Thursday, June 13, 2013

We talk to BioWare's Ben Gelinas - The World of Thedas, gaming, and Dragon Age!

Guys - this is ultra exciting. I had a chance to exchange a few emails with the very talented (and very tolerant) principal writer of Dragon Age: The World of Thedas, Ben Gelinas! 

Dragon Age 2 concept art 

Volume 1 of Dragon Age: The World of Thedas has been released, and among all the build up of E3 and the unveiling of a truly beautiful teaser for Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third installment of the Dragon Age franchise is back in the spotlight and the anticipation is palpable and and very, very exciting. For obvious reasons we aren't hassling Mr Gelinas about DA3, but we will be hassling him about everything else.

You might want to read our review of DA:WOT as well - over HERE!

Join me after the jump for some hardcore lore-ing. Worldbuilding enthusiasts celebrate!

There was already a substantial amount of lore/history floating around before you had to start sorting it out. How do you even start organizing that much information into a usable format?

I started this book with a deep breath and a lot of coffee. The first source was our internal documentation—hundreds of thousands of words and growing. Then I looked outward. Everything was mined: the novels, pen and papers, comics, anime, and, naturally, the games. There was so much. The key was to start as broad as possible. How do you take complex concepts like the Chantry and the Fade and define them in a sentence or paragraph? The details followed and a book was born.

Somewhere in this process David Gaider was writing Asunder (and the graphic novels), which had some implications on the historical timeline we see in the book. Did you set the timeline aside until Asunder was out, or did he let you in on the important bits so you could work simultaneously?

Actually, Asunder was finished when I started work in earnest on the book, so its effects on the timeline were known. The graphic novels were trickier. In The World of Thedas, we didn’t want to say Alistair is king, exiled, or dead as a rule. Wherever possible, the book was written to ensure it reflected the world everyone knows rather than the outcome of player choices. It needed to read like an in-world encyclopedia, rather than a strategy guide.

Did you have a country/cultural group you were really looking forward to getting into and fleshing out?

The Anderfels. I am fascinated with desperate, sad places (big Fallout and Cormac McCarthy fan over here) and the Anderfels is just about the saddest corner of the continent. It was fun to dig a little deeper into what life is like there.

As a side note, is it true that “Anders” is not an actual name but a reference to his origins in the Anderfels?

Correct! As David Gaider confirmed on the BSN a couple years back, “Anders” is actually his nickname and it’s indeed a reference to his Ander roots.

You had a pretty substantial collection of people working on this with you. Can I hope that you drew straws to determine who got to work on certain bits?

We absolutely drew straws. I handled the majority of the main text, with buckets of advice and oversight from the room. The sidebars started with one or two words, things we wanted to explore in more subjective narratives like “Kal-Sharok” and “Sexuality in Thedas.” I then sent the list of sidebar concepts around and the writers claimed the ones they were most excited to write. I was careful to keep a couple for myself, too, including, yes, the Anderfels sidebar. Our lead editor Karin Weekes did the same with the cursing sidebar. We had a lot of fun making this book.

You dig really far back into Thedas history for DA:WOT. It could have potentially been an endless task. Who draws the line? Were the things that you’d hoped to spend time with that got excluded?

There is a lot we didn’t say, in part because the volume needed to serve as a proper introduction to the world, going broad on a variety of essential topics. We drew a line to ensure the book was written in-world. Even the main text, while objective, is not omniscient. Just as in the real world, no one person in Thedas can know it all. The book is very much a learned view from the ground.

We've seen Dark Horse release the beautiful Art of the Mass Effect Universe book, and while there’s a huge artistic component to DA: WOT, since it’s an “in character” publication we don’t get much insight into the development of characters and earlier art and design. Do you think there’s room for an Art of Dragon Age down the line?

I can’t speak for the future. But Nick [Thornborrow, cover artist and project lead] and I dug through buckets of beautiful concept art to make the World of Thedas Vol. 1 and there’s still so much more we couldn’t get in for one reason or another. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Dragon Age: Inquisition concept art

You were a journalist before you got on board with BioWare – what was it that made the powers-that-be think that you were a logical choice as a fantasy-world building-chronicling librarian?
That’s more of a question for Mike Laidlaw and my fellow editors, who decided to hire me out of newspapers for some reason. I absolutely leveraged the skills I honed as a journalist: attention to detail, obsession with accuracy, an ability to take complex ideas and present them with clarity, concision, and impact. These skills all proved invaluable when tackling the book. But they’re also essential for my primary role as a story and game dialogue editor here at the studio.

Are your parents proud or bewildered? And have they tried to play any of the games you've worked on?

I was worried it would be a bit of a hard sell for my parents. They understand the cultural impact of newspapers and hard journalism. But, to them, video games are still the kid stuff I played instead of doing my homework. That games can now have a deep, emotional impact on players is still a very alien concept to them. But they’re coming around. My mom watched me play Dragon Age before I got the job here and was amazed when I said you could bed some of the characters. I like to think if she did play, she’d be a lot like Reg’s mom on

(Suzanne: As a side note – put aside a few hours for the above link. It’s giddy mortifying gold)

Fan fiction. Hilarious or terrifying?

Hilariously terrifying? Kidding. I've read my fair share of Dragon Age fan fiction. I've also waded through way too much fan art. Some of it is great. Some of it… um… well, I guess those two characters COULD have sex. The thing I most love about fan fiction, and fan art, is the infinite potential and creative passion behind the pastime. Fans can do anything, and the result is, at times, sublime. A personal favorite is a piece of fan art posted last year that reimagined the Mass Effect cast in the Dragon Age setting.

(Suzanne: That'll be Andrew Ryan and they are really worth looking at)

I’m sure it’s been asked before, but I’m selfish. Is there a particular DA character whose story you’re particularly invested in? Why them?

I hate to play favorites with our characters. It’s like telling your friends that you like one of their kids more than the others. But Merrill really came alive for me in Dragon Age II. I loved her awkward banter more than anything, in part because I’d never seen a character quite like her in a video game. I think you could say the same thing about a lot of our characters, though.

Can I ask about your history as a gamer before BioWare came into the picture? I’m very impressed by the Super Nintendo list.

Yeah. That list is a little outdated now. I've recently picked up a few more games, notably Lufia II. In all there are sixteen consoles in my collection. But the SNES will always be my favorite. Chrono Trigger and Yoshi’s Island represent the pinnacle of the 16-bit era, the best 2D could get before 3D took over. The games are timeless. My history as a gamer goes all the way back to the Atari my dad set up in our garage and the first game I ever loved: Crystal Castles. I've been playing games of all kinds ever since.

Beyond BioWare, are there any franchises that jump out at you as being really exceptional?

Now that I think about it, my all-time top five games, excluding BioWare titles, are all installments in franchises: Civilization, Ocarina of Time, Fallout 3, Portal, and Mega Man 3. Nowadays I play too much X-COM: Enemy Unknown, Dark Souls, Persona 3, and FTL. That last one’s not a franchise. But they’d better make another one or I’ll cry. I’m also a bit of a Bioshock fanboy. Infinite was stellar.

Let’s close with a facetious question. If I tattoo a giant Kirkwall dragon on my back, will you endorse this choice to my mother?

Please define “giant.” Like the Twins of Kirkwall giant? Because that sounds painful. What about a nice, discreet nug? 

You can follow Ben at @bengelinas or check out his site at . He's pretty awesome. 

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