something that were made in far off places like California, so I hadn’t really thought about it.

But I had a friend who was working at Bioware. And I knew he worked for a game company, but I didn’t know anything about it. And they were looking for new writers around the time when they were – this was in 1999 – they were working on Baldur’s Gate 2. And they needed some more writers, and he gave them something I had written. And they called me up and asked me to come in for an interview, which I thought was incredibly weird.

And then from that what happened?

I turned them down.

Really?

Yeah, well, the office they had back then, it was like Nightmare on Elm Street, I swear to god. There was duct work coming down from the ceiling. It was small and kind of dinky. And I had a job. I used to run a hotel. It was like half the pay, and it seemed like: well, this job’s really interesting but it seems like this place could just close up shop any day and I’d be left without a job.

So I actually turned them down. And then I went into my hotel the Monday following, and my higher up boss was there to tell me that the hotel had been bought out. And because I was the GM, I was walked off the property. They had their own managers. And so I had my box of stuff, and I thought, well, maybe I’ll give this a try.

And how many years ago was that?

That was sixteen years ago.

What was it like when you first got there at Bioware writing for games? Because I imagine sixteen years ago, the idea of a video game writer was not something that a lot of people were aware existed.

I still think it’s kind of a dicey position inside of games. Not a lot of game developers actually have dedicated writers. A lot of the people who do the writing also wear other hats or are brought in from outside. Like, they do contract work. So I think back then Bioware was perhaps one of the few. It was basically just because they had so much writing to do. Baldur’s Gate 2 had like 1.2 million words of dialogue in it.

But as to what it was like. It didn’t feel that weird to me, I guess. A, I didn’t know any different. This is my first job – I guess it’s my only job in the industry really. I’ve always worked for Bioware. But I guess what it felt like, it felt like I was working on a giant tabletop campaign. At least, at first. So, that seemed kind of okay. I mean, it was just a matter of getting used to the conversation toolset where we do the actual writing. But once you had hold of that, it just felt like I was sort of helping design some big D&D module and supplying the dialogue. As if I was the game master sitting at the table supplying it to the players and imagining what they might say in response.

So it didn’t feel that strange. I think it only started feeling strange when suddenly all of the art started to come in and you could actually sit down and play the game. And slowly as the years went on, Bioware growing into a more collaborative process with the other team members, I think that led to a sense of we are all making this tabletop game campaign together.

How did the Dragon Age franchise begin?

There’s a weird period where I was working on both Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights. Those are two Bioware games. I started working on them around the same time, so I’m never certain in my head which one came first because they were kind of concurrent. But I finished work on both of those, and I think I had just finished work on the second expansion for Neverwinter Nights, the Hordes of Underdark. And at that point Bioware had reached a level where they were considering, rather than working on other people’s intellectual properties, they were thinking of making their own. So they were considering making two, one science fiction and one fantasy. And I think at the time, that was the entirety of the idea.

Really?

One would be a fantasy RP, like high fantasy – typical elves, dwarfs, spells. And one would be science fiction. And it was split up into two teams as to exactly what would that consist of. And by teams, I mean, there was just a handful of people that were working on it.

I know James Ohlen, he was our lead designer in all our games up to around the time that Dragon Age started.  He really enjoyed fantasy, and he knew I did as well. There were some people that were working on art ideas and the gameplay, but he approached me and he knew that I liked fantasy and worked on my own fantasy worlds. And he said, why don’t you come on to this – we called it “Chronicle” at the time. That was its temp name. He said, why don’t you come make a world for Chronicle? And I was like, what do you mean make a world? And he said well, it’s great that we’re working on the art and background and stuff, but we need a context for what this is all going to be.

