Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Ranking the Quests in Dragon Age: Origins

Confession: I would welcome an entire DLC where I did nothing but ask
Flemeth questions while gazing adoringly. Because, come on, it's FLEMETH.
SHALE: Ah, well. Enough talking. There is a burning city to invade... or something.

SPOILERS for all of Dragon Age: Origins!

Dragon Age: Origins is vital to the Dragon Age universe as the keystone upon which its universe rests. For many, many fans it still represents the pinnacle of the series in terms of daring and darkness. I love it too,  for its thoughtful and complex character choices, its challenging RPG gameplay, and (most of all) for its ability to create a truly original and deeply immersive high fantasy setting unlike anything you'll find anywhere else.

While there are perhaps faint homages in the Grey Wardens to George R. R. Martin's Night's Watch in the Game of Thrones series, or a slight tip of the hat to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" funnyman Xander in perpetually hilarious (and clueless) Alistair, those inspirations don't change the fact that the world of Dragon Age: Origins really feels like something new in high fantasy. It takes the basic required ingredients—elves, dwarves, humans, dragons, nobles, demons, even enchanted forests—and discards the cliches, the obvious tropes, and instead creates something genuinely grim, gorgeous, thought-provoking and new. The conflicts are original and believable (we're still arguing mages versus templars even all these years later), and the magic system, tied to the Fade for good or ill, is sublime.

Thedas is not Middle-Earth, nor is it your usual pallid, veiled fantasy knockoff. And (thank goodness) it's not Westeros, either. 

Instead, it's something darker, wilder, less grand and solemn, but also rich with both light and darkness. The Grey Wardens are actually more self-sacrificing, thought-provoking and interesting to me than the Night's Watch (not to mention less rapey and sexist), and what Gaider and the writers created in Thedas with the threats of the Blight, the Darkspawn, the Archdemons, and the hints of a catastrophic vengeance upon the world by none less than the Maker (God) Himself offers breathtaking scope and a wonderful tapestry against which to set events. No wonder the series has not only supported a massive game trilogy, an assortment of DLCs, and over a dozen novels, graphic novels, and other explorations—Thedas is complex enough to support all of this and still feel like we've barely scratched the surface.

As a way of saluting Dragon Age: Origins and its creativity, I thought it would be fun to take a look at all the main quests in the game, as well as the most notable side quests, and then rank them from worst to best. (Keep in mind that even the "worst" quests in DAO are wonderful—there are no losers here!)


After the Joining
Hi Duncan! Hi Cailan! Bye, Duncan! Bye, Cailan!
This isn't the most exciting quest in terms of game activity, but it's still one of the most important story beats across the entire trilogy, as here's where we get to meet the doomed, gallant and foolish King Cailan, and where we also get more insight into Loghain, as well as Duncan. We also get a glimpse of Uldred here, who figures so importantly later on after the events at the Kinloch Hold Circle Tower.

Elora's Halla
I don't know why this little quest, in which we must diagnose a sick halla when visiting the Brecilian Forest Dalish encampment, moves me, but it is never one I skip, and I always look forward to it. As someone who loves the rich and tragic story of the elves across the trilogy, perhaps it's simply that we get to spend a few moments with one of my favorite creatures, the halla (the white deerlike creatures with graceful, twining silver horns). Or maybe it's that we have the opportunity to rescue an animal. Either way, I always calm the halla—I know we have the option to get Elora to kill it, but that's never happening on my playthroughs!

Notices of Death
My inclusion of this makes me an absolutely horrible person, but it's a questline that's wittily written and that manages to be both cringeworthy, poignant, and hilarious in the worst way.

Here, we're given the quest to deliver notices of death to the family members of several fallen soldiers. And if we get our companions to do it for us, the results are priceless. Alistair, Wynne and Leliana are predictably kind and heartfelt (Alistair's especially always gets to me: "I hope you like heroes, my lady, because your husband died like one"). 


