6 Apr 2011

Dragon Age, WoW, and Heroes

This will be an odd post for some of my readers. I believe many of you are here to read about the things I make, not the things I do. I usually mention games along the way because they are a bit of both for me, but I don’t usually devote a whole post (and this is a very long one) to what I do in my spare time.

This post exists because I was asked by colleagues working on the Namasté Entertainment (a startup MMO focusing on RP and intelligent AI — the folks responsible for Storybricks) to write a review of Dragon Age 2, and to discuss what my current issues are with World of Warcraft. I decided to share my thoughts on these things things with you here as well.

I hope some of you might find my discussion to be interestingly written even if you don’t play these games. However, I am only loosely filling in such things as the players take for granted — if you don’t play either game or games like them, you’ll probably get a bit lost. I’m not going to define DPS (definition 1-3) or or explain who Arthas is. Mayhap you’ll fire up your leet reference skills and Google-fu. (As a one-stop reference for a lot of jargon, I suggest Urban Dictionary).

For the tl,dr version, find a synopsis at the very end.

PROLOGUE and CONTEXT
Let me start by declaring the one thing I like least about Dragon Age (both the original and DA2): it’s a single player game.

Before you assume I follow the hoary chestnut of “women just play to be social,” let me say I played WoW largely solo, initially. I didn’t join guilds except to shut up the assholes throwing charters on my screen. I toodled around exploring the game from multiple alts for many months, because I was there to understand MMOs first and only secondarily to play (as I explained in an earlier post).

I’ve played my share of other single player games, but over the years, WoW spoiled me. I like to game with other people but I also like the seamless and instant access to adventure and exploration that tabletop gaming drowns in dice and paper-shuffling. An MMO is the perfect compromise of social time and game time. Socially, DA1 and DA2 leave a unfilled hollow.

Offering a review of DA2, as I was asked to, requires the big caveat: I have not finished the game. I haven’t even finished Act I. I play leisurely, stopping to smell the flowers and enjoy the ride. This is true in WoW also; I am often the last to reach level-cap among my circle of friends every time the game has had an expansion. I think this playstyle affects my reactions to DA2, so my comments should be read with that in mind.

I also have not finished Dragon Age: Origins. I am not heavily invested in Bioware’s games, so my expectations are pretty much a blank slate. I think many people come to DA2 with expectations born out of playing Mass Effect or DA:O or I don’t know what. I don’t. This also colors my views, for better or worse. So — caveat upon caveat.

 

 

CHARACTERS, but specifically HAWKE
I can’t speak for the males, but the female players I know were gobsmacked by the hawt kickass hero of the Destiny trailer, and even the lesser trailers that preceeded it. And as a feminist, I am mortified by this, but can no more disable the gut reaction than the boys could keep themselves from reacting to Laura Croft.

As an analyst, I am intrigued that this is so — female arousal studies would suggest it usually takes more than pixels to warm the cockles. Even film stars/musicians rarely win that kind of immediate “ZOMG WANT” without a little more effort.

Mind you, the female players I know are mostly middle-aged (the youngest just turned 40), straight, and long-time gamers. As such, we’re accustomed to being attracted to heroes of the fantastical sort, I think. Perhaps more to the point, our sexual interests are no longer a matter of peachy-cheeked blushes and twittering behind fluttering fans. Hawt is hawt, and Hawke as seen in the various trailers is hawt.

Males surely still account for the larger segment of the gaming audience, but despite the appallingly-stupid dustup started by Straight Male Gamer in the Bioware forums, there are millions of females playing games more substantive than The Sims and among the men (of all persuasions), I would guess that many were also impressed by the kickass heroism on display. The trailers sold the game to me, and I’m guessing it sold the game to plenty of others.

Clicking the pic will take you to the Destiny trailer

Still, the trailers are not the game. But the same minds that conceived the trailer built the game. I watched one of the “making of” videos from the devs, where Bioware expressly wanted to feature one seriously and massively heroic central character.

I think they hit that note with ringing crystal tones.

