Dragon Age 2 interview: grim, bloody, sexy

Here be dragons! SFX meets the team behind BioWare's hotly anticipated fantasy sequel, and discusses rivalry, bloodshed, accents and more

We adored the original Dragon Age: Origins here on SFX . The engaging mix of action, romance, high fantasy, low morals and bloodshed turned this 2009 game into an instant role-playing classic.

The sequel is just over a month away from release. There's a feature about Dragon Age 2 , developed by celebrated Canadian team BioWare, in issue 206 of SFX . We spent a day with them at their HQ and they revealed so much more to us than we had room to print, so here online are the rest of our interview questions.

For a couple of hours we were able to play Dragon Age 2 , which chronicles 10 years in the life of Hawke, Champion of Kirkwall - then we scouted around inside the Edmonton design studio, and spoke to BioWare's Mark Darrah and Mike Laidlaw about Dragon Age 's future and RPGs in general:

PART ONE: Mark Darrah (Executive Producer)

SFX: How do you keep a game like this fresh and sidestep the clichés?
Dragon Age is definitely a setting of greys. In Lord Of The Rings for example, Tolkien's iconic fantasy setting, it's all about black and white. There's clear evil. You might have some frailty in humanity but there are clear lines. We've muddied that up a little bit more so it becomes about politics and personality. With DA2 not having a "chosen one" who takes on a continent-spanning evil, it opens it up for us to explore tones and themes we haven't explored before.

SFX: How hard have you tried to create continuity from the first game?
It's very important that DA2 fits within canon: so there was a blight, and the Dwarven king is dead, and there is a new ruler on the throne... This is reality. These things happened . So if you've played DA:O your outcome of those choices is kept! But even if you didn't play DA:O that all still happened: the Arch Demon was still stopped by a Grey Warden. If you didn't play DA:O it just wasn't your Grey Warden. There is a new leader in Ferelden and there is a new leader of the Dwarves, because all of that is the reality of our story. We are bringing across a lot of decisions.

SFX: You mentioned Grey Wardens. We didn't see or hear about any in the levels we played...?
With the Blight over by the time you finish the introductory level, the Grey Wardens are in a secondary role. I'd say they're still a major force on the continent because they're essentially an unaligned paramilitary group! They do serve a role in DA2 but they're not central to it.

SFX: You're telling the new story over a 10-year game period. What challenges does that create?
Its strength is also its weakness. Because you have longer time periods, it lets you react to the player's decisions - it enables you to have their station change. They can evolve. Aveline [one of your companions] can join the city guard or whatever – their situations can change top. But it also puts you in a situation where you have to explain why certain things haven't happened. If somebody was talking about moving away, and then three years pass and they're still there… well, why did that happen? You have to explain it. I think the passage of time is a greater strength than a weakness but it does introduce storytelling challenges.

SFX: From playing it we can see that Flemeth is back. Any other familiar faces?
Absolutely. Isabella was in the first one too - although she was a pretty minor character then. She's definitely back. There are other people too...!

SFX: How important was player feedback in preparing the sequel?
It was really important to us. Obviously we had a vision and we set a direction, but we had to listen to reviews and to player comments. What did they like, what didn't they like? Mostly we gathered it from the forums, both our forums and other gaming sites. We usually do some focus testing on our games but we usually do that on playable sections much later, we usually don't do concept testing. So we listen to forum data.

SFX: And in terms of the fans, how important was it to be at a multimedia event like Comic-Con in San Diego, which is where you chose to unveil DA2 in 2010?
It was very important for us to get people playing it. The advantage of something like Comic-Con, from a hands-on perspective, is that it's not a gaming focus group which could be coloured a certain way. The good thing about Comic-Con over something like E3 is you're starting with a different pool of people. At E3 people are there to see games. But at Comic-Con people are there to see films, comics, collector culture – as a result it's a broader audience for us to interpret.

SFX: Tell us about the aesthetics. The looks have been updated, but will it "feel" like the same game as before?
We're pulling across creature models directly from DA:O so there are touchstones. But the problem with DA:O from a visual perspective is that if you put a screenshot up against a screen from Conan or EverQuest or LotR they all look the same! It's all Tudor-style houses, everything green and brown. And we really want to make sure that a screenshot from Dragon Age 2 looks like our work and nothing else. So there's a deliberate departure there. When you play it, it's faster but it feels like Dragon Age , it plays tactically like Dragon Age – and the place where we try to maintain tone the most is in the story.

SFX: People will spot elements, like the voiced lead character and dialogue wheel, that they know from Mass Effect . How much overlap is there with the Mass Effect development team?
We do share people on occasion, but honestly the dialogue wheel is more of a concept that we like rather than anything we've particularly tried to steal. Conversation choices present a really interesting challenge: if you make your dialogue choices like in DA:O , where you read a line, then the problem is that then you pick that line and then the character reads that line out, so you have this weird thing where the exact line is being repeated! You've already heard it in your head. So we need to find some sort of paraphrasing. Once you're doing that, by going to the wheel you can also do the thing with the icons and the position of the option gives you a sense of intent.

