I Was an Archer in Dragon Age: Origins Because I Hate Myself

WTF is Dragon Age: Origins?

Dragon Age: Origins is the first game in BioWare’s Dragon Age franchise, released in 2009. I played it out of order, after finishing the third game, Dragon Age: Inquisition.

The story is set in the fantasy realm of Thedas, where there’s magic, and elves, and politics. The protagonist is a player-defined character with a player-defined name who, because of some set of horrible circumstances, is forced to join the Grey Wardens, an order of super elite demon-killing knights who all get murdered in the game’s first act.

The player character, who’s usually just called “Warden,” and a fellow survivor named Alistair, are now the last line of defence between Thedas and an army of demons called Darkspawn. For the rest of the game, they have to travel around recruiting allies for the coming war by doing really complex quest sequences for them. They also pick up other random people to add to their party and do a bunch of chores for strangers.

At length, they are faced with several Horrible Decisions that Warden has to make alone, because Alistair abdicates all responsibility for everything even though he’s the senior Grey Warden and also the bastard heir to the throne. The one solid he’ll do for you is fathering a demon baby with your best friend – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Gameplay is 100% a party-based RPG using that pause-go-pause birds-eye-view strategic combat system. Getting a good build can make your party members juggernauts that dominate the battlefield, and being an archer can fuck you in the ear.

The part where I became an archer

I’ve always felt like choosing to be an archer is the same thing as choosing to die. Archers always go down first in party-based combat, they don’t do much damage, and another character almost always has to be tasked with keeping enemies away from them – but it’s an option on the character creation screen. And, as I cycled through Dragon Age: Inquisition as a dual-wield rogue and then a warrior, I felt like it was possible to play this franchise as an archer. I felt like maybe I was missing something fun and interesting about these games by being prejudiced against a combat class. So, when I installed Dragon Age: Origins, I decided this was my time to choose “archer.”

Jesus fucking Christ did I choose wrong.

The first sign that things weren’t going to be as fun as I’d hoped came when I dumped all of my skill points into the archery tree, only to start the prologue with two knives and no bow. There also wasn’t anywhere to buy weapons or anything – not that I had any money – and I eventually just stole a bow from my mom when we were both knee-deep in the blood of our kin, and our family dog was the only useful party member.

The player character isn’t voiced in Origins, but I like to imagine she yelled, “No, let me try shooting them at close range while they stab us with their swords!”

This foreshadowed an element of the game design that would continue to hobble me: rogues are a catch-all for a bunch of random skills that aren’t organized that well. When you’re doing a rogue build, you have to split your skill points among multiple trees – the worst and most senseless of which is lock-picking. If you’re playing as a dual-wield rogue, that still sucks, but you can ignore most of the bow stuff if you want to. If you’re playing as an archer, there’s no way to get around needing dual-wield skills, and it means your progression through the skill tree is even slower. You spend the first half of the game having the broadest possible skill set and being bad at all of it.

Then you do a quest called “Broken Circle.”

What happens during “Broken Circle”

What happens during “Broken Circle” is that you fight through a really long dungeon only to get dumped into another long dungeon that’s also a maze full of bosses that you have to fight alone.

Origins is set up so that, once you start recruiting allies, you can theoretically do it in whichever order you want (though Alistair suggests going for the human nobles first, and the mages second). If you follow Alistair’s advice – because, IDK, you held out some hope his advice would be helpful and that he would do something besides whine that he wasn’t cut out to be special – “Broken Circle” is the second major quest you do, before the quest where you meet a merchant who sells unlimited ingredients for health potions.

Once you start “Broken Circle,” you’re locked in a dungeon that you can’t leave until the quest is over, and it’s hard to gauge how you’re progressing. You pick up a dedicated healer near the beginning, but the enemies also throw fireballs at you, and you can’t ever resupply.

About 75% of the way through, when it feels like it must be close to being over, you suddenly get sent to the Fade – a demon netherworld that, in this instance, is laid out like a maze. All of your companions are gone, and you can’t have them back until you’ve completed the quest in the Fade. You have to navigate the maze alone and kill a bunch of lieutenants to absorb shape-shifting powers that help you unlock new parts of the maze. Then, you have to go through the newly-unlocked portions of the maze and kill five different bosses. With no health potions. While you are armed with a bow.

I’ve watched YouTube videos where people playing as mages can run this maze in 10-15 minutes and one-shot the bosses using a spell.

It took me almost six hours. And, during hour two, as the monsters all rushed me again and set me on fire again before I could make any progress (again), I seriously considered just restarting the game.

In the end, the way I finished this quest was by memorizing the optimal path through the maze from YouTube and then stealthing my way past as much as I possibly could. I stealthed as an archer. I stealthed as a shape-shifted rat. When I absolutely had to fight some enemies, my go-to strategy was to run away and hope they got stuck on a wall.

When I finally succeeded in unlocking the ability to shift into a fire demon that only had two powers, I pretty much played as a two-powered fire demon for the rest of my time in the Fade, because a two-powered fire demon was still a better choice than my character.

When I finally got through the mazes and collected my companions, we still had to do two more boss fights without any health potions before “Broken Circle” was done.

Nothing else was ever as difficult after that, but I really wish I had saved “archer” for my second play.

