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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Dragon Age: Origins: A Study in Roleplaying

Like comics, video games are a community in which I dabble but have never broken into in a big way. I take the good experiences where I can, however. The point has been made often enough, by Yahtzee Croshaw among others, that when a game is story-driven, with you as the protagonist, it can create an emotional engagement that is unique.

I’ve been reflecting on this sadly ever since the dust-up over Mass Effect, but I got a crash course in the concept via one of my Christmas presents: the first game in BioWare’s other flagship franchise: Dragon Age: Origins.Dragon-Age-Origins

Like Mass Effect, Dragon Age is a Roleplaying Game, but whereas ME is a science-fiction graft over a fantasy roleplaying dynamic, Dragon Age just is the fantasy roleplaying dynamic.

The basics are simple enough: a quest-based story featuring a group of characters with abilities representing the RPG class trinity of warrior, rogue and mage. In the age-old tradition of fantasy, you also choose your race: human, elf, or dwarf, with different impacts on your backstory and particular abilities.

Regardless of how you start out, the setting is the Kingdom of Fereldon, and it is under attack by an army of corrupted horrors from beyond called Darkspawn who will consume all things good and wholesome if not destroyed.

I decided to buck the obvious trends to play as, say, an elf prince. So I began the adventures of Sereda Aeducan, daughter and military officer of the dwarven king.

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Yes, I know she’s not exactly attractive. Seriously though, the default female dwarf was absurdly dainty-looking. A dwarf ought to be robust, male or otherwise.

Sereda has to spend her life negotiating the knotty political plotting that characterizes dwarvish nobility. When, in the flush of a victory against the Darkspawn, she’s framed for the murder of her brother as part of a power-seizing scheme, she’s exiled to die in the Deep Roads, only to be found by her allies in the Darkspawn fight, the Grey Wardens, and she joins them.

From here, the story melds with any of the several I might have started with: crisis strikes as the Grey Wardens are betrayed by the usurper Teyrn Loghain who wants to concentrate his power in the kingdom to make it a bastion against Darkspawn or neighboring powers. As one of the few Grey Wardens still standing, you must pull together various fugitives and free agents, and travel the country to raise support to restore order in Fereldon and drive back the Darkspawn.

So: dragons, evil armies, usurpers, finding allies, quests, and the double trinity of race and class. On the face of it, Dragon Age is the least original game one could reasonably ask for.

Despite that, I found myself getting quite caught up in it. Part of it, I think, is that the writers developed an effective set of politics and social structures following semi-historical lines, that keeps it original enough, but left the world itself in a basic fantasy setup so that learning about it didn’t become too intricate and dense a process. They do just enough to freshen it up and no more; the Darkspawn and their fall-from-grace origins replace staid old orcs and goblins; elves are an underclass a bit reminiscent of Romani (at least as they appear in literature); dwarves are Machiavellian instead of Viking-esque by nature.

The gameplay is quite interesting. You can zoom in on your character and follow them in a third-person combat style or zoom out to a bird’s eye view of your character, support characters and enemies, deploy your forces, and turn it into a small strategy game! The graphics are on the low end of BioWare’s quality, which is still agreeable, if a bit plasticky. I kept noticing how ludicrously big the swords are in this game. As a novelty, since I played a dwarf, I must say it took quite a while before I was able to get Sereda a decent axe.

The game suffers from classic RPG clutter. Enemies drop items like potions, but there are so many kinds for situational things like cold resistance that I quickly just discarded them and stockpiled health potions instead, and every trip to the market was spent selling off the vast amount of second-rate armour and weapons I’d picked up. You accomplish quests with three comrades (drawn from a pool of nine) and can control one at a time, with the others handled by the computer. You can program the others with tactics so that they’ll automatically do action X if situation Y arises in battle, but at a lower difficulty anyway it’s just an exercise in micromanagement.

Mass Effect had side quests that might involve navigating a negotiation, or racing against time to defuse a bomb. In Dragon Age, almost every side quest centres on combat. I often got fed up with finding a dozen cultists hiding in every last broom cupboard. I played through the first half of the game on standard difficulty but after a while I dropped to easy because I was tired of having my combat prowess challenged at every turn and just wanted fun hack-and-slash action instead.

The roleplaying aspect is necessarily diluted: in Mass Effect, you’re always Commander Shepard. Decisions just dictate what kind of person Shepard is. In Dragon Age, you can be a whole range of possible characters. Among other things, that means that you can’t have a voice. You just pick a dialogue option and then get a response. Recording full dialogue for that many possibilities would be impractical.

The dialogue system itself is a little confusing. The custom in RPGs is to have three options for replies in conversations: a friendly/positive response, a blasé/neutral response or a badass/unfriendly one. That basic dynamic is in here but sometimes there are as many as eight dialogue options. It’s great as far as range of choice goes but it also means it can be hard to predict what reaction you’ll get. Since your relationships with other characters are dictated by what you choose, it can be a little challenging to make up your mind.

