Monday, January 9, 2012

The Age of the Dragons, part II: The Tragedie of Kirkwalle

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.

In my 9th grade English class, we read Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.  Nearly every public school freshman class in the United States does this, still, and has done for decades.  It's an educational rite of passage: turn 14, read about two horny Elizabethan teenagers and how they died.

At the time, I hated reading Romeo and Juliet.  I resented everything about it and only began to change my mind when Shakespeare in Love was released a few years later.  With the full force of ironic detachment that only a teenager can muster, I knew that it was "stupid."

But my English teacher was a wise woman.*  I remember very little of the details of her class, half a lifetime later, but I remember her teaching the prologue.  The tension, she explained, came from knowing that the story would end badly.  The core of the tragedy was in the audience understanding as the play unfolded that disaster could be averted, but having foreknowledge that it wouldn't be.  The story, from the outset, was a tale of doom, and in that knowledge lay its art and its power.

Romeo and Juliet and I eventually came to a truce, and while it's still not among my favorites, I respect it for what it is.  But in 10th grade English, a scant few months later, I took to Macbeth immediately and have remained a fan of the art of the Tragedy ever since.

"Maybe it's not as simple as you imagine..."

The typical model of a video game -- and particularly, a BioWare video game -- is to collect your allies, fight your enemies, and save the world.  These stories might have nuance in the details, but ultimately their shape is unambiguous and Romantic.  They're all variations on the hero's journey, and the player character is front and center to the story.  He or she is the lynchpin of all that happens in the game world, and his or her actions and skills can guarantee a positive outcome for The Good Guys.

Players went in to Dragon Age 2 expecting the arc of Star Wars and instead got handed something out of Sophocles.  Saving the world, after all, is par for the course.  No wonder so many were disappointed with what they got. 

"I'm not interested in stories.  I came to hear the truth."
"What makes you think I know the truth?"
"Don't lie to me!  You knew her even before she became the Champion!"
"Even if I did, I don't know where she is now."
"Do you have any idea what's at stake here?"
"Let me guess: your precious Chantry's fallen to pieces and put the entire world on the brink of war.  And you need the one person who could help you put it back together."
"The Champion was at the heart of it when it all began.  If you can't point me to her, tell me everything you know."
"You aren't worried I'll just make it up as I go?"
"Not. At. All."
"Then you'll need to hear the whole story..."
The events in Kirkwall leading up to the beginning of the Mage-Templar war centered around Carias Hawke.  She was quick with her wit and quicker with her daggers.  She was ruddier than her dark-haired sister Bethany, but anyone could tell they were sisters at a glance.  She tried to help apostate mages like her sister as best she could.  With all of her family lost to her, over time, she found unexpected comfort and love in the arms of a fugitive warrior elf from the Tevinter Imperium.  Although she knew him for seven years, she never did really understand what drove Anders -- once a close friend -- to recklessness, madness, and disaster.  Despite being deeply betrayed, she could not make herself betray in turn and so she chose to let Anders live, sending him away with the unspoken promise of a knife between the ribs if he should ever dare to show his face again.

The events in Kirkwall leading up to the beginning of the Mage-Templar war centered around Owen Hawke.  He was even-tempered, if prone to sarcasm, and though he was always willing to use his magical talents he, like his late sister, spent a lifetime carefully (if ultimately unsuccessfully) avoiding Templar attention.  In looks, he favored his brother Carver.  With all of his family lost to him, over time, he found his way into a torrid, passionate relationship with a fellow apostate and runaway Grey Warden.  He always knew what danger lurked within Anders but felt that maybe, if he didn't poke at it, they could avoid recklessness, madness, and disaster.  Despite a zealous, selfish, and destructive betrayal, he wouldn't turn on the man he loved.  With no small measure of worry, he chose -- for a while -- to accept his lover's apparently sincere desire to remain in his life, and after the fight at the Gallows they disappeared into the wilds together.

The modern BioWare RPGs are, in a critical way, always about your story.  The initial approach to one is the story the player has chosen to tell, for whatever reason: moral self-insertion; a pre-written, pre-determined RP approach to a character; the fine art of just picking things in the moment because you don't give a damn.  It's an individual story, and the first playthrough becomes the story that the player tells about the events of the game.  (This is true of both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises, to date.)