And I thought, okay, so I’ll go off for a month or two and I’ll pluck away at the equivalent of some tabletop home brew world and I would come back and they would be like, no, no, no, and we would go through lots of revisions. And there were, but I thought it was weird. I sort of created like, well, this sounds good. There were a lot of conversations of him, me and James, the fundamental ideas behind what we wanted to do. We wanted to do traditional fantasy but we wanted our own spin on it but what would that spin be? And we’d have conversations about it, and I’d get excited and go off and make a bunch of stuff.

And then it was done, and I said, well, here, this is my thinking, anyway. And they just took that and ran with it and made some changes to accommodate gameplay – because it’s a little different between this is a world that is interesting to read about and this is a world that is fun to play in. Especially in a video game, but overall they just sort of took the world I had made and basically ran with it. And that was kind of amazing because one thing that your game master who makes this world at home, what he doesn’t get to do is have professional artists come in and draw the map and it comes to life right in front of you. That was a brilliant process as I remember.

Were there big changes from that first pen to paper idea that you had? Obviously there’s big changes because you need to accommodate for gameplay. But in terms of the themes and the story you are trying to tell, do you remember what that first draft was versus the finished product?

I remember the very first draft – I don’t know how familiar you are with Dragon Age.

Hundreds of hours.

Hundreds of hours. Okay. Initially my prohibitions on the mages were a lot more strict, and that just turned out they were so strict that made it not fun to play a mage because you weren’t allowed to use magic initially.

Oh, at all? Throughout the story?

Well, in cities. Unless you received prescription from the Circle, you weren’t allowed to use it. The idea was that you would get that prescription, but using it in a city or anything that – I think the sentiment against mages was eventually supposed to be a lot more like somebody saying that you’re mage is like somebody saying you’re a vampire. That just had to be loosened up, not only to let the mage or the player who is playing the mage have a little bit more freedom but also so that we didn’t have to worry so much about encountering enemy mages, so that they could exist around the world.

And as I recall, the darkspawn weren’t initially a thing either. I didn’t account for them in the world in that first draft. They were no Grey Wardens. I think we didn’t really have a story because I went and made a world and I tried to seed in different part of that world like this is an interesting kind of conflict so it could be a game. But we didn’t know the first game took place in Ferelden. That was not a thing.

It was a matter of here’s our world. It has some interesting places within it. What are some stories we could tell? And I remember the idea of the darkspawn came up, and that was a big thing obviously because that was like, okay, let’s incorporate this into the history. How would these constant attacks by the darksapwn, how would that change history? What would that do? That spawned the Grey Wardens, and I think it was James who said he liked the Grey Warden idea, the idea of being part of an order that is in modern times reduced in relevance. They’re sort of ancient heroes.  So, he was like, let’s go with that. And so the idea of a new Blight starting in Ferelden became our first story, but that wasn’t where we started.

And then from there, who were the first characters that you started to write for?

I think Loghain was probably the first. The idea of a villain that I could wrap my head around as I could sort of feel what he felt and that he had motivations that he felt were right and true even though he was clearly a villain. The road to hell paved with good intentions. I think that was the initial spark because we knew we wanted it to be in Ferelden. We knew we wanted it to involve the player being a Grey Warden. But what would that story entail?

So I was just thinking, what if it evolved around betrayal where in the midst of this Blight happening suddenly the Grey Wardens have their feet cut out from under them? That was sort of the classic hero’s journey, that the player would be introduced to Duncan, their mentor, the Grey Wardens as a group, and suddenly they’re taken away. And now how do you deal? How do you do what you set out to do with an antagonist that is dead set against you and no support?

At what point did you start to decide that we want to have prologues and different characters that have different motivations in this universe? Because at this point the story that you are explaining could have worked with just a placeholder hero, a nameless Grey Warden. When did that idea come into play?

I think it was some conversations with James Ohlen, and talking about how we were going to introduce this world to the players. For one, we couldn’t settle on what would be the classic route.

What were you pitching for?

