Dragon Age Origins is a Terrible Game
I am reposting this from Kotaku. I wrote this... essay, over there and DocSeuss chimed in to recommend posting it on Polygon for more feedback. It's mainly a rant, but it really does annoy me that after Dragon Age 2 so many gamers claim Origins was a fantastic game. If story matters you then it really wasn't, in my opinion.
Okay, rant incoming. But it needs to be said. Apologies to any DA:O diehard fans out there who take this one between the legs.
Dragon Age Origins is a terrible game. There. I said it. You can whine and moan about DA2's shortcomings all you like, but don't you dare point to DAO as though it's the epitome of gaming greatness. It has one of the worst stories I have ever come across in any narrative medium. Even Michael Bay's Transformers 2 had a better story than DAO. Here's why:
Coincidences. Anyone who has studied Creative Writing past the age of 16 knows that you absolutely must not rely on coincidence as your key narrative hook, unless you eventually reveal that they weren't coincidences at all. When I started playing DAO I was treated to a fascinating Origin story, and a gripping introduction at Ostagar. The Darkspawn were introduced as the main antagonists, and I was established as a Grey Warden - whose purpose (it was made deathly clear) was to battle the Darkspawn, especially during Blights. I was then charged with taking an ancient treaty to the four corners of Ferelden in order to raise an army to defeat the coming Blight. "Great idea!" I thought. "They're having me visit these different places early on so that I have a basic understanding of Ferelden and its inhabitants before the story begins in earnest. That's clever!" If only that were the case.
I started out by heading to Redcliffe, seeking human troops to enlist in my army. But when I arrived... Holy crap! The entire place is under siege from an undead army! And each soldier felled by the undead becomes undead himself! What were the chances of this happening? Well, we'd better deal with this situation. After hearing that the militia need all the help they can get to defend the castle, I head back to my camp to gather my allies: "Alistair, Morrigan, Leliana, you're with me. Sten, Wynne, Ohgren, Shale, Zevran, Dog, you guys toast marshmallows until we get back. I know they need all the help they can get, but I'm incapable of commanding more than three people at once. Maker knows why I'm trying to raise an army, I'm obviously going to run into issues there."
So we head back to Redcliffe, slay the undead army, and rescue those inside. Job done? Nope. The Arl (top dog) of the castle has fallen ill, and the only way to cure him is to seek out the ashes of Jesus Chri... Andreste herself. Oh right. Better do that then. But first of all, let's raise this army, because the DARKSPAWN are coming and it's already been established that they are the main antagonists of this adventure, and therefore the most important issue to deal with.
Off to the Mage's Tower we go. To find that it's been over-run by blood mages, demons, and abominations. Holy crap! What are the chances of that happening? That's two ridiculously crazy occurences that are totally unrelated to the Blight. I really don't have time for this, there's a Darkspawn army that needs to be dealt with! It's already destroyed Lothering! I ask if the Templars can deal with the situation, but the Templar army is too afraid to do exactly what it's been trained to do for Maker knows how many decades or centuries. So it looks like myself and no more than three of my companions are off to save the day again.
After that, it's time to get the rest of this army together. And quickly, please. We've wasted dozens of hours on these side quests already. The Darkspawn are becoming a distant memory at this rate. To the Brecilian forest we go, to recruit some Elves! But oh no! What's this? Werewolves are running rampant in the forest, infecting the Elves, and threatening to drive their people to extinction? Holy crap! What a coincidence! I suppose the Elves are also incapable of solving this problem themselves, and I'll have to do it with the help of no more than three of my companions again? Sure, no problem. I'll do it all with a long drawn out sigh, spending another half dozen plus hours of gameplay fighting something that isn't... erm... what where they called? Oh yes, DARKSPAWN. Why am I supposed to be fighting them again?
Finally, let's begin the slow trudge West to the mountains. To Orzammar. It's a slow trudge because even though I know it should be a simple matter of getting this treaty acknowledged, precedent has firmly established that this will not be the case. Something ridiculously coincidental will have happened that will cost me several more hours of my life. Ahh yes, the Dwarven king has died and left civil war in his wake and two Dwarves vie for succession rights. Well it's a lot more believable than the other three, but still far too much of a coincidence. But that's not even what makes me angry here. You're made very aware from the start that Dwarves have immense respect for the Proving. Anyone who fights in there and wins instantly gains the respect of the Dwarven people. So instead of agreeing to help out one of the would-be kings by first fighting in his name at the Proving, then cleaning up his back alleys by wiping out a crime syndicate, and then heading down into the Deep Roads to find a long lost mortal god who has been lost for years and may or not be dead, and THEN upon actually finding her being tasked with searching for an even longer lost ancient artifact of unimaginable power... all I wanted to do was slap the two kings into the Proving. Harrowmont fights Behlen. Whoever wins becomes king. Not just because they will have proven their strength and won the hearts of their people through a respected and honorable tradition, BUT BECAUSE THEY'RE THE ONLY POTENTIAL KING LEFT ALIVE. But it's not even an option during any of the dialogue. You can't even ask about the possibility to be politely informed by some nonsense gameplay-steering answer about why candidates for kingship can't fight. It's just a massive elephant in the room throughout that entire drawn-out chapter. What a mess.
And by the time all of that is said and done, your game is close to finished. You're finally steered on to the Landsmeet where the game's finale comes into play, and you remember that the game had set you up to battle Darkspawn. "Oh that's right! I'm a Grey Warden! Not an agony aunt!" But by this point all I can think about is what would have happened if the hero hadn't been around. And it made me realize that the Darkspawn aren't the threat at all. See, if it wasn't for the hero, then when the Darkspawn finally arrived in Ferelden they would have found an undead army swarming across the land from Redcliffe; a Mage's tower full of demons and abominations, slaughtering goats and splitting Templar skulls, or doing whatever it is they do for kicks; a forest full off angry puppies; and a few Dwarves left in Orzammar mopping blood from the streets, blissfully unaware of everything going on above them. I imagine the Darkspawn would have looked around, said "Screw this," and headed back the way they came.
Dragon Age 2 may have been a sub-par game. But Dragon Age Origin's story was so bad that if the plot had been presented to a book publisher, Bioware would have been laughed out of the office with a recommendation to return to high school creative writing classes.