Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On Choosing a Role

[This is all straight-up personal blathering about me playing Dragon Age games, talking it through to myself in more than 140 characters.]

One of the things I'm really noticing this week, while adventuring (and occasionally struggling) through Dragon Age: Origins, is to just what a high degree subconscious and indirect cues affect my perception of a game.

The first time I tried DA:O, I played a female city elf.  That's a character who has it pretty bad, all things considered: the city elves are a thoroughly disenfranchised, oppressed, despised people who live in a literal ghetto.  The origin story basically involves attempting to rescue a cousin from rape and on the way out giving a whole bunch of oppressors a sword to the face because they're there, among other things.

On that first run of the game, I made it to the battle of Ostagar, then got turned around twice somehow trying to get to the tower and light the beacon -- so really, not very far at all.  The entirety of my opinion on the game was based on the origin chapter, and my take was that Ferelden was a perilously grim and serious world, and that the Warden was a cynical, jaded, sarcastic person.  The Warden, in that game, stood in the gutter under the totem pole of society's hierarchy and had nothing to lose, but everything to gain.

I didn't feel like exploring the city elf story again this time, because I already had, and woodland elves never really were my sort of thing.  Neither are magic users, and I didn't feel like being a dwarf, so I rolled a human.  The only origin for non-mage humans, though, is Human Noble.  I also had some indecision, some mouse jitter, and a rather large glass of wine while I was customizing my would-be Warden in the character creator, and as a result some of her physical attributes are not what I ordinarily would have chosen.  Basically,  her eyes are enormous.

The end result is a character I did not expect: I now have a Disney-eyed deposed heir to a minor throne, who grew up in a full life of privilege and plenty, comfort and love.  This Warden, while still "me" in a sense as all my characters are, is a me of decades long gone.  She's the me I would have thought at 14 that I'd want to be -- young and idealistic, but trying oh so very hard to do the right thing in the world.

As a result of the character's backstory and appearance, I've realized I'm actually playing a much shallower game than my first pass.  This Warden is straight out of a fairy tale, and she knows it -- and she believes the world actually works that way.  I the player actually found myself squirming in mild embarassment in my chair last night (thank goodness the spouse was too immersed in multiplayer assassinating to notice) when I realized how very juvenile I felt my approach to the whole game becoming.

So juvenile.  Because I had every intention of deliberately avoiding the Alistair romance.  I know in advance, thanks to years of spoilers floating around, what the Warden's options are going to be, to stamp out the Blight.  I had a feel for what would be the right thing to do, in this game, and when I played the sequel first I told it that's what had happened.  Maybe the Warden and Zevran could have one really good before-the-world-ends romp, just for fun.

But then this Warden happened.  And something possessed me and honest to god now I'm playing fanfiction or something, I don't even know, but all those dialogue options came up at the bottom of the screen and my hand picked "hey let's go make out and be in love like teenagers" and now my brain is getting drunk in the corner out of disgust while Alistair and the Warden make puppy eyes at each other.  And they're such dorks, and I'm such a softie, that now I know I don't have it in me to make the "right" choice anymore, and Wynne was right to give her lecture, and I was all, "No, mom, I know what I'm doing" and *headdesk*.

I barged into Ferelden and felt like The Doctor: just this once, everybody lives!

I think some of it's a reaction to external factors.  I've been thinking about Mass Effect 3 and discussing it with a lot of other gamers lately, and I expect that game to be nothing but a wall of impossible choices, destruction, really upsetting character deaths, and sacrifices for the good of the many.  (In fact, the game cannot be nearly as tragic and joyless as I imagine it will be, because no-one would play it.  Still: grim.)  Somehow I'm not only choosing to spend March immersed in that drama, I'm also looking forward to it.  So some part of my spirit is rebelling.  Like a little child, I'm throwing a massive tantrum and declaring that this time, the hero gets the prince and that everyone lives happily ever after.  (Except the bad people.  Naturally.)

The end result, though, is that I'm playing a totally different game than I thought I was -- and a totally different game than the one I thought I'd use to set up Dragon Age 2DA2, to me, is more like the way the me-of-today perceives the world.  Hawke is a person who has been through some traumatizing events, surrounded by some likewise damaged people.  She and her friends have all come to each other as a family of choice, after losing their blood families, and they make their way through life in this big strange city together, knowing the others are out there.  They have each other's backs, even the crabby ones. 

That's the game I played.

