Tag Archives: Bioware

Gameplay, Class, and Story in Dragon Age

I’ve been thinking a lot about Bioware games lately, and the role of class and race in storytelling. It was just Bioware month after all – did you catch me on Justice Points? If not, check it out.

In the typical Western fantasy RPG that lets you create your own character, there are two big choices to make at the start – the class you want to play and the race you want to be (and your hairstyle, obviously). Your class – warrior, rogue, mage are the big three though some games offer many more specific classes like druids, priests or rangers – dictates the types of abilities you can use. Your race – Human, Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, etc. – can impact what classes you can choose and may give you certain traits or attributes.

What class you play in RPGs generally has the most impact on mechanics and how you solve problems as opposed to the narrative. Where a warrior may break down a locked door, a rogue may pick the lock or pickpocket the key, and a mage might use a Knock spell. Some games offer quests or things like guilds that can only be accessed by players of a certain class, but these generally don’t have a huge impact on the story. Combat is a big problem to be solved in most games, and class has a huge impact on that. The combat experience of a sword & board warrior is quite different from that of a spirit mage and most players have a preference when it comes to combat style.

Many RPGs can boast that your decisions and character background shape your game experience in some way, but the Dragon Age series in particular takes things a bit further. As evidenced by the name, the first Dragon Age game puts a lot of emphasis on the origin of your character. You can choose to play one of 6 different origin stories – You can be a Daelish elf or a city elf, a Dwarf Noble or commoner, or a Human Noble. Or you can be a Mage. Each of these 6 character types has it’s own unique origin story that acts as the prologue of the game, but the difference in experience doesn’t stop there. If you’re a dwarf from the Noble caste, you’ll have a different experience and understanding of what happens in Orzammar than you would if you were a human. If you’re a city elf you’ll have different conversations when you revisit the alienage in Denerim. If you’re anything but a human noble Alistair will stomp all over your heart after you make him King. Yes, this is a lingering trauma. These little differences based on your origin, along with the changes caused by your choices make the game worth replaying. That’s not where the differences end though, as the Mage class throws you a curveball. While being a warrior or a rogue makes no difference to the game’s narrative and doesn’t impact your origin story, being a Mage changes everything. When you’re a Mage you get a whole different origin story and whether you’re a human or an elf (dwarves can’t practice magic) doesn’t matter. Being a Mage trumps everything else.


Dragon Age Origins mage spells

From a narrative standpoint, this is thematically appropriate and is a great bit of world building. The tensions between the Circle of Mages and the Chantry is one of the defining parts of Thedas. When it’s discovered that someone can use magic they’re shipped off to the Circle where they live under constant surveillance, it doesn’t matter where they came from or what race they are. It makes total sense that being a Mage is going to have a great impact on your experiences in the world as opposed to being a rogue or warrior which really has no impact on story.

Choosing the Mage class in Dragon Age 2 also has a significant impact on how you experience the game. As you make your way to Kirkwall with your family, one of your siblings is killed and who it is is based on your class. If you’re a warrior or a rogue, you go through the rest of the game with your sister, Bethany, a Mage. If you’re a Mage yourself, it’s Carver, the warrior who survives and may become a Templar later on.

Bethany Dragon Age 2

Again, this makes sense from a narrative standpoint. The troubles between the Circle of Mages and the Chantry and Templars is even more at the forefront of this game, eventually reaching a boiling point. Much more tension is created by putting your sibling on the opposite side of the issue from you. Also, it aids in the ability to create a balanced party at the start of the game.

However, as much as it makes sense in the scope of the game world, having your class impact your experience of the story so much causes some issues for me. I like being a mage, I find their abilities more interesting than the other classes and I find them more fun to play. The spells have real synergy and you can change your combat strategy quite considerably based on which skill trees you invest in. There are area of effect spells, direct single target spells, spells that hit in a cone, plus buffs and heals for your party. Warriors are really dull to play. Rogues are a bit more interesting, but still rather button mashy. From a pure mechanics standpoint, I always want to play a mage. That means I’ll probably never get to see things as a Daelish elf in DA:O. In Dragon Age 2 I always have to make a choice – play the class I prefer and never get to experience Bethany’s story or choose a class I’ll have less fun with so I can see this other side of the game. It’s a long game and playing as a class I don’t like will definitely impact my enjoyment.

