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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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!

Playing Character Death

Over the New Year holiday weekend, I played a lot of video games, finishing two of them. Coincidentally, both of those games contained scenes where you play as a character in an unbeatable scenario, where the character is eventually killed (permanently). They were similar in a lot of ways, so I’d like to examine and compare them.

The games I’m talking about are Naruto Shippuuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, and obviously this post will contain huge spoilers for those games (and the Naruto Shippuuden anime, obviously).

Let’s start with Naruto. Naruto Shippuuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 (hereafter “Storm 2”) is a fighting game that includes a single-player adventure campaign that covers the first eight seasons (just under 200 episodes) of the Naruto Shippuuden anime. Storm 2 is the sequel to 2008’s Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm (“Storm 1”), which covered the entire original Naruto anime (aside from the last “filler” arc). The show has an enormous cast of ninjas that all have unique fighting styles and abilities, which makes it perfect source material for a fighting game, and a great many have been made. What makes the Storm games unique is that they attempt to most closely recreate not only the story of the anime, but the over-the-top battles that are the main draw of the series. In normal battles, each character has their own “Ultimate Jutsu,” and at the end of each story chapter is a multi-phase boss battle split up by quicktime events (here’s an example from early on in Storm 2).

Late in the game–here’s your second spoiler warning–Naruto’s mentor, Jiraiya, faces a former student who now goes by the name Pain. It’s a normal boss battle (here’s the video if you want to watch it), but there is an additional segment at the end:

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FFVII Replay: "The Planet's Dyin', Cloud"

I picked up Crisis Core again recently, and toward the end of the game, it catches up with some of the backstory sequences from Final Fantasy VII. I’ve only played FFVII once, a long time ago, so I decided to play it again to fill in the gaps of my hazy memory. I’ve only played the first hour or so so far, but what I wanted to remark upon was how great this opening hour is for setting up the world, plot, and a couple of the main characters of the game quickly, without sacrificing excitement.

In the opening scene of the game, our protagonist, Cloud, and a group of four people who call themselves AVALANCHE infiltrate and destroy a thing called a Mako Reactor. The group breaks codes on security doors, battles through the facility to the reactor where they face a giant scorpion robot, sets a bomb, escapes before the place explodes, and flees the area via train. Throughout all of this, we learn about:
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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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Women Aren't Vending Machines: How Video Games Perpetuate the Commodity Model of Sex

Or: Why I Am Dreading Alpha Protocol.

This post requires a bit of background. I highly recommend reading Thomas Macaulay Millar’s essay “Toward a Performance Model of Sex”, from the recently published anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape. You can read the essay on Google book search. This post intends to look at video game relationships in the context of the two models Millar describes, so please read it if you have the time.

In short, Millar describes how society sees sex as a commodity, and argues that the commodity model–which enables rape, allows the concept of the “slut” to exist, and frames consent as “the absence of no”, rather than “the presence of yes”–should be replaced by what he calls the performance model, where sex is seen as a collaborative effort between two equal participants, like two musicians playing a song together. In this excerpt he describes the commodity model:

We live in a culture where sex is not so much an act as a thing: a substance that can be given, bought, sold, or stolen, that has a value and a supply-and-demand curve. In this “commodity model,” sex is like a ticket; women have it and men try to get it. Women may give it away or may trade it for something valuable, but either way it’s a transaction. This puts women in the position of seller, but also guardian or gatekeeper … Women are guardians of the tickets, men apply for access to them. This model pervades casual conversation about sex: Women “give it up.” men “get some.”

The commodity model is shared by both the libertines and the prudes of our patriarchy. To the libertine, guys want to maximize their take of tickets. The prudes want women to keep the tickets to buy something really “important”: the spouse, provider, protector.

(There is a LOT more to the piece, and it’s fascinating and clear, so definitely read it.) To give an example: a guy I know once received a call from a couple of his friends, who asked if he wanted to go to a strip club. He said something like, “Why would I want to go to a shady bar and pay a random stranger to show me her boobs when I can have sex with my girlfriend?” And his oh-so-clever friends informed him that Hey! When you think about it, you are still just paying to see boobs! Except the payment is in dinners and dates and compliments, rather than dollar bills.

Ha. Ha. Get it? Because all women are prostitutes.

There are so many things wrong with the “joke”: it ignores the fact that the girlfriend likely enjoys sex, too, and that the guy also gets companionship, stability, love and attention out of the relationship, in addition to sex. It ignores the fact that theirs is a sexual and social partnership, not some kind of transaction or business arrangement. But the relevant part here is that the “joke” just doesn’t work if the participants aren’t invested in the commodity model of sex described by Millar.

So what does this have to do with video games? Well, some video games allow the player character to have sex with NPCs; even more allow the player to have romantic relationships with NPCs. What the vast majority of these games inevitably do is present relationship mechanics that distill the commodity model down to its essence–you talk to the NPC enough, and give them enough presents, and then they have sex with/marry you.

