Dragon Age and Transmedia
It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?
Where have I been, you might wonder?
The answer is, I fell through a rabbit hole and landed in Thedas. I’ve been there the past couple months, relishing BioWare’s newest Dragon Age offering, Inquisition.
My love of Dragon Age became established early on during my first playthrough of Origins, the first game in the series. I played a female City Elf; which meant that about an hour into the game, I found myself running through the manor house of a corrupt arl, in a bloody wedding dress, frantically murdering guards and men-at-arms in an attempt to save my best friend (and myself) from the sort of crime people generally consider castration to be an adequate punishment for (I just went the direct route with a shiv to the kidney once I located my weeping friend). There was also a dead fiancee in the mix (hence the bloody wedding dress).
I like dark stuff. So my fate was pretty much sealed then; even moreso when the game kept up it’s dark tone, all the way through to the end. In short, I am a superfan.
As the franchise has developed, I’ve followed it. And what really strikes me, and what this blog post is really about, is what a great example of transmedia the entire Dragon Age setting is. I’d like to ruminate on this for a little bit (note: I am aware that BioWare has done much the same for it’s Mass Effect universe; however, I am not as familiar with that franchise as I am with Dragon Age. So this post will focus largely on my experiences with DA; however, if you’re a Mass Effect fan who’s participated in their transmedia offerings, please share your experiences in the comment section!).
Transmedia is the art of telling a story using different styles; sometimes with a ‘core’ story around which the other stories revolve. In the case of Dragon Age, the video games form the core of the entire franchise. But a devoted fan can also participate in the story by watching the movie Dragon Age: Legend of the Seeker, or reading any one of the small library of novels and graphic novels. A really devoted fan and some friends can even pick up the tabletop roleplaying game and invent their own stories! And here’s what I really enjoy, and where BioWare deserves a lot of credit. I don’t necessarily have to partake in non-core media. But if I do, my story is much better.
Sidebar: In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins speaks at length regarding attempts by the creators of The Matrix to create a truly unique (for it’s time) transmedia experience. And while they succeeded, perhaps, in creating a transmedia property, they unfortunately failed in their larger goal. According to Jenkins, the main problem is that a full understanding of the second and third movies hinged on having played the video game and watched The Animatrix. Without the game to give a better context for events, things in the movie simply seemed to happen at random or for unfathomable reasons. It was a brilliant idea, but, alas, poor execution doomed it. The key lesson here is accessibility; as a transmedia creator, all your works must stand on their own.
And it seems as though the creative minds leading Dragon Age have learned this lesson well. The franchise is a spectacular lesson on how to do transmedia correctly. One of the best examples, non-spoilery examples I can think of is Cole; a companion you get approximately a third of the way through Inquisition. He’s a spirit who has somehow managed to assume human form, which is a fairly intriguing concept on it’s own. You can play the game and interact with Cole and never feel like you’re missing anything.
Except, of course, for the part where you are. For Cole is also a major character in the novel Dragon Age: Asunder. And, in fact, the events of Asunder have a dramatic and direct bearing on events in Inquisition. By reading this novel, you gain a much greater understanding of the character and his place in the world and recent events. But reading this novel isn’t mandatory for understanding game-character Cole. Nor is playing any of the games necessarily a requirement for enjoying Asunder.
Inquisition is full of such moments – meeting characters you may already know through books or graphic novels, and gaining a deeper understanding and a deeper appreciation for the story.
Confession time: While replaying Dragon Age 2 in preparation for Inquisition, I realized I had missed some of the DLC (bad superfan!). In particular, Mark of the Assassin and Legacy. Realistically, I only had the time and funds to get one. So I picked Mark of the Assassin, because I think Felicia Day is awesome. So I missed a plot point in Legacy, which became important when the main villain in Inquisition was revealed. However! When he did arrive, I already knew who he was! Why? Because I also play Heroes of Dragon Age, the mobile game. The villain is a character there, and is so powerful that I’ve stopped challenging teams he’s a part of until my team gets a bit better. So even without playing the main avenue of introduction for this character – when he shows up, I nevertheless know that this dude is some Bad News, and I’m in for one tough fight.
Now, I am going back and picking up the pieces I missed before – reading the books I missed, filling in the gaps in my DLC library. Not just because I’m a fan, but because BioWare has demonstrated how to do transmedia correctly. How to create a multi-faceted, multi-layered story, accessible from several different angles. It’s inspiring, and I can only hope to one day be as proficient as they.