In a way, though, that’s part of the brilliance of Dragon Age. Mass Effect was very good at this, but in that series the way you behaved was measured by its effect on you. In Dragon Age, your interactions with characters changes their ‘approval’ level. Get it high enough and new powers are unlocked, along with conversations as your friendships deepen and maybe even blossom into love. But some of them have motivations that mean their approval can be hard to buy with a clear conscience. In short, your game experience is shaped directly by your effect on other people. Combine that with the deep, witty, if sometimes pedantic writing and the superb voice acting for the other characters and a simple mechanic engages you and makes these characters into real people who you begin to appreciate through your character’s eyes; care about, find funny, get mystified by…

Your own self-image evolves as you go through this too. My earlier description of my character, Sereda, is just the game’s own bare-bones breakdown of who she is. Through the dialogue options, there’s a kind of intuitive process as your imagination sculpts them further. Sereda, I thought, was proud and kind but blunt and resented the dishonesty and politicking she was expected to practice. Her quest was a discovery of the range of people in which she could find nobility, and the finding of a place where she really belonged.

While it has been said that the main story of the game is pretty much the same after playing your character’s specific starting mission, the different little nuances of banter, approval shift and other little moments stand to give it a variation that should keep it fresh. I often agonized about which party members to bring and how to combine them based on what little character touches might shake loose, given what I knew about them and the situation.

One thing I’ve learned to accept in RPGs is that you will never have a perfect play through. You’ll always make one out-of-character choice because you want to see what happens down that path, and if you get really into it like I did here, deliberate with yourself as to whether it was the ‘right thing to do.’ If you’re interested in characterization and plot, then it’s a neat tool for exploring the process in a prepared setting.

So Dragon Age: Origins has been a very pleasant surprise. I was expecting a by-the-numbers fantasy game, and while it was built on one, the experience is one of depth, character-driven story and the great emotional engagement that a well-written roleplaying video game can offer. It’s a great exercise for the imagination, offering a range of choices and paths to try out, but they share a common focus and it doesn’t become an open-ended time sink, a quality that has always turned me off the big open-world RPGs like Skyrim.

Even if you only play it once, if you allow yourself to immerse in it, you’ll find it a satisfying experience, despite any issues of mechanics or difficulty. But I suspect that, if you’re anything like me, every little dilemma or doubtful call you made will compel you to try and refine your approach the next time. I look forward to my next run at it, and proudly, but wistfully, bid farewell to Sereda: Grey Warden, hero, lady and officer!

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Posted by on May 17, 2013 in Video Game

 

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Divergent: Taking a New Path

I think I went too far when I said in my Hunger Games review that the movie might be better than the book. I certainly liked it better, because, as I said, seeing the events in scenes was more engaging than reading the author’s info dump exposition. However, I’m beginning to realize something about myself: I think I have trouble engaging with stories written in the first person perspective.

I’m not sure why this is the case. Perhaps because the storytelling style is emotion and thought-based, and as a visual thinker, I’m better able to connect with stories in third person, where locations and actions define the plot.

I bring all this up as prelude to another scandalous assertion. Having recognized this shortcoming and doing what I can to see past it, I still must conclude that Veronica Roth’s ongoing Divergent Trilogy is, in many respects, better than the Hunger Games.

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An indeterminate distance into the future, civilization has basically had to start over, creating a large enclave in the middle of a no man’s land, and the population is split into factions. The text lays this out at the very beginning of the first book, Divergent:

“Decades ago our ancestors realized that it is not political ideology, religious belief, race, or nationalism that is to blame for a warring world. Rather, they determined that it was the fault of human personality…They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray. Those who blamed aggression formed Amity. … Those who blamed ignorance became the Erudite. … Those who blamed duplicity created Candor. … Those who blamed selfishness made Abnegation. … And those who blamed cowardice were the Dauntless.”

Divergent follows Beatrice Prior, a member of the austere Abnegation. She’s sixteen, and it is time for her to undergo aptitude tests and decide whether to remain with her family, leave and dedicate herself to a different faction.

Beatrice has always felt too expressive, too self-invested for Abnegation, so when the day comes, she chooses Dauntless, essentially the society’s militia.

Beatrice begins a complex journey of self-discovery as she and the other initiates become the bone of contention in a cultural conflict within the Dauntless and tries to figure out where she belongs in it. She at once relishes it, getting tatooed and adopting the less ‘soft’ name of ‘Tris’ but also harboring deep doubt about the faction’s ways.

For Beatrice, the conflict is made deeper by her own secret: faction aptitude is determined by simulations – artificial dreams – that give you a set of options to see what you choose. But Tris finds herself able to defy the limits of the simulations or even shrug off their false reality altogether. She is Divergent, not fixed in any faction. A dangerous secret which becomes critical as a power play by between factions turns bloody, using the simulations as weapons to seize control, leaving only the lucky and the Divergent, like Tris, at liberty to fight back.