Let me note that the cgi-augmented actor translated to pure pixels quite adequately, by and large. So far, I don’t know anyone who chose a f/Hawke as their first playthrough character. The game delivers what the trailer promised.

Thus, one reason I’m playing DA2 steadily is the same reason I finish a good book: I want to spend time with Hawke and the other characters (more later, about the Companions) and I want to see where the story is going.

INTERACTIVE FICTION
Many reviews bemoan that DA2 is a “story on rails” and players say they feel like they’re just along for the ride with the designers’ wish to be writing a novel instead of a game — that there isn’t enough interactivity, enough player-choice.

I agree that the story is Hawke’s story, not the story of some elf I rolled up and named Ipwnu from Craptasticland. For me, I feel I have enough sense of control, enough choices to keep me entertained. It’s like travelling from New York to San Francisco, with plenty of side trips to hold my attention between here and there. All games have some element of this, so it’s heavily a question of scale and degree. This is within my tolerance because my imagination is engaged. The story I’m playing is going on between my ears as well as on my monitor.

The best games will always do this. Imagination is fractal, and will always expand infinitely into the available space, to my way of thinking. Fanfic, fan art, machinima, even knitting and interpretive dance inspired by a good game bring evidence that an engaged player is doing far more than simply playing the game the designers construct. I believe this will be true of DA2 as of WoW.

Then again, maybe this is why I am a happy illustrator. No matter how polished and perfect a tale, I can create an image to complement and expand it, explore it from a new perspective, highlight a different facet.

Moreover, overtly interactive fiction from the established professionals is on the rise. A game like this is headed the same place from the opposite direction, and presumably both are responding to market value and people’s desire to step into their fiction in a very personal way.

Is this the best we can hope for, from games or novels? Probably not. I suspect it is a phase, a node in a seachange in progress of how we tell stories to ourselves. But powerfully engaging and truly epic characters will remain the bedrock of great stories, as it has since Homer and Beowulf and Gilgamesh, and doubtlessly since long before that.

HEROES
It seems that Hawke has a unique status, on par with the truly great. Moorcock called these heroes The Eternal Champion; Campbell, the Hero with a Thousand Faces. Hawke appears to be framed as Jung’s Solar Hero, and I haven’t even set foot in the Deep Roads yet.

This is one reason I don’t mind getting a “pre-rolled character” in Hawke, with his/her limited personalizations and no possibility of running another race from Thedas. I go into the game knowing Hawke deserves to be the Champion. I don’t know how or why — I expect to find out along the way. I’ll find out his secrets and his weaknesses, and the events that mold his personality. My vision of who I think I want him to be nudges me to take certain choices and eschew others, regardless of whether they min-max the game or not. (That’s the old-school role-player in me.)

A DIGRESSION about WoW and the nature of heroes
But you know what? Most player characters are only lower-case heroes, Zelaznyesque Shadows of great iconic Heroes — vital, important, powerful, certainly heroic but Shadows nevertheless. Why? There are too damn many of us with too many different stories. Twelve million WoW accounts, many with multiple level-capped toons. The toons are important to us, the players — and they should be! But no matter who our mains are, no matter how tricked out in full sanctified epic purple gear they are, with every item Best in Slot, there are those who did it before us, more often, and better. Everywhere there is someone with more Achievements, more Honor, more mounts, more titles.

We play heroes, yes, but Blizzard was smart enough to make the likes of Tirion Fordring greater than the best of us. (He was occasionally damned annoying, but never mind. Legendary Heroes get a pass on stuff like that.)

Arthas, too, was larger than life. He colored the entire expansion: prince, traitor, arrogant asshole that he was. His presence was everywhere. When the time came to face him, we found him more than a simple loot piñata at the top of Icecrown, but rather someone personally interested in “acquiring” our services once we were “ripe” and sufficiently powerful to answer his needs. It was not we who brought him down but the misdeeds of his whole misguided history, an ghostly army of pipers calling his accounts to be paid. That design decision was brilliant, the results felt tragic, and yet so painfully just.

That is the context against which I feel Blizzard failed so badly in Cataclysm.

