Chungking Espresso

Dragon Age: Prelude

Posted in Miscellany by Simon Ferrari on November 12, 2009


I finished Dragon Age: Origins last night. I’d told somebody that I would finish it by Sunday, but playing it on Hard led me to waste about eight hours on reloads. I also knew that I wouldn’t have the time to play through it ever again, so I spent a lot of time reloading saves to see what happened on both sides of every decision point. I thought about writing a proper review of the game for Sleeper Hit; instead, I’ll again share an anecdote about the analysis of multilinear RPGs.

Sipping Victory Prima Pilsner at a miserable, empty bar in Savannah, Kirk Battle and I discussed how to best write about something like a BioWare game. We were talking about Mass Effect, which he’d been afraid to touch (later he wrote this). A breakdown of basic mechanics and storytelling techniques, the staples of consumer reviewing, don’t do justice to a branching game. You could cull together a bunch of links to what other people said about their play experiences, but what the hell does that mean to you and those reading? “Ah yes, so many insights in such a small space.” You might even say the word “interesting” aloud; and, as J. Murray says, “‘interesting’ means ‘fuck you.'” You could take the extra time to play through the thing in every way possible, but then you’d simply have a chart to show for your work. Charts, wonderful for showing how something complex has been put together, don’t do any work toward explaining why a BioWare game is compelling. Why?

Because it’s your first playthrough that matters–the choices, friends, and enemies you make in that one pure ludic experience. You don’t need to see what else was possible; it’s the potential for missed opportunity that matters. You play through it again not to see what else happens (nothing ever surprises you or changes much), but because you’re chasing that dragon.

My answer to the question Kirk posed is, admittedly, overtly academic: construct a thesis, cut a chunk out of the game, and make it make sense to you. A while ago I briefly spoke with Michael Abbott about academics and our proclivity toward traditional thesis structures. Maybe it hurt my ability to write a compelling, regularly-updated blog? I’ve certainly failed at maintaining this quiet corner of the web. That said, there were a few months where I was calling it in on keeping up with Michael’s writing: too many games I didn’t want to play, too many disagreements on games we’d both played, too many generalities and what I’d call “NPR style” thoughtful commentary. I read it all, but I didn’t put the extra work into replying or thinking further.

Recently he wrote an extended suite of articles about why Uncharted 2 matters, and it snapped me back into caring. He had a point to prove, and that’s what he did. The only disagreement I might have with the endeavor is that I can’t believe he didn’t save it for proper academic publishing. I suppose the web is changing academia quickly, and I’m too busy learning the ropes to think about the future (I save all my good ideas for papers).

This was meant to be the opening paragraph to a counterpoint article, a reply to the design skewer Michael wrote today about Dragon Age. Instead it became something ungainly and far too general for my own tastes. I hope you didn’t read it. Tomorrow I’m going to post an article about DA:O. Take a look at Michael’s complaints, noting the tension between a desire for realism and the inhuman absurdity created by the bones of old and dead design necessities. Did anything about Dragon Age strike you as particularly true, despite its faults? I’m going to write about something that made sense to me. It’s going to spoilerific.


13 Responses

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  1. deckard47 said, on November 12, 2009 at 12:12 am

    That is a huge tease. Quite unfair. But I’m excited. I hope you don’t Spoil to many amazing things for me 🙂

    • Simon Ferrari said, on November 12, 2009 at 12:47 am

      What I’m going to do is stage the spoilers out in order that they come, so you can drop off the discussion as it goes. You’ll miss the climax and a good old fashioned cinematic analysis, but, ya know 🙂

  2. Max said, on November 12, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Good point about the missed experiences being what makes games like these interesting. It really adds an element of risk that’s not present in other types of games, which causes you to consider your decisions much more carefully than you normally would. Still, this is often damaged by the utter absurdity of the choices available to you – all too often, your ‘moral options’ consist of A. something unbelievably morally virtuous B. something so despicably evil and vile that even a Disney villain wouldn’t do it or C. an extremely bland middle-of-the-road that nobody wants to choose (because it’s bland). Of course this isn’t a novel complaint, but I’d like to see it addressed by a game – is Dragon Age better on this front? I won’t be finding out myself until it drops in price…

    • Max said, on November 12, 2009 at 10:27 am

      Also, upon reading the article you linked to, I have to ask: is it the designers’ fault for building a system that can be exploited, or is it his fault for exploiting it? So you can make the game’s interactions laughably stupid by needlessly grinding your persuasion stats – maybe you shouldn’t grind them! If you don’t want the game to seem silly and implausible, don’t do things that make it that way. I think his complaints do have a degree of validity, but come on – at least it’s not Fable 2, where you can cause women to fall in love with you left and right by spamming the “Thumbs up!” gesture (at least, I think Fable 2 was the game Tim Rogers was talking about when he told that story – whoops, sorry for mentioning your least favorite games writer!).

