Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Promises, threats, and building a series: Random thoughts on Dragon Age and Korra

by Daniel Abraham

So I’ll get back to work in a minute here, but I was thinking about why I didn’t watch Korra tonight.  The kid was here.  There are new episodes.  We’ve watched Avatar: The Last Airbender about a gajillion times start to finish.  And Korra . . . yeah.  It’s pretty good.  I love the aesthetics of it.  I love the new Avatar who is totally not Ang.  I love having something with a strong female lead that I can show to the kiddo.

But I’m just not feeling it.

The thing about Last Airbender is that is had a story that went from the first episode to the last one.  I knew by twenty minutes in that the basic problem was that the Fire Nation had thrown the world out of balance, and that Ang was going to have to put things right.  Three seasons later, he did.

In Korra, the basic problem is . . . well, shit.  I don’t know.  There was the equalist thing in the first season, and now we’re talking about the spirit world, I guess.  And I figure there’ll be something else after that.  But honestly, it feels like one damn thing after another, and that’s my real life.  I don’t go to my stories for that.

Which brought me to Dragon Age.

If you aren’t a console gamer, I respect that.  I, apparently, am.  I played Dragon Age a *lot*.  Seriously, I went through the whole story five or six times.  My wife played it more than that.  We played the snot out of that game.

Dragon Age II, I played through once and gave the disks to a friend.  The problem was a lot like watching Korra.  In the first game, there was a Blight, and we were going to stop it.  And fifty hours later, four major side quests, and a massive decision tree later, we did it in one of maybe a half a dozen different variations.

And then Dragon Age II came and we . . . well we got Mom a house, and we dealt with the crazy dwarf thing, and there was a big fight with the Arishok, whose position I kind of agreed with by the time I got to him.  And then the Magi and the Templars got weird at the end, and Anders turned into an utter dickhead.  But that first promise — that *simple* promise of restoring the balance of the world from the Fire Nation or defeating the Blight or whatever was never made, so it was never paid off, so I didn’t invest in the ride.

Writing series is a pain.  I know, because it turns out that’s almost all I’ve done.  The Long Price Quartet was four books, with the problem I laid out in the prologue of the first book informing everything that came after and coming to the best conclusion I could manage at the end of book 4.  The Black Sun’s Daughter was built so deep with secrets I could pull out in later volumes that by the time you hit book 5, book 1 looks like a totally different story than the first time through.  The Expanse books were designed so that the scale and scope keep getting bigger and wider and cooler without ever turning away from the questions we asked about humanity in the first book.  And Dragon Age…

Dragon Age III is in production.  I’m going to buy it when it comes out.  Probably the week it comes out.  Maybe I’ll regret it, maybe I won’t.  But I realized that, in my world, I’d already plotted out the series the way I wanted it to build.  It’s not going to be like this, because it’s not my project, but what I saw was that the first game had actually made two promises to me, and had only resolved one.  I’m thinking now that’s the way I’ve built a lot of my series work too.  In the Black Sun’s Daughter, the first book was about Jayne Heller exacting vengeance for the death of her uncle, but it also set up a wider arc about what exactly her uncle did and was.  A Shadow in Summer told the story of Seedless and Heshai and Saraykeht, but it also set up a world where the power structures were unstable and the people who held the power were complaisant and short-sighted.  Leviathan Wakes asked what happened to Julie Mao, and it also set up the long arc of humanity’s expansion into the universe.

Dragon Age was the story of defeating the BLight.   But the Blight came about because the Magi had stormed and corrupted heaven.  So, structurally speaking, the Dragon Age series ought to be a series of games each of which is a complete story with a satisfying conclusion, that ends in the last scene of the last game with redeeming, recreating, and refounding Heaven.

Because *that* would be cool, and the promise has already been made.

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13 Responses »

  1. There is nothing worse than a series that doesn’t fulfill its promise of a concise and satisfying ending that’s consistent with what it aimed for in the beginning. It ends up ruining the whole experience. Or as I now call it, the Mass Effect curse.

  2. I like The Legend of Korra (and I really like Korra as a female character), but I agree that it feels a little off.

    What I’ve read is that it was originally supposed to be a 13-episode, single-arc series by itself, which would begin and end with the Equalist storyline in Republic City. But later on, Nickolodeon placed an order for more seasons, while keeping the focus on single-season story arcs. That’s probably why the Equalist Arc felt much better and more consistent than the Spirits Arc so far.

    I do like parts of the Spirits Arc, although I think it’s moving too quickly in the “A” plot. And the “B” plot is really good.

  3. I’ve watched Korra myself, and I think it could develop into an arc of dealing with the injustice in which a few people can manipulate elements while most can’t. It’s clear in the second season that the issue didn’t go away when the Equalists were defeated.

  4. My 2nd biggest problem with Dragon Age 2 (aside from “Chapter One: In which we earn Money and get a Nice House) (and aside from the fact that Fenris doesn’t ever police the bodies in his stolen mansion, I mean GROSS dude) is that the companions … well, they sucked.

    In DA, you formed a close-knit family with your companions. They were trusted, maybe closer than blood. You fought impossible odds together, they always had your back even when they disapproved.

    In DA2, you had no one. Maybe Varric. Your brother’s a whiny dick. Your sister’s ok, but they both leave you after Chapter 1. Isabella betrays you. Fenris barely opens up and mostly drinks and broods. Merril’s a featherheaded idiot who refuses to listen to ANYONE about the fucking mirror until it’s gotten people killed, then she just cries. Aveline, who’s at least worth knowing, is busy with the guard. Sebastian won’t stop praying long enough to get his head out of his ass.

