Dragon Age Origins - BioWare

Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir, Hero and Traitor of Ferelden

It all started with Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir, a brilliant military strategist, the hero of the Battle of Riverdane, trusted advisor to King Cailan, father of the queen, and loyal friend and guardian to Cailan’s father Maric. When King Maric’s ship was lost at sea, Loghain spent two years searching for him, nearly bankrupting the Ferelden coffers.  Why then would this man orchestrate the death of Maric’s heir—a boy whom Loghain had helped to raise in honour and memory of his lost friend—and throw Ferelden into civil war with a Blight looming on the horizon? As I played through BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins, Loghain’s scenes showed me a man filled with regret. I got to speak with characters who had known and trusted him. Some of them thought him suddenly mad with ambition or fear that the nation of Orlais would once again attempt to take over Ferelden. But his history with Ferelden and with his best friend Maric implied that there was more to him. That this regicide had been a difficult decision, and it had cost him deeply. The question then of why Loghain would go to such lengths plagued me.

This was how I took my first step into the world of gaming tie-ins.

As with any story, there is a deeply rooted history that we don’t readily see as we engage in the game’s main plot, but inklings of that history can be discovered through codex entries, by speaking with non-playable characters, by undertaking side quests, or by visiting historical sites within the game. Or, if you’re like me, you can go deeper still by reading the media outside of the game.

Dragon Age The Stolen Throne by David Gaider Tor Books 2009Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne tells of how a young rogue named Loghain stumbled upon a wounded prince who had just escaped the treasonous trap that claimed the life of his mother, the deposed queen of Ferelden. Loghain brings Prince Maric back to the rebels and from there, despite initially finding the man to be an annoyance, stands firmly behind his vow to protect him, and soon becomes Maric’s most stalwart and loyal friend, even sacrificing his own desires to see the true king of Ferelden returned to his throne.

Dragon Age The Calling by David Gaider Tor Books (2009)Their story continues in Dragon Age: The Calling, where King Maric, despondent after the death of his queen, chases off into the Deep Roads and ends up caught in a plot between a deadly darkspawn leader and Orlesian supporters.

I didn’t exactly get the answer to the question I had originally asked—unless I accept that Cailan was an even more frustrating and crappy king than his father and Loghain killed him because he’d had enough of their shit—but I did get a deeper insight into a character I have come to appreciate, and I learned a lot more about what goes on behind the scenes of a video game series I’ve come to love. The stories we see and play on the screen are but a scratch at the surface of  the vast lore that goes into the creation of these games. These are not merely novelizations of the game’s plot. These are fully realized stories that enrich that which already exists. They are bonus material for people like me who want to know more. I am currently reading Blizzard Entertainment Inc.’s StarCraft: Queen of Blades by Aaron Rosenberg, who has also written books for World of Warcraft. I’ve actually never played StarCraft, but my husband shared all the cinematic scenes with me one day, and, as with Loghain, I was compelled to learn more about the enigmatic telepath named Sarah Kerrigan, who is captured by the zerg and becomes their vengeful queen.

Gaming tie-ins aren’t for everyone. In a poll and subsequent discussion, Daybreak Game Company (formerly Sony Online Entertainment) explores the many ways players prefer to consume game lore:

1. Outside the game, such as on web sites; I prefer to spend my in-game time in action, not reading. – 5%
2. Cut scenes bring the story to life, even if it does mean sitting and watching the show. – 18%
3. I like in-game lore that I can reference later, such as stories in in-game books or a quest journal that I can read when I have some down time. – 15%
4. I like the lore to be conveyed to me in real-time in the game, through quest dialog and other narration in small pieces while I adventure. – 18%
5. A mix of the above! – 45%

Sony’s game EverQuest Next is still in production, but they are whetting fans’ appetites with a series of novellas (full disclosure: I’m involved in writing some of them).

Gaming tie-ins can come in various forms of media, from books, to comics, to movies. They are an opportunity to expand on plot elements and characters that the game itself doesn’t have time to delve into and can reveal enticing details. But while I love to sink into the lore, good tie-ins should only enhance the game experience. They should never punish a player who does not wish to partake of them. It is a fine balance, where the game can reference events and characters without giving too much away, while enticing loremongers like me with dirty little secrets like the one shared by Jedi Grandmaster Satele Shan and the Alliance colonel Jace Malcom.