      • Simon Ferrari said, on November 12, 2009 at 6:01 pm

        It’s a tough call on the exploitability. In a roleplaying game it’s your job to take a role and act accordingly, you know? But it’s hard when the designers make it so you can only play your role one of a few different ways. It’s not your fault for wanting to exploit, because the designers have hidden all this shit away from you that you have to approach in the correct manner if you want to see it.

        Dragon Age takes a step away from the good/evil/nonchalant thing, but it’s still guilty of giving you some implausibly over-benevolent and -malevolent choices.

        Yeah Fable 2, is the thumbs-up one. Laaaaaaaaame.

  3. Erik Hanson said, on November 13, 2009 at 11:52 am

    I want to make snarky comments about all of this!

    For what it’s worth, I think that having a map of all the possibilities would be a great starting point for a lot of analysis–It would be a great resource to include in something like a Critical Compilation at C-D. I just don’t know anyone who’d be willing to do that much work to merely provide a starting point.

    • Erik Hanson said, on November 13, 2009 at 11:58 am

      To follow up: I think it would be marvelous if game designers gave some sort of “spoiler chart” to critics and academics. I wouldn’t mind if they charged a small fee for a stand-alone copy or packed it in with the game.

    • Simon Ferrari said, on November 13, 2009 at 12:08 pm

      Oh I’m sure there are people in achievement grinder forums who’ve already done it. I really don’t think obsessive = incisive. You’d be hard-pressed to prove to me that anything other than the choices you make in your first playthrough, along with the being able to plainly see those missed opportunities retreating into the distance, matters at all to a player. To a designer, sure, there’s a big difference and desire. If you want to make something like this, then you need to be able to chart it for yourself.

      Of course there are four kinds of people:
      1) pure players
      2) people who want to be game designers and won’t
      3) people who want to be game designers and will
      4) game designers

      Each of these kinds of people will want something different. I’m a pure player when I write, a pure designer when I code. I’m never going to make a game this complex. I make cartoonish political simulations and interactive fiction, you know?

      • erikalanhanson said, on November 13, 2009 at 12:15 pm

        Maybe this goes back to the old “reader response” (or “new games journalism”?) debate, but I think that the experience of the audience as a whole is a better focus than the experience of an individual player-critic. Because of that, I see value in not only looking at my own choices and their consequences, but at the choices I didn’t make, the perceived consequences of all the choices and the actual consequences that would result from each. Beyond that, I think that the whole range of dynamics puts a value judgment on each possible choice, which is a small corner of game design that I find particularly tasty.

        Then again, I used to also go down those giant water slides and experiment with how the ride would differ if I changed my posture, or if I shifted my weight during a specific curve’s approach. It may just be curiosity.

      • Simon Ferrari said, on November 13, 2009 at 12:26 pm

        How is what you want mutually exclusive with a number of people coming together to share their stories and observe differences? How can you trust one person, even yourself, to arrive at some kind of objective understanding of the system? Charles Pratt played my EoL game like 80 times, and he still couldn’t tell me how everything was put together. He was close… but still, I’d prefer to give my take and then read your take and then decide.

        This idea that one person can speak to “the experience of the audience as a whole” because they reloaded their saves to follow different dialogue trees just doesn’t make sense to me.

      • erikalanhanson said, on November 13, 2009 at 12:44 pm

        I’m less concerned with what the general audience did experience than with the potential experiences offered by the program. I don’t care too much if, say 62% chose option A over option B. I’m more interested in what the options were, how they were presented, and what the results of each option would have been.

        I admit that this is, in part, the same curiosity that made me break things like Walkmen so that I could figure out how all the parts worked. At the same time, I am most intrigued by what the consequences of each action communicate. If, for example, the situation is that there’s an obstacle that can be gone over, under, around or be blown up in a WWII FPS, I am interested if there’s a benefit to going under and keeping cover (teaching the player timidity and caution), if there’s a detriment to jumping or using explosives and giving away your position, if there’s a secret weapon cache if you try to find your way around the obstacle (endorsing exploration and dalliance), or if shrapnel from blowing it up could injure you or your teammates (as negative feedback for using force when not necessary). Then, I want to look at what all those say about tactics and about the experience of being a soldier in WWII and generally.

        Then again, that’s a lot of close-reading on very small things. As I’ve said before, I have enough to read and think about that I don’t think I need any more to avoid boredom for the rest of my life.

      • Simon Ferrari said, on November 13, 2009 at 12:55 pm

        Ah well I don’t have any more arguing in me. How bout that choose your own adventure visualizer? I like that slightly more than chart, but still not my thing.

      • erikalanhanson said, on November 13, 2009 at 2:10 pm

        Upon reflection (and listening to some more of Chris Thompson’s Free during lunch), it seems the difference here isn’t necessarily something worth arguing about anyway. In the end, it amounts to history vs. biography–both interesting and useful in their own rights.

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