Monday, March 04, 2013

Dawn of the Redemption

Okay, I said I was done with Dragon Age 2. I'm done with the game, but I had enough fun playing through it that I wanted to get caught up on some of the ancillary pieces of fiction floating around out there. I've stayed away from all this stuff up until now, out of a desire to avoid spoilers for the game. First up: Dragon Age: Redemption!

Like I said before, Felicia Day's involvement in Mark of the Assassin was possibly the single greatest factor in convincing me to pick up DA2 after all the disappointing things I'd heard about the entry. Her involvement wasn't limited to that game, though: she also wrote and starred in a web series called Dragon Age: Redemption. It's a prequel to Mark of the Assassin, and gives some additional background to her character Tallis. If you're considering picking it up, it does contain a few elements that are introduced in DA2, but it doesn't spoil any plot from the main game or the expansion. You can probably do them in either order.

Felicia was one of the first pioneers in creating web series, and I believe that The Guild is still one of the most-watched online shows ever. She didn't direct or produce Redemption, but I imagine that her experience in telling a compelling story over short chunks with a very limited budget helped a great deal: the series manages to be surprising, exciting, funny, and impressive, even with minimal CGI.

One of the things that impressed me most was how well Redemption integrates Dragon Age's lore. It seemed clear that it was written by a fan who knows the setting and character of Thedas well. Without belaboring the point much, it captures a lot of things like the precarious position of mages, the tension between the various races, and the ominous threat of the Qun. It even manages to work in some of the major character specializations of the game: you can see a templar, a reaver, an assassin, and so on. I mean it as a compliment when I say that the fights in the series reminded me of the fights from the video game: a templar uses his skills to disable a spellcaster, melee fighters help draw aggro to protect a weak healer mage, a rogue dashes into the fray and generates burst DPS against the boss. It was exciting to watch, and also tapped into a lot of residual excitement I feel about playing the game.

The dialog was also very well written. It seemed a bit like a hybrid of David Gaider and Joss Whedon, which sometimes seems a bit odd. I don't generally think of Dragon Age as being very quippy; but, the more I thought about it, characters like Varric and Alistair do joke around and use one-liners, so it's not unprecedented in the world. Tallis is great fun to watch, and comes across as very flirty and deadly. That being said, it still fits within the framework of a dark fantasy, with plenty of tragedy sprinkled throughout.


The prequel helps fill in Tallis's history a bit more, but not completely. We know that she was a slave before she joined the Qunari, and that she had previously been punished and demoted from her position as Tallis. I'm still not clear on whether she actually trained to be an assassin from within the Qun, or if she had those skills from her time as a slave and offered them to her new leaders.

In Mark of the Assassin, I had been a little confused about how Tallis's devotion to the Qun could be reconciled with her clear moral compass. This series makes it a bit more clear that I wasn't witnessing another side to the Qunari, but rather what makes Tallis special: this is a struggle for her, and she is herself aware that her desire to put things right can sometimes contradict the demands of the Qun. (I'm less clear on why the Qunari keep taking her back and giving her more chances - she's certainly good at her job, but the Qunari don't strike me as a particularly forgiving bunch.)

For a little while, I thought that the templar was named Carver, and thought that we were witnessing side-story to Mage Hawke. I was wrong, though. It's Cairn. I really liked how his and Tallis's relationship developed... it seems very modern, but also very in keeping with their characters.

Nyree was awesome. Reavers rule!

Josmael was well-acted, but looked too much like a hobbit to me. Have we ever seen a curly-haired elf in Dragon Age before? (Though, to be fair, I guess we haven't seen many curly-haired humans or dwarves either. Maybe more will start popping up as graphics engines and hair rendering continues to improve.)

I loved all the nice little ways in which this story tied in to Dragon Age 2. Sundermount even had the altar in the graveyard that you see in the game. The rip in the fade seemed very believable, and quite in keeping with what we saw in the Blackmarsh in Awakening.

