God Only Knows

I’m spoiling everything here, so this is just an intro paragraph so that I can put all the spoilery stuff behind a cut! Don’t read past here if you don’t want to be spoiled for Bioshock Infinite.

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Should Mage Hawke have not gotten a pass?

Back in February, Mattie wrote about Anders, and how Hawke is in a position of privilege in the game, the same way most players are in a position of privilege with regard to the LGBT community. It is a great piece that really got me thinking. There was an idea I saw popping up all over the place back when Dragon Age 2 first came out that said that DA2 missed a huge opportunity with Mage!Hawke, that playing as a mage should have been significantly different from Warrior or Rogue in that the mage should have had to go through what all the other mages in Kirkwall go through. The whole abducted from your family, imprisoned in the Gallows, under the constant scrutiny of the Templars, who will make you Tranquil if you step one toe out of line, or even for no reason at all. I actually think that, for the purposes of DA2 specifically, the team at BioWare did exactly the right thing by giving Hawke the Thedas equivalent of “passing privilege” as a mage, first via bribery and later via her wealth and finally her title of Champion.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that games do have a very strong ability to put players temporarily inside the experience of another person. A while ago, I wrote about a hypothetical game that would allow a male player to allegorically experience–and therefore better understand–rape culture. Games are essentially systems, and oppression is a system, so it’s completely possible to create a game that communicates what it’s like to experience oppression. The problem is, while both games and oppression have rules, the rules of oppression are rigged so that the “player” can never win. This means it’s not very fun at all (to put it mildly). A game where a player is put in the shoes of a marginalized person–such as a mage in Thedas–isn’t going to be any fun. Who wants to play being stuck in a tower, or even confined to one small room, for weeks or months on end? Who wants to play a game where your character can be lobotomized randomly and without reason?

Well, I do. But this game will never, ever be made by a company that’s in the business of entertainment, that wants to make money.

So, what if the player just got a taste of it? What if they had to disguise themselves, tiptoe around Templars, make sure they don’t use magic in battle inside the city, at least in the first two acts, before Hawke becomes Champion?

I believe this strategy would backfire. The player gets a taste of what mages like Anders experience and most would think, this isn’t so bad! It’s annoying, but not worth blowing up a building over! It’s like when games or shows depict sexism as being the domain of openly-hateful old men who just need their butt kicked by and/or a sassy remark from the spunky heroine. At least when Hawke gets a pass that other mages don’t, the player is aware that they have it better than other mages. There’s no way to get most players to truly experience and understand what mages are going through without completely breaking the game (and even then, players would still have the option to turn the game off and walk away, which is not an option real oppressed people have), so it’s actually better that BioWare went in the opposite direction and gave Hawke a privileged position among mages. This way, when Anders does his thing, Hawke and the player are more or less on the same page. In a way, it forces the player to roleplay by making sure Hawke, as a character, and the player themselves have the same reaction: how could you? If Hawke was actually meant to be oppressed, herself, but the game never had the player experience what that actually meant, then for the vast majority of players who don’t experience violent oppression themselves in the real world, there would be a huge disconnect between Hawke’s perspective and the player’s.

I desperately want to see a game that puts the player in Anders’s shoes and forces the player to not only do something so extreme, but to feel as if it’s their only course of action. But while that game could be interesting and meaningful, it certainly won’t be fun, and so we will never see if from any huge studio like BioWare.

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?

Setting and the Physical Language of Puzzles

I’d like to clarify my use of the word “should” in the last post. Game areas should form a cohesive game world iff this is a goal of the game design. Functioning worlds (by which I mean worlds that appear to have feasible ecosystems, economies, etc. within the fiction) are not important or necessary for all games, certainly; it’s not a good idea to try to limit possibilities here. For a game that seeks to immerse the player in its world and/or story, which very many games try to do, the world should make some sense, or it will detract from the immersion.

To go back to my Metroid Prime 3 example: would MP3 be a better game if this imposed interface were more blended into the world, if it made more sense for those spherical crevices to be there in the first place?

