Go on alone because I won't follow

So I (finally) played the last Dragon Age: Origins DLC, Witch Hunt. There were two things that stuck out to me about it. (Spoilers to follow, obviously.) The first was that BioWare jammed quite a bit of characterization for the two companion characters–Dalish warrior Ariane and Circle mage Finn–into a mere two hours of content. The DLC revisits locations from Origins and Awakening, but there are many more conversation trigger points. The characters seemed to strike up a conversation every minute or so. But the more interesting thing was how there’s additional characterization to be found by looking at the original equipment for each character. Each item description is filled with great little details, like Ariane’s Gauntlets of the True Path:

Ariane once defended her keeper, Solan, from a belligerent templar. She says she spared the man his life, and only took his gauntlets. However, its hard to tell if she’s telling the truth.

Or her Band of Gold, the description of which simply reads, “There is an engraving on this ring. Ariane refuses to let you see it.” (Also, her sword is named Girl’s Best Friend, which is awesome.) Meanwhile, Finn has his Immaculately Clean Robe:

Finn’s robe is perfectly spotless. It also appears to have been recently starched and ironed. Finn proudly states that he’s enchanted it to always remain wrinkle-free.

Just reading the item descriptions of Ariane’s and Finn’s equipment fills in a lot of characterization details that wouldn’t fit in the dialogue, especially since most of the dialogue is infodumping about Eluvians and how to find Morrigan. In Origins, it was rare that a companion had more than one equipment item specific to them, and all the other items were interchangeable. But by using the item descriptions in addition to the usual methods of conversation and party banter, the developers were able to communicate quite a bit about two new characters within the constraints of a 2-hour DLC pack.

The second thing about Witch Hunt is that this is the most blatant time I have felt like I was playing a character that was outside the canon. This happened occasionally in Origins, but usually in minor ways (for example, the bug near the end of the game where Alistair refers to himself being king even if he isn’t); Witch Hunt actually feels like it was made with a certain segment of players in mind, perhaps even assuming anyone else wouldn’t be interested. The “canon” seems to be that of a male Warden who helps his best bro Alistair become king while teaching the Witch of the Wilds how to love–and Witch Hunt definitely makes sense if that’s your story. But my Warden was just friends–close friends, but still friends–with Morrigan and wanted to know what she was up to. Most of the dialogue choices during the final confrontation were far too intense–either in the direction of wanting to know about the demon baby or feeling betrayed by Morrigan–for my character. It seemed as if it were supposed to be this highly charged meeting when I was mostly confused and just wanted to know what was going on.

Because of this, I ended up enjoying the hunt itself more than the final confrontation, even though speaking with Morrigan again was the entire point of the DLC. There’s also the references to Anders, Cullen (“Do you think he still carries a torch for her?” a mage says about him and my Warden, which made me laugh so much), and Kirkwall, which amused me since I played this after playing Dragon Age 2. Overall, I enjoyed it, but I’m looking forward to revisiting it with a character who romances Morrigan.


Forget all that you know

The change party screen in DA2: Hawke and his seven companions stand on a black background.

The change party screen in DA2: Hawke and his seven companions stand on a black background.

Of all the changes to the Dragon Age series implemented in the recently-released sequel, the improvements to the conversation system and the companions’ relationships are the most interesting. They take a bit of getting used to at first, especially if you’ve played other BioWare games–between the Mass Effect games and Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare has trained us for dozens of hours about how dialogue wheels and relationship meters work, but in Dragon Age 2 they’ve changed things up–and it’s fantastic.

First, the dialogue wheel. DA2’s wheel looks the same as Mass Effect‘s and is organized similarly, with questions on the left and options to move the conversation forward on the right, but that’s where the similarities end. ME’s is split between the Paragon response to any given situation on the top, the Renegade response on the bottom, and a neutral response in the middle. The way the Paragon/Renegade system works encourages the player to stick with either the top or the bottom response throughout the entire game, since additional options are unlocked at high enough Paragon or Renegade points. While playing ME, I found myself missing entire lines of dialogue because I was zoning out and just picking “the top line” (as Twyst describes it) every time the little wheel popped up.

But that shit doesn’t fly in DA2. After deciding that my first character–Tarin Hawke, mage–was a generally diplomatic sort, I found myself slipping into my ME habits, picking the top line without much thought. It was when Tarin uncharacteristically shrugged off her friend using a bit of blood magic that I realized what was happening. If one falls into the habit of always picking the same spot on the wheel, one will inevitably say something that doesn’t make any sense, either in-character or sometimes even within one conversation; in Anders’s Act 2 companion quest, for example, always choosing the bottom option will have Hawke getting indignant on his behalf only to say she won’t help him.

