BioWare on Dragon Age II – “we’ve hit a bit of a sweet spot”

BioWare’s Fernando Melo talks us through the action-strategy balancing act, rogue identity crises, sarcastic death yells, self-conscious narrators and (of course) saving the world.

By Edwin Evans-Thirlwell, February 9, 2011

You started off as a refugee with nothing. He or she escaped the events of Origins, the Blight, and ran away with his family to the city. 10 years later, he or she grew to become champion of the city, this kind of myth or legend that has been built up over the years, nobody really knows the reality any more. Sort of like a King-Arthur-esque character, there’s maybe a sliver of reality and the rest is all myth.

It’s kind of like he could take out armies with his thoughts, crazy stuff, but none of it is real, it’s just that people have built up this image. And you know that at the end of those 10 years, not only is he or she the champion, but also central to bringing the world to its knees. The known world is about to break into all-out war, and that character was central to whatever happened there.

So the narrators are trying to figure out how somebody that’s like an average Joe – this isn’t the typical RPG story where Hawke drops from the sky, he’s the chosen one and there’s this great evil, or whatever, it’s a very personal story. It’s his family escaping the devastation, and then struggling to survive in the new city.

And the family is a huge part of what drives Hawke, which is very different from a lot of our stories. You have these factors forcing Hawke to make some of these decisions, and trying to cope with them as best he can. But somehow he or she rose to power.

And the really cool thing about our frame is, we get to ask the player that question: who is Hawke? How did he or she become the champion? And the cool part is that not only do players get to experience the events that led to that, they get to write those events in history. You get to set that in stone, that this is how Hawke was or wasn’t.

And that’s really exciting because the frame, the narrators respond to that. Typical narration is fixed, whereas in our case because it’s interactive, while you’re playing the world, evolving the world, the narrators are adapting the story to that. In the end you become the champion whatever happens, but the narrators are responding to it.

So one of the neat things is that the feedback for you the player – in Origins for example, you had to play for a hundred hours to get the epilogue to find out what happened to the elves or which character got married, now it’s like the narrators will advance the story a year, and say “tell me about these other events that happened over here”, and now you see the impact that your previous decisions had, the people they affected, how they changed the city.

It’s really powerful, the amount of change you can introduce to the world – I think it’s going to be one of the most exciting things about the game, that feedback.

You’re focussing on one city and its outskirts. Is it the case that you’re moving away from the more traditional, world-map-driven RPG campaign template? There won’t be much in the way of exploration or sidequests?

Not to understate the importance of sidequests, there’s a lot of meat on DA2, but it’s more focussed for sure. The game isn’t on rails by any stretch of the imagination, so the narrators are essentially breaking time, those 10 years are broken out into periods. So the quests in those areas are kind of events that happened in that time, so you can tackle as many as you want – there are some core ones you have to do that make time advance, but lots of other stuff going on, you can help people or not.

And when time advances again, those quests are now gone, and the reactions to those have already taken place, and now you’re responding to those reactions. That person that you didn’t help may be struggling, or something else may have come up, or whatever. So it’s a very dynamic way of doing things, but in terms of breadth it’s all still there. It’s not an open world, it never was, you won’t be wondering round and finding stuff.

Having said that, there is the concept of “rumours” that we have in the game, where you hear about certain quests but you don’t have enough information to unlock them. As you progress and you talk to people and you discover more parts of the city and its outskirts, you’ll stumble across these extra quests, and now they become available. But it’s not an open world by any stretch, it’s similar to Origins where you have a fixed map and you travel to a location, and there are things that happen there, and then you can travel to another location.

Fernando, thanks for talking to us.

The game’s out on Xbox 360, PC and PlayStation 3 on 8th March in North America and 11th March in Europe.

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