Friday, January 9, 2015

Dragon Age: Origins - Part 2

It's finally time to continue where we left off some months ago. After bashing Dragon Age from several angles, we were wondering why on earth I chose to plow my way through the game. This post answers that question. Once again a lot of the things I'm going to say could be said of Mass Effect. I will be talking about my character a lot. Cath was a female city elf rogue. I wanted to play a rogue as it has been a while since I have played one; I wanted to play as an elf because for me it's always either elf or human, and once again it had been a while; I chose the city background to give my character a bit of cynical and practical flavor; finally, I chose female because that's my usual preference when choosing a virtual identity.

1. The roleplaying appeal

This is pretty much the main talking point of this post. I want to use an interesting description by James Paul Gee about the relationship "real person as a virtual character", or in this case, "me as Cath", as the basis of this discussion. The key point is that this relationship has three identities, not two. The first two are relatively straightforward: obviously there is myself as the player, and there is Cath as the character - we both bring possibilities and limitations to the gameplay experience. For myself, this means my mechanical and cognitive ability to play the game; for Cath this means her stats and other things that describe her in the game world. It's the third identity - the projective identity - that makes roleplaying games interesting. This projective identity is my interpretation of Cath's personality. It is not simply me, nor it is simply Cath - it's more like me making decisions for Cath based on what I know about Cath. If that doesn't make all too much sense, worry not - just read on.

This is bread and butter for those with experience in tabletop roleplaying games. You play as a character and in most cases it's not yourself. However, neither is she or he completely fictional - the end product is a combination of both the player and the character. The same can be said of acting. What you see on the screen is not the actor nor is it the character - it's always the actor's projection of the character. A different actor would portray the character differently - within the freedom they have been given. This freedom to interpret is also highly important when we talk about digital games. In tabletop RPGs the degree of freedom with which players interpret their characters is huge and they also typically have more agency in writing their character. The game master typically sets certain limits that are necessary for his campaign to work but beyond that, characters are created by the players themselves. When the game master and all the other players are replaced by bytes of code, upholding the illusion is much more difficult.

The ability to uphold a strong sense of roleplaying is BioWare's strength. This sense is particularly strong in Dragon Age, much more so than it was in Mass Effect. What I mean by that is, the game inspires me to think about things from Cath's perspective by providing me the freedom to do so. One important part of this is the way choices are framed - or rather, the way they are not. All kinds of value judgments about the choices are left to the player. Cath's companions did often chime in with their opinion, and that is fine - more than fine actually, because they *are* people, and people have opinions. What's important is that the game itself did not. Mass Effect has this problem with its bipolar morality scale - the game is disrupting my roleplay by explicitly telling me which actions are "good" and which are "bad". Note, again, that games definitely can tell things like this, but they have to do so implicitly, by showing consequences.

When choices are framed in one way or another, the decision-making drifts away from the projective identity to the player identity. This happens because the game is telling the player something the character cannot know. The extra information can cause conflicts that break immersion, especially if there are explicit game-mechanical consequences involved. For instance, if I - based on the projective identity - make a choice that I (the projective identity) deem "good", and then the game explicitly tells me that it was actually "bad", and punishes me for it (by moving my character to the wrong direction in a morality scale), it is severely inhibiting my ability to roleplay. The conflict here is that my character thinks the choice was "good", but me as the player is given information that it was "bad" and as a result my character is also now more "bad" by a bit even though I had her projected as "good". As you can see, this is a huge problem that comes with explicit morality scales.

On the other hand if choices aren't explicitly labeled and outcomes are only revealed later through consequences, it just becomes another opportunity for reflecting upon the projective identity when things end up going south. Choices can also inhibit roleplaying if they are too limited. This is the more difficult thing to avoid in digital games, because you would need one hell of an AI to truly abide to all sorts of projective identities. The general problem is that if none of the offered choices feel satisfactory to the projective identity, the player's agency in constructing that identity is taken away and put into the hands of the game's writers. Dragon Age generally upheld the illusion that I was able to make choices that seemed sensible to Cath. At the same time, choices made during the game - especially choices concerning companions - contributed to the growth of Cath as a character. This is no small achievement for a digital game. It is, indeed, more than enough reason to enjoy the game despite its shortcomings.