Star Wars Annihilation by Drew Karypshyn - LucasBooks (2012)When the 2010 Star Wars: The Old Republic trailer was released, Malcom, the trooper who narrates “Hope” and faces off against the deadly Darth Malgus, was nameless.The trooper earned a name, appeared in future trailers, and within the game itself, but in 2012, Malcom’s significance grew with the introduction of Theron Shan, as written by Drew Karpyshyn in Star Wars: Annihilation. Star Wars fans should already be familiar with the concept of tie-ins that expand adventures in a galaxy far, far away well beyond George Lucas’ three movies (yeah, I said three. Fight me). Annihilation is the fourth book in The Old Republic series. The first is Revan, also written by Karpyshyn, which reveals the fate of two major playable characters from the Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) games. Reviews for Revan are mixed, with complaints stemming from the seemingly rushed writing, to the more personal. Having spent hours with Revan in KOTOR, many fans went into this novel looking for some closure. Many fans were disappointed, which presents a problem that lore readers must be aware of when it comes to video games that allow players to make very personal choices. These decisions won’t necessarily fit into the canon that the developer chooses to follow. For example, in the Dragon Age games, the player can select who will rule the kingdom of Ferelden. Will it be Alistair Theirin, the bastard son of King Maric? Or will it be Queen Anora, the widow of King Cailan and daughter of Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir? Perhaps players are even ruling as king or queen themselves beside either of these two characters. But according to the canon, Alistair rules alone.

Alistair - Dragon Age - Those Who Speak - Dark Horse Comics

King Alistair Theirin in Those Who Speak from Dark Horse Comics

David Gaider, author of three of the five current Dragon Age books, as well as a series of comics from Dark Horse, is also BioWare’s lead writer for the games themselves, so the final decision really is up to people like him when it comes to canon. Similarly, Karpyshyn wrote for Star Wars: The Old Republic, as well as for other popular series in BioWare’s portfolio, like Baldur’s Gate and Mass Effect. Neither of them are writing choose-your-own-adventure books and can’t be expected to account for the myriad of choices made available within the games. Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoyed Liane Merciel’s  Dragon Age: Last Flight so much was because it ventured much further back in history to tell me about events and people I had no connection to beyond a few entries in the in-game codex or online Wiki. I had no expectations and biases in place and could enjoy the book for what it was.

Guild Wars Edge of Destiny by J Robert King - Pocket Books (2010)In some cases, readers’ frustration can come simply from discovering the story beyond the game was not what they expected, as was the case for me when I read Guild Wars: Edge of Destiny by J. Robert King. In ArenaNet’s massive multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG), Guild Wars 2, players meet the heroes of Destiny’s Edge, a guild formed to face the dragons that threaten Tyria. In the game, the band has broken up and there is much animosity between them. I read Edge of Destiny to find out why and discovered that they are all a bunch of whiny brats. Consequently, I cancelled my in-game crush on Logan Thackery and yelled at the lot of them whenever they appear onscreen to whine and blame each other for their failure.

Though Edge of Destiny is the second in the Guild Wars series, I read Matt Froebeck’s Ghosts of Ascalon after it, which thankfully cleansed my palate. There, I journeyed with a different guild of characters in their search for a treasure that could end the war between humans and charr. I liked these characters much more than I did the members of Destiny’s Edge, and the moment I finished reading it, I logged into the game to visit all of them. While I remain disappointed that these characters did not play a greater role in-game, I appreciated the opportunity to “speak” with them and ask questions related to the novel. I had seen them all before, but now their presence holds so much more meaning for me.

Guild Wars 2 - ArenaNet

Visiting Gullik Oddsson at Killeen’s grave in Guild Wars 2.

My husband used to play EVE Online, a game I have zero interest in because it looks like spreadsheets in space. But I did pay attention when he talked about the game mechanics of drones and clones and the player-based development. It was enough for me to understand EVE: Templar One by Tony Gonzales, which provides backstory on the political machinations behind the realm of New Eden. EVE is a “sandbox” MMO, which means that while there is a history behind the scenes, there is very little overall story to play when you log into the game. Instead, players create the roleplaying content themselves. Some of those stories have been voted on by fans and subsequently published by Dark Horse Comics.

EVE True Stories | Dark Horse Comics“The EVE: True Stories graphic novel is unique in the sense that it‘s based on an actual massive player event that took place in EVE Online. The dismantling of the galaxy-sprawling superpower known as the Band of Brothers is something that actually happened and thousands of players participated in.”

Some people look down on gaming tie-ins, dumping them in the same category as movie novelizations. I used to turn my nose up at the latter, arrogantly dismissing them as poorly written cash grabs—until I read this article in which author Alan Dean Foster says, among other things:

“…as [a fan], I got to make my own director’s cut. I got to fix the science mistakes, I got to enlarge on the characters, if there was a scene I particularly liked, I got to do more of it, and I had an unlimited budget. So it was fun.”

Fix the problems within a movie you love? Inject a little of your own headcanon? This is a kind of thinking that I can get behind.