I can’t think of any other games where the class you choose so greatly impacts the events of the game. It makes sense, in the world of Thedas, that being a mage limits your options. But in the real world, where I want to have fun while playing games, it’s disappointing that fun combat mechanics and differing narrative experiences can be at odds with one another.

Justice Points and Bioware

This weekend I was very excited to be invited onto the Justice Points podcast to take part in Bioware month! My buddy Kaleri was on as well, and we chatted with Apple Cider Mage and Tzufit about all kinds of things – why Bioware games are important to us, best and worst game romances, and what we’re hoping for in Andromeda.

Justice Points logo

Image from justicepoints.com

I also talk a bit about Fallout 4 and Rise of the Tomb Raider in the what I’m playing segment.

I had a ton of fun recording it, and I hope you’ll give it a listen. You can find it on the Justice Points site, or on iTunes or Stitcher.

This was my third appearance on Justice Points, if you want to check out the other episodes they’re all listed on the Pam Speaks page.

Lore and the Codex – How to do it Better

I’ve been playing Pillars of Eternity since it came out last week. So far, it’s a great game in one of my favourite genres, and I’m enjoying both the gameplay and the story. As with most RPGs, it’s full of lore that’s just waiting to be discovered by the player and enrich the game world. But how much lore is too much lore? And why is it always delivered via walls of text in books, journals, or codex entries?

Last week there was an article on Paste.com about 5 narrative devices games should stop using. I’d like to throw in my 2 cents and say that overly long journal entries have got to go as well. I usually go into games with the intention of reading all the available lore, stories, and histories but it generally takes all of half an hour before I’m overwhelmed with text and start skimming. An hour or two later, I’m skipping them completely. And in-game libraries? Well those just instill me with feelings of guilt and malaise as I know I’m not going to sit around reading for half an hour. And there’s always a library in fantasy games.

Pillars of Eternity - library books

I started Dragon Age: Inquisition planning to read all the lore. But within a very short timeframe of being at Haven, I was quickly overloaded with codex entries. Probably 30 of them opened up after just a brief run through the area, and a look at the Dragon Age wiki shows there are 558 codex entries in the game. Even assuming a modest length of 250 words an entry, that’s almost 140,000 words of text. I just don’t have the inclination to read through all that. I want to play the game, not read a novel.

Unfortunately in DA:I, my aversion to codex entries meant I had no idea what the very end of the game meant. So I was basically punished for not wanting to read them all. Also I have to say that Bioware games, at least on console, have a poor UI for finding your unread codex entries, making me even less likely to want to track them down and read them.

I do think this is more of a problem in Action RPGs such as Dragon Age, Mass Effect, or The Witcher. In a game like Pillars of Eternity or Torment, you know you’re going to be doing a lot of reading – they are text-heavy games. If you don’t want to read lines and lines of dialogue then that particular category of RPGs is probably not for you. But with ARPGs there’s a huge disconnect between running around shooting things or smashing them with a sword and standing, unmoving, reading page after page of stories, songs, and histories. A lot of these codex entries open up in the middle of a conversation or even a fight, making them awkward to get back to.

Obviously, I’m not against lore-rich worlds, or reading in general, but there has to be a better way. There are a few ways I think codex entries could be more accessible and interesting to players.

First – editing. Edit, edit, edit, cut, cut, cut. Let’s be real here – 558 codex entries in a single game is ridiculous. Focus on what’s most important or interesting. Once the number of entries has been brought down to a manageable size, also edit for length.

DAI loading page

DA:I showed codex entries on the loading pages. Great idea, terrible execution. Unless you have the longest loading screens ever, no one will be able to read through this when it’s presented. And each loading screen has 3 entries! Yes, put lore info on loading screens to give the player something to read, but limit the entry presented to 50, maybe 75 words. And make the text bigger.