But the rest of our companions? Um, let's just say tact is in short supply:
STEN: The man you love has died. It seems you could have chosen better.
ZEVRAN (cheerfully): Your husband? Dead. It was horrible. And so forth.
OGHREN: So... You know that husband of yours? Dead. Sorry!
MORRIGAN: Your man is dead. Get over it.
OGHREN (happily): Er, um, oh... Good news, lady. You're single!


This moment where I ask Flemeth to adopt me never ends as well as
I'd hoped it would. (And yes, Morrigan totally supports the idea.)
The Grey Wardens' Cache
It's not the most exciting moment, but I do have a fondness for this quest because it introduces Morrigan and Flemeth, two of the best characters across the game (and across the trilogy itself). We
also get our first battle with Darkspawn hordes, and learn more about the Grey Warden treaties and what effect they may have on the political intrigues involved. But mainly I'm just thrilled at our first glimpse of Flemeth's hut. Otherwise, it's not as exciting as some of the others for me.

Joining the Grey Wardens
This quest is a strong introduction to the Dragon Age world, providing us with the opportunity to begin to soak in the atmosphere of Thedas by showing us around Ostagar and giving us the chance to meet and interact with a variety of characters who will be important either personally or symbolically in the story to come. It's where we meet Loghain for the first time, along with Wynne (if we aren't starting out as mages), as well as Alistair, and recruits like Jory and Daveth, who will have heavy symbolic importance shortly as well. From a writing standpoint especially, I loved this early quest, because it sets the stage so beautifully for this world and its characters.

A Mother's Hope
This quest, in which a mother, Filda asks us to search for her missing son Ruck in the Deep Roads, is one of the most memorable across DAO for me. It's just so well written and acted, it's genuinely emotional, and it's a great example of how even a few moments with a character can live on in our memories.

As you might expect, alas, we do find Ruck, and his situation is heartbreaking. Lost in the deep caverns and ruins of Ortan Thaig, Ruck has been corrupted by the Taint after subsisting on the flesh of Darkspawn in the tunnels. His mind is now mostly gone, yet, tragically, he is aware of his situation and his conversation with the Warden is devastating, as he is both grateful if sympathy is offered and ashamed of his circumstances. This encounter can have several different endings, in which Ruck is killed either in self-defense (if we say something to instigate an attack), or in mercy. We can also leave Ruck alive to continue his tragic existence just as before.

I admit it, the moral quandaries of this particular quest really made me think. I didn't want to kill or hurt Ruck, especially after having a conversation with him (if we're courteous and use high persuasion, he is touchingly grateful for even the smallest kindness). And yet it was equally terrible to leave him to die slowly, mad and alone in the darkness.

I've played through options where I killed poor Ruck—regretfully, and because Zevran was in the party, as Zev's dialogue in that scene causes Ruck to attack and gives us no choice. And I've also let Ruck return to his hoarding and his pitiful and mad existence. No matter what, I always do what he asked, and tell Filda, his mother, that we found his body far beneath the earth.

It's a great example of how rich and satisfying Dragon Age can be. We spend perhaps five or ten minutes with Ruck in actual game-time. But I still vividly remember him and pity his fate.

The Mabari Hound
And here's my first Warden with our faithful rescued mabari companion, who
has just torn out the throats of half a dozen enemies and is now waiting
for much-deserved treats and cuddles
.
Okay, this isn't a major quest but COME ON. RESCUE THE DOG. Unless you are a supervillain in training or simply have no heart, this quest is a definite must, and it provides an informative and fascinating introduction to the importance of the mabari hound to Ferelden life and culture (Fereldans, you will soon learn, adore their dogs). Also, if we do this and save the blighted hound, we get our adorable and brave mabari (whom I always name Barkwise), also known to fans as Barkspawn. Barkwise is a wonderful character who brings out the best and funniest moments in many of our companions (particularly Sten and Morrigan), and he's also a brave and useful fighting comrade as well.