SFX: You've stated that your watchwords for the Dragon Age world are "grim, bloody and sexy". Is that a new thing for this sequel?
This is something that the art director specifically set for the direction of Dragon Age 2 , but the truth is that the words actually fit very well with the direction for the whole franchise, even from the beginning. DA:O was supposed to be a dark, epic fantasy. So that's already getting that grimness, that Frazetta-style art direction. It's getting us that bloodiness. The sexy aspect for us is now stating that it has to be attractive , it can't be ugly. The grim and bloody at least have been there since the beginning! It just maybe wasn't as defined with such clarity.

SFX: What are your personal inspirations?
I've been a pen-and-paper role-player for 24 years! Mostly D&D but a lot of other non-fantasy things like Shadowrun and GURPS . So I have a really strong rule background. I know the maths. From a storytelling perspective, I really love George RR Martin as a modern writer. I'm not personally a Jack Vance fan but there are a lot of Vance people here at BioWare, he's very influential. We have a lot of Vance fanboys here!

SFX: And what are your favourite parts of the DA world?
In DA2 I think the truth is that Aveline is now my favourite character, although I have told others it was Isabella. Hmm. In many ways Aveline is the toughest character we've ever written, she's got iron in her soul! I like that uncompromising willingness to be a defender, to do what's necessary to protect what she's needs to protect. She is not a romance option for the player but there are things with her later... she can come out of her shell to some degree...! That's one advantage of the passage of time. By the end of the game her husband's been dead for 10 years.

SFX: Dragon Age is expanding - there are books, comics, an anime in development. Who makes sure it's all consistent?
The vision is clearly held within the team. [Game writer] David Gaider is writing the novels so that's no problem, but if we're doing comic books or with the Funimation anime then I approve all that. One of the advantages of the new art direction we have is that it's a more simplified look, so the things you can do with a Flash or Facebook game won't be exactly the same as the Xbox360 but they can be consistent. From a story perspective the big thing is that everything we do is canonical. It has to be approved from a story perspective because the long term goal is ensure it knits into one big tapestry. We've got to get a tone or a theme that fits within the lore for each story.

SFX: In literature, fantasy is bigger than SF. But in gaming, there seems to be more sci-fi out there than high fantasy. What's that about?
There isn't a lot of high fantasy coming out just now. Even Fable has moved in quite a steampunk direction. There are some titles from Germany but there's not a ton of it. That might be due to technology. Back in the 1990s when we were making Baldur's Gate , everything was 2D and computers were very good at doing dirty, baroque, fantasy locations. It was bad at doing clean, shiny things like science fiction! Now our computer technology is in a place where it's really good at doing clean, smooth, 3D things like Mass Effect - it's almost harder to create dirty, baroque scenes. It's easier to make Tron than it is to simulate piles of medieval dirt!

SFX: Thanks Mark!

Continue to the next part of our interview at BioWare HQ, with Lead Designer Mike Laidlaw…

PART TWO: Mike Laidlaw (Lead Designer)

SFX: We've heard about Mark Darrah's inspirations, but what would you say are the major influences on the Dragon Age universe?
We're looking at the more modern angles of fantasy. George RR Martin for example. That's an exceptional take on fantasy that isn't about good or evil, it's about people. And from the more visual stand-point we've been looking at the stylised stuff that's been coming out, things like the movie 300 - certainly that's had an influence on the look and feel, on the warriors mostly! We've even looked at things like Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass for how the rogues fight. The mages always had the pyrotechnics and the rogues... nothing. So we've tried to bring that out more fairly. For storytelling and world building we love more "realistic" fantasy.

SFX: We can see there's going to be a load more action. But is there still enough there for fans of story and dialogue?
I think there's an erroneous feeling, somehow, that "action" must erode the RPG aspects of a game. And that's something I just fundamentally disagree with! In my head, when I was playing a rogue in my old D&D campaign, he was grabbing a chandelier and swinging and stabbing a dagger into some ogre's neck! It's awesome! Because that's how I saw it. To me, having that visualisation where your on-screen character goes "poof" and stealthy appears on the other side of the enemy doesn't mean there's no more need for rules. And it doesn't remove storytelling by any means. As a general rule, combat should be exciting, it should be visually rewarding, it should feel like warriors are dishing out damage - and then when combat's done, what's the reward? Interaction. A plot twist. A new story element. It's all there! Certainly with the companions, it goes as deep if not deeper than you experienced in Origins . So if you're looking for that deeper interaction, imagine what it's like knowing somebody for 10 years, instead of one Blight.

