Wednesday, October 19, 2016

DA:I vs. DD:DA: La Segunda Parte

Why, yes, I did get google to translate that for me. I also intended this to be posted not many months away from the first part.  At any rate, this second part of my not-so-unbiased battle royale of too (and two) heavily punctuated titles:  Dragon Age: Inquisition and Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen. If you missed the first part, look for the WALL OF TEXT immediately after this one. I made a real effort to break it all up with pretty pictures. I don't think it helped.

Typical disclaimers apply. There will be spoilers and I am in no way unbiased in this matter.

One of the terrible ironies herein is that the only reason I got Dragon's Dogma at all was a comment Angry Joe made offhand in his DA:I video review (goods at 18:00, though his review of Dragon's Dogma was terrifically amusing). Why, yes, I'd love to see how boss battles should be done, Mr. Joe. Sign me up!

John did a much better job than I could ever hope when breaking down DA:I.  The quality of the writing, such as it is, is kind of a big deal in this case. If you were too terrified to follow those links, you should do so now because he handles this stuff a lot better than I ever could. I'll even drag up some links for your convenience. You should read those. Don't worry, I can wait.

Writing for games is hard; we know that. It's not like other media where you get to control the narrative completely. It's more like improv comedy or performance art where the leading role doesn't have a written script. The "best" games with the "best stories" are the ones where we aren't jarred out of our scriptlessness by non sequiturs or by a loss of the one real thing we have as players--agency. Take one or both of those away and things fizzle.

The best games (see:  most of Mass Effect) do a believable job of convincing players that they have full control over whatever role they choose with appropriate changes to dialog and setting depending on what they've done.  DA:I does a lousy job of this since for the most part everyone treats you exactly the same whether you're pushing nuns into a furnace or building an orphanage with nails you ground yourself. SWTOR, not entirely surprisingly, had a very similar construction.

At least I could find all my
pals on the Ebon Hawk.
With some notable exceptions, the vast majority of the choices you make as the Inquisitor are meaningless. You almost never see the effects of your decisions at all which is a) bad because it looks like you have agency but don't and b) Terribad(TM) since players pick up on the charade and it can draw them out of your world. As a particularly stark example, I found myself asking "WTF!?" after many (many) conversations with Sera where my Inquisitor said something completely unexpected and incongruent with the character I'd tried to play. It sucked and happened frequently enough that I stopped save scumming because I plain didn't care anymore. A player un-invested is a lot less likely to remember a game fondly and it's players that ultimately decide a game's legacy.  You've heard this from me before.

DD:DA takes an old-skool twist on this. The protagonist you play, the Arisen, really only has one set role in the world (to kill shit; possibly a dragon) and you were going to do that anyway.  In this way the bases are already covered and consistent with your time and actions in the game. Furthermore, your character never utters a single line of spoken dialog in the game. You can't be surprised at what your character says because they never say anything! We even get some meaningful choices. If you implicate Fournival, this super-sketchy antiquities collector, he will be whisked away and you will lose a source of some very nice consumables. If you choose to sacrifice your beloved you can avoid facing the scary dragon in combat and instead retire away with your own kingdom. It's odd that a game that doesn't shout from the rooftops about its decisions having weight seemingly has more endings that DA:I does.

Now that's a party!
On a less-lofty note, I felt that the Inquisitor's inner circle and the dialog therein was pretty well written for the most part. An all too infrequent trick is to show a character that looks like a paint-by-the-numbers trope but then turn it on its ear and show that there's more. We can give lots of examples of this from previous Bioware games like Sten from DA:O and Wrex from ME1. I thought Blackwall's twist, though a little abrupt, was pretty good. Sera is also pretty well written (if you can figure out what she's saying sans all the ways the Inquisitor interacts with her) and I say that even though she annoyed me. In fact, I can't think of a single character in the inner circle that I thought was poorly written though there are absolutely cringe-worthy parts of Cassandra's dialog.
Kaira the faithful pawn.

