[Dragon Age] Season of the Witch (Hunt)

For any fans of Dragon Age Origins who have been living in a bubble, today marks the latest (maybe the last) DLC release for the game. It’s called Witch Hunt, is set a year or so after the end of DAO and … you’ll get to find out what happened to Morrigan. Not only that, but one of the three companions is the Dog. (Or /A/ dog, if your warden didn’t survive or you want to play a different character.)

Bioware promise the chance here for players to tie up the last loose end from the original game. What happened to Morrigan and her unborn child? Personally, I can’t wait to find out.

The original game had a pretty satisfying ending, so I don’t feel that Bioware have been holding out on anything or released an incomplete game. They’ve also been as good as their word about supporting the game with DLC – a mixed bag according to reviews but a nice collection of different takes on how a DLC should play out. (Surprisingly I can’t find a page reviewing all of them but the pick of the bunch seem to be Stone Prisoner, Warden’s Keep, Leliana’s Song). Do you want a quick gear hunt? A chance to play parts of the game through a different perspective? A prequel from the point of view of one of the companions? More golems?

If they have fallen down it’s partly because players expected the same quality from the DLC as from the original game. A tricky expectation to manage when the original was fully voiced (with the notable exception of the main character) and took years to develop. And the other reason is because when you are paying piece-wise for content, the price is always going to be compared against the original game and the original will always look like better value for money. You can buy DAO for about £12 on Amazon at the moment – that’s about 40-60 hours gaming. A 1-2 hr DLC can’t compare with that for price/value.

I’m glad DAO has done well for Bioware, it was a fantastically enjoyable gaming experience for me so anything that encourages them to do more sits well here. And then all that remains is the inevitable game of the year edition with all of the DLC bundled in. Maybe some DLC-bundles for the holiday season too for people who already own the original.

Anyhow, I’m looking forwards to Witch Hunt. Who is with me? And if you’ve played any of the other DLC, what did you think of them?

Which came first, the game or the story?

I’ve read a few posts recently on immersion in gaming, and Toskk summed up the problem neatly here. There are different types of immersion, and they don’t all happily coexist.

If I’m immersed in a story, the absolute last thing I want to do is stop and min-max my character stats (or worse, be forced to go back to a previous save point, redo my gear/stats and play through some of the story I have already seen). If I’m immersed in a game, I don’t want to have to sit through seventeen cut scenes and have to care about which option would give me the best reward. If I’m immersed in exploring an area, I don’t want to have to fight through some scheduled event or be forced to grind out reputation just to be allowed to enter the next zone. And if I’m immersed in a solo resource management game, I don’t want to be forced to group.

Immersion (or we can call it flow) is not only the goal of many gamers, but it is also the problem. Having to switch between a gaming mindset and a storytelling mindset not only kills immersion but also will annoy people who liked one side of the game but not the other.

Figuring out how to neatly merge some of these styles is the big challenge for the next generation of game designers. But most MMO gamers will agree that they’d enjoy a virtual world from which stories and interesting gaming challenges both flowed naturally. We know it is possible to some extent, as long as players are willing to compromise – games like Uncharted 2 merge the storytelling and gaming brilliantly well, to a limited extent. Dragon Age charmed over 3 million players with a similarly engaging take on a similar problem. And it looks as though Mass Effect 2 will be at least as successful.

Playing the game badly

It’s very easy to play a storytelling game badly. All you have to do is completely ignore the story so far when making decisions.

If you decide that your character has no social skills so you will insult everyone you meet, you’ll still get through the game. You may also get some very amusing interactions and possibly more fights. It will involve picking non-optimal conversation options, but from a storytelling point of view, it’s a perfectly good way to play through the game. And that’s a player decision, you CAN choose to not try to pick the ‘best’ option in any conversation and … it won’t lead to disaster, just a story consistent with the choices that you have made.

In a bad storytelling game (like, many old school text adventures), making the wrong decision early on can cripple you in endgame. It’s like having a sadistic storyteller just waiting for you to slip up. But a good game, like a good storyteller, will give you plenty of hints as to where a decision might lead. Or if a decision has random and unforeseen results, then you will be given a chance to deal with them.