The Heroes of Cataclysm
As personal as the story felt in Wrath, that hasn’t been true in Cataclysm. Deathwing? “Hey dude, thanks for the urban renewal. Let me know when I can bring out my alts to get [Stood in Fire] Achievements next time, would you?” Our dailies in Deepholm are the work of illegal immigrant gardeners and chain-gang convicts, kicking over mushrooms and breaking big rocks into littler rocks.

This is not the stuff of heroes. It would have been a step up to have our daily chores include the rescue of frightened kittens — or rather, bawling bear cubs — from treetops, like firefighters in Dick & Jane books. Or even those annoying bunnies.

from The Daily Blink; used with permission

I keep waiting for Blizzard to pull one of those rescued rabbits out of their hat and say “But we didn’t forget, LOOK AT THIS!” I recall talks given at Blizzcons and in forums about all they said they learned from Burning Crusade. They expected all the players to get excited about Illidan, only to discover that those of us who hadn’t played the RTS games had no clue who he was or why we should care. So they put Arthas in our faces from the start, and kept tossing him at us until people were sick of seeing him. They made bloggers sneer that the dreaded Lich King leisurely sauntered after us in Halls of Reflection, in no real hurry to catch us, to kill us when surely that was lame game design, not subtle storytelling that would all make perfect sense in due time.

I bought and played a bit of Warcraft III and Frozen Throne because of Wrath. And I still recall Metzen saying “We wanted to make the players leave a little bit of themselves in the snows of Northrend.” I launched the Wrath expansion with a randy, smart-mouthed ambitious mage with a twinkle in his eye. At the end of Wrath I had a grim, hardened Kingslayer with a thousand-yard stare. Blizzard succeeded magnificently, and I loved them for it.

It’s no secret that progression raiding takes focused effort. It seemed like it was worth it in Wrath. Deathwing, though, is a force of nature and far too impersonal to take umbrage at. The everyday nasties don’t excite me: ever wonder where the Defias bandits went? They changed their clothes and became Twilight Cultists, and are less scary than when they wore red bandannas.

I hated that fighting the Scourge might make us one of them … they had been our brothers in arms. Quests like trying to save Crusader Bridenbrad made players cry, even when they did not know the poignant backstory about the real man. The Wrathgate cinematic made me cry before I even knew the in-game context.

I loved the chance to be recognized and befriended by A Hero such as Bolvar Fordragon, too. He remembered me. I will never forget him.

 

COMPANIONS, but specifically VARRIC
Let me be in the company of other heroes.

The true sidekick gets snarky commentary but it’s actually a fine trope even aside from the endlessly fertile ground for slashfic that results. We have tens of thousands of centuries of brothers, sons, and fathers supporting each other in times of chaos and strife. Small wonder it is hardwired into our collective unconscious.

For me, Varric is Hawke’s good right arm, an indispensible Companion. He’s got the best lines, the cleverest repartée, and I don’t find him too hard on the eyes either. Hawke may be The Eternal Champion, but Varric is a perfect sidekick for A Hero. Even his AI is among the best — not, as a WoW blogger remarked about the rest of them, like a gang of fresh 85s in Grim Batol for the first time, standing in the bad and forgetting to use their cooldowns.

The Other Companions
In the original forum discussion that led to this post, some reviews linked into the discussion said they didn’t care for or about Hawke’s other companions. I’m not nearly as engaged with the others, no. None stand out. Aveline is my main tank, so the last slot gets filled with… whomever. Anders gets a fair amount of time simply because he can heal occasionally.

But in the DA wiki and other forums, a common and lively thread is to talk about “who is your least favorite Companion.” (Here is one of many.) Everyone seems to actively dislike at least one of Hawke’s companions, but for different sorts of reasons. The comments remind me of something said about libraries (my other profession): if we don’t have at least something to suit virtually everyone and something else to offend virtually everyone, then we’re not doing our jobs right.