Second – organize. Make a clear distinction between text information that may have an impact on your game – whether it’s a map that’s pointing you somewhere, an enemy’s weakness, or who the hell that guy at the end of the game is supposed to be – and the stuff that’s mostly just flavour. UIs can also be vastly improved by things like adding a ‘show unread entries’ button, customizable sorting, or flagging entries so you can easily reference them later.

Third – read to me and let me multitask. I don’t share a dislike of audio logs with the author of the Paste piece. If you can’t convey information to me in any other way, then please, read it to me. Diablo 3 does this well. When you pick up a journal the author pops up in a little window and reads it to you, leaving you free to go about your grindy business as you’re learning something about the world.

Mass Effect codex entriesIn Mass Effect, the codex entries are read aloud (good!) but you have to stay on the codex page in order to hear the whole thing (bad). If I could select an entry, or even a whole category, and have it read to me as I run around The Normandy or shoot Geth, I would be 99% more likely to experience those codex entries. I’m trying to save the galaxy here, I don’t have time to sit in the menu screens for an hour.

What do you think about lore told via codex entries and in-game books? Do you read them all? Is it too much, or do you appreciate having access to everything? Can it be done better?

Under the Covers

I’ve been playing the remaster of Saints Row 4 on XBox One and thoroughly enjoying it. Besides engaging gameplay, zany antics, and ridiculously juvenile yet hilarious jokes, Saints Row boasts one of the best character creators I’ve seen in a game. When you create The Boss you have a ton of options. Aside from choosing your sex, you can choose your race and your skin colour. You can choose from multiple different voice actors with different accents to voice your character, and further customize the pitch of your voice. You can make your character appear young or old, and choose a body build that you like. Then there are a thousand different clothing options. And if you ever want to change things up, you can do so at any point in the game.

My character is what I’d like to look like in a video game. She has purple hair, some meat on her bones, and some major eyeliner and brow game. She’s voiced by the wonderful Laura Bailey who I wish I sounded like. But every time I load up the game, I’m greeted with this guy.

Saints Row 4 cover and loading screen art

Who the fuck is this guy?

He’s certainly not me. He’s not in my crew. I’ve never seen him in my game.

I love playing the game but every time I’m met with this image, which is also the art on the game box, there’s a moment of cognitive dissonance. The canon protagonist (at least in marketing materials) has nothing to do with my experience of playing the game. It seems so incongruous to offer up this great character creator that lets people create the kind of protagonist they want to play, but then show us a design that’s likely completely different anytime there’s a chance.

Saints Row is obviously not the only game that has done this.

Covers for Dragon Age 2, Fable 3, Sunset Overdrive all showing a white male main character

Dragon Age 2, Fable 3, and Sunset Overdrive also all portray the protagonist as a white male despite offering other options to the player.

The Mass Effect series boasts a decent character creator (though it’s not as robust as Saints Row’s), but all of the artwork around the first 2 games still features a default white male Shepard. Incidentally, he kind of looks like the guy from the Saints Row cover with a buzz cut.

Mass Effect 1 and 2 cover art

For Mass Effect 3 Bioware’s marketing department realized some people had recognized the superiority of Jennifer Hale’s Shepard (I refuse to use the term femShep, because she. is. Shepard.) In a puzzling move (or not so puzzling if you want to absolve yourself of all responsibility), Bioware put the decision on how she would look to a fan vote. Blue-eyed, blonde-haired, Caucasian Shepard won the popular vote in what could be boiled down to a beauty contest. Then there was a second vote to decide her hair colour. Yep, hard-ass, space Commander, first human Spectre Shepard had her skin colour, features, and hair style voted on by the public. Now that there was a canon design for both the male and female Shepard, Mass Effect 3 had a reversible box cover (of which maleShep was still the default).

Mass Effect 3 covers

I’m afraid that marketing departments just can’t win with me. Though I can (and have) flipped the cover of my Mass Effect 3 box for 360 to show the version of Shepard that’s closer to my own, it’s still not my Shepard. My Shepard is an N7 Marine and she sure as hell would never have a haircut that allowed bangs to obstruct her eyes. That’s really not safe for combat. While having an option for female box art is something, it still doesn’t take into account how people have created their own version of Shepard. Why does she have to be white? Why does she need to have delicate, conventionally attractive features? Why does she have a design that you can’t really even replicate in-game while box art maleShep and in-game maleShep can look pretty much identical? These are the great mysteries of the Mass Effect world.