I don’t think I was pitching for anything in particular. I wanted to do something different. I didn’t necessarily want to say the player had to be human and everything else became the other. Because I really liked the idea of the Dalish. That was an idea I was very fond of. And the Dwarfs have been sort of byzantine and political as opposed to bearded Scottish beer drinkers. Those were so intriguing, I just thought why don’t we do something a little bit different and have that be the hero? But locking the player into one meant that if the player only has that experience then means the rest of the story has to introduce other elements of the world from that point of view.

We were leaning toward this idea of the history of the world being subjective, that it changes according to who’s telling it. At first, I think it became a matter of you’re in character creation and you can choose human, elf, dwarf just like in Buldar’s Gate. But what if in picking that you actually had a story? So I think it was a tiny lead up story to the Grey Warden thing. And then suddenly grew into, it’s an entire plot that is specific to what you chose and how you became a Grey Warden.

We hummed and hawed on that a bit because it was such a large investment of time and resources. But once we laid down exactly what the possibilities were, we said that’s a lot of work but I think it would be worth it. Because people realizing that that choice they made gave them a couple of hours of unique content and unique introductions of the world, they might stop and say, oh, what if I was a dwarf instead? And go back and play it. And all those beginnings would introduce our world and what’s different about our version of traditional fantasy to that player from the perspective of who they’re playing. In the end, I think that worked out as the best introduction to Dragon Age that somebody could have.

The fascinating thing for me, I remember it so clearly, after going through the dwarf noble origin story, seeing your second in Denerim, seeing Gorim and having that completed story, again a whole subset of stories, I think really resonated in a way that I hadn’t seen in a game before. Was that something that you intended initially beyond just we need this as an introduction to the world in a little bit of a different way?

Yes, that was intentional. We went through all the introductions. And we had to cut quite a few of them because I think initially there was twelve or something ridiculous. That just proved to be too unwieldy. Some of them just worked better than others.

What were some of the other ones?

I think initially we had a human commoner origin, sort of a Luke Skywalker beginning where you were growing up on a farm and it got attacked by a darkspawn. And I think there was a barbarian origin where you played an Avvar. That one was weird but kind of interesting. It made less sense because then you’re coming into a world where even as a human you wouldn’t know a lot about human society so it required all sort of Avvar specific options. It was kind of difficult.

I think those were the two that went furthest, that went past the concept stage. Because I remember the human commoner especially we had like five different versions we tried until we realized that human commoner humble origins beginning worked best if you were in a Chosen One kind of scenario, not so much with what we were going for.

Once we settled on the ones we had, we wanted for them to have reactivity once you were finished playing the origin. So that you would have dialogue specific and at least something happened during the course, whether you meet someone like Gorim, you meet up with that character again. Or if you’re Dalish you find out what exactly happened to Tamlin. Or the human noble, you had a much personal connection to Arl Howe. He was your initial nemesis. They have some reactivity – the whole game was about reactivity, not just to your choices but to who you were. If you were an elf, we wanted you to experience the racism that would accompany that. That was all intentional.

Dragon Age: Origins was sort of an exercise in scope creep. That’s what we call it just because we had ideas. Oh, that’s great! Let’s put it in! And then I think about three quarters of the way through production it was like, wow. Maybe we need to stop putting things into the game or we will never ever finish.

When you’re developing these characters, for you looking back, let’s start with Origins, who are the characters that stand out?

To me? I think, for Origins the characters that stand are probably Alistair and Morrigan. I mean, in a sense. I wrote them both, so I guess they would. They were probably the party members that were initially concepted just because they had the most role to play in the overall plot. Everyone else sort of came afterwards.

Of course, that meant Alistair and Morrigan took the longest to actually make because so much hinged on them that there was a lot of different versions of them made. And they had to hit a particular note that we could never quite settle on. But I think that they, at least in terms of Dragon Age: Origins, they were the most iconic. They’re the two characters that I think are most recognizable. Morrigan in particular. She was the only character that had her own model and her own appearance. She was used in a lot the marketing of it. So, I think if you were going to settle on the most iconic character in Dragon Age, it would be Morrigan.

