Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dragon Week 3: The Good Stuff

But as much as I didn't like the game's combat system, there was something that kept me going: its story. Those familiar with videogame scholarship know that the first big debate in the field is usually characterized as narratology vs. ludology. Narratology argued that videogames should be evaluated in a similar manner as stories, or, in the argument's broader form, in a similar manner to any older form of media, from television or cinema to classic Aristotelian principles. Ludology holds that videogames should be studied first and foremost as games, which usually translates into an investigation of rules and play. I’m going to take the approach that most scholars do nowadays, which is to raise the debate and then immediately deny it. It’s particularly irrelevant in this case, because in Dragon Age II, the story *is* a game.

Since at least the 1998 Baldur’s Gate, Bioware has separated its RPGs out from the crowd by emphasizing the personal choices the player can make to direct the plot. For example, at the beginning of the game, the player chooses whether to take a job with a band of mercenaries, or a band of thieves. The former choice has you fighting a large group, whereas the latter has you coercing a merchant. The rewards for the quest aren’t that different, so the choice is fairly mild. On the other end of the scale, you have choices that range from turning a young man over to his certain death or pitting the knight order and the mage order against each other, to just saying to hell with it and seizing control of the city for yourself. I’ve argued in papers that Bioware encourages the players to adopt their own subject positions within the framework of the world they’ve set up, and that’s certainly what’s going on here. You can play at being a blunt, brutal dictator, a light peace-maker, or a flirty jokester—whatever role you want to play.

The other side of the coin is that you then have to actively pursue the story. You need to go out of your way to do sidequests and extra missions, to invest yourself in the gameworld. A lot of the story is peripheral—do you want to follow up a sidequest that has you help the knight commander out on a date? Do you care whether your elf friend manages to reconstruct a mirror that’s important to her heritage? Even simple exploration expands the game world, both in the player’s conception of it, and in the fact that little text pieces appear in your codex as you wander around, fleshing out the huge level of detail the creators have put into it. That’s what makes the combat in the game so comparatively frustrating—you either lose or win—there’s no middle ground in terms of meaningful results. It’s just something to plow through until the next real choice comes along.

(This is a photo from the date quest, in which your character has lured the male on the right here under false pretenses. Scandalous.)

Later Days.

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