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Dragon Age Origins on the PS3 is an absolutely epic role playing game with swathes of intimacy in the form of dialogue, relationships and characters finding out their stories. The effort and craft creates a game that can be tailored for each and every player.
Dragon Age reminded me a lot of Mass Effect minus the first-person shooter mechanics and sci-fi setting, so I wasn't at all surprised that it was also developed by BioWare. As with Mass Effect, there are optional romantic side quests which culminate in a short sexy cut scene if you play your cards right, and as with Mass Effect, the game became the target of media controversy when this was revealed, particularly for the fact that it gave players the option to have gay relationships (both male and female this time round).
I didn't really know what to expect when I first loaded up Dragon Age: Origins. The game had managed to fly completely under my radar, and I hadn't even heard about it before the reviews started to come out. Intrigued by the fact that many people seemed to have been genuinely moved by the game I decided to pick up a copy. And I'm really, really glad I did.
The first thing that struck me about Dragon Age was the huge effort the developers had gone to to personalise the experience for each player. You start with the usual character creation, choosing to be either male or female, how your character looks, choosing a specialisation (warrior, mage, rogue) and race (human, elf, dwarf), and then a back story. There are six possible starting points, and depending on the character you have made, you will get to choose between two of them.
I picked a female elf warrior and could either start her in the city where she lived in an alienage (kind of like a ghetto) with her people, or a country girl who grew up with the Dalish, elves who lived a more simple existence hunting in the wilds and communing with nature. I've always been a city girl myself, so I chose the city as a starting point, and found myself on my wedding day. The elves of this world believe in arranged marriages, so I had not actually met my husband-to-be, and this was my first task, to go and find him and introduce myself.
Unfortunately, it was too late for one girl, who was killed by a guard, and my friend Shianni, who had been raped.
Things quickly went south as the ceremony started, and a drunk human nobleman staggered into the alienage looking for women to take back to his castle for a bit of fun. Declaring that my wedding wasn't actually a 'real wedding' on account of it being arranged, I was one of the lucky ladies picked. Being a fighter, I wasn't going to stand for any of that, and ended up killing the nobleman and his men. Unfortunately, it was too late for one girl, who was killed by a guard, and my friend Shianni, who had been raped.
An elf killing a nobleman is just not done, no matter what the circumstances, and it wasn't long before the guards came to take me away. At this point I was rescued by a 'Grey Warden' - a kind of elite fighting force, who decided instead to recruit me, thus sparing me from prison and certain execution. At this point the six stories all joined together, although my personal history continued to play a big part in conversations and the way that people reacted to me.
I loved almost all of the main characters, with the exception of Wynne (an aged mage, she just didn't really seem to be very interesting), and the Dog (an incredibly ugly beast that constantly barks during conversations at the camp). Some characters I started off not liking very much, specifically Zevran (an assassin with only one thing on his mind, and that isn't murder) and Leliana (a bard who claimed to have had a religious experience and spoken to God and behaved much like a spoiled princess missing her pretty dresses and shoes). However, I changed my mind about both of them after I took the time to go through some of the dialogue options and got to know them a little better. Conversely, I started off liking Sten, a barbarian-style warrior, who I rescued from a cage where he was being kept pending sentence for the savage murder of a family - but went off him fast. Although he had admitted to the crime, I suspected there was more to it, and had him freed to join my party. However, as asking him questions about his past or the murders seemed to only serve to piss him off, I never managed to find out what really happened, if there was a story there at all.
I opted for Alistair, as he's actually the kind of bloke that I would probably be attracted to in real life - I particularly liked his sarcastic sense of humour - so I set my sights on making him my love interest.
As a female player I had three romantic options, the irrepressible Zevran, who seemed willing to sleep with absolutely anybody regardless of race or gender without any wooing at all, Leliana, who would take some convincing, but could be down for a lesbian affair, and Alistair, a literal knight in shining armour. I was a little surprised to find that Morrigan (a 'witch of the wilds') was strictly straight, as she seemed to me a more likely candidate to have bisexual tendencies than Leliana.