Lothering and the Imperial Highway
This questline isn't as dramatic as some but still, it's easily one of the most vital in the entire DAO game (or indeed in the entire Dragon Age trilogy). It's where we meet so many unforgettable characters for the first time, both featured characters in the story, as well as companions who will have incredible impact across the trilogy.

Most of all, this quest is always a highlight for me upon replay because Lothering will very soon cease to exist. With only a few exceptions, everyone we meet in the village is doomed, and it's genuinely upsetting to look back upon. Meanwhile, this is where we see what Loghain's plans are for Thedas, and we get our first glimpses of both Bann Teagan (also known as Hot Young Teagan) as well as of Cailan's widow and Loghain's daughter, Queen Anora, as well as our stalwart friends Bodahn and Sandal. And of course, Lothering itself is where we meet two incredibly vital potential companions -- Sten, and Leliana.

I still remember the jolt I felt when my party left Camp and Lothering was... gone. Just a skull on the map. It still gets to me, years later. And does so in every playthrough.

Tainted Blood
This quest starts out as seemingly harmless, requiring our Warden to fetch some necessary ingredients around the area, but it quickly becomes apparent that the Joining Ritual ahead is something to fear. That sense of foreboding increases throughout this quest and becomes palpable as the time of the ritual approaches.

My favorite thing about this quest is how it seamlessly introduces us to the solemn and terrifying stakes faced not just by the Grey Wardens, but by those who seek to enter their ranks through the tense and solemn Joining ritual. The stakes are high. Most fail, and people die right in front of us. The sudden deaths of people we'd just spoken to and begun to care about is a shocking occurrence but it's also the perfect example of how Dragon Age: Origins pulls no punches. 

Bad things can happen, and they often do, as in life, even to those who don't deserve them. In other words, it beautifully sets the stage and lets us know that Thedas is not a place for the faint of heart.


You've just woken up with Alistair alone, caged, and in your underwear.
Needless to say, it's a scenario that can go several ways. Although
probably not the way you'd want them to
.
Captured!
This entertaining and slyly funny questline is part of the larger series of quests relating to The Landsmeet, and is one of my favorites across the game. It happens after we surrender to Ser Cauthrien after trying to rescue Anora (and don't even get me started on Miss Thing's immediate betrayal there), and we're subsequently captured and imprisoned at the impressive Keep of Fort Drakon.


While there are a variety of potential story progressions and outcomes here (including the potential to elude capture at all, or to wait for rescue), for me it's most fun if we get captured and end up at Fort Drakon, and then decide to rescue ourselves. Thus far, I've always ended up getting imprisoned with Alistair, and the hilarity of waking up in your underwear next to a blushing and underwear-clad Alistair is actually even funnier if you aren't romancing him. We then have to sneak, charm, bluff, cajole and fight our way to freedom out of the prison and through the castle, and it's tons of fun.

Alternatively, it's just as much fun if you wait for rescue (if you're captured alone, you can choose your rescuers). My favorite rescue team by far is that of our beloved mabari (Barkspawn!) and Sten (I know, I know, you're shocked), who banter back and forth like a classic buddy-cop movie. Sten frustratedly argues with the dog and then is disgusted with himself for... arguing with a dog. "I have been in this country too long," he admits to Barkspawn (continuing, it should be noted, to talk to the dog). Barkspawn simply pants happily in his face. 

Then he and our canny pup bluff their way in (with a downright Shakespearean canine performance by our faithful mabari in which he pretends an illness so vile the soldiers simply want him out of the way). Sten, not to be outdone, actually manages to bluff the female guard there, getting her to realize that her life's ambition has led her to endless boredom. "Are you a soldier? Or an ornament?" he asks her, and sure enough, within thirty seconds she nopes out of there and questions all her life choices. 