Gaming tie-ins and other expanded universes serve a similar purpose. When I read The Stolen Throne, I got the impression that Gaider had fallen in love with Loghain as much as I did and wrote the novel to redeem the character, even if his future regicide still deserves execution. But tie-ins are more than just officially sanctioned fanfiction—especially when they are written by the games’ writers themselves—and as with anything I read, watch, or play, I expect them to be of reasonably good quality. I admit that I will be a bit more lenient—or harsh—when it comes to people writing about my favourite characters, but whether or not I like what the authors write, I expect them to write it well. I often review what I read and have found that while I’ve enjoyed most of the stories, there most certainly are flaws in the writing; however, these are the same kinds of flaws I find in many of the stories I read and review. As I said, I will be lenient in some cases, such as with Karpyshyn and Gaider’s books. I love the characters and stories they write in-game, though I find that their plotting is rather formulaic. Still, their love for and understanding of the characters shines through in the novels, and I especially like how well Gaider writes fight scenes and descriptions, which I can easily visualize from playing the games. I have a love-hate relationship with Gaider’s Dragon Age comics though, because while they provide great insight into the characters, I felt that Gaider was too limited by the medium. In my original review, I wrote:

“Gaider does such a fabulous job with character development in his novels but, while the characters here had some powerful moments, I felt that the page limitation of the comic book format didn’t allow the writing to go far enough with them. Moreover, the time that was spent with them seemed to cut into the plotting, causing the adventure to skim along like point form notes.” 

Dragon Age Those Who Speak Dark Horse Comics

The Pirate Queen Isabela, summed up in a few panels in Those Who Speak from Dark Horse Comics

Meanwhile, Mac Walters, who took over from Karpyshyn as lead writer on Mass Effect 3, constantly makes me question whether or not he actually played the game. I have yet to find a Mass Effect comic by him that doesn’t make me want to rip it to shreds (difficult, since they are all digital) thanks to ridiculous plots, characters shoehorned into stories they don’t belong in, and characters acting completely out of character.

Mass Effect Foundations #4 Dark Horse Comics

Calm down, Kaidan. It was just a glass of water. Mass Effect Foundations #4

I’ve been particularly disappointed in the Mass Effect: Foundations series, which serves as unnecessary origin stories for the numerous Mass Effect companion characters, as told through the eyes of Maya Brooks, a character who appeared in the Citadel downloadable content for Mass Effect 3. I mentioned that game tie-ins should enhance what we already learn in-game, but in this case, they are just an over-the-top visual reiteration of pivotal events of the characters’ pasts that players can easily learn about by talking to them. Worse, these events now have Brooks somehow Keyser Soze-ing her way into every single one of them.

Mass Effect Deception by William C Dietz Del Rey BooksAnd this is the other problem for people who love lore. We know too damn much. We are quick to pounce on the mistakes and inconsistencies and can easily spot things like retroactive continuity. While I don’t profess to be an expert on Dragon Age lore, my over abundance of it may have coloured my experiences while playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, which I address a few times in my “Inquisition Diaries.” As with novelizations, for an author not directly involved in the game, stepping into an established franchise can be a daunting experience because (A) there’s all that lore to learn and keep straight, and (B) fandom can be very unforgiving of mistakes. Some authors have refused to write tie-ins for these reasons while others have stepped in and been burned. Errors and canonical inconsistencies plagued the novel Mass Effect: Deception by William C. Dietz so much that BioWare and Del Rey Books apologized and promised to release a corrected version. Other authors have been more successful, though some of them already have the fame of their own original works under their belts, such as Greg Bear, who has written several novels for the HALO series.

Lore junkies can also be disappointed when something in the expanded world fails to meet its potential within the game. The latter is the case with Dragon Age: The Masked Empire by Patrick Weekes. Some significant elements addressed in the book play out in a major quest during Dragon Age: Inquisition, while others are not reflected in the game’s canon at all. Again, I stress that tie-ins should never be a detriment to a player who chooses not to read them. The game should only tease a player into learning more if they want to and they should never feel like they are missing something important by not reading the latest book or comic. But for someone who takes the time to read the additional material, the effort can feel like a waste of time if there is no pay off in relation to the game.

Drizzt Do'Urden

Drizzt Do’Urden from Dungeons & Dragons

Conversely, lore connoisseurs can get a bit of a treat when they find elements originally from the tie-ins making their way into the games, such as Cole, a character in Gaider’s novel Dragon Age: Asunder. I had really enjoyed Cole’s unique status and his odd personality in Asunder and was curious to see how it would translate to a companion character in Inquisition. As it turns out, I was not the least bit displeased with how Weekes subsequently brought the character to life. This is not the first time a character born in a novel has made their way into a game, nor is this exclusive to video games. Dungeons & Dragons fans are well versed in the history of Drizzt Do’Urden, a character created by R. A. Salvatore for the Forgotten Realms campaign. According to Wikipedia, books featuring Drizzt all make The New York Times bestseller list. Salvatore’s early shorts about the dark elf are collected in a series that was recently performed in audiobook format by a cast of narrators that includes Felicia Day, Sean Astin, David Duchovny, Ice-T, and more.

Some might think lore lovers like me are a wee bit obsessive when it comes to tie-ins, but I have no regrets. While I might not be happy with everything I discover and am forced to fix with headcanon, I love discovering it, talking about it, and figuring out how it all fits together within the story as a whole. And while I continue to stress that tie-ins should not heavily impact the game itself, I secretly long for the day when developers reward players in-game for consuming the lore outside of it. I imagine a game where lore hunters will recognize something they read about in a book or comic, and follow a path that leads to rewards. By rewards I mean, of course, even more lore.