This entry is the first in a series of nine entries about David Siegel's Nine Act Story structure as it applies to Dragon Age: Origins, a role-playing video game developed by BioWare and published by EA in 2009. Set in the kingdom of Ferelden, a medieval fantasy realm, the game focuses on the player’s progression as a Grey Warden, a member of an order sworn to protect the world of Thedas from darkspawn. The player selects one of two sexes (male, female), one of three classes (rogue, warrior, mage), and one of three races (elf, human, dwarf) and proceeds to the corresponding origin story. Through a series of battles, puzzles, and conversation choices, the player emerges with different party companions, advantages, and game outcomes.
Here, I will discuss both Act 0 and Act I in the context of the game.
Act 0: Toils Late Into the Night
This is a period prior to the beginning of the story during which antagonists prepare to implement their evil deeds. It also includes the events that led to this story, all of which should be acknowledged in the next act.
The player’s first introduction to the game is the mixed-media narration of Duncan, the leader of the Ferelden Grey Wardens. First, the voice actor chosen to play Duncan has a voice with a particularly authoritative timbre; the player immediately realized from his voice alone that he is a firm but reasonable and kindly leader who merits – but does not demand – respect. His voice also conveys a gravity that makes the game feel important and the player feel that the arduous task that lies ahead is worthwhile. This voice-over fuels the player’s desire to continue playing even before the game has truly begun.
The accompanying visual stimulus is equally important, and its variation positively contributes to player engagement and game flow. The first thing that the player sees is a quote from the Chant of Light, a religious text of the predominant religion in the game:
“‘And so is the Golden City blackened
With each step you take in my Hall.
Marvel at perfection, for it is fleeting.
You have brought Sin to Heaven
And doom upon all the world.’
- Threnodies 8:13”
Like Duncan’s voice-over, this visual emphasizes the peril and seriousness of the story that is about to unfold. It also introduces the player to the Chantry, a significant religion that constantly clashes with magic. The Chant of Light contains the pivotal ambiguous quote that drives many of the conflicts within the series, “Magic exists to serve man, and never to rule over him.” At the start of the game, mages are essentially held captive in Circles, ostensibly to learn how to control their magical abilities but also to protect the world from any mages who may not be able to do so. Thus, an immediately reference to the Chant of Light subconsciously prepares the player for the in-game conflict.
In addition, the first half of this prologue is comprised of 2D drawings, highlighting the legendary feel of the game. That is to say, the story is so ancient and terrible that the player can only know about and process it by way of drawings.
Then, the transition from 2D drawings to 3D animation notifies the player that the prologue is now in present day and that it is nearing its end. After only hearing is voice for a few minutes, the player also finally sees Duncan – he easily defeats multiple darkspawn by himself, so the player feels reassured to call such a strong warrior an ally.
Act 1: Start with an Image
The first image or scene sets the tone of the film, book, or game, hints at the plot, and establishes the setting and situation of the story. I have selected three scenes from the game’s prologue that occur in the order listed and accomplish those aforementioned goals.
1) Dwarves’ Battle in Deep Roads
- The scene itself shows an ally dragging an injured dwarf back behind the battle lines and dead bodies of dwarves and of their golem soldiers strewn throughout the battlefield.
- This scene showcases the exhaustion and hopelessness of the dwarves’ unfortunate position; they are the first bastion against the subterranean darkspawn, responsible for preventing the darkspawn from returning to the surface.
- The scene concludes with darkspawn breaking down the dwarves’ barricade, presumably engaging in a bloody battle.
2) Grey Wardens’ Battle Above Ground
- The fact that a battle occurs above ground at all implies that the dwarves were defeated in the previous scene. The dwarves failed and the darkspawn are now above ground.
- The Grey Wardens are vastly outnumbered, clearly improbable victors of the fight.
- The scene shows all of the available races and classes in the game and introduces the idea that the player will be involved with the Grey Wardens in some capacity.
3) Duncan’s Solo Battle
- The scene opens with multiple hanged human men swinging from a tree in the background, suggesting that even typical human warriors aren’t safe in groups against darkspawn.
- Because Duncan kills several darkspawn by himself, the player immediately learns that Duncan is no typical human. He seems to accomplish this feat by using a special instinct, which provides foreshadowing to the player about the special gift possessed exclusively by Grey Wardens.
- However, after his display of prowess, Duncan briefly allows himself to show distress in his eyes, face, and overall body language. This communicates that not even the great warrior and Grey Warden Duncan can ensure victory against the darkspawn. This display of vulnerability also foreshadows the fact that he will not survive the impending battle; if this great warrior cannot survive, who can?
Look out for entry two in this series, detailing Act II.