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How BioWare Tells Their Tales

Garrett Fuller Posted:
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Despite protests and endless traffic we made it into Brooklyn this past Thursday for the NYU Seminar on storytelling in Dragon Age: Inquisition. The panel included Creative Director Mike Laidlaw, Lead Writer David Gaider, and actor Freddie Prinze Jr. who does the voice of Iron Bull. The panel ran the full two hours and surprisingly the crew on hand gave a ton of information and advice to the students and press in attendance. The game has been out now for a few weeks and been doing well just taking the Game of the Year award at the Video Game Awards this weekend. Here is what the guys had to say about working on Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Mike Laidlaw, the creative director on the project spoke first and described how ideas for the game come to the table. Running the creative side means you have to make sure everything fits within the lore. The writing team works hand in hand with creative to make sure they put together the best mechanics for the story. Mike explained that multiple tools can be used. The war table, party members, and main narrative are all ways to get the story across. Dragon Age is a high fantasy world where everything is on the brink. There are powerful forces at work and at any time you will see drastic changes to the world. It is also a world where the team makes sure that nothing is for certain. Founded on the principle of the Grey Wardens there are always multiple ways to solve every problem. Mike explained that just because something happens historically and is recorded, things can always change in the moment.

The narrative for the character is very interesting. With demon breaches coming into the world and all sorts of political issues no one is stepping up to solve the problem. Mike explained that they placed Chancellor Roderick in as the ultimate annoyance. He sets the tone for the fact that your character will always be at odds with the Chantry. Mike compared him to the character in Ghostbusters who shuts down their containment unit. The character is there to frustrate you and drive you to seek your goal. Mike showed the scene which he liked best in the game and it comes right at the beginning. It sets the tone for your quest and Roderick is the main hurdle. He openly argues and fires back and forth with Cassandra, one of your party. Mike said they reworked the scene seven times before they felt it was right.

The next up was David Gaider who is the lead writer. David took us back in BioWare history when Dragon Age was first just a theory. The company wanted to make their own high fantasy game. David was tasked with building a world similar to Dungeon and Dragons of which the BioWare team had a deep history and huge appreciation for. David went off and started to build the world with his team which eventually became the game Origins. Now with Inquisition, he had the overwhelming task of building out an entirely new narrative and a large team of writers.

David said the hardest part in building Dragon Age is going through the cutting process. There are certain ideas or even characters that he becomes hugely attached too which must be cut loose during the development process. There are a lot of reasons things get cut and many times writers have to learn to let go of their ideas. It all has to make sense in the game.

David showed a point part of the way into the game and if you have not played we do not want to spoil for you. Please stop reading now if you want to play through the scene before having it described. Skip ahead a paragraph and you'll be fine.

For those who stayed, the scene comes after a massive battle when you lose everything. Your character is cut adrift in the snow and must find your way through to the camp in the massive storm. It takes a few minutes to find your way on purpose as the team wanted to bring the character back down from the huge battle. Dave said he never thought the next scene would make the cut, but the scene where the camp sings the song of hope for inspiration is what he showed the audience. It was interesting to see such an odd placement of a song in a video game. However, the cut scene does have the desired effect on the player.

Freddie Prinze Jr. spoke next and the actor left the audience surprised by his charisma and also knowledge of games and game culture. He may not commercialize it as much as say Wil Wheaton, but Freddie Prinze Jr. is definitely a hardcore MMO and RPG player. He explained how much time he put into EverQuest and World of Warcraft as well as his love for single player RPGs and Grand Theft Auto. Nothing beats seeing Mr. Buffy make Thundarr The Barbarian references and talk about how games are much stronger than films these days.

In terms of his character Iron Bull, Freddie explained that he mixed Pete from Mickey Mouse Club House (which his daughter watches) with Winston Churchill. He explained that as a kid he loved famous speeches and used to mimic them all the time. Iron Bull was a ton of fun for him to play and the more he voiced the character the more he really got into how the Qunari see life and thrive in the Dragon Age timeline.

Freddie also had a good insight on how games have changed so much since he was young. He spent a lot of time in arcades as a kid putting quarters into tough old school games that many designers grew up with. Now the new generation of gamers wants everything handed to them with little consequences. He talked about reading the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” Books and playing Dungeons and Dragons as a kid which really taught him to calculate risk when making choices. He praised BioWare for putting these choices and consequences in the game. He said with Mass Effect and Dragon Age he always saves before major decisions in case he has to go back. The scene he chose this time was having drinks with Iron Bull right after killing the first dragon.

All three members of the panel covered a lot of topics in the Q and A portion of the panel. Explaining that they wanted plots about people and making sure the game was open world with plenty of options. They also felt strongly that while your choices have consequences, making the right ones at the right time should also pay off. They keep a Wiki at BioWare of all the Dragon Age material and have several editors who work with the writers to make sure things fit within the lore. The panel turned out to be really fantastic. Both players and students got a full sense on how much it takes to build one of these games. It seems like the team at BioWare definitely has more plans even though the game just launched they all said there is still a lot of work being done on Inquisition's forthcoming stories.


Garrett Fuller

Garrett Fuller / Garrett Fuller has been playing MMOs since 1997 and writing about them since 2005. He joined MMORPG.com has a volunteer writer and now handles Industry Relations for the website. He has been gaming since 1979 when his cousin showed him a copy of Dungeons and Dragons. When not spending time with his family, Garrett also Larps and plays Airsoft in his spare time.