Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Antagonists: Dragon Age Origins

I'll happily admit that I'm a huge fan of Dragon Age Origins (DAO), but I'm not afraid to point out that it does have weaknesses. Unfortunately, one of those weaknesses is its antagonist.  Perhaps I should say antagonists, as the game almost has two. Plot spoilers ahead...

The game begins with an "origin story" of your choosing - a backstory you play that details how you come to join the Grey Wardens, a famous order of warriors. Regardless of your choice of origin, you end up at Ostagar to prepare for a great battle. Hideous creatures known as darkspawn threaten to spill out into the land of Ferelden, consuming it in an event that has happened four times previously, called a "blight". This is marked by the appearance of a fearsome beast known as an archdemon, a dragon corrupted by the "taint" that makes darkspawn monstrosities. However, this creature has not been seen yet, and in an attempt to stem the tide of these creatures in its absence, the King, his chief tactician (Teryn Loghain), and the Grey Wardens make a stand to stop the blight before it starts. The Grey Wardens are famed for ending the blights whenever they have occurred and bravely face off against darkspawn wherever they are found. However, the battle goes badly, and is lost as Loghain retreats from the field instead of marshaling his forces to save the King.

You and a junior Grey Warden named Alistair are the only survivors of the Grey Wardens from the nation of Ferelden, and the order is blamed by Loghain for the defeat and declared traitors to the crown. Thus it falls to you to gather armies to help defeat the blight and eventually confront Loghain over his betrayal at Ostagar. Yet Loghain and his ally, Arl Howe, dog your efforts along the way by attempting to kill and capture you. They even send a deadly assassin after you... but you defeat him and can even have him join your party.

Zevran. Not quite as ridiculously awesome as you.

Eventually, with the assistance of another noble named Arl Eamon you call for a Landsmeet - a meeting of all the important nobles in Ferelden. Here you unmask Alistair as the bastard brother of the former King, someone with a claim to the throne. You argue to either place him or the Queen (who also happens to be Teryn Loghain's daughter) on the throne... or both.  However, in order to do so, you must defeat Loghain in combat and take control of Ferelden away from him.

With this done, the blight is truly upon the country as the Archdemon appears. While you have seen it only in visions in your sleep (due to the Grey Wardens possessing a small amount of the darkspawn "taint"), you must fight your way to the top of the tallest tower in Ferelden's capital and defeat it in order to end the blight.

It's a dragon. Only uglier.

As I said at the start of this post, DAO has weak antagonists.  It is almost a sad fact that the game's secondary antagonist, Loghain, is a more powerful force in the game's narrative. Loghain's betrayal and his actions divide players, for the player is given the chance to kill him or have him join the Grey Wardens after the events of the Landsmeet. Some consider he deserves death for his crimes and ambition, whereas others argue that he did what he thought was necessary to preserve Ferelden in a time of great strife.  This makes Loghain an excellent character, but unfortunately he still doesn't quite manage to become a strong antagonist.

Loghain considers the Warden a pest, but does little to act directly against them, preferring to let others deal with the issue. He is more concerned with ensuring that he is able to rule Ferelden effectively than killing the Warden, and therefore does not draw a great deal of ire from the player. He has you declared traitor and attempts to kill you, but from his perspective this is done to secure his position rather than out of direct malice. The player is left to rely on these indirect attempts on their life, Loghain's complicity in slavery and Alistair's personal grudge to provide the impetus for disliking Loghain. Unfortunately, none of them really feel so strong that they provide a true drive to dispatch him.

This said, in a way Loghain's failing as a direct antagonist to the player is actually a good thing. His attempt to bring the player undone is not what defines his character, as his desire to dispatch the Warden pales in insignificance compared with his desire to see Ferelden prosper. It makes him an excellent and complex character, but not entirely the grand enemy you might expect.

Loghain: villain or misguided hero? You be the judge.

The main problem with Loghain not playing a strong antagonist role is that DAO's final battle with the archdemon is against an antagonist that has no character. The archdemon is little more than a faceless creature that you must defeat simply because it is evil and its continued existence will destroy Ferelden. This is not to say that all antagonists need to have a personal relationship with the protagonist, but the archdemon's greatest failing is that it is a "classic" nemesis with no morals, no purpose, and no goals except to be "evil" and destroy. Even worse, it does not really appear in the game until the game's final few hours apart from a few discussions about the archdemon and the aforemention dream sequence. 

As such, the player has nothing directly invested in the archdemon's defeat except for the moral duty of being the hero to save Ferelden. The player has incentive for this noble cause and the self-serving desire to not die in the blight, but there is very little else to make the fight more personal for the player, meaning that the final fight of the game lacks the punch that the gripping and forceful climax of a game so desperately calls for. The player still gets a great sense of victory from the fight, but far less than if the archdemon had been more than a simple beast.

With a complex character who does not act as a true antagonist and a faceless evil creature, DAO almost manages to tick a lot of boxes when it comes to the checklist of creating a great antagonist. Its problem is that those ticks are spread across two characters rather than one, and split in such a way that you don't quite ever get that feeling of overcoming a truly great and memorable adversary.


  1. Agreed, just a few notes.


    First off: Loghain does seem more like a secondary antagonist, which is probably why he was developed into a grey character rather than a powerful villain like Irenicus. Plus, would anyone who played BG2 want Irenicus watching their back?

    Then the Archdemon. If they had more time, there could have been more dream sequences, give the Archdemon a tormented personality that portrays itself in the visions. This creature was a god, torn down by its former followers, that itself would provide some characterization. But then the taint itself is evil incarnate, so that would be the counterbalance that makes the creature intersting. It would still be the ultimate evil, but it wouldn't be mindless.

  2. The hive-mind concept for the darkspawn itself was a very bad idea. Coming out with an 'evil' like that after so many years of planning was so disappointing. This is just like NWN where there was this 'ancient evil' that you meet only right at the end with a secondary antagonist being the conflicted Aribeth (again, carried to opposite extremes just like Loghain).

    At least, they could have borrowed a page from Eberron where the imprisoned 'dark generals/lords' at least influenced susceptible minds or there were active groups searching for these imprisoned folk - intelligent groups, I might add.