I was pondering this when reading Ravious’ post on why he feels stressed by storytelling games. I feel he missed the point. In a good storytelling game, you don’t need to stress about making the wrong decision. If the decision is right for your character and the story you are telling, then it isn’t a wrong decision.

But what this means is that a true storytelling game should never be heavily reliant on min/maxing from the player. Because that would lead to one preferred route through the game, and would cut out any character concepts that were not in line with the min/max result.

For example, mages are really powerful in Dragon Age. A min/maxer would tell you to pick a mage, would tell you how to spec it, and would tell you which specialisations to select. But I finished the game on my dwarf rogue and never felt hampered – being able to play on an easier mode was a way for me to tell the game that I didn’t want min/maxing to get in the way of my story.

When stories flow out of games

Storytelling is all about the art of giving meaning to things that we encounter in life. If you read a good biography, it will read like a series of anecdotes (ie. small stories). No one’s life is really a story until a storyteller sits down and pats and moulds it into the right shape. A news story might be dull when it happens to you personally … until you see it written up in a newspaper at which point it becomes a proper narrative.

Or in other words, that sword +1 that you got from the GM is very dull. But Caliburn, the sword +1 which was a rare drop that you cleared an instance 40 times to get, and that you then used to go tank a raid boss? That has a story. Adding difficulty or grind to a game is one way to add meaning. When you overcome those barriers, the results feel more meaningful than if you just woke up and got your quest reward in the post.

But difficulty isn’t the only way. Seeing the virtual world around us respond to decisions we have made in the past makes those decisions more meaningful too. It’s just that difficulty is by far the easiest way to make these achievements meaningful to all players in a multi-player game.

In a solo game, there are other options. The game can adjust more easily to the player. But in a MMO … if anything is going to be genuinely difficult, it needs to be designed assuming min/maxers. So in an MMO, either everyone must min/max or else difficulty is going to be somehow adjustable and high end achievements lose some meaning.

Freeing up the stories

Then there are players like me who love the stories and the virtual worlds and even the gameplay, and don’t enjoy the min/max side of the games at all. I’d have much more fun in games if I never had to care about how my character was specced or geared. Those things are not fun for me. So I’m glad in WoW that people make up gear lists – I wish they weren’t necessary but at least they let me skip the parts of the game that I hate.

This is also why I don’t like collectible card games. I love playing them, but only if someone else puts together a deck for me. Deck Building, like other forms of min/maxing, simply doesn’t appeal. So really I’d be happier playing a non-collectible card game like Bridge or Fluxx (which is an awesome game that everyone should try) where it simply isn’t part of the game at all.

No wonder I loved Dragon Age so much. The game was designed to let you downplay gear and talent choices. And gave you a great personalised story anyway. I can only pity the people who played that game badly, because they were too scared to veer from the min/max path in case anything non-optimal happened.

Am I spoiled for MMOs?

Maybe I have been playing too much Dragon Age over the last few weeks (surely not!!!), but levelling a Death Knight through Dragonblight at the moment is a frustrating experience in comparison.

As Horde, you encounter Koltira the blood elf death knight in Agmar’s Hammer where he has some quests. I thought, “Hey! I saved your life in my origin story, you’re going to recognise me now and we can chill out together and bitch about what a jerk Arthas was and how much better things are now, right?” Nope. He treats you exactly the same as a death knight as any other class.

I should know better than to expect more, but I think the damage has now been done. The bar on my expectations has been raised.

Fellow DAO fans, do you think playing that game is going to change your expectations of MMOs?

Dragon Age: Your Ending, and My Summary

White_DAO_Logo

After an epic 45 hour punctuated session of gaming, my journey in Dragon Age has come to an end … for now. It was a bitter-sweet ending — the Archdemon was slain (this surely can’t be a spoiler if you were paying any attention at all), life goes on, my fellowship of NPC companions split up and everyone went their separate ways. I think I did right by them, mostly, but at the end it was just me and my faithful dog, Bitey, and the long open road.

Was my character still the same self-centred but basically well-meaning casteless Carta bruiser that was introduced in the dwarf commoner origin? I think so, but she’d changed. She’d seen the world above, faced horrors underground, faced her inner demons on a religious pilgrimage, and locked horns with some hard bitten political mavens in the Landsmeet. And killed lots of darkspawn, too. A story where the characters have room to change and grow is a good story. My Dragon Age story could easily have been told from the perspective of any one of the companions too, because they also changed and grew and faced their own inner demons.