The Warden has a different cast around her.  They're loyal to her, more or less, or at least becoming that way, but their backgrounds are not like hers.  Every one of them, except maybe Leliana, is in some way an outcast from mainstream society: Sten the qunari, Alistair the bastard, Wynne the circle mage, Morrigan the apostate, Shale the golem, Zevran the elf fleeing his failure...

But this Warden is of a noble house.  True, her family died around her due to backstabbing, disloyalty, greed, and politics -- but the lives of the nobility were always thus.  Her personal tragedy is still the mainstream story of her society.  In short, she has buckets of privilege.  And although she may be camping in the woods with a gang of misfits for now, the arc of her story has her heading back to power and privilege later.

That's the game I seem to be playing.

The reason I think it's worth playing is because when my husband sat down and spent dozens of hours on Dragon Age: Origins, he saw the story of a young man: a circle mage who had to bear the gift and curse of magical talent and who met a pretty red-haired Orlesian bard he couldn't resist.  Another friend sat down with the game and found the story of a dwarf, who had to manage culture and politics and found the Wardens as an unexpected refuge.  And then of course there's the city elf whose story I didn't finish: she would have been constantly in an uphill fight, with her gender and her race aligned against her, until earning enough respect to lead the fight against the darkspawn in the end.

So very many different games...

There are still a lot of things I don't like about Dragon Age: Origins in the realm of its mechanics and design.  And I think as an experience, I actually still like Dragon Age 2 better.  Its characters feel more real, its city feels more navigable, and since I really didn't buy the game for its dungeon delving I couldn't care less that all mines have the same floor plan.  But finding out what kind of story I choose to tell, and how that story and I both change at whim, has been a really interesting experience.

(And now I know that some part of me, deep inside, never did let go of that Disney upbringing.)

Monday, November 14, 2011

The evolution of the RPG... and me.

A year or two ago, I (rather infamously) drew my line in the sand: I do not like party-based games, I declared, and never had.

Following this assertion (brought on at that moment by disliking Dragon Age: Origins), I've played both Mass Effect games, am currently in the midst of Chrono Cross, and just devoured the entirety of Dragon Age 2 in a few days.  And yet in many ways I stand by my original statement -- so what's changed?

I'll be honest, lady rogue Hawke pretty much always took Fenris, Varric, and Merrill, by the middle of Act II.

I'll admit that in part, I've changed.  Though I've been loving games and digital worlds since I was a kid, my consumption of various game types has really ramped up in the last three years and I've been exposed to, and learned patience for, some kinds of game design that I hadn't gained wide experience with before.  Game appreciation, like film appreciation, is tied to a sense of time and place, and an understanding of the history of the art.  My sense of history is still developing.

Crucially, though, the games themselves have also been evolving.  The difference in feel between Dragon Age: Origins, which hearkens back to an older era of games, and Dragon Age 2, which feels very modern, really crystallizes that evolution for me.  Thanks in large part (though not solely) to BioWare's recent design choices, I've been able to narrow down a bit what it is I actually hate about party based gaming.

In a word?  Micromanagement.

For some people, this is fun. I will never truly understand those people.

For me, the joy of playing has never been in the numbers, the tactics, or the methodical min/max situation.  I am fundamentally a lazy gamer: I don't want to control a hundred things at once.  I'm willing to be responsible for one character and for her tactics, skills, attributes, gear, inventory, and personality.  I tend to gravitate toward one character type and I tend to play that type the same way across games.* I like passive skills and quick kills, and I prefer not having to overthink every single character placement or tactical choice.

If I'm playing a game where character development is the focus -- in broad strokes, the RPG genre -- then what I want is to take control of my avatar and to understand and master her personality and talents.  I don't want to be responsible for controlling others.  It's a selfish impulse ("don't be dead weight I have to drag around") but also a self-protective one ("I just can't manage both of us correctly at once; you'll get short shrift").

My aversion to having to worry what others are up to has led to some downright comical contortions. During my EverQuest II years, I was three solid months into the game and level 28 (back when it was much less solo-friendly)  before I ever joined a group.  The folks I grouped with were all in the same guild and I joined up with them a few days later.  That's how I eventually discovered the pleasure of watching a plan laid and executed with a minimum of communication.  Everyone knew their roles: tanks took the hits, healers healed, chanters controlled crowds, and DPS damaged things.  Sure, for special bosses or raid zones (or one memorable five-Fury group) we discussed strategy at greater length, but each character always knew her role because each was controlled by an autonomous being somewhere, an individual man or woman at a keyboard just like me.

Some of those raid strategies worked better than others. Running a new x2 zone on Test, June '05.