I’m not convinced it’s even possible. One gameplay component of Metroid Prime is the puzzles, and to have a good puzzle, you need to set up the physical language that the player interacts with and can “read” to solve the puzzle. The different devices in Metroid Prime, for example: the player sees a small glowing circle and learns, from the tutorial and from doing it over and over, that when they see one of those circles, they’re supposed to turn into a ball and drop an explosive in the hole. In this sense, puzzles in Metroid Prime are simply a matter of reading the symbols.

(Similarly, The Legend of Zelda develops its own language with the player: the player learns that a certain target will stick to the hookshot; how far Link can jump or if he has to use the hover boots; what rocks can be blown up with bombs; and so on.)

The point is, if the various technologies on each planet were more unique and made more sense, it would obscure the puzzle language that is very clear the way it is now. If that were to change, at minimum it would be the same problem with a thin layer of paint over it, causing some frustration for the player while not enhancing immersion at all. At the extreme it would cause gameplay that requires the player to relearn the same simple activities at every planet, and not allow the player to reuse knowledge from the last world, limiting the player’s sense of advancement. So in this case, making a more “immersive” universe in this sense would be detrimental to Metroid Prime 3‘s gameplay.

I get the feeling the environments in Metroid Prime were designed more for cool factor than immersion, which is totally fine by me.

Settings in Games Overview

In online discussions I keep bringing up how I want to see more variety in game settings, and I will be going into the topic more in-depth in the future, but I wanted to talk about it a little because of this recent post at MTV Multiplayer: Game Diary — May 7, 2008 (a comparison of The World Ends With You and GTA IV and how they evoke a sense of place).

First off, I can’t wait to get my hands on The World Ends With You. Everything I’ve heard sounds fantastic.

But anyway, place. Too often, games reuse the same old–or at least very similar–settings over and over. They tend to fall into three categories:

1. The War-Torn Future. These games tell us that our descendants will have nothing to look forward to but martial law due to alien invasions and/or interstellar war. Think mostly-deserted planets with ruined buildings and/or military outposts. Recent games of this setting can be easily identified by the gray-brown pallette and “grit”. Setting of many a first-person shooter.
Examples: Halo, Resistance, Gears of War, Doom, Frontlines, Mass Effect.

2. The War-Torn Past. World War II, usually.
Examples: Call of Duty 3. Lots more.

3. Ye Olde Fantasyland*, or Fake Medieval England. Forests and quaint villages, along with castles and horses and knights and princesses.
Examples: Fable, Lord of the Rings, The Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy I.

Many major franchises fall into one of these three categories (funnily enough, games actually set in the present or near past are not that common). Some notable exceptions are the later games of the Final Fantasy series (I haven’t played the middle ones and the first one is definitely #3 above), X and XII in particular. Both had unique environments that were part of a cohesive world, which operated on its own as well as being essential to the plot. This brings me to my next point:

Unique visual environments are important, but game worlds shouldn’t be a patchwork of levels sewn together by necessity of gameplay. The areas should form an operating world, and moreover, this operation should have some bearing on not only the plot but the characters and the way they interact with and look at the world–their world. This is essential to create a game world that feels cohesive and immersive.

To give an example of an exception that falls just a bit short, the various worlds in the Metroid Prime games are beautiful and unique (especially in Corruption), but in every area it’s the same switches and round slots that Samus interacts with while exploring. Why should beings that look like insects have machinery operated by detonating a bomb in a spherical recess? And why should this same technology exist on all the planets? That just doesn’t make sense.

It’s not something that bothers me while I’m playing, but in the end it does undermine the worlds that have been created. The visual style, atmosphere, and architecture of the places all go a long way to telling something about the inhabitants of the planet, and yet it’s as if someone imposed an interface onto the entire universe so that Samus can interact with it. Which is exactly what really happened, because it’s a game. The immersion is wounded. (But would Corruption be a truly better game with better immersion? Hard to say; this is something I’ll address in the future.)

That’s all for now; I’ll be revisiting this topic several more times in the future.

*I know I’ve heard this phrase before in reference to fantasy novels, but upon googling it I must attribute it to Shawn Elliot at 1UP (fantastic article, by the way–read it!).