Transparent excuse to talk about Dragon Age 3

Wired has an article up today headlined “BioWare: Next Dragon Age Will Draw From Skyrim.” I have… mixed feelings! I love Skyrim. It’s fun as shit and exploring is genuinely fun; it’s always exciting when that chord plays and “MARKARTH DISCOVERED” or whatever pops up on the screen. But ultimately I don’t find it very interesting; I’m not going to write five (or even one?) posts about it when I’m finished playing it. It’s just a good time burning undead and looting dungeons and killing dragons.

I expect more from Dragon Age, especially after DA2. I expect deep characters and actual politics and not a little bit of tragedy. I expect playing a Dragon Age game to be like reading a good medieval fantasy novel, not a Lord of the Rings knockoff or someone’s D&D novelization.

This part intrigues me:

The story of Dragon Age II took place across a decade-long span in the city of Kirkwall, allowing players to see how the city and characters evolved over the years. Muzyka hinted that the next Dragon Age game could take that narrative structure and apply it to a variety of areas, rather than a single city.

I ~LOVE~ the idea of a game taking place over the course of a decade. I was excited when Assassin’s Creed 2 did it, but that game didn’t do much with it. In DA2, it suffered from poor/rushed implementation. No, the guy saying “I’ve been waiting here all day!” for six years is not clever commentary on bureaucracy. But the idea itself is brilliant. If we could concretely see how the world changes based on the events the protagonist is involved in, that would be just fantastic. I just worry that by making a huge world map, larger than DA:O and DA2 combined, it will be impossible to implement the kind of detail that this would require.

Not to mention, I hope characterization doesn’t suffer–it’s what I play DA for. Overall, I just think that sacrificing depth for breadth (face it, it’s impossible to do both; there has to be a balance) is a bad way to go, or at least the way that most other games go. Seeing a game go the Majora’s Mask route and make a small but deep world is something I would love to see more games try, even if it doesn’t completely succeed on the first try.

Also on my wishlist: a canon female protagonist. Both games and all three books have canon male protagonists and it would be really nice if there were some important female heroes in Thedas. (And a rainbow unicorn I can ride to work, while we’re making outrageous requests of Santa Claus.)

What do you want to see in DA3? Where do you want to go?

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A fate that we deserve: Choice, Triumph, and All That Remains

“When he read to me–stupid things, dragons and heroes–he wouldn’t turn a page until I reached over and took his hand. That big man made every step of the story my choice. I loved that.” — Aveline, regarding her father

(Dragon Age 2 spoilers)

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And I'm through believing

Fantasy religions in games aren’t typically very nuanced. Whether they are stereotyped as righteous and pure crusaders of good or corrupt and evil cults, they are often depicted as being literally true–gods speak directly their followers, if not make actual appearances. Praying at an altar or shrine often confers some sort of real bonus or blessing, suggesting an actual source of power. At the very least, there generally isn’t much that outright contradicts what a given fantasy religion has to say about a world, sometimes because the fantasy religion is being used as a conduit to info-dump at the player. In the Dragon Age series, the Chantry starts out as a way to explain parts of the world of Thedas to the player, but the player is quickly and increasingly encouraged to challenge the Chantry’s teachings.

(Spoilers for DA:O, Awakening, DA2, and the Legacy DLC to follow.)

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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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