The Joint Evolution of Mass Effect and Dragon Age

Avatar Chelsey | February 15, 2018

As a giant fan of the Dragon Age franchise, and a fantasy buff, I looked at Mass Effect with a bit of suspicion. I like sci-fi and all, but if you gave me the option of hunting down Darkspawn in the Deep Roads shoulder-to-shoulder with the Grey Wardens or exploring the galaxy and shooting some aliens with my trusty blaster, I would have been preparing my spells and loading up my armour before you could have said mage. Or so I thought.

Out of a weird obligation to the new Mass Effect: Andromeda coming out in 2017, I figured I should start the franchise. (And by weird obligation I mean, I was jonsing for a Dragon Age fix and it looks like it’s going to be a few years before I get one, so I might as take what I can get.) But having completed the Dragon Age series and then going back to finish Mass Effect has left me with a unique perspective on just how BioWare has been perfecting its formula over the years.

Game Release Year
Mass Effect 2007
Dragon Age: Origins 2009
Mass Effect 2 2010
Dragon Age 2 2011
Mass Effect 3 2012
Dragon Age: Inquisition 2014

You can go back and look at each of these games as pairs. Yes, they are from two different franchises but in most respects it’s like comparing apples to apples – granny smiths to galas. Especially when you can see some of the same pitfalls and correcting of mistakes happen in each one.

Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins

You have to admit that for their time, the late 2000s, these games were impressive. (Dragon Age: Origins is still impressive. You’ll have to excuse me, Dragon Age: Origins was my first video game love. We will always have the Darkspawn. Always.)

Mass Effect was the set up, the testing ground for their soon to be standard story-telling method of having your decisions create consequences. Truth be told the decisions you made in Mass Effect 1 were minor. Either Ashley or Kaidan dies, either Anderson or Udina becomes Councillor, and you decide whether to save the Council or not. The story is straight forward: defeat Saren – ready, set, go.

Dragon Age: Origins was more ambitious. I will forever be impressed with the scope of this story and how many things you had to do to get the final battle to turn out all right: how easily the Landsmeet could be screwed up if you chose the wrong dialogue, and how different your ending could be just by choosing your race at the beginning. My little 21-year-old brain was blown, not only because the story was complex but also because I downright loved my companions, Morigan, Alister, Zevran, Leliana and et al. The romance system got me too. I got butterflies playing the Alister romance. Butterflies! I have a lump of ice cold granite where my heart should be so I don’t know whether they came from.

Looking at these two, you can see the question “Can we do this?” in the fearful eyes of BioWare executives as they get on their knees and pray that the bottom line of their profit margins won’t sink the company. And sure enough, they made two good games, and gamers everywhere rejoiced and forked over their hard earned dough. And then the BioWare execs wiped the cold sweat off their brows, took deep, calming breaths and said, “Great, so how do we keep this money train rolling?”

Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2

The first thing they did was up their graphic game. Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 1 had the same, occasionally creepy, somewhat wooden-looking characters, and in the case of Mass Effect 1, horribly boring environments. Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2 were upgraded with more detailed character designs and dynamic environments. You can even see the designers’ finger prints when you compare Samara and Flemeth. Same scale amour, deep cut, cleavage showing top, diadem, crazy eyes and hair/fringe style.

Where Mass Effect 1 was more subtle on the character development and the consequence Mass Effect 2 threw both of them at you. It was certainly a winning formula. So why did Mass Effect 2 work? Mostly because like Mass Effect 1, the plot wasn’t exactly important. The Collectors were added into the story order to facilitate the Suicide Mission and not the other way around. The game’s goal was to make you feel the consequences of bad decisions and see just who you’re fighting for. That’s why it’s not immediately clear why certain characters die at certain times.

Basically BioWare said: Here are companions. Your one job is to find them and love them and care for them, and then watch them die horribly as a result of your leadership. How’s that for consequences? Wait, why are you on the floor, in the corner, in the fetal position? Are you sobbing? Shh, I know you secretly enjoyed the fuck out of it. Yes, we know we’re horrible people.

I am mourning Mordin, the character that I thought I would care about the least. That he doesn’t exist in my Mass Effect 3 game hurts me a little every time I remember. I want to see the world that he would have created. And I’m sorry Thane, when they said we need a tech expert good at sneaking through ducts I thought ‘good at sneaking’ and not ‘tech expert’. And you Grunt, you were a strong warrior, possibly the hope of your people, but the team needed a leader, not a warrior, and now you’re gone. I miss you all.

Dragon Age 2 tried to capitalise on Mass Effect 2’s success, but it never quite hit the mark. Mass Effect 2 had consequences and Dragon Age 2 wanted to as well, but BioWare wrote themselves into a corner. While you can make decisions, a lot of the big events are decided for you. There is no way to stop Anders from doing that thing that made me dub him Fucking Anders forever, and if you say no to Merril she will go behind your back and do what you told her was a stupid idea anyway. And then you get to clean up their messes. Your main decision, mages or Templars, is a tough choice, but doesn’t really make a difference to the outcome of the story. No matter what you do by the end of Mass Effect 2 Kirkwall is pretty much a smoking crater.

