Bioware: Why Story Matters

Dragon Age 2 is the latest story driven RPG from Bioware, and is due for release in March 2011. Earlier this week we managed to spend some time with the game. We took the opportunity to quiz producer Heather Rabatich on the importance of story, and why Bioware is one of the few studios that truly allows writers to drive the development process.

Bioware is constantly pushing the boundaries of story in games, and Dragon Age 2 is no exception. This time round the story is driven by a narrator who ritually informs you of the progress of the game’s story – but his account may or may not be reliable, which means that what you are actually playing may or may not be the actual truth.

It’s a narrative technique often used in literature, but it’s the first time that we can remember it being used in a videogame.

“We wanted to do something different,” explains Heather. “We wanted to do something where you could oversee your actions taking place, we wanted to frame the narrative. When you have that third person it’s like a different approach to telling the story. We wanted to give you the depth of a Bioware story, but also give you this narrator who would make things a little more fantastic. It gave us an opportunity to play with that aspect.”

Story is obviously important to Bioware – we asked Heather why, as a studio, Bioware has made it such a focus?

“We want your gaming experience to be memorable, impactful and emotionally satisfying,” claims Heather. “A good story is how that happens. We want to create a world for you, and in that world you can be all these different characters, make all these different decisions and make these changes. If you didn’t have story depth, then those decisions wouldn’t matter. As gamers, when we play, we want to feel something for the characters, and you need to have some depth if you want to do that.”

With game development being as diversified and complex as it is, the value of good writing is often an afterthought – even for big budget AAA titles. How do Bioware get it right, when so many other top quality studios get it wrong?

“In our studio,” explains Heather, “the designers and the writers are together constantly. I can’t speak for other studios, but for us it’s a really close relationship and it has to be. The writers have to work together with everyone to make sure everything is in synch. In our studio the writers are the guys that are sort of putting it all together. They’re pivotal to our process.”

But surely it’s more complicated than that – big projects are measured in years, not months, and with numerous discrete departments working on assets simultaneously, how do Bioware keep everything shipshape?

“Well we have to consider everyone that’s part of the team,” begins Heather. “We have to have the creative director who says ‘stop’! The lead producers all work together very closely. It’s collaborative, but we have to maintain the vision throughout the process and that takes a lot of communication. It’s like a really difficult puzzle!”


    Yo, Bioware, where is my Sonic Chronicles sequel?

    It's kind of ironic that in Dragon Age 2 they are ditching the origins mechanic - one of the greatest storytelling devices to ever come about.

    In DA:1, i actually felt like I was my own person. Instead of just generic good/evil hero/villian #6, I was Johnny Everyman, former mage of the temple, current grey warden who upholds justice wherever possible, but isn't afraid to get his hands dirty.

    I dislike RPG's that force you into a pre-determined character with a pre-determined past (you can't even choose your last name in DA2!). This is why I usually prefer WRPG's to JRPG's.

    Misdirection is a common video game tactic.

    What we play is not always what is happening. Remember Oblivion, when you accidentally slaughter the town? Arkham Asylum, when Scarecrow is like a gazillion storeys tall? Metal Gear Solid 2, where the whole thing might or might not be a simulation? Alan Wake, where the reality of everything is up for grabs... the list goes on.

    It's really quite common that what you're playing isn't the actual truth.

    That said, just because the feature isn't unique doesn't mean I'm not looking forward to this game.

      Let's not forget Prototype - FULL of misdirection! :D

    One of my favourite thigngs about reading a book is experiencing all the twists, turns and surprises first hand, then going back through again seeing if there were any hints or signs of the ending, subtle indicators and wondering what could have been done differently.
    It sounds like the narrator in DA2 will give players a stronger sense of this if he's explaining the larger world and the fallout.
    The first time through you would likely base your actions on what the narrator said, or go totally against him, to steer the story in the preffered direction without knowing the direction. But after the curtan has been lifted and you can see the truth, goiing back and trying a different path will feel fresh.

    In short, the narrator mechanic could create a far more replayable world, epecially with multiple endings, flexible events and different occurances with different characters.

    It’s a narrative technique often used in literature, but it’s the first time that we can remember it being used in a videogame.

    Final Fantasy 7.

      You know I almost considered not saying that in the piece, because I knew people would dispute it! But it is quite original, and when you see it in action, you'll see what I mean.

    I'm gonna wait for the Ultimate Edition this time.
    For the purchase, I will borrow early on.

    For all this talk of an open free-wheeling story and character development, at the end of the day there are limits to branching paths and boundaries to what Bioware can actually accomplish (or want to accomplish).

    I'm certainly looking forward to whatever they manage to do in DA2, but I'm a little over the hype of story being an amazingly fluid aspect of games that players have a stake in. Bioware definitely shied away from certain themes in the past, with vague references to story reasons as their excuse.

      Totally agree Aidan, I believe the prime example was the lack of female on female romance options in ME2, which was poorly justified for "story reasons" IMHO.

      That minor point aside, however, I think Bioware overall do a fantastic job as story tellers (its why I'm such a huge fan) and I can't wait to continue my exploration of the DA:O world in the next installment!!!

    I didn't read this article for a while, just thought it was one of those mind-numbingly obvious statements, like "oxygen still popular".

    I hope they find some really interesting possibilities with this 'unreliable narrator' technique. Bioware have been the reverse of most companies for me - I'm always satisfied with their story telling and rarely with their gameplay. Mass Effect 2 marks a turnaround for that. Most companies have gameplay as focus with shit-to-adequate storytelling. Someday there'll be steller gameplay and story in the one box, then the world will end.

    @Steven Bogos

    BioWare has said time and again that you can customize your character in every way; your face, your name, your equipment, your class and skills.

    This is a better way to insert DLC into the main story as well. I played the demo at PAX and it's a BioWare game alright- but better!

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