The Arisen is sadly not in such good company. Your AI companions called pawns are...well...let's just say they're not the sharpest knives in the drawer. And they can be very, very chatty. (Wolves hunt in packs!) You can tone them down if you take the time to tune them but not a lot of people do, sadly. The majority of the other characters in the game you don't really spend a lot of time with--I mean, you're mostly in the field climbing inappropriately on some multi-story bad. The ones we do get to know about are pretty reasonable. You get a Duke slowly descending into madness who bartered his beloved for fame, immortality, and basically a kingdom and he would have gotten away with it if it weren't for you meddling kids Arisens! It doesn't beat you about the head and neck with this info but if you pay attention it's all there. It also doesn't go out of its way to explain stuff in lengthy exposition--DD:DA's writers were generally content to give you a few details and let you on to the next hulking behemoth to crawl inappropriately on.

The worst part of DA:I, the part that really steams me (more than the inconsequential decisions, the plot-by-the-numbers, and the extremely uninspiring bads) is that that they saved the best for a DLC. The teaser we get after the credits roll with Solas and Flemeth hints at exactly the depth that we never saw with Corypheus. This is the kind of writing that we expect from Bioware, not the seemingly half-finished thing we actually got. Unfortunately, this is also the kind of thing we expect from EA: making us pay another pile of cashmoney to get the rest of the story we thought we'd already bought. While I'm curious about what happens in DA:I Trespasser I don't know that I want to encourage that kind of cash grab and I'll probably get the good bits on youtube.

Though this was the end, did you?
DD:DA handles this a lot better. I spent the first half of the game up until the "final battle" thinking that it was kind of weak. I mean, it's a pretty bog standard fantasy story with fairly easy encounters culminating with the killing of a Capital-D-Dragon and then BANG roll credits, just like it should. From there things get a lot more interesting.  With very little foreshadowing, instead of a hero's return as the credits scroll, it all goes to shit. What follows is an impressive display of game craftsmanship. We're entreated to a world that is turned upside down and a universe that is consistent but most likely not what we expected. The title "Dragon's Dogma" even starts to make sense when you get to the end and start piecing things together.

Just about everything in the game starts to make sense, in fact. Why are the pawns so dull? Why does the dragon show up every once in a while and take some poor chump's heart? Why had the duke lived so freakin' long with no signs of aging? And after that, should you get through a second playthrough, you can see your old Arisen and pawn playing the part as Seneschal--fan-freakin'-tastic. The Everfall, the Rift, the Ur-Dragon, the game itself--everything is tied up extremely well. The only thing missing is the bow. Game writers don't have to do this but it's super cool when they do.

To (badly) paraphrase the great Richard Bartle (yes, that one), designers are trying to tell you something about the world through their games. This could be their point of view, some weird bent on an old idea, or a grand "what if" scenario that we play through. The good ones do this well. The bad ones...not so much.

DD:DA makes at least a couple of its statements very clearly:  willpower, especially the will to live, drives mankind and this agency is a gift. This is notably inconsistent with what we hear in the last halfish of the game as we start to put the pieces together--that the eternal cycle will continue and that you, the current Arisen, are but the latest in the never ending chain and don't really have a say in the matter. If you're powerful enough to defeat the Seneschal, the world is yours to shape in any way you like until such time that your will is ground down and you summon a new Arisen to challenge and ultimately take your place. Fail to beat the Seneshal and you're reborn as the next Capital-D-Dragon as the near-champion of a previous age to challenge the next Arisen. I contend that the thematic difference in the two halves was done on purpose where they would stand in stark contrast until your last action in the story.

But before we go there, let's step into the WABAC (TM) machine to 2009. In Dragon Age: Origins, my Grey Warden gave her life to free the world from the Blight. It was the only way to be sure that the Archdemon would be defeated without uncharacteristic trickeration after everything else had gone wrong. I felt that the writers had backed me into a corner and I chose the action that fit my character best. I also felt robbed, maybe because of this. I remember it as "The Dragon Age In Which I Was Deprived A Good Ending" (or something like that). I felt like it was the only reasonable choice but it was a sad one to make.