The special effects seemed very judiciously used, getting maximum impact for fairly small investments. The glowing hands for magic worked quite well, and I adored how Nyree's eyes glowed when she transformed into Reaver mode. The fade rip and blood magic in the climax were also quite impressive; perhaps not quite cutting edge by today's standards, but much better than we would have seen in movies even a few years ago. I was also very impressed with the subtle and effective illusions they used to establish characters' heights. The elves seem to be as small as they should, relative to humans, and the Qunari looms large.

It was a little sad to see Cairn die at the end... but I imagine that Tallis has loved before, and will love again. She didn't seem to be in mourning when she kissed Selene, after all! I do wonder, though, just how honest she was with Hawke during MotA. She makes it seem like she has the trust of the Qunari in following up this threat, but given that she deliberately failed her mission here, I have a hard time imagining that they would give her free reign like that. More likely, she's either holding information back from her leaders (which would break, like, every part of the Qun), or she's over-stating her position to Hawke.


And next: Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker. This was an unusual project. Funimation made an anime movie based on Bioware's property and with their full cooperation. I splurged for the Blu-Ray, which was a bit oddly packaged: it comes in a three-disc set, but the other two discs are the English and Japanese DVDs, respectively. I generally tend to watch anime in Japanese with English subtitles, but considering how Dragon Age is an English/Canadian creation, I figured the English dub would be fine.

The animation looks really good. I haven't kept up with anime for the last few years, so I can't really compare it to other contemporary movies, but the picture quality is better than any non-Miyazaki movie that I've seen. Motion is particularly fluid, without the jerkiness that you can often see in cheaper animes. Some scenes that focus on particular creatures, like an insect or a reptile, are practically photo-realistic, so accurate that it's hard to believe it's animated. They make the wise decision to keep the human characters somewhat cartoony-looking, though, so there's no Spirits Within-style uncanny valley effect. The style sometimes looked a bit unusual to me; in particular, the way shadows draw on characters' faces took some getting used to.

The art direction as a whole is pretty interesting. The artists are clearly working off of the actual Dragon Age designs, and their creatures are instantly recognizable as their in-game counterparts, but they don't just slavishly recreate the character models: this seems more like an interpretation of the same idea. For example, you can immediately tell that the Ogres are Ogres - they have the same height, and horns, and similar-looking faces - but there's a bloodier look about these Ogres, like they've just finished feasting on their enemies. It's touches like that which elevate the movie from feeling like a straight rip-off of the game, and an actual piece of art instead.

MINI SPOILERS (for Dawn of the Seeker and DA2)

Not all the changes are good, though. Mages are one of the most important villains of the movie, and their representation is highly odd. First of all, they all seem identical: except for their leader, all of them have the exact same black cowl, pulled over their heads, and identical staves. The staves are strange, too, unlike anything I've seen in any Dragon Age game: they're more like scythes, with sickles on the end. As if that wasn't odd enough, they seem to primarily fight in melee, slashing at people. This is really weird, since we know that they can cast magic. From the way the movie portrays them, a viewer might think that "mage" is another type of race or species, rather than an individual who can access magic.

Along those lines, my biggest issues with the movie had to do with its treatment of Dragon Age lore. Most of this isn't necessarily bad or wrong, just strange... it doesn't necessarily contradict what we've experienced of Thedas from the games, yet it's an original idea that doesn't seem to quite fit with what we know. Some other examples:
  • There's a group of ogres and golems that surround the heroes at one point. That's VERY strange. Have you ever seen them on the same side before? And why would they obey blood mages? I suppose it's theoretically possible that a powerful blood mage could use Blood Control to compel an ogre, and it's theoretically possible that they might have found several dozen golem control rods to animate the golems. But it's still hard to explain. I'd find it much more likely for blood mages to summon undead, or compel an army of humanoids.
  • One scene shows a very Catholic-looking confessional booth, complete with screen. Now, to be sure, the Chantry is pretty obviously modeled off of the Catholic Church, and a Chantry building looks similar to a Catholic building (rows of pews, altar up front, etc.). So maybe there really is a tradition of confession in the Chantry. It seems a bit odd that it wouldn't have come up before now, though.
If the lore was slightly disappointing for me, though, the character of Cassandra more than made up for it. She was awesome, a phenomenal presence on the screen, who goes through a pretty believable transformation throughout the course of the story. She's also an incredibly talented fighter, and the most visually enjoyable parts of the movie are the scenes where she's fighting some great evil monster.