It is worth noting that while being able to create Cath myself (partly anyway - her background had to be chosen from a limited number of options), it is not necessary to have free character creation to provide a strong roleplaying experience. Even if the protagonist is pre-written, a game that supports roleplaying still easily allows the player to develop a strong projective identity. Case in point: The Witcher - especially the first one. Although the character is Geralt of Rivia with predetermined background and abilities, what I experience is my interpretation of Geralt of Rivia, and the game allows me to make choices based on that identity. In a way, even if you can freely create your character at the start of the game, the game itself still dictates a lot about what your character can become - in this sense, starting with a predetermined character is not actually all that different. In fact - to my knowledge - it's actually very common to have pre-written characters in live action roleplaying games. It's not unheard of in tabletop RPGs either.

2. Virtual relatedness 

We already know that I place a lot of emphasis on character writing in games. I know it's a bit silly, but I don't have that high expectations so it kind of works out. However, when we're talking about roleplaying, the importance of other characters in the game rises even further. A lot of choices in BioWare games concern how the player's character interacts with other people. To put it another way, the player's capability to express their projective identity is heavily influenced by other characters in the game. This, in turn, puts a lot of emphasis on a) how well these characters have been written and b) how well interaction with them is presented in the game. Creating interesting characters has been a strong point for BioWare for the longest of times - and Dragon Age is definitely not an exception. Indeed, without a strong illusion of virtual relatedness I would not have bothered with the game for long.

There is one clear sign that Dragon Age succeeds in creating this sense of virtual relatedness: I had very different opinions of companions when I thought about them as myself, as opposed to when I thought about  them as Cath. It is, I think, the best indication that Dragon Age succeeds first and foremost as a roleplaying game. Whereas I find Morrigan's antics amusing, for Cath - whose life depends on her companions - they made Morrigan seem incredibly untrustworthy. While Leliana might have been naive and even childish for me, for Cath she was the most comfortable person to be around. One more: I liked Alistair from the get-go almost, but it took almost the entire game for Cath to be able to truly consider a human male as a friend. All these companions had a huge role in building Cath. Her choices became influenced most by those she held closest, and she became skeptical of anything Morrigan seemed to approve of.

The sense of relatedness is created by making companions (and other NPCs) feel as much like people as is feasible in a digital game. They have their opinions, and they make observations in the environment. They also talk to each other when traveling with the player. Dialogue with them is written well, and it's delivered with very solid voice acting. In short, they make you want to talk to them, even become excited about being able to visit the camp between dungeons. This may in fact have been one reason why I felt the dungeons were so effing long - they kept Cath from having chats with her companions. Indeed, in contrast to camp conversations, the dungeons offered nothing to Cath's personality growth. They were merely obstacles between me and the content I actually liked experiencing. For the record, Mass Effect largely failed to create similar feelings in me because of one important difference.

In Mass Effect, while characters certainly are conceptually sound and interesting, they are portrayed rather horribly. The effort to make them feel like people has been either misguided or simply lacking. Having a conversation with anyone in ME felt a lot like reading an autobiography. That's a fancy way of saying that characters almost exclusively talk about their background. Some banter exists when they are taken with Shepard to missions and space stations, but not enough. I never truly formed any sense of relatedness towards Shepard's companions in ME because they did not feel like people. Even Garrus, probably my favorite character in the series, felt a lot like an audio book. In comparison, characters in Dragon Age feel more real, and thus more relatable - even though they also do talk a lot about their past. The key difference is that they talk about other things more.

Sense of relatedness is not strictly tied to roleplaying. I see it as a facilitator. Relatable characters aid the player in constructing their projective identity by putting the character in social situations - something that for us as social creatures is massively important in defining who we are. That is to say, it's not impossible to roleplay in an empty world. It's simply easier to construct a personality for your character if you can reflect upon that personality through interactions with other people. You know you're there when empathy replaces instrumentality as the player's basis of making choices (this is something I want to expand in another post). Likewise, relatedness is important in all games, not just roleplaying games. This is hardly surprising, as it is just as important when consuming other forms of fiction - be it books or movies. Narratives tend to work rather poorly if it's enacted by unrelatable characters - we need to care.

