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  • Writing Villains

[DRAGON AGE]: Before we begin, who is your favorite villain from the previous Dragon Age games, and why?

[DAVID GAIDER]: I'd say Loghain in Dragon Age: Origins, primarily because I couldn't blame him for feeling as he did. Was he paranoid and ultimately wrong? Yes, but I could imagine myself stepping into his shoes and taking some of the same actions he did… which is a little frightening.

[SYLVIA FEKETEKUTY]: Meredith from Dragon Age II, and the tragedy that unfolded out of her stubborn paranoia. As Hawke, I enjoyed butting heads with her, and Meredith's voice actor was terrific. Jean Gilpin brought this wonderful, thunderous gravitas to the role—I really believed Meredith thought she was doing the right thing, even up to the end.

[LUKE KRISTJANSON]: This is a tough one because I have never been able to play a BioWare game unspoiled. I've written at least part of almost every villain we've served up.

I really enjoyed writing Commander Harwen Raleigh of the Leliana's Song DLC. A good old-fashioned hardline jackass, and you just want to punch the sneer off him.

Also (so long as I'm not kite-dueling him), the Arishok in Dragon Age II. That's a good "we are at an ideological impasse, and this only ends one way" kind of match-up. Good fun.

[DA]: In your opinion, what makes an evil character truly memorable?

[DG]: When the word "evil," as it applies to that character, can be reasonably argued.

[SF]: A good dynamic foil. A viewpoint that fascinates, even if it's self-serving or covering an agenda. (There's a reason everyone remembers the cuckoo-clock speech from The Third Man.) The antagonists who stay with me typically change a story's protagonists when they clash, whether by forcing them to adapt or by irreversibly altering their entire worldview.

[LK]: Give them flaws they know and defend, and flaws they don't know and ignore. That gives them understandable reasoning and unexpected blind spots. Villains are often just heroes taken to an internally consistent logical/emotional extreme.

[DA]: What is your process for creating characters? Do you start with their role in the game and work backward, or do you find it helpful to flesh out their backstory first?

[DG]: When it comes to major characters, there's always an element of the role they play in the overall story, which comes first. Then we start coming up with concepts for that character and fleshing out the backstory, at which point their role may start to change. Neither the overall story nor the character is completely static during early development, though a point eventually comes when we've nailed down exactly what we want from both.

[SF]: For me, their role in the game tends to suggest the backstory, if they're a character we know we want from the get-go. For more minor characters coming out of whole cloth, I'll sometimes think up a concept I like ("Wouldn't it be fun if the Shadow Broker's lair had one of those little drones floating around, acting as a secretary?") and then see if there's a place for them in the game.

[LK]: You need to be able to do both because it really depends on when you join a project. If you're in early enough, you can craft the character along with the role, but a lot of times the role and/or plot is necessarily defined already. I prefer knowing where they need to fit because then I know the pieces I have to work with. A lesson from growing up with LEGO: limitations breed creative solutions. The freedom to make stuff up also comes with the uncertainty of what will need to be cut. In either case, I can't do anything without keeping the needs of the overall game in mind.

[DA]: Does seeing early concept art of the characters ever inspire your creation or spark any new ideas?

[DG]: It can. Sometimes, we'll have a concept artist such as Matt Rhodes sitting in on our concept meetings, and as we discuss ideas, he sketches away and actually has pictures for us to look at by the time we're done. Sometimes, they're pretty amazing and will make us incredibly excited at the possibilities.

[SF]: Definitely. The concept art is really when a character starts solidifying into a person. You ask why the character dresses the way they do, why they carry themselves with a certain posture, etc. Those questions need answers, so the threads start coming together.

[LK]: Oh, hell, yeah. Plenty of times, I've gone to one of our concept artists with a description, and they have hit back with something great I never would have suggested. Maybe they seized on a word I didn't mean to emphasize, or just bring their own unique understanding of an archetype. Or maybe it even seems "wrong" initially, but it makes me think about the character in a new way.

Not related to villains, but an early concept for Sera had dangly metal earrings (ultimately we didn't get them), and I was concerned that an archer would find them annoying. Then I pictured someone in-world asking Sera exactly that, and it helped define how she would react to critiques of her choices and what she likes. "No. Do they annoy you? (Shakes head vigorously.) It's like music!"

[DA]: Is your process for writing enemies the same for writing heroes, or do you have to approach them differently?

[DG]: Very differently. The story is largely from the hero's perspective, so you have to account for the villain's presence from that hero's viewpoint. The player is only aware of who the villain is and what they're doing insomuch as their character is aware of it, and you have to write the villain with the core idea of motivating the player to care about stopping them.

[SF]: It's complementary. You want an antagonist worthy of the hero and vice versa. They can't be separated out on a macro level without some consequences because that's usually the core of your drama.

That said, I think people "permit" some supervillain-esque characters to be more theatrical because that pompousness speaks to a tragic weakness in their own perceptions, which in turn makes them larger than life to those who cross them. And also because it's really fun.

[LK]: In a BioWare RPG, the "villain" is defined, and the "hero" is more of a blank slate.

The risk, then, is that the hero can be less relatable than the villain. I have to try to accommodate as many internal motivations for the player character as I can, stated and unstated. The motivation for the villain is always consistent, even if his or her actions have to adapt to the variables of the player character.

[DA]: Is it tough for you to get into the mindset of a villain?

[DG]: Not if you've done your job. If you have, then you can inhabit a villain's mindset the way you would any other character—it's just going to be more extreme.

[SF]: Not really. It's the old "everyone thinks they're the hero of their own story" chestnut. The important thing is to ground their motivations in something believable for the character and the tone of your story.

[LK]: There's a reason the writing pit has a NSFW sign on the door. All those nasty things that can happen in the game? We have to think them up, talk them out, figure out what's mean, too mean, satisfying, etc. I focus on their flaws, find their rhythm, and try to let them talk. Sometimes it's just a question of asking yourself, "What if you had no doubt about X?" That doesn't mean correct. It means no doubt.

[DA]: In any story of good and evil, you have to have a powerful foe to stand in the hero's way. How would you describe the "Elder One" from Dragon Age: Inquisition in one word?

[DG]: Relentless.

[SF]: Let's go with "ambitious."

[LK]: Arrogance. Not "arrogant"—that's somehow not enough. He has a confidence born of absolute certainty that in his estimation no others can comprehend. He will do what needs be done.

[DA]: We debuted a new trailer, "The Enemy of Thedas," this week at Gamescom, giving players their first look at the Inquisition's foes. How does it feel seeing all that hard work come together?

[DG]: It's hard to describe just how exciting that is. The first time I saw the new trailer, I think I peed a little.

[SF]: Pretty good! We're all kind of tired, but still. It's good. I'm really enjoying playing through the game, which is my main task at the moment, so I think that's a good sign.

[LK]: At this point in a project, I'm kind of numb. It's hard to parse the game as a whole. When you see a solid trailer of your own work, it makes you sit back for a second and consider how it's all come together. So, excitement and relief?

[DA]: If you had to pick, which one is more fun to write: heroes or villains?

[DG]: Villains, without question. They get to break all the rules.

[SF]: Everyone always says villains, and they are fun. They're the ones who bring the propulsive friction that catalyzes your story and stakes. But if your other characters aren't popping the same way, that's a good reason to step back and ask why not and if those character are working. In that sense, villains can be the "fun" element by which other story elements are measured.

[LK]: Copout answer: Mid-plot villains, when it's starting to unravel. End-game heroes, when it's all coming together.