Zel Hawke speaks with Anders. The subtitle reads, 'It goes against the will of the Maker for mages to live as free as other men'. The dialogue wheel at the bottom has three options: 'Mages need their freedom,' 'That's a little controversial', and 'Mages must be contained.'

Zel Hawke speaks with Anders. The subtitle reads, 'It goes against the will of the Maker for mages to live as free as other men'. The dialogue wheel at the bottom has three options: 'Mages need their freedom,' 'That's a little controversial', and 'Mages must be contained.'

The dialogue wheel in DA2 may look like ME’s wheel, but it has much more in common with the lists of responses in the original Dragon Age; most of the changes have to do with giving the player more information. The dialogue wheel has icons that tell the player what tone the response will have, or if the response is part of a romance storyline, or if it’s based on special information, or if it’s a request for more information, or if Hawke is lying, or if it’s a branching choice. That sounds like a lot, but the icons are surprisingly easy to interpret–once I read through the list in the game manual once, I didn’t need to refer to it again. In DA:O I sometimes would pick a response only to think, “I didn’t mean it that way!” when a character took offense (is that “Shut up, Alistair” supposed to be angry? Exasperated? Teasing?). The way the dialogue is set up now prevents that from happening, and it also prevents players from “accidentally” either pursuing or ending a romance; overall, it provides more information so that the player can better roleplay their Hawke.

The other major addition to the dialogue system is voice acting for the player character; implemented along with this is a clever system of “response stacking,” which is described in detail in the DA wiki, but the gist of it is that there are not only (generally) three different ways of responding given, but three different personalities that affect the tone of the responses. So if Hawke has been generally kind so far, even selecting an “aggressive” response will not sound as aggressive as a Hawke who is aggressive more often than not. This is the sort of thing that’s only noticeable on subsequent playthroughs, but even on a single playthrough it has the effect of keeping Hawke’s character and voice acting consistent (but with some flexibility–for example, the response stack resets at the start of each act, allowing for character changes in the intervening years). It’s subtle, but it’s an excellent way for the game to work with the player in facilitating roleplaying, and it allows players to feel free to choose dialogue responses that are different in tone without having jarring changes in Hawke’s personality, freeing the player from always having to choose one type of response.

The second exciting change is that of the approval system, which is now a friendship/rivalry system. Essential to understanding this is realizing that “rivalry” does not mean “hate.” The game depicts the friendship-rivalry spectrum as a straight line, but it’s more accurate to think of it as a U-shape, where full friendship and full rivalry are the two highest, parallel points and the middle apathetic area is at the bottom. It’s an elegant solution to the biggest problem with DA:O’s approval system, where the player is encouraged to kiss their companions’ asses (or figure out what they want to hear) at the expense of roleplaying so that they don’t miss out on the stat bonuses high approval provides, or even lose characters entirely. In DA2, the player not only isn’t punished for doing something a companion disagrees with, they’re rewarded for it. Pursuing a rivalry (which, again, is not making your companion hate Hawke) has parallel benefits as friendship; rivalry is a strong relationship, it’s just different than friendship.

The friendship/rivalry system is something that clearly could have used a bit more demonstration or even explaining, considering some of the reactions I’ve seen. If the player approaches the dialogue and relationships in Dragon Age 2 like they’re systems to be manipulated for maximum benefit, they’re only going to be frustrated and disappointed. The game is geared toward creating and expressing a character and seeing the often-messy results of personality clashes and power struggles, and that’s what makes it such a joy to play.

Update: So I saw this post today, and while it makes some great points, especially about Mass Effect, what bothers me about it is there’s no distinction between the old relationship system in Origins and the system in DA2, even though the changes are crucial to what’s being talked about in the article. In DA2 it is simply no longer the case that sucking up to your companions is optimal play. Now it is actually better to actively piss off your party members instead of painstakingly avoiding offending them.

There is zero gameplay difference between having a companion as a rival or a friend; Isabela comes back for you if you have high enough friendship or rivalry with her, other companions will stay with you at the end if you have enough friendship or rivalry, max friendship and rivalry both give a companion bonus stats, and you can even romance every romanceable character on a rivalry path. As I said above, it’s incorrect to criticize DA2 for encouraging players to game the system to please everybody; the only thing encouraging players to do that is their own desires (and perhaps BioWare not explaining–or better yet, demonstrating–the rivalry thing well enough). I’d be lying if I said I never wanted to reload because I got a few rivalry points, but letting go of that impulse and doing what you think is right (or what your character thinks is right) makes DA2 a much better game.

The screenshots in this post were provided by Denis’s DA2 screenshot gallery–thanks, Denis!

How Can Romance Storylines Be More Engaging?

Crossposted at The Border House.