3. There is no freedom in a group

Although we have now concluded that characters in Dragon Age are quite relatable as people, there is one thing they are not - and that's a group. It did not bother me as much this time around, but it certainly bothered me when I was playing Mass Effects. A lot of dialogue occurs between the protagonist and her companions, but the companions themselves speak very little with each other. There are no group events in the camp - basically all dialogue between companions takes place when they are in the active party. While well written and somewhat frequent, it isn't enough to provide a sense of group. The relations between companions are superficial at best and while their antics are amusing, they don't develop into anything. In this respect, the game is heavily centered on the protagonist. This is actually a very common trait in roleplaying games of Western origin - it's also a cultural thing.

Culture or no, conveying a sense of group in a game with relatively high degree of freedom is far from trivial. By limiting most interactions to one-on-one, the developers have saved a lot of resources. Whereas one-on-one conversations only need to branch based on player choices and a few flags, group conversation branching is likely to get out of hand quickly unless certain limits are placed - and DA is just not placing them, opting for more freedom instead. This is fine, and supports what makes it good as a roleplaying game. It does however also mean that it would be almost impossible to convey a sense of group by having many-to-many interactions. First of all, simply accounting for the fact that there is no telling which characters will actually be present would require a ton of branching. On top of that, they would also have to take into account all kinds of status flags about the protagonist's relationship with each character etc.

I am somewhat curious whether this aspect has been developed further in, say, Inquisition and its war council. Meanwhile, a close comparison can be found from the Persona series, where the sense of group is immensely strong - especially in P4. However, the game is practically linear and while the player character can have different relationships with his companions through social links, these relationships are in no way reflected as branching in group events. It makes the entire group more relatable, but at the cost of player freedom and their ability to roleplay. In this scenario, writers are always guaranteed that certain characters will always be available for the group event, and there are not status flags to worry about. Even player choices during events are there almost exclusively for flavor, so there is no branching whatsoever. This is a common trait in Japanese RPGs and they play out much more like a TV series in this sense.

It may not be impossible to get the best of both worlds but I'd imagine it would be incredibly resource-intensive. With very careful writing, it could be possible to make conversations modular enough that you could simply omit and/or replace single lines without changing the entire discussion at each branch. However, doing this while still attempting to make the dialogue interesting and the characters relatable sounds like a massively tall order. In the future problems like this could be maybe addressed with AI when they learn to produce text in a credible fashion while staying true to the speaker's personality - but again, that sounds far off. Until a game comes along and proves otherwise, I am going to consider the lack of group sense in DA as a cost that comes from giving the player freedom. Therefore, limiting the game to one-on-one interactions has likely been a conscious choice rather than an oversight.


Last time Dragon Age: Origins took a serious bashing from me; this time we have come back to explore its redeeming qualities. What the game lacked in, well, being a game, it took back in being a roleplaying experience. The real story in the game for me was following Cath's growth. Being able to immerse myself in the game world through my projective identity as Cath was far more important than any game mechanical aspects. This, to me, is an appeal that is generally more common in Western roleplaying games but even among them, strong experiences that get close to what tabletop RPGs offer are few and far between. Getting so much out of other aspects of the game most likely made the dungeon parts even more frustrating though. While companions feel like more relatable than they did in Mass Effect, they still do talk a bit too much about their past and a bit too little about other things.

Finally, there is no sense of truly forming a group of people in the game as most interactions happen between the main character and a single companion at a time. It would seem like a necessary amendment that is required to provide the desired degree of freedom to the player.

Because of the gameplay shortcomings I am a bit skeptical about Dragon Age 2, given that it has been generally decreed inferior to Origins. For some reason I still feel bad about skipping a game should I move straight to Inquisition. There was also another consequence after playing DA. Since I really enjoyed the drama and basically everything except dungeons, I decided to finally look into Telltale's storytelling games and also to play other purely story-based games (although, I actually just stopped playing any games at all* for a while after finishing Walking Dead season 1). My next post will probably be about Persona 4 Golden though. I will still write about some story-based games in the future.

* Dota 2 is not a game - it's a lifestyle.

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