What does Morrigan represent in terms of the narrative experience? What does she add? You’ve spoken of this before how you really love her and that she adds something. What does she add?

She’s the other. Everybody else in the party represents a facet of life in Thedas. You have people who are believers in the Chantry. You have people who are typical Fereldans or typical Templar. And we needed those characters. They are sort of cyphers through which the player learns about the world and how they interact with the plots. But Morrigan is the outsider. She comes in with an outsider’s view on the Chantry. She’s an apostate. She is an outsider to everything all the other party members represent.

A lot of the meat of what you are talking about there was delivered in the ambient conversations that you’d have. Why was that a choice to give so much of those great narrative experiences in sequences that some players could miss just by experiencing the game?

Are you talking about the party banter? That wasn’t particular to Dragon Age. That was something we’d done ever since Baldur’s Gate. A lot of the conversation comes as you walk around with that party, and I think that’s a natural way to individualize the player’s experience. It’s based on who they’re with.

People can argue about whether Bioware is good at doing plot. I think our strength is in how we do characters. The writers sort of embody these characters and part of how we craft the story to the player is the player’s experience of these followers. These are friends that they bring along. So your experience, depending on the structure of your party, the people that you are most familiar with, a lot of how they relate their personalities to you comes with just day to day walking along and talking. I thought that was better than having all conversation being, okay, I walk up to them in the party and click on them and say, I would like to speak with you. It’s very deliberate. Whereas the idea that as they’re walking along and in between fights or whatever there’s some chit chat that goes on.

I think my only regret back then we didn’t get to be able to do until more recently, was having the player chime in on those ambient conversations. That felt a very natural way to write, and a little bit better way to introduce not only that character – the one that’s speaking – but their interrelationships. So they’re not all islands. You can go talk to Wynne, and she can tell you about herself. And you can go talk to Morrigan, and she can talk about herself. But if you have them in the party together, that’s the only place you can see their relationship with each other and see it develop. I thought that was a better way of showing that character development than just going up and talking to them and asking them questions. Because one is exposition and the other one is showing.

When you’re creating these characters in a world where they can change so much based on the choices of the player. Do you have a representation in your head of what is canon for Morrigan, for Zevran, and what are the off shoots of their personality that you had to create if the player essentially made a wrong choice, in your mind?

There are several answers to that. It’s always difficult to talk about “canon” because in games canon is something that overrides your experience. Like, Baldur’s Gate 2 had a canonical version of events of Baldur’s Gate 1. You could have brought an entirely different party through Baldur’s Gate 1 and as you went into Baldur’s Gate 2 it just ignored that and these were the people you were assumed to have traveled with. That’s canon.

And there’s personal canon. I will freely admit that I have favorite versions of various events. It’s just ones that I liked better, and not all fans feel the same way and that’s fine. I just – that’s going to influence me obviously. I’m going to sort of pay more attention to the stuff that I personally like more, but we don’t want to discount entirely other people’s experience. So, the only thing beyond that that we sort of have to have is we have to consider there’s the “default” as opposed to the canon. What is the version of events in the world if somebody didn’t play the previous game? That has a very specific purpose because we can’t focus on things that a player without context isn’t going to understand.

So, for instance, if you go into Dragon Age: Inquisition, a default is that in Dragon Age: Origins there was no Dark Ritual with Morrigan at the end of the game and thus she never had a child. Because for a player who never played that game if suddenly she shows up with this child and there’s all this stuff about Kieran, they’re not going to understand that. You’d have to end up spending a lot of time explaining, and it would just all be exposition and would be kind of openly meaningless. So, generally, characters that could die would be dead. Plots that had a version where they didn’t happen, that’s the default. It’s not as interesting, but it makes sense for what we need it for. But that’s not canon. It’s not overriding the individual player, their particular version of the world. They carry that in, even though that has been hell to accommodate as time goes on. It gets very complicated.

