Gameplay, Class, and Story in Dragon Age

I’ve been thinking a lot about Bioware games lately, and the role of class and race in storytelling. It was just Bioware month after all – did you catch me on Justice Points? If not, check it out.

In the typical Western fantasy RPG that lets you create your own character, there are two big choices to make at the start – the class you want to play and the race you want to be (and your hairstyle, obviously). Your class – warrior, rogue, mage are the big three though some games offer many more specific classes like druids, priests or rangers – dictates the types of abilities you can use. Your race – Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, etc. – can impact what classes you can choose and may give you certain traits or attributes.

What class you play in RPGs generally has the most impact on mechanics and how you solve problems as opposed to the narrative. Where a warrior may break down a locked door, a rogue may pick the lock or pickpocket the key, and a mage might use a Knock spell. Some games offer quests or things like guilds that can only be accessed by players of a certain class, but these generally don’t have a huge impact on the story. Combat is a big problem to be solved in most games, and class has a huge impact on that. The combat experience of a sword & board warrior is quite different from that of a spirit mage and most players have a preference when it comes to combat style.

Many RPGs can boast that your decisions and character background shape your game experience in some way, but the Dragon Age series in particular takes things a bit further. As evidenced by the name, the first Dragon Age game puts a lot of emphasis on the origin of your character. You can choose to play one of 6 different origin stories – You can be a Daelish elf or a city elf, a Dwarf Noble or commoner, or a Human Noble. Or you can be a Mage. Each of these 6 character types has it’s own unique origin story that acts as the prologue of the game, but the difference in experience doesn’t stop there. If you’re a dwarf from the Noble caste, you’ll have a different experience and understanding of what happens in Orzammar than you would if you were a human. If you’re a city elf you’ll have different conversations when you revisit the alienage in Denerim. If you’re anything but a human noble Alistair will stomp all over your heart after you make him King. Yes, this is a lingering trauma. These little differences based on your origin, along with the changes caused by your choices make the game worth replaying. That’s not where the differences end though, as the Mage class throws you a curveball. While being a warrior or a rogue makes no difference to the game’s narrative and doesn’t impact your origin story, being a Mage changes everything. When you’re a Mage you get a whole different origin story and whether you’re a human or an elf (dwarves can’t practice magic) doesn’t matter. Being a Mage trumps everything else.

Dragon Age Origins mage spells

From a narrative standpoint, this is thematically appropriate and is a great bit of world building. The tensions between the Circle of Mages and the Chantry is one of the defining parts of Thedas. When it’s discovered that someone can use magic they’re shipped off to the Circle where they live under constant surveillance, it doesn’t matter where they came from or what race they are. It makes total sense that being a Mage is going to have a great impact on your experiences in the world as opposed to being a rogue or warrior which really has no impact on story.

Choosing the Mage class in Dragon Age 2 also has a significant impact on how you experience the game. As you make your way to Kirkwall with your family, one of your siblings is killed and who it is is based on your class. If you’re a warrior or a rogue, you go through the rest of the game with your sister, Bethany, a Mage. If you’re a Mage yourself, it’s Carver, the warrior who survives and may become a Templar later on.

Bethany Dragon Age 2

Again, this makes sense from a narrative standpoint. The troubles between the Circle of Mages and the Chantry and Templars is even more at the forefront of this game, eventually reaching a boiling point. Much more tension is created by putting your sibling on the opposite side of the issue from you. Also, it aids in the ability to create a balanced party at the start of the game.

However, as much as it makes sense in the scope of the game world, having your class impact your experience of the story so much causes some issues for me. I like being a mage, I find their abilities more interesting than the other classes and I find them more fun to play. The spells have real synergy and you can change your combat strategy quite considerably based on which skill trees you invest in. There are area of effect spells, direct single target spells, spells that hit in a cone, plus buffs and heals for your party. Warriors are really dull to play. Rogues are a bit more interesting, but still rather button mashy. From a pure mechanics standpoint, I always want to play a mage. That means I’ll probably never get to see things as a Daelish elf in DA:O. In Dragon Age 2 I always have to make a choice – play the class I prefer and never get to experience Bethany’s story or choose a class I’ll have less fun with so I can see this other side of the game. It’s a long game and playing as a class I don’t like will definitely impact my enjoyment.

I can’t think of any other games where the class you choose so greatly impacts the events of the game. It makes sense, in the world of Thedas, that being a mage limits your options. But in the real world, where I want to have fun while playing games, it’s disappointing that fun combat mechanics and differing narrative experiences can be at odds with one another.

4 responses to “Gameplay, Class, and Story in Dragon Age

  1. Interesting read.

    I think that your character’s class has some inherent effect on how you experience the story, similar to race. I find it more natural to play a warrior character as direct and bellicose, while playing as a mage the character tends to be more cautious and friendly, both to avoid confrontation and not to reflect badly on other mages. There is also a different power curve to the game: as a warrior you start strong and it is your duty to protect the other party members. As a mage you begin as a weakling that stands back and needs the protection of others, and over the length of the game you become a god-like champion whose powers eclipse the rest of the party. This creates, at least for me, a completely different emotional arc for the game, even through it is derived from mechanics and not story.

    The Dragon Age games specifically also have the nice feature that you can actively control any party member you like. So you can have a Warden / Champion / Inquisitor of any class and still play the party’s mage most of the time.

    • I always forget that I can just control another character in Dragon Age. I rarely take control of one of my other party members unless it’s to stop them from doing something really stupid in combat. However, even though I’m not much of a roleplayer, it feels odd to take control over one character in the story, and another in combat.

  2. I played DA:O so many times that I beat it as both sexes, all races and all classes in different combinations (and I should have the platinum trophy to prove it, but one of them bugged and I’m still pissed about that) along with seeing all of the endings.

    DA2 I only played through once. I still need to go back and play it again, just to do things differently. I happen to think it was genius for Bioware to include these options and the different endings. Not only does it remind me of old school JRPGs, but also gives the games a greater replay value.

    If I wasn’t knee deep in Fallout 4 and didn’t have a considerable backlog I want to start clearing, I might go back and play DA2 and Mass Effect over again. It’s been long enough that the experiences would be fairly fresh. Hell, I still haven’t played DA:I, so I’d rather go with something new for now. But I’m glad you raised these points, I’ll have to make some new decisions in some of those games some time.
    Izlain recently posted..The Wasteland Has Me

    • I’ve played through DA:O a few times. First as a rogue city elf, then a human mage, then a noble dwarf warrior. I found the combat experience of a 2H warrior so boring, that it made me hesitant to ever play that again, even in the later games. I’d like to see the few origin stories I haven’t seen, but never want to play the game as anything but a mage.

      DA2 is my favourite of the series and I’d really like to play with Bethany, but I don’t know if I want to play a 40 hour game with a class I don’t enjoy. I’d prefer that the major differences in story be based on choices than class since class also has just an impact on mechanics.