Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Chart of Bioware Clichés

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 7, 2010

So it’s old. It’s new to me. Neener.

Courtesy of Hellforge (and hat tip to Morinar…)

Click for the large, more readable version of the chart… 🙂

Now, okay. Let’s be honest here.  It wouldn’t be hard to pick any handful of random RPGs (or other genres) and make a similar chart based on common story elements. At some point Scorpia coined the term “Foozle” to describe the ubiquitous evil wizard / demon / sorceress bent on dominating / destroying the world at the end of most 80’s RPGs (and, well, a good chunk of RPGs today, too, so long as we’re being honest…)

The jRPG-style games are even worse.

And frankly, the reason formulas appear at all is because they work. It’s all about the details and execution.

But it’s worth noting, nevertheless. When things become too predictable, they become uninteresting.  RPGs have a wonderful potential to tell some awesome stories, but designers need to take care that they aren’t just telling the same story over and over.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 16 Comments to Read

  • sascha/hdrs said,

    Hehehe, the chart of the big bore! This explains why I feel no ambition to continue playing DA. It also explains why I liked the Dark Brotherhood and Thief Guild quests in Oblivion so much.

  • Viridian said,

    Tropes are tools.

  • Stephen R said,

    Very nice chart. Explains a lot of what I complain about. And maybe nostalgia colors my view of the Baldur’s Gate games, but I still find them very playable.

    But yeah, there is a Bioware formula, not just in the story elements, but in the engine and in many other game elements. And I dunno the name of the designers for all the different games, but I wonder if there is some master game dev documents Bioware has and follows. Something that is always consulted and followed no matter who is in charge of the game.

    And ya, the formula has obviously worked, they sell a lot of games, otherwise they would not continue to follow it so closely. Also makes me wonder about their MMO. It is a new studio/office developing it. With a different type of game, wonder how closely they will follow the Bioware design.

  • Noumenon said,

    That chart is kinda BS, look how they stretch “the attack leaves you alone with two companions, of magical and martial progress” to cover Dragon Age, which gives you three, and KotOR, which gives you Bastila after about six hours of play, after giving you a soldier and a totally non-magical teenage Twi’lek with a pet Wookiee.

  • Robyrt said,

    Much of this is standard Joseph Campbell stuff, but the Rule of Four Major Locales is very interesting because the standard mythical number of tries is 3. Is this number somehow conducive to Bioware’s game development cycle? Or perhaps they’re counting 3 + the end-game zone as 4?

  • Orusaka said,


    Actually, that is far from the only thing that kinda bullshit about it.

    The point you are referring to could more accurately be described as the game leaves you with a balanced starting party. I mean, how dare they!? The starting party should have healing spells only, and be reduced to fighting with tiny, blunt sticks. Hell, yeah! I want an impossible challenge right off the bat, because somehow frustration and fun got mixed up in my head.

    Most of the other points are kinda stupid, too. I mean you either have to begin from nothing, or begin at the top. Either way you have to quickly get to the top, because an RPG where you are not a power, well, that would be like real life; kinda funny, kinda mundane.

    Fair enough, the number of significant locations and plot twists are decent points, but I seriously doubt they’d have much success breaking the stereotypes here either. I mean, people can only communicate through stereotypes and expectations of how certain stories are supposed to play out. Something truly original will fail. I assume so, anyway, I have yet to actually encounter an original story that didn’t follow a predictable pattern.

  • fluffyamoeba said,

    Several of those were factually wrong. Already pointed out were the KotOR companions. But only 2 out of 6 of the Dragon Age starts were humble origins and in Jade Empire you haven’t finished the tutorial when you are told you don’t really have a humble background after all. Also in Jade Empire, everyone in the party is a fighter/mage. In BG1 you get 3 companions not 2. As the actual text says, in DA you have 3 companions not 2, though Bioware’s tendency to forget to put a thief in your starting party might count as a cliche.

    Having said that…the linear opening -> collect the 4 things in any order -> linear ending rule is the one by far I think is responsible for making the recent bioware games feel oddly similar, even though if you look at the stories on paper they shouldn’t be.

    They do intentionally use that rule for every game from NWN onwards.


    They did mostly ignore it for Jade Empire and IMO it had better story pacing as a result.

    I really should do a factually correct version of that picture…

  • Picador said,

    Yeah, I agree that this chart is both over- and under-inclusive of Bioware cliches.

    The biggest omitted cliche — which Shamus Young pointed out in The Escapist a while back — is the eventual range of character types in your party. Bioware pretty much just reskins the same party for each new game: there’s the Honorable Warrior From A Harsh Warlike Alien Culture, the Earnest Sensitive Human Male, the Caustic Intolerant Witch, the Empathic Soft-spoken Female Healer, the Big Hairy Pet, etc. This, and many of the other cliches, goes beyond genre conventions — it’s actually highly specific to Bioware games per se.

    But I agree that some of the other cliches in this chart are a bit of a stretch (or could be reworded to be more accurate).

    Nonetheless, I think it would be easy to write out a list of elements that the Bioware writing team seems to be obsessively hung up on, to the point where they can’t write a story without returning to these same elements. Not that there aren’t plenty of genre writers who are guilty of the same thing, but Bioware might want to think about bringing a little fresh blood into their writing team in the future.

    FWIW, I think that the “hub+four” structure of Bioware games is a pretty good one for non-sandbox games that want to avoid putting the player entirely on rails, but it would improve replayability if there were a little more consequence to playing through the locations in different orders.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Note that the sections that are in yellow (like the aforementioned Dragon Age origins) are noted as only loosely fitting the cliche. I guess they counted Dragon Age because two of the origins fit. Actually DA has the most exceptions of all, so maybe Bioware is trying to break out of the rut a bit (I can’t say, I’m still early in the game…)

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    The four locations thing is what bothers me the most.

    It means that after the tutorial/starting area of a Bioware game you can basically look at the map or story and see every location that you WILL go to ahead of time.

    Also, once you complete one of the four areas, you also know almost exactly how long the game is going to be. You could probably time it down to within an hour or two of the actual game length at that point. You see where all the beats are going to be, when and where on timetable the twists and cliffhangers are going to be, etc.

    Fluffyamoeba mentioned Jade Empire breaking this mold and being better for it, and I agree. You have no idea how long the game is going to be or where it will take you. I’m also partial to the great story set in Chinese mythology (which is a welcome breath of fresh air from European medieval fantasy settings). Besides the amazing twist in KOTOR, Jade Empire has a story twist pop up near the end that redefines the entire game and story prior to it, and is an excellent use of an unreliable narrator in a game combined with a wicked awesome Xanatos Gambit.

    Bioware needs to change things up more and jettison the the 6-Act structure they use in the majority of their games: Act 1: Tutorial/Starting Area, Acts 2-5: Four areas you know about immediately after Act 1, Act 6: Ending Area. It is predictable and enough gamers are getting “Bioware-genre savvy” for it to become boring.

    It is like literally turning a game into a book. When you are reading a book, and you can see you only have 30-40 pages left, you know something big is about to happen. Fine for a book, but tension and surprise are vital I think to maintaining interest in a 30 hour or longer game.

  • fluffyamoeba said,

    Actually, I think KotoR is the only one of the “find the 4 thingys” games where the order mattered even a little bit. Visit Korriban last and it plays quite differently to visiting it earlier on. Kashyyyk has some differences too. The Redciffe section in DA reminds me a bit of Korriban – there’s a lot more to it than on the surface. Well, if you like dialogue anyway.

    From what I remember (from obsessively following the Dragon Age 1 pre-release forum for years), roughly the same writing team worked on the party NPCs for BG2, NWN, KotoR, Dragon Age and another writing team worked on the ones for Jade Empire then Mass Effect.

    The Escapist article is overplaying the similarities in grouping some of the NPCs. However, I do wish they’d stop making the main romance interest for a male PC the same person. Warming up the ice queen was lame once, but its the basis for the Jahiera/Aribeth/Silk Fox/Bastila/Morrigan romances. A relationship consisting of “can we have sex?” “no, i don’t even *like* you” “you meant yes really, I just know it” “actually, now you asked a 57th time, I realise I found you irrisistable from the start” might not quite qualify as offensive, but it’s certainly annoying.

  • Calibrator said,

    I wonder how games – mainstream or not – that follow these stereotypes even more closely would be recepted by the public and the critics.
    Would such a game called “great” (not noticing these elements) and become a success or simply regarded as a “copycat”?

    As for most recent Bioware titles I personally get the feeling that they are made for adolescents, not adults. The biggest issues I have are with the NPCs, similarily to what Picador notes.
    Using excessive blood splatter only emphasizes the point.

  • Picador said,

    “As for most recent Bioware titles I personally get the feeling that they are made for adolescents, not adults.”

    Well, yes… as opposed to what? I can think of two or three games I’ve ever played that seemed aimed at adults. Most games are aimed at the “B00bz and Pwnage” demographic, and even the most well-written, mature games are pretty much universally in the “young adult fiction” category: lots of angst and bombast, but not a lot of insight into the human condition. Even indie darlings like “Braid” fit this bill. Is there a treasure trove of games written for adults out there that I’ve somehow overlooked?

    I quite liked the writing in both Dragon Age and Mass Effect. Dragon Age, in particular, was the only game I’ve ever played that managed to get the “moral ambiguity” thing right (honorable mention to “The Witcher” for coming close, but it loses the prize because your choices don’t actually affect the game).

  • madao said,

    Oh, your choices do affect the game in The Witcher. But to notice it you have to play at least 2 times. SPOILER
    The way the kid Alvin acts in the last chapter can be really (I mean REALLY) different. And it’s not caused by simple badass-/saint- like choices you do but some really small details, especially decisions made during conversations, not the usual “who-you-kill” factor.

  • Kocsolas said,

    i only played mass effect and the kotor but that was a long time ago. so it’s not predictable for me:D

  • Weegee said,

    Actually, the underdark is where the drow live. The ruins in Baldur’s gate were called the undercity.