When handed Divinity II and Dragon Age: Origins in the same week, I gravitated to the former because I could simply strike out into the world as I pleased, without worrying about what others wanted, needed, or thought of me.  I've been bored, in the past, with having to make the rounds among companions and crew to check in on each and every one of them and their personal needs.

I've been thinking about the "why" a great deal over the past week.  I think it's because for a long time, in many of the games I played, companion characters' personal needs either felt mechanical, pointless, or kind of unhinged.  That's a personal assertion, and not necessarily a quality-of-games one; it has to do with my own particular wiring.  As much as I hate to admit it, because I'm a book-lover through and through and an imaginative one at that, I think what's actually hooking me into this new RPG era is the voice-over work.

When I play a game like Chrono Trigger or Chrono Cross, everyone sort of sounds the same.  Yes, I imagine characters speaking differently, with different cadences, accents, and mannerisms, but in the end every voice is still, on some level, mine.  I can't give other characters inflection that I can't imagine and active as my imagination is, in a text-only world my interpretations might run counter to the scene's intent.

In fact, I'm running into this fairly often in Dragon Age: Origins, which I'm now giving another try.**  With an unvoiced Grey Warden, it's up to me to guess whether a comment she can make is sarcastic or genuine, and whether that comment is made jokingly or earnestly.  As a result, other characters' responses are not necessarily what I expect or what I'm aiming for.  I've run into some disapproval situations that I didn't see coming, because I didn't realize the Warden was going to be perceived as confrontational rather than as politely direct.  (Also because Morrigan disapproves of roughly everything.)

And when Morrigan disapproves, she lights you on fire. It's just her way.
Having companions find their voices has upended the way I view these NPCs in my games.  It's an emotional connection to the narrative and its world that isn't a new concept, but that makes me personally care a great deal more.  Even in a silent protagonist, fundamentally single-player game like Fallout: New Vegas, companion voices make me feel differently and realign my priorities.  I want to earn Boone's respect, not his easily-granted disgust.  Hearing Arcade move from self-effacing sarcasm to honesty over time makes me feel trustworthy.  Disappointing Veronica makes me feel like I've kicked a puppy.  And actually getting to hear Christine talk and explain, after she had been rather violently robbed of her voice, is deeply satisfying.

The recent BioWare titles (the Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises) have done a rather extraordinary job of surrounding me with characters I care about.  Between advancements in game tech and a strong investment in decent writing, I'm able to immerse myself in the illusion that my [Hawke / Shepard / Warden] is surrounded by other people, as real as my intervention has made the PC, with their own voices, stories, and personalities.  And they can control themselves.

Should I be so inclined I could order Garrus which baddies to shoot and when, but I never have to.  (I choose not to play on difficulty settings where that level of tactics would be required.)  I can take control of Isabela or Aveline, or issue direct commands to them, but I don't have to.  Without very much intervention (adding health potions to their tactics), Fenris knows how to watch my back and stupid Anders knows how to heal the party as needed.  Varric doesn't need me to issue a complex set of numbers and commands in order to seriously own that crossbow.

The ability and choice for the player character to have intimate and meaningful one-on-one conversations with non-player-characters has reframed the way I relate to a game.  If I need to make a complex or consequential decision in Chrono Cross, I look at a guide, or I talk it over with a friend (i.e. the spouse) who has played the game before and can give me non-spoiler guidance.  But when I need to make a complex or consequential decision in a game like Dragon Age 2, I have Hawke talk to her friends.  They become her guides and, by extension, mine.  Does Aveline disapprove of a choice?  She must have a reason and it's worth asking her before I act.

I'm used to NPC companions either feeling burdensome or feeling invisible -- for all that I liked, say, Lucca and Frog in Chrono Trigger, taking their turns in combat just meant me moving through one list of all options, and switching party members roughly meant switching combat tactic options and not much else.  That both game design and I have reached a stage where player companions feel almost like MMO buddies has been revelatory.  For the first time, when given the choice I care more about my companions' quests, evolution, and goodwill than I do about exploring every corner of the world (though I still do) or about the main story (which always comes around again in due time).

I haven't always particularly enjoyed characters' quests (bite me, Anders) or supported their loyalty missions (you too, Zaeed).  But as this year in gaming starts to wind down, I'm realizing that now, the companion quests are the ones I want to appear more often.  I enjoy making it a point to wander around the Normandy, or around Kirkwall, or around the campfire.  Fenris, Anders, Aveline, Varric, Isabela, Merrill -- their stories, their trust and forgiveness (or betrayal), are what was important to me in Dragon Age 2.  And as I look toward 2012 and Mass Effect 3, I know that Shepard can stare down the Reaper threat, but what I really want is to be sure that Garrus, Liara, Wrex, and Tali will trust her and stand by her side while she does.

