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.

Tallis Amigurumi Doll

I made a Tallis amigurumi doll for the Dragon Age Mark of the Assassin Fanart Contest. Amigurumi is a type of crochet that is used to create plushie animals and dolls. I’ve never tried amigurumi before so I’m really excited about how this came out!

Lots of photos behind the cut. Just in case embedding doesn’t work, here is a public link to the Facebook album.

MANY more photos after the cut!

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Supporting Your Cosplayers

So, BioWare is having a fanart contest for Dragon Age 2: Mark of the Assassin, and to help out, they released reference shots and textures of Tallis, and linked to the costume designer’s blog where he describes in detail the whole process of making the costume. Considering cosplaying still gets shat on by a pretty wide swath of gamers, it’s pretty awesome to me that they are actually reaching out to cosplayers, which I don’t think any other game company has done in any sort of public, widespread way. Sucker Punch sent my partner some concept art when he wrote to them about cosplaying a Reaper, and I’m pretty sure Final Fantasy X-2 was deliberately made to be cosplayer candy, but that’s about it as far as I know.

But what’s interesting about BioWare, the Dragon Age team in particular, is that they aren’t just providing references and having contests, they’re keeping cosplayers in mind when it comes to the actual design of the game. Here’s Mike Laidlaw on Twitter:

The key is to strike a power chord between followers looking great and cosplay-able and player agency. Plans: I has them.

Glad to hear it! I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

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!