Dragon Age, and the unending battle of fluff vs crunch

I am still working my way through Dragon Age, and still thoroughly enjoying the game. While people agree in general that the game is of high quality, there is a split of opinions online as to how well it actually works … as a game. All of these games which tell stories have to provide a mix of storytelling (ie. exposition, introduction of NPC characters, exploring the world) and actual gameplay. So it isn’t surprising that different players value different parts of that mix in different ways.

Brainy Gamer has a fair summary of gameplay issues, particularly with how persuasion works in the game. (This has been an issue with pen and paper games since forever also. How DO you play a character who’s smarter or more persuasive than you are in real life? In P+P we either roll the dice, or the GM shrugs and has the characters respond as though you were being convincing.)

evizaer picks apart the combat gameplay

Mitch Krpata finds that the game doesn’t do anything to show a non-RPG guy how to play or relate to it.

It’s also not surprising that a lot of MMO players are really digging Dragon Age. The mixture of quests, exposition, combat gameplay, and large world setting isn’t that different from the MMO standard, but being a single player game, DA is far more tailored for the single player experience. The UI is familiar, the basic tactics are familiar (crowd control? heals? tank? check.)

Neither is it surprising that a lot of gamers like the game, but criticise the gameplay. It does feel awkward to show such awesome storytelling, and then follow it up with a scene where you run around picking up everything that isn’t nailed down. That doesn’t really help the story, and it feels old fashioned. Really, everything your character owns or acquires should have some sort of story behind it, whether you earned some money and bought it from a merchant, or it was gifted to you. Picking up loot from random monsters is often daft, and grabbing everything in sight in town is just stealing.

I also agree that letting you queue up commands on characters in combat, or switch to a full turn based option, would have improved the combat experience. In many ways, DA isn’t even trying to raise the bar or change anything major about RPG gameplay – a genre which is old and already feels strained. Even as a roleplaying game, DA is an awkward mess of old skool D&D tricks such as old fashioned puzzles, problems that can be solved by killing more stuff and dungeons with the equivalent of 10’x10′ rooms with traps and wandering monsters, and more modern RPGs which take a more story based or character based approach and offer more nuanced moral dilemmas.

But still, somewhere along the line players have to decide whether the good side outweighs the bad, and that’s a personal decision. Whether the fluff (everything that isn’t direct gameplay, like dialogue, story, worldbuilding, character design and animation,  achievements) outweighs the crunch (hard gameplay, stats, how gear relates to performance). And when the fluff is this good, it feels churlish to ignore large steps forward in one side of the game and just cavil about locked chests.

Dragon Age is one of the most immersive RPGs I have ever played. The human noble origin brings tears to my eyes (I’m a sucker for stories where a character’s beloved parents die, probably because my mother died young). I have felt genuine regret at decisions I have taken in the game, I’ve certainly wanted to shout at some of the characters. And I’ve laughed at others. That sort of strong emotional response shouldn’t be brushed away as ‘Well, the storytelling is OK I guess.’ It’s far more than OK. It’s the response you feel to a good film or a good book. This is why people love it, and the tactical gameplay is probably better than most MMOs.

You can’t compare that to a game on rails like Uncharted 2. Yes, the cut scenes in Uncharted are great. But they’re just bridges to the next platform/shooter section. I don’t care about those characters, except that they amuse me. The cut scenes in DAO are interactive, and although that just means picking options from a list, it also means that you have ways to drive the story forwards in different directions.

As a gamer, I’d love to see better gameplay for interpersonal interactions. There’s no reason why dialogue shouldn’t be as exciting as a shooter – it’s easy to imagine scenarios where someone’s life could just as easily depend on how a conversation proceeds as how quick a player is on the draw. It’s totally fair to criticise DAO for not even trying to advance the state of RPG gameplay.

But it feels harsh and one dimensional to me to fail to note the advances the game has made in the areas of storytelling and immersion. I never wanted to cry when I was playing Uncharted 2 (except possibly in frustration at not knowing where I was supposed to go).