The first story is my story.  Carias (which sounds better than it's spelled) Hawke is my canon Hawke, and when Dragon Age 3 inevitably rolls around the events of her life are the tale I will import and carry forward.  Hers is the story I have chosen to tell, and the game supported and encouraged my telling it.

The second story feels closer to being the story.  Owen, through his outsider status as a mage and his relationship with Anders, uncovered huge swaths of motivation, narrative, and foreshadowing to which Carias was not privy.  His was the second story I chose to tell, and the game not only supported and encouraged my telling it, but embraced it.

The key to reconciling these two different stories -- full arrays of different choices -- against each other and the fixed nature of the plot is through the mechanic of after-the-fact narration.  It's interesting, seeing where the "Eye of God" viewpoint falls in Dragon Age 2.  The story the player chooses to tell always meets some of the same goalposts, and while Varric's narration of events has a few tweaks, it's fundamentally immutable.

Indeed, for all that the player controls Hawke, in a meaningful sense the player is better represented by Varric.  His presence as narrator -- and a potentially unreliable one, as far as both Cassandra and the player are concerned -- echoes and underlines the entire concept of the player making choices in what is ultimately a forced linear tragic narrative.  "Here's how it really happened," the player says, and no one can particularly gainsay it because the ultimate sequence of events is still the same: Hawke came to Kirkwall in 9:30, in some way knew these 7 or 8 individuals, and in 9:37 was present when Anders destroyed the Chantry.  Cassandra may stop Varric in moments of true absurdity but otherwise, she believes the story he has to tell about Hawke, no matter how it unfolds.

A brief diversion: one theory of visual arts (in particular, film) holds that the viewer's participation is a necessary part of creating meaning, including narrative meaning.  The director and team who assemble a movie can give visual and aural depictions to their hearts' content, but true meaning comes from the viewer's foreknowledge and ability to make connections.  For example, a shot in which the camera pans through a poor, downtrodden city neighborhood relies on the viewer's knowledge of urban poverty, or at least common cultural symbols of urban poverty, in order to work.  Viewers with different backgrounds will create sightly different interpretations of such a shot and the film of which it is a part.

In the game, the player's participation in creation of meaning is more concrete, but in the same vein.  Essentially, we at the keyboard or holding the controller are standing in the wings, feeding Varric his lines for Cassandra.  The narrative on-screen is fixed: Hawke will always find the Thaig in the Deep Roads, Quentin will always kill Leandra, and Anders will always explode the Chantry.  But much of the why is up to the player's interpretation and manipulation of the text.

"A last toast, then: to the fallen."

The stories of both Carias and Owen Hawke are arguably tragedies, in the classic sense.  Only one of them gives all of the necessary markers along the way such that the player can see the shape of the story, understand its tragic nature, spot the oncoming disaster before it comes, and realize that Hawke in fact is not the center of the bigger tale.

The game more or less works no matter how one chooses to assemble its pieces.  Any combination of friendship and rivalry, any combination of party members taken adventuring, and any Hawke class or set of skills -- all will add up to a total story.  The player takes control of this Fereldan refugee and fills in the blanks however s/he likes, and it flows.

But rather than punishing the player for not making the "right" choices, Dragon Age 2 uses something of a carrot rather than a stick approach to authorial intent.   The game rewards certain choices by adding layers of character background and motivation to certain stories and certain party combinations.  My Hawke never knew that eventually, Fenris and Isabela could start a relationship -- and my other Hawke only found out by chance.  My Hawke missed out on some of Anders's political passion, but my other Hawke found his lover's manifestos lying all over the house during the years they lived together in Hightown.  My Hawke relied on Fenris to help her negotiate tricky moments with the Qunari; my other Hawke convinced Isabela to give the tome back.

I didn't feel shortchanged, at all, the first time I played through the game.  (Or the second, which immediately echoed the first, with nearly identical choices but with a better understanding of how it all worked and eye to foreshadowing.  Owen's game was number three.)  I never regretted the decision to roll a female character, to play a class other than mage, or to avoid the Anders romance.  I like that story, and that Hawke, and stand by the impulse to make it "my" canon.  But that "other" Hawke -- the mage who had to deal with Carver, who lost Bethany, who chose Anders -- seemed to get the full story, in the shape of so much dialogue I might never have known was in the game.  And while the game never forces a single direction on the player's character, when playing the "real" canon story, the "right" story, there's a feeling to be had that one has fallen very smoothly into the story that the game wants to tell.**

"There's power in stories, though. That's all history is: the best tales. The ones that last. Might as well be mine."