SIDE NOTE: I feel like, viewing this, Sten would be a surprisingly good (if tough) life coach. He would view my book-filled and slightly cluttered apartment, for instance, and ask, "What is this? Are you a hobbit? A scholar? A weak creature seeking comforts in its cave? Or are you a warrior?"

"I'm a hobbit," I would answer sheepishly. 

"Parshaara."

"Sorry."

"A warrior does not apologize. Once more, you sadden and befuddle me," Sten would probably retort. And then he'd march out, and a few days later I'd get a bill for the remaining life coach sessions. But he'd still Fedex me a sword to remind me of my inner hero. Or so I like to think.

Anyway. My favorite part of this scene, by the way, is that after they progress further into the Keep, Sten then turns to Barkspawn and says, in total seriousness, "Be ready. These soldiers will not stop to listen to stories." I love that Sten pretends not to acknowledge our dog's intelligence, but in the end, he is one of the few party members who treats Barkspawn with absolute respect and seriousness. It's kind of charming.

This also means that I may or may not picture Sten, when he's secretly playing with kittens, as also giving them life-lessons, telling them soberly: "You are small but brave, little feline, and you are the match for any mouse. Never doubt it. Act without fear and with complete self-confidence and the rodent will be yours."

Broken Circle
Written by Sheryl Chee, this is without a doubt one of the creepiest and most effective quests in DAO, as we arrive at the Mage Circle tower at Kinloch Hold only to realize that the worst has happened, and that the Tower has been taken over by demons, Abominations and corrupted blood mages.

So... hey, Cullen... um... so... glad you're okay. Sorry you were tortured. But,
to quote K in Men in Black: "Hire a decorator quick, because... DAMN."
The quest is both incredibly atmospheric and genuinely disturbing as we see the devastation wrought upon the tower, room by room and floor by floor. It's especially poignant if we're playing a Circle Mage origin, because we're returning home, in many ways, only to see it destroyed. This quest can also go horribly dark in many ways, resulting in the deaths of Wynne, Irving, and (if our Warden agrees with a traumatized and brutally vengeful Cullen) the slaughter of the entire mage tower. As occurs in each chapter in the Dragon Age trilogy, you'll have to choose between mages and Templars, and as so often occurs in Dragon Age, this is one of those moments where your decisions are irrevocable. And even years and playthroughs later, it's still incredibly disturbing that our sweet Cullen is so utterly willing to raze the entire Circle and the lives of its mages to the ground.

Meanwhile, I know many many, many people out there hate the "Lost in Dreams" aspect (the dreaded quest sequence in the Fade), but I have to admit that while I get how frustrating it can be... I kind of love it. I love being able to play all the different physical beings, and going from being as timid as a tiny brave mouse, to being an eternally burning figure, a stone golem, and more. 

Just one request for Bioware though: At some point, aside from our brief excursion with Solas in Dragon Age: Inquisition, couldn't we actually play... a happy Fade? The fun Fade? Where it's always Christmas and witches give us treats and lemonade?

A Paragon of Her Kind
So, um, feel free to throw things at me but... I HATE the Deep Roads in DAO. Haaaaaate. Precisely because of how beautifully they're designed and rendered. They feel too dark, too grim, too gross, too terrifying, and too real. But this is a fantastic quest chain, starting in a wonderfully dark and well-rendered Orzammar, and it's an unforgettable introduction to the underground kingdom of the dwarves, in a beautiful and richly woven story and series of quests written by Lukas Kristjanson and Jennifer Hepler.

Here, society is governed via a strict and often brutal caste system, and where the highest born never see the sun. And at the bottom of the pyramid? The poor casteless, who are brutally tattooed at birth and who may never rise above their stations and most of whom are overwhelmingly cursed to lives of misery and bare, brutal subsistence.


