Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Mind of the Beholder
Part 3

Divergent paths
Sometimes, you just have to let go.

When talking about RPGs one of my most used phrases "It's just like an MMO" is a slight against some modern RPGs, but not always. Something definitely happened to RPG design after the success of World Of Warcraft (November 23, 2004). Think of the hotbars, checklist questlog, exlamation mark questgivers, quest waypointing, talentrees, gear grind, colour-coded loot, the Trinity. Many of these micromechanics help make sense of the machine that is the game itself. Competitors need to feature most if not all of these in their own games not just because WoW does it, which applied as a general rule is slavish, but because they are good ideas. One could argue that because of the rise of MMORPGs, which must appeal to a wide audience to stay afloat, old school RPGs have been left in the dust. The genre had evolved. For better or for worse, where the money went, there's where developers will (or had to) go. This also left some old school PC gamers feel ostracized. Switching to console RPGs was hardly an option, devoid of MMOs, console RPGs were mostly (third) person action RPGs and geared to a wider audience - a far cry from nineties games such as Baldur's Gate (December 21, 1998). In fact I have heard it said quite often from console gamers, that Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance (October 22, 2002) was their introduction to the franchise - yet the game more closely resembles Diablo than a its PC ancestor. Personally, I wouldn't touch it with a stick.

The drought on the RPG front didn't last forever, though. During E3 2004, A spiritual successor to the classic Baldur's Gate was announced by Bioware under the title of Dragon Age. Key here is that the developer wanted to make this game out of their own volition, for old times sake, rather than meet an explicit demand. Nothing proved it would sell well. Back then, the newest Elder Scrolls game, namely Oblivion (March 20, 2006), was also making a name for itself. It seemingly blew its contemporary Neverwinter Nights 2 (October 31, 2006) out of the water when it came to popularity. Both Dragon Age and Elder Scrolls were seemingly only subtly influenced by what WoW had done. Each had its own way, firmly rooted in their own school of RPG design. Both series are still popular and it's where the market and public eye is at the moment. What expectations do they create? They are different, but the two schools of thinking seem to be converging.

Dragon Age: Origins in full realtime-with-pause glory.

What is the Trinity?

The Trinity is an informal denotation given to the interplay between tank, DPS ('damage per second' or 'deeps') and support roles in RPGs. Each has a main task and has to rely on the other roles to get its job done. A tanks takes the attention and subsequent damage the enemy deals out, but can't dish out a lot of damage. The tank trades hit points for time. If they run out, the fight is lost. The DPS deals out the damage on behalf of the good guys, but quickly swinging whatever weapons around and being quick about it means he needs to wear a lighter sort of armour and as such can't take damage. The support, or healer, is a precarious role that sustains the hit points of the rest of the party often while also boosting the defensive and offensive abilities. Advantages to the trinity: easy to understand, makes people/classes play together.

Since finishing Knights Of The Old Republic (July 15, 2003), Bioware no longer uses the D&D ruleset and has chosen to create their own system that has both feet in computer game design. With it they have made their own highly intricate fantasy universe, that has a lot of parallels to our own world. Politics, racism and sexism, the divide between science and religion, social class systems, Plato's Republic, stuff like that.
But it was also influenced by MMORPG design. For one, DA:O is a party based RPG with three basic classes. The mage, the warrior and the rogue. It also includes the gameplay mechanic of aggro. This a basic set-up for the trinity, very much as seen in World Of Warcraft. When you hear people say "it's single player WoW", they're not far off the mark. There are more strategic options still, but the inclusion of the trinity as a game mechanic was a novelty.

What is Aggro?

It stands to reason that enemy AI will target the party member that is hurting it the most. This is always the DPS, usually a squishy mage. To make the tank work in this scenario, it is given skills such as taunt, or stances that generate an exaggerated amount of "threat" towards the enemy, this forces said enemy to direct their blade to the tank and away from the mage. This "Aggro" mechanic makes fights manageable and the tank reliable. The job of the tank is to smartly manage enemies in addition to his defensive and regenerative skills. It may seem a little unrealistic to be able to pull away an enemy from a friendly mage, protecting her with the push of a button but you have to remember that this is just another way of manipulating and pulling the strings woven into the game's mechanics. Empowering the players, allowing them to master their situation rather than suffer through it. Aggro mechanics are relevant, since they have made it out of the MMO and into the single player RPG.