Much like Dragon Age 2, Dawn of the Seeker is based on a conflict between the Chantry and mages, and more specifically between the Templars and apostates. Early in the movie, it seems overly simplified, with far too many blood mages who are all presented as uniformly bad. It does gradually get a bit more complex as the story continues, though, and we meet Circle mages and get a better view of the tensions they endure. Cassandra initially comes off rather like Fenris, unwilling to compromise her hatred for all mages, but over time she grudgingly comes to accept their role.

Chronologically, Dark of the Seeker is set after the end of the events depicted in DA2, but before the start of the framing device with the interrogation of Varric. There isn't much explicit overlap between the two, but at one point Cassandra does mention the importance of preventing another incident like Kirkwall. I liked her in this movie much more than I did in DA2, which only makes sense... in DA2, her only role was to question and threaten Varric, which doesn't exactly give her much opportunity to show off her personality. The movie does make me retroactively like her better in the game, though... I have a better understanding now of her relationship to the Chantry and her motivation to heal the rift with the Circles.

Other highlights of the movie for me: I loved seeing Val Royeaux, which looks absolutely stunning. I hope we get to visit here in DA3. It may be another case of cribbing too closely from the Catholic Church, since it did seem pretty close in many respects to St. Peter's Square, but the scale and look of it is pretty stunning. I also liked the insight into the upper levels of Chantry leadership: seeing the interplay between the Divine, the clerics, the Knight-Commander of the templars and the Lord of the Seekers of Truth was pretty interesting.


The disc comes with a few special features that are brief but interesting. There's some great artwork that shows how certain concepts evolved; there's an early drawing of Cassandra with long tresses in front that looks really fetching, although I think her final ponytailed design is much more appropriate for the character. I fast-forwarded through a lot of the creature designs, but the segment ends up with some environmental concept drawings that are stunningly well-drawn. There's also a tour of Bioware's studios. Everything in here is fascinating, and I just wish it would have been longer... in particular, since I've come to recognize the names of many of Dragon Age's writers, I would have loved to know who specifically was shown in that room.

My recommendation for Dawn of the Seeker is more qualified than for that of Redemption. It's a slicker work, and looks fantastic. The story is pretty good, but its treatment of Dragon Age lore sometimes seems confusing or a bit off. That said, the character of Cassandra is one of my favorites from any medium of Dragon Age, and it might be worth picking up just for that.

I don't know if I could necessarily recommend either movie to a neophyte to Dragon Age. I think both projects make a good effort to stand independently, containing within their exposition everything you should need to know in order to follow the plot. However, the fun from the movies comes from the extra light they shed on the world of Thedas, and I still think that the games are the best way to first encounter this world.

The disc of Dawn of the Seeker came with a downloadable code for The Silent Grove, the latest Dragon Age comic. I was mildly bummed to see that this only included the first issue. On the other hand, the remaining issues only cost 99 cents each, so I might pick up the rest of the graphic novel at some point. Or maybe not.


The story is written by David Gaider, one of the main creators of the world of Dragon Age, phenomenal writer, and all-around great guy. It's a bit of a crossover or transition between Origins and Dragon Age 2, and brings together Alistair, Isabela, and Varric. Gaider created the characters of Alistair and knows his voice better than anyone else.

However, he doesn't know how I played my game, and by telling a story at this point in Alistair's life, Gaider is forced to collapse the quantum of Alistair's existence down to a single truth. As he chooses to tell it, Alistair is now the King of Ferelden. For many players, though, that won't be true. In my case, Alistair renounced all claims to the throne and continues serving the Grey Wardens. In other peoples' games, he may have been executed during the Landsmeet, or have sacrificed himself to kill the Archdemon, or become a wandering drunkard.