The fun part is, no player would ever be able to discover the difference -- to hear all of the details of the story -- without playing through the game at least twice.  Usually when we say a game has "replay value," we aren't talking about the strictly scripted, generally linear, straight-narrative games.  After all: their skills are easy to master and we know how their stories go.  Why revisit?

To me, the reasons to revisit Dragon Age 2 (beyond the same "old friend" reasons I revisit favorite books and movies) seem obvious: because this time, your concept of context is well enough honed to hear the prologue.  Varric's words can no longer slide through your consciousness and back out: when he describes the state of the Chantry and the Circles, when he intimates doom for Hawke's sibling on the Deep Roads, when he convinces Cassandra "if Hawke had only known..."  In all of these moments, Varric, our narrator, is helping us create the tragic arc.

Foreshadowing, after all, is a particular kind of thrilling agony when the player (viewer, reader) does, in fact, know what's going to happen as the story unfolds.***  And sometimes, it's the core of the entire thing.  And so we find ourselves winding back to Shakespeare and to Aristotle, back to stories that advertise up-front that there is no winning solution to be had.

"I removed the chance of compromise, because there is no compromise."

The true story of Dragon Age 2, especially when thought of as the middle chapter of a story that began with Dragon Age: Origins and Awakening, is the tragedy of Anders and the Chantry.  Hawke is a lens for understanding the story, rather than an end unto him- or herself.  Such a construction directly contradicts nearly everything players have been led to expect from 20-30 years' worth of tradition and history in the western RPG.

Subverting expectations and deliberately playing with tropes is tricky, and Dragon Age 2 paid a price for its efforts.  Close to a year after its initial release, player and critic opinions still stare each other down from across a mile wide, love-it-or-hate-it canyon.

In the end, perhaps it doesn't matter.  Dragon Age 2 was exactly the right game, but it seems to have landed in the wrong franchise, or at the wrong time, or with the wrong marketing.  BioWare's official position as they unofficially talk about Dragon Age 3 seems to be that they're willing to be carried at least in part by the tide shouting that this tragedy was a misstep.  The internet clamors for the combat-focused, exploration-driven, skill-and-inventory driven classic party-based RPG that Dragon Age: Origins was heir to.   DA2 instead brought a city full of companions to life and mainly gave the player's avatar a reason to be a witness to the inevitable bubbling over of violence that began the Mage-Templar War.

That war could yet destroy Thedas, and so whatever avatar takes center stage in the final installment of the trilogy will, I'm sure, be out to save the world.  No doubt he or she will briefly meet survivors of both the Fifth Blight and the Battle of Kirkwall.  And I suspect that he or she will find Thedas to be salvageable, and so help create a brave new world.

And stepping forth upon a new and mysterious shore, with all the problems of the world untangled?  That one's for the Comedies.

For further reading on the telling of tragedies in video games: Line Hollis, Four Types of Videogame Tragedy.  And for excellent further reading on Hawke and the Heroine's Journey, see here, on Flutiebear's tumblr.

* Mrs. Lucy Myers, of Belmont High School. To whom I owe rather a lot, not least of which is thanks for putting up with 14-year-old me.

**The Mass Effect franchise does this even more strongly than the Dragon Age franchise does.  Although Shepard can make a limited variety of choices along the way, particularly in the area of romance, certain decisions (Liara) have less friction against the rest of the text in ME / ME2 than others do.

***Leandra's cheerful, happy talk early in Act II of finding a suitor is pretty much yell-at-the-computer heartbreaking on a second go.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Happy New Year! Etc.

The last big project I worked on in 2011 has now come to fruition, and yours truly has just appeared in issue 4 of Ctrl+Alt+Defeat, available here.  There are several excellent pieces in there from a number of friends and critics, so I recommend a read.

Also, Critical Distance did their annual retrospective of This Year in Video Game Blogging, and this here little blog received a very nice shout-out indeed.  You'll find many must-read pieces by many of my favorite writers in that post.

Meanwhile, here at Your Critic, I'm gearing up for a busy January, with a week of guest-posting elsewhere, a possible letter series, a couple of big pitches, and a long overdue blog redesign.

Also, for the record, my 2011 Games of the Year were Portal 2, Dragon Age 2, and Bastion, not necessarily in that order.  I realize this is hardly revelatory.  Look for an opus on DA2, when I can finally decide which part I want to write about most, in the coming weeks.