This design approach is extremely simplistic and perpetuates the commodity model of sex–the player wants sex, they go through certain motions, and they are “rewarded” with what they wanted (like a vending machine). Furthermore, when sex is included in a game, it is generally framed as the end result–the reward–of romance, rather than one aspect of an ongoing relationship/partnership. For example, one gamer commented that the romance in Mass Effect seemed like the romantic interest was really saying, “‘Keep talking to me and eventually we’ll have sex'”. The relationship is not the goal; the goal is the tasteful PG-13 sex scene. The NPC’s thoughts and desires aren’t relevant; what matters is the tactics you use to get what you want. This is a boring mechanic in games and dangerously dehumanizing behavior in real life.

Where the simplistic relationship mechanics really get problematic is when someone makes a game where your protagonist is a James Bond-wannabe and there’s an achievement for sleeping with every woman in the game. I am talking, of course, about Alpha Protocol. The quotes in the linked MTV Multiplayer article are infuriatingly sexist (as well as displaying insultingly limiting definitions of masculinity), but the relevant part is the bit about the “Ladies’ Man” achievement.

It is seriously problematic to have a game where the male player/avatar can have sex with any and every woman in the game. On top of reinforcing the commodity model of sex, it is desperately heteronormative. For all the player’s “choice” of with whom to engage, there’s no possibility that the player might want to have a relationship with another man. It also shows that lesbians just don’t exist in this world, if every single woman is open to a sexual encounter with a man. In addition, it perpetuates the narrative of the Nice Guy (described in Millar’s essay, and elsewhere): that men are entitled to sex from women if they follow the rules and do the right things, or in the case of Alpha Protocol, “select your responses wisely.” It is not only dangerous but just plain unrealistic to portray a world in which every single woman is a potential sex partner: in the real world, there are lesbians, and there are straight or bisexual women who won’t sleep with you no matter what you do, because they are human beings with their own preferences and desires and interests. (If I remember correctly, a counterexample may be The Sims, where often certain personalities just won’t get along well enough to develop a relationship no matter how hard you try.)

So what can video games do to portray better relationships? For one, they can stop being so goddamn heteronormative and allow options for queer relationships. And secondly, designers can start thinking of sex as a collaborative performance between two equal partners, and romantic interests as actual human beings with lives and thoughts and preferences outside of where they intersect with the player, rather than as conquests. And everyone would do well to read Millar’s essay!

How the World Ends

(Contains some vague spoilers for the first third ofThe World Ends With You.)

The World Ends with You for the DS is, like its PS2 cousin Kingdom Hearts, very much a game about friendship and teamwork. While both games deal with this theme in a way that’s fairly heavy-handed, only in TWEWY does it result in one of the most unique RPG combat systems in a while.

As a quick overview: combat in TWEWY, an action RPG, takes place on both screens of the DS. Neku, the protagonist, fights on the bottom screen and is controlled using various slashes, touches, and taps of the stylus. Simultaneously, Neku’s partner–for the first third of the game, a fashion-loving girl named Shiki–fights on the top screen and is controlled using the D-pad (or A/B/X/Y buttons for lefties). For Shiki, the combat involves the player hitting directional buttons to follow a path to one of three cards in order to match three cards at the top of the screen; when three cards are matched, a Fusion attack–a flashy team-up attack that damages all enemies on-screen–becomes available.

What really makes the battle system a team effort between the characters is the light puck, a ball of green light that gets passed back and forth between Neku and Shiki like a sparkly tennis ball (or the magic projectiles volleyed between Ganondorf and Link in many of their epic confrontations). In order to send the light puck to their partner, the player must inflict a certain amount of damage before the puck fades away. Continued volleys increase each character’s attack (some enemies can only be damaged when the character has the light puck) and net more experience points at the end of battle. The light puck simultaneously adds depth to the already intricate battle system, streamlines the dual-screen combat by giving the player an idea of which screen to focus on at a given moment, and emphasizes the game’s theme of teamwork and friendship; it contributes to both gameplay and story.

In TWEWY, the two characters fighting together actually communicate with each other, calling “I’ve got this!” and “Good job, Neku!” as the light puck bounces back and forth. This natural battle-chatter is something you don’t realize is missing from RPG battles until you hear it done well.

In a larger sense, the characters become stronger as the relationship between them becomes stronger. As Neku and Shiki face greater obstacles and stronger enemies, they bond over their shared hardship and learn to trust each other. By the end of the seven days of the Reapers’ Game, Neku and Shiki are close friends and promise to meet each other after the Game ends. It’s rather elegant that the gameplay reflects and emphasizes this growing relationship, unlike many games where, because of gameplay design decisions, the player can choose to act in a way that is completely different than what the story dictates the character(s) should be like.

Please visit the Round Table’s Main Hall for links to all entries.