Experienced Points: The Writers of BioWare

By Shamus
on Dec 4, 2009
Filed under:
Column

In this week’s Experienced points, I classify a bunch of the BioWare characters.

Last night I realized I’d somehow left out Kaiden from Mass Effect, who should have been classified under “Captain Emo”. He was even voiced by Raphael Sbarge who – aside from desperately needing another vowel in his name – also voiced Carth Onasi, another Captain Emo alumni.

The rules I used for making this list, just to keep it focused:

1) I’m only drawing from the modern voice-acted BioWare games: KOTOR, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age.

2) Each archetype had to have at least three examples.

3) No character could be in more than one archetype.

I’m sure there are other lists you could draw up using similar rules. Most of these characters fit into these categories as a matter of degree, not law. You could argue that Garrus Vakarian wasn’t nearly as mopey as the others, or that there should be another “joker” category for guys like Joker (Mass Effect) and Alistair. (Dragon Age)

Still, lists like this are fun to make. I know I’ve run into these characters again and again, but I enjoy it enough to keep coming back.

Note to other developers: BioWare is getting away with murder here. Their games are formulaic and their game mechanics are often wobbly or frustrating. Yet they sell like crazy because their writing is top-notch. You should try hiring some talented writers yourselves. You think the quality of writing doesn’t matter, but you’re wrong.

And Cryptic studios: This goes double for you.

EDIT: Since people are jumping to BioWare’s defense, I must have made this article sound far more negative than I intended. I think BioWare’s writers are superb, and I don’t see this list as an indictment at all. It’s just, you know, an observation of style. You could take the BioWare name off any of these games and people would still recognize it as such, probably in the first few minutes.

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20208Feeling chatty? There are 48 comments.

From the Archives:

  1. Rutskarn says:

    Screw Morrigan. Anybody who’s had to deal with internet trolls knows exactly how to deal with her type, but all you can do is curl up into a ball and let her pummel you at a whim.

  2. Heron says:

    Star Trek does the same thing. You’ve got the brash leader, the overeager crewman, the regularly-achieves-the-impossible engineer, the nonhuman, the reluctant participant, the hot girl, and so on.

    TOS: Kirk, Sulu, Scotty, Spock, McCoy, Uhura.
    TNG: Picard, Wesley, LaForge, Data, Whorf, Troi.
    DS9: Sisko, Bashir, O’Brien, Odo, Kira, Dax.
    Voyager: Janeway, Kim, Torres, The Doctor, Paris, Seven of Nine.

    So, yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about :)

    (I know my lists aren’t perfect, and there are more categories I’ve missed.)

  3. EightDeer says:

    Other characters you forgot: Juhani (KOTOR). Henpecked Hou, Sky and Wild Flower/Chai Ka/Ya Zhen (JE). Ashley and Liara (ME). Zevran (DA).

    Normally I would have figured you just didn’t want to do them all, but you specifically mentioned overlooking Kaidan.

  4. DrinkingWithSkeletons says:

    DA: Origins SPOILERS below!

    As an English major, I love not only breaking fictional characters down into their archetypes, but also finding exceptions or entirely new categories. Case in point: Alistair. I agree with the basic “Captain Emo” label, but he’s also, well, freaking weird and not quite like any other game character I can point to. He’s noticeably and actually consciously a follower with little desire to be a hero or even leader, and possessing no desire to change over the course of the game, leaving him a permanent adolescent (well, my first play-through, at least; is there a way to make him man-up a bit?). Furthermore, Bioware has stated–quite explicitly–that Alistair’s straight, but several conversations with him veer noticeably into homoeroticism (the “have you ever licked a sign post in winter” conversation is a stand out). It wasn’t until I recruited Zevran that I figured out–and was a bit disappointed to learn–that Alistair wasn’t the gay romantic option! Is Alistair not just a “Captain Emo,” but also a “Bi-Curious Man-Child?” CAN SUCH A THING EXIST!?