I enjoyed reading how other peoples’ stories ended in an rpg.net thread setup for the purpose (link is full of spoilers, you’ve been warned). Because rpg.net was originally a community of pen and paper roleplayers, you’ll see a lot of people describe how they RPed their characters, why they made decisions IC, and where that led.

And although there are good endings and less good endings (depending on your point of view), I don’t get the feeling that this is a game that you win or lose. Either way, you have your own story.  I’ve also felt strongly while playing Dragon Age that I wanted to talk to people about how their stories were going, what choices they made, and to compare experiences. Even though it’s a single player game, it was an experience I very much wanted to share.

And now, I’m already planning on playing through it again:

  • I want to try playing on a harder mode now that I understand the mechanics more fully.
  • I want to play through as different origins and races.
  • I want to  learn more about the lore by playing through the game differently. How does Orzammar treat non-dwarves? Does the Landsmeet treat you differently if you are a human noble?
  • I want to tinker around with the storyline by trying different options and seeing what happens.
  • I want to get to know different companions. I only had time to strike up in depth relationships with a handful of them.
  • My dwarf girl was not the romantic type. (I laughed at Zevran and told him to get lost when he called me a sex goddess.) I’d like to play a more romantic type and see how some of those play out.
  • I’d like to do more of the sidequests and dragon slaying. In my play through, I decided that stopping the Blight was my first priority so I didn’t want to waste too much time or take too many risks outside hat.
  • I want to try some of the DLC content – I could do that on my main character but it might be more storywise to run through it on a second one.

So there’s plenty of incentive to keep playing the game, although I think I’ll take a break first. One thing I do note though – I have this notion of ‘playing around with the story’. I’ll be able to go back in and try out some ‘what if’s. There’s no other media than games in which you can approach a story in that way. To rewind and try different choices or different approaches and then see what happens. You can’t do that with a book (barring game books) or a film.

The experience players have with the Dragon Age story isn’t just of going through cut scenes and railroaded platform or combat sequences. You engage with the actual story as a gamer. Your choices drive it, your roleplaying decisions guide it,  and although you control the direction, you can’t always predict how the story will go because it drives you too. The story is the keystone of the game, and its emotional heart.

Is it limited? Yes, it’s only a computer game, and what you end up with are variations on a theme rather than radically, utterly different stories. But I think they are different enough and interesting enough to compel me to want to play with the possibilities given.

I dismiss  the complaints about lack of originality. The best parts of the game are the less original sections, and all fantasy relies on using existing mythical threads to weave a story that appeals to people on a very instinctive level.

For example, the section where you search for the Ashes of Andraste is very clearly based on the Arthurian grail quest. There are monsters to fight, hardships, moral dilemmas, puzzles, revelations and a strong sense of religious pilgrimage. But even a story so well known as the quest for the grail feels fresh and different when you are experiencing it alongside your character. If the emotional core of the story is present and is appealing and FUN, it really doesn’t matter if it is original or not.

(Conversely, it’s easy to tell an unusual story in a way that’s confusing or fails to grab people.)

Issues and Pacing

I love Dragon Age but the game isn’t perfect. There are ways in which it could be streamlined and better presented, although I think the game does succeed totally in many ways.

It is a long game. Sections like the Mage Tower and the Deep Roads can drag, especially if you try to play them through in a single session. But it also simulates a long and difficult journey very well. The sense of ‘oh no, not another set of darkspawn’ is part of the story being told.

From a gameplay point of view, it’s open to discussion whether some segments are too drawn out. (It would be slicker to have decided what the optimal length of game session was and to design the sub-quests around that baseline.) But that decision is an artistic storytelling decision on pacing, not a gameplay one on ‘how many mobs should be in that pack to challenge the player?’

I enjoyed the sense of the long and drawn out journeys in my quests so I don’t have an issue with the pacing there. But as I say, that’s a subjective opinion, others may differ or might have wanted an option to let the game know that you wanted things sped up.

The end game doesn’t allow enough time to tie up loose ends emotionally with the rest of the NPC companions. If you’ve gotten very close to any of them, it would have been nice to have some extended conversation options on the night before the last battle, it would have given a better sense of closure. Tamarind discusses his story here (spoilers behind the link) and explains why he really needed to have words with Alistair … if the game had allowed it.

