Tag Archives: Dragon Age

Opinion – The problem with the world of The Witcher

I’m midway through The Witcher 2 and I’m struggling to love the series the way reviewers and audiences seem to.  The issue isn’t the production values.  The Witcher 2 is very much a Mass Effect style game with all the technical qualities that come with such a statement.  What Witcher has in technical quality it lacks in setting.  For all the obvious love that went into this game, I’ve noticed several reasons why it just can’t measure up.

 

It’s predictable

When I first jumped into The Witcher, I was impressed by the consistent moral grey area and lack of obvious choices.  It felt like a world where unpredictable things happened and the best of plans didn’t always work out.  A game and a half in and I’ve noticed the patterns.  The humans are some combination of ignorant, racist, and smug.  Non humans are old Tolkien stereotypes under persecution that Dragon Age modelled better.  The foundation exists to say something about race relations or to build an interesting history, but instead The Witcher squander’s that potential to rehash the same views and stories with little variance.  The world always seems characterized by humans ignorantly hating non humans and non humans fighting a guerilla war in response.  The series has many variations on that theme (human pogroms against non humans, attacks by non human resistance, discriminatory lords abusing non humans, etc), but doesn’t move beyond that one note.  I hope CD Projekt Red evolves the world beyond the limit direction it has taken it so far.

 

It lacks wonder.

The opening of The Witcher 2 is truly grand.  The Witcher (Geralt) walks through a camp readying for war.  In front of him are soldiers checking their gear, explosions from enemy munitions, and a grand battle on a massive scale.  It’s a great introduction and inspires a sense of epic adventure.  Unfortunately, just about every scene after that is cramped villages and generic forests with a hefty coating of dirt and grime.  While The Witcher’s universe is meant to be bleak, it doesn’t need to be boring.  One of the great advantages of a fantasy universe is how it creates opportunities for wonder on a scale unshackled by reality.  Fantasy universe’s have infinite opportunities for wonder that ought not be wasted on the mundane aspects of existence.  The developer should use this opportunity, not waste it.

 

It thinks high politics matter

I haven’t seen this sin in a while and it hasn’t improved any with age.  No one cares about the high politics of a made up universe.  Seriously, we can barely get people to pay attention to the politics of the universe that they live in which people actually die.  You think anyone cares about the potential for war between two made up countries or the clash between nobility shown entirely off screen?  If a developer is going to introduce this kind of politics, they need to work hard to make it personal to the player.  Otherwise, the player will skip over your long, detailed story about the fight between Temeria and Nilfgaard.

 

It has a teenage sense of maturity. 

I remember the early days of video games as they took their tentative first steps into the world of mature themes.  Back then, developers defined maturity like your average teen rebelling from their parents.  Cussing is shocking!  Boobs are so hot!  It’s hard not to see parallels with The Witcher’s universe.  The relentlessly dark aesthetic doesn’t add weight to the universe, it’s just bleak to the point of dull.  Constant cussing imparts no additional edge to the characters.  Treating women as sex dolls (did you know everyone wants to sleep with Geralt?  They do.) and adding nipples on dwarven statues doesn’t make a game sex, just misogynistic and embarrassing.  It’s time to age the maturity of The Witcher beyond kids getting aroused from Victoria Secret catalogues.

 

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Opinion – Fantasy is Lame

The noble warriors of light can go die.

Fantasy sucks.  Mostly.  There are always exceptions to broad brush statements like the one I just made, but fantasy mostly just sucks.  Compared to its sci fi contemporaries, fantasy books, games, and movies, lack originality.  Fantasy works are tied to popular models of the past that haven’t evolved in interesting ways in years.  Characters, storylines, and settings all feel like warmed over copies of previous works that were themselves warmed over copies of their predecessors.  If the genre is ever to grab my interest again, it’s going to have to change.

Ditching the medieval setting would be a good step.  Fantasy authors have tied dragons, magic, and powerful artifacts together with low technology, feudal kingdoms, and English accents for so long that it’s easy to forget that none of these elements ever have to be related.  By assuming they’re joined irrevocably, fantasy creators reinvent the same stale worlds that hold no wonder for experienced (or even amateur) audiences.  There is little joy to exploring yet another high fantasy world with castles and wizards.  Alternatively, consider some of the most successful fantasy works in the modern age: Harry Potter and The Magicians.  Both import fantasy into modern times and take great pains to integrate magic into more familiar settings.  These are fun worlds to discover because they feel fresh to the reader.  They also give their authors more flexibility in creating new characters and situations.  By making magic the purview of a select, secret group, Rowling and Grossman create magical microcosms where they can both delve into their unique magical worlds, but also show how they interact with a largely magically ignorant society.   Dropping the medieval from fantasy opened up creative space in a way that keeping the old setting never could have.