All in all, Dragon Age: Origins (November 3, 2009) is a rather quiet game. It doesn't have the flash of other games, like a still water belies its depth, its biggest strengths aren't seen during a brief glance at some gameplay. You can't appreciate the characters and humour in this game without spending a little time with it. Nor will it be easy to spot what goes on during a fight, what skills are used during what phase. The active pause makes all this complexity manageable but you'd need a commentator to talk you through the process as a spectator.
You'll also need to finish the game to experience the full range of consequences to your actions - they're quite significant. Made even more so because they influence the sequels. It's true that not many of these changes make the sequel into a different game but the reality of the world is altered, giving it a different connotation and shifting the context.

Bioware had little to prove after Mass Effect (another unique IP, released November 16, 2007) became an immense success, but expectations were high for this new IP nonetheless. Would lightning strike twice? After all, both games and their respective fictional universes were masterfully created. Pop culture was still reverbing from the success of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and hardcore RPG gamers were tantalized by Dragon Age's promise of a return to form.
Regretably and in spite of critical acclaim its actual success left somewhat to be desired as it failed to become a blockbuster hit. A reality confirmed once its sequel sold less and public interest seemed to have cooled off dramatically.

At the heart of the perceived failing of the Dragon Age franchise, when it comes to marketing, is the discrepancy of developing a core game, and selling it as a casual one.

At the heart of the perceived failing of the Dragon Age franchise, when it comes to marketing, is the discrepancy of developing a core game, and selling it as a casual one. The way this opaque box of mechanics was marketed to a console market (let's be honest: the PC crowd knew what they were in for) with a flashy Lord Of The Rings and 300 inspired trailer that succeeded only in misrepresenting what the game was actually like.

This is the trailer for the most important, tactical, party based RPG in recent history.

Feeling the marketing department didn't do enough with this trailer, it went another step beyond what Dragon Age 2 was like with the Dragon Age 2 trailer, which sold people a different game altogether. This put off both the hardcore, who had to accept a compromised and dumbed-down sequel, and the casual audience who were buying a cat in a bag.

And what game do you think this game is like? Here's how this fight really plays out.

Dragon Age 2 (March 8, 2011) is a game seemingly inspired by Mass Effect 2 (January 26, 2010) which was a tremendous success for Bioware. So it broke away from DA:O, got a named protagonist and story based, linear level design. It banked big on character and story, but left the world design to "functional at best", a polar opposite of "open world". It was also a party based tactical RPG and not a third person shooter. It sold worse than its predecessor and Bioware got the message that this was the wrong direction for their game. Personally, I don't see why some people lose their mind over DA2, I had a lot of fun with it - my only gripe being the respawning enemies that would screw up my carefully planned battles.

Skyrim Logo Skyrim's Logo made quite clear this wasn't a game to take lightly

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (November 11, 2011) has been the thé ultimate in many top RPGs lists. I'm a little unclear what the criteria are exactly but I'm sure the open world and free-flow class system play a big part in the success of this carve-your-own-path spectacular. The Elder Scrolls has always been known for its open ended gameplay: you're a hero of no repute and no description. Fill in the blanks and don't worry, you'll work things out as you go along. Want to swing a sword? Swing it and you'll get better at swinging swords - presumably this is just like real life - you'll even become the best Sword Swinger in the whole of Tamriel. Skyrim is a game where you grow big, larger than anyone else, larger than life. A god among mere mortals. A god-character. How is all of this made possible? Because a power fantasy is a very marketable idea.