The part where Origins is mostly about dwarves

Dwarves are a problematic fantasy element, because you’re taking people who exist in real life and turning them into an imaginary species, and there’s nothing about Dragon Age that undoes that. At the same time, the problematic fantasy dwarves of Dragon Age are unusually interesting, and Origins tells a really complex story about them. It still sucks that they’re treated as non-human without any acknowledgement that human beings can be born with the same physical characteristics, and I think it would be really interesting if future instalments of Dragon Age explored that.

With that said, I regret not playing a dwarf origin, because the dwarf content is really rich. The very best quest sequence in the game is “A Paragon of Her Kind,” the sprawling saga of how Warden and friends try to win allies in the dwarven city of Orzammar by meddling in politics and venturing into the Darkspawn-infested Deep Roads.

There are a lot of reasons why this sequence is so brilliant. It teaches us a lot about inequality in Thedas, both within Orzammar and in terms of how Orzammar relates to the outside world, and it doesn’t allow us to “solve” that inequality as if it were as simple as talking to the right person or killing the right monster. It presents us with a complicated political situation where doing the “right” thing can end really badly for everyone. It is, at times, very disquieting, especially as players move into the Deep Roads. It provides character development for two of Warden’s companions, including a DLC companion named Shale, who was probably a pain to integrate into the story after the fact.

I don’t want to give spoilers for what happens, but “A Paragon of Her Kind” is not only the content I would point to to illustrate why Dragon Age: Origins can be worth playing, but also how videogames can tell satisfying stories in general.

The part where no one with boobs was working on character design

I could be wrong about this, since I only took a cursory look at the credits on imdb, and I don’t know how everyone at BioWare identifies their gender, but it seems like dudes were overseeing character design in Dragon Age: Origins. That’s not super unusual, but, in this case, it really jumped out at me, because all of the women in this game are wearing the worst possible bras.

Observations:

  • I concede that Morrigan (pictured above) legitimately has the most memorable, iconic character design in this franchise, but she is wearing a halter hoodie that’s somehow backless, frontless, and sideless over a string bikini top that doesn’t even sit against her sternum.
  • Her boobs would fall out of it as soon as she tried to run.
  • Also, this is a symptom of a larger pattern where she disdains everything about conventional human society except its beauty standards. She’s internalized those so well that her makeup is perfect, even though she’s wearing it alone in the swamp.
  • Whenever any of the women take their clothes off, they’re wearing the same ugly strapless bra from Sears.
  • Morrigan also wears the ugly strapless Sears bra when she undresses, even though it would mean she was specifically putting it on once the bikini top was off.
  • This is because all of the women have the same body when they undress. Their heads are just pasted onto it.
  • That’s a way to save time and money during production, but it’s also creepy because, at the exact moment you would expect to have a personal, individual interaction with the character – when you are in a situation that’s intimate enough for you to see them undress – you’re getting a generic interaction where it literally doesn’t matter whose body you see as long as it’s not wearing clothes.

For what it’s worth, I think these problems are more or less solved in Dragon Age: Inquisition, so I don’t feel like I need to belabour the point, but some of the design choices were strange.

The part where it felt really old school

For me, the most old-school aspect of the game was that my battle strategy relied on things that felt like battle avoidance, like making sure I only aggroed half the enemies at once, or having one of my characters run half a mile to lure enemies toward a choke point. Some of the cleverest things I did – like having mages throw a shield on enemies rather than allies, in order to immobilize them – felt like borderline cheating. There’s a thrill that comes from finding what feels like a way around the challenge that’s been set before you, but it’s also a kind of frustrating to feel like the challenges are always too hard to face head-on.

There’s also a travelling component where, as you move between locations on the world map, you can randomly get ambushed. On my first play, before I figured out the finer points of how the game worked, this destroyed me. I couldn’t even travel to a place where I could try to buy some injury kits without getting mauled by wolves and ending up with more injuries.

On the plus side, though, the old-school format of the game also lends itself to old-school story-telling and, while not every plot thread in Origins is a winner, BioWare spends a lot of time developing the core characters and building the lore of what feels like a detailed and interesting fantasy world. Right from the get-go, Dragon Age is invested in the idea that there are different ways of being an elf or a dwarf or a mage or whatever and that, while the characters’ intersecting identities influence their personalities and worldviews, it isn’t a simple calculation where they obviously think X because they’re part of group Y. It feels more organic than that, and it’s partly because Origins really takes its time and delivers the kind of sprawling narrative that’s less and less common in triple-A games.

It has that pioneering, indie developer spirit that all games used to have before gaming became a billion dollar industry. The kind that comes when your audience already has to invest imagination to make the story work, because the tech is not entirely transporting them.

The part where I tie it all together

Dragon Age: Origins has the good and bad qualities of old-school RPGs. It’s stupidly hard – especially if you decide to play as the worst possible thing – but it has a really meaty story. It’s made with love, but also the male gaze. It lacks the polished user experience of newer games, but it also doesn’t have the workshopped feel that newer games can have. I don’t love it as much as I loved Dragon Age: Inquisition (more on that later) but I kind of want “A Paragon of Her Kind” to be on the curriculum somewhere.

Image: Dragon Age: Origins; BioWare | January 12, 2019