    End Spoilers

  5. Grudgeal says:

    For shame, Shamus, leaving out Baldur’s Gate. Ok, the fact that you picked 5 NPCs from a list of 20+ available means it’s not as hard-and-fast as in the above (Minsc and Jan Jansen certainly don’t fit in any of them, and some of them like are partial, like Valygar partial Captain Emo and Edwin a partial shrew), but still, the archetypes are there. Off the top of my head from the famous second installment:

    The remorseless killer: Sarevok.
    The berzerker: Korgan.
    The pilgrim: Nalia.
    The mentor: Keldorn.
    Captain emo: Anomen (if you play female — if you’re male he’s just *incredibly* annoying).
    The shrew: Viconia (especially if you play her romance).

  6. SolkaTruesilver says:

    @Heron

    Spelling “Worf” with an “h” puts you wellll below the “not perfect” line.

    @Shamus

    Amen to that. I have to say, KOTOR2 had much more nuanced characters. I will bring the example of Bao-Dur.

    !SPOILERS!

    Bao-Dur is a character that HAS BEEN crippled by guilt over what he did at Malachor V, but has mostly healed and managed to get on with his life. While he might be generally boring, he is not merely an archetype slammed into the game waiting for us to solve his side-quests to get on the path of self-healing, but a full-fledged character that we get to meet, and shares a terrible past with the Exile.

    The Exile himself is a very interesting character, as he is still ridden by memories of his past. Either because of the horrors he met during the war, or the cowardice he showed by not following Revan (either if you are Light or Dark side). You can piece this together with the general crumbles of backstory exposed slowly during the story.

    The same with Atton Rand. What seems to be Han Solo Archetype #13 is a complex character that is trying to find peace with his actions, and who is showing a lot more ressources that what initially is shown.

    Eh, even HK-47 becomes more moderate (and still kicks asses), more philosophical in his indiscritimate killings. T3-M3 seems to be one step ahead of everybody else and the only character who have a clear picture of what happened, and what happens.

    G0-T0… hehe.. that’s a nice one. I won’t ever spoil it.

    Hanharr. Oh god, Hanharr. Talk to him, and you will see what Crazy is.

  7. MuonDecay says:

    Oh man, you spurred a quick delve into the voice acting talent of this game that has me pretty impressed.

    Prominent former Star Trek actors, one of the stars of The A-Team, and people who’ve appeared on several popular TV series… they really lined up a lot of good talent for this game!

    This is like the polar opposite of Oblivion. Instead of spending all their voice talent budget on one famous actor and delegating the rest to the same dozen people they used for every game prior… they lined up a large cadre of several consistently talented people.

    It really helps the game because of it, too!

  8. Zukhramm says:

    While I have only playd KotOR (finished it this week actually) out of those game, it’s still fun to see them categorized. I’n playing the second game right now, so I’ll try to keep an eye open to the differences.

  9. Feste says:

    I dare anyone to tell me what archetype Minsc is. You won’t like me when I’m angry. Go for the eyes Boo, GO FOR THE EYES!!

  10. Blackbird71 says:

    I found myself looking through the list of “recent” Bioware games, and realized that the only one of these I’ve actually played was KotOR. It’s been a long time, but I don’t recall many of these archetypes in NWN (probably owing to the party size of 2, although there were a few different NPCs to choose from). However, these sorts of characters were definitely alive and well back in the old Baldur’s Gate games.

    Overall, nice observations Shamus. Still, I’m going to have to dock you a few points for making me think of a Michael Jackson video from the 80s (Captain EO). ;)

  11. Magnus says:

    All I can mention is this reminds me of TV tropes…

    so I’ll post a little link.

    Sorry if that ruins anyone’s day…

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DragonAge

  12. Doornail says:

    I would much rather Bioware reuse archetypes than create endless parades of sequels and spin-offs. I know the Profit lies in a loyal fanbase who will buy something based on it’s name, so maybe developers should take a page from Stephen King’s book(s). I used to laugh at how King’s name was always bigger than the title, but it makes sense now. Of course the biggest earners will be those developers with recognizable names and titles (see: Blizzard).

    Hmmm, if Wikipedia is to be believed, Mass Effect 3 is in “pre-development” as is a Dragon Age 2. So much for originality > profits. *sigh* I guess I’ll just go steal some indy games.

    (that was a joke I would never do such a thing.)

  13. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Sagacious zu isnt really remorseless.He killed a lot,sure,but he stopped because of remorse,and was reluctant to start again.Unlike the others in other games.