I think the best way to market games that allow you to customize your character is to not show the protagonist in the artwork. It’s the only way to avoid that sense of dissonance and the feeling that if you’re not playing as scruffy white male #42, you’re not playing the character as it was designed. A number of games have done this, and I don’t think any have suffered from not putting a face on the box art.

Dragon Age Inquisition box art

The box art for Dragon Age: Inquisition has an enticing design that shows something of the story, without committing to a specific character design. This should work for most characters. Unless you play a dwarf, then you’re out of luck.

Dragon Age Origins box cover

Dragon Age: Origins has artwork that doesn’t give any indication of a canon Warden, while still being quite effective.

Fallout 3 and New Vegas box art

The newer Fallout games both feature heavily armored figures which don’t give away sex, race, or appearance, but tell you a lot about the game world. Though I’m sad to admit I always assumed the figure on the cover of New Vegas was male just because of lack of sculpted boob plate. But when I force that stereotype out of my head, it could really be a man or a woman.

Why spend so much time and effort giving players robust character customization only to default to the standard scruffy white male protagonist in all the marketing materials?

 

A Few Tips for Dragon Age: Inquisition

Dragon Age: Inquisition came out last week and I’ve been playing it. A lot. Pretty much every waking moment, except when I feel bad and temporarily relinquish the TV to my boyfriend so he can play NES. To be honest, the game didn’t quite capture me like Dragon Age Origins did at first, and a lot of that had to do with pacing. The thing is, the game is gigantic and very open world so the player dictates the pace. You could zoom through the story relatively quickly, or you could spend 15 hours exploring every inch of the starting area and wondering if perhaps there are more important things for an Inquisitor to do than pick every Elfroot in Ferelden. Dragon Age is full of pet peeves for me, and it did take some work to get past them and let the huge, detailed world and wonderfully written characters suck me in.

Dragon Age Inquisition box art

Here are some things I wish I had known before playing the game that would have made my starting experience much better. For more tips, see my second post.

Character Creation

  • Choose your class wisely, especially if you want to be able to experience all of the interactions between your companions. I’m playing as a rogue, which was a bad choice for this. In combat, you pretty much will always need a warrior to draw threat (even if they aren’t a shield tank) and a mage who can cast barriers (basically Power Word: Shield) in your party. There’s no healing in this game, besides limited use potions, so barriers are very important. A rogue you can honestly take or leave, and I’m finding being one myself really limits the possible party comps. I’d love to see the interactions between Sera, who’s quite daft, and Cole, the friendly ghost, but they’re both rogues as well, and having a party where 3 of 4 characters are rogues is very hard to work with.
  • That said, rogues have some super fun abilities like Smoke Bombs and Leaping Shot which lets you backflip out of danger, firing a hail of arrows in your wake.
  • When you play as a rogue or warrior you get 2 sub-class options (archer vs. stabby stab, sword & board vs. 2H), but these don’t lock you into anything, it just decides what weapon you start with.
  • I don’t particularly like the look of the character I created. She looked okay on the creation screen, but in-game I’m less impressed. Play through the intro and don’t be afraid to restart if you want to change appearance. Better to do it 15 minutes in than be like me and wish you had done things differently 40 hours in.

