The Interesting Case of Dragon Age: Origins, or Multisensory Experiences and Memory

Longtime readers of AmbiGaming Corner know that I love the Dragon Age series. Some of you might wonder why it’s taken me this long to have an entire month dedicated to it, the same way I had a month dedicated to the Mass Effect trilogy. Others might wonder why, despite having a very helpful walkthrough, I’ve never really specifically dedicated an entire post to Dragon Age: Origins, other than in passing while talking about Dragon Age: Inquisition.

To be honest, I never really knew how to approach writing about Origins without sounding like a gushing fangirl, or without trying to not sound like a gushing fangirl and instead sounding cynical and overly harsh. But then something interesting happened a few weeks ago: I booted up Dragon Age: Origins for the first time in a very long time, and the title screen popped up.

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The strange thing was that as soon as the music began to play, I could smell the apartment that I lived in when I first played it, an apartment that I haven’t lived in for four years.

And then it struck me just how multisensory our experiences of games are, and how profoundly that can impact our interaction with – and memories of – them.

How to Walk Down Memory Lane

We don’t often talk about memories here, other than when memories relate to nostalgia, but for the purposes of this article, a basic understanding of how we make and experience memories is needed.

There are three main components of memory: encoding, storage, and retrieval.

Encoding, as the word implies, is the process of taking in information and getting it ready to be stored in the brain, either in short- or long-term memory. How information is encoded relates to the type of information it is, or how the body experiences the information (e.g., visually, aurally, tactile, emotionally, etc.). How it’s encoded influences how the information will be remembered later.

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Storage is the “where,” “how,” and “how long,” and “how much” parts of the memory process. For instance, information stored in short-term memory is different than information that is stored in long-term memory. Short-term memories last between 15-30 seconds, and short-term memory can generally hold an average of seven pieces of information at a time. It’s noticed, stored for a short period of time, and then discarded. Information tends to be remembered by the order in which it’s received (think of repeating a list of five words to yourself in the order that you heard them, and not deviating from the order).

Long-term memory, on the other hand, has infinite storage, and this is where we keep all of the things that we can remember for more than, well, 15-30 seconds, from your best friend’s name to your telephone number to what happened to you twenty years ago. Usually these memories are accessed by association, which we’ll talk about in a few moments.

The third component of memory is recall. If someone is going to complain about their memory, this is what they are complaining about. While people can have difficulty encoding information in some cases, when people “forget” things, it’s rarely that the information is legitimately erased from the person’s brain, but rather an issue of whether they can access it.

At these points, we try to access the  information through association (“jog our memories”), either by going back to what we had been doing before trying to access the information, or using similes or descriptions for a forgotten word, or any variety of actions that will trigger the desired memory/information via something associated with it.

The most powerful association, though, is emotion.

Memory, Emotions, and Music

We remember things that are important to us.

Thank you, Athena, I hear you say. Your profundity is indeed astounding.

I do try. Here comes another one.

Emotions are important to us.

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Emotions and feelings occur during events that are important to us: we get frightened of things that could potentially harm us, we feel love toward things that are kind toward us, and we run the gamut of emotions for everything in between. Think of your most powerful memories: I would wager that they have emotions attached to them, don’t they? Our strongest memories are the ones with emotions associated with them.

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When we experience something highly emotional, our brain flags that memory as “highly important” and makes it very easy to access/recall, which means that things associated with that memory can easily trigger the recall. For those of your familiar with what the term “triggering” actually means in psychology, that’s the explanation for it: something associated with an incredibly emotionally-charged memory causes the memory to slam to the front of the person’s mind.

But Athena, I hear you say in despair, waiting eagerly for Dragon Age content. You said we were going to talk about music, too.

Yes! Remember I talked about the opening music to Dragon Age: Origins?

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Music can evoke strong emotions, and, separately from that, can enhance the memory process, from encoding to recall. This is especially true for what is called “autobiographical memory,” or, simply put, a system of memories associated with things that happen to us and our knowledge of ourselves.