Oh, Harrowmont, Harrowmont. You frustrate me so.
As with the rest of the game's story and details, Orzammar and the dwarven kingdom is beautifully envisioned, and it is yet another example of how the Dragon Age universe manages to encompass high fantasy elements and archetypes, yet with real imagination and uniqueness. Dragon Age's dwarves are not those of Tolkien—their lives are sadder and more strictly governed, in some ways, and perhaps pettier too, and yet Dragon Age's dwarves do feel rich with potential. They don't have to avenge lost kingdoms, but are mostly seeking to simply rise to a way of life that is sustainable and comfortable. There's not quite that sense of grandeur in Dragon Age's dwarves as in Tolkien's, and their plight isn't as obviously tragic as those of the elves, but there's still a rich and powerful sense of real pathos and loss.

It's terrific, and it's every bit as rich and fascinating as the worlds of men and elves to which we've already been introduced. And we're thrown right into its politics and corruption, as well as into the dreams and yearnings of those who live there. We help to choose a new leader in a deceptively complicated choice—do we pick noble, yet frustratingly conservative and out of touch Harrowmont? Or sneaky, unlikable Bhelen, the corrupt progressive who may nevertheless usher in a better world for the casteless? We meet potential companion Oghren here, as well as potential future notables in the series like wonderful Dagna (and let's not forget Leliana's potential nug companion Schmooples!).

This questline's fantastic series of explorations culminates into our entry into what is surely one of the most loved and hated sections of the game (along with The Fade): The Deep Roads, the terrifying network of caves and chasms that takes us out of the world of dwarves and into the abyssal haunts of demons and Darkspawn. And despite a trilogy of visits, for me the Deep Roads are never more terrifying than here in DAO, when we must travel with our brave companions through a near-endless series of dark twisting caverns filled with rotting corpses, Darkspawn, walls that pulsate with living evil, and monsters too terrible and tragic to look upon... the Broodmothers. (I won't even go into poor Hespith's terrible and deeply disturbing chant that outlines the sufferings of the women used by the Darkspawn to become the Broodmothers, but let's just say that it haunted me for days after I played it.)

And then there's Branka. Oh, Branka, crazy, terrifying Branka. The Orzammar paragon and Oghren's ex (and Hespith's, whom she brutally betrayed for her own ambitions). Who, it turns out, is set on using the Anvil of the Void to create an army of golems, in opposition to Caridin, the ancient paragon golem attempting to atone for his past sins. Once again, this encounter is wonderfully written, rendered and performed, and is fraught with potential tragedy, as depending on our actions, we can either support Branka's insane agenda (dooming Shale, if she is present, and who will fight and die against this choice), or we  can support Caridin and the more obviously moral choice. 

We then end this questline with the coronation of the dwarven king we supported, and it's a testament to the game's writing that even this moment is both painful and satisfying no matter who we choose. When I chose Harrowmont, I winced. And when I chose Bhelen, I winced even more (even though I knew it was right).

The Tower of Ishal
This race to light the beacon for King Cailan is one of my favorite early quests in DAO—it's exciting and pulse-pounding, and it really feels like our Warden is attempting to accomplish something epic (I felt like I was trying to light the signal-beacons in Gondor for a moment). It's also a terrific and more in-depth introduction to Alistair as a character in all his humor and bravery and innocence, and the combat as we attempt to fight our way floor by floor up the tower is genuinely exciting and challenging. 

And then it ends with one of the most striking and tragic  cutscenes in the game—the resolution of the Battle for Ostagar, as Loghain betrays the King, dooming Cailan and Duncan before a tide of unbeatable evil. I can still remember the terrible resignation on poor Duncan's face as he faces the unstoppable tide overwhelming them... and I'm talking about PIXELS. In a GAME.

Sniffle.

Meanwhile, the denouement of the quest takes place after our rescue by Flemeth, and we get another fabulous scene in her hut, and then Morrigan grumpily joins our party. 

Honestly, I always exhaust all conversation options here, as anytime I can talk to Flemeth is a high point in the games for me. I talk to Flemeth so much, honestly, in every single scene, that I swear I have unlocked slightly magical powers because Flemeth will, at a certain point, roll her eyes at me and tell me to get back to the game, girl. Get on with it. 

