Whether you believe it or not Dragon Age: Origins holds a special place in this generations history when it comes to storytelling in video games. Clearly Mass Effect has been the standout Bioware series the past few years, but Dragon Age is the series I feel excelled at storytelling even more so than Mass Effect did. Much of this accolade is credited to the lead writer of Dragon Age David Gaider.
David Gaider started his career as a writer working on Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark. Eventually Bioware aimed to provide its fans a spiritual successor to the much loved Baldur's Gate, and Gaider was assigned as the lead writer, giving him full control to craft the lore rich stomping ground we now know to be Thedas. Thedas serves as the continent in which the Dragon Age stories unfold. Dragon Age: Origins was set in the region of Ferelden, and with six completely different ways to begin the story it remains to be one of the most diverse and revisited video game stories in recent years.
David Gaider and EA kindly allowed me to ask a few questions regarding the writing process for these video games, so read on below to see what one of the most talented writers in the industry had to say.
Gary Swaby: Firstly can you tell us a little about yourself and how you ended up as a writer?
David Gaider: It wasn’t something I planned, to be honest. BioWare is based here in Edmonton, and was looking for local writers to hire when they began work on Baldur’s Gate 2. I had a friend who worked here (I wasn’t even aware of BioWare’s existence at the time), and he recommended me. Prior to that point, I wrote for enjoyment only, but as a giant nerd it was a thrill to find a niche where I could do it professionally.
GS: One of the things that amazes me about Dragon Age is the depth of the lore. It's a rich world that could easily fill us with new stories for years to come. Can you shed any light on how the idea for Dragon Age: Origins first came about?
DG: I think it was around the time I completed work on the Hordes of the Underdark expansion for Neverwinter Nights—BioWare was looking at creating two new IP’s (exciting, as prior to that we’d always worked with other peoples’ IP’s). One of them would be science fiction, and one of them would be traditional fantasy. Beyond that, however? Nothing was known.
It was for James Ohlen (the lead designer on Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights) to figure out what shape the fantasy IP would take—and he tapped me to figure out the setting. He gave me some parameters within which to work, and I essentially took it from there… though, at the time, we didn’t even know what the game itself would be like. That didn’t come until much later.
GS: What is the writing process for a project as ambitious as Dragon Age: Origins?
DG: You start small and work up—pitching outlines, and once those are approved you start detailing each section more and more. I think most people have a perception that we must start off planning every detail right from the get go… but that would be as difficult as it sounds. There’s an entire team to consult along the way, after all. Once we’ve built to the point where we have every major plot point well-documented and we know what we want to do, the plot gets split up among the writers. That’s where the real writing begins.
GS: Dragon Age offers the gamer a surprising amount of choice, that leads to many different
story paths. How do you stay on top of the canon plot when offering the player so much
DG: We look at choices on basically two levels: one, choices that primarily affect a particular plot, and two, choices that create branching in the critical path of the entire story (and likely beyond). The former is expensive, but the latter greatly so… whenever you have branching of any kind, it means you have to supply the content for each potential arc no matter whether the player sees it or not. Ideally you want to rope that branch back into the main arc, but it’s always gratifying when we can have permanent divergence. I’ll admit, however, that once you have a story with a lot of branching it can get hard to manage all the permutations. The only answer to that is, unfortunately, extensive documentation (my nemesis).
GS: Which Dragon Age characters do you enjoy writing the most?
DG: The funny ones, even though they’re not always the most gratifying. I suspect a bit of my humor is going to come through even in my serious characters, however.
GS: Dragon Age: Origins dealt with many issues that are parallel to real life. How much did you draw inspiration from real world conflicts when writing?
DG: It varied. Mostly these were conflicts that were rooted in the setting itself, things I wanted to be present simply because they’re the kinds of conflicts we see in real life and thus lend a certain authenticity to the environment. For me, it would be impossible to imagine completely different races living in the same land without there being some kind of conflict. I like fantasy, by all means, but ultimately I want to feel like this is a place that could actually exist, and that the people there would react to each other in much the same way as they might if this was our world.
GS: What was the general thinking when transitioning from Dragon Age: Origins to the second game?
DG: That’s a pretty big question—I’m not sure what kind of answer you’re looking for. The general thinking was that Dragon Age wasn’t a single series with a single main character like Mass Effect, but rather a series of individual stories with a common theme tying them all together.
GS: Was it necessary to shift away from some of the fans favorite characters in order to expand on the world of Thedas itself?
DG: It wasn’t necessary, but there’s a point where you want to move onto new characters no matter how much fans might be attached to the old ones. We move on, though we’re likely to bring some familiar faces between games—both as major characters as well as cameos. You don’t want to do that too much, particularly if you’re moving to a new part of the world, but it’s nice to have those points of continuity.
GS: How does it make you feel when you see how much fans have criticized the second game for its change of direction?
DG: I understand where some of it is coming from. That’s a possibility whenever a series changes direction—those who loved the original and wanted only more of that are going to potentially be disappointed. Here’s hoping that, as we move forward, we can get some of those original fans on board with our vision and where we see Dragon Age going. It should be fun once we actually reveal what we’ve been working on so hard lately.
GS: Do you believe that the writing in a video game on this scale can lose its original intended message due to the pressure of hitting targets as a business?
DG: I suppose that’s possible in any venture where the business aspect takes such importance. I think it would be a bit ridiculous to suggest that business kills art, however—that’s an argument one could go around in circles for decades on and never reach a conclusion. The truth is that everyone is struggling to find a middle ground between what sells and what’s artistic. I don’t consider them mutually exclusive, but everyone’s mileage certainly varies on that front.
GS: On behalf of everybody at The Koalition and all our readers I would like to thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. We wish you and Bioware much success with future Dragon Age games, and I personally can't wait to hear more about the game.
Be sure to look out for future news on the Dragon Age series right here at The Koalition.