If, for example, music is present during an important autobiographical moment in our lives, especially if that moment is highly emotional, that piece of music will be strongly associated with that memory, and will evoke a vivid recreation of the memory when heard at a later point.

Think of a song you may have danced to with your high school/college sweetheart. Or at your wedding. Or heard at a dear family/friend’s funeral. Play the song, and then take note of what you remember. How vivid is it? Can you see the scene? Can you smell the room, or the flowers? Do you see the colors vividly?

This can happen for anything, like how I will always associate “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League with my high school graduation, as it was playing on the radio when I pulled up to the school and realized that this was it.

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Or, it could happen when I pull up the title screen of my favorite game, that came into my life when I needed it  most.

Dragon Age: Origins, Memory Edition

So what’s my memory when those first two notes begin to play? I can smell my old apartment, a mixture of the air conditioned air and lingering dishwasher soap. I can see the way the sun hits the beige tile floor at an angle. I’m sitting on a wooden chair, probably too close to the television on the first day of my two week crash/burnout/depression self-care program I made for myself, heart clenching with tenuous hope that the upcoming weeks would bring the refreshing boost I needed.

On the heels of those memories comes a smile, as I remember how happy the game made me feel. How, after so many months of feeling like I was just going through the motions of my day, I actually looked forward to something. How I played through the whole 60-hour game in three days because I didn’t want to put it down, so I didn’t. How the game helped me remember something I hadn’t realized I’d forgotten. How it moved me so much that I wrote a huge fanfiction about it.

It’s an 11 year old game that shows its age, but every time I hear those opening notes of the title screen music, my heart clenches in the best way, and a cacophony of memories surrounding that first playthrough fill my mind.

I think that’s why I’ve never written about this game until now. It feels too personal, like trying to sterilize a diary entry before showing it to the entire world. The parts I feel comfortable sharing don’t capture the profundity of my experience, but the experience is far too private to even dream of including more.

Which brings us to the game itself.

Playing Dragon Age: Origins for the First Time

Released in 2009, Dragon Age: Origins was BioWare’s second original IP, being preceded by Mass Effect. While considered an action RPG, Origins is an example of a game that bridged the gap between the more “traditional” RPG games set deeply in D&D rules (i.e., Baldur’s Gate) and what we would eventually firmly call the action RPG (RPGs that are not turn-based and don’t have any sort of tactical camera mechanic).

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The console version of the game is not as tactical as the PC version, due to the limitations of the console, but it holds its own, utilizing radial menus to try and capture the expansive activated and sustained abilities the characters can accrue through the course of the story. As Origins was my first real foray into RPGs, computer or otherwise, I experienced a bit of a learning curve, but even to a beginning I never found the mechanics to be too overwhelming. There was a lot that could be leaned and mastered, but also enough automated if a player wasn’t sure what they were supposed to be doing.

Graphically, the game shows its age, but as fans of Dragon Age know, Dragon Age games aren’t exactly known for looking pretty. The story and the characters more than make up for it, and the immense amount of flexibility afforded to building the main character is one that I have not experienced in another game, including in other Dragon Age games. While dual- or cross-class isn’t really advertised, there is nothing in the game stopping the player from mixing and matching abilities and stats to fit their particular style, or to just mess around and see what they can do. If you “mess up,” there is a consumable item available for sale to reset your character so you can try again.

Beyond all this, though, are the characters and the lore. More than anything else, these are what kept me coming back to Dragon Age: Origins when I first played it. While the relationship system isn’t perfect, the characters were complex enough to be satisfying and to evoke actual feelings about them, and the story can be interpreted from a variety of depths, from very surface-level to overthinking each minor plot point. Reading the codices alone could keep a player busy for hours, not to mention the approximate 60-70 hours the main game takes to complete.

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While I realize I am hardly impartial, Dragon Age: Origins is a solid game with a lot to offer a new player (and a returning fan). From the flexibility of character builds, to the multiple dialogue options that subtly impact how characters interact with you, to the many ways you can influence the events of the story, Dragon Age: Origins packs a lot in its punch.