    And zaalbar as a pet?He has lots of dialogue and a back story,unlike the other pets that dont speak at all.

    I wonder where would characters from planescape torment fit though.Ok,annah is the shrew,ignus is the berzerker,but what of the rest?They are all so weird…

  14. Ergonomic Cat says:

    You did *not* call Big Z a pet.

    I love Bioware. I love the archetypes. I love waiting for the Berzerker, finding him, and loving him. I’m glad Wrex was a dangerous guy. I loved HK but just couldn’t put him in a party. Shale is useful for at least half the game.

  15. B.J. says:

    Sten/Canderous are “proud warrior race guys” and that trope’s older than Bioware. Bioware does this as a way of paying homage to classic sci-fi and fantasy archetypes, not because they are lousy writers. Tropes are not cliches.

    You argue that Bioware needs better writing, yet you admit their games sell… so maybe they’re just giving people what they want? You yourself Shamus even admitted you were put off by the non-accented dwarves.

    When you get down to it Epic Fantasy is Serious Business to many people, and you mess with it’s core elements at your own peril.

  16. Vendrin says:

    Zalbar isn’t a pet. Sure he didn’t have voice dialog, but he had plenty of written dialog. And I wouldn’t put Kaiden in Captain Emo. Sure he had a rough past, but he has dealt with it, and only goes into it if you ask him about it. If you don’t he doesn’t bring it up or go into rants about not being able to trust anyone.

  17. Man, I had *no* love for Silk Fox in Jade Empire. That bitch pissed me off to the end, and I actually felt good about saying mean things to her in the later parts of the game. Morrigan for some reason isn’t getting on my nerves as much.

  18. SirNuke says:

    It’s pretty easy to categorize characters when you give broad descriptions and accept degrees of similarities. Emphasizing similarities over differences and all that.

    Speaking from Mass Effect (the BioWare game I’m the most familiar with): I wouldn’t consider Wrex killing for laughs. I don’t describe Tali as particularly idealistic or free spirited. I don’t see any serious connection between Captain Emo and Garrus.

    I’d certainly agree that BioWare is formulaic (mostly because there isn’t much pressure to do otherwise; how many developers work on story heavy games?), but this article seems to stretch a little too much to fit it’s conclusion.

  19. Menegil says:

    [Spoiler Alert!]

    Commenting here since I have no Escapist account.

    I frankly disagree entirely with the cliché tagging. Methinks the article merely skims over their behavioural patterns (some over only a very small part of) rather than breaking them up into proper analysis. I mean, Alistair, an emo? Are you kidding me? There isn’t a more up-beat character in the entire party roster! Leliana is also very much complex, and more a political refugee than a pilgrim; she reveals, if you take the time to get to know or even romance her, that if she could, she’d likely never leave Orlais and the comfort she enjoyed there. Being a pilgrim pressuposes a certain kind of wanderlust she does not reveal, at least immediately and without character investment, during the game. Also, nicking stuff? Leliana may have the skill points on Stealing, but I have never ever heard an instance of her condoning or suggesting robbery. Similarly mis-analyzed is Oghren – his class may be Berserker, but that does not automatically make him one. He is actually a very deep character, if you get past his booze, and his taste for fighting – not killing. Caracterization of Sten as a remorseless killer also makes me quite confused; this is a Qunari who lives with the very heavy and prominent regret of having slain a family of nine in a fit of rage – anyone who has had immediate contact with him will notice he is a deeply honor-based character who doesn’t kill indiscriminately just because it is his job, and I am shocked to see his name even remotely associated with evil. Not more evil than Morrigan’s stark pragmatism, at least; years of having a prick as a friend have showed me a prickly personality isn’t exactly anathema to actually being an objective, cohesive and intelligent person, no matter how self-esteem-hurting some comments may be. In such people’s eyes, it’s just the way it is.

    In conclusion, I find that the characters in Dragon Age are far deeper than you make them out to be, even the bloody Dog. Calling it formulaic is accurate enough, considering it is mired in staples of western fantasy designed exactly to make the player feel comfortable. I do not find this derogatory (the word does carry a heavily derogatory tone); doing so would enable the argument that all modern fantasy since Tolkien is formulaic and thus worthless, which is simply not the case. The game is much better designed than many modern games story-wise. We can see much passion and personal investment in it as we play. It is without a doubt the most complete and engaging setting to come out for a videogame since the Legacy of Kain series, and I find such shallow critique based all too much on past experiences with games that, frankly, have nothing in common beyond The Hero of A Thousand Faces.