Story and characters

  • Leave the Hinterlands. Really. Do it. I wish I had read this article earlier. I probably spent a good 10 hours exploring, closing rifts, and picking up every herb/ore/item I could find. It got boring. It made me think DA:I was a bad game. Hinterlands has been one of the least engaging areas, as it has so much collection to do and pretty much every quest you get comes from a note on a dead body. If you’re like me, uncompleted objectives on your map are an anathema to you, but The Hinterlands isn’t going anywhere. Complete a few objectives, do the quests that will get you access to mounts, but as soon as the game is starting to feel like a slog, go progress the story forward. It’ll make the game much more enjoyable. Also, you’ll get some side quests that send you back to Hinterlands later.
  • Do the first quest in Val Royeaux before you start exploring The Hinterlands too thoroughly. In my game I found Redcliffe in the Northern Hinterlands before I went to Val Royeaux and it resulted in some very immersion-breaking story gaps. Someone in VR is supposed to send you to Redcliffe, and the game doesn’t recognize or adapt to you doing things in the wrong order.
  • Gather all possible companions early so you can get to know and love them, and have a variety of party comps to choose from. You can miss some of them if you wait too long. Here’s how to find each of the extra companions:
    • Sera – Friend of Red Jenny quest triggered when you go to Val Royeaux.
    • Vivienne – The Imperial Enchanter quest given by a mage in Val Royeaux.
    • Iron Bull – The Captain of the Chargers quest is given to you by a messenger outside the Haven chantry, and sends you to The Storm Coast.
    • Blackwall – The Lone Warden quest, given by Leliana which sends you to the Hinterlands.
    • Dorian – Will be found in Redcliffe when you meet with Fiona if you side with the Mages, or will appear automatically at another time if you side with the Templars.
    • Cole – Will be found in The Fade if you side with the Templars, or will appear automatically at another time if you side with the Mages.
  • These are the main quests, so you can pace out how the story will progress. Story quests will have a recommended level range listed when you see them in the War Room:
    • The Wrath of Heaven
    • The Threat Remains
    • Champions of the Just or In Hushed Whispers
    • In Your Heart Shall Burn
    • From the Ashes
    • Here Lies the Abyss
    • Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts
    • What Pride Had Wrought
    • The Final Piece
  • (Minor story spoiler) You can only do one of Champions of the Just or In Hushed Whispers. Do Champions if you want the Templars to join your cause, or Whispers if you want the mages. You can’t have both.
  • I suggest moving the story forward to From the Ashes fairly soon. It was at this point that the story really became interesting, and I began to care about my character and her cause. If you find yourself feeling unengaged while exploring and doing side-quests, doing the story quests up to this point should fix that.

Inventory and other stuff

  • In your inventory, Valuables are the equivalent to junk in the previous DA games. Not sure why they changed this. Put everything you want to sell in here so they can be sold all at once.
  • Another annoying thing about valuables is that the category is applied not just to actual junk, but also to research items that you should be turning in. So drop by the research table before you start selling en-masse. (Thank to @ArielleEJ for this tip)
  • The inventory system is not great, and you will get a ton of crappy gear drops. If you’re playing on normal (or easy) you don’t have to worry too much about gear, I definitely don’t recommend letting it consume too much of your time if it’s something you don’t enjoy. Junk (or ‘valuable’) all the white/common gear, and just focus on the better stuff. Every couple of hours I go back to my home base, see if anything new is an upgrade for anyone and sell everything else. I generally avoid crafting unless someone has weapons that are vastly inferior to the rest of the party.
  • Upgrades are generally worthwhile, but don’t spend too much time on them. Just slap on whatever will fit on your character’s gear. You can also remove upgrades (but not runes) from gear you will be selling.
  • The one piece of gear that does warrant more attention is Varric’s crossbow, Bianca. He’ll have this weapon all game, so you should buy or craft upgrades for it as you can.
  • Though I’m not into scrutinizing the stats on gear, the appearance of the gear is well worth paying attention to. Bioware did some killer work on armor this time around. Leliana’s armor is perfection, and most of the other character’s armor is also both beautiful and functional looking. It’s truly exciting to be a female rogue who does not have bare legs.
  • Inventory is limited, so I highly recommend taking the 2 Tailoring Inquisition perks when you can, which will give you an extra 30 slots. Especially if you’re like me and pick up everything in sight.
  • I think I’ve given myself a repetitive strain injury by constantly pushing L3 to search for hidden items. Unless you’re desperate to find every herb/ore, give your hand a break. Your companions will say something when there is an important hidden item around.
  • The addition of jumping in the game is nice for those who can’t keep still, but it also brings up a lot of Mako-reminiscent, cliff scaling frustrations. I don’t really have tips to avoid this, just a warning. Though mounts are a bit better at climbing things than you are on foot.

Good luck and happy Inquisiting!

Have any tips for me?