Punctuation wrangler and orthographic enforcer, feminist, atheist, glutton, geek, scatterbrain, and Seattlite.
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  • Ferelden is O.K.!

    Monday, March 7, 2011

    I didn’t write about Dragon Age: Origins while I was playing through it, but the few times I tried I kept getting stuck comparing it to Mass Effect 1 & 2. It’s unfair to compare them, being completely different games. But the reason I finally jumped into DA:O was because I foolishly hoped for a fantasy version of ME. So fuck it, I’m going to compare them—here goes: Dragon Age is checkers compared to Mass Effect. There, that ought to express all my deep and profound thoughts about DA, so I’ll just spend the rest of this post entertaining you with dirty limericks. Ahem. There once was a gal from Wooster— What? Okay, fine, we’ll talk about Dragon Age.

    Spoilers  for Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect abound.

    Dragon Age 2 comes out tomorrow and it’s hard to tell how I’m anticipating it. Not cautious optimism… Hopeful skepticism? I’m ambivalent because there is so much I dislike about DA:O, but I’m hopeful that DA2 will be the game I was hoping for when I picked up DA:O. I passed over DA:O when it came out because everything I read about the gameplay told me that it just wasn’t my kind of game. Then I played ME a few times and then ME2 even more times; somewhere after trying all the classes and recreating my first Shepard in both games, I thought, “Hey! I wanna play a fantasy version of this game!” So, DA:O.

    I found enough to like about DA:O—the voice work and dialog were enough to pull me through the game twice and the general RPG aspects of character progression and party customization had me furiously addicted. But the controls, camera, and UI: ugh. Forget the darkspawn—those were my worst enemies. The repetitive combat, redundant skills, and potion spamming: ugh and bleagh. The combat was tedious and not exciting, so I upped the difficulty and didn’t find combat any different (unlike Mass Effect, which once played on Hardcore becomes a much different and even funner game). And not many games can make leveling up exhausting. Then the fantasy tropes and story: meh. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this game would have been a lot better if it were made before the tiresome Adventure RPG and fantasy elements that it regurgitates became standard. Like, back in the Betrayal at Krondor days.

    Dragon Age: Awakening: The party stands before a dragon. It's made of lightning or something.

    As I said, comparing DA and ME is unfair, but take away all their differences in genre and IP and they have something unique in common, something BioWare is well known for: compelling moral challenges and deep characters. And that’s what I wanted when I started DA.

    At first, I found DA:O’s success at these to be mixed. I was severely disappointed in the near anonymity of the player character, “the Warden.” You rarely see her face, except for a curt nod or that look-around-the-room thing she always does. She has no voice or dialogue in conversations, only a choice of responses that prompt the next line from another character. The transition into DA:O was harsh having just played ME—in which the player character, Shepard, is the focal point of everything in the game and we are treated to Jennifer Hale’s superb voice work (or the slight Canadian accent and monotone of the male Shepard (it’s Stuart McLean in space)).

    But it turns out that the Warden’s anonymity is the most important distinction of DA:O. Partway through the game, my reckless little misanthropic elf was granted the illustrious opportunity of being able to desecrate the ashes of the wife of God, and one of my party members, the matronly mage Wynn, stepped forward and voiced her objection. Not only that, she threatened to leave. Leave my party. In my game. I thought, “But you’re my healer. I need you.” Faced with that decision, I let the ashes be (I could always sneak out and desecrate them later anyway). That was what made me realize that the Warden isn’t the most important character in Ferelden and this story isn’t about my character. DA:O reminds me that when I’m faced with a moral dilemma in games, it should never be as easy as picking an ideology and sticking to it. I may be the ego of the story and the leader of my party, but this is more than a party of adventurers—it’s a democracy.

    And by that analogy, ME makes Shepard a dictator. Remember what happened in ME1 when Wrex stood up in opposition to her? The player has the choice of bullying him into following orders, or executing him and leaving him to rot in the sand. ME1 is about Shepard spearheading her way through the galaxy in pursuit of a traitor. She is the star of nearly every cutscene; you’re looking over her shoulder every moment of play; the story progresses through her decisions, and she may or may not take the time to ask her crew what they think about the mission afterward. ME2 is different though. It’s more picaresque, like a season of a tv show. Each mission centers on a different crew member: oh, this is totally a Mordin episode. Those episodic missions are where the real story is and the main plot, the obfuscated Collector mystery, is ancillary.

    So now let me contradict myself and say I don’t compare this aspect of these two games (and my definition of “compare” is becoming looser than Ogren’s definition of “beverage”). Neither of these methods of building the narrative around the player are better than the other. I think both games do it exceptionally well (ME just happens to have better other stuff). The moral challenges that the games’ missions build up to are the real juicy parts of the games for me, and they both approach them differently. Shepard has almost unlimited power—by being a Spectre in ME1 and being dead and off the radar in ME2—and the player is challenged to think responsibly about what means that power should be used for. Most of the dilemmas in ME (I haven’t counted but god dammit I want to now) weigh the value of life against things like scientific advance, peace, power, and other lives. The Warden has a duty rather than a mission like Shepard’s, and DA:O roots its conflicts in cultural clashes, history, and justice. Ferelden really feels like it has a future, one that the Warden will affect.

    Tomorrow we add Hawke to the mix. What will we see in DA2?

    This post is piggybacking off the articles Denis Farr has written about Dragon Age in the last week, particularly this and this. They provided the inspiration to finally write something about DA.

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