The Bittersweetest Thing

Lead Writer of BioWare's Dragon Age game series, lover of fan tears. This is where I blog about game development, fandom, and narrative design. Anything I say here is my opinion alone.


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Mr Gaider, I dont know if this has been asked before, but what is the name of the planet that Dragon Age takes place on?



At least, to the people of Thedas. They don’t really have a concept of a “planet”, however… to them, there is the sky and the earth and Thedas. “Thedas” itself is an old Tevinter word that meant “the land beyond the empire” and originally referred to the frontier until it eventually came to encompass the entire continent… which is their entire world, at present.

I’m sure once the concept of the larger world becomes a thing, the separation of Thedas from the rest of the world will become a more important thing to distinguish. Considering our own words for our planet are rooted in our words for “the ground under our feet”, it’s unlikely to be as complicated as you’d imagine.

Hello! I hope crunch time isn't treating you too badly! When it comes to the questions surrounding the dogma and myths of DA - for instance, if the golden city was ever golden - do you sort of know the answers in your writer brain? Or is it something no one in DA would know and so neither do you? I guess, are they mysteries meant to solved or simply pondered? (I wouldn't be surprised if you've already answered this, but try as I might I can't manage to read everything you've ever said about DA.)


1) At one point I kept all the answers in my writer brain. Then, as time passed, my writer brain became pretty unreliable—as things changed (which they do and have done, particularly in the early days once we translated the initial world design into an actual game), I sometimes found it hard to remember the New Thing versus the Old Thing. That, combined with the other writers needing more insight into the big questions (beyond me occasionally piping up with, “hey, you know this thing you did? That contradicts the thing in my brain”), meant we eventually moved everything onto our new wiki… as a group, we wrestled many of the vague notions and made them concrete at last.

So it’s definitely written down now, in full. If I get hit by a bus, that stuff won’t be lost any longer. Doesn’t mean it will never change, of course, but it does mean everyone (including me) doesn’t have to rely on my piss-poor memory for the setting’s back story.

2) You may never find the answers to all those questions. All that information is there so we know the answers, and aren’t simply making things up as we go. I suppose some people may think we do so anyhow, and we certainly have both the technology and the wherewithal to pull lore wholesale out of our collective asses, but we generally don’t.

This doesn’t mean you will never discover the answer to any of the big questions, but I think some things are better off left a mystery. I, for instance, never intend to tell you whether the Maker is real.

Hi, David! At DragonCon this year there was a panel on Game Writing with Ann Lemay and Ian Frazier, and Ian mentioned that a game writer and a narrative designer weren't the same. Could you elaborate?


There is no real standard when it comes to game development terminology—particularly not when it applies to the names given to specific roles. It will vary from one company to the next, though there are certain trends.

One such trend is the growing reference to the “narrative designer”, as opposed to the “game writer”. Even so, what’s considered the latter and what’s considered the former will vary depending on who you ask. Sometimes they’re identical, sometimes they’re not. My impression is that it largely depends on how much writing the dev team in question actually does.

In general, however? My impression is that a narrative designer actually constructs (or helps construct) the game’s story. They decide what happens, help design the quest/mission arcs, or simply have a much greater level of input overall in the narrative flow for the game. A game writer’s responsibility more lies in the actual implementation of that design—they write the dialogue and text, but may not have much input in what they’re writing… in some cases, they may even be called in to do the writing after all the design work is done.

A narrative designer might not actually do any writing. One could conceivably design the narrative and hand it off to a game writer. See the difference?

At BioWare, what we call “writers” do both—to varying degrees, according to their individual talents and/or experience. A Lead Writer or a Senior Writer is going to have a much bigger role in narrative design, particularly for the game as a whole, as opposed to someone with less experience who may be designing the narrative for a single quest arc or do no narrative design at all (though that’s rare—generally the idea is for them to at least take part in the design even if they don’t spearhead it, in the interest of teaching them how it’s done).

That is, however, specific to BioWare, and is a workflow which was necessary to develop simply because we have a large writing team. Other teams might have fewer writers, writers who also fill other roles at the same time, or who are even outsourced. So it’s not a question that can be answered definitively, and is always an issue when writers from many dev teams get together at conventions like GDC. Someone can hold a panel on writing, and you may attend only to discover it has little or no relevance to how you personally operate. Sometimes there’s an effort to standardize the terminology, to make communication easier, but in my experience that’s always had limited effect.

Thank You BioWare. For Everything.



It’s 12:27 AM on September 12th in BioWare Edmonton and I’m listening to Das Malefitz by Faunts. I know it’s late, but I’m sure I’m not the only one in the office. We’re shipping a video game. Non-conventional hours are understandable. I’m trying to find a picture of myself on a motorcycle as a toddler to prove a point to the Dragon Age art director, after an evening at the pub and answering emails to finalize details about Montreal Comiccon, Edmonton Expo, and Geek Girl Con.

