Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Dragon Effect [Guest Blogger Alert]

I like Dragon Age Origins. A lot. So does @Delicfcd of @PopCultRef. So when news dropped of the much awaited sequel, Dragon Age 2, with a release date and some tantalizing plot tidbits, we were thrilled. Until we read them. We promptly had to have a sit down and suss out our feelings, and because it's the internet, we're not going to share those feelings with you.

EC: It was announced today that Dragon Age 2 will be released [whenever], that the adventure will take place in the Free Marches, and that the hero you spent anywhere from 45 to 80 hours crafting, knowing that character would carry over into subsequent games, is now obsolete as hell because they’ve thrown the Dragon Age method of experience out the window and have replaced it with Mass Effect’s.

D: Now, it may be that the decisions your character will make do carry over, and I personally didn’t expect DA2 to feature the same character as the first game. That’s because I assumed Bioware would want to craft a new set of origin stories to choose from for the new game. Instead, they’ve decided to make... one. You’re some guy (or gal) named Hawke, now. If you think Hawke is a dumb name or wanted to be an elf or a dwarf, well, tough bikkies.

EC: I don’t know what the hell a bikky is, but yeah. Now, personally, because I’m nostalgia and continuity obsessed, I fully expected to be able to play my level 25 human noble who, by the way, IS THE QUEEN OF FUCKING FERELDEN, ALL HAIL. I wanted a continuation of the storyline, and was lead to believe it would be, because there was a numeral in the title. Not a colon and a subtitle, but a numeral. No dice. We’re reassured that the ability to customize your character will still be extensive. For example, the gender. ...So that’s about it, but, hey, at least there’s one option. We’re also guaranteed they’ve made huge steps in gameplay, most notably in the combat system. Well, I played that game on easy so I could skip the combat and get to the talkin’ and Agonizing, which is the one achievement so far missing from the DA games. Scott, please elaborate for the folks at home.

D: ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: AGONIZER. Spent ten or more minutes staring at a set of dialogue choices thinking ‘oh, god, oh god, what do I choose.’ Every one of Bioware’s recent games has had at least one of these moments, and usually more. DA:O has the record, because it’s the most adaptable to player choice. Every major quest has a big decision in it, because that’s the kind of game DA is. The comparison I use a lot is that Dragon Age can b thought of as being modelled after a epic fantasy novel, whereas the Mass Effects are cinematic SF adventures.

Which brings us back to DA2, and our concerns thereof: they seem to want to make Dragon Effect, instead of Dragon Age 2. One character, fully voiced (which is nice, admittedly, but is it impossible to do with more character background options) with a backstory you didn’t play out, this Champion of Somewhere-or-other business. Which I think will foster a lesser degree of connection with one’s character, since you didn’t have that involvement in their origin.

Oh, and they’re going to be the most important person in the world, according to the press materials. Even if you became the QUEEN OF FUCKING FERELDAN, ALL HAIL and saved it from the blight and all that. Nice job minimizing everyone’s accomplishments in the first game to make this Hawkingbirde person look awesome, guys.

EC: Which ultimately is what I don’t appreciate about this shift in story telling and gameplay. It devalues the choices you made in the first game, because they were made with an eye to the future. It lessens the depth of the world- in Origins, a character who was nothing more than a merchant to your Dalish Elf turned out to be the exiled bodyguard of the heir apparent to the Dwarven throne. You would never know this if you’d played through only once or twice. You had to play through as a dwarf noble, or else an entire performance from Steve Blum, a whole character arc, and some very well written intrigue and betrayal (and romance, if your noble dwarf was female) was lost! Most of the characters you encounter in Origins may be nothing but a passerbye on the road to one hero, but in fact are real characters with wonderful stories you can only learn by playing through from a different perspective. The world, in this way, is extremely rich. Origins had not just one truly well made game in it, but dozens. At most under the Mass Effect model, DA2 will have four. Bad person making a good choice in the end or vice versa, or bad person making a bad choice in the end or vice versa, for a certain quality of ‘bad’ and ‘good’. At the end of Dragon Age Origins, your character could be the ruler of Ferelden, a wandering assassin, a tribal elder, a slew of things! No origin was limited to one or two outcomes, and there were significantly more than one origin. If you want to streamline your game so it can be novelized or turned into a hollywood picture more easily, go ahead and Mass Effect it. But Dragon Age was an intensely personal experience, every time you played through it, and I really believe that’s going to be lost in this sequel.

D: Whoa, I haven’t actually played through as a dwarf yet, and I had no idea about that. That’s AWESOME. And an excellent example. Ultimately, it seems like they’re sacrificing player control of the story for a more developer-driven, linear game. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but it’s not what made Origins so utterly engaging and replayable; Mass Effect is a game you only replay once or twice, whereas Origins lends itself to replays that can number in the double digits, each one with new and fresh things to offer or discover. I’d gladly sacrifice being able to hit the right trigger to kick someone off a roof for that. In fact, the possibility of their adding a paragon/renegade system fills me with fear; the wonder of DA is that you could be downright evil and it still made sense for you to follow the plot through, since taking down the archdemon was absolutely in your best interest. There’s no arbitrary morality in Origins, only the combined weight of your own choices adding up. Decisions have weight because they have consequences, not because they earn you some points. Will there be the same degree of choice in DA2? Maybe. The ten years passing over the course of the game opens up an interesting avenue to witness the outcome of your decisions, so that’s a bright spot of hope.

