20 March 2011

Dragon Age II and the future of storytelling, character building, and chainmail bikinis

An apology on behalf of the upper corner of my brain, where I presume my personified ability to write hides for long periods and feasts on Cheetos: yeah, sorry. Now, get back out here, you ungrateful tit! The meat, then:

Recently, I finished up with Dragon Age II, and I find myself increasingly amazed at the ability of some games to surpass their predecessors despite massive pressures to do the very opposite. I’ll get more into the specifics, but I have some general things that I keep coming back to. These all apply in varying ways to Science Fiction, which is why it matters here.

In many ways, of course, Dragon Age II (and its predecessor) grab from the standard bag of fantasy tropes, dragons being the least of them, Dwarves (dwarfs, depending on how much one reveres Tolkein) and elves, too, and their respective stereotypes. Now, this isn’t much of a problem when it comes down to it, because it can allow subtlety, relying on certain archetypes to take care of the atlas-like support while finer details are spun out, which I believes explains a lot of the recent explosion in fantasy – they all build on each other complementarily, much in the same way of ALL the MOVIES about PEOPLE IN LOVE, I mean, HOW MANY PEOPLE AND STORIES CAN THERE BE? Oh, well, I realize that the depth is hardly comparable, but you get the point; this is a maturing field, one that has built itself from the ground up and is just now starting to get going into real production.

There’s other parts of this grab bag that aren’t often used so well, though. (I would argue that DA II avoids these pitfalls, fortunately, but that’s for later) The Breast Plate and No Ugly People phenomena are alive and well still, for one. Fantasy literature covers tend to revel in this, with various ratios of smeared dirt to magic use to signal high/low fantasy, but some of the worst offenders are computer games. I stopped playing RIFT for this very reason, not out of any dislike for proper female proportions, but because a world of Victoria’s Secret models dressed as such causes major immersion issues. World of Warcraft used to be a major offender in this—every possible variation was to be seen, right down to an armor model that was basically two metal bowls and nothing much else—but as of late they’ve given female characters significantly more modesty (although the character models themselves are still, um, idealized.

I’ve told you all of that to tell you this: not breaking ground in realistic depictions of women within Dragon Age would not have been a problem. I’m jaded about that (although RIFT was a bridge too far for me) but then DA II shocked me out of my complacence twice before the first hour was up, and both times bucked the trend. First, the character I was able to make was…moderately realistic. Actually, I was able to make a face that I felt would not have been out of place in Peru, classical ‘moon-faced’ Native American, someone who I doubt would make the cover of Sports Illustrated no matter how svelte. Second, the first NPC to join your party is a lantern-jawed female who, nevertheless, isn’t really ‘butch’ in any way. Oh, and the armor covers them, you know, protecting and all that. Now, keep in mind that there’s still a fair amount of abstraction at work here, but these nods to realism worked on me, at least, and sucked me in as much as anything else.

Anyone who’s played Bioware RPGs within the last 15 years knows that one can expect a basic level of story competence that’s miles above most others, although this gap has been wider at some times than others. This game is no different, with the expected richness of character from damn near everyone, mature themes handled with care, and the standard assortment of emotions, but one thing stood out to me in particular. To be honest, it stood out to others first, but not in the same way…the Gamespot review puts it this way:

There's an odd lack of direction here. There is no overall sense of purpose, no main villain […] [T]he stakes are never clear because there's no central plot to pull you through. As a result, the story is scattered--a series of missions and events without a center. The most heartfelt moments come from peripheral tangents and side quests focused on individual party members, where you explore loss, love, and betrayal. Nevertheless, there's a discouraging lack of epic-ness and focus, and no final prize to set your eyes on.

This sounds damning, actually. It’s not a bug, though, but a feature. There’s no massive story because you’re the tale. It’s even a told tale, framed in the conceit of an interrogation of one of the characters after the fact, and the effect is that the entire game is basically side quests, which, when you take Gamespot’s words at their face, starts to sound like a pretty compelling game. That’s the real tale, and it’s a mark of how far games—and fantasy!—have come.

Once completed, I noticed something else about the game, or rather about myself. Once complete, I was done. Well, that sounds dumb, so let me rephrase: when I completed the game, I felt that I was satisfied that I hadn’t missed anything that would have significantly changed how I felt about the game. The game completed itself on its own time, but let me feel as if I had completed it on my own terms; this is no mean feat. To a degree, actually, I am loathe to replay it too soon, because so many of the characters and their relationships with you changed so significantly that it’s hard to see them in their early states. I returned to a savegame and betrayed one of the characters (a Sephiroth expy of sorts, brooding and maundering about fate) with the intent of exploring another path, but couldn’t, because it felt like I had just forcibly mangled the story that had already been told.

There’s much that’s new in this game, much that’s not, and much that tells of a grander future for the medium. It set many things into relief for me, and that’s something hard enough to do as of late. Dragon Age II is a glimpse of the future of computer fiction, you could say, and you’d be right, even it is just a game…the right blend of realism and abstraction, of embracing and rejecting canon, of guiding the player though a story that is nominally linear but doesn’t seem to be, well, more please.