The traditional fantasy races could use an overhaul as well.  By sticking to elves, dwarves, dragons etc, fantasy also limits the kinds of adventures and concepts it can explore.  These races are well known quantities that offer few new experiences.  Having a greedy dwarf who is good with an axe or a wrench is about as uninteresting as it gets.  The traditional races are so overused that even new takes on them don’t feel new.  Bioware’s Dragon Age made elves the downtrodden poor of their fantasy world and it still felt too similar to the usual treatment of Elves as the highly advanced guardians of a declining civilization.  Flipping traditional elements of well-established tropes can be a good source of creativity, but not when the trope is so well worn that even the juxtaposition of old and new still feels too familiar.  Fantasy needs genuinely new races that use elements of the style in interesting, unexplored ways to break out of the samey rut it finds itself in.

Magic, one of the key elements of most fantasy, is another place to innovate.  As one of the defining features of the genre, magic serves as the lynchpin of a lot of fantasy worlds.  It manifests as an otherworldly force wielded by highly skilled individuals drawing upon mysterious forces.  There’s no reason why magic can’t be something else.  It could be a power source, a corrupting influence, or a gift from fickle gods.  It could be the foundation of a society until it’s discovered that magic comes from killing cute babies (Soylent Magic is made of people!  It’s made of people!).  Magic can be anything we want it to be, so there is no reason to keep it penned in to old dudes with pointy hats.  The medieval setting is the most limiting problem of fantasy, but magic has the most potential for interesting scenarios.

There are a number of creative ways to break fantasy out of its rut.  One potential solution is to encourage fantasy artists to create more high concept works.  High concept works adapt a genre’s style to explore an idea outside of the genre’s usual focuses.  For example, Blade Runner used androids as a vehicle to explore the nature of life and sentience and how it differs (or doesn’t) from the naturally occurring version.  The advantage of high concept works is that they force a genre to look outside of their usual tropes by prioritizing the message.  Parts of the familiar tropes that don’t work are removed and the remaining bits are adapted to serve a radically different narrative.  There’s nothing wrong with fun adventures, but they rarely innovate in such a way as to establish who new worlds and ideas to explore.

The solution is simply that fantasy must innovate.  Fantasy creators need to look at the very foundation of their genre and revaluate whether every brick really is as important as it seems.  When the genre does innovate, it succeeds (see previous examples).  Furthermore, the recent success of superhero movies suggests that elements of the fantasy playbook already work in the mainstream (replace science with magic and The Avengers is a game of D&D). There is considerable potential in fantasy so there is no reason why it should be sci-fi’s boring cousin.  I’d love to see something new.

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Opinion – Wrapping up 2014

Arbitrary rankings for goodness!

2014 has been a bad year for video games.  From the controversy surrounding the Gamergate issue to the rash of overhyped games that failed to deliver, it’s hard to see this year as anything but a failure.  Still, there have been some successes.  In this article, I’ll go through my most disappointing game, but I’ll also highlight three games that show what the year could have been.  Let’s hope 2015 is better.

Most Disappointing Game – Civilization: Beyond Earth

This was a crowded field.  From the disappointing games I played like Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel and Farcry 4 to the others I mostly heard about like Destiny or Assassin’s Creed: Unity, 2014 was chock full of over promises and underdelivering.  Even then, one game stood below the rest.  Civilization: Beyond Earth.  I initially met the announcement of a Firaxis developed space Civilization game with a sense of joy and excitement.  We hadn’t seen a proper successor to Alpha Centauri ever and the premier turn based strategy development house was taking it on!  Unfortunately, the final product proved to be an extension of Civilization’s flaws rather than a proper development of the concept.  Firaxis failed to infuse the game with the story or the strategic depth of its spiritual predecessor.  Even without the comparison, Civilization: Beyond Earth was just a soulless game without much to recommend it.  There were certainly worse games this year, but few failed to live up to their potential like this game.

Best Surprise – Hearthstone

Blizzard Entertainment is one of the most public and successful developers, so it’s hard to say that anything they do is a real surprise.  That being said, a deep, complex collectable card game is incredibly difficult to make and Blizzard had no background in it.  Even without the experience, Blizzard created a fantastic experience in Hearthstone that only the beta players really saw coming.  From the variety of strategies to the slick interface, Hearthstone is the digital successor to Magic: The Gathering.  To be sure, the game has a ways to go.  Blizzard has a great deal of design space to explore, I’m not convinced it has a grasp on how to build cards for arena, and it doesn’t seem to have a clear strategy for rolling out new cards.  That being said, the base game is fantastic and accessible.  We now know that Blizzard has the chops to put together a compelling card game.  The question is whether it has the ability to maintain it.