It's a weird thing when a story-based RPG, which can support a multiplicity of meanings and outcomes for the player, is transported to a more authoritative medium, which can only express a single canonical truth. I wouldn't have thought that it would bother me as much as it did.

Part of why I may have been slightly disappointed is because Bioware has historically done a very impressive job of working in the comics medium in a way that expands the story and is also compatible with all permutations of player choice. In some cases, like the great Penny Arcade comics, these are prequels to Origins or Awakening: as such they can provide additional background, and don't challenge anything about what the player will do in the future. (In contrast, their comic for Dragon Age 2 looks great, but presupposes a male Hawke.) In some other cases, comics can be inserted into the middle of a story, thanks to careful use of pronouns and elision of the player character. A great example of this is Dragon Age Revelation, also written by Gaider and with particularly fantastic art for Morrigan. What I love about this comic is that it can be read for any sort of Warden, with different sorts of goals and relationships, and it will still amplify and resonate with your own personal story. Filling in what you know of your relationship with Morrigan, her hesitations come to mean something different. It's quite well done.

Probably the most impressive example comes from another franchise, Mass Effect: Redemption. That comic is surprisingly long, and deals with a very important section of Commander Shepard's life; it wasn't until well after I finished it that I realized that, while I had been picturing "my" female Shepard the whole time, with her particular romance, it would also have "worked" with a male who had romanced someone else or nobody at all. Again, this is something that great art can do: evoke rather than invoke, lay out certain ideas that our minds respond to and then fill in the details.

It's gotta be hard, though, and probably not terribly rewarding for the writers who have to work under those restraints. So, I can totally sympathize with the desire to create a canon, so your story can directly reference the most important characters and events from the biggest story in the universe. After all, many players will play through the game multiple times, and who's to say that their most recent game was any more or less "real" than any other that they could have played? (In fact, if I'd read this comic right after my first play-through of Origins instead of my current one, it would have fit in just fine with "my" narrative.)

So, yeah. I certainly don't begrudge anyone for working in this style, and if anyone has earned the right to create a canon, it's Gaider. At the same time, I don't particularly like it when a passive art form contradicts a participatory art form, so I'll probably be abstaining from the remainder of the Silent Grove for the time being. On the other hand, I'll probably pick up the prequel novels at some point.

One final (I promise!) topic before signing off. The mere existence of semi-official spinoffs for Dragon Age (movies, comics, novels, pen-and-paper RPGs) makes me tremendously excited. It shows that Thedas is evolving beyond a simple game setting, and becoming a world in its own right. It's pretty rare for a fantasy land to make that leap; even some tremendously successful fantasy series like the Thomas Covenant chronicles and Wheel of Time haven't managed it (while others, like Midkemia and Earthsea, have).

Thedas has a talented and enthusiastic fan base, and I've recently come to enjoy looking at all the fantastic fan art people have created. Some of this is humorous, some touching, some dark. Bioware has a great approach to this, encouraging and nurturing the creativity of these talented people. There are some great traditions like Morrigan Monday, which spotlights talented cosplayers portraying one of the favorite characters of the franchise.

It'll be interesting to see where things develop from here. Middle-earth still reigns supreme as the ultimate source of fantasy inspiration, producing not only terrific art but also songs and games, not to mention direct adaptations like the movies. It's the former category that introduces me more than the latter: I love it when a world feels broad and deep enough to support the creation of entirely new stories on top of it, and not merely finding new ways to celebrate old tales. In the long run, this might help elevate Thedas even above my other favorite game-based fantasy worlds: I'll always love the Ultima series, and by extension Britannia, but the name and nature of Britannia's construction will always keep it from supporting this kind of art (with, um, a handful of exceptions). Thedas's originality positions it very well to transcend the games; heck, it already has, and it seems likely to continue inspiring more stories well into the future.


  1. Wow, compared to how long you were tooling around with Dragon Age, it feels like you went through DA2 really quickly.

  2. Yeah... it's a slightly shorter game to start with, but mostly it's just because I was playing it much more consistently. It's amazing how quickly a game can fly by when you devote your weekends to it. :-)