Friday, September 09, 2011

Dragon Age: Origins

Dragon Age: Origins  represents the culmination of a few trends in RPG design, which gives it a certain tension in both narrative and game mechanics. Its much-lauded story and characters are at the heart of this tension. On one hand, it wants to be a dark epic fantasy, directly inspired by George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books. On the other hand, it still uses general fantasy RPG and specific BioWare plotting tropes. The setting includes dwarves, elves, wizards and orc-like creatures called Darkspawn from the beginning, making it appear more as a traditional fantasy than the human-centered, politically-oriented dark fantasy of A Song of Ice and Fire. As anyone who played the Dwarf Noble origin story can attest, adding those other races doesn't eliminate the bloody political intrigue – but it's hard to say that it adds much of significance other than some slightly different character models (with the major exception of the oppressed elves, which is a twist both good and novel).

The conventions of RPG storytelling, instead of setting, are far more constraining for Dragon Age: Origins. To perhaps oversimplify, most video game RPGs, western or Asian, tend to follow gaming's version of the Hero's Journey. You start at level one, and are presented with some kind of world-threatening crisis early on. The game follows your character as he or she levels-up until the world can be saved. On the other hand, the narrative form of the epic literary fantasy has become fractured, with multiple different point-of-view characters dealing with interconnected events – seemingly dozens in some books. They may never even cross paths once over the course of a series, let alone a book. Such is certainly not the case in most RPGs, including Dragon Age: Origins, although you do see the occasional external cutscene, usually focusing on the villain.

There are two narrative benefits to the fractured point-of-view approach: first, that it allows every major event in the world to be experienced by the reader, and second, that it keeps narrative momentum going via a series of cliffhangers. Dragon Age: Origins takes its subtitle from the fractured potential origin stories of its main characters, where choosing your character's background, like City Elf or Dwarf Noble, leads to a different recruitment by the Grey Wardens. However, once your avatar has been drafted, the plot coheres into a much more conventional Hero's Journey-style RPG story. The loss of the fractured storytelling weakens Origins' narrative at several points, most notably when your characters go to recruit the Circle of Mages, Upon your arrival, you discover that the Mage's Tower has been betrayed and taken over by demonic influences, with most of the population already dead. It's a major event, and it's one explained almost entirely by exposition, instead of demonstration.

Divided storylines are uncommon in gaming, but not unheard of. Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes, released in 2009 as well, utilized multiple points of view to tell its story successfully. More traditional RPGs like the classic Betrayal at Krondor also switched between characters from chapter to chapter, to tremendous effect. Dragon Age: Origins seems like it's built for such a game mechanic. The different origins could easily have made for different characters all as once, working simultaneously, crossing paths occasionally. The game suffers from having too many party members, nine, when only three can be in the party at once. Dividing them up with different characters and storylines would have forced the player to get to know them better, both in terms of personality and by encouraging the use of different tactics.

The party members dominate the game so much that they give the game both its greatest joys and biggest frustrations. They are, generally, complicated, three-dimensional personalities, with histories darker and deeper than normal RPG fare. Their personalities are consistent both within themselves and within their world, although there are the occasional interjection, like Morrigan talking about “survival of the fittest” or Alistair doing an internet-inspired “MUWAHAHAHA”, that doesn't quite fit. They're fun to talk to, in when they're in your party with each other, they'll also banter with each other, occasionally quite entertainingly. This is all good (and probably the best variation on the party member theme since BioWare kicked it off with Baldur's Gate), but the problem is that the game mechanics don't entirely support the character mechanics. The choices you're given are either too free, or too limited.

The essential issue is that, with three characters of nine to choose from, there are rarely reasons to pick any one character over another. They don't say “Hey, I'd like to go with you on this mission” or “I won't do this,” except in really exceptional, easily avoidable circumstances. Also, for having such strong personalities and histories that aren't necessarily congruent with your characters, they're fairly easy to please. Get them talking, nod in agreement, and buy 'em booze. The “Feastday Gifts” downloadable content makes it even easier to get into their good graces – I know I'll disable that one if or when I replay the game. Even the most common mechanical reason to develop different party members, splitting the party into different groups, only occurs once at the very end of the game, and only for a quick battle which is also easy to the point of irrelevance. Pushing the player to use different party members is common in story-based games, most notably in the Final Fantasy series, where FFVI's final dungeon used three different parties, and FFX utilized a system where you subbed different party members in and out of combat according to need.

The typical mechanical reason for using a previously under-utilized party member, in these games, is usually to keep them strong enough for use later in the game. Dragon Age: Origins totally eliminates this, by pegging every party member's level to at least one below the main character's. Bizarrely, Dragon Age doesn't force you to use party members, nor does it encourage you to use any of them. The freedom to choose may seem nice initially, but without consequences, the choice is essentially meaningless. Without an anchor, playing the game, I always felt like I was doing it wrong. Should I be using every different member? Should I pick a main party and stick with it? Most importantly, was I missing significant parts of the game by playing the way I wanted to play, instead of some ideal fashion? When, fairly deep into the game, I discovered that the party members automatically set their levels to stay playable, I was actually so disappointed that I stopped playing for a few days. The game simply felt hollower knowing that there was no mechanical reason to vary my party members.

An imbalance in the game's classes exacerbates this as a problem. Mages are both the best at healing and best at dealing damage. Only two party members are mages (and the player can be a mage as well), so if you're not using both Morrigan and Wynne, you're making the game harder than it needs to be. On the other hand, missile-based rogues and fighters are probably the least effective, making mages with their ranged spells even more relatively powerful. While this makes a certain kind of narrative sense – in any fantasy world, mages are probably the most powerful persons – it doesn't mesh well with one of Dragon Age: Origins' other influences, massively-multiplayer RPGs.

One of the hallmarks of the modern MMRPG is its rigid formulation of combat. Your party consists of four different groups: a heavily “tank,” who draws the attention of the bad guys and sucks up damage; damage-dealers like rogues and offensive mages; crowd control, characters who paralyze or stun enemies (almost always also characters who do damage once their crowd control is worn out); and healers to keep everyone alive. There's an entire jargon around MMRPG, involving “pulls” - using a missile weapon to gain the attention of enemies, and “line of sight” to draw them into areas where they're easier to defeat using traps or exploding spells or the like. Dragon Age: Origins has a combat system which seems to be built around the same premise – all of those things are possible, and if you get them to work, helpful – but it's only partially effective.

The goal of creating MMRPG-style combat (also shared by Final Fantasy XII) is undermined by two flaws. The first is the imbalanced class system – in an MMRPG, any class, of any specialization, played well, can be useful, which is not the case with Dragon Age: Origins. Second, the combat system itself is far too fast-paced for a player to play every party member. Constant pausing and deliberation is possible on the PC version, but the game doesn't include an auto-pause option as the old BioWare games like Baldur's Gate possessed, which makes full player control over combat lie somewhere between impossible and extremely annoying. Instead, Dragon Age: Origins utilizes a straightforward tactical if-then approach for non-player-controlled party members, such as “If the main character's health is below 50%, then cast heal.” However, using this for complete control is still impossible, as tactical slots are doled out by progress through the game, instead of being infinite.

The tension in the combat, then, is between a chaotic, action-packed form of combat common to real-time single-player RPGs and the more segmented form of combat in RPGs. Dragon Age: Origins may not have entirely decided which direction it wants to go, but it still manages to have an exciting sense of both chaos and control for the player. This is kind of a synecdoche for the game as a whole. It has wonderful, ambitious aspects which are slightly diluted by its reluctance to embrace them wholeheartedly.