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Anders

Bioware has a lot of tales
to tell, that’s the distinct impression I’m getting from Dragon Age’s Online
Producer Fernando Melo. From the bloody swords and also bloody sorcery of the
DA universe to Mass Effect’s cinematic space operas, Bioware’s reasserted itself
as the torchbearer for Western role-playing games, with a design aesthetic
built on narrative above all. To paraphrase an Internet meme: My stories, let
me tell you them.

This new one, Awakening, is
the first to pick up where Dragon Age: Origins ended. Apparently the death of
the Archdemon didn’t spell the end of the Darkspawn, and as that little issue
leads to a whole new adventure, you pick up a new party of compatriots and work
to rebuild the Grey Wardens along the way.

While Bioware isn’t
specifying how long that adventure might be exactly, the $40 price tag (hefty
for a downloadable expansion, though it’ll be a physical retail product, too) suggests pretty damn long. An EA spokesperson
claims “it rivals the length of most full games on the market today.”

I had a chance to talk with
Melo about the Awakening project, the series’ over-the-top gore, the
expansion’s romantic prospects (dim), and much more….

 

Bitmob: Can you go into how Awakening came about
— did it start with the story first?

Fernando Melo: It’s interesting because I think, traditionally, you
would start from what’s happening in Origins and what kind of ideas we might
want to do. In the case of Dragon Age, we had already invested man-years into
the world and the lore. It’s almost like working backwards, there’re all these
stories we want to go and tell — how soon can we get them done, how soon can
we put people on telling this side of the story, etc.?

the_children-06And the second part is
listening to what fans are asking for. And really, there were a couple of
surprises where people gravitate towards characters or locations or whatever
the case is. Maybe there’s an open-ended question that we left out there in
Origins; is there something we can do to tie that off or bring some closure to
that point? Return to Ostagar was a good example of that.

With Awakening, it’s much
more than a traditional DLC piece, there’s a huge amount of content in there.
We’ve been working on it for over a year now, which is almost like a full game.
We wanted to add not just a new chapter of continuation, but really, it’s like
a new book in the set.

It fast-forwards the
timeline a little bit so we can actually tell stories beyond the framework of
what we’ve said in Origins, and the beauty about it is that Dragon Age is
something that spans many, many years, and has a huge number of locations
beyond what we’ve seen in Origins. Awakening allows us to expand that ever so
slightly, but the nice part is that there’s so much room to grow and tell so
many different stories about characters or places or things.

queen_of_the_blackmarsh-05

Bitmob: You guys finished the PC version of Origins quite
a while ago, and spent a number of months getting the console versions ready
for a simultaneous launch — did you split a team off at that point to start
working on Awakening?

FM: It’s not like PC development just stopped, we
continued to do a lot of bug fixes, etc. [But] the majority of the team had
moved on to console development. We also created an online group that was dealing
with the creation of downloadable content, as well as Awakening. That was just
over a year ago…a little bit more than that. We first started with our
initial DLC, and then that team rolled on to Awakening as more and more people
were coming off of Origins.

But the writing itself, a
lot of the seeds had already been sown well before we started in earnest on
Awakening. For example, even with David Gaider’s books, where he talks about
the character of the Architect, and there’s a couple of other characters that
he mentions in the book, The Calling, which feature into Awakening as well.

The nice part about the
franchise is that all these pieces are interconnected. Initially, it may not
always seem like it, but over time you’ll start to see all these correlations
and some of the foreshadowing in something even as small as some of the items.
They talk about a place or a person or something of interest, and then later on
you’ll actually get to meet that person or potentially go to that location and
live out some of that history, which is really cool. And in this case you’ll
actually be creating history.

Bitmob: I was under the impression — the wrong
impression, apparently — that all of Origin’s DLC would take place before the
final events of the game in the overall timeline. But Awakening is set after
that; is it safe to assume that all future DLC will also take place after
Origins?

FM: Ummm, not necessarily. All the content that we’ve
released so far, because it was tied largely around what was happening in
Origins it made sense to set it in that place. Moving forward, like I said
there are so many different places, and the timeline itself is quite broad,
we’ve really only seen a tiny sliver of it, even as big as Origins is. There
are lots of places we can take that. So I wouldn’t assume — not to say that
we’ve planned it out — but I wouldn’t assume that it’s always going to land in
Origins or Awakening.

anders-04Bitmob: At least one of Origins’ old party members will
re-up for Awakening, but you’re not saying whom. What about some of the new
characters?

FM: There are three party members that we’ve uncovered
so far: Anders, Velanna, and Sigrun. Anders is an interesting take on mages. In
Origins, there was maybe kind of a preconceived notion with a character like
Wynn, where mages are sort of all happy about living in the Tower, and accepted
their place in the world. Anders is very much not that. He’s a rebel; he’s
constantly escaping the Tower because he hates it. When you come across him in
Awakening, it’s in the middle of one of these attempts, and it’s up to you to
figure out what you want to do in that case. It’s a really interesting
dichotomy between the mage characters that you were used to in Origins.

Velanna is a Dalish Elf
Keeper, and the thing with her is that she feels that she’s been wronged by
humans, so immediately she’s predisposed to not trust them. And again, much
like with Origins your race plays a factor as to whether people warm up to you
or not; she’s a great example of that.

It’s an interesting way to
kind of further the Dalish Elf view, where I think in Origins we painted one
aspect of it — most of the Dalish Elves that you met were just kind of, this
is the life that they lead, and resigned themselves to that role. Whereas
Velanna is an example that not all of them are happy with that circumstance.
velanna-01Some of them are desperate enough to rebel against it, or potentially to take
that on first-hand, and she’s a character along those lines. You get to see
what impact that has on her culture, as well as how she feels about it and how
you choose to interact with it, whether you accept that or not.

