Inquisition Offers an Evolution of the “Difficult Choice”

A screenshot of Warden Alistair in the Fade in DAI.

Warden Alistair in DAI via dragonagefluff.tumblr.com

There’s been a nice discussion on game crit Twitter this week about that perennial topic, choices and consequences in Dragon Age, spurred on by two great articles: one by Rowan Kaiser at Unwinnable, and the second by Austin Walker at Paste Games. Rowan’s piece is about how most players won’t see Dragon Age Inquisition‘s toughest choice, and that the game overall pulls its punches when forcing the player to make difficult, emotional choices.

The choice Rowan is referring to is during the “Here Lies the Abyss” mission, where depending on the player’s world state, the player may have to choose between sacrificing Hawke or Alistair. His argument is that DAI should have had more choices like this, but where all the players experienced the same emotional investment. I agree with Rowan that the situation is bullshit, but I completely disagree with why.

It is indeed unfair that the choice is only difficult for a certain minority of players. It happened in my first playthrough of the game, and it made me very angry. Bioware has stated in the past that most players make Alistair king; in fact, the most likely reason for Alistair to remain a Warden is if a female PC romanced him in Origins. Basically, this story step disproportionately affects female fans, targeting us for emotional turmoil in a way that most other players would not experience (it’s particularly bad if your Warden is still alive and looking for a cure for the taint).

But the solution isn’t to make the choice equally wrenching for all players: the solution is to do away with these sorts of “Choose who lives and who dies” situations completely. That narrative design was groundbreaking in 2007, when the first Mass Effect came out, and players were forced to choose between saving Ashley or Kaiden. That kind of decision had not happened in AAA prior to then. But in 2014, players are swimming in games with “gotcha” choices, choices purposely designed to cause the gnashing of teeth, some better-executed than others (all of which can be found in Telltale’s recent games, for example, particularly The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us).

Austin’s column breaks down what people mean when they talk about “meaningful” choices in games. It’s a great piece that tackles a long-running peeve of mine when the topic comes up, and talks about issues larger than just DAI. But the part that struck me was the ending: “The point is to answer the question. What do you value?” This gets to the heart of what makes choices in games meaningful. It’s another reason the Hawke/Whoever choice at the end of “Here Lies the Abyss” is crap: to the Inquisitor, both characters are two people she has just met no matter who they are. The choice doesn’t give the player the opportunity to express something about their character’s values or what kind of leader she is; it’s only about being mean to the player.

The question “What do you value?” also sums up why the choices in DAI are so interesting and often difficult to me in a way I had not been able to pin down. DAI is largely about leadership and faith. It lets the player make choices about what kind of leader your character is and what she believes and express those values; those moments are the most difficult, interesting, and meaningful choices in the game, whether they result in world state changes or not, and many of them are found in the companion quests.

In the Iron Bull’s companion quest, a situation arises where the Inquisitor has to choose between sacrificing Bull’s team, the Chargers, or sacrificing an entire dreadnaught of Qunari troops. What makes the situation complicated is that saving the dreadnaught means securing a powerful alliance with the Qunari for the Inquisition (for the purpose of saving the world from Corypheus); saving the Chargers destroys any chance of an alliance with the Qunari and would make Bull Tal-Vashoth–basically, an outcast from the Qun (a concept Bull has a lot of complicated feelings about). Is the Inquisitor willing to sacrifice a few people for the greater good? What kind of leader is she? What does she value?

Cole’s big companion quest involves dealing with his past trauma and his essential nature. The Inquisitor can push him either to become more like a spirit or more like a human. Solas and Varric argue for each choice, respectively. It raises a lot of questions to the player. What are spirits, really, and is being a human inherently better than being a spirit? Would making Cole more of a spirit make him less of a person? Is it only humans who have humanity? What does the Inquisitor value?

One of the most difficult choices in the game, for me, happened in the Solas romance storyline, which is only available to female elf Inquisitors and therefore a minority of players. Near the end, Solas reveals the true meaning behind the Dalish elf’s face tattoos: they were originally slave markings, from when elves enslaved other elves. The Inquisitor can let Solas remove hers, or she can keep them. Does the knowledge of their origin taint them? Or are they a part of her and important to her, no matter what their original meaning? What does she believe?