Suspension of disbelief is one of the reasons I am disappointed with Skyrim. It's not just about the MMO-like checklist quests or the lack of a (good) narrative. I have a hard time believing this is a medieval world. Every town has a population of five people. Each of them living in a spacious mansion sized home with room and perishable foods to spare. Why is there a war exactly? But touch any of it and the town guard will descend on you like gnats on a knave. In the name of justice and fair play they'll pick a fight with the man who just slew a dragon at the town gates, mistaking their their paper-thin personalities for plot-armour. In many games I generally don't like very much, I'll keep to the Sith code of morality (thanks, KotoR), which means they either apologize and let me go or I walk away over their dead bodies. Duty bound by stupidity, the AI invariably makes the wrong choice. Enemy tactics are limited to rushing headlong into your sword-swinging and then, when they don't get their due in an explicit death animation, they sometimes flee in a straight path ideal for catching persuing arrows with their backs. When a fight starts it's a pretty chaotic affair with boring, whiffy combat. It seems a theme with Skyrim to make every gameplay element as invisible and uneventful as it can. The interface is horrid. Character growth and specialization are literally covered in smoke and mist - mouse over the dots in the nebula one more time to reveal the tooltip! Sure, it becomes better with mods but I'm afraid the underlying system the game is based on aren't very good. Where is the game-part? It epitomizes the god-character with special purpose and destiny, superpowers and scores of clueless bandits dumb enough to think they can best you. Building you character seems secondary, if you're a sword swinger you'll finish the game by swinging swords. The interesting thing about Skyrim isn't about its combat or strategy. It's about walking this strange world, discovering... what exactly?

Skyrim screenshot Lording over Tamriel on a rock with a longbow makes one all-powerful.

Maybe I aught to do the thing I eventually did with Fallout 3: equip a ranged weapon and believe this an open-world FPS. But the game is boring. Character interaction can make a bland game worth playing but this is a let-down too. The entire population share a handful of voice actors and they all share the same watered down vocabulary. Skyrim also tries its hand at a big living world: if the player makes a splash, the world will ripple. I'm told it's supposed to be open. Elder Scrolls games have always resembled the Ultima games in this regard, its their retro-ancestor. They lied. I remember a particular instance that shattered that illusion...

Whiterun jail is where it all came tumbling down.

At one point in the story I needed to coax the location of a bandit hideout out of a prisoner. Unable to see things my way, story constraints don't you know, the prisoner would only share the info after I bailed him out. Unwilling to cough up coin for the sorry cretin, I decided to search for the cell key by picking the pockets of the 3 present jailers. One of which was seated quite near a wall but I was able to position the camera behind him by jumping on and over his dinner table and crawling into a corner. Stoic and unfazed by my odd behavior he let me rummage through his inventory anyway. It turned out that none of the guards had the relevant key. Odd. I then picked the locks on every chest in the room. Still no key. Hm. Plan B then. As per world design, this jail is also where the player ends up in for crimes against Skyrim', e.g. stealing one to many apples. Since the story can't end with the player expiring in prison, he's allowed to pick the sewer grate in his cell floor to escape. It's game design, alright? The game even provides an easy lock and matching lock-picks under the pillow on the bed. Maybe the guards have more respect for the player than I thought. Ultimately, you escape prison by navigating a linear path out of the sewers and back into the wide world. No questions asked. So I thought: 'I'll open the player cell with one of the keys I did got off the guards, then in the sewers i'll pick the lock of the informant to let him out and that'll win me the info I need.' However, the informant's floor grate doesn't even have a lock! Bloody Bethesda. Extremely annoyed, I paid the guard anyway. Cursing through my teeth that this would end up in a rant someday.

Storytelling in and through the world is also poor. The bar has been raised so many times, even by Bethesda themselves in Fallout 3 (October 28, 2008), that you can't just offer notes and books to tell a story. Since Bioshock (August 21, 2007) we're allowed to expect audiologs that read the text for us, they allow the player to keep playing. Yes, I enjoyed Fallout 3 a lot more and now I wonder if that has anything to do with its pedigree. It at least had some linear sections in which the storytellers could put you through an experience with some flavour.

Honest trailer.

I mentioned trailers earlier, and I recall Skyrim having a much more honest one, showing a first person perspective, in-game footage, the actual game music and the slaying of a dragon; exactly how it's done in game. It didn't have to sell the idea to its audience, as it was already on board. It celebrated its release, rather than sell it. Much to Bethesda's credit. Of course, slashing at a dragon is much more cinematic than watching a party of puppets play a pseudo-turn-based fight from an isometric perspective.

