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.

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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