SFX: Were you keen to get any of the original voice cast back for DA2 ?
Kate Mulgrew is absolutely back again at Flemeth. I don't know how many new voices are in the game that you might know - we don't usually lean on famous cast too often; our policy in general is to use the best actors for the role. There are some returning characters from DA:O and [add-on pack] Awakening . So there will be some who are familiar but not because they're world famous. It's really important for us that we get quality acting, and we go to England to get authentic accents.

SFX: Yes, there are some interesting cultural choices in the accents. Elves, for instance, have north American accents while humans tend to be Brits. What was the thinking?
In part the decision was that the human Fereldens would be British. From our perspective north American is a "default" sound! Smooth mid-western! That's where we started, and we wanted the humans to stand out. In Dragon Age 2 we've even further deviated the Dalish from the city elves. The city elves have a flat American accent, like Dwarves, whereas the Dalish elves are voiced by Welsh and Irish actors - it gives them an audible identity to make them stand out a bit from their city cousins.

SFX: And was it tough to find the right voices for the lead part, Hawke?
It was difficult to find two voices (male and female) for the lead character. There are actors out there who have the range we need and Hawke is a very variable character. He could be anything from Smart Alec to hard-ass, from polite stranger to supportive friend. Finding two actors who can do that whole range was tough. But the thing is, when you find a good actor you commit to bringing them in and working with them and giving them detailed notes about the script. The actors start to get to know the character and register how to make it work. Many of them are actors we've worked with before so they come in and we explain the situation and they audition, we can tell very quickly: "That's Hawke. That's exactly what we need."

SFX: Was Mass Effect an influence on your decision to use a voiced character?
I think in the implementation, yes; the interface was a lesson we learned from Mass Effect . But deciding to do it was actually based on player feedback - I'm keenly aware that there are people who love the silent protagonist, but we parsed 86 reviews and all the relevant forums, and the feeling we got was that people liked the story despite not hearing the character speak, so we began to look at that pretty hard.

SFX: Mark Darrah mentioned that the Grey Wardens are there but not a key part of DA2 . Can you elaborate?
The Grey Wardens are important in the game, but they are not the feature of this sequel. It's more than just a nod for continuity, they're a critical part of the world as a whole! They have their own agenda. After a Blight we've got a group that once wasn't all that powerful yet people have grown to respect them again. They ended the Blight and they're now in a position where they're going, "We're still here. Remember we saved all your butts?" For me, they represent one of the most central factions in the Dragon Age world. But this new game isn't focussed on them like Origins was.

SFX: We spotted that you've dumped the idea of "approval" from your companions. Instead there's a thing called rivalry. How does that work?
Rivalry represents another way to win. The problem I always had by managing friendships with approval is that it's a one-way track. I think in a lot of ways it subtly encouraged people not to role-play, not to interact with other characters in an honest way - but rather to interact with characters in a way that they thought they would like. It was like being a disingenuous friend telling white lies! Now you never lose friendship, but you can gain rivalry. Honestly being a rival to a companion is the same kind of inspiration you gain from friendship but it has a different effect. In terms of game mechanics it gives different abilities depending on whether you're a friend or a rival, and we also deliver different story moments that change based on what relationship you have. Now, the only wrong choice now is to ignore them.

If you're consistently being a rival, consistently telling them they're doing things wrong, you'll find that the interactions change. They can still "like" you, but they're at odds with you on this certain issue. So your dynamic is different. You can even take rivalry to the point where it's a character you're trying to romance, somebody you're potentially in love with, where you develop this tempestuous relationship that ends in a fiery kiss! And that's something that we simply could not do before.

It is possible to drive characters away - but it's not a question of "oh, they're against me so they're gone", it's more tied to the story. There are gifts still, but there aren't any meaningless gifts any more. None of this "Oh, yay, some wine! Now I like you!" There are things you can find and buy around the world that will be closer to things like Alastair's mother's amulet - items that will prompt a discussion, and either friendship or rivalry will come out of it.

SFX: It's a familiar medieval world but there are interesting twists. How do you go about keeping to recognisable tropes while avoiding cliché?
You use archetypes - it sounds facetious, but it's true. A cliché happens when it gets overused but the archetype is what lies behind it and that will always resonate really well. In our case, you don't set out with an agenda; you set out with the plan to create a realistic character or situation. Our elves are the prime example. They're these ethereal beings; but if you hold them up to stark reality, bearing in mind how people are, humanity's intolerance of others, you have to wonder... If humans are a dominant race, are they just going to let elves hang out in their forests?! They're going to just deforest that place! You can hold up a gritty mirror to our selves. It lets you say, "Sheesh, I could imagine a world getting here!" Cliché is inherently comfortable. But this is uncomfortable and at that point you start questioning your beliefs. You start questioning how you're interacting with the world.