This post contains some major end-game spoilers for Dragon Age as well as some minor character-related spoilers for Mass Effect 2.

Between Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2, there’s been a lot of talk about romance storylines in games over the past several months. They are still something of a novelty, and many people feel passionately about them, so it’s not surprising that they get so much attention. On the other hand, romance storylines tend to all progress in the same linear fashion*: pick a character you like, engage in some (sometimes adorable, sometimes hilariously bad, always entertaining) flirting, eventually have sex or get married or both. This is a shame because there is a lot of potential to really tug at players’ emotions by integrating romance more deeply into a game’s story and changing up the linear progression. (I’m focusing on BioWare-style romances for this post; for a take on breaking out of that structure, this column by Emily Short is a must-read.)

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What Makes a Game Epic?

Contains minor spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

A great many games, particularly in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, seek to be epic in scope, or evoke a feeling of epicness. It’s an elusive quality because simply making a game very long or very large isn’t usually sufficient, and what makes a game epic may vary from person to person. One thing that I associate with epicness is not only the passage of time, but physical and emotional journeys, as well as change. Change is the key thing there: spending fifty hours in a static world doesn’t feel epic to me, which is why most of the Final Fantasy games that I’ve played don’t quite work for me on that level.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is the first game I played that truly felt epic. And the epic moment wasn’t sealing away Ganondorf, or the heartwarming and fairly silly montage of happy Gorons and Kokiri at the end. That first real moment of awe came when I stuck the Master Sword back in its pedestal and left the Temple of Time as a ten-year-old child once more. What was so epic about that moment was the reminder of how much had changed over the course of the game. Ocarina of Time is one of very few games that has the guts to create a beautiful world, introduce the player to it, and then completely destroy it for the bulk of the game–and unlike Okami or Ocarina‘s successor, Twilight Princess, things don’t get magically all better once you finish a dungeon or defeat a monster. But going back in time in Ocarina is bittersweet: it’s wonderful to see Hyrule whole and happy once more, but upsetting to know what will become of the beautiful land and its people, with small hope of preventing it. Ocarina gracefully sets up the stakes of this epic quest, something few games accomplish.

But change doesn’t have to affect the entire world to be meaningful–it doesn’t even need to be physical. The change can also be mental or emotional, a sense that the character you inhabit has evolved or grown. No game I have played accomplishes that as well as Dragon Age: Origins. In the world of Dragon Age, Mages are dangerous and feared, and so have to go through rigorous training, which is capped off by a trial where the Mage has to prove she or he is able to resist the control of demons, or die. My first character was a Mage, and the beginning of the game involved overcoming her trial (called a Harrowing). At the time she was sheltered and naive, a wide-eyed idealist, talented but knew only a few spells. Over the course of fifty hours of play time, she changed, not only becoming more powerful as in most RPGs, but growing in character and personality: she made friends, broke a curse, slayed a dragon, fell in love, executed a war hero, been to hell and back. She saw the world in its beauty and brutality, grew up, became more cynical. So toward the end of the game, when someone mentioned her Harrowing, I had a real sense of scope for a moment, of how long ago and, more importantly, different things were at the beginning of the game. Everything had changed.

For me, in order to invoke that sought-after “epic” feeling, a game has to work to show me its scope; for me it is not so much badass moments of slow-motion Ogre slaying, but in quiet moments where the game shows me something or a character says something that makes me think, “Wow, that was so long ago and so far away, and so much has changed since then.” I think a game has to go beyond simply being long, and put players on a real journey. What about you? Do you enjoy “epic” games? What games live up to this label for you, and why?

Crossposted at The Border House.

Dragon Age: Origins: Character Babble (UPDATED)

A (ridiculously self-indulgent!) summary of my first character’s journey up until the Alienage section in Denerim before the Landsmeet. Spoilers up until then, and please don’t comment with spoilers for the rest of the game!

Here’s the character page (female Elf mage). I am annoyed the picture hasn’t uploaded… unless that is something I have to do manually? I don’t know! She has short red hair with lots of ties in it, a gray tattoo on the right side of her face, and chubby cheeks.

Character babble behind the break, because I’m pretty sure only Kate and Denis are actually interested in this~

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"You Saved the Galaxy Pretty Well… for a Girl"

I’m a regular reader of feminist political blog Shakesville. Its founder and main contributor, Melissa McEwan, is such a powerful writer that even short, seemingly frivolous posts are usually thought-provoking and meaningful; like this one. In it, she talks about how a particular song, originally written and performed by a man and somewhat sexist, becomes subversive and powerful when sung by a woman (in this case, James Brown’s “A Man’s World” sung by Christina Aguilera). A simple gender swap can change the entire meaning of a song. And since video games are always on my mind, this interesting observation got me thinking about Mass Effect.

