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.

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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.

Moral "Choices"

(This post contains spoilers for the ending Fable II.)

I’m currently playing Bioshock and will be writing a lot about it in the coming weeks (and I know talking about how awesome Bioshock is at this point is kind of like saying “Hey, have you heard of this thing called ‘The Internet’? It’s super neat!” but bear with me!). To kick things off I’d like to address the hook of the game: the decision whether to “harvest” or rescue the Little Sisters.

A brief summary, for those who don’t know or have forgotten: In Bioshock‘s game world of Rapture, the Little Sisters are essentially little girls that have been genetically altered to harvest a substance called Adam from dead people. Adam is used by the inhabitants of Rapture to modify their own genes to give them super powers. Because it is a very valuable substance, the Little Sisters are protected by the now-iconic Big Daddies from the people and creatures who want the Adam from the Little Sisters.

When you kill a Big Daddy you have the option of either rescuing or “harvesting” the Little Sister: harvesting takes all the Adam from her and kills her. Rescuing her takes only some of the Adam and frees her from the creepy enchantment-like state. Thus the game’s “tough moral decision” is set up: do you kill the Little Sister and get more Adam, allowing you to upgrade your powers more quickly and thus be more likely to survive Rapture? Or do you rescue the Little Sister, putting yourself more at risk but doing the Right Thing?

The thing is, during playtesting the Bioshock team found that because the “evil” path was more rewarding, players would almost exclusively choose that path, no moral agonizing. This led to a change in the final game: saving the Little Sisters actually ends up netting you more Adam and more powerful Plasmids (super powers) because in addition to the small amount of Adam gained from rescuing the Little Sister, you are given a gifts from one of the game’s characters as thanks for rescuing them.

So, ultimately, the “tough moral decision” was anything but, even with a charming Scotsman trying to convince me otherwise. For me, saving the Little Sisters was an easy choice: I did the Right Thing, and got better rewards for it.

The choice did, however, leave me to wonder what an actual agonizing moral choice would look like in a game, and how it could be implemented. There is one recent game that possibly does this, or comes close: Fable II.

Unfortunately I haven’t played Fable II, but this is what I know about the ending: during the course of the game your family, your dog, and thousands of people die; after the final boss is defeated you get three choices: 1. You can have 1 million gold (which is fairly meaningless because when playing the game you probably have more than that already), 2. Revive your dog and your family, or 3. Revive the thousands of other people that were killed.

Now just from reading about it, the choice between 2 and 3 seems like a truly difficult choice. Choice 3 nets you more “good” points, and is generally the right thing to do for the greater good, but because by this point the player really cares about her dog (and likely her family as well, depending on what she brings to the table) so doing the not-so-good thing is much more tempting.

Of course, because the townspeople aren’t real, it’s probably easy for a lot of players to simply do what is best for themselves (revive the family) because the game world truly revolves around their character. But I think the emotional connection to what is being lost is something that was missing from the Bioshock choice; so while the ending of Fable II might still be a fairly easy choice for most people, it’s definitely on the right track.

(Next I’ll be getting into some feminist analysis of Bioshock, which I’m really surprised hasn’t been done yet because there is a lot to talk about!)

The World Ends with a Crisis: Story, Gameplay, and the Handheld Experience

Pick-up-and-play games–puzzle games, especially–do well on handheld consoles for this obvious reason: handhelds are generally most often played in short bursts, often while traveling or waiting for something. But is it possible to make an epic, story-heavy RPG, adventure, or action game on a handheld while designing for portability? Crisis Core on the PSP and The World Ends With You on the DS both attempt to deliver such an experience, and I’d like to examine how they do so, whether they succeed, and what level of portability is truly necessary.

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