What I take away from Dragon Age is a sense of having been somewhere. No, more than that. Having lived somewhere. In most well-established gaming worlds I feel as though I've been a visitor. Dragon Age was my home.
This is thanks to the extraordinary depth to which everything reaches. The story you're playing isn't something new to the lands of Ferelden. Every few hundred years there's a Blight, an uprising of the Darkspawn in response to the emergence of a new Archdemon, leading to terrible wars and horrendous death. A band of elite fighters called the Grey Wardens exist to defeat these attacks, and it's to this group that your character is quickly recruited. But it's a group that's diminished, disrespected if not totally forgotten. Because people forget.
But this is only the surface of the history. Everything, everywhere, everyone has an elaborate background you can learn all about, listen to, read into, and absorb. Or ignore it if you wish. Even the two guys running the shop in your base camp have a background to explore, a complex relationship, and past actions that will raise moral questions.
Learning about the history of the Chantry, Ferelden's dominant religion, perhaps demonstrates BioWare's astonishing detail at its finest. Not many games try to invent a new religion. Fewer still create one so rich with problems, so divided - to the point of schism - with such potential for good and for evil. You know, like a real religion. What's even more interesting is deciding whether your character believes in the Chant or not. It's a peculiar decision to make. I decided mine would.
I decided this because he was from a wealthy family of nobility, the sort who would likely be involved in the religion by tradition rather than necessarily belief. I wanted a character who was questioning his faith, challenged by facing the reality of the harm it was doing, but also willing to support where it did good. Which brings me to that moment in the Dwarven city of Orzammar. I feel compelled to warn you of spoilers of one side-quest to follow.
Dwarves don't follow the Chant. Instead their faith is based on the history of their ancestors. It's another complex and involved belief system, quite at odds with the predominant Human religion of the country. And most Dwarves would never have any cause to be concerned by alternative faiths. To even leave Orzammar is to be outcast, never welcome back. But the Dwarves also have a caste system, and with that comes great discomfort for the visiting outsider. Those who are casteless (untouchable) are despised, forced to live in poverty and squalor, turning to crime and prostitution to survive. For nothing other than being born.
So when you meet a guy who wants to set up a Chantry in Orzammar you have an incredibly complicated situation. Brother Burkel is a Dwarf who wants to establish a place of worship in the Orzammar Commons district. He asks for your help with this. In many ways this is a familiar BioWare side-quest formula, a moral quandary with unpredictable consequences.
For some this might be a very simple case for no: The Dwarves have a religion, and to begin touting another is disrespectful and inappropriate. For others it might be far more complicated: Is it appropriate for one person to impose his culture on another? And for others still it's simply yes: Everyone has a right to freedom of religion, and he should be given that freedom and the right to worship.
But it's more complex than that. Because Burkel intends to use his Chantry for two reasons. The first is to care for the casteless, feed and clothe them, help them to escape from criminal gangs and the sex industry. The second is to evangelise his faith amongst the Dwarves. And good grief, both of those are rich with issues.
Dragon Age's most frequent theme is the line between acculturation and enculturation. You are constantly challenged by the cultural nature of the races you meet, and your own, and how they interact. But at this point the game becomes about inculturation. Can you support an individual who wishes to convert a race to his religion?
I decided my character would. Simon, a Human Warrior who had been helping the Chantry with the quests from their Chantry Boards perhaps with naivety, would want to support this man's right to religious expression. John, a Human Writer, would be far more likely to suspect him of being one of those shouting lunatics in the street, and erring on the side of cynicism recommend he not. But I was to feel badly as soon as I saw the first result of this Chantry, once it was established with Simon's support.
A young Dwarf, cast to the gutters for falling pregnant with a casteless man's son, had been abandoned by her family. Living on the street, her life was in danger and no one would support her. But for the Chantry, who gave her a home, food, and love. Surely this was good? (Of course it couldn't be this simple. It's also possible to find her father and convince him to accept her back into his family, with all the accompanying issues that raises.)
And then comes the end of the game. Once the game is over, and you've watched whatever conclusion your actions may have brought about, it cuts to a sequence of written messages that catch you up to various characters and companions you might have met throughout the game. I'm a sucker for those - those captions at the end of films or programmes. The greatest example of all being at the end of the last episode of Quantum Leap - that line about Sam makes me blub just to describe it. And they work well here.
I wasn't expecting one about Brother Burkel. The quest was so brief, so seemingly inconsequential to the larger story, that I'd forgotten about it, and fully expected the game to as well. But up popped that two-part message.
"Brother Burkel's new Chantry in Orzammar drew a surprising number of converts among the dwarves. They quickly attracted a great deal of anger from more conservative quarters, and before long the Assembly severely restricted the Andrastians' rights.
"Brother Burkel resisted, and was slain while being arrested during a peaceful demonstration in the Commons. The Assembly claimed this was an accident, but news of the resulting riots reached the Chantry on the surface, where the Divine even contemplated a new Exalted March."
An Exalted March is essentially a crusade. A bloody battle fought in the name of the Chant. My small action, and its escalating consequences, might have brought about the beginnings of a religious war.
I want to emphasise again, this was an ignorable side-quest of no significance to Dragon Age's main narrative. It changed the options available when choosing whether to look after the starving girl you meet, but beyond that, you could have walked past it and never known it was there.
This is the sort of depth on display in Dragon Age. This is why it is one of the most extraordinary gaming achievements I've seen. This is why I dismiss suggestions that the game succumbs to cliché. Yes, Elves and Dwarves and Mages and Humans fighting an ancient evil army that will destroy us all is hardly groundbreaking fantasy fiction. Creating a world you can live in, around which this vast war is occurring, is groundbreaking.
Check out the Editor's blog to find out more about our Games of 2009.