Just play it.

Seriously.

Have you played Dragon Age: Origins? What did you think of it? Do you have a game that elicits strong memories? What’s a piece of music that pulls up a good memory for you? Let’s chat in the comments!

For more on music and memory: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2776393/

For some accessible reading on memory:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-our-brains-make-memories-14466850/

https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/how-memory-works#:~:text=There%20are%20three%20main%20processes,through%20which%20information%20is%20learned.

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
~Athena

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8 comments

  1. I played DA: Origins a fair few years ago and really enjoyed it. The characters are interesting, there’s a lot of well-written and hilarious conflict between them (the banter is rich especially!) and I loved the atmosphere of the locales your party would visit. Unfortunately I ended up getting totally stuck on one battle in the Mage’s tower and I stopped playing, though I am aiming to get back on the horse soon, influenced by your posts actually!

    In terms of music and memories, a chunk of my childhood memories are tied up in the cadre of PS1 titles I had, so anything from the MGS1 main theme to the save room theme from Resident Evil 2 brings back memories of sitting in the corner of my parents’ room, using their TV to play the console. Interrupted by Fireworks was one of my favourite pieces from Final Fantasy VII back then and always takes me back to those times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It definitely has a lot to offer! There were some unexpected difficulty spikes, for sure, and the whole Fade sequence in the tower, but I’m so glad you’re ready to jump back into the saddle again!!

      That’s so awesome that you have so many good and vivid music memories 🙂 Thank you for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I played first played Dragon Age: Origins many years ago and to this day, is still one of my favourite RPGs. If a game has a good story, lore and characters, then I can look past things like not so pretty graphics. DA:O was one of those RPGs that made you feel like you were in an epic fantasy and made you feel like the story and journey you were experiencing were your very own.
    I have quite a few pieces of music that pull up good memories for me. It sounds a little silly, but the Sega intro on the Sega Megadrive games, always takes me back to the first time I ever played a video game. The song, Zanarkand, from Final Fantasy X and the opening songs for Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Reign of the Septims) and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Dragonborn), I also associtae with good memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so good! haha You hit on one of the things I loved so much about it: the feeling of playing through a personal fantasy journey, or personalized fantasy novel.

      The Sega intro isn’t a silly choice at all! The smallest tunes can pull up the most powerful memories. It’s so nice to hear that you have so many good memories that those songs can pull up 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Awesome article 🙂 Indeed, in my opinion it is important to realise that people connect to games in very personal ways and that really personalises how we consider them. A game that helps someone through a tough part of their life can have different meaning to them than another.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yes, media is so important to us and it really is such a gift when we find one that resonates so strongly or helps us with something. If a piece of media makes you think something in a way you haven’t done before, or feel something profound, it’s a good piece of art/media in my book!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting read as always about the fab Dragon Age series. The title music, ahh, yeah a great nostalgic hit to the feels. Despite it becoming more nuanced and in my opinion, ‘better’ as the series progressed and the quality improved, there was something guttural and stirring about that opening menu theme. The game itself, my main issue was always pacing and length, it felt a hang over from the Baldur’s Gate days by the studio to create these HUGE games. Admittedly 2 was almost a reaction to this and ‘felt’ to short but by inquisition had figured out pacing issues along side the Mass Effect series.

    Length aside, still a solid and enjoyable game, the opening missions having 6 paths felt like such a gamble it still reminds me of sitting there for two long when I lived with my parents wondering which protagonist to take and whether it would hugely impact the main narrative. In short, no, not really but it was such a big choice to make!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yeah, there is something about the opening theme, for sure. The instrumentation and the way it builds signals right from the start how “epic” the game was going to be. I’ve heard comments about the pacing and length before; I never felt that, but I can understand how a person might, for sure. DA2 seemed to be a massive response to that, like you said.

      I know what you mean about the choice! It was nothing like I was expecting, and I thought it was so cool to go back and see the beginning from all the different perspectives, especially since each area plays a large role in the overall story!

      Like

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