While at PAX Prime, I was lucky enough to attend a Dragon Age panel held by a group of Bioware’s creative team for discussion of the series’ future. The room was packed. Fans cheered at most of the announcements, particularly those that suggested a departure from Dragon Age 2 towards their beloved Origins.
When it came time for Q&A, one of them got up and asked a rather peculiar question: “Will we ever see a meeting between Hawke and the Warden?” When the developers hinted it might be possible for the protagonist of DA2 to meet Origins’ heroic cipher, the fans gave a huge cheer.
The question baffled me. It wasn’t the implied desire to see Hawke again; unusually for a western RPG, DA2’s protagonist was arguably one of the most appealing characters. It was the part where people evidently clamored to see a non-character – no voice, no mannerisms, no defined history. Despite all the investment any particular player might place in their Warden, it’s not matched by a similar commitment from Origins’ story.
The desire stems from players not recognizing that bringing back their Warden in any future installment is both impossible and undesirable. The Warden, and the long parade of CRPG protagonists sharing their mold, can hardly be called characters at all, no matter how much “role-playing” the player may do. Their influence may matter, but their characterization does not.
The Warden, like their predecessors, is largely player-defined and reactive. The typical RPG protagonist rarely initiates action. Non-player characters ask them questions, and the player selects from a broad range of responses, occasionally constrained by prior choices, but largely picked at the player’s discretion. (In fact, both DA 2 and Mass Effect were criticized for their more defined leads.)
Novelist E.M Foster divided characters into flat and rounded characters. Flat characters are static, assigned relatively fixed characteristics. Rounded characters are complex and evolving individuals, sometimes developing in surprising ways, and usually make up the center cast of a story. Since stories are about characters, they are, almost by definition, about character growth.
It should be obvious that it’s impossible to make a heroic cipher like the Warden a character in either sense of the word, because the player always decides their character’s precise response without being constrained by the same narrative elements as the rest of the cast. A heroic cipher cannot develop in any story-mandated fashion; their development occurs solely at the player’s discretion. Since there’s no guarantee of consistent development, the story can’t rely on the ostensible protagonist to carry dramatic weight.
It’s important to separate character decisions from character growth. Heroic ciphers like the Warden undeniably make decisions (or to be more accurate, their players do). These decisions drive the development and actions for their games’ sizable casts, but they are not actual indications of the heroic cipher having an evolving personality in and of themselves, certainly not one the story can depend upon.
Heroic ciphers have no inner life the story can capitalize upon. They exist as mouthpieces for their players’ decisions. The player may fondly imagine their character, but they are almost entirely divorced from the game’s narrative. All it can work with is a tally of consequences. In this, it is no different than any other form of “moral choice” system as employed in many other games.
So when players call out for a repeat appearance of the Warden, it’s rather baffling. No matter what players may have imagined their Warden (or Revan, or Exile, or Nameless One, or Courier, etc…) to be, that character you imagined exists only in your head. It would be impossible for writers to reproduce your personal hero as a concrete entity in any future installment.
Should they desire to use the Warden as a character and not a player mouthpiece in a future meeting, they’d have to take the dreaded step of canonizing who and what the Warden is. And that brings us right back into the much-bewailed territory of DA2’s Hawke or Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard.
But is it so bad to be handed a character with defined qualities that the player steers towards certain areas of the spectrum? I think not. Again, Hawke in Dragon Age 2 was just as complex and nuanced a character as any of the other cast members from either game. The scene of Hawke consoling their agonized uncle in the wake of their mother’s death was one of the game’s most touching, watching them struggle wearily to explain the unthinkable. Their frustrations and struggles are all the more poignant because we see them emotionally affected by them. Because the game has an idea of what Hawke is like, it has emotional range and inner life to work with, the real essence of character writing.
Hawke, and characters like them, can actually amount to more than a tally of decisions. By retaining an existence outside of their player, they can actually take an active role as a participant in the story rather than an observer and writer. Rather than being forced to imagine their reactions to the events around them, or use them to instigate character development in non-player characters, they can actually become the true protagonist of their titles, as opposed to merely the Ishmael figure who serves almost as a narrator of events.
Give a player infinite decisions, and you may as well give them no decisions at all. Only by constraining our protagonists in some fashion can they acquire pathos and dimensions separate from their out-of-universe players.
The question should not be “will we ever see the Warden again?” The question should be whether we ever saw them at all.