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 2. DA2, 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.)