  20. ehlijen says:

    I always saw Sten as ‘they guy who they wanted to be voiced by Christopher Judge but couldn’t for some reason’.

    However, I always thought that, while possibly a blatant attempt to reach as many audiences as possible, the fact that all the Bioware games had everything from the ridiculous joker (Jolee, HK47, the gnome bard, the dog) to the brooder (captain emo) was a good thing. It let’s you just ignore the ones you don’t like and enjoy listening to the others.

    I just wish they’d include some more Darth Obvious’. After hearing Lelianna’s backstory the first game through I was half expecting her to
    *spoiler?*
    turn out to really just be pretending like all the times she’s supposedly done so in the past. I just kept waiting for her to turn, but apparently she’s truly as goody two shoes as she claims. A bit of a disappointment.
    *spoiler end*
    I mean, sure Loghain was as Darth Obvious as they come, but 10 minutes in, he was barely even part of the game anymore. (Also, he needed his own theme, like Darth Malak. I still think Malak had one of the best character theme’s ever in the the history of everything.)

    So: Story and music sells games. At least single player RPGs.

  21. Zombie Pete says:

    Shamus:

    I think BJ is referring to your second-to-last paragraph. It’s kind of confusing. After an article on how their characters are recycled, you say their games are formulaic — then you say other developers should get writers like theirs. It sounds like you’re being sarcastic, even if you’re not.

    • Shamus says:

      Zombie Pete: Thanks. I edited the post for clarity.

      Since people are jumping to BioWare’s defense, I must have made this article sound far more negative than I intended. I think BioWare’s writers are superb, and I don’t see this list as an indictment at all. It’s just, you know, an observation of style. You could take the BioWare name off any of these games and people would still recognize it as such, probably in the first few minutes.

  22. Mazinja says:

    The use of a formula is used in plenty of entertainment. Once something has been proven to work, it is not unusual for it to be used again. The problem can be when its used to death.

    Of course, stereotypes have been around for a long time now, and they are often used because they are a familiar territory for most players. That said, I found Alistiar to not really fit Captain Emo most of the time… hell, most of his dialogue is witty banter.

    I don’t really mind a character that can be fit into a stereotype, as long as he doesn’t consist of solely said stereotype. I found the interaction the other characters in Dragon Age had to be fantastic, and in many cases could also tell us something we hadn’t learned of a particular character already.

  23. Zaxares says:

    @Shamus: You forgot the ridiculously comical, but frequently endearing, goofball character. Examples include Morte from Planescape: Torment, Grobnar from Neverwinter Nights 2, and Henpecked Hou from Jade Empire. Amazingly, in a lot of these games, the goofballs are surprisingly powerful or helpful in combat. O.o Morte was literally THE best Fighter in my party by the end of the game, with AC much better than The Nameless One or Vhailor, and still being able to dish out a good amount of damage. Grobnar’s Bardic Chants and buffs (I give Bards nothing but buff spells so they can buff up the party before combat begins) could make a hell of a difference, and Hou…

    Um…

    I’ll have to get back to you on Hou. At least he tells funny stories!

  24. ehlijen says:

    It’d be far less obvious if other people were to make similar games in their styles (as Shamus pointed out with Kotor 2). But they don’t so all we people who want those games get is games by the same writers. They’re good writers, which is why they’re still in buisness thankfully, but that doesn’t mean we can’t wish for more variety.

  25. Someboringguy says:

    The dwarf NPG you get in DA is … boring to say the least.And he seems to have no personality.
    Anyway, what interesting personalities would you like to encounter?I am asking all of you this question.With what would you replace these cliches?
    I am thinking about…the cowardly scholar.
    Or a warrior that has a problem with using violence and instead he uses illusions and traps.
    Or a mastermind that used to rule over a gang of thieves/pirates, very cold and intelligent, that gives you a few hints related to the real reasons of other npcs, but seems too dubious to be believed by the player.

