Dragon Age, Choices, and Railroading

I’ve been getting into Dragon Age after Act and other friends recced it. I played Origins a little while ago, and recently finished Dragon Age 2. But for all the talk of the excellent writing and the meaningful choices the game offers, I found myself extremely disappointed and frustrated with just how little freedom I actually had, especially in DA2. There’s a really baffling disjunct between which characters you are and aren’t allowed to kill or save, and which choices are respected and which get quietly retconned or ignored.

(mega spoilers for both games, fair warning)

A lot of my problems relate to just how violent the games are. You mostly fight people, especially in DA2, and the encounter sizes are enormous. Just walking down the streets, you’ll encounter bandits who for some reason decide your party of world-ending supermen are a good target, and you have to kill every single one. No option to nonlethally incapacitate or arrest them (not even in DA2, where one of your party members is captain of the guard), and at no point do they try to cut their losses and run, even if I reduce the rest of their party to a red mist in the first ten seconds of battle.

Now, you could argue that those are just random encounters, so whatever, they’re not plot-relevant and we don’t have to think too hard about them. But it’s the same even in plot-relevant fights too. My most memorably egregious example is the quest “Act of Mercy”, in DA2: A group of apostate mages are on the run and have been cornered by the templars. A sympathetic templar tips you off and begs you to intercede, because he fears that if even if the templars try to negotiate, the mages will panic, fight back, and get killed.

Five seconds after walking into the cave, a mage sees me, attacks, and I have to kill him. There’s not even a cutscene or line of dialogue acknowledging how this is the exact scenario I was supposed to prevent, he’s just instantly aggroed and I can’t continue until the combat is resolved. This continues until you reach the end, where you finally get a chance to talk with the mage leader… who is so ~crazy and unstable~ he can’t be reasoned with and you have to kill him anyway. The most you can do is save about half his followers, who refuse to fight you and run away instead.

Except, whoops, turns out they get captured and tortured in the Gallows anyway! Screw you for trying to help people! Oh but at least they get to live, right? Hahaha no, in the endgame they try to form an alliance with the sympathetic templar to perform a coup against the abusive templar commander, but one of the only mages you’re allowed to save in “Act of Mercy” also becomes ~crazy and unstable~, kills the sympathetic templar, then attacks you and has to be killed herself. You can do nothing to change this. Screw you for trying to save people, screw you for believing in compromise, screw you for thinking your choices matter.

And this keeps happening. In one of the DLC quests, “Mark of the Assassin”, you get attacked by a petty noble early in the quest for stupid petty noble reasons. He miraculously doesn’t get reduced to giblets when his HP reaches zero, and you’re allowed to let him go afterwards. If you do, later in the quest he attacks you again anyway, and this time you do have to kill him. I had half a mind to kill that guy anyway, but I was just so sick of killing people I took the one chance the game offered me. Then even that proved to be a false choice.

You’re only allowed to defer combat so it can come back to bite you, or when it’s objectively the wrong choice. Pretty much the only time you can avoid killing opponents in quests is if you accept a bribe to let them keep doing evil things. In Origins I frequently found myself hearing the demons out, even though everything I saw pointed to that being an objectively bad idea, just because they were the only people in the entire game who were willing to negotiate.

Now sure, Dragon Age is a fighting game. There has to be combat and a boss battle in every quest. But it doesn’t allow you any flexibility or creativity even in that sphere. You cannot run away. You cannot perform nonlethal incapacitations. You cannot selectively target people to see if the underlings will surrender once their commander is defeated. (In “A Paragon of Her Kind” I wanted to save the golems, so I targeted Branka in the hopes of deactivating her control rods – but of course they keep fighting afterwards, even though that makes no logical sense, and you still have to kill them.) Only death for any foolish enough to raise a hand against you.

Now sure, Dragon Age and especially DA2 is a story about difficult situations where sacrifices have to be made. So okay fine, it’s making a point that killing is easy but saving people is hard. So tell me then, why can’t I kill anyone I want to kill? Why can’t I shank Cullen at any point, even after he says to my face he doesn’t think mages are people? Don’t tell me it would be suicide to do it in front of the entire templar order, you’ve had no problem throwing small armies of bandits and mercenaries at me the whole game. The one army I’d gladly slaughter to the last man is the only one I can’t aggro.

And tell me, why is Cullen there at all, when his canon ending in Origins if you side with the mages is that he has a complete mental breakdown and gets dishonorably discharged? How exactly did Meredith find this broken wreck of a man and piece him back together until he was remotely functional? No. I sided against him and I was told he ended up in a position where he could no longer hurt people. Why isn’t that a choice that gets respected?

This isn’t really a game about freedom of choice. It has a narrative it wants to tell, and you’re not allowed to deviate from it. You’re meant to be reactive, not proactive, reacting to events in the moment. And sure, that’s a valid narrative style, but it makes no sense at all in a power fantasy, which RPGs are. My party is a four-man army – literally, the player accomplishes tasks that have stonewalled the actual armies of the setting. I absolutely do have the power to break the world over my knee if I want to. I should not need to be corralled into the standard villains-act-heroes-react paradigm and be forced to just stand there like an idiot during cutscenes where characters loudly declare their intents at length before acting. Ironically, the narrative would make much more sense as a visual novel with no combat mechanic, where I really do have to consider my own safety and limit my options accordingly. But in the game we have, we snap from cutscenes where everything is gritty flawed realism to gameplay where four people effortlessly wipe the floor with an entire army – how can I not see that as anything but absurd?

I’m left with the sense that this flattens the narrative, and cheapens the choices you are allowed to make. DA2’s Big Choice, and the one that seems to have stuck with the most players, is the choice of whether or not to forgive Anders for committing an act of terrorism: He bombs the Chantry to assassinate the grand cleric, in the process doubtlessly killing many innocents who were there in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s framed as an incredibly dramatic moment – it’s clear they poured all their writing, artistic, and directoral talent into putting that scene together.

Instead it’s a farce. Because how in the world do I have any stones to throw here when my own kill count is in the hundreds? Because he killed innocents? Yeah, like how I slaughtered Merill’s entire clan, including noncombatants, just because I made the wrong dialogue choice and accidentally aggro’d them? Like how I slaughtered innocents mind-controlled by blood mages and demons? Like I could have potentially willingly condemned innocent children like Feynril to death or worse? And how are we even defining “innocence”, here – we’re told the Tal-Vashoth in the mountains were bandits, but why should I believe the narrative spread about a marginalized group? Were they really evil or did they just panic when I approached, like the mages in “Act of Mercy”? The player has no leg to stand on here.

Anders’ actions don’t stand out. The endless slaughter throughout the rest of the game desensitized me. You can’t write a story exclusively about horrible people doing horrible things and then expect me to care when a horrible thing happens.

And the thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve finally started Torment: Tides of Numenera, and I’m in love with how much choice it actually gives you. I’m several hours and quests in and I have not used the combat mechanic once since the tutorial. Every single quest gives you a cornucopia of nonviolent options, varying shades of compromise and resolution you can each accomplish through a variety of roleplay styles. And you can still go in guns-blazing if you want to!

Obviously absolute freedom of choice is impossible, but we can still do so much better than the current norm. I hear everyone say Dragon Age has great writing, but I just can’t agree. It has writing, and that’s sadly notable in this genre – but that writing is confused and haphazard. It can maintain decent quality when it comes to fixed narratives like character arcs, but the moment it tries to give the player Meaningful Choices it falls smack on its face, tripped by genre trappings and its own rigidity. I’d like to see choice-based games that aren’t so narrow in their way of thinking.

31 Comments

  1. Act says:

    I think it’s pretty unfair to compare DA:O and Torment in this way, considering there was a decade in between their releases and 15 years in between their development. ‘The newer game has more nuance and more complex mechanics’ is not so much a commentary on either game as a baseline expectation after 15 years of progress in the medium.

    I think this review is missing a lot of context in general. DA:O was a hugely ambitious game for the time, and one of, if not the, first big AD&D-style wRPGs to implement this level of choice. In both 2002, when development started, and then 2009, when the final release happened, DA:O offered a kind of personalization and depth that was really innovative. It’s certainly true that its lack of deviation from prior AD&D-style games like is parent Baldur’s Gate left storytelling (and gameplay) gaps in the form of forced combat and lots of dead redshirts, but it represented a huge step forward in the genre and paved the way for future games. Saying ‘why wasn’t DA:O more like T:ToN’ is absurd not least because without DA:O, there is no T:ToN. DA:O pushed the boundaries of the genre at the time and was an important stepping stone in the maturing of the wRPG. For the people who played it when it first came out, it was genuinely mind-blowing, and so that’s how it’s remembered.

    I personally think DA:O, unlike, Baldur’s, holds up for the casual gamer: it has an engaging story, fleshed-out side characters, and gameplay that approaches something mainstream. It’s fun, even today. But it’s not a modern game.

    I also think it’s disingenuous to not mention the difference in reception DA2 and DA:O got; the implication here is kind of that they’re looked on as equally good, which is very untrue. DA2 got much more mixed reviews upon its release, and while people agree it had it moments I’ve generally seen it considered a disappointment as a sequel to DA:O. I personally liked it, I think, significantly more than average, and largely because I first played it shortly before DA:I’s release and playing it as a bridging game between O and I made it work in a Lite sense. The criticisms it got were largely in line with what you’re saying here, too — a sign of how much things had changed in just the 7ish years between the development of the two games. DAII was also the victim of a very short, rushed production cycle, and I think that needs to be at least broached when talking about how small its scope is, because not only do I think DAII had less choice than most players wanted, I suspect it had less than the dev wanted as well.

    In the end I’m just not sure how useful it is to apply modern questions about wRPGs to one game whose script was drafted in 2002 and another game that was both rushed through production and with a legacy of mediocre writing. I guess it’s a testament to how far the genre has come, but that doesn’t seem to be among your points, so…

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    1. Hyatt says:
      I think it’s pretty unfair to compare DA:O and Torment in this way, considering there was a decade in between their releases and 15 years in between their development. ‘The newer game has more nuance and more complex mechanics’ is not so much a commentary on either game as a baseline expectation after 15 years of progress in the medium.

      That’s a good point, but on the other hand, how does DA:O compare to the Geneforge games, which all came out before its release? It’s been a while since I’ve played them, but the big hook is you can choose which faction to join, and that drastically changes the ending (though, since the games tell a continuous story without carryover data, what you choose might not be what the next game decides “actually” happened). Another big draw is that many encounters have non-combat resolutions. I’m not sure if it’s possible to do a 100% pacifist run, but there’s a forum thread discussing its viability. One person even managed to beat the third game without personally striking a blow, though they did take advantage of aggressive NPCs to kill off enemies at some points.

    2. I mean, I could say a lot of the same about your reviews of the Final Fantasy series. Works that are held up as classics still relevant to the conversation are fair game for modern analysis. The sad thing is, for all my complaining, Dragon Age genuinely does still feel at the cutting edge of video game writing to me. It’s trying, and is one of the few that’s succeeding, if only in parts. I think there is still a lot to be learned by looking at where it goes wrong, especially when it goes wrong in the particular way I see similar games keep going wrong.

      without DA:O, there is no T:ToN

      I find that a strange statement when Planescape: Torment predates it by a decade and still manages to avoid several of the issues I bring up here. (I probably should have cited it instead, but my memory of it is hazier.) Comparing P:T to T:ToN definitely does showcase how much has changed in the intervening time, but the Torment games aren’t very representative of the genre as a whole; they are very purposefully doing things that most RPGs don’t. T:ToN is an unusual alternative, not just a modern example of the genre.

      I’m aware I’m not as enmeshed in wRPG history as I am in jRPGs and that there is certainly historical context here, but these problems go deeper than what can be explained by different eras and rushed development. They’re born of entrenched and unexamined assumptions about how game narratives need to be structured, and that’s worthwhile to point out.

      If this has changed, it has changed only recently — I will admit I don’t know, because I can’t play any PC games more recent than the past few years because my PC is crap. Could you point me to some examples of the games you have in mind? I have heard good things about Fallout: New Vegas.

      1. Roarke says:

        Fallout: New Vegas is pretty good, yes. It follows in the spirit of the first two Fallout games a little more, being made by one of the (just how many are there?) Interplay offshoots, Obsidian, under contract with Bethesda. I recommend it, and its DLCs.

         

        I personally enjoyed DA:O a lot when I first played it, but I do see how even back then it was very much a Bioware RPG with a focus on combat. And for what it’s worth, I very much loved the DA:O characters, setting, and lore. I wasn’t really looking for the same things you were from it, thematically, so to me it was just a tightly-crafted wRPG. DA:II absolutely killed the series for me and I haven’t played Inquisition because of it.

        Like Act said, comparing it to T:ToN is a little unfair, but wRPG developers have been making games where non-violent solutions are encouraged since at least Fallout in 1997, which is one of the first wRPGs that let you “talk down” even the final boss. Another game in the early aughts that I’d point out would be Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura. RPGs with stealth/dialogue/nonlethal elements are less about the player character making moral choices in dialogue and more about the player themselves doing it through mechanics, I guess, but Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines and Deus Ex would both be examples of that.

        Incidentally, I do find it funny that this is basically another ‘false advertising’ kind of review, like the Monster one, and indeed, ‘meaningful choice’ is one of, I’d say, the most commonly advertised mechanics that the advertised games don’t have.

        1. illhousen says:

          Arcanum has made a bizarre choice to give you xp per hit at the enemy, which, once totaled, tend to exceed actual quest rewards. So, like, yeah, you can resolve things without violence, but why would you? There are also plenty of locations where enemies attack you on sight and where stealth is not really feasible.

          VtMB is a better example as it rewards you for completing the objective rather than for specifically killing anyone (and often give you additional xp for using stealth), and your ability to gather loot is limited (only one weapon of each type, and enemies generally don’t drop anything else). It falls apart in the final third of the game, however, which is essentially all the fighting, all the time.

          1. Roarke says:

            Arcanum did have a bunch of mechanical quirks, but I wouldn’t equate that with a conscious design choice to promote violence over dialogue or other means of quest resolution. I, for one, didn’t even notice that violence was mechanically superior for leveling purposes. Also, Arcanum is actually full of non-lethal combat options like sleeping poison and stun grenades. That, I think, is a stronger indicator of the dev’s attitude/willingness to let the player do other things than Apply X Weapon to Target Face.

            VtMB’s final romp devolving into violence is honestly just the standard for RPGs. Like 99% of RPGs end up like that, sometimes with the excuse that the situation has escalated beyond talk. I see that as less of a choice regarding the promotion of violence in the game overall, and more a desire to end the game with a bang, and violence is just the simplest way to accomplish it. I almost want that assumption to be challenged, that the third act must involve some climactic battles, more than the attitudes towards violence in general.

            1. illhousen says:

              Oh, I don’t think it was intentional on devs’ part. Pretty sure they followed the principle laid down by the original Fallout games, which states that, as much as possible, there should be three solutions to any given quest/challenge: fight, stealth, diplomacy (Fallout, incidentally, also fails at stealth hard). It just didn’t work out as well as they wanted to.

              But then, I don’t think that DAO consciously promotes violent solutions either. Part of the issue probably does come down to devs failing to consider the implications of their design choices, but another part is most likely technical constrains (consider that DAO goes for fully voiced dialogues, which increases the cost of branching conversations).

              It is, however, interesting to consider what effect design choices – whether conscious or born out of technical limitations – have on the final product and what incentives they produce in players.

              Somewhat unrelated, but it’s interesting to consider Persona 3-4 in that light (Act, you may want to skip it, though I would mostly avoid spoilers, certainly won’t talk about any important ones).

              A big theme in those game is the importance of social connections, expanding your mind through considering different perspective and gaining inner strength from it.

              In game, it is represented via Social Links mechanic: you can hang out with various characters in a VN-style gameplay, which increases the level of an Arcana corresponding to the given character (so, hanging out with a Student Council President allows you to level up the Emperor). That, in turn, gives Personas you create extra xp. The higher your SLink, the more xp they get, often jumping a couple levels and gaining powerful abilities without the need for tedious grinding.

              By itself, it’s an OK metaphor: by hanging out with drastically different people, you understand their perspective on life more and become more attuned to Personas similar to them, which allows you to wield them with greater efficiency. There are, however, some… curious issues with it:

              – The VN-style segments allow you to pick between several different responses. Some of those responses are strictly better than others, allowing you to progress faster, those gaining more power faster. Often, the actual in-universe difference between them is minimal. We aren’t talking about a choice between an insult and a compliment, but about, say, picking which kind of flowers you like the best.

              – Once you finish a storyline of a given character, you receive a message that “your bond is now unbreakable”. While you can hang out with some of them afterwards, there is literally zero need to do so. You won’t be rewarded with new content and you won’t get anything gameplay-wise.

              – Some of the available characters are… not people I would want to hang out with. Like, one of the first SLinks is a guy with a storyline revolving around his grand desire to bang a teacher. He befriends you because he thinks you’ve banged a classmate of yours. Why the fuck would I give him a time of day? Right, he’s a Magician Arcana, and I like fire.

              All of those factors combined give rise to a narrative contrary to the game’s intended themes: what the game teaches you is to learn to read people, to say to them what they want to hear regardless of your own feelings because it gives you power, and to discard them once they’ve outlived their usefulness. It is not a message the game wants to send, but the understandable limitations of mechanics coupled with some shoddy writing in places certainly allow for it to be a valid one.

              (OK, that’s a huge tangent, but it was kinda on my mind lately.)

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            2. Roarke says:

              I would like to point out, while we’re talking about failure to design stealth in RPGs, that no game in the world failed harder than DA:O. Not only can you not use stealth to avoid combat, you can’t even use stealth to set ambushes. You are always ambushed, no matter what. In Fallout and Fallout 2 stealth was unwieldy but could still be done if you had the knowledge and patience. There’s a decent LP of Fallout 2 in the archive which shows various possible playthroughs, one of which is a Metal Gear Solid-themed stealth run which, I believe, kills all of 3-4 humans.  

              I’ve never played the Persona series, but I’m not surprised to hear that it’s steeped in some gross anime bullshit. It was kind of possible to tell at a glance. Though, interestingly, I have seen the VN-style concept of raising affection scores in another RPG series, the Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel. It’s also a very high school romcom-inspired RPG, though it’s in a military academy in a belligerent, expanding empire. So that’s different.

               

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            3. illhousen says:

              I would like to point out, while we’re talking about failure to design stealth in RPGs, that no game in the world failed harder than DA:O.

              Yeah, that’s fair.

              Though I’m somewhat surprised that someone went to trouble of using stealth in Fallout. I mean, it’s physically possible, but why would you even?

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            4. illhousen says:

              Shit, forgot to add:

              In Arcanum, at least, there are stealth-based quests, so even though investing in stealth and other thief skills is not optimal, the game does go out of its way to create situations where they’re useful. If you want to feel like a clever rogue pulling off ingenious heists, you can, which is appreciated.

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            5. Roarke says:

              Well, yeah. The smart thing about Arcanum, ignoring the technical limitations of RPGs at the time, is that the devs made concerted efforts to cater to certain playstyles in specific parts of the game, rather than diluting the bulk of it, Fallout-style, in your aforementioned “3 solutions to every problem” method.

              There’s no way, for instance, to convince the exiled king of dwarves to return to his throne through violence or subterfuge. You must not only convince him with the Persuasion skill but also delve into multiple characters’ dialogue trees to learn what he needs to hear before you can even unlock the right options. That was one of the more well-realized quests in any game.

              Re: Fallout stealth, it’s definitely more icing than cake, and doing a 100% stealth playthrough is an exercise in stubbornness. wRPGs unfortunately inherited their stealth design from D&D, where stealth is a series of skillchecks. It’s almost destined to be unfeasible and/or unfun.

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            6. Nerem says:
              Fallout Tactics actually made stealth great. You would have a job to pacify a fortress and you could sneak in through a side entrance, take out everyone, and then open the front gates and shoot the clueless guards out front in the back.
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          2. Roarke says:

            Speaking of VtMB, it seems VtMB2 was announced today. How about that.

            1. SpoonyViking says:

              Let’s hope this one isn’t released riddled with bugs. Still, I’m moderately excited about it! (Although I do wish they’d also release a Werewolf game.)

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            2. Roarke says:

              I wanted to say that games being virtually unplayable at release is a relic of the past but, haha, I guess not. I can think of a few relatively recent examples.

              There are some good names attached to this new project, which gives me quite a bit of hope for it. They’re bringing back the original’s director and the ever-present Chris Avellone, whose life’s work seems to be catering to people with nostalgia for 90s-era wRPGs.

              I think the biggest danger with this kind of revival is that the new company will often have a shallow understanding of what made the original great, and I hope literally having the director on board will mitigate that.

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            3. illhousen says:

              Well, it’s something to look out for.

              Lore-wise, I have some concerns. What the devs revealed so far (you’re playing a thin blood but get a couple of powerful abilities like flight, mist manipulation, etc. nearly at the start) seems to indicate the game is going to play fast and loose with VtM lore.

              I mean, granted, VtM is not actually all that friendly to the usual wRPG formula unless you use Diablery as a core advancement mechanic*, and the original VtMB also deviated from the original in how concepts like Generation and especially Humanity are handled, but, well, we’ll see.

              *Which, to be fair, would rock. For those who don’t know, Diablery is when you drink the blood of an older vampire so hard, you eat their soul and gain some of their power. It’s actually a very thematically important mechanic since it allows the younger vampire generations to rise up and devour their elders (at the cost of their humanity, so they become just as much of callous monsters as their predecessors).

              Giving you power ups for nomming on bosses would be fun and entirely doable on technical level.

              @SpoonyViking But Werewolf kinda sucks. Like, all oWoD is steeped in 90s attitudes, but Werewolf antagonists is literally what happens when you take Captain Planet villains and make them grimdark.

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            4. Roarke says:

              VtM’s Generation system for power is pretty dumb for a wRPG, but like you said, Diablery as a mechanic would go a long way towards fixing it. I could see myself appreciating a game that does away with the incremental Experience -> Level system and instead gives you generous payouts when you Diablerize a boss.

              VtMB had canonically accurate thin-bloods but otherwise ignored the Generation mechanics. The player character should not have been able to resist LaCroix’s domination without Diablery.

              Humanity always seemed a little dumb to me as essentially a Morality-That-Matters bar. As if humans can’t be shitheads without supernatural baggage. They could replace or remove that and I wouldn’t be bothered, or solely make it a measure of how much faith-based abilities hurt you.

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            5. illhousen says:

              Humanity is… not a well implemented or explained mechanic. It was one of the first attempts to provide mechanical backing for Themes in a TPRG, and it was a pretty awkward one, often turning into a GM stick.

              It can sorta work OK once you realize that PCs are supposed to drop to 3-4 Humanity over the course of the game and stabilize there, but in the end even the devs lost faith in it and created Paths of Enlightment (which was a terrible stopgap measure in its own right, but that’s another story).

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            6. SpoonyViking says:

              “Diablerie”.

              @iillhousen: but what’s wrong with that? The idea that a culture which normalises violence, prejudice, and all forms of exploitation feeds quasi-demonic beings from a different reality, beings which, in turn, take advantage of society’s power structures to encourage said culture is prime material for some good horror stories.

              Granted, that concept can be – and often was – explored in a heavy-handed and simplistic manner, but let’s be honest, most White Wolf sourcebooks were guilty of that.

              Plus, my favourite part of the game was the exploration of anthropological archetypes in the spirit realms anyway. :-P

              Reply
      2. Act says:

        I’m pretty beat, so apologies if I suddenly vanish or stop making sense.

         

        I mean, I could say a lot of the same about your reviews of the Final Fantasyseries. 

        True! I don’t care for the FF games, but I’m happy to admit how hugely influential there were and how at the time they were taking risks even if I don’t think they hold up. The old FFs are more like Baldur’s Gate for me, where I’d only rec them to people really interested in the history of the genre. I think the biggest difference between DA:O and FFIV, for instance, is that I really couldn’t even enjoy the old FFs, while I do think DA:O is still a fun game. FF also lives in a kind of weird place because they get rereleased every new console gen so Square-E is kind of resubmitting them for consideration in a way that doesn’t happen them with a lot of old games. But yeah, definitely tablespoons of salt to be taken with my FFVI post.

        I find that a strange statement when Planescape: Torment predates it by a decade and still manages to avoid several of the issues I bring up here.

        I was thinking about this, and I think that the big difference between games like DAO and PST is that despite a lot of very long branching conversations and some alternate endings, PST and its ilk were still very linear. Which isn’t a bad thing, but the idea that you could have a deeper story and lore like PST and also the intense customization of BG and accessible gameplay was really the new thing.  To get more customization and choice, you generally sacrificed the breadth of the lore and story. DAO was a major release that had its cake and ate it too, and I think that is what really impressed people, was the marriage of kind of all the disparate things wrpgs had tried to be. Or basically just what Roarke said below. I also think it’s in this marriage of big-stakes plot and tons of choice that lets you draw a line between DAO and TToN, not the thematic elements, if that makes sense, cuz yeah thematically it’s much more similar to Planescape.

        If this has changed, it has changed only recently — I will admit I don’t know, because I can’t play any PC games more recent than the past few years because my PC is crap. Could you point me to some examples of the games you have in mind?

        I’m a little confused here, sorry — not 100% sure what you’re referring to by ‘this’. But to take a stab: I do think the past few years have seen a huge cross-genre conversation in gaming about violence and choice and power fantasies and how they relate and what they say about us, and TToN is part of the reaction to the vices of past games, a reaction that includes everything from Undertale to Spec Ops to Dishonored. I think a lot of the assumptions of DAO about battle and redshirts and such were a mix of 1) assumptions by and about gamers in the early 2000s and 2) an artifact of Bioware’s earlier games that included these mechanics but weren’t trying to tell meaningful stories. There’s definitely a dissonance that develops, and it’s a dissoanance we’re still working through, but I’m not sure it’s directly connected to what made DAO such a classic, if that makes sense.

        edit: ugh, sorry, I feel like none of this makes any sense, I need to just not talk to people for like another six months until I’m normal again

        1. Roarke says:

          Your comment is very coherent. In fact, I’d say your and Elmo’s discussion of how we can fairly judge older video games is the most important part of this page. University English/Literature departments all over the world could learn from you two.

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        2. I did still like Origins and I do think it’s good for what it is, it’s just, geez, high body count, Batman. It was only less noticeable there because it was high rather than low fantasy and therefore pit you against more monsters than people; I think it was the move to low fantasy, more than the rushed development or anything else, that created the problems I had with DA2. It’s just so, so silly to have Big Choices revolve around “This person killed someone! Judge them!” when you’ve waded through corpses to get to them.

          It really is a shame, I really did want to seriously engage with the Anders choice — it’s an incredibly good setup in theory. If it truly was possible to get to that point without killing anyone and still believing compromise was possible, it would have been a genuine betrayal for him to force you into a violent choice, and his speech about the impossibility of compromise would hit home with the player, not just the characters. It had the potential to be as effective as the Legato vs. Vash confrontation from Trigun. But when the game doesn’t allow you to make your methods meaningfully different from his… I just can’t.

          I don’t know why so few wRPGs are willing to just declare battles nonlethal like so many jRPGs do — that would solve so many of the story problems while still letting you have a combat focus. I’d feel a lot less weird about Dragon Age if my enemies didn’t all gush blood and turn into bones afterwards. But then I’ve also complained about how jRPG battles have no consequences, so both genres could stand to learn from each other.

          1. illhousen says:

            I don’t know why so few wRPGs are willing to just declare battles nonlethal like so many jRPGs do

            I mean, they do, just not consistently. Even in Dragon Age there are battles where victory activates a cut scene showing enemies beaten up but mostly fine.

      3. illhousen says:

        I probably should have cited it instead, but my memory of it is hazier.

        PST is kinda uneven in this regard. Considering battles specifically, the devs proudly claim that there are only three obligatory battles in the game (a zombie at the very start, Ravel and the fallen angel). This is technically true, but in practice you’re going to kill far more people.

        Like, random bandits deciding that your party of world-weary murderhobos is a perfect mark are here. You can technically run away from them, but it’s honestly just easier and more profitable to kill them off (I also don’t remember if they disappear if you leave the location or just stick around forever, and I’m pretty sure fighting blocks dialogue, so killing is just more convenient). There are other instances where going along with fighting is just massively easier than the alternative, like the Fortress of Regrets and its shadows, the rats in the catacombs, etc.

        There is also the mausoleum quest at the first location after the Mortuary wherein you go into a mausoleum, kill various undead, encounter a necromancer disturbing the spirits here and kill him as well as the only possible quest resolution. It’s honestly such a cliche quest, it belongs inside the Mordon Cube rather than PST proper.

        Overall, PST is a far less violent game than most, but it still exists within the paradigm of BG and its ilk, and some of it bleeds into its design.

    3. Roarke says:

      I think, peering through the mists of time, that what DA:O really had that hadn’t already been done was the scope of it, and the depth of its lore, rather than, say, how reactive the game was to your choices. It was also much more tightly crafted, mechanically, than others of its time.  Like you pointed out, DA:O is more favorably compared to Baldur’s Gate; I’d say DA:O is BG perfected, in fact. It’s the quintessential Bioware RPG. Tactical combat, snarky characters, edgy setting… Bioware. Rather than breaking new ground, it raised an old bar.

      1. Act says:

        how did you say in two sentences what took me an essay

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        1. Roarke says:

          Being lazy helps. It means I spend most of my effort on pithy quips like “Rather than breaking new ground, it raised an old bar,” which I’m still patting myself on the back for.

      2. illhousen says:

        If we’re talking about evolution of wRPGs, Dragon^ Mage Origin should probably be compared to the Pillars of Eternity, if anything, since it’s actually trying to be modern BG in the same way Tides tries to be modern PST.

        I actually have few recollections about Pillars. I found it aggressively OK, so I guess I would hand the victory here to DMO.

        1. Roarke says:

          Pillars was actually trying to be modern Torment as well, though it did include some BG staples. Maybe “Modern Infinity Engine Game” would be most accurate. Pillars, like DA:O, tried to be a game with rich story and lore while also having an extreme level of character customization. It succeeded at those things, and I honestly liked its setting far more than DA:O. DA:O kind of jumped too hard on the grimdark wagon for my taste. Elves are in ghettos! Mages are in concentration camps! Dwarves are crazy oligarchic isolationists on the front lines of Sauron’s encroachment! Humans are bastards as per usual! Meh. If you could lighten the game up by about 20-33%, I’d be happier.  

  2. Chiro says:
    Speaking as someone who played Dragon Age having not played very many other games before it… I kinda put most of the all-solutions-are-violent-ones down to an inherent problem with the medium. Like, yeah, if combat is a big part of the gameplay, it’s going to try and boil a lot of things down to combat?

    Dragon Age 2, specifically, I think suffered from its grey morality in that it went for ‘both sides have done bad things and are dangerous’ instead of ‘both sides have a point and are understandable’. The mages are the clear fandom favourite when it comes to factions, but to make it seem reasonable that you COULD side with the templars, they added in all these mages being violent crazy menaces.

    And, I think you have to walk a balance between giving players choices that affect the ending… but also wanting to continue writing stories in that setting. You either end up with ‘it doesn’t matter what you picked, the story bends itself around so that all the end states are functionally the same’. Which I’d find unsatisfying. Or you just go ‘too bad, some of your choices aren’t canon, we’re going with this other one’.

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    1. And, I think you have to walk a balance between giving players choices that affect the ending… but also wanting to continue writing stories in that setting.

      I feel like Dragon Age actually does a good job of sidestepping this problem by switching protagonists each entry. The things the Warden did don’t have a big impact on DA2 because DA2 isn’t about the Warden, etc. That should allow for more freedom in the individual narratives, especially in a small-scope story like DA2 where you aren’t making huge world-defining choices like you were in DA:O.

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