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Feature Interview: Dragon Age II Developers David Gaider & Heather Rabatich

After much anticipation, the recently released Dragon Age II marks the follow-up to the award-winning roleplaying game, Dragon Age: Origins.

BioWare, the game’s developer, has a long history of making deeply complex RPGs, from classics like Baldur’s Gate to more recent hits like Mass Effect 1 and 2. Richly drawn characters and complex plots have long been staples of BioWare games, and Dragon Age II is no different. To find out how to tell a story on the scale of Dragon Age II, and how this game distinguishes itself from its predecessor, Fantasy Magazine checked in with DA2’s senior writer David Gaider and Associate Producer Heather Rabatich.

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Take us back to the beginning of development for Dragon Age II. How did the team decide what worked in the first game, what needed to change, and what kind of story you hoped to tell this time around? Did much change from that initial vision over the course of development?

David Gaider: There was a lengthy post-mortem process after Origins where each part of the development team discussed what worked and what didn’t work, and what we’d like to see changed for Dragon Age II. Then there was taking into account a lot of the feedback from the game’s release, both from the fans as well as the reviews—seeing what they wanted, or at the very least what they thought needed improvement.

Heather Rabitach: To implement these changes, enhancements needed to be made to our graphics engine for the art team and to the combat style for the gameplay group. Before entering full production this required a lot of programming support and upgrades to our engine and tools. It was a big challenge on a tight timeline, but we had a clear vision of how we wanted the game to look and feel, so once the goals were set everyone was onboard to make the game a more accessible experience for those who are new to RPGs while still remaining tactically satisfying for those who enjoy the depth of a large-scale RPG.

David Gaider: Once we had that list it was a matter of deciding what the vision of DA2’s story should be, and trying to incorporate something that would take advantage of the changes we wanted. That was mostly Mike Laidlaw’s doing, as Lead Designer—and, yes, it went through a lot of changes. It would have been a mistake, I think, to rest on our laurels and not experiment a bit with regards to the “tried and true.” Thankfully we didn’t do that.

Much has been made of the framed story in Dragon Age II. What was the inspiration for this addition, and how does it affect the experience of the game?

David Gaider: The framed narrative was Mike’s idea, and the origin of it came from a desire to tell a story over a larger scope of time. In the past, all our stories began at point x and you played in a linear fashion through to the end. Having a larger time period to play with allowed us to introduce long-term consequences to the player’s actions in mid-game rather than at the end, and also have the concept of the “unreliable narrator”—such as in The Usual Suspects where you’re not certain by the end of the tale whether the narrator was telling the truth.

Heather, as Associate Producer, tell us about your specific duties on the game.

Heather Rabitach: As an associate producer, I play a key role in setting up the initial game plan. We have to ask a lot of questions like: How much time do we have? How many people do we have? How long does it take to do certain game-wide passes? Who is affected if we move these dates? It’s a lot of communication and collaboration with the project leads at the beginning because we are all so interdependent on other teams. You need to be able to maintain order within chaos and think on your feet as the schedule ebbs and flows. Being slightly OCD doesn’t hurt either.

David, as a writer, can you tell us about the books you read growing up? What were your favorites, and which novels/stories do you think have had the biggest impact on you in your current career as a video game writer and designer?

David Gaider: I read a lot when I was younger. I think my first book was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Narnia will always gain major nostalgia points with me. After that it was the Magic of Xanth series by Piers Anthony, Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey and Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Comics came next, I think, and some comic book series like Sandman by Neil Gaiman changed the way I thought about how stories could be told.

With such busy schedules working on the next hot BioWare title, do you have time to play for fun? What games are you playing right now?

Heather Rabitach: I have been playing Drakensang: The River of Time a lot lately. But so I do not totally disappear off the face of the earth harvesting herbs, my fiancé and I have been playing Lord of The Rings Online and Titan Quest the Immortal Throne together as well.

David Gaider: Between writing at work and writing at home, I have less time to play than I’d like. When I do, it’s either an RPG that I play for analytical purposes (Fallout: New Vegas was the last RPG I played, over the Christmas break, and I enjoyed it immensely) or it’s something completely different just to give myself a break. Currently I’m playing a strategy game called Victoria II made by Paradox Interactive. Can’t get more different than that, I suppose.

During more than ten years at BioWare, David, you have written for some of the most iconic RPGs of the past decade, from Baldur’s Gate II to Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights, and Dragon Age. What are some of the big lessons you have learned, and what big changes have you seen in the medium, from a storytelling standpoint?

David Gaider: I think the medium is quickly moving toward being far more cinematic than it was—which is both good and bad, I think. It’s good in that we can show as much as we tell, now. Bad because we suddenly have to show, and less can be left to the imagination … something which, in many ways, we will never be able to compete with. Far be it from me to be a Luddite, however. This is the direction the technology is moving, and hopefully we’ll reach a point where creating the cinematics is inexpensive enough that we can branch out as much as we did when it was primarily text we were working with.