Best Updates – Crusader Kings 2: Rajas of India, Charlemagne, and Way of Life

Any who have played Crusader Kings 2, know of the game’s ridiculous depth.  Even the vanilla version allows a player to control thousands of Christian leaders across almost 400 years of history.  Had developer Paradox walked away from their 2012 hit, it would have remained a great game.  What makes it truly one of the best is Paradox’s continued commitment to updating and improving CK2.  This year, we saw releases that expanded the world to India, introduced a story line around the Carolingian kings, and created an RPG-lite system for character development.  Paradox made an already deep game even deeper this year and shows no signs of slowing down.  If you haven’t had a chance to play this game, overcome its (admittedly, vicious) learning curve and dive into one of the best strategy titles available.

Game of the Year – Dragon Age: Inquisition

It’s telling that my best game of the year is also a heavily flawed one.  DA:I suffers from a number of bugs, odd pacing issues, and a generally uninteresting cast.  Even with its problems, it still provide the most compelling experience of the year.  DA:I is effectively two games.  It combines open world exploration with a dedicated scripted story line with the challenging, complex choices that we’ve come to expect from the Dragon Age series.  More than any game of the year and most games made, DA:I provides a clear sense of the world the player is inhabiting and the people who live in it.  The history, culture, and society are all center stage and intricately woven into the gameplay.  It’s telling that, as much as the first Dragon Age frustrates me, DA:I has tempted me to go back, endure that frustration, and truly make the story my own.

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Opinion – Yoink!

I’ll take that.

Games steal.  Development often relies on the iterative improvement of previous concepts previously stolen by an earlier set of developers.  This is largely a good thing as it allows a large groups of individuals to enhance an idea beyond what the originator could do.  It allows leads to bland repetition of the same game mechanic, but what are you going to do?  Theft happens in all aspects of gaming, but this article is devoted to stealing in the world of Dragon Age.  The fantastic worldbuilding of this series can’t hide the fact that much of what we see has been done before.  Fortunately, Dragon Age does it well.

Tolkien

What it steals:  This is the obvious one.  DA’s primary races are elves, dwarves, and men who unite to defeat an encroaching army of evil, orc-looking Darkspawn.  The races largely behave like their Tolkien brethren with the elves possessing magic and a tie with nature, the dwarves dwelling in the mountains with their famed mining skills, and men covering the world in divided empires.  DA has magic, quests, artifacts of power, and enough Medieval Times props to reenact the year 1066.  Welcome back J.R.

What it changes:  DA narrows the focus of its fantasy to the lives of common individuals over the grand sweeping history of Tolkien.  There’s a greater focus on the reality of society and those living within it.  Perhaps the greatest example of this is the elves.  DA’s elves have fallen since a glorious earlier age and now reside on the lowest rung of human society.  They suffer systemic discrimination and live in ghettos.  Tolkien talked about mistrust between his various races, but DA takes the player down to the individual level to see that kind of hatred and the effect it has.  This is but one example of DA forgoing major battles in favor of individual stories.

Warhammer – The Warp

What it steals:  In DA, magic comes from The Fade.  The Fade is an ever changing realm of demons who are manifestations of emotion.  Wizards tap into The Fade and may traverse it, but are also vulnerable to possession and can return to the material world inhabited by demons.  Sound familiar?  It should.  The Warhammer universe uses a very similar concept called The Warp.  The Warp is the source of psychic energy for Warhammer’s magicians and represents great power and great vulnerability.

What it changes:  DA makes one big change.  Whereas The Warp has malevolent overdemons called gods, The Fade lacks any kind of structure or coordination.  As a result, The Fade is more like an unclaimed wilderness instead of the hostile territory that is The Warp.  This demotes the creatures of The Fade from a genuine enemy to wild beasts and so removes The Fade as the primary foe, unlike the gods of The Warp.  That being said, The Fade is still dangerous and the question of what to do with those with a connection to The Fade remains a real one.

Medieval Europe

What it steals:  The once mighty Tevinter Imperium (the Roman Empire) ruled over all of Thedas (Europe).  After several internal rebellions and the coming of the Darkspawn (Huns), the Tevinter Imperium (the Roman Empire) fractured resulting in a rump state (The Byzantine Empire) and the rise of the formerly conquered nations of Orlais (France), Antiva (Spain), and Fereldan (England).  Concurrently, Andraste (Jesus) rose in the name of the Maker (Christian god) to overthrow the old Tevinter pantheon (Greek gods).  Andraste (Jesus) was ultimately killed by the betrayal of her husband (Judas), but the religion she founded (Christianity) spread across Thedas (Europe).  The hierarchy of said religion, the Chantry fractured between the Tevinter Imperium’s Black Divine (Orthodox) and the successor kingdoms’ White Divine (Roman Catholic).  The events of DA occur during the invasion of the Qunari (Muslims) who seek to spread the dictates of the Qun (Koran) across the world.