 

 

If more people said they really hated all the Companions, or everyone hated one or two Companions, Bioware would have definitely stumbled. Yet for one person who doesn’t like Merrill’s stammered babbling, someone else finds it endearing. For every player who wants to smack Fenris for being an emo Goth-elf, someone else finds him easy to identify with.

It seems that Bioware struck different notes for different tastes, and that’s not a bad thing.

MECHANICS OF ENDLESS CUTSCENES
I’ve seen some reviews complaining about cutscenes. I’m of two minds about them.

In general terms specific to no game, I’d say I only want them few and far between, very well crafted, and they damn well better advance the storyline. The Wrathgate cutscene in WoW did that.

The current crop of cutscenes in Cataclysm are overwhelmingly massive failures. Foremost, they rarely advance the storyline; they just draw the curtain between phased zones. I adore phasing to permanently change ‘reality’ as a consequence of my character’s actions, but this is hamhandedly done. To take control from the player with a truly incompetent AI is insulting, and too often our proud heroes (there’s that word again) are literally reduced to pissing themselves and cowering in the face of laughable situations that, were we at the controls, our champions would obliterate or escape with a blink and two keystrokes.

Then there are the cutscenes of DA2. The game exists, to a great extent, in three forms: you’re running somewhere; you’re fighting something, or you’re in the middle of yet another cutscene. I found it jarring, yes I did… for about 10 minutes. That was 23 hours and 50 minutes ago, in game time. It doesn’t bother me any more. Why? Because unlike WoW cutscenes, it’s not a passive mini-movie, it’s where the game is taking place — through the dialog wheels and decision trees.

Furthermore, I actually like looking at the characters, seeing their faces instead of the backs of their heads. If you want me to identify with and relate to the characters I’m playing, let me see their faces. I’m prone to swing the camera around in WoW for that same reason, but the opportunities are few and far between unless I’m standing on a street corner typing in chat with guildies. It’s the norm for DA2.

A STORY ON THE RAILS
I admit I’m not generally fond of being railroaded through a game, tabletop or otherwise. Yet no one would suggest (except Johnson in Everything Bad is Good for You) that novels or movies were ever “on the rails.” (Even he framed his comment to make his point by turning game-critical commenters’ remarks on their head.) But as I said above, there’s a lot to enjoy on my trip that begins in New York and is certain to end in San Francisco. Maybe there’s no metaphorical “passport” for a sidetrip to Spain, but I didn’t sign up for a ’round the world tour. That’s a different game.

It possible that my relaxed progress makes me feel less like I’m riding a juggernaut. To go back to the parallels with a novel, I’m reading a few pages a night before I turn out the light, vs the way I gobbled down books in my college years, consuming them whole in a few hours, sometimes several a day.

I saw a comment in some forum that suggested the game should’ve been called “Dragon Age: Hawke’s Tale” instead of implying the game was a sequel to DA:O with a name like DA2. They’re probably right. My initial caveat about not being married to Bioware’s games means I take the game as I find it, instead of taking issue with how it didn’t match my preconceived expectations. And overall… I like the game I’m playing.

IS DA2 PERFECT?
Not by a very long shot.

I’d prefer not to have identical maps repeated as a “different” location. I cannot believe it’s just too difficult to put different skins and floor plans into use for different locations, or that Bioware thinks we either (a) wouldn’t notice or (b) wouldn’t care. It’s lame.

I’d like more of a living, breathing city around me. I don’t mind that everything takes place in Kirkwall and environs — we used to happily run Tunnels & Trolls adventures where we never left the city of Khosht for session after session. All you need is enough going on and you keep the players interested without shipping them back and forth across a whole continent.

Still, I’d like more things to explore, more to poke around in. I’d like the miniature side-quests to amount to something more than clicking on a random NPC and saying “You dropped this, you careless nerk” especially when I hardly noticed I found “this” (whatever it was) in the first place.

 

 

Instead, here I am, almost ready for the Deep Roads and there’s little left for me to do. I can’t even find thugs to mug for the last few gold pieces I need to fund my way into the expedition. And I can’t help but wonder what happens when you run out of quests and still don’t have enough cash! Does Varric cover the balance for you, or are you just stuck with nowhere left to go in the game??