The DLC is handled awkwardly at the end. The problem here with the storytelling is that this game definitely has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The DLC should logistically happen in the middle while your character is out adventuring and before the final battle. But clearly players are going to finish the story and Bioware still wants to sell DLC to them.  So after the final set of cut scenes and ‘this is what happened to your companions afterwards’, you’re left back in camp and told that for the purpose of ‘continuing your adventures’ you can assume you’re back in the midgame.

I don’t have the heart to really complain about this. I’m glad I had my neat ending and wouldn’t have wanted to skip that just to leave my character in a convenient spot storywise for DLC. A story that was designed at the start to have up to two years of optional but available DLC wouldn’t be able to have that neat ending, it would be more MMO like. Maybe in future games, they’ll have better ideas for how to make this gel more neatly.

Anyway, I’m back to Lothering with my new mage-in-search-of-a-husband. Instead of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it’ll be like Pride and Prejudice with Darkspawn.

And thank you Bioware, for restoring my faith in storytelling in computer games.

Links of the week

  1. We’ve seen a lot of discussion about Blizzard’s plans for the Icecrown patch (3.3). Fives writes the clearest and most heartfelt summary of them all. This isn’t just an analysis, it’s a love letter from a hardcore raid leader who sees his game on the verge of extinction. Six words that terrify Blizzard.
  2. The other big topic of discussion in gaming blogs has been some little shooter called Modern Warfare, perhaps you’ve heard of it? (It slays me that this outsold dragon age by about a zillion to one. Expect to see a slew of FPS based MMOs in about 5 years time.) Rock Paper Shotgun explains why the real problem with the ‘moral dilemma’ level wasn’t the moral dilemma, it’s that it was rubbish.
  3. As anyone who’s been keeping up with this blog knows, I’m totally enamoured of Dragon Age Origins. I finished my first play through earlier, but haven’t had time yet to marshall my thoughts. In the meantime, check out what the effervescent Tipa has to say in her DAO review. ElectricDeathRay also has a super review in the form of a love letter, explaining just why he loves the game so much.
  4. Overly Positive has another angle on DAO. In his view, Bioware have put their money where their mouth is and shown us now that they really are way ahead of the field in storytelling right now. So what does this mean for Star Wars: The Old Republic?
  5. The Final Fantasy XIV Core blog asks “What kind of gamer are you?” Apparently I’m a generic gamer, I’m not even sure if that’s good or not. (Or maybe a storyliner – they added that later after I’d read the post!)
  6. Dragonchaser takes a first look at skirmishes in LOTRO and loves what he sees. This is a really neat sounding feature that’s coming out in the next patch. It involves instances that scale from single player up to a full group. It involves randomised encounters. It involves customisable NPCs who can help out with healing, tanking, or dps. What’s not to love? (I think Tobold’s on crack when he says he’d rather play Cataclysm than Mirkwood – but more on that next week.)
  7. octalblack is upset because she thinks that people give Champions Online an unfairly hard time for the cash shop, where WoW gets a free pass. Why can’t people be consistent in how they criticise features? I fear the sad truth is that most people who criticise CO have no intention of playing it, whereas most people who talk about WoW are current players, so that affects how it’s seen.
  8. p@tsh@t echoes the feeling that a lot of oldtime MMO players have, which is that we’re slowly losing the worlds from our virtual worlds. Can the mass market support a virtual world or are we relegated to a shiny 3d chat room with a right click adventure menu?
  9. Anyone else noticed that lots of people are easing up on their MMO playing at the moment because of all the great single player games that have been coming out? Dusty asks (tongue in cheek?) whether single player games are ruining our MMOs.
  10. And in honour of Twilight, here’s an old Halloween link. The Escapist asks whether you can identify these 30 vampires in 30s.

By the way, check out the new banner, courtesy of Veneretio. I think it’s bluerifficly awesome, and not just because  this font makes me think of ice creams at the seaside.

First alt is for fun, second alt is serious business

Do you remember the first character you played in your first ever MMO?

