Dragon Age: Can a Game be Art?
Dragon Age: Origins was released in 2009 to critical acclaim and an appreciative fanbase, which continues to grow. Reviews typically opened with describing it as the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate, a brave claim to make given the undiminished devotion inspired by that title (due to the giant space hamsters, no doubt).
But that very comparison brings us to the crux of this article: this is not a review of Dragon Age: Origins – there have already been innumerable critical assessments of the game’s playability, not to mention its recent sequel. Instead, the intention is to consider Dragon Age as an example of how the gaming industry has begun to produce legitimate genres – titles that are not distinguished simply by their style of play but as an evolving artform. Further examples of classic games will be presented by Kyle Black with his ongoing column Throwback Thursday here on Comic Booked.
Inevitably, we come to Roger Ebert‘s claim that games cannot be art. As others have pointed out, Ebert’s criticism of gaming is disingenuous at best, downright ignorant at worst. But it is representative of a certain mindset which is that video games, much like comics, are considered childish, juvenile, and superficially diverting.
In comparing Dragon Age to Baldur’s Gate, reviewers not only set up fans of that earlier franchise with certain expectations, but also called attention to the quality of the game under review. Players discovered that they were required to not only defeat various monsters and raise an army against a demonic fiend but, most importantly, negotiate the treacherous paths of conversation with other non-player characters! While combat tended to revolve around these warriors, rogues and mages being directed to fight against enemies, the decisions made by the player, who selects the race, gender and appearance of the Warden character representing them in the game, had positive or negative consequences depending on the personality of the ally in question. A particular action could be the last straw that caused the previously obliging mage or soldier to quit in a huff and vanish from the game or even insist upon the Warden fighting them in a duel. Or they could become a romantic partner. One of Dragon Age‘s many surprises is the moment when the player realizes they have been unintentionally sending romantic signals.
In short – this is not a simple game that can be so easily dismissed. The player was asked not only to consider the consequences of his actions, but the emotions of fictional individuals! A repeated criticism of gaming is that it insulates the player from social contact, yet here we see an example of a game design that preys upon the empathy of the gamer.
Video games themselves are increasingly prominent in contemporary culture, not only as a billion-dollar profit earner for the companies behind the industry – compare the mind-boggling box office of James Cameron’s Avatar to Modern Warfare 2, out the same year – but as a feature of modern life. The riots in London have been blamed on many different factors, but one interesting descriptor for the young looters whose faces were captured on CCTV was the “GTA generation“. Following this controversial train of thought, gaming is therefore symptomatic of a diseased culture, a harbinger of future ‘real world’ outbursts of violence.
However, Dragon Age head writer David Gaider has not only fashioned an enjoyably interactive and immersive game, where characters humourously “banter” at certain moments in transit from one location to another, but presents a genuinely authorial voice throughout. He is telling a story, one which allows the player to participate and feel transported into another world.
This is partly due to the generous riffing on literary fantasists such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin to help to solidify the composition of the world of THEDAS (an acronym for THE Dragon Age Setting). Examples of this include the destructive phenomenon known as The Blight, which is a common element of Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, as well as a besieged tower of oppressed magic adepts; George R.R. Martin’s cynical account of medieval kingmaking is present and accounted for in the betrayal of the army at Ostagar by Loghain. But it is Tolkien who appears to have been the chief inspiration for the game’s mythology. As the Warden, the player is asked to help defend the land of Ferelden from an invasion of Darkspawn, vicious creatures whose appearance resembles that of Peter Jackson’s Orcs. The Lord of the Rings books also play a part in their conception though – literally, for as the player eventually discovers, the Darkspawn are themselves the corrupted offspring of humans, elves, dwarves and a Dragon Age-specific race known as Qunari. Jackson diverged from Tolkien’s novel in several respects during his adaptation, but one example in particular was his decision to show Orcs being hatched from eggs. The Oxford don had an entirely different origin for the creatures, revealing that they were the result of continuing breeding experiments on elves performed by an evil Dark Lord.
The moment in Dragon Age when the truth behind the Darkspawn becomes clear is one of the most powerful and shocking interludes in the game, with all credit to writer Jennifer Hepler who contributed this eerie verse to describe the process:
First day they come and catch everyone
Second day they beat us, and eat some for meat..
Third day the men are all gnawed on again..
Fourth day we wait and fear for our fate..
Fifth day they return and its another girl’s turn..
Sixth day her screams we hear in our dreams..
Seventh day she grew as in her mouth they spew..
Eighth day we hated as she is violated..
Ninth day she grins and devours her kin..
Now she does feast, as she’s become the beast.
Dragon Age, and other contemporary games such as The Witcher, do a great job of presenting the player with morally complex storylines and post-Tolkien narratives with no easy choices. There is also a richness on display here that cannot be reduced solely to beat-em-up clichés or graphic excess. Yes, Dragon Age is violent and gory in its depictions of combat, but it earns this by investing in frequently hilarious character dialogue, as well as the aforementioned difficult plot.
The real test though is how it stands up as a game two years after its release. As it happens, Dragon Age: Origins Ultimate Edition has been released – the unabridged version of the game, if you like, which includes all of the various DLC add-ons that followed the initial title. While the vanilla Dragon Age was no doubt enjoyable in and of itself, the Ultimate Edition is a far superior experience. One frequent complaint from players in the early days was the encounter with a character called Levi Dryden, whose plea for the Warden to assist him would result in a jarring request for payment details. Here, the business side of Bioware’s operation unaccountably interfered with the generous fantasy of Dragon Age. Still, players were obviously content to pay, and, if that continues to be the case, incomplete games with continuing DLC additions will persist. Instances of a bug in the game resulting in the DLC items vanishing from the game randomly have been reported – again, ruining suspension of disbelief.
These are minor complaints though, for, on the whole, Dragon Age: Origins is an entertaining game with a lot to offer. The litmus test is whether a player can return to this game in another three years time, much like there are individuals today who are discovering Planescape: Torment and Deus Ex only now, and still find the experience engaging, fulfilling and ultimately worthwhile.
Ebert’s argument is founded on a subjective concern with what art should be. It does not allow for the likes of Deus Ex being a superior experience to the reading of Barbara Cartland novels. In what world though is Warren Spector a lesser creator than Barbara Cartland? There are bad games, just as there is bad writing, music and films – but to focus on them exclusively is to deny the brilliance of the thousands of minds that have worked together to create this exciting and still-young medium of interactive computer-generated realms of the imagination.
Read a book. Listen to an album. Watch a film. Play a game. It’s all art.