I opted for Alistair, as he's actually the kind of bloke that I would probably be attracted to in real life - I particularly liked his sarcastic sense of humour - so I set my sights on making him my love interest. I did wonder if my character would have done the same, however, as an elf who grew up mistreated by and mistrustful of humans, and especially considering what happened to her at the hands of human men immediately before she joined the Grey Wardens.
Alistair proved much more difficult to get into the sack than first seemed. After a while, he revealed the reason behind his stalling was that he was, in fact, a virgin. What on earth is wrong with the women of Ferelden? Are they blasť about handsome knights? Do they dream about stockbrokers and used car salesmen instead? He said that he wasn't ready, and that he needed more time. Actually, he carried on saying that right through to the end of the game, and I never did manage to get him in my tent, so to speak, although he professed on more than one occasion that he was madly in love with me. Towards the end of the game, Morrigan offers to cast a protective ritual over him for me, which involved them sleeping together. *That* only took me five minutes to convince him to do, despite the fact that the two of them had been proclaiming their intense dislike of each other from the first time they met. Thanks a lot, buddy!
Whilst sitting in camp, Leliana sang a beautiful song about her grief over the death of her mother. It was totally unexpected, and I was hoping she would sing more as the game progressed.
I wasn't sure what I had done wrong - I'd completed his personal quest by helping him find his sister, I'd given him plenty of presents, and said all the right things in the dialogues. Something I did notice was a glitch where approval points didn't register, so perhaps I just didn't manage to get my approval rating high enough with him? Still, at the end of the game, when I sulked and told him I was going to go travelling instead of staying with him and rebuilding the Grey Wardens, I obviously meant enough to him that he decided to give it up too and come with me.
The actual sex scenes were even less racy than the ones in Mass Effect. In these, we only see the characters in their underwear having a kiss and a cuddle in bed before the screen goes black. I imagine this is probably on account of American ratings laws, which seem to have an intense dislike for virtual nipples, making nakedness a little tricky to render if you want to sell any games there. There's also the option of having a threesome at one point in the game, although for that, you don't get to see anything at all.
One thing that I found interesting was that I was often called 'pretty' or 'beautiful', not only by romantic interests, but also often by NPCs in conversation ('How can I help you, pretty lady?'). With her shaven head, masculine nose, and large facial tattoo, my character was certainly striking, but I definitely wouldn't call her pretty. I guess the game presumes that you will create a character that you will find attractive, so therefore these kind of compliments are meant to flatter your design skills and make *you* feel good, too.
The most moving parts of the game weren't part of the romance sub-plots at all. The first was when, whilst sitting in camp, Leliana sang a beautiful song about her grief over the death of her mother. It was totally unexpected, and I was hoping she would sing more as the game progressed, but that turned out to be her only song.
The second was in the Deep Roads, whilst I was in search of Branka, a dwarf who had become obsessed with finding an ancient artefact. As I journeyed into the final cave, I heard her lover Hespith, reciting a poem about how she had betrayed her and her friends to the darkspawn in the hope of retrieving the artefact.
I'm a woman who is a long way out of her teens, and I really enjoy the inclusion of romance in games, if it's part of the game in a meaningful way, which it certainly is in Dragon Age.
The other one was in an abandoned orphanage, which had become possessed by the spirits of those who died there, and I followed the ghost of a little boy through rooms covered in bloodstains and filled with angry spirits. Anyone who still does not think it is possible for video games to be art should play through those two scenes.
I thoroughly enjoyed Dragon Age: Origins on the Playstation 3, and I loved the fact that the game was essentially tailor-made for me. I thought it was great that it allowed you to be male or female and to have gay or straight relationships as you chose, although with four different choices, your options for each combination are pretty limited. Some of the criticism that has been levelled at the game (mainly by the mainstream press), has been that the developer only included sex scenes to pander to their audience of 13 year old boys. That's just not true - I'm a woman who is a long way out of her teens, and I really enjoy the inclusion of romance in games, if it's part of the game in a meaningful way, which it certainly is in Dragon Age.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: