The Biggest Choice You’ll Never Make

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    The modern BioWare phenomenon begins with a choice. Part of the way through the first Mass Effect game (released in 2007), you and your party land on a planet called Virmire and you’re tossed into a big action sequence. At its climax, two of your party members leave to do two different things, something goes wrong and you have a choice: save Kaiden, or save Ashley?

    One lives. One dies. That’s not how big-budget games were supposed to work. They were supposed to work like this: do all your quests and accomplish your violence effectively and you’ll be able to save everyone and see everything. BioWare had included choices — many games had included choices — but they tended to be simple “be good” or “be evil.” The choice on Virmire suggested something bigger and more traumatic. There was a slight problem with even that, though: Kaidan and Ashley were, well, kinda boring. The choice’s existence could be mildly traumatic, but it could clearly be worse if, say, it were beloved party members like Garrus and Wrex.

    Regardless, BioWare continued to experiment with their choices through their two main trilogies, Mass Effect and Dragon Age. They quickly discovered that those choices gained emotional heft by being serialized — if it carried over from one game to the next, and if it changed things in those games, then it could really affect players. The ideal BioWare choice, then, is a life-or-death choice with two likeable candidates, both of whom have the weight of serialized history behind them.

    That choice exists in BioWare’s most recent game, Dragon Age: Inquisition.

    Even if it’s a choice you’d care about, you probably won’t see it.

    Let’s set the stage. Around halfway through Inquisition, your forces attack a fortress called Adamant. After winning the siege, you and your party are tossed into the Fade, the home of spirits and demons. One of those demons is threatening to kill you, and barring your escape. You can defeat it enough to leave, but only if one of your buddies through this section of the game stays behind to cover your escape.

    It’s Virmire all over again — two names and who do you pick?

    In one corner is Hawke, the Champion of Kirkwall, and the player character from Dragon Age 2. BioWare did a tremendous job of imbuing Hawke with a voice and a personality, while making the player’s choices customize the character over time. If you liked the second Dragon Age, you pretty much had to like Hawke. It’s tremendously exciting to see Hawke show up in Inquisition, building on her character history and relationship with the much-loved party member Varric.

    In the other corner…well, this is where it gets complicated.

    In Dragon Age: Origins, the player character is unvoiced, and fills a much more generic “hero” role than Hawke does in its sequel. You could even make the argument that the protagonist isn’t the “Hero of Ferelden” but rather his first companion, the Grey Warden Alistair, fills that role. Much like Garrus in Mass Effect, Alistair serves as a moral anchor and best friend to the player character. He’s also consistently charming and funny, and one of the two best “tank” class characters, meaning he distracts enemies and absorbs damage. He’s both wonderful and useful.

    What’s more, Alistair is also the embodiment of the more interesting of the two plot threads running through Dragon Age: Origins. The first is an ancient evil awakened and destroying everything, blah blah blah fantasy game. The second is the political conflict in the game’s setting, the country of Ferelden, where the ruthless Teryn Loghain has allowed the true king to die, has taken the throne and is actively working against you and your party.

    As the game progresses, it turns out that Alistair is a bastard son of the old king, thus fulfilling his role as the High Fantasy Hero, a la Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings. With enough power, he can be raised to the throne to remove Loghain and bring the full support of the kingdom against evil. Putting Alistair on the throne becomes more the “good” move, if you’re playing with Origins’ morality in mind, and practical as well, as he can clearly be trusted to support your cause. Alternately, if you’re playing as an asshole, you can have him killed after he attempts to take the throne, or you can let him die a hero in the final battle.

    Thus Alistair against Hawke would be the perfect BioWare choice for horrifying players. And it exists in Inquisition! It’s just…not something you’re likely to see.

    See, in order for Alistair to be the Grey Warden at Adamant, you have to have made a specific set of choices in earlier games (modeled in the Dragon Age: Keep program). Obviously, he can’t be dead, but he’s also removed from consideration if he’s made king. Given that his rise to the throne can easily be considered the default choice for Dragon Age: Origins, that’s a pretty big ‘if.’ So you have to have chosen the circumstances that mean that he’s still alive, still a Grey Warden, but not in charge. Possible, but not likely.

    Then, in order to care about the choice, you have to have played and enjoyed Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2 and also liked both Hawke and Alistair. In that case, you get the ultimate BioWare choice. But, even if all choices are equal, that’s only about a 25% chance. Given the emotional weight of those choices, I’d guess the percentages are even lower: maybe one in ten people who would actually care about an Alistair/Hawke choice would actually have set their game world in a way where this would happen.

    If you don’t have Alistair at Adamant, there are two other options: first, Loghain can be redeemed and recruited to the Grey Wardens in Dragon Age: Origins. If this happens, and he’s alive, he’ll slot in for Alistair. This is still a fairly tough choice — Loghain was a fascinating antagonist, and his redemption attempts compelling. But he’s much older, and he needed that redemption, unlike the heroes Hawke and Alistair. And if Loghain isn’t available, then you get Some Guy. Okay, his name is Stroud and he’s not bad, but he was an incredibly minor character in Dragon Age 2, and possesses none of the emotional weight of serialization that Alistair or Loghain have.

    Most players will end up choosing between Hawke and Some Guy. Which is ridiculous. It’s also a general pattern with Dragon Age: Inquisition — this is not a game that wants to force players to make hard choices. After the controversy about the narrative experiments of its predecessor, and the firestorm over Mass Effect 3’s apocalyptic ending, it’s understandable that BioWare would be a little gun shy.

    But they’re really gun shy throughout Inquisition, with barely any choice that threatens a player’s emotions throughout the game. The only one they do have won’t even be seen by the people who care.

    Commentary, Fantasy, Games, Unwinnable Monthly
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    10 thoughts on “The Biggest Choice You’ll Never Make

    1. oldtaku says:

      That’s fascinating – I did indeed have the Hawke/Stroud choice. And as noted it was pretty trivial for me to throw Stroud under the demonbus. I put a lot more effort into choices like should the Wardens stay or go? That was probably the one that felt weightiest to me and I worried about afterwards. Stroud? No regrets.

      1. jojo says:

        Ya….If I woulda known it was Hawke/Alistair(Stroud/Logaine) it would have been a lot more meaningful. Shame I played through it and have played DA1 & 2 completely and didn’t even realize what they were getting at or the heaviness(supposed) of the choice….Great game but that sucks…….Could have (should) been pretty sweet

    2. Noray says:

      This choice was set up so poorly too, which is a shame the article doesn’t mention. At the end it’s revealed someone has to die to cover your escape, but this is never adequately explained or built up to. Basically, someone dies because the story says so, but it doesn’t feel like a natural consequence at all. The payoff is horrible, too: Whoever you choose to stay behind dies off-screen. Think about Hawke or Alistair dying off-screen fighting a generic demon for no good reason other than “game said so” – it’s horrible.

      This kind of super sloppy storytelling permeates Inquisition, which had a very solid cast of characters but a tremendously rote main storyline/villain that never amounted to anything. I really wish Bioware would let themselves write a game where the stakes aren’t THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE. They do so much better on smaller, more intimate stories.

      1. Kitty says:

        Exactly, I’ve been saying this since the choice was first presented to me. The spirit you encounter takes care of the giant spider and you kill off the nightmare, so why is it suddenly up again? I thought the nightmare was the bad guy? Or was it actually the spider talking to you, in which case, why the hell don’t we get an epic boss fight instead of a generic nightmare demon that I cut down in about 15 seconds? Honestly it shouldn’t even be a choice no matter how to want to justify it.

        I’ve been writing stories since I was a young child, and no that doesn’t make me an expert, but anyone who has been writing for even a year starts to notice all the “rookie” mistakes and shortcuts beginners use. One example off the top of my head: to fade in on the punch line instead of having to think of an actually funny joke for your character to tell. Inquisition is full of such instances.

      2. Andrew T. Brinkman says:

        They tried a smaller story, read: DA2. It didn’t go over very well

    3. […] perennial topic, choices and consequences in Dragon Age, spurred on by two great articles: one by Rowan Kaiser at Unwinnable, and the second by Austin Walker at Paste Games. Rowan’s piece is about how most players […]

    4. TheDevian says:

      Yeah, tough choices, ‘Some Guy’, I don’t care about at all, or one that I can’t stand. Varric’s reaction affected me more than either of them dying. …Oh and Varric, you were standing right there, don’t ask me “Where’s Hawke?” like you did not just watch the same thing I did. Hawke chose their fate, it’s wasn’t me… Shut it and go write your letters.

      “Hey Hawke, wait there, I’ll be right back, just let me get a bigger boot…”

      I never really liked Alistair anyway, didn’t dislike him, but wasn’t anyone I really cared about that much, (and he isn’t recognizable in 3, like Anora and even Loghain), I couldn’t tell who they were anyway until I was told. It wasn’t until I got the letter from Alistair and Anora, apologizing about the mages that I figured out who those people in the castle were supposed to be. I was like ‘who are these nameless people kicking us out of the castle, go away, we’re busy here’? Whoever designed most of the returning characters should be fired, Leliana was about the only good one, I know it’s hard whenever you change engines, and it was made even harder by the fact that they didn’t give us many good hair styles, but Loghain’s nose was too small, and I don’t know what all else was wrong, but he sure looked younger than before, and since all of the others looked older (10 years passed), that seems weird too. So Loghain had a nose job, and botox (not just the bad haircut), and Morrigan and Anora apparently had full mastectomies… As well as Anora being beaten about the face and covered it with bad make-up, well, she looked plain, and overly made up, like a cheap tart, not a queen. It makes me glad I can’t get my world state where I married her to work (and still do the ritual myself, spare her father, and kill the Arch myself), it’s like taking off the beer goggles. (I guess they figured why would I spare Loghain if I were not going to sacrifice him, but they still let you die in his place, but not do the ritual, it’s messed up…)

    5. Tovie says:

      I can’t understend why Alistair didn’t show up in my story! He’s still a grey warden and he’s still with the warden! Also I couldn’t choose a female Hawke! I don’t know what to do. I can restart the game lol. I saved after speaking with Hawke so I can’t come back.

    6. Parbruek says:

      But does Hawke die?
      “The world fears the inevitable plummet into the abyss. Watch for that
      moment…and when it comes, do not hesitate to leap. It is only when you
      fall that you learn whether you can fly.” -Flemeth speaking to Hawke
      The name of the quest is “Here Lies the Abyss.”

    7. Jack says:

      Ugh. This was actually the choice I got the very first playthrough. As a girl, I replayed DA:O over and over because Alistair was my hero, and I kept going back to his nicely written L.I. story. I even turned down the Dark Ritual, insensed that she suggest he cheat, just fornbhim to not give my Dalish warden the option to off Urthemiel herself (I was so horrified over that it switched to an irreversible cutscene, I reloaded to the Dark Ritual just to save him). For the sake of story, I replayed DA2 more than I care to admit, having fun with every possible character-branch, and finally settling with Anders as my favorite lover with Merrill as a close second. I went in with Anders’ Hawke, and was totally stoked to find dearest Alistair as a battle buddy again… Oblivious that BioWare would pull the Kaidan/Ashley. Brilliant on a story telling level!! Alistair v. Hawke?! I was so crushed that I had to walk away from the game for a few days. Came back and chose Alistair, and I’d do it again… but I’ve never played a Warden Alistair since. Loghain and Stroud are easy to send to the chopping block, but BioWare has put such love into their characters, the comics and such, I just couldn’t kill him.

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