The second book, Insurgent, finds Tris and her comrades on the run, taking refuge in other factions and moving on as the conflict expands. As they move, they begin to piece together a ragtag group of freedom fighters including the factionless, the underclass of dropouts from one faction or another. Layers of conspiracy and rebellion bubble up as friends and enemies have to band together to fight in a common cause, and to uncover the dark secrets that triggered it. At the same time, Tris goes through a harrowing psychological breakdown as she copes with the losses she’s suffered in friends, family and innocence in the process.

Teenaged girl, forced like a square peg into a round hole, forced to fight and suffer trauma in a deeply flawed post-apocalyptic society? One suspects we’re in for another situation like the one I outlined between the Mortal Instruments and Harry Potter, that the plot is just the Hunger Games in the mirror. But in the case of Divergent, it actually achieves many of the things that Hunger Games had the potential to be, but wasn’t.

My fundamental problem with Hunger Games is that the story had suspense and an engaging main character and not much else. Divergent’s story is intricate, with multiple overlapping conspiracies still being uncovered right up, so far, until the cliffhanger ending of book two. The characters show a great emotional range, especially Tris herself. What gets me the most is the emotional arc; the Hunger Games Trilogy basically starts bleak and goes steadily downhill from there, so that by book three the angst and pain is so oppressive it becomes white noise.

For Tris, there is trauma, fear and bitterness, but there’s also catharsis, hope, tenderness and even a dry and genuinely funny comic relief element. This helps give the plot a pace and liveliness that is difficult to imagine in such a grim situation, but that actually works really well! And on another note, I am delighted to announce that there is no love triangle in Divergent! Tris’ relationship with her fellow Dauntless and teacher, known to most as ‘Four,’ is loving, passionate, yet turbulent and full of quarrels, and achieves that without resorting to trashy lothario figures or stereotypical female indecisiveness. That said, in the pursuit of emotional complexity, I think Roth neglected to give characters distinctive voices or physical descriptions, so it can be hard to keep track. Still, that’s likely based in my own issues with this style.

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DeviantArt contributor bookworm16016 demonstrates the style that sets Divergent apart

World-building is ongoing but I like what I see so far. I am a little confused by the geographical layout of the community, and for some reason the whole society/nation/whatever doesn’t appear to have a name. Perhaps that’s the point; the whole society is living in a bubble of sorts. One area the Hunger Games did better was that it was at least somewhat clear how society got to the point it was in with Panem, whereas here no such explanation is forthcoming. Not yet, anyway. While each faction sets itself apart, they all serve a purpose: Erudite are the doctors, scientists and technicians; Abnegation are the civil servants; Amity are the agricultural sector; Candor are the merchants; come to think of it, Dauntless is the only one whose function is left ill-defined. A brief mention is made of them protecting the others, but the question of ‘from what’ has yet to be answered and the initiates are never taught any mission statement or code. They just seem to spend all their time beating each other up.

That plot hole does lead into a key nuance of the story. Every faction has both virtues and vices: Erudite are intelligent and curious but smug and amoral; Amity is gentle but spineless; Candor is honest but gormless; Abnegation is generous but cold and hypocritically stuck up about their own humility; Dauntless, meanwhile, are brave and free-spirited, but violent and macho. None of them are shown as being monolithically good or evil.

Thematically, the books have a lot going on, and I can detect a lot of levels in play. Key to the whole thing is the assertion that you can’t be a complete human being just by being one way or another, and Tris shows an ongoing journey to discover where the lines are best drawn. The simple fact that she can’t be categorized makes her a classic everywoman. She doesn’t leap off the page the way Katniss does, but she works in a lot more ways.

The other thing that really strikes me about Roth’s story is that it is a tract against oversimplifying. Each faction pigeonholed themselves against what they saw as the one true flaw in society, but in the end none of them solved the real problems of division, bigotry and dogmatism, and ignored the constant balancing act human beings have to do to get along with each other and still be true to themselves. This is best shown with Dauntless, who seem like they started out as honorable warriors but have devolved into bullies and shallow thrill seekers.

At the same time, the risks of major change is shaping up to be an important theme later. This gives even the villains an understandable angle and psychology, and villains exist right across all the factions. Not to rag on the Hunger Games to excess, but compare the clear ideological drivers of Divergent to Panem’s Capitol, whose political philosophy adds up to ‘let’s grind everybody into the dirt and steal their kids for a larf!’

My problems with first-person stories – that I have trouble visualizing and occasionally lose track of characters and events – remain, but Divergent and Insurgent are the deepest and most profound read I’ve had for a while, and everything that young adult literature really should be. It seems to be flying under the radar as yet, but once the third book, Allegiant, arrives and the Hunger Games and Mortal Instruments manias have burned out, I think it’ll be in a good place.

“I object to you. I object to intellect without discipline. I object to power without constructive purpose.”
– Spock, Star Trek episode the “Squire of Gothos”

 
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Posted by on May 5, 2013 in Book

 

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