  26. Danel says:

    Yeah – and possibly more games in the genre would force Bioware to experiment more, which would probably be a good thing.

    Actually, I’m quite pleased that Mass Effect is a trilogy, since if nothing else it means that the stories of the characters will have to continue and develop. IT’s kind of a step-forward.

    I have no idea what Dragon Age 2 would be like, though. My hope is that it will be an almost completely new game in the same campaign setting, rather than a direct sequel. Goodness knows there’s enough interesting stuff in the setting for a whole bunch of games.

  27. Jordi says:

    I usually enjoy reading your work, but I find this Experienced Points neither insightful nor funny (except for the shrew part). I don’t find this observation very interesting, because I bet that if you randomly take any two books, chances are that you can make up some archtypes for the characters. This will especially be true if the books are of the same genre or written by the same person(s), but it’s probably often not even necessary. It just depends on how much leeway you’re willing to give yourself and how abstract you want to get.

  28. krellen says:

    When I described Dragon Age as “derivative and formulaic”, this is exactly what I was talking about.

    And as Shamus tried to make clear, the formula works and BioWare consistently executes the formula with great skill.

  29. Talby says:

    @Zaxares: BioWare didn’t make Planescape: Torment OR Neverwinter Nights 2. Black Isle made Planescape: Torment and Obsidian made NWN2.

    I don’t think the writing in BioWare games is that great. IMO, their only good game was Baldur’s Gate II, the rest being pretty average. They basically make the same game over and over but with a different theme each time.

  30. Quicksilver_502 says:

    you raise a lot of good points. the only one i’d argue wiuth is sten being a remorseless killer. he is remorseful. it’s pretty much one of the first things he say’s to you:

    “you must have led a charmed life, to know nothing of regret”

  31. As a note, I will take a well written formula/cliche over a badly written clever idea *any* day.

    I mean, at the core of it, there are 7 stories. We’re just listen to them over and over.

    Course I think there are maybe 5 internet posts, so… ;)

  32. B.J. says:

    Sorry Shamus, it was my mistake, I misread that last paragraph. The overall tone felt like you were bashing Bioware, but at the end you did say their writing was good. I mistook the bold line to be aimed at Bioware.

  33. JKjoker says:

    While Dragon Age was … uh … “entertaining”, i am not looking forward for DA2, i rather a NWN3 in fact, i felt DA had the worst from nwn’s hideous, unresponsive “realtime” combat without the huge possibilities of viable character builds and item variety allowed by D&D’s extensive lore, which made it really dull after a while (and the fact that the game is 80% combat doesnt help), hell, i want to go try for the other endings but i dont think i can stand another 2 boring hours of fighting endless waves of mooks

    The story would be generic crap even if it was original and not reused from kotor, ME and every other bioware game, i think ppl give bioware way too much credit, i rather MOTB or the Witcher’s story any day

    and the choices, ugh the choices, the “big ones” only reskin your useless allies during the last fight and the rest just change a paragraph of text during the end of the game, after the Witcher did it i was expecting at least SOME effect in the game world from my choices but i guess it was too much too ask

  34. This list made me laugh, Shamus. Sometimes the BW writers do bridge archetypes, though. You could make a good case for Ashley from Mass Effect being BOTH the Innocent Missionary AND The Shrew. And Sten’s not *quite* the “Remorseless Killer”–in some ways he’s ALSO the Innocent Missionary (albeit, from a VERY masculine perspective) AND the Mentor. Unfortunately, getting a lot of the really interesting convos out of him is a matter of luck because he has to be the first NPC to trigger certain “comment” points in order for you to have the opportunity to ask him about some things, and they only fire ONCE.

    There are a couple more archetypes that generally get mixed in there: the fun-lover and/or hard partier and the Mad Scientist. These are often mixed in with other archetypes to a greater or lesser extent (in Jade Empire, you had a combination of Sky, Black Whirlwind, and Henpecked Hou for the Fun-lover role, but it was really a very lighthearted game so the proliferation of silly characters made some sense). In Dragon Age, you’ve got Oghren and Zevran and Leliana (and, sort of, Shale–her dialogs about accessorizing are hilarious) in that position, and MORRIGAN of all people fulfills the part of the Mad Scientist role that they haven’t managed to exorcise. Granted, she’s more Mad in the sense of “pissed off” than “charmingly crazy”.