As far as trailers go, Bioware learned its lesson when it came to Dragon Age: Inquisition, which has a much more toned down theme. Danger merely looms here, where in previous trailers it spat of the screen in big red splotches. It has the game's third person perspective in actual game footage, the game's voice-over, classical score and the slaying of a dragon.

Honest trailer 2.

This is my Inquisitor. There are many like her, but this one is mine.

Playing it makes it clear that this game is a consolidation of popular ideas from other bestsellers, in addition to its prequels:

  • World Of Warcraft: sidequest design, level gated content
  • Skyrim: open world design and presentation
  • Guild Wars 2: action RPG combat system
  • Dark Souls: limited healing mechanic
  • Assassin's Creed: collect-a-thon sidequests
  • Mass Effect: character movement, presentation of dialogues, mocap animation, rock-paper-scissors combat mechanics
  • Dragon Age: Origins: encounter design, classes, the trinity, segmented open world, story quest experience, choice and consequence
  • Dragon Age 2: Class and Skill tree layout, a voiced protagonist

Wether this make DA:I into a patchy rag-doll or a sum greater than its parts, merits examination. Through the grapevine I have heard more than a few voices exclaim 'it's like an MMORPG'. Tabbed targeting, open world, MMO quest design. It's a first glance opinion and therefor doesn't tell the whole story.
The Skyrim-esque open world influence may well be the only chink in Dragon Age's armour as it's the most boring part of the game. One part, mind. Boring mostly at the very start, where it seems the player needs to be eased into the idea of the open world. It should have been faster. Getting to the first real mission where events truly kick off, is paramount. Unfortunately, you may be near ten hours of menial tasks in by then. How very Bethesdian. Yet, this open world's dense enough to warrant exploring. The game world itself is made up out of very large individual zones rather than one large streaming game world. It's what I have to thank the Baldur's Gate flashback for when I first entered The Hinterlands. But it should appear optional at the start of the game, because it is. When I finally arrived at the first major plot spoiler, I found out I was slightly over-leveled (having to use this word in this context is uneasy). But I was happy to do it, because the story has that Bioware charm I keep coming back for. It's here that the game shifts into higher gear and becomes a much more interesting.
Like an MMO, it'll take foreknowledge to determine what is the most efficient way to level-up and get past the level gates. Remembering how good Dragon Age: Origins and even Dragon Age 2 managed their pace makes that last sentence rather depressing to write. Still, being a party and class based game puts it miles ahead of the god-character action RPGs.

Spoiler: we won.

It's hard to ignore the rocky road, if not downwards slope, the Dragon Age games have been on since Origins. Or Bioware's flip-flopping. But the story and characters have remained distinctly Dragon Age throughout. So even if Inquisition goes one step further to broaden its market appeal by introducing action RPG gameplay and a pseudo-open game world, story and attachment to characters will drive you forward.
Given its complexity, a story that needs a long attention span, long character dialogues with many tough choices, I do wonder what percentage of players will finish the game - this could be another cat-in-the-bag scenario. Will the emphasis on open world help sell the game better? If you wanted an open world game, then no. If you wanted a Dragon Age: Origins game, then hell no. It is better than the one in Skyrim for me because it's not as open. But the comparison doesn't really hold water, because at heart this is still a party based RPG with depth when it comes to mechanics and story. It wants you to care about the characters, the conflict, the events and not just about yourself. It's why you'll be willing to do all the menial tasks that you could just as easily skip and keep to slaying dragons in your off hours as the Inquisitor. It's really good on its own merits... but you have to let go of Origins.

Skyrim, which is still selling, has moved more than 20 million units. It has also made a monumental and lasting impact on Dragon Age. Ascribing the open world movement to Skyrim alone is hugely unfair however: MMOs are paramount, The Legend of Zelda should be mentioned, as should games like Assassin's Creed and GTA. As technology progresses, open worlds have become more viable but in themselves don't make for better games. Yet, the trend is clear. As such we will never get another Origins, at least not from Bioware. It falls to other, smaller studios to fill its niche. The vacuum left by the once small now big, is ideal for the still or perpetually small. Think Portalarium, inExile, Obsidian, Larian. As long as the hardcore RPG players are able to support these studios they'll receive the games they want... but you have to let go of Origins.

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