Those are just a few examples. The player gets many chances to express disbelief, indifference, or buy into the Maker and the story of being Andraste’s Herald. And there are also the dozen-or-so judgments, where the Inquisitor is put in charge of sentencing prisoners who have committed wrongs of varying degrees. What’s a just punishment for a man who tortured and destroyed people for Corypheus: execution, imprisonment, exile, Tranquility? How about a woman who did monstrous things because she thought she was saving the world? Or the man throwing goats at the castle walls? What do these decisions say about the Inquisitor as a leader and the Inquisition as an institution?

Complicating all of this are the beliefs and values of the companions, who can approve or disapprove of any actions that you take. As relationships form between the player/Inquisitor and the companions, she begins to take into account their points of view. What will Cassandra think of me if I choose to disband the templars? Am I giving enough consideration to the regular people, as Sera constantly reminds me?

The best part is, some of these decisions aren’t actually going to be difficult for some players. Some players will feel so strongly one way or the other that it doesn’t seem like a real choice. I have read posts from players saying they would never, ever sacrifice the Chargers, or make Cole become a spirit. That doesn’t diminish what makes these choices meaningful, either for those particular players or for the game as a piece of art–it shows that the game is truly engaging with players’ beliefs and values, or at least those that they bestow upon their Inquisitors.

The Bioware writers pit has earned the nickname “emotional hooligans,” and they are known for messing with players’ emotions and throwing gut-punches. It’s true that DAI had fewer of those than past Dragon Age games (I jokingly reviewed the game on twitter as, “Not completely emotionally destroyed, 8/10, try harder next time”), but the solution isn’t to add cheap shots at the player like choosing which character to sacrifice. Overall, DAI moved choices in games forward by taking a less manipulative and more interesting approach, and I’m interested to see where the team goes from here.

Guild Wars 2‘s Living Story So Far

A screenshot from Guild Wars 2 showing Braham, a male Norn, on the left, and Rox, a female charr, on the right in the foreground.

The first major arc of Guild Wars 2’s Living Story just completed and transitioned into the next segment, so I thought I would take a look at what’s worked so far.

If you don’t play GW2, the concept of the Living Story is that, rather than end the story of the world with instanced personal story missions, more storylines are added to the persistent game world–sort of like the holiday events, but not holiday-themed and having a lasting effect on the world. The idea is for it to be “sort of like your favorite TV show,” that players want to check in on regularly to catch up with characters and the development of the world.

I am completely in favor of video games taking cues from the TV format. Like TV, games allow us to spend dozens of hours with a cast of characters and the world they live in, allowing for deep characterization, extensive world building, and lengthy character arcs. Kirk Hamilton wrote about how the TV-like format Mass Effect 2 really worked, and I’m really interested to see what other aspects of TV big games can borrow.

The storyline itself is interesting so far, introducing new characters like Eir’s son, Braham, and an awesome (but weirdly cartoon-eyed) female Charr named Rox. And even though the next chapter of the story has moved from the snowy mountains into a tropical paradise, it is continuing the story of the refugees displaced by the events of Flame and Frost.

So far, the living story has definitely kept me coming back to Guild Wars 2. After playing through beta weekends and launch, I took a long break from the game late last year, and came back during the tail end of the Wintersday event. With new things to discover every few weeks, playing never started to feel boring or repetitive.

More importantly, the living story events make GW2 feel like GW2 at launch, when everyone was low level and taking their first steps into the world. Leveling a character now or just doing map completion, you’ll notice that most of the maps are rather empty. I don’t usually mind the solitude–it’s peaceful, and trying to take down that veteran or complete that group event on your own is a fun challenge–but it does make completing certain events unnecessarily difficult and fighting bosses downright impossible. But both the living story and the area-specific daily achievements funnel players into certain areas, making the game feel like its old self again. The current living story content is located in the Southsun Cove map, and playing there after the update on Tuesday was a revelation. There were tons of other players, and events happening everywhere. If I get into a jam, there’s always someone around to help out. It’s easy to get a group to take on a Champion enemy. I love doing dungeon and fractal runs with my guild, and hopping into WvW, but it’s great to once again play the persistent world PvE as it’s meant to be played.

FFXI DATs

A long long time ago, I was a DAT modder for FFXI. At one point I was actually spending more time making DAT mods than playing the game. And I know there was a brief time where I had unsubscribed from the game but kept making mods. It was a lot of fun and quite rewarding, is what I’m saying.