Until then, back to Chrono Cross, where Kid is Australian and Poshul is desperately annoying -- but everyone is as silent as Serge. 

*For the record, that type is rogue / thief / assassin, heavy on the stealth and dual-wield or, in a futuristic setting like ME, on sniper tactics.  Sneak-and-stab or sneak-and-shoot: if they see me coming I'm doing it wrong.

**Because seriously, I want to see if I can find out why [DA:O character who appears at the end of DA2 with Cassandra] shows up then and there, 6-7 years after the events of DA:O.  Context: I needs it.


And for more discussion on party-based gaming, that happened to come up while I was in the middle of this personal meditation, see Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Horde on The Future of the Computer Role-Playing Game.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Punch Anders in the Face, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate the Bomb.

I'm playing Dragon Age II, as everyone who follows me on Twitter will have heard a thousand times in the last week.  At the point of this writing I'm in the middle of Act III, with a female rogue Hawke.  Spoilers for 2/3 of the game (and predictions about the remaining events) follow.

Because this is a BioWare game, Hawke picks up a number of companions along her way.  And because this is a BioWare game, those companions are strongly-written individuals, with their own stories, characteristics, personalities, and lives.  Despite my low-level general dislike of party-based gaming even now (which is a longer post that I've started writing but put on the back burner because this post was more urgent), Hawke's companions are the entire reason I'm playing DAII.  I love them, they are fantastic, and I want to spend more time with them.

Especially Fenris who, while always brooding, doesn't always look quite that murderous.

Bethany, Aveline, Varric, Merrill, Anders, Fenris, and Isabela -- these are the seven characters whose story this game is here to tell.  (I'm aware that if I had any DLC, there'd be more.)  And dropped into the middle of their lives, the thread connecting them all and drawing them and their stories together, is Hawke.

I like to think of myself as a generally decent person, with a healthy amount of self-respect.  I'm a constant work in progress (who isn't?), but I'm a reasonably well-adjusted adult and I make a point of surrounding myself with non-toxic people: with good friends.  Sure, some of us don't call as often as we'd like, and I've got some friends who have opinions I disagree with, or who have made choices I don't like.  But generally, we're respectful of each other, we trust each other, and we don't use or lie to each other.

This Hawke (blue-eyed red-haired Miriam), like my Shepard before her and my Courier and Lone Wanderer before them, is an extension of me.  She looks quite a bit like me, she shares my preferences and tastes, and she shares my moral compass.  That's how I like to play an RPG of this sort.  When Varric and Merrill are good friends to Hawke, I then feel that they are good friends.  This is by design; especially on a first playthrough, we're often meant to put ourselves, the players, in the hero's shoes.

So when Aveline, flustered, comes to Hawke for help with her love life, I feel like I'm helping a (hapless) friend.  When Varric good-naturedly gives Hawke shit just because he can, I feel like I'm joking around with a friend.  When Merrill bares her soul to Hawke, I feel like I have been trusted by a friend.  When Fenris walks around town wearing Hawke's crest on his belt, I feel a little more gushy than "just friend" ( <3 ).

Which means when after two acts -- seven story years -- of friendship, Anders lies to Hawke and uses her?  I get angry with the betrayals of a "friend."

Anders wants to justify himself.
Through the first two acts of DAII, I kept working toward friendship with Anders because, overall, I agreed with him.  Mages really do get the short end of the stick in the society of the Dragon Age games, and it's a big problem.  Knight-Commander Meredith in particular is a power-hungry ass and a liar and I'd like her deposed promptly, possibly even at the point of my dagger if that's what it takes.  There are enormous problems of inequal rights and prejudice all over Thedas and I'll even concede that, despite my strong personal preferences, solving them might require violent tactics rather than diplomacy.  And I'm always good for fighting injustice.

I had no strong reason to be rivals with Anders.  Our means were different but our goals, overall, the same.  I could set aside his overbearing righteousness with an internal eye-roll, pick witty dialogue, and have us continue along our mutual goal of "kill ALL the monsters!"  And of course, one of my biggest issues as a gamer is the deep-seated need for everyone to like meNearly always

So I was inclined to give Anders a chance, despite his flaws and quirks.  He's a prominent NPC and a party member: surely I'm meant to cut him some slack?

Demonic posession is kind of a big personality quirk, IMHO.