You probably didn’t bother to go look up optimal builds on bulletin boards, you didn’t care or even understand what the endgame was and you certainly had no plans for what you’d want to do with your character later on. Maybe you picked your character because you liked the look, or it fitted some favourite genre concept, maybe it was based on an old pen and paper character, or a favourite character from a book, film, or comic.

In any case, you logged in and the whole experience was a voyage of discovery. You were learning how to play, exploring the game world, figuring out how to interact with other players and NPCs, and probably making lots of mistakes and doing lots of things that you’d later judge to be embarrassingly bad. But it was fun. It must have been fun because you stuck it out long enough to either learn better or to start another alt. On the next alt, you used all the things  you had learned about the game from your first character. You were able to save time, make sure to pick up important quests and items, and probably had a much smoother ride through the game.

And it’s funny that in some games, you can go back and ‘correct’ any mistakes more easily than others. In a level based game, you can go back and repeat old levels if you want to make sure to pick up all the loot, grab all the achievements, or finish up anything you forgot last time. Although modern MMOs make it easy to change many things about your character if you later decide that you chose badly, the experience of nonoptimal levelling will stay with you. It won’t affect your character later in the game; you can replace gear, repeat any rep grinds that you missed, and so on. But you will know that you could ‘do it better’ if you ever wanted to start again.

That lends a lot of replayability to a game. It’s the notion that if you start again, your experience will be sufficiently different to be interesting (or at least, more interesting than mooching round the endgame and doing daily quests ad infinitum). It might be different because you pick a different class, level in different zones, pick different difficulties, or because the game has some randomness built into the levelling game.

I was thinking about this with Dragon Age. I finally gave in to my story fixation and set the difficulty to Easy permanently for my first play through, and I love the extra flexibility that this gives my game. I can pick companions because I like them and not just because they have classes or abilities that I need to beat the difficulty. I don’t have to stress over character builds or loot, I’ll just make do with whatever I get that looks interesting. And I can still get through the game, experience the story, and learn enough about the mechanics that I can play through again on a different character with a harder mode later.

Or in other words, I gave myself permission to just have fun and it let me focus on the parts of the game which I most enjoy. Next time, I’ll already know the basic storylines so I’ll be able to focus on other sides to the gameplay. I enjoy the combat, I just don’t want to spend too muc time on it right now.

But you can never have that initial experience of just having fun in the game again. Next time through, you cannot help being more knowledgeable. Lines of dialogue that made you laugh out loud in surprise the first time through will only raise a smile. The badass boss that beat you three times before you changed your strategy and smacked it down? You’ll get it first time of course, because you figured out that strategy yourself.

The relaxing thing with a single player game is that you can take your time. But in MMOs, we often rush through the fun parts as fast as possible. It makes me wonder whether all MMOs should make you play through solo first for awhile, to give you space to learn and explore, and only then let you loose on other players after everyone else has had their fun.

 

Dragon Age: So, what did you do at Redcliffe Castle?

This isn’t a matter of life or death, it’s more important than that …

For many fantasy fans,  it’s a crucial part of the genre that heroes be heroic and that doing good deeds  is rewarded in stories. If that is important to you, you will not enjoy playing Dragon Age.

It is clear from early on in the game that this is a dark fantasy. Very dark indeed. Even where it is clear that evil needs to be fought, the people who fight it are far from good themselves. The vaunted maturity of the title means that players have the option to choose between the lesser evil and the greater evil, and to decide for themselves whether the means justifies the ends. And the game will not punish the player unduly for making the nastier choice; sure, some of your companions may disapprove but the game isn’t biased towards one type of morality over another. Being good won’t be punished, but there’s no inbuilt reward for it either.

One of the earlier moral dilemmas faced in the game takes place at the human stronghold of Redcliffe Castle. I was fascinated by an rpg.net thread which asked players to discuss the decision that they made there in game, and to justify it. The thread is full of spoilers for that part of the game, but I was impressed that different players made spirited defences of all the different options available.

As a GM, I found the storytelling consequences just  a little cheap (it wasn’t as true a moral dilemma as it probably should have been), but the device did work. It made people stop and think. And I can’t really talk about it without spoiling the encounter so I’ll stop there.

But if you are playing through DAO, do check out the thread. It’s really quite interesting to see a storytelling device play out that’s rather richer than we are used to in MMO questing.