My Arisen sacrificed herself in much the same way for much the same reason. She gave her life so that the world could choose its own path without a Senechal's guiding hand as her last act of defiance. Her last expression of agency was to break the cycle and to give that agency to the world.  I was backed into very much the same corner without other alternatives and I'll remember Dragon's Dogma completely differently. I found the ending just as sad but infinitely more satisfying because the statement was so profound and so clear. Kotaku had a different opinion. Kotaku is like that sometimes.

Flip side. What does DA:I tell us? To be honest, I struggled with this one. DA:O did make a statement; that choices matter. DA:I tells us the same but shows us differently so that can't be it and I'm not so cynical to think that they wanted to show the opposite. The best I can come up with, and it's kind of a stretch, is that people can rise to great challenges. We get bits of this when Varric talks about Hawke and that whole thing that went down at Kirkwall in DA2. I don't think DA:I's installment here stands on its own, sadly, and not in only because we can trace this further back in the martyr ending of DA:O. Maybe someone can fill in some blanks for me but I felt like I was left with yet another very unsatisfying ending(That's right, I dropped the same link twice...who's gonna stop me?!)

And This is Where I Get My Rant On
If you thought I could get through this thing without a rant, then good news! It was hiding at the bottom of the box all along like that last half-donut left in the break room at the end of the day. Seriously, people, who eats half of a goddamn donut?

Bioware should know better.  We know this because they've done better. The Mass Effect trilogy is a shining example of what our medium can do with enough effort and resources despite the travesty that was the ending of 3. DA:O looked like a good start and while I hated that I couldn't get a good ending, I felt that the choices I made had weight. Fast forward five years and in a game that claims consequences for player actions as a pillar of its design we get fewer than we've seen from the same studio and in the same series.  Not cool.

In today's very incestuous game biz, we see a lot of games tacking on bits of other games in the hope that it might capture some of the magic (and buyers) of the original. DA:I was not improved by having a crafting system and was made a lot more tedious by having rocks and weeds gatherable at all. Would a better system have saved those features? Possibly; I understand that Fallout 4 and other Bethesda games have these for good and ill. The same statement can be made for some of the other mini-games, scavenger hunts, and more open sandbox-y world.

And why the crap did you save some of your best storytelling for a freaking expansion?!? DA:I feels incomplete without this stuff. Corypheus almost makes sense as a mid-scene sub-boss rather than the anti-climactic chump he is in DA:I sans that content. Were they too ambitious with their (assumedly) nine-figure budget and four year dev cycle? Did the money people push the game out earlier than the devs felt was reasonable? Did they have to scramble to finish off enough bits to shove into a box? Or is this actually a play by EA to sell more units like the conspiracy folks say? I don't really know. What I do know is that DA:I fell flat for me and that's awfully disappointing, especially for a game whose untested glory was shouted from the rooftops by just about every gaming media outlet.

Bioware has a history of making fantastic games and are now making games that are only OK.  As one of the biggest, baddest, and most noteworthy studios of this generation, are they not being allowed to build great games anymore?  If not Bioware/EA then whom? Not many can foot the bill for games like this, not with production costs skyrocketing. Who, then, will be the ones to push our medium forward?

Deep breath...whew.  The poor state of DA:I's writing by itself is a travesty but it couldn't even be propped up by the rest of the game's design. Graphics, marketing budget and name-brand recognition will move units for sure but gameplay is still king for our medium. I rather hope that this will always be true. As I've said here many times, media hype usually indicates a lackluster game and that seems to be the case for DA:I.

By contrast, I feel that DD:DA was extremely well written but in much subtler ways. It shouts less but at the same time manages to say more. I found it to be both subtle and sublime in its own interesting ways. The terrible irony is that DD:DA is built with just about the same ingredients list but ends up doing just about everything a little bit better culminating in a much better game. Yet, for all its good points, it was released to very little acclaim and hardly any fanfare. 

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