Again, we are speaking to David Gaider, one of the senior writers at Bioware, the lead behind the Dragon Age franchise for three games. He’s moving on to new and exciting things. Looking at these characters that you created and the love or hate that resonates in the community – because Bioware is connected to the community. You know exactly how people feel. You have the analytics that show it too. What do you believe are, and we’ll go with the first game to start, but the most loved characters and the most hated, and do you think it’s fair as someone who is part of that creation of these characters?

Of course, it’s fair. I mean, we design these characters to elicit emotional reactions. To me, a character fails if their reaction to it is sort of meh. Apathy is failure as far as these characters, so I am just as okay with a character being utterly hated as I am with one being utterly loved. Now, fandom being what it is, I mean, some people take it to a degree that is probably to an outsider they’d be like, wow, that is really strange. And, you know, fair enough. And I think every fandom for every game is like that.

But the thing that we try to get people to feel is that these are real people. And that comes with a sort of a weirdness. You know, they’re talking about fictional people. But it’s the same as a fandom for like Harry Potter. To the fans that are emotionally invested in Harry Potter, those characters are as real to them as real people. So, it’s the same with Dragon Age.

Were you ever surprised about some of the characters that resonated or were hated in different ways?

I was surprised by maybe the extremity of some of the reactions. And sometimes the justifications that people come up with it’s a little odd. I tend to be quite involved in the community, some would argue too much so but I enjoy getting into those conversations and sometimes arguments. It’s like, well, I just don’t understand what you’re thinking. And it’s fine. At some level, I appreciate the fact that the variety of interpretations is possible. The very subjective nature of Dragon Age, even at its core, like when we talk about its history, depending a lot on who’s doing the speaking, it’s the same thing with the characters. The fact that they can have all this variety of interpretations is, I think, a signal that we did something right.

So, it’s interesting. The only thing I would say that really surprised me in terms of reactions is which characters are some of the more popular than others. Like, I would not have thought going into Dragon Age: Origins that Alistair would end up being as popular as he was. I didn’t think I’d made him that funny. But he was really, really enjoyed, not just by the people who romanced him.

I think going in a lot of people assumed that Oghren would be the stand out, sort of our equivalent of Minsc or HK47 of previous games. I think that was the assumption for some people on the team. I never felt that way myself, but I know that was our assumption that he was our comedy character that would be beloved by everybody. And that really never – I think he was liked well enough, but I think he came too late in the game and he never really caught on like some of the other characters did.

Are there any characters that now you’re looking back did that one thing that you hoped they wouldn’t and that’s failed, they have that apathy? Is there anyone in Origins that did that?

Let’s see. I think there are a number of characters that they all have their particular fans. So there are people that if I was to point at say Wynne in Dragon Age: Origins and say she was a little bit plain Jane in terms of the kind of love in comparison to some of the other characters – I mean, she wasn’t a romancable character and they’re the ones that seem to elicit the most extreme feelings. But I know for certain that there are people out there that loved her dearly or hated her because maybe at some point in the game she dared to question their romance or whatever. But there are people that would be offended at the idea that I would say she was bland.

But it happens sometimes. I know that there was a couple of characters in the Awakening expansion that we introduced that were like, mmm, that didn’t really do what we were hoping for. And that happens sometimes. You’re making a character, and you have this idea in your head of what makes them cool and as you’re going along it’s not working like I hoped. But now you’re four feet in the pit, and there’s further to get back up out of the pit than there is to get to the bottom.

What were some of those instances of characters in Awakening that you didn’t think hit the mark like you wanted them to?

I would say Velanna was one. I think Sheryl was going for something with Velanna that she never quite hit. I think Velanna, there’s some very interesting things about her but personality wise she became very unlikable and never seemed to sort of – I think honestly, that was the nature of the expansion in that we never had a long enough amount of play time to deal with that arch in the way that character sort of required in order to make that journey all the way around to growth. Which is what Velanna required.  I think Velanna was one of those characters that could have had a lot of potential that got cut short by the nature of the expansion.