In Mass Effect, the player has the option to play as either a female or a male version of the protagonist, Commander Shepard. Since the plot is exactly the same for both versions, most of the dialogue is exactly the same. And yet playing Mass Effect as a woman is so much more powerful, in certain ways.

In our world, particularly in the USA, we treat female leaders and other women in power with particular nastiness borne of systemic sexism. Shakesville’s series “Hillary Clinton Sexism Watch” has over 100 entries. Its sister series, the “Sarah Palin Sexism Watch”, has at least 26 entries, and she has only been in national politics for about a year. Former President Bush had so much respect for our European allies, he sexually harassed Chancellor Merkel of Germany. Women of color have it particularly hard, having to deal with sexism and racism and how they intersect, becoming an entirely new creature; the blog Michelle Obama Watch chronicles, among other things, racism and sexism against our First Lady. Sonia Sotomayor had to endure all kinds of ridiculously racist and sexist bullshit at her Supreme Court hearings. There is an extra burden on female leaders and women in power that simply does not exist for most men.

For this reason, seeing female Shepard being treated the same way a man would by her superiors, her peers, and her crew is so powerful. There is never a doubt in Captain Anderson’s mind about her abilities. Her crew is always respectful, never questioning whether she is fit to lead or disobeying her orders, even the men who were older and more experienced.

Shepard struggling with getting the Council to believe her struck a chord with me in a way it might not for a male player. Institutionalized sexism causes women to not be taken as seriously as their male peers. Women’s contributions are often downplayed or outright ignored. Many women have stories about having their statements or ideas dismissed only to see men praised for saying the exact same thing. Arguing with the Council, Shepard was put in a similar place because she is in a disadvantageous position, as a human and as a woman.

And that ending. How amazing is it to see a woman praised, without qualifiers, as a real hero? For being a great leader, period, not “for a girl”?

Granted, the situation with Mass Effect is quite different than that of subverting a sexist song; the plot of ME isn’t sexist, and playing as female Shepard doesn’t subvert much. But it does give us a glimpse of a universe where it’s possible to have a leader and a hero who is defined by her actions first, rather than her gender; and it came about just by treating the two characters equally. This glimpse affected me emotionally in a way that caught me completely off-guard. It was a pleasant surprise.

Quick hit: BioWare writer responds to my criticisms

On the Mass Effect boards, via the comments on GameCritics.com, BioWare writer Patrick Weekes had this to say about my post:

I think that the writer had some valid points. I can defend some stances and explain others as unfortunate but necessary, but ultimately, our focus on creating a wide galaxy in the first game meant that we prioritized new races over different genders, and that resulted in a big universe with a lot of interesting cultures and no female turians, salarians, or krogan. We are hoping to address that in future games, and we hope that the size and scope of our galaxy makes up for that lack, at least in part, until we do.

On the issue of our female characters being hypersexualized, I would agree that they were generally presented as attractive, but then, so were most of the men — we didn’t have a fat or flabby model available for either gender, so every man on the Citadel, from Udina to Conrad Verner, is walking around with abs of steel. As a mainstream video game, we are always going to err on the side of making our characters attractive, just as you’d expect to see in a big-budget movie.

That said, the asari were not just peacemakers. Two of the game’s big enemy bosses were asari (Shiala on Feros and Benezia on Noveria). The Destiny Ascension, flagship of the Citadel fleet, is an asari vessel, not a turian one. And it’s not just a few female bosses. We had, if the oft-repeated soundsets are any indication, female generic enemies as well — hostile female vanguards and female merc or pirate gang members, and I’d hold our female merc up against BioShock’s “Do you think I’m pretty?!” splicer woman any day as far as a nonsexualized generic female enemy.

Of the female followers, one was a biotic, yes, but another was a computer hacker with a shotgun and a tendency to lob tech grenades, and a third is the only pure soldier of all the followers.

So some of the article I agree with, albeit from an inside-the-company perspective where I know why some decisions were made, but other points stem from wanting the game to be something that it isn’t. Mass Effect is always going to be a mainstream mass-market game. We are unapologetically aiming for a wide audience — summer blockbuster, not art house movie. As a result, our men are usually going to be attractive or ugly-but-rugged, and our women are going to be attractive or distinguished. That’s what most people want.

I’m flattered he took the time to read my piece, and glad the team is working on some of these issues for Mass Effect 2. I totally agree with his points about the human NPCs in the game. But I can’t help being a bit hurt at the suggestion that having a vast and varied universe might make up for the fact that most of the alien races don’t have females at the moment. It immediately positions women as inferior, an afterthought, something that can be added if there is time or money or memory enough. A nice feature but not necessary. And regardless of whether it could have been helped or not, it’s upsetting.