If you don’t know, all the resources for FFXI were stored in .dat files. Someone had created a program that let you take those files and extract the textures, alpha maps, and meshes from them, edit those files, and put everything back together. Replacing one DAT file with another allowed you to change what that model looked like in-game. Being a huge fan of playing dress-up in games, I was totally charmed by being able to make armor sets that looked cool to me without having a level restriction. These mods were technically against the TOS, but since they were just armor swaps they didn’t actually let you cheat or anything.

I originally uploaded my DATs to some kind of file sharing site, from which they have since been removed, and submitted them to FFXIDATs.com, a site that sadly no longer exists. But I had such a great time and I loved the community there. I learned a lot about 3D modeling and game assets. I recently found an old USB stick on which I had backed up all my DAT mods, so I thought it would be fun to share them with the world.

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HAX Hint System

I made a hint system in Twine for my game HAX. I know I made a couple of the puzzles a little bit too obscure, and some of the comments on the Free Indie Games post about it mentioned the two in particular that I was concerned about. So here is a handy hint system that covers every puzzle in the game, as well as the secret room, and a simple HTML table map. Each puzzle has two or three hints before giving you the full solution. The links are orange because it reminded me of those hint books for old games where you used a highlighter to reveal the answer.

I tested it, but if there are any problems with links or if I missed something, please let me know. I hope this helps!

HAX Hint System

Style Savvy’s Fashion Limitations

A screenshot from Style Savvy Trendsetters. It shows a woman with long black hair and a thoughtful expression in a shop. The text box reads, Maybe what I need is... something... with an edgy kind of feel to it.

I’ve borrowed a 3DS and have been playing Style Savvy: Trendsetters, the sequel to the 2009 DS game Style Savvy. They are both fashion games that are part business sim: players take on the role of a manager of a fashion boutique and are tasked with picking out items for customers according to their taste and keeping the store stocked. With these two elements, the game combines strategy with creativity in a fresh way. A customer will come in and ask for, say, a bold shirt, and if the player picks a shirt of that taste, the customer will buy it, adding funds to the shop, which the player then use to buy more stock. Customers will often ask for entire outfits in a certain style, or if the player puts together a good outfit on her window mannequin, someone will buy the entire thing. That’s the creative part. The strategy part comes in when the player heads to the buyer’s center to stock up on items. There are a number of brands in different styles, and the player needs to decide which items will best meet her customers’ needs. Trendsetters is different from the original in that it adds men’s fashion, a slightly creepier art style as far as faces are concerned, and 3D.

I enjoy both games a lot, and yet there’s also something deeply limiting about them. Items in the game have a number of different attributes, but the most important are brand and taste, which are related. There’s an edgy brand, a gothic lolita brand, a pop brand, a preppy brand, an athletic brand. So when someone comes in asking for a pop t-shirt, the player just looks for the Mint Sprinkles brand and the customer will be all over it. In the original game, the player had to memorize which brand was which (most were obvious, but some were less so), but Trendsetters adds the ability to search the shop inventory based on any number of factors, including brand and taste, which are separate. In the sequel, if someone asks for bold pants, but the shop doesn’t have anything from the bold brand, AZ USA, something from the edgy brand Stage Dive may do.

So there’s a little more freedom this time around, but it still doesn’t quite capture what’s fun about fashion, which is putting together an outfit with unexpected combinations that somehow totally work, or combining styles that balance each other out. In the world of Style Savvy, only the expected is allowed. Successful outfits generally mean dressing head-to-toe in a specific brand. My favorite kind of outfit is to mix girly dresses with tough boots, jackets, and accessories, but in the game, that would be fashion blasphemy. You can’t mix Stage Dive and Cantata Modo! That’s just ridiculous!

But in the real world of fashion, rules are made to be broken. Traditional rules like “don’t pair brown and black” just don’t hold any more. But I’m a programmer, I know how computers work, and computers need hard and fast rules. A computer can’t judge something as subjective as style (not yet, anyway). So unless a game is purely creative, there are going to be these limitations. I don’t fault Style Savvy for having those limitations; after all, it does quite a good job of making the player feel like a boutique manager within them. But I can’t help wishing that the game gave the player a bit more freedom to mix things up, to create something unexpected.