As far as lessons learned? There will never be enough content added to make me satisfied, so it’s better to be satisfied that what you put in there is good. I remember right before Baldur’s Gate II went out just how anxious we were over all the things that were cut and half-finished in the game, and how certain we were that everyone would hate it. Perspective is a good thing.

You mentioned that you see games becoming more “cinematic.” This is a term that gets used a lot in discussions of video games, but it is hard to get a clear definition. Almost every game has cutscenes, so what makes a game cinematic? Mass Effect, Heavy Rain, and Uncharted all have elements that are “like a movie,” but does a game being cinematic mean more than that?

David Gaider: From my perspective, being cinematic is all about showing what’s happening rather than leaving something up to the imagination. Let’s take Baldur’s Gate, for instance …  you never actually see your character. They’re little figures on the screen without even a proper face. Other than the occasional bit of voiceover, any emotions the player perceives are part of their interpretation only. Now, you’ll probably find a number of people who’ll vociferously defend one type of game over the other. Some find that cinematic games lose that imaginary element, while others say that non-cinematic games are harder to get into or emotionally involved with. I think they both have advantages, but the more cinematic a game—the more cutscenes you require, and the more effort you need to show anything (hand-waving or implying actions become quite difficult)—the more expensive the content becomes to create. That can be a problem for games that are traditionally as content-heavy as roleplaying games, but there are some storytelling benefits that we receive—and which you’ll see in games like Heavy Rain and Uncharted—as we become more experienced in how to incorporate these elements into a game environment.

Dragon Age II has a bold cast of charming and assorted characters. How was the cast of followers created, and what were the inspirations for some of them?

That’s a hard question, I guess … sort of like asking a writer, “Where do you get your ideas?” I guess it generally starts when we’re outlining the story at the very beginning. There are some characters who are identified right away, as they either play a central role or otherwise the need for their presence is immediately obvious. Others came later—the writing team sat down and started discussing what sorts of characters would tie into the central conflicts. For the player’s team members especially it is important that they each represent some element of the larger world. They exist to make it easier for the player to form a connection to those elements—you need that human face (so to speak) on concepts and conflicts which could otherwise be fairly abstract. But once we have those basic characters thought up it is up to the individual writers to claim them and make them their own. Speaking personally, I’ve drawn inspiration from TV shows, games I’ve played in the past, friends with quirks that I happen to find endearing …  There’s rarely any one source, and sometimes it’s as much about a moment you picture in your head, a moment in the game you know you want to see happen from the very beginning and the entire character springs from that. Wish I could be more specific, but the tale is vastly different for any given character.

David, you have mentioned that the author George R. R. Martin was a major influence on Dragon Age: Origins. What were some of the game’s other literary and cinematic influences? What did you draw from for Dragon Age II?

David Gaider: I think some people hear something like “inspiration” and assume that means we’re copying the source entirely. The truth of the matter is that you can be inspired as much by something you disliked as by something you liked … or inspired by specific things it did, or which you thought you could do better. For George R.R. Martin’s series, what I liked most was his approach to the fantasy genre.

That was for Origins, however. Looking at the Dragon Age II story specifically, I could say I drew inspiration from some real-life events: the war on terror, for instance, and that should make sense to people once they play the game. I could also point to a few television influences, such as Firefly and the new Battlestar Galactica series. That last one in particular had an excellent character drama and themes of survival against a backdrop of genre fiction.

What is your process for writing non-linear stories with branching plots? Do you start with a single “correct” path, and then fill in the alternate routes?

David Gaider: We can’t start with a single path—that would be obvious in the end, and in fact we have a number of writers who apply at BioWare who have difficulty with the branching concept. You can drive the narrative to a single point (in fact, it’s difficult to do otherwise) but your story has to accommodate different styles of play much the same as a gamemaster would do in a tabletop game. It’s about the player’s story more than it is about the writer’s, or at least you need to get them to the point where they buy into your story as their own. If you write with a single path and protagonist in mind, then those other paths will only ever feel like “extras” and you will lose the narrative thread as soon as the player deviates from the one you intended.

So we have to write the story a little differently. We start off with a “one-pager,” where we establish what the themes will be and how the player’s story will go in a very general sense. Then we go through a process of breaking down that story into manageable “chunks” and thinking about it in more detail: What does the player do in that section? What are their options? How are his choices reflected either within that particular section or later on? Once we have the plans detailed and are confident that the pieces fit together in a satisfying manner, that’s when we’ll start the actual writing.

Tell us about something you wrote for a game that you absolutely loved, but for whatever reasons were unable to implement in the final game.

David Gaider: When I wrote Knights of the Old Republic, there was an ending written for the female Jedi player who got to the end both romancing Carth Onasi and having fallen to the Dark Side. I thought it was fantastic—the possibility of redemption combined with a bittersweet sacrifice. But we couldn’t include it, for technical reasons. It’s always hard when you have to cut something you love. That was a hard day.

