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).


6 thoughts on “Dragon Age, and the unending battle of fluff vs crunch

  1. I think you must force Bex to add you to this special Google Wave full of bloggers. I posted my thoughts regarding inventory space woes and excessive item collection there.

    But let me sum up the gist of my idea: NPCs should not pay for crap. Then you would not need to collect every crap for money. I.e. NPCs should not pay you for broken swords, unless this npc requires this for a quest. I remember Fallout 3 and Morrowind, I basically picked the Wasteland and the imperial province of Cyrodiil clean… 😉 – and Morrowind even made me become some kind of thief, I basically emptied every city house I entered… even if the sale value was next to nothing. Talk about compulsive behaviour on my part.

    The other idea is to have a dedicated quest item tab like in Age of Conan, yup, this game has also lots of good features despite all problems.

  2. DA:O’s storytelling is very good. I find the party members to be well-written and relatable. The problem is that most of the NPCs are way too easy to persuade and manipulate. When they fold like houses of cards after one measly half-sentence out of my character, it really hurts immersion.

  3. “How DO you play a character who’s smarter or more persuasive than you are in real life?”

    Back in the 80s, I used to play an RPG called Space Opera.
    In one adventure, our ship was looking for something in a solar system, and we failed to find it.

    Now the GM told me that if I had launched a recce probe to some gas giant and done blah blah whatever, we would have found the missing something.

    My argument was, that I, “the gamer”, was completely unfamiliar with the technology and science of the game, but my character, having a considerably higher IQ than my own, as well as years of experience of spaceships and probes etc, would have known what to do.

    Who was right?

    • In my personal view you were right, and a player should always be able to say to the GM, “would my character be able to think of anything else that I haven’t thought of.” But back in the 80s, a lot of GMs would have taken the approach that your GM did, because it was more ‘in vogue’ then to put actual puzzles for the player in the game.

  4. I do like a bit more crunch than fluff myself. I think the fluff and the crunch is good in DOA. The problem I have is you tend to get them both in large quantities. You have two hours of gameplay crunch with only a minute or two of fluff or an hour or so of fluff without any crunch.

    How do you queue up actions?

  5. Pingback: Dragonhate? « Procrastination Amplification

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