But many of the very things others complain about, I appreciate. I don’t want to micromanage my whole team’s gear sets — RAWR is a massive database to help me do that for my WoW toons and I find it aggravating even to have to tweak my gear differently for my feral druid’s tanking set and her DPS set — that’s just one character, not four. I’ll tweak Hawke’s gear since he’s my main character in DA, although I would appreciate some better support to gauge whether it’s worth breaking sets for stats along the way.

But all in all, I like the game. I’m amused by the passionate mix of hate and love I see in the various reviews and forums, and the reasons given for each. I don’t love DA2 the way I have loved WoW, but right now — with all the problems of Cataclysm and a variety of side issues aggravating the whole picture — DA2 is far more entertaining, more of an adventure, more heroically satisfying than anything I’m likely to do in WoW tonight.

Your mileage may vary — and it probably will.

THE TL,DR VERSION
1) Characters: Hawke captured my imagination even before I started playing the game. Varric is equally engaging — perhaps more so. I want to explore the story they’re in.
2) Heroism: There is an heroically epic feel to Hawke’s tale. I am not getting that itch scratched in World of Warcraft right now, because Cataclysm has repeatedly trivialized our characters.
3) Cutscenes: They are arguably too frequent, but the end effect is a plus in DA2 — which is a lot more than I can say about the cutscenes in Cataclysm.
4) Storyline: Hawke’s tale is a “story on rails.” As I understand it, there are exactly two possible endings, neither of which are sparkle-pony unicorns and happy rainbows. That’s okay by me; I’m enjoying the ride.
5) Other issues: I dislike replicated floor plans and side-quests that aren’t actually anything I did deliberately or consciously. I really like not micromanaging my team’s gear. I have no problem with everything taking place in a limited space, particularly when it takes place over a broad span of time.

A FINAL NOTE
To my complete aggravation, bemusement, and no little amusement, this so-called “review” took me most of three days to write. That includes editing out at least another 1000 words or more.

I know most folks will never read the whole thing. Regardless, it was very instructive for me to have put this much thought into my views about DA, about WoW, and about heroes. I hope a few of you do find it interesting enough to read, and worth the effort.

6 Responses to Dragon Age, WoW, and Heroes

  1. I read the whole thing! I’ve yet to fire up the DA2 demo, and haven’t finished DA:O. I love the stories BioWare weaves, and the worlds they craft. I am haunted by the upcoming release of Mass Effect 3 and finishing the saga of Commander Shepard.

  2. Hmm. Interesting. I’ve not played either Dragon Age game, but there did seem to be a lot of “I love one but not the other” reviews.

    It seems to be a case of wanting to enjoy a story vs. wanting to explore a story. I think the “on rails” and “stuck in one city” complaints come from people who want to explore more than kick back and enjoy a set story.

    I also, personally, don’t consider a part of the game where you have some input to be a “cut scene”. If you’re still contributing to the game through selections and dialogs, then it’s not really a cutscene. A cutscene is when all control is taken away. And, yeah, that’s just annoying when you lose control.

  3. Pingback: Works in Progress: the Weird and the Lovely | Oakheart at LizDanforth.com

  4. lana says:

    thank you for this review. i think it is outstanding. just playing first act of DA2 after freezing wow after 6 years and think you hit the nail.

  5. Shannon says:

    I haven’t played either Dragon Age. You nailed the problems with WoW perfectly as far as I’m concerned. Thank you for your insights. This middle-aged straight girl might have to check out Hawke soon.

  6. Liz says:

    Shannon, check out the DA2 trailer. That fight is playable in-game at the end of Act II — and it’s hard as hell.

    You don’t need to have played DA:O to enjoy DA2 — some confirmed Bioware fans believe you’ll hate DA2 if you liked DA:O.

    Me, I liked both. I’ve finished DA2 once since I wrote this post originally. My first run was with a rogue male Hawke and I am nearly finished with a female warrior Hawke being played as differently as possible from the first playthrough, so I can see what changes. I remain impressed with the game.