But you can’t choose who to be, any more. As Eruditechick says, that makes it an intensely personal experience, more than simply choosing what some fellow named Hawke says. It might be your Hawke, the way people talk about ‘my Shepard,’ but that’s not the same thing as it being your character. Hawke, as with Shepard, will always belong more to the developers. Dragon Age and Mass Effect have different but equally valid approaches; I wish it didn’t seem like they were trying to make them into the same thing, give or take dragons and spaceships.

EC: Unless they’re going to put out some sort of ridiculously epic crossover game using the relays and the deep roads, and like Darkspawn-Reaper hybrids.

D: The Old Gods are Reapers! IT ALL MAKES SENSE NOW. At the end of DA2, it will auto-detect your Shepard and s/he’ll fly in, shooting the shit out of the horrific dragon you’re fighting, and then s/he and Hawke will brofist.

EC: Another thing, with the voicing. Okay. In Fable III, your character will be fully voiced. This makes sense to me, because ultimately, you’re playing an archetype. You have choices to make, and the Lionhead team has worked on making the experience less insular, but it’s not the same level of moral and ethical customization, so to speak, as exists in DAO. In Dragon Age Origins, I didn’t really care that my hero didn’t have an audible voice. It wasn’t something I needed when all the other vocal performances in the game were so brilliant. Listening to Alistair and Oghren snipe at each other, and Zevran hit on everybody, and Shale making passive-agressively homicidal comments in the background, I felt like I had a real team. The companions in Origins are so fleshed out that, love them or hate them, you’re invested in them. I felt much closer to my team in Origins than I did in ME. There were enough varied options in every conversation that I felt my opinion or reaction, or the one appropriate to my character, were covered. It’s not just ‘nice’, ‘straightforward’, ‘mean’, it’s ‘affectionate’, ‘incredulous’, ‘amused’, ‘mean’, ‘neutral’, ‘jocular’. You’re crafting your own experience of the world and the characters in it as you go along, and the fact that Bioware has begun to remove your hero’s ability to have personal conversations with companions when you want seems to me to accomplish nothing so much as curtailing the potential experiences you could have. It’s certainly made me care less, and the game isn’t even out yet.

D: There’s more depth to your companions in ME2, but there’s still a lot less dialogue options; you can have basically the same series of conversations, with differences. There’s no option to piss off Wynne by saying “GRIFFONS?!” over and over again, and you can’t joke with Alistair about how he was raised by hounds. Because even without hearing your character voice the options, they were all written well enough and, critically, responded to well enough that it still felt like a conversation. It even recognized when you were kidding around with someone. I loved talking to my companions in camp, and felt the Awakening system of only getting to do this on infrequent occasions was a step down, turning getting to know your companions into almost more of a fetch quest than anything. Of course, we don’t know if there’ll be a dialogue wheel in the style of ME yet, or whether the list of responses will be back, just voiced, so I suppose we can hold out some hope, there. Maybe the stacks of voice-actors they have hanging around for Star Wars: The Old Republic means they’ll be able to get great stacks of alternative dialogue for... Hawke.

Maybe I’m just grasping for things, since nothing in the announcement bears any resemblance to anything I was looking for out of this sequel. What does ‘fight like a Spartan’ even mean? Kicking people into bottomless pits the whole game?


EC: Awoo.

Seriously, that’s probably why this feels like such a shot to the solar plexus. The announcement is for a game I would be happy to play under a different title, a game that I’m sure is quite good- but it isn’t Dragon Age. This predictable, familiar skeleton of a game we’re being presented with cannot possibly bear the weight of the expectations its predecessor bred in its fans. If it were Dragon Age: Blight of the Free Marches or something as demonstrably removed from the extant storyline, I’d be happy as a clam to have more canon and a new gameplay experience from a developer I like. Instead, one of the games I was looking forward to most, probably second only to Portal 2, now looms like a horde of Darkspawn on the horizon of the landscape of my broken dreams.


D: They have despoiled the Golden City of the original and replaced it with this dark presence that looms above the Fade, stretching tendrils out to possess unwary dreamers.

Portal 2 looks pretty sweet, though.

EC: Well, Portal 2 hasn’t been tainted. If anything, it’s been distilled and then liberally expanded in its pure-awesomest form. Dragon Age now bears the taint, like its once-protagonist, and will WITHER AND DIE.


WHY? Why! Why, God, just tell me wh

D: Did you just go crazy and then fall asleep?

EC: i’m too upset to type

D: Maybe you should go lie down and think about GLaDOS. Or Alistair. Or Alistair and GLaDOS having a nice chat.

EC: :D And now I feel better.


Chantaal said...

I love you guys so much I can't even STAND IT.

Eleni said...

I totally agree with you guys. I loved Mass Effect 2 as much as anyone, but I also loved Dragon Age: Origins and the things that made it different. We're really not getting any choice in the character origins? That was a hugely important part of the first game!

(Yes, and what does that mean "fight like a Spartan"? I want to cast cone of cold and shatter people. Did the Spartans ever fight like that?)

They better pull through and make it awesome. Or I will be very sad.