    They’ve been writing these characters since BG2 and don’t seem likely to stop. At least the iterations are interesting.

  35. Sean Riley says:

    David VS wrote:

    Then there’s this chart…

    http://hellforge.gameriot.com/blogs/Hellforge/Bioware-RPG-Cliche-Chart

    Fun thing is?

    I wrote the Trope Chart on Gamecritics.com, inspired by Shamus Young’s observation about the Mother/Thorian parallel. That guy kept going with it inspired by mine. And now it’s been quoted back here.

    The wheels on the bus…

  36. Tiki Tok says:

    Why is Morrigan such a bitch?

  37. Eruanno says:

    As for Kaidan in Mass Effect, he must be the blandest of the bland characters and I couldn’t have killed him any faster, when offered the option.
    Used him for the first mission (because I had to), and then stuffed him in a closet for the rest of all eternity. When having to speak to him, I tried being as much an ass as possible even when playing a good character. When offered to have him or Ashley die, I couldn’t have clicked the “KILL KAIDAN” button any faster.

    As for Morrigan being a bitch… I disagree. I like her sarcrastic comments and am willing to keep her in the group just for that alone.

  38. JKjoker says:

    I wanted to kill both Kaidan and Ashley, meh.

    and i wondered why i couldnt tell Wrex “just take the harddrives with you”

    Morrigan is a bitch because she is channeling Bastila … and that chick from Mass Effect 2

  39. GoodApprentice says:

    I don’t understand why people focus so much on the character similarities in bioware games when the real issue to be addressed is the highly repetitive plot structure. It always seems to be the same basic story.

    -A relatively unknown character overcomes a tragic past to join an exclusive and powerful protective society that operates outside the common law to achieve its goals. This inexperienced person leads a growing group of misfits to three or four key, strategic locations in order to uncover knowledge, win support from the powers that be and ultimately unite a variety of allies against a little-known, all-powerful, ancient and evil enemy. Betrayal and sacrifice occur before an epic final battle that sees the enemy defeated in its present form but not completely destroyed.-

    Throw in a few dozen tiny, laughably mundane “fetch” missions and you have a bioware game. There are endless plots structures that they could use, limited only by the imagination, but this is the one they do use, over and over again.

  40. JKjoker says:

    @GoodApprentice: i agree, but since the story is so generic, uninteresting and advances so slowly players tend to ignore it (at least until the very end) and focus in the only thing going on other than the repetitive quests and combat : the characters… and then they get annoyed they can predict what they are going to say or do most of the time because theyve seen their clones before

  41. chabuhi says:

    Fellow commenters, thank you all for the “spoiler” tags. Most appreciated. However, one spoiler I *would* like to see for DA is this: Do I ever get more than 4 character slots? I realize that may be a dumb question, but it just feels like I should be getting one more slot at some point. Otherwise, a lot of these characters seem pretty superfluous. I guess that’s what multiple play-throughs are for, eh?

    Thanks in advance!

  42. krellen says:

    chabuhi: No, four is the limit. Unless you train a rogue in the “Ranger” speciality, in which case they can summon extra animals, but that doesn’t let you take along one of the other characters so it’s not really what you’re looking for.

  43. Relayer71 says:

    Bioware’s writers are capable but I do agree they stick to well known personality/character archtypes for most of their games. It just makes their games predictable and a bit dull. It’s actually gotten worse post-Baldur’s Gate II, at least there was some humor and goofiness in that game. There is no actual problem with the quality of the writing, it’s just so uninspired and dry.

    Obsidian on the other hand has far more interesting writers/characters. Just see KOTOR 2, NWN2: MoTB, and go back further to Planescape: Torment and Fallout.

  44. JP says:

    Hey Shamus,

    I think someone at BioWare read your article. Maybe you should polish up your resume? :)

    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/78945-BioWare-Appeals-for-Writers-in-MMOG-Project

    Seriously though, I hope you do send them something. I think you would do a great job.

  45. Malimar says:

    Is it just me, or does http://www.cracked.com/funny-3872-bioware/ seem awfully familiar? Probably just separate observers noticing and pouncing on the same trends, I guess. I guess BioWare has been even less subtle than they had hoped!

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