Imagine a game where you play as the goomba from Super Mario Bros. You’re just minding your own goombusiness, puttering around between two random blocks, when this mustachioed ruffian drops in from out of nowhere and turns you into a mushroom pancake. I picture the gameplay as an endlessly recurring loop of furious A-button-mashing to reinflate yourself, after which you resume your silent patrol until the next inevitable flattening. To my knowledge, no such game exists. But if it did, players might better understand the plight of the bad guy in video games.
In Dragon Age: Origins, you play the role of the Grey Warden, a member of a legendary group of warriors tasked with opposing the Archdemon and his loyal darkspawn. Popular opinion has it that these darkspawn are little more than vicious animals whose sole purpose is to despoil the surface world. Think Jersey Shore, but more articulate. It is with a clear conscience that the Warden and his companions slay scores of these subterranean zombie-orc-morlocks in defense of the realm.
It’s a convenient myth, straight out of the eugenicist’s handbook. The tables are turned on the bigots in the Dragon Age: Origins expansion “The Darkspawn Chronicles.” This add-on chapter reimagines the final battle of Origins, where the heroes save a burning city and slay the Archdemon. This time, instead of the Warden, the player controls a darkspawn champion determined to stop these same do-gooders from succeeding. Finally, here is a chance to claim bloody vengeance for goombas and oppressed hero fodder everywhere.
“The Darkspawn Chronicles” begins at the gates of Denerim. The Archdemon commands you to recruit “thralls” from among the other darkspawn spilling into the city. These will function as your companions—rabid, snarling mirrors held up to the Warden’s comrades. In the early going, the main objective is to impress your new followers with your mastery of traditional darkspawn values: It’s a pro-stabbing, anti-mercy platform, and there is absolutely no room for flip-flopping on the issue of violent human death. Killing inspires loyalty, and more thralls flock to your side.
The game limits you to three bound, controllable thralls at any time. Darkspawn that aren’t under your direct control will still aid you in battle, but in a more random fashion. If you’ve reached your party limit but want to draft, say, an ogre into your gang, there is an option to execute followers to make room for new ones. Summary execution may be a harsh way to reward faithful service, but the darkspawn language has no words for polite dismissal. Recruiting some of the more baneful examples of darkspawnery and inflicting them on Ferelden’s finest is a delicate art, in need of constant tweaking.
Like many role-playing games, the first Dragon Age: Origins employs the least fun fighting system possible, and the story is mostly derivative fantasy boilerplate. Thegame’s appeal lies in its characters. There’s Alistair, for instance, a reluctant heir to the throne. And Zevran, the sexually adventurous elfin assassin who goes from trying to kill you to trying to kiss you. Each character has a story and special relationship to the Warden, developed over the course of the quest. In the original game, during quiet moments in camp, you learn personal histories, hopes, and dreams.
Playing for the other team in “Chronicles,” you battle your erstwhile allies, and it’s the source of no small internal turmoil. Sure, it’s great fun to cut down the more annoying characters—the pious bard and the stodgy mageophobe will not be missed—but fighting the rest of my old pals feels like a betrayal. It’s the type of sad turn that requires a mournful Keith David voiceover—a few lines about how they once were brothers and are now mortal enemies.
As you slash your way into the city, more Origins heroes fall, and for once, there are no saved-game files to bring them back. Soon enough, only a single Grey Warden remains, and the ever-predictable Archdemon commands that he must die. “The Darkspawn Chronicles” only ends after you plunge your sword into Warden Alistair’s chest, closing the grim crusade with a fountain of blood. This one is for the goombas.
Plenty of games allow you to perpetrate evil, but few let you replay a signature level from the opposing standpoint. The central conceit of “The Darkspawn Chronicles” would never hold up for more than a single chapter—as I said, Dragon Age relies on interplay between the characters—but murdering former friends feels right in all the wrong ways. They’d sure do a lot less griping and sniping at one another if they knew that being fired meant a sword in the gut. The darkspawn have a lot to teach us about effective team management.