In terms of the overarching plot of Dragon Age: Origins and the themes that you were trying to play with there, when did you decide that Origins would end in the way that it did and were there other options that we never knew about that are on the cutting room floor?

The ending with Morrigan, the Dark Ritual, and how that would play into the final battle against the archdemon, that was very early. I think that may even have been… there was a version of that back when the initial plot was concepted. Because, I think when I was pitching the very first plot – when we do our pitches it’s like here’s a large paragraph that sums up what the major beats of the story will be. And I think that ending was in that. That was kind of a twist on the Morgan Le Fay, King Arthur kind of darkness.  I think I definitely wanted to do something about that and have a twist that involved the nature of being a Grey Warden and what it meant to – what the Grey Wardens actually did that made them atypical of a standard heroic trope.

So, I think that was always there. As we got along there were definitely some versions. Initially I think everyone could have a baby with Morrigan, even female players. That was on the table at one point. A lot of it, I think, boiled down to that we had so many pokers in the fire that we just couldn’t fulfill all of them. And a lot of it was cut just due to space. Like, there was an entire other version of the encounter with Morrigan at the end if you were in love with her or were her friend as opposed to having one version that kind of fit all. And we just couldn’t do them.

And every time we cut something, that’s like, aw, that’s too bad. But then you realize that if you had tried to fulfill them all we wouldn’t have done them all justice. We just wouldn’t have had time. The cinematics team wouldn’t have had time to spend on those conversations to give them some nuance.  So, you realize it’s for the best. You’re sort of trimming the branches off the tree so the tree will survive.

Is there anything else that you can look back and say – specific to Origins because this is several years down the road now – looking back and then saying I didn’t want the story to progress in this way and I wished that maybe the mage conflict was more central. Is there anything like that with the luxury of hindsight that you can look back and maybe say there should have been some changes?

It’s hard. That’s going back so many years. I remember at the time the production was so – we’d been on it for five or six years by that point. And it was feeling like it was dragging to the point of like, are we going to be able to pull everything together and even get this out? Are we going to get canceled?

As we got more and more toward the end, the crunch became so incredible and things were getting cut left and right. When you are on the inside of a project like that, your perspective is very different. So much stuff gets cut. Even though the fans never realize that, when it finally goes out the door you feel like you’ve put out this hacked, slap dashed thing covered in band aids. And you’re like, oh, god, it’s gonna seem terrible.

I remember feeling that way when Baldur’s Gate 2 went out. It was like, oh god, this is such a mess. I don’t know how anybody cannot see that. And then it’s acclaimed as this great RPG, and you’re like, huh? Maybe on the inside we don’t have the needed objectivity to judge something like that.

So, really? You look back on those and still say even now, oh, there was so much more! It would have been better if it had this?

You mean, when I think about the stuff that was cut?

Yeah. I mean, looking at the finished project. What you just described there, the feeling that it’s band aids everywhere, it’s slap dash. Does that pervade every game you make?

Yes. There’s a point as you get into the last quarter of production, it becomes a matter – especially with Bioware games because there is so much content. It becomes a matter of, okay, we’ve added all this stuff and we can’t possibly do it all. So we have to pick which darlings to kill. And they are darlings. From a writer’s perspective you want it all. You talk about it to a fan and it’s hard to talk to them about it because they don’t have the same perspective on the inside. To them, why wouldn’t you add it all? Why wouldn’t you keep it all in? Oh, my god, you cut that one branch? That would have been so cool!

And yes, it would have been cool. If it had worked. Because it’s easy for them to imagine – I can picture in my head that entire branch being brilliant and having amazing cinematics if taken to its ultimate conclusion, but that’s the issue. We couldn’t do that. So, if you have a choice between doing two branches and each one being half-assed or cutting one and thus being able to one, well, fully-assed, I guess. That’s the choice you have to make.