And then Sigrun is part of
the Legion of the Dead, the Dwarven legion that is forever placed in the Deep
Roads, fighting Darkspawn until they fall. It’s a way for us to really open up
and reveal a little bit more about that kind of subculture of the Dwarven
world, which we really only touched on very lightly in Origins. When you join
the Legion it’s at your funeral — they just assume that they’re dead, and it’s
just a matter of time. They’re going down there to serve a very specific
service, and kind of make up for their sins or make up for their shortcomings
as Dwarven society had seen them.

You get to learn a lot more
about the Legion, how they work, what they do, and some of the facets of being
part of that. There’s never been a recorded Legion of the Dead character who’s
also a Warden character, so there’s an interesting dilemma there as well that
you might have to deal with, depending on some of the choices you make.

The character in particular
that we can’t talk about, because we haven’t revealed it yet, is the recurring
party member from Origins. There’s one that comes across. The really nice thing
is that there’s actually quite a few of them that make cameos, and it really
comes down to the choices that you made in Origins whether or not you meet
them, and how they’re disposed to you when you do.

Bitmob: Will we see more
Morrigan?

FM: We made it very clear that Morrigan played a very
important role in Origins, so it’s safe to say at some point, we haven’t seen
the last of Morrigan. Whether that’s in Awakening or not, we’ll have to see.

Bitmob: What kind of
class balancing and tweaking are you working on for Awakening?

FM: For me, one of the nice things is the new
specializations, and some of the new spells and abilities. I think with
Origins, mages were exceptionally powerful, and sometimes warriors and rogues
were not seen as really as strong of classes. And in particular, if you played
something like a ranger, a ranged rogue, you might not have felt like an
archer, you might not have felt that it was as strong a character. With some of
the new specializations that we’ve introduced and some of the new abilities, I
think that those characters are very cool once again. And for me, I love
playing rogues, so it was very nice to be able to make that a very strong
character to lead the group.

Inferno_Golem_6

Bitmob: My main character was a warrior, and I regretted
not going with a mage. Warriors were kind of “fire and forget” —
send them off and then control the mages in your party.

FM: One of the things that we recognized with mages —
they cast something and it has some cool VFX, there’s some kind of immediate
payoff that you get from it. Warriors in particular, rogues maybe not as much,
but warriors tended to have a lot more passive abilities. They could manage
aggro, they could help the party and do good damage-per-second, etc., but they
didn’t really have stuff that was very visual, that you could get a lot of
payoff for using the abilities, with a few exceptions. I think we really
brought that back into the fold. Not only do you have more abilities that you
can activate, so you feel like you’re in control of the battlefield, but they
also have much more of a visual payoff. And rogues, the same way….

KalHirol_1Bitmob: The sheer amount of gore in Origins, the
head-to-toe blood splatter was a bit off-putting to some people. What was the
thinking behind that?

FM: To be honest, we wanted to paint a picture that this
was a dark place to be, a dangerous place to be, there’s lots of blood and
combat is messy. One of the things was, how do you make it plausible to clean
yourself off? We didn’t want to try to micromanage that, or somehow turn it
into some kind of gameplay thing that you had to do.

Over time you lose some of
it, and funnily enough, in Origins if you have Dog in the party you can get him
to lick it off, but that was actually just more of a joke than anything else.

Bitmob: Any changes planned there?

FM: Nope…we really focused on the strengths that we
saw in Origins, and what people really loved. I think there’s definitely a good
case to be made to potentially tone that down in the future.

But in the meantime, instead
of creating new features, we really wanted to focus on getting a fantastic new
story out there. At the end of the day it’s not about introducing lots of new
functionality, there’s no kind of whiz-bang features. There’s lots of subtle
things in there, like runecrafting, the respec option, these kinds of things.
The real merit to Awakening is the massive amount of storytelling content.

Bitmob: The sexual relationships in Origins were another
polarizing feature — are those going to make a return in Awakening?

FM: They will not. It’ll be interesting to see peoples’
reactions to it, because it was by far one of the things they enjoyed. I think
there was a real risk, though, of us trying to add romances in [that] would’ve
felt tacked on. The story doesn’t lend itself to it; when you play through it,
you’ll realize the pacing is very different from Origins, there’s a real
impetus to just get on and solve the problems at hand. The characters that
you’re playing with all have strong enough backgrounds that you would need to
really invest a lot of time to turn those characters around into something that
was romanceable.

Time will tell; I think that
we’ll definitely get called out on it, but I think it was one of things that
was the right decision to make, rather than trying to shoehorn something in.
We’ll just have to keep evaluating it based on content-to-content. Some cases
where it makes sense we’ll absolutely do it, and where it doesn’t, we won’t.

velanna-03

Bitmob: I hate to put you on the spot like this, but I
also love to…when I talked with Bioware co-founder Ray Muzyka recently, he
called Mass Effect 2 “Bioware’s best game to date.” How do you feel
about that?

FM: I don’t disagree. I’ve been playing Mass Effect 2,
and I think the team has done an amazing job. It is a cinematic Tour de Force.
I thought Mass Effect 1 was absolutely brilliant in that regard, and in Mass 2
they’ve blown me away with what they’ve been able to achieve.

In
terms of how does that compare with Dragon Age, they’re very different games. I
don’t think Dragon Age was ever meant to be a cinematic Tour de Force. It has
very strong storytelling, but really it’s anchored in a traditional fantasy
fighting game. I don’t think that you really want to create the same sort of
feel that Mass is going for. There’s definitely crossover, but they cater to
slightly different audiences.