Updated: Sep 11, 2019
Dragon Age (DA) is a series about, well, surprisingly, not dragons. Don’t get me wrong, there are dragons, but it’s so much more than that. Written and developed by BioWare, the Dragon Age series beautifully marries the incredibly mundane with the insanely fantastical. On one hand, you’re saving the world from an apocalypse of varying proportions; compare that with what is on the other hand like figuring out what kind of throne you want in your throne room. As the series progressed, the dev. teams learned how to refine their storytelling, as well as keep combat and other game mechanics fresh.
One of the ways that this was accomplished was by putting the player at the center of the action as much as possible. Regardless of which game you end up playing, you will find that your character is central to the plot and that their actions and choices have meaningful consequences in the world around them. An example from one of my playthroughs with Dragon Age: Inquisition (the third installment of the series where your character takes up the mantle as the legendary Inquisitor) comes during a trip through the Fade (an otherworldly realm full of spirits and demons) where (SPOILERS-->) the final boss of the area gives you the choice to sacrifice one of your characters as they stay behind to hold back the demon while you and the rest of your party escape. The choice ultimately comes down to one other character or a character named Hawke (also known as the Champion), the very character you play through in Dragon Age II.
Another way this is accomplished is by having the main character quickly amassing either influence or power (sometimes both). Never quite becoming a king or queen or something similar, they do, however, become an individual that even the mightiest monarchs pay heed to. Each game allows the player to make pivotal decisions that affect and shape the world. An example of this would be from Dragon Age: Origins (the first title in the series) where the main character (also known as the Warden) influences the nobility in taking action to help stem the tide of the an advancing army of darkness. They can even ultimately become consort to the reigning monarch if they play their cards right.
Of course, BioWare is keenly aware of the personal aspects that each player will have with their character(s). Nowhere is this more exemplified than with the dialogue wheel that was popularized in their Mass Effect series. The dialogue allows the player some amount of agency in the way that their character reacts and speaks with others. This also, through programming code magic, catalogues, records, and elicits various responses from individual characters while simultaneously queuing events that occur later on in the narrative. Where the player might feel these options most intensely is during dialogue which is meant to trigger romance between two characters. Romance being a hallmark of both Dragon Age and Mass Effect, BioWare has shown their quality in terms of writing in regards to this feature. Swaths of fans live for the moments when they can advance the relationship of their character.
It hasn’t always been a bed of roses for BioWare, however, and this is doubly true for the DA series. With three major entries into the series with some DLC for every title, there was room to grow. Origins sought to continue the success the developer had found with another title of theirs, Baldur’s Gate, by emulating the same kind of mechanics (and therefore overall “feel” of the game). This turned Origins into a game which echoed the likes of Dungeons and Dragons but with a third-person camera. The player could also pause the action and think strategically about how they wished to proceed in combat (while issuing commands separately as well). This worked well for them as Origins sold fairly well. However, they were keenly aware of the sector of their fanbase that wanted more. In much the same way that they wanted narrative choices to matter, they also wanted combat input to matter. To put it bluntly, they wanted it so that when the player pushed the button, something happened. (This coming from the obvious fact that in the first game, actions were delayed and queued, causing the pace of combat to sometimes feel sluggish and took away from player agency).
Enter the second title of the series, simply titled Dragon Age II. Combat was revamped to make player input more dynamic. Press the attack button several times in a row and the character would respond. This made combat encounters extremely more fast-paced and didn’t feel like you were rolling dice at the table. Unfortunately, this also came at a time where a mix of combat redesign with a new engine and pressure from BioWare’s parent company to produce a game caused the game to fail narratively. Many fans regard DAII being the weakest entry into the series. Couple this with them having to reuse assets over and over again due to time constraints which made the world feel “cookie cutter”, it is not hard to imagine why.
BioWare would learn from their time with DAII and other titles and over the course of the three years before Inquisition would release. The third title married the storytelling of the first and the combat of the second perfectly, causing it to be regarded as the best entry to the series to date. With an expansive world, compelling story, and engaging combat, the Dragon Age series felt like it had received the 5-star treatment it deserved.