This is also why this quest is tied for me with "Flemeth's Real Grimoire," in which we go back and either talk to or battle Flemeth in order to get her Grimoire for Morrigan (who is convinced Flemeth is planning to possess her in order to extend her own life). I battled Flemeth on my first playthrough (and honestly felt terrible about it), but have never done so again... not only is it not right (and more than a little cowardly of Morrigan), but I'd much rather talk to Flemeth than fight her, so I always exhaust every single conversation option here. Until she literally tells me to go away.

"But wait!" I cry. "I must know! What made you decide to get the Hair Horns after this? Was it a midlife crisis? A spur of the moment thing?"

Alas, Flemeth never answers. At least not yet. If she ever does, I suppose this means I'll have descended into a new level of Dragon Age psychosis. (Fingers crossed!)

The Arl of Redcliffe
Would you kill a child to save a village? Or damn a village to save a child? This is another standout quest, a classic written by the always-talented David Gaider, and that involves some hard choices for  our Warden, and it remains one of my favorite questlines in the Dragon Age: Origins game story. It's also a terrific narrative piece, and gives us a lot of additional potential information about Ferelden, about Alistair himself (and his potentially mysterious background), as well as about the Arl, and we also get more time with my darling Hot Young Teagan, as well as having important interactions with the possessed child Connor and with Teagan's wife Isolde. The outcomes here can have huge ramifications on the game's story progression, with the potential loss of Connor, Isolde, Jowan, the entire population of Redcliffe, and more.

And as all Dragon Age fans know, the inclusion of the immortal line from Isolde "Who iz dis wooooman, Teeeeagan?" automatically bumped it up even higher. Because, reasons.

So, yes, Shale is a bit grumpy, but can you blame her? Years of immobility
while pigeons pooped on her. It's a miracle her sense of humor is still intact.
The Golem in Honnleath
If you get The Stone Prisoner DLC for DAO (and please do, as Shale is a wry, powerful hilarious and utterly unique character), you'll have to complete this quest in order to get the rod that will free golem and potential companion Shale (currently frozen as a statue in the square) from her imprisonment. It's a visually beautiful and interesting quest, with memorable characters and an especially challenging demonic confrontation that, in the end, can go terribly and chillingly wrong. (Dragon Age: Origins has no problem at all killing off child characters, and proves it again here.)

I've played it through several different ways—in some, poor Amalia was irrevocably possessed by her deceptively adorable cat friend "Kitty" (who was actually a desire demon) and then killed, while in others, I loved being able to rescue her and defeat the demon, returning Amalia to her waiting father. Either way, this quest always makes me smile when I come across the amulet "Kitty's Collar" in Dragon Age: Inquisition (a sly remembrance of Amalia).

And hey, at least now we can free poor Shale from her endless torment by the evil pigeons of the village.

Nature of the Beast
Perhaps it's because I so often prefer to play elven protagonists in Dragon Age, but this spooky, complex and yet often beautiful quest is absolutely one of my favorites in DAO. Another major questline written by David Gaider, it provides a wonderful and balanced introduction to the Dalish, and gives us a series of gorgeous settings and dungeons in the Brecilian Forest and Ruins, and in the Lair of the Werewolves. The elves are wary and ruthless, and yet are also charming, courteous and sympathetic. The werewolves then turn out to be equally complex, both fearsome and savage, and yet also heartbreakingly aware of their cursed existences (I'm still broken up over the fate of poor Danyla). The final decision here, as is so often the case in Dragon Age, can be bleak and brutal, in which we side with the werewolves and slaughter the entire Dalish clan, or in which instead the werewolves are slaughtered themselves.

