Dragon Age: Inquisition is the vast new installment of the fantasy roleplaying game series from BioWare. It’s a multi-layered story set in a massive world and the game has earned raves for its sheer scope and depth, for the sense of agency players feel as they move through the game’s worlds, and for its sophisticated treatment of politics. But the game also hinges on strong characters. Whether you are on a battlefield fighting mercenaries or in a castle considering the act of freeing enslaved wizards, it is your comrades who will help you through it. For all its awesome scale, the game is built upon relationships.
“Your followers form a big part of the Dragon Age games,” says the game’s executive producer Mark Darrah. “We tell a lot of our story through your companions, through character building, more than through storytelling. It’s more about interactions between people.” Here, Darrah, creative director Mike Laidlaw, writer Patrick Weekes, and actor Freddie Prinze Jr., talk about building the standout character that gives shape to a huge, but ultimately intimate, game.
The Dragon Age player moves through the game accompanied by a group of nine comrades, who help uncover answers and make decisions. One such character is Iron Bull, voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr.
Iron Bull is from a race called the Qunari, large, ogre-like people with horns. They follow a strict religious code called the Qun, making them almost Samurai-like in their stoic devotion. While there was a Qunari character in the first Dragon Age that was a strict follower of the Qun, Iron Bull was designed to be a more human Qunari and Prinze has earned plaudits for bringing the multi-faceted character to life.
“As soon as I saw his face, as soon as I saw his Qunari smirk, I knew what I wanted him to sound like,” says Freddie Prinze Jr. “I wanted him to be almost irreverent to war. He finds some battles almost comical, because they wouldn’t be a challenge. When others question his techniques, I played everything comical, ‘If you were this big, if you were as good as I am, you would do everything I am doing. You’re just not.’ “
BioWare didn’t want such a key character to seem just like a hulking thug. There is a wry intelligence mixed with the menace. “It’s impossible to overstate what Freddie Prinze Jr. brought to the character,” says Mike Laidlaw, the game’s creative director. “Freddie gave him this sophistication that does not contradict (the fact) that he can tear someone in half. That makes Bull more of an intelligent, trained professional in a way that makes him more nuanced.”
The concept of Iron Bull and his personality are also configured as part of the larger group of nine followers. He is one of three warriors, and his lighter side contrasts with the strict faith of holy warrior Cassandra and grim determination of demonslayer Blackwall. His “been-there-done-that” view of war is also in stark contrast to the inexperience of young archer Sera or the political maneuvering of court wizard Vivienne.
As a mercenary who joins the Inquisition, he was also imagined as a veteran warrior covered in scars and bearing one lasting injury, a missing eye. But that wasn’t the first version of Iron Bull. Patrick Weekes, Senior Writer at BioWare, explains, “In the original art design, he actually had one hand instead of one eye. That would’ve required an entirely unique animation set for every time he climbed a ladder or swung a weapon. It would’ve required enough differentiation that we ended up changing it to the eye.”
Inquisition features an extensive amount of conversation between characters: over 80,000 lines of dialogue are in the game. When the hero faces turning points in the story, the three followers he takes with him may comment or make suggestions. These may not only shape the plot, but provide glimpses into their character. Likewise, simply traveling through the worlds within the game, completing small quests may illicit ambient conversations between followers. And everyone has an opinion to share. The contrast of unique personalities lends a dramatic vibrancy not found in many games.
“In past games, our thought was that a player has a fight and then he goes to another location for a fight there, and the area between is clear, so we can put banter there instead of content,” said Weekes. “In this game, we recognize that banter between party members actually is content. That is what some people are there for. It’s as interesting as fighting.”
As a character in a video game that includes combat gameplay, Iron Bull was also designed to have a unique role there. Just as the game has several kinds of wizards (fire, ice, lightning) or rogues (archers, assassins, trappers), he fits a specific role as a warrior. While Cassandra was designed to fight with a sword and shield, using abilities based upon defense, Iron Bull uses a two-handed weapon and has powers based upon dealing pain and ignoring pain, which fits with his background as a scarred veteran that has seen the horrors of war.
As part of a franchise, Dragon Age: Inquisition also extends the worldbuilding efforts of the past games, providing even more glimpses into the various nations of the world. As before, the nine companions are used as a gateway, with Iron Bull providing a viewpoint on the Qunari, the race’s lifestyle, philosophy of war, and thoughts on other races. Other companions provide worldviews that expand the player’s knowledge, from Cassandra explaining life in the church, to Sera, who fights for the commoners living under the rule of nobles.
All the facets of making a game, from art to acting, from story to gameplay, fuel how one character comes together. And then that character in turn contributes to all aspects of the game. Iron Bull is the hero’s drinking buddy, a philosopher on the ways of war, and a brutal combatant by your side. He is BioWare’s tool for illustrating the world and for showing your companions’ loyalty toward your ideals in the Inquisition. He is one of the many reasons Dragon Age: Inquisition is more than just a set of quests to be finished or battles to be won.
Weekes says, “The art design helps us inform the writing and the voice. then when we settle on the actor, we give the concept artist access to the audition, so they can hear Freddie and hear he is rough and gravelly, but not growling or surly. When art designers do Bull, he should have a bit of smirk or look like he is enjoying himself because he is fighting. It can make all the difference.”
“BioWare games are a great cross between Choose Your Own Adventure books and Romance novels. And that’s why people respond to them so much–they get to be the character in the book,” says Prinze. “With character-driven stories, everybody involved has different motivations toward the same goal. That’s what make BioWare games special. There are stakes. People respond to that.”