Dragon Age 2 was an overconfidence play. BioWare might have felt a time crunch to get it out while they were riding the success of their last game, leaving only a year gap between Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2. The developers also had three successes under their belt and probably thinking, what could go wrong? In the end, Dragon Age 2 suffered from middle book syndrome, ie. it was just setting up for the next installment, and forgot what made Dragon Age: Origins great: the plot.

Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition

I remember listening to the griping about the ending of Mass Effect 3 and how people were extremely disappointed with the conclusion. It was one of the things that made me decide that I didn’t need to play Mass Effect. Luckily, time makes hypocrites of us all. But it did make me approach the ending of the game with trepidation, and also hope. You see, I had the promised Extended Cut, which I hoped remedied the original ending’s short comings. The long and the short of it is, it didn’t. Up until the point when Sheppard gets beamed up, the story had me in a vice. I felt like I had been running for miles and might pass out from adrenaline overload. I was on edge. If someone handed me a caffeine at that moment, my heart would have exploded from my chest.

But then the problems started. Big problems.

At the climax, after my choices were explained to me, I had no idea what I decision I was making. The Extended Cut DLC explained the outcome to me (thank you Extended Cut DLC) and I knew which choice I wanted to make but all I saw in front of me was three paths to choose from: left, right, and straight. I needed a sign – something – anything, to tell me which path represented what. So there I was standing there, the fate of the all civilizations everywhere literally in my hands, and all I am praying for is a goddamn sign post. Nothing? No classy blue diamond after everything we’ve been through Bioware? I see how it’s going to be.

And the biggest problem of all: the slideshow ending. Here was a game that was moved forward by your choices and their consequences, and then all of a sudden you make the biggest choice of all and you only get a quick flash of the future that you chose? Not cool, Bioware, not cool.

You mean to tell me that I spent all this time getting to know all these characters and all I get is a few images slapped on screen? I loved these characters. (I cried over them, and my heart is made of granite. GRANITE.) I’ve spent three games and hundreds of hours of my life running around the galaxy with my crew. I want to know companions did with their lives. They were our avatars into all the good and the bad the galaxy had to offer – I want to hear one last joke, watch them move on, grow and live, and most importantly, I wanted to say goodbye. That, more than anything, was what broke my heart.

But Dragon Age: Inquisition, oh Dragon Age: Inquisition. It took everything Bioware learned from making the 5 games before it and did it ever run with it. A ginormous world to explore – to actually explore. And the consequences – you get to make world altering consequences. Who sits on the Orlesian throne? Who becomes the next Divine? Do the mages or the Templars get wiped out? Here were the choices and the consequences that all the Mass Effect fans wanted.

And just like in all the games before there are characters that will make a permanent home in your heart. Dragon Age: Inquisition even learned from the Citadel DLC and threw in some team building, because Bioware learned that while you love each character individually something new is born when you get to watch the vibrant personalities bounce into and off of each other. The card night scene made me deliriously happy and I would have done anything for more.

But most importantly, Dragon Age: Inquisition didn’t drop you on your ass the moment that you metaphorically shove your anchor down Corypheus’ throat. Yes, it does give you a text ending of the consequences of the choices you made, but before that it gives you a party where you can talk to your companions one last time, take a breather, congratulate each other on a job well done, and then you get to walk off into the sunset with your love interest. The falling action felt just as important as the beginning, the middle and the climax and you are, essentially, rewarded for all your hard work.

The major difference between Mass Effect and Dragon Age is the way the stories are structured. Mass Effect was a trilogy, through and through. You follow one character and her various companions through three different parts that make up a whole. That gives the writers a lot of time to endear these characters to your heart. Dragon Age is a saga of a fantasy land, therefore, with each new game they have to start from scratch to make you care. Characters are almost always new, and they have a clean slate to work with. But that means that the things they learned worked throughout the Mass Effect series are things that work on a different scale in Dragon Age. Dragon Age is a microcosm while Mass Effect is the macrocosm.

The Future – Mass Effect: Andromeda

BioWare has learned between their two star series there are certain things that we expect. A strong cast of characters that make you love them, whether you want to or not. From the few details that have been released about Mass Effect: A I have a feeling that structure-wise it will be closer to Dragon Age: I than the rest of the series. They’re bring back the Mako which I am sure means that you can roam around different planets, finding ruins and resources, and maybe even different colonies. Maybe even stroll through the halls of a massive reconstructed Citadel. And while people have been speculating that we might even be given the choice to play as a species other than human, I think that that is doubtful, as all the promos show our new protagonist in N7 armour, and despite what they did for the galaxy, I don’t think that the Alliance military is ready to let a Krogan into their highest ranks.

I think the stakes will be scaled down a bit as well. Where civilization across the universe was threatened in Mass Effect 1-3 I think that Andromeda will have more local problems, like maybe just saving a galaxy or two. Who knows? Now that BioWare is free from a trilogy structure, things are definitely going to change.

But, as long as BioWare remembers to balance world building, characters and plot, just like it did in Dragon Age: Inquisition, I think that we are in for a treat.