I love the character design of the Lady of the Forest, even if I also desperately
want to offer her a sweater. Besides, I have extras, since Morrigan won't
wear any of the ones I got for her
.
However, I personally prefer the outcome in which we convince Zathrian to confront the Lady of the Forest, and we get the outcome in which Zathrian admits to ending his vengeance, and he and the Lady of the Forest willingly sacrifice themselves so that the werewolves are cured and the hostilities are ended. The idea of forgiveness never gets old, and it's gorgeously rendered here. The Lady and the werewolves are beautifully designed characters (with the Lady's suggested nudity managing to seem more beautiful and wild than prurient), and the final sequence in which all find peace is just beautifully done.

The Landsmeet
Oh, the politics! The intrigues! Culminating in a confrontation that's tense, complex and downright cinematic, the Landsmeet questline, written by the superb Mary Kirby (Hard in Hightown), embodies everything I love about Dragon Age: Origins. The questline is witty, smart, and suspenseful entertainment, and it demands genuine insight and attention from the player to reach their desired outcome.

Personally, I always love main quests that are as much about plot and character as they are about combat, which is why I'm such a fan of DAI's "Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts" as our poor Inquisitor attempts to charm a ballroom full of jaded, cynical, Great Game-playing Orlesians.

It's also why I love this one, where we're reunited with so many characters we've met and interacted with before—Arl Eamon, Loghain, Arl Howe, Anora, Duncan, and more, and where the hard decisions come to fruition. In this instance alone, the story outcomes can include Alistair as King in a variety of potential marital states, remaining as a Grey Warden, executed by Anora, or disillusioned and drunk if Loghain is allowed to join the Wardens as penance for his crimes.

The Landsmeet is an incredible culmination of all our political maneuverings
 in the game, and the end of the questline is truly epic and emotional,
no matter what we choose
.
Me, I'm torn. I truly do feel for poor Alistair. But at the same time, the fact that he is so adamant, that he cannot abide by the recommendations of Riordan (his superior officer) in punishment of Loghain... to me this flaw is truly disappointing. I still love Alistair, but it's interesting to me that he, as a character inspired by Xander ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") actually shares some of that character's weaknesses. Xander was charming, until you crossed him, and then he was easily at his worst... especially  whenever confronted with his own jealousies. Alistair definitely has shades of this to him, as well. However, in the end, I much prefer Alistair to Xander. Even in a single game, we watch Alistair mature and grow into real gravitas and responsibility, and (thankfully) he does so without losing his sense of joy or humor.

Something Wicked
This scary, atmospheric and tragically memorable quest in which we assist the saintly, blind Ser Otto in his pursuit of the mystery haunting the abandoned orphanage in the Denerim elven Alienage has definitely always stayed with me.

It's a suspenseful and interesting story, with an engrossing mystery at its heart, but for me what lingers is the classic horror-movie feel in the most traditional and gothic sense. I loved the gorgeously rendered atmosphere of the abandoned orphanage, with its barely-seen ghostly children dancing at the edge of sight, the evil giggles, the eerie weeping, the shadowy vestiges of violence everywhere... and worst of all, the sense that we might be able to bring peace here again, but we'd never be able to right the original and horrific wrongs that took place in this darkness.

We search, we fight, we triumph. Or so we think, when, of course, we're faced with the inevitable fate of the kindly and caring Ser Otto, which still makes me angry every single time. I WANTED SOMETHING GOOD, Dragon Age: Origins! Just once, give me something good and let poor Ser Otto live!

Dammit. Now I need roof-cookies.

The Urn of Sacred Ashes
This is easily one of my absolute favorite quests in Dragon Age: Origins because it offers a series of superb and diverse gameplay, combat and puzzle challenges, and because it effortlessly manages to communicate so much lore and history. It, like so many other quests in DAO, also has the potential to go terribly, horribly wrong, and at the end, depending upon our decisions here, Leliana and Wynne may not only end up dead, but they do so at the Warden's own hand. Sten, too, may end up departing permanently depending on your early actions in the questline, at Haven.

