Warning: Spoilers ahead for Dragon Age: Origins. Also, this is a very game specific opinion piece. If you aren’t familiar with the game, you may not understand this post very well.
As I continue to traverse in my little free-time through Dragon Age: Origins yet again, I am reminded of a consistent fact: I hate the Fade. For those who need a refresher, lore wise the Fade, or the Beyond to Dalish elves, is a world of spirits, demons, and dreams. Gameplay wise, the Fade is a major component during the “Broken Circle” quest line, as at a certain point you get transported to this nightmare-scape by a demon. It is, in my opinion, a nightmare to play through as it involves numerous loading screens, numerous fights that are overly difficult if you are a rogue or warrior, and a bunch of other small annoyances. However, as I examined my dislike for this sequence, it occurred to me that many of the main storyline quests in Dragon Age: Origins are equally tedious to me. Why would that be though?
Then it hit me: three of the four major storyline quests have false endings and terrible boss pacing.
Now before I begin with the specifics, do not get me wrong. I love Dragon Age: Origins. If that was not the case, I would not be on my fifth or sixth playthrough of it. Nevertheless, I can recognize flaws within the game, and this happens to be one of them.
So, what exactly do I mean by false endings and terrible boss pacing? Let’s first take a look at the “Broken Circle” quest line. After traversing three or four floors of the Circle’s tower, the player is sent to the Fade, which is a rather long sequence that requires about the same amount of time as the tower itself to complete (at least if you’re thorough about some of the extras). At the end of the Fade, you fight Sloth, the demon who put you there in the first place. It is not an easy battle by any means and requires killing Sloth several times in different forms. There is a sense of finality to the battle, yet, that is not the end. Rather, you must fight Uldred, the real boss, who is almost literally right after the battle with Sloth. In this case, there is no breathing room between these separate boss battles, making the fight feel long and tedious with little time to resupply and prepare between them. The Fade sequence does feel like it should be the end of the questline as well, so to have another boss battle right after it feels somewhat anti-climatic as far as story-telling goes.
What about the other quests though? In “The Arl of Redcliffe” questline, there are various paths to completing the quest, namely saving or abandoning Redcliffe and saving or killing Connor (the possessed mage child responsible for the problems in Redcliffe). Once dealing with Connor however, it turns out this was not the end of the quest line. Now, the player must go on a whole separate questline (“The Urn of Sacred Ashes”) to heal the Arl; unfortunately, this second questline has no real boss battle as a finality (the High Dragon is optional afterall). The numerous amount of back and forth in this quest line vastly ruin the pacing and make it hard to feel there’s a proper climax. Additionally, no battle within it feels like a true boss battle and it becomes a mix of easy enemies and hard enemies. Thus, this questline, to me at least, has never felt like it had a final moment of feeling like I earned something.
Then, of course, we have the “A Paragon of Her Kind” questline. Before even heading into the Deep Roads, the player must get the support of Bhelen or Harrowmont through various quests. One of these support quests involves killing the carta boss Jarvia, which is a decent mini boss. Alas, she is but one of three mini bosses before the player even gets to the final point. While in the Deep Roads, the player must pass through four thaigs in order to get to the Anvil of the Void; however, all these thaigs are long enough to feel like two main storyline quest worth of material. This is not to mention the fact you must also fight two mini-bosses before getting to the final fight against whichever Paragon you did not support. In the end, the pacing on this quest was just overly drawn out. One keeps wondering when they’ll finally hit the end, and every boss fight seems like false hope to reaching that sense of finality.
To summarize, these three quests are just terribly paced. While I can appreciate trying to have variance in the composition of the questlines, the pacing feels off because of the segmentation of each quest. They are not interconnected well to feel like parts of the same quest (even though completing them moves the main story-line along), so drawing them out as in “A Paragon of Her Kind” does not work well. The timing of bosses was also ill conceived in some cases, since they felt either like they should have been the real boss or were simply of no concern as a climax at all. In the end, a lot of these quests just feel tedious, since they do not properly convey a sense of achievement when they are completed.
Now you may have noticed I left out the “Nature of the Beast” questline. This is because this is the questline I think is well-designed. The quest has a few stages that are decent in gameplay length, and give the player opportunities to breathe and resupply. Mini boss wise, the player can fight The Grand Oak or the Mad Hermit, but this is smack dab in the middle of the quest stage and is completely optional depending on choices. There is also a dragon to fight within the ruins, but it is equally in the middle of the ruins sequence. At the end, the player is given a clear idea that fighting the Lady of the Forest or Zathrian will be the end of the quest and accomplish the end goal. As such, this is a pleasant quest, for me at least, to play through. The story feels properly climatic where it should, and I never feel like the quest is dragging on too long. The bosses are also well-paced to get the blood-pumping, but never catch the player unaware by putting them too close together. In the end, this is the easiest one to play through and feel like something has been accomplished without feeling overwhelmed.
That being said, I’m sure others will have different opinions. I can only give my opinion here on this blog. However, I hope that someone will take these insights to heart when designing a questline, as pacing is very important to making a pleasing experience that doesn’t trap the player in an anti-climatic tedium. This goes for story too, of course, but gameplay and story can be very intertwined.
My last thought on the matter is simply this: next time you’re playing a game and don’t understand why you dislike a certain sequence, maybe take a look at the pacing, as that may explain quite a lot.
Dragon Age: Origins is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.
Image: Dragon Age: Origins Cover. Obtained from Wikipedia.