Can we expect more Dragon Age novels from you, featuring content from the new game?

David Gaider: Ideally, yes. For me, it’s as much a matter of energy as well as time. It can be pretty difficult to come home from a day of writing only to sit down and write some more. If I do it, however, it’ll be because I love the world and the thought of anyone else touching my baby makes my heart palpitate.

Heather, you previously worked on Mass Effect 2. What lessons did you learn on that project that translated to the development of Dragon Age II?

Heather Rabitach: I took a role in public relations on Mass Effect 2, and it was incredibly different than being on the dev team. The one key thing I took away from the experience was that over the course of a year, I was able to meet people from all over the world who play BioWare games. You can read forums for insight but watching how people play and listening to what they find fun was an invaluable experience. I became an information sponge and was able to take one-on-one discussions with fans back to the team to apply their suggestions to our internal playthroughs and gameplay testing. No matter what franchise you work on, that type of knowledge can be applied and used to make changes that will make the game feel more fun because it the fans who are providing it.

One of the criticisms often leveled against BioWare RPGs is the amount of talking heads dialogue. In Dragon Age II, dialogue and cutscenes are rendered with dynamic camera angles and lighting, smoke effects, close ups, inserts. How were these sequences crafted?

Heather Rabitach: Our cinematic design and cinematic animation teams are responsible for implementing the more dynamic conversation and cutscene system in DA2. For conversations we wanted to depart from the static “head on” style that you see in most fantasy RPGs as it didn’t fit with the more fluid approach we were taking with gameplay. For our more intricate story-driven cutscenes, the cinematic teams approach the scene as a director would and set the stage with “actors” and cameras to set up close ups, panning shots etc. There is a lot of collaboration with animation, tech design, writers, level art and audio teams to ensure that the scene will fit within the vision for the plot. The whole process of how cinematic design and cinematic animation comes together could fill an entire interview unto itself.

How has the dialogue system changed for this new game?

Heather Rabitach: We’ve adopted the Mass Effect-style conversation wheel, departing from our very text heavy and, at times, confusing system in Origins. One issue from fan feedback that kept coming up was that people would pick an option from the dialogue and not get the response they intended. For instance, you may accidentally flirt with a party member you had no interest in or anger an ally without meaning to. The intention with the new system is to not only clear up those issues by implementing helpful icons but to visually simplify your options overall. The lore is still very much there in the “investigate” options, and for those who want to proceed quickly, they can avoid an overwhelming amount of text to choose from and still be clear about the story direction they have chosen.

Heather probably gets this one a lot, but how did you break into video games? Are there any challenges to working in an industry so dominated by men?

Heather Rabitach: I have been into games since I was a little kid tinkering on a Commodore 64, but I never realized my hobby would turn into a career for me. My aspirations after college were to become a video editor but when I graduated the new media industry was pretty unstable. So it took a few years for me to career back into the digital industry and make the move to Edmonton for BioWare (insert girlish glee). Since working in gaming, I have found I prefer working in a male dominated industry; You can wear what you want and say you like obscure Japanese cartoons and be considered “cool,” and the women’s washroom is never occupied.

As Dragon Age II hits the market, do you have any last-minute hopes, wishes, or regrets about the game?

Heather Rabitach: I hope people take advantage of how much we’ve upgraded the follower abilities instead of playing through only controlling Hawke. I love jumping between players in combat and taking the time to figure out how best to grow all the characters skill sets so they complement each other. As a gamer, I really enjoy the control of being able to strategize in real time. Stunning a group of hurlocks with my rogue and then taking them down with an AOE with my mage is always so satisfying. It’s one of my favorite changes from Origins; You can still pause and play but your commands unfold much faster and setting up the combinations of abilities between your followers is actually really rewarding.

David Gaider: My biggest hope with regards to DA2 is that those people who loved the first game will approach it with an open mind. A lot has changed, but from my perspective the most important things have stayed the same.

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David Gaider has worked for video game developer BioWare since 1999. He began as a writer and designer on Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, going on to work as a senior writer on Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights, and as lead writer on Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening. He has published two novels based on the Dragon Age universe, Dragon Age: the Stolen Throne, published in 2009 and Dragon Age: the Calling, published in 2010. David is the lead writer on Dragon Age II.

Heather Rabatich has been with BioWare since 2007, following a career in the digital media and communications industry. She initially joined BioWare to manage external art asset review on Dragon Age: Origins, moving then to Mass Effect 2 as a public relations contact. Heather is the Associate Producer for Dragon Age II.

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Matt London

London, MattMatt London is an author and filmmaker who lives in New York City. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop, and a columnist for Tor.com and Realms of Fantasy magazine. His story “Mouja” appears in John Joseph Adams’s anthology The Living Dead 2. He has no less than three escape plans should the zombies take Manhattan.