Also, this will be my last day at BioWare.

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Sad day.

Gave Jessica a goodbye hug and put away the dog bed for the last time, as I doubt the next community manager we have will hang out in the Writers Pit with us. BioWare won’t be quite the same without her, but I say with confidence that her impact on us will far outlast her presence, and we’re better off for having had her with us for as long as we did.


Nicolas and Julien wallpapers (Dragon Age: The Calling by David Gaider)

All available to download on my deviantart

Someone drew Nicolas and Julien! This pleases me.


Dragon Age Inquisitor Portraits - Created by Gerry Arthur

Okay, these are pretty bad ass.

Dragon Age Inquisition Romance List

For those who keep asking the details on the DAI romance, Mike Laidlaw kindly posted the complete list on the BioWare forums. Go, read if you wish to know the details ahead of time, and apologies to those who are disappointed.

On Writing Tropes

"In “Women vs. Tropes in Video Games: Women as Background Decoration Pt. 2, one of Ms. Sarkeesian’s solutions to appropriately handling controversial topics such as violence against women is to create games that directly and singularly explore controversial tropes rather than relegate them to background events. We see that type of focus in games like Spec Ops: The Line where story and design decisions were made based on critiquing the modern FPS genre.

Do you think such focus is possible in large game worlds such as Dragon Age? A large world does provide a space where multiple issues/themes of varying controversy can be explored through the main quest(s), side quests, or companion quests, but it may treat those issues haphazardly due to its game mechanics or budget constraints.

Also, how do you as a writer handle building a world which includes controversial aspects and tropes?” — fan question

I think my friend and colleague Patrick Weekes put it well when he responded recently to a question of this nature. He said, “my take on [Anita Sarkeesian]’s critique is that not every instance [of a trope] is unjustified, but that together they paint a problematic picture. We look at issues—sometimes we cut, sometimes we decide it’s okay it context. But, honestly, at this point we’ve seen it all enough that we need people like [Anita Sarkeesian] to point out our blind spots.”

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Speaking of forums... What forums / blogs / etc (other than your own if course) would you most recommend to individuals interested in pursuing game development or programming, and who want to hear more about what it's like to work in the industry, or otherwise get answers to game development and programming related questions?



There are a couple of places I will visit on occasion, but it will vary based on your relative amount of knowledge and understanding of the process. Here’s some stuff I would suggest.

General Game Development:

  • Extra Credits on Youtube - A great bird’s-eye view series of videos (updated weekly) of how things work in various aspects of the industry.
  • - A page and forum for video game developers of all walks of experience.
  • - Probably the best resource for more experienced developers. Gamasutra has a lot of articles and blog posts written by developers from indie to AAA and everything in between. Many articles assume an inherent level of knowledge, however, which may make it less easy to digest than the others. Also has job listings.
  • GDC Vault - A collection of free (and subscription) videos from past Game Developer Conference talks.

Specific Stuff:

  • Programming: Stack Exchange - A great general programming resource where you can ask questions and bored programmers will answer them.
  • Game Writing: David Gaider’s game development tag - David is the lead writer for the Dragon Age franchise. He has several great writing-specific posts about game development.
  • MMO Development: - Eric Heimburg is an old hand at MMO development, having worn multiple hats on multiple AAA MMOGs, and is currently working on his own indie MMOG called Project Gorgon.
  • MMO Development: - Raph Koster is one of the oldest hands in the MMOG game, and he is the one who first identified a lot of the theory we use to construct games today.
  • Animation and Art: - I first discovered this blog through some posts about the twelve principles of animation, and I was hooked. It’s a fantastic resource with some amazing analysis on art, with the heavy emphasis on animation.
  • 3D Modeling: Polycount’s forums - There’s no better forum for budding 3D artists to learn, show off their work, or ask for advice. Those showing off their work or offering advice are often industry veterans. There’s no better forum for hopeful artists to get real constructive critiques and advice on their work.

Hope it helps. Enjoy the reading.

So what is it that you do in this stage of development? Mainly bug testing? (I'm assuming that most of the writing is done by now.)


At this late stage of development, the writers essentially become extra QA …but with one important distinction: we know the things that are supposed to be there, but aren’t. Most testers can only report the things they see which are visibly broken (not all, of course, as it depends on how intimate their knowledge of the documentation is, but at the end of the day nobody’s knowledge of the story is as intimate as ours).

So our time is spent playing the game, grousing about everything that hasn’t been implemented like we originally wanted, filing bugs, and arguing about bugs that have come back WNF’d.

We also still have the bugs of our own to resolve, of course—anything that specifically comes up regarding the plots we’ve worked on. The difference there is the number of things we can actually change rapidly decreases (as we’re passed the point where we can do new VO recording or have lines restranslated). There is a LOT of scripting that goes into dialogue, however (the approval changes alone are a bear), and that’s all part of our bailiwick.

Which is a long way of saying “we’re crunching… a lot.”

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