    And Anders, my god, ANDERS. The romance is really pushed on you if you’re a female Hawke even if you try not to romance him. He just goes completely off his rocker. If you romance him, and if he’s living with you, you can’t even kick the bastard out when you find out he lied about the “potion” to separate him from Justice. He still lives with you! Then he kills the nice Chantry lady (possibly the only nice person in the entire Chantry) and triggers a war. Hell yeah, I kill him every time.

    There are no companions in DA2. There are just people you sometimes do jobs with. There are hirelings, not friends, not romances. I hated it.

    In case you’re curious, it is possible to get through most missions without taking any companions at all, if you play a rogue. Just sayin’.

    • The companions were the best part of DA2 for me. I like most of the companions in Origins, but they felt like planets orbiting the Warden’s sun, waiting for you to shine the light of PC conversation on their lowly NPC faces so they could tell you their whole backstories. In DA2, they felt more like real people with their own agendas and relationships that didn’t necessarily involve Hawke. You can have either an Ally or Rival relationship with any of them. And the way Avelline and Isabela’s relationship evolves almost entirely through party banter is fantastic.

      DA2 is a deeply flawed game, no doubt. But I prefer to see it as an overly-ambitious failed masterpiece that with another 12-18 months of development and better integration of story and gameplay could have great.

  5. I love the correlation between the serial games and book series. I think there is a kind of fatigue a reader can get when, as you put it, its just one more thing. A book series or game series that falls prey to this honestly tires me out. I love the first Dragon Age, but honestly didn’t care for the second one. Sure I played it, but with long periods of putting it down in between the start and the finish. The last thing you want is that same effect and response in a book series. It reminds me a little bit (in an opposite way) of advice I got about not giving your date a dozen roses on the first date. How do you constantly one up yourself if you start out soo big. Honestly that is one thing I love about the series I have read of yours so far. You don’t pull out the big guns early but make us fall in love with the characters, the world, and honestly the concepts in the books. Its not the cheap tricks and initial big bouquet of flowers, but the content of the book that we end up enjoying. I think Im 11 books in so far on what you have written, both under James SA Corey and 2 other series. Love them all.

  6. Very insightful observations. I very much agree.

    And this really holds true for any kind of series, including film series.

  7. Great post, Daniel. I started replaying DA: Origins the other night because it is so well done, and I can now add Knights of the Old Republic to that list of games that are very well done, and pay off their promises. KOTOR is also lovely because when you go back all of the conversations suddenly have far more context. It’s really lovely.

    I fear for DA3 after the mess of Mass Effect 3. I’m not as brave as you. I’m going to wait to read reactions from players before I invest in the game. My fingers are crossed. I’d really like to return to Ferelden.

  8. I like what they’re saying about Inquisition, it really sounds like they are taking what worked best in the two previous games and building one really great one. As for the story, I really want to know what’s what with Morrigan, and it seems we are getting that.

    For the DA2 companions, I almost exclusively used Varric and Isabela with Anders, other than when I had to have someone for their quest.

  9. Funny coincidence, I was just discussing these things with my 2 boys. We watched Avatar together when they were preteens. Awesome show that we saw many times.

    The boys are now young teens so watching the angsty-teen-aged-boy-infatuated Korra would seem like a natural progression. Nope. The episodes have almost no rerun value, an episode rarely stands alone, the point of the story is religious intolerance…!?, and the adults are generic cringe worthy parental figure jerks.

    The Avatar’s Firelord, now there was a properly flawed father.

    A character like air bender Master Tenzin is unrecognizable as an Airbender (think playful confrontation averse Ang and the more patient monks), Master Tenzin is always borderline angry, impatient and inflexible (no surprise Korra doesn’t grasp this most amorphous introspective discipline.)

    Korra has great production values but the writers have nothing to say, so they fall back on tired teen themes. (A love triangle. Whether to declare a love interest. Teens convincing adults to give them room to be themselves.)

    By example, sneaking into an enemy base is the focus of every action cartoon, this is also a common Korra episode. In Avatar, the Firebenders are strong and firmly established in their power, any effort to attack the stronghold required that Ang first undertake a long preparation (It’s about the journey, stupid. )

    Korra is like a pro-religious enforcer. I don’t see how catching the bad guy reestablishes balance (Avatar concept) or ends intolerance!? I should be able to watch any random episode and not only get the lay of the land (the story arc) but understand the importance of the journey (Avatar concept.)

    Are we only waiting for Korra to power up so we can watch a simple smack down battle?

  10. I find myself feeling the same way about Korra. I’m watching it but ultimately, I feel like it lacks cohesion from season to season. And certainly doesn’t have the same apparent arc as the Avatar.

    I can understand how you can compare this to Dragon Age I vs Dragon Age II. To be honest with you. I don’t think they really thought of Dragon Age as a series. The first game was in development for years and years. By the time it was done it was a masterpiece but I think Bioware was just glad they were able to get it out the door. I’m not sure they had a second chapter in mind when they created it.

    Yes, they do leave hints of a follow up but a lot of those hints came in expansion material. Of course, Dragon Age was a smash hit – so they couldn’t just let it stand on its own. The problem was, while while DA1 took years to develop and was truly a game about character driven choice – DA2 was developed in an incredibly short period of time and pared down to make it more accessible than its predecessor. I think these factors hurt its story.

    As well as the fact that they’re trying to introduce you to a whole new series in DA2, to be continued (supposedly) in subsequent DA games. I think you can look at DA1 as a stand alone story. With DA2 starting a new series.

    From what I can see from DA3 they may be bringing back some of the loose ends from DA1, which were missing from DA2 and continue the chantry vs mage story from DA2.

    However, I really don’t think they gave the chantry vs mage story the gravity it needed to really stick with you in DA2. DA3 will be at a disadvantage because of it as it is allegedly continuing that arc.