What it changes:  Not a lot.  The history of DA and medieval Europe match up closely.  The only real difference of note is the effect of magic.  While the Byzantine Empire and Western Europe certainly had their philosophical differences, they never saw such a fundamental societal split like how the Tevinter Imperium and the rest of Thedas treat magic.  The result is the other difference of note.  Whereas the successor states of Europe sought to recreate the Roman Empire, the successor states of Tevinter seek to expunge its influence.

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Opinion – Pacing or Why I’ll Never Beat the First Dragon Age Again

Too much of a good thing.

With the arrival of Dragon Age: Inquisition, now is a good time to look back at the Dragon Age series. I could ruminate over the amazing world or deep combat systems, but I’d rather talking about the aspect of the first game, Dragon Age: Origins, that nearly killed the whole thing for me: pacing. I don’t see this talked about much, but DA:O’s pacing was some of the worst of any game I’ve seen and certainly the worst to ever come out of the venerable Bioware studio. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s first start with what pacing is.

Which, unfortunately, starts with a discussion of design elements. Design elements are a nebulous division of the various parts of a game that makes up the whole. From music, to art, to gameplay, and beyond, games are comprised of these various elements. They can be defined broadly as shown above or in smaller chunks such as by song or an individual level. The level of design element that is appropriate is determined by issue that is currently being addressed. The borders of design elements are often fuzzy as many parts of a game bleed over into others. For example, a discussion of story might also include elements of art, dialogue, and gameplay and even be compared against another design element drawing on those same parts. Really, this is just a way to conceive of games that allows for comparison and a general understand of which part of a game is being talked about.

Pacing is the speed at which a game switches between design elements. Pacing works on a broad level, such as the rate of switching between story and gameplay, or at a more granular level, such as changes in music or art styles. Slow pacing switches through design elements at a low rate whereas fast pacing is constantly changing design elements. For example, many games grant access to weaponry over time. Slow pacing in weaponry would spread the introduction of new weapons over hours of content whereas a faster pace might give them to the player up front. It’s also worth noting that speed, being a relative measure, is largely left up to the user to define. What may be fast for one user is slow for another. Tutorial missions for a new player may go too fast whereas an experienced player may get bored from hearing what they already know. Like so much in games, there is no universal evaluation of the speed of pacing.

Dragon Age: Origins is an example of slow pacing. The player starts off in a town where they gather quests, talk to villagers, and generally flesh out the story and world. Once the player has talked to everyone and acquired all the quests, they head off into a dungeon to explore and fight. This combination of story and combat isn’t unique to DA:O, but the poor implementation is. When the player is investigating the story, that’s largely all they’re doing. There are a few fights, but mostly its dialogue and books. This wouldn’t be a problem except that it goes on for hours. Only after a substantial investment of time does the player then move on to the dungeons….which also take hours. The two design elements, story and combat, aren’t intertwined in any way with the result of overloading the player with one element at a given time.

There are three major results: familiarity, loss, and frustration. With familiarity, the player engages on a design element so much that the element is robbed of its ability to surprise and shock. The player has dealt with an element so often that they have a preprogrammed response that is designed to get to the next element and not explore content. No doubt many players have skipped through dialogue just to get the quests and start dungeon crawling. The second result is the loss of what little intertwining of design elements that does occur. I can recall fighting my way through the dungeon called Deep Roads and reading little scraps of paper relating to quests I had picked up a couple hours earlier. DA:O, having not addressed those quests between when I grabbed them and that moment, expected me to recall the backstory. Not happening. It’s hard to support a detailed story when I’m playing a section so focused on combat that it can’t be bothered to drop hints and reminders until the quest’s resolution. Finally, frustration is a very real result of DA:O’s poor pacing. When I was talking, I wanted to be fighting. When I fought, I wanted to be talking. By focusing so heavily on one design element at a time, the game prevented me from deciding my own pacing and letting me determine if I wanted to fight or read. I was continually forced to play the content I was tired of rather than the content I wanted.

Dragon Age: Origins is not a bad game. There’s a great deal to recommend it, but it screwed up the pacing. I’ve tried going back to the game, but I can’t get past the feeling that I am playing two separate games that aren’t good enough on their own. That’s a shame, because DA:O does just about everything else right.

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