SFX: The way people level up their abilities has changed, you now have this whole tree thing with more personal choice in it. What inspired that?
What it boiled down to is variability. A core thing of many RPGs is customisation, and the feeling that your character is built the way you wanted. But having to earn "block A" skills before you can see "block B" skills, when maybe all you really wanted was block B, can be a little frustrating. To be fair, you have to make choices and if you want block B there should be a price to pay! But the questions we ask ourselves is, "What if there were two routes through an ability tree? What if getting fire spells could be done independently of ice spells? What if I could have this set of spells or that other set of spells on the route to getting an arcane shield?" Let's open this up to the player, we'll provide routes to progress where they can say, "Okay, I'll take a couple of this tree because I really wanted that ability, but I want this other thing off this other tree because that's the character I have in mind." And to me that's a lot stronger. But there are occasions where you need this, and that, and a certain amount of points - so if you want to invest and progress to abilities from the top tier you're still looking at a path; but you don't have to get everything on the path, or only go up the path in one direction. There should be routes along the tree where you can find satisfying elements. You can always dig even further if you want.

SFX: What other games are you playing - and what do you consider to be your biggest rival at the moment?
Rivalry is a funny term - I would say friendship! We're up against other fantasy games and to a certain extent we're competing for mindshare but I don't really see it that way. As a developer myself I like to look at other games and think, "Oh great, I don't know the plot twists in this one!" Because I know my own game too intimately. Other studios aren't at odds with us, they're helping to keep this genre alive, helping to keep fantasy as a viable setting (it's all too easy to do modern warfare these days). But I look at Fable , I look at The Witcher , and what they are to me are different points in this huge RPG genre. Different extremes and experiences. The Witcher is a little more action-orientated than Dragon Age , focussed on this single well-known character. They each offer their own beautiful little titbit and that's what I love about those games. I just like to enjoy a genre which I'm passionate about, and to see it being kept alive - and it probably isn't as big as it was a few years ago, so I'm pleased that there are top tier titles that people are working on in our genre.

SFX: You hinted that Dragon Age 2 would be a good place to start if you've never played DA:O . So do you think of this has a jumping on point for beginners?
I would hope so. Not because I want to drive away Origins players! I just think we're telling cool stories and I want more and more people to be involved in it. I think that there are more people out there who are ready to play RPGs than know it. People who rank up kills in a shooter and get new guns for it and new outfits - that's called "levelling up" kids! So for us the goal is that there are enough references to Origins that an DA:O player comes in feeling extremely satisfied. But there is plenty of easing in, plenty of explanation about the Darkspawn and the world in the opening sequence, that you come away from it with the core values of Dragon Age . Even a beginner can understand what happened in DA:O because you live through a tiny part of it at the start of this one. It's says, "Go ahead - if you didn't play Origins we're still glad to have you, you can start here." It's a balance. Dudes, relax, we don't want to make an action game! But we do want to invite new players into this world. "Come and take a look. If you were put off in 2009 because combat used to be sluggish or because the visuals looked a little dated on consoles - fixed!" If you are ready for a story - and who isn't?! - there you go.

SFX: How far can you take the Dragon Age franchise – and more importantly how will you make sure it all feels part of a consistent universe?
Everybody wants to see their baby take off and be huge. We have announced a partnership with Funimation, a Japanese studio, to make an anime, so we're starting to work with them on that. It's been a great process, because they're as intrigued by western storytelling and classic fantasy as we are as we are by their distinctive visuals and stylisation. Some of the work that art director Matt Goldman has been doing on the new, starker look for DA2 actually synchs really well with what they want to do.

But there's a careful balance because what I don't want to see is Dragon Age getting diluted. The intellectual property is wholly owned and created here at BioWare so the ownership of Dragon Age lives here. In my creative director role I'm on top of the story side of it, looking at the timeline, and Matt Goldman is looking at the visual style of it so that everything looks like Dragon Age . And of course executive producer Mark Darrah… well, it's his baby. I wouldn't say we're fiercely protective because that would imply that we're hard to work with! But we basically go into any negotiation and say, "This is a really important thing to us. You are tenants here. This isn't just any generic fantasy." We try to bring partners in and educate them and excite them. It's organic and it happens over time, we don't just throw them a 300-page book and say, "Good luck with that!" If they want to tell a story, or build a pen and paper game, we ask them what they want to achieve and see if we can help them with our knowledge of Dragon Age .

SFX: Thanks Mike!

Dragon Age 2 is due out on 11 March in the UK. Check back on SFX.co.uk at that time to read a final few words from the creators. There is also a feature on this fantasy game in SFX issue 206, on sale between 9 February and 9 March. The official Dragon Age 2 website is at http://dragonage.bioware.com .