I managed benign disintrest with Anders until reaching his Act III quest, "Justice," at which point I instantly developed an overwhelming desire to punch him in the face.  Twice.  The quest is nothing short of infuriating.  By the point in the game at which Anders asks you to go gather some ingredients for him, the game has made sure that Hawke knows (1) there hasn't been a known way to separate a demon and host without killing them, and (2) dwarves and Qunari both make, steal, or have gunpowder / explosives.

And so, Anders sends Hawke forth to collect saltpeter and sulfur for him, assuming:
  • That she is too stupid to know what these ingredients are
  • That she is too stupid to know what these ingredients do
  • That she will trust whatever it is Anders tells her
  • That she doesn't actually need to know what she's up to, because Anders said so
  • That she'll be fine with this gaping and suspicious hole in knowledge
  • That she won't actually put together the ninety million clues surrounding this request
  • That his cause is so righteous that it's all right to hurt everyone and everything else for it...
  • ...including the people he supposedly wants most to help.
I can get behind a lot of suspicious behavior, in a game.  But a supposed friend lying to me in order to go make a (potentially suicide) bomb and blow the shit out of people whose fight this isn't?  I don't think so, friend.

I stewed over this for quite a while.  My first concern came from a game mechanics perspective: helping Anders, or indeed aiding magi in general, make it challenging to maximize friendship with Fenris.  Having chosen the Fenris romance, and choosing to believe that the character has a better nature that Hawke can appeal to, I find I need to be very careful in what order I choose to help people.  And so at first I'd framed the problem as, "How can I be sure to do everything I need to with Fenris first, so that then I can do what I need to for Anders?"

After sleeping on that for a night, though, I finally realized the solution: to hell with Anders.  If a real friend of mine in the flesh-and-blood world pulled the sort of shenanigans he's up to, I'd be unable to remain close to that person.  Our relationship would strain and although I might feel wistful for the loss of what once was, I wouldn't feel guilt about cutting ties.  So why I have been letting my pixellated avatar be guilted or bullied into giving support that I wouldn't give?  If Hawke is modeled after my gut and my ethics, why on earth would I let her put up with this?

For all that I've always needed to maximize the number of NPCs who like or respect my PC, I've never particularly needed the bad guys to like me.  Why would I?  They're terrible people and I'm perfectly comfortable being morally opposed to them.  The Legion, the Reapers -- their disapproval is a point of pride.  And for all that I try to avoid conflict and remain friendly in the real world, there are some people out there whose approval I've never sought.  If the racists and homophobes of the world ever start singing my praises, I'll have a serious and urgent need to re-examine the course of my life.

What Dragon Age II has done for me is that it has allowed me to bring that last, formerly missing piece of my personal moral core with me into my characters.  You know what?  I don't need Anders to like me!  I don't need to help him.  And if he's making a series of poor choices that harm Miriam Hawke's life and her other relationships?  He can go to hell.

For all that I raged and agonized about Kate Shepard's inability to keep both Jack and Miranda loyal in Mass Effect 2, I appreciate that it happened.  Sometimes, when you're surrounded by people with different priorities, you do find yourself in conflict, and there's not a soul on earth powerful enough to resolve every single conflict among his or her peers just through the force of good will alone.  Companions might choose a (metaphorical) hill to die on that ends a friendship, or co-workers might join cause for a common goal even if they hate you.  That's how the real world works.  And if I'm looking for mature nuance in my game writing (which I am), I have to be able to acknowledge that there are some hurts that my heroes just can't fix.

I've avoided spoilers regarding the rest of the game, but I'm pretty convinced at this point that Anders is going to blow the shit out of a major part of Kirkwall with or without Hawke's help.  As a result, innocent people are going to die -- a lot of them.

Knowing that, and knowing that Anders is so set on his path that he won't even tell Hawke the truth, to let her give him aid freely or not at all?  He can well and truly go to hell.  Blackmail is no mark of friendship, and I'm over it.  Anders has cured me of one small portion of the ego of the gamer, and brought me to a more mature approach toward my characters as a consequence.

I'll still create characters who are essentially me and play as if I were there, because that's half the fun.  But I the player have the self-respect not to take abuse or cavort with assholes, and now I've realized: Hawke does too.

I'm choosing against friendship and I'm choosing against helping, and those go against my grain. 30 years of RPGs have taught me to accept every quest and seek every approval, and 30 years of female socialization have taught me to be careful when and how I make waves.

But 30 years of moral judgement have also taught me right from wrong.  Anders is wrong, and feeling that I can and should tell him so is surprisingly satisfying.  I just wish there were a "punch in the face" animation to go with.