Primarily written by Sheryl Chee, this questline involves some incredibly atmospheric and interesting locations. Haven (which we'll see in very different circumstances again in DAI) is here an apparently sleepy little village in the foothills, but there's a creepy and palpable sense of menace, an almost Village of the Damned undertone that's wonderfully unsettling. Meanwhile, the ruins, caverns and dragon/wyrmling lairs are equally interesting, and the quest culminates in a superb and mind-cracking series of haunting scenes and beautiful challenges at The Gauntlet. One of my favorite moments in the game, and certainly an absolutely pivotal moment. After this quest, the next scenes at Camp can be both thought-provoking or incredibly sad.

Don't worry about the Archdemon, Hot Young Teagan! I'll protect you!
The Battle of Denerim
How often in your life do you get to command an army, lead a charge, and risk (or give) your life against a magnificent Archdemon in dragon form? How often, even in a game, do we lead armies, strategies warfare from attack wave to attack wave, or get to risk our lives, our companions, and our highest selves to save the world from an opponent that otherwise will devour it in darkness? How often do you fight a creature so massive that it dwarfs battlements and armies?

It's no wonder then, that this questline is truly the game's high point and centerpiece for me, and justifiably so. 

And my favorite aspect of this gorgeous final series of quests is how personal and fragile it all is. Just as crucial as the strategic aspect to the story (Landsmeet done, supportive factions put in place, and more), it's the emotional, friendship, and romantic elements to this story sequence that really tug at your heartstrings.

For instance, take those final sweet heartfelt farewells to our companions the night before! The moments when Wynne and Leliana express love and gratitude, when Sten reaffirms his affection and faith, when Zevran surprises us with his solemnity and emotion, are all wonderful, and reminders that Bioware has done something miraculous here with these scattered pixels—they'e turned them into people we care about.Then we're faced with more emotional obstacles, including our potential conflicting feelings of happiness (or ickiness) at performing the Dark Ritual with Morrigan! And that final goodbye to our sweet Barkspawn if we don't take our faithful mabari along for the final battle (the little worried whine our mabari gives there just kills me)! 

Sigh. So much fantastic dramatic fodder.

And let's not forget all the clever and strategic ways we can utilize the Dalish, dwarves, mages, Templars, and more who support us—as the culmination of all our diligent combat, strategic, political and ambassadorial work throughout this past year in Thedas. Let's definitely not overlook the wonderful fact that we can (if on PC) even actually support and help to preserve the lives of so many vital key characters we've met and saved before, and who now fight alongside us, including First Enchanter Irving or Knight-Commander Greagoir, Hot Young Teagan, Arl Eamon, Swiftrunner (or Zathrian), and more.

But the lasting elements to this story moment are the romantic, political, friendship, and intimate alliances we've built over the past year of Thedas time between our brave Warden and their companions.

By the end of Dragon Age: Origins, we've lived an epic. We've razed the ground if we were ruthless and hard, leaving companions dead behind us in service to power or ambition, or we've championed the best in all of us and earned the love of those who fight beside us, so that even hard, cynical Morrigan professes her love or comradeship, stoic Sten quietly calls us by the endearment "kadan" ("Where the Heart Lies" in Qunlat), and even Shale hesitantly admits she'd be bummed if we got squished. Our Warden may have sacrificed themselves for the good of all Thedas, or taken Morrigan up on her offering of the Dark Ritual so that the final blow against the Archdemon did not take a life in sacrifice. Yet this is the end of the journey, and the final moment before the bittersweet partings.

As always, this quest is a reminder that what makes these games so fantastic isn't the gameplay (no matter how consistently good it is) but the nuanced and complex writing, the heartfelt and versatile acting, and the feeling that at the end of our journey (for me at least) our protagonist, if they survived, did not do so alone. They are known, fully, flaws and all... and they are loved. But then again, I'm always a sucker for stories of scrappy misfits and their self-created family units (Mass Effect 2, I'm looking at you).

Which quests in Dragon Age: Origins were YOUR favorites? 

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