And sometimes it has to be a choice of somebody above us because it’s difficult. I mean. I’ve gotten a little better as time has went on to sort of maintain that you can’t be too precious about what you’ve written. Because all of it is sort of on the table. You can’t be that person who is like, nooo! You can’t cut that! That’s my baby! You maintain that idea that okay, this is for the best. And you sort of select your victims, and do so carefully.

It’s still hard when it happens, but – I mean, even years later, I – someone asked me about stuff that was cut from Origins, and I can name off a list. There’s an entire plot that involved Empress Celene of Orlais visiting Denerim and being caught in Denerim when the siege happens, and she was going to marry King Cailin but he’s dead now. So there’s an entire, giant plot that surrounded that, almost as big as some of the other ones. It’s like, don’t you wish you had put that in the game?

Part of me, the writer part of me wishes. Sure. The developer part of me says, oh, hell no. It was such a jumbled mess, I don’t know how we would have managed to make that into a cohesive plot and still had the time to do all the other plots to the level that – In order to do that, okay, if you think we should have done that, go back to all those other plots you loved and cut them down by half. Take half that story out and figure out how to make that work. Because that’s what would have had to be done. We have a finite amount of resources that does not change. So, if you want more shells to go into this basket, you have to pick where the shells come from elsewhere.

Simply said, there you go. And it is something that when you talk to – because we posted this to the community any questions that they could possibly have for you. And resoundingly all of them were very, very specific ones about why wasn’t there a cameo of this one insulary character from Origins in every single subsequent game. And everyone seemed to have the one character that they loved, and from what you are speaking to here there could have been an opportunity to do that but they might have lost other characters that they love equally as much.

Oh, yeah. I mean, looking at Dragon Age: Inquisition, our initial plans, I think we had just about everyone from Origins and DA2 appearing at some point physically. And that was just too much. It was cumbersome from the story perspective. All of those characters had models that couldn’t be reused, which meant the artists would have had to create specific bodies. Okay, yes, we could have done those faces, if not bodies. Some characters like Fenris, who has a very specific appearance body wise as well as face, would have required more work than others. But, yes, they could have done all those faces.

And then, okay, now we’ve used this much resources for all these call backs to the previous games. Now what about all the new stuff we need for the story we’re currently doing? So, yeah, you have to make some hard decisions about what you need, like we leaned more toward the characters that we had present uses for. And still trying to, well, if this character doesn’t appear what could we do that is a shout out to those players who like that character? And then, of course, speaking to an individual fan, everybody has different priorities. They love this one character so much it’s so grossly unfair that why did this other character get an entire plot about them and this character didn’t even appear? They can rage.

And I totally get it. You love each of those characters that you worked on in different ways. And you’d love to have them all come together in some sort of massive – If we actually had all characters from previous games involved on the same level, I can’t imagine what kind of Age of Ultron – Can you imagine? I don’t even know what that would look like, how many different characters you would have popping up. And, god forbid you were somebody that hadn’t been with Dragon Age right from the beginning. You’d be like, what is this? Am I supposed to know who this character is?

So, yeah, we kind of had to pick our battles in terms of how many appearances we could get and how many plots we could have where a previous character played a facet and leave it at that. Unfortunately, that’s one of those cases where we just can’t make everyone happy, as much as we would like to. It would be great. Maybe if we’d doubled the size of the plot, we maybe would have had room for more tie-ins, but that just was never going to happen. Inquisition was kind of a monster in and of itself.

Well, speaking to that Age of Ultron meet up where everyone’s there, the use of epilogue in Dragon Age: Origins, when was that – because to me, what you were describing there is kind of an example of the epilogue. That did that for me. When did that come into play and how do you feel about that kind of mechanism in terms of storytelling?

Well, the Dragon Age: Origins epilogue existed because initially I don’t know that we were certain we would get a second game. Ideally, we were hoping that we would put out Dragon Age: Origins and it would be successful. We didn’t know. So, the epilogue came late in the game, and it was something we had done previously. At the time it was the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate. And we had the epilogue slides at the end of Baldur’s Gate, so that seemed like an appropriate thing. And what happened to these characters? Because we’d also cut so many things, there was a lot threads left were dangling. So it was like, oh, it’d be kind of neat if we had, you know, at the end of a movie where as the credits are going on you can see, oh, so and so went on to go to college, and then robbed a bank, and, oh, neat. So, to tie up those threads and give the players sense of how this plot that they had spent so much time with, how it had continued on so they could imagine it in their head.

I think ultimately I came to regret exactly how we had done that. Because the epilogues were put together very quickly and some of them cast so far into the future that, okay, now we are doing the sequel and it takes place two years into the future or whatever. And it’s like, we’re trying to have a plot and we’re trying to have some call backs, yet there are things that were forecast that went so far ahead that now we’re contradicting it. Can we honor those all? Here we have a plot which works in every facet expect for this one epilogue slide. And it’s like, god dammit, past Dave! Why did you write that?

What was one that was too far reaching?

Oh, there were some like with, say Cullen that talked about his career progression, and how he eventually years later would become Knight Commander or something. I don’t even remember the exact process. Some of them talked about Orzammar years and years into the future and their society. And you’re like, oh, wow, that’s a giant check to write. Especially, if you are then asked later, now pick up the plot and have some tie backs. And you’re like, um, okay. You’re sitting there and you’re laying out all the epilogue slides in front of you and you’re figuring, how do I honor every single one of these? Wow. I didn’t think that through at the time.

We’re getting a little better at that. I think the ultimate lesson was that we have to be a little bit more careful. What we intended with the epilogue slides was while they did tie things up, they’re meant to remain as subjective as everything else. A lot of it talks about this understood or it’s heard. There was a time when the origin story had a historical framing. It was being told as a story in the distance past by an old woman that you initially would have thought was Flemeth and at the end you realize is Morrigan many, many years later.

So the epilogue slides were intended as a, from what we know of this story this is what happened to these people. And then that got cut, which is good. I’m glad it did because I really didn’t like that. But that was how it happened, and at the time the idea that maybe Dragon Age: Origins was going to have to live on its own as its own game. Like, Jade Empire never got a sequel. So at the time it didn’t seem so unrealistic to consider the fact that this might be our only shot at this one particular story. So it seemed fine.

So, then Dragon Age: Origins went out, and it was a big hit. But that wasn’t a guaranteed thing in our heads at the time. There were some people who thought that traditional fantasy wouldn’t really catch on. I mean, this was – was this before the Lord of the Rings movies? Before or maybe around the same time. But before Lord of the Rings came out, I don’t think the idea that traditional fantasy could have commercial weight was really a thing.

It’s hard in my head to take all that out and put myself back in those shoes. It’s like putting gay romances into the game. There was a time when that was, you wouldn’t even conceive of that. Even if you personally supported it, you just wouldn’t do it because it wasn’t done. It’s hard to remember what your mindset was that long ago.

Well, looking back now, as best as you can, how would you summarize what Dragon Age: Origins was for the Dragon Age universe? What did it represent and what were you trying to leave the players with? That resonating feeling.

I think we wanted to encapsulate – when you first read traditional fantasy, when you first read say, Tolkien or you first played Dungeons & Dragons, what interests people about traditional fantasy? What sparks the mind? The feeling that this is as much a love letter to fantasy as anything else. To treat the fantasy not as something that’s inherently ridiculous but something that has weight, that has a sense of realism, as if you could step into the world and live there and that had a plausibility that you could accept. That’s sort of what we were going for with Dragon Age: Origins. I think for many people it did hit that sweet spot where even if the world was fantastical, the characters were relatable.

 

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