Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dragon Week 4: Schizo

I think I'm already running out of steam here; a 7-part series may have been a little overly ambitious. Next game gets a 3 parter.

Over the past two days, we've covered the part of the game I like the best (the choice system) and the least (the combat system). To elaborate on where I left off last time, the reason the game's combat system seems so different from the dialogue-choice aspect is that the latter is all about presenting meaningful choice--or at least, the illusion of meaningful choice. I'm left with the feeling that the choices I've made have contributed to the results, which are often multifaceted. In the combat, there's no sense of that; either your tactics worked, and you move on, or they failed, and you have to try again. I'm left with a sense that I'm playing too very different games, and when one interrupts the other, I feel resentful.

And that's the real problem: the fighting and the talking don't affect each other in a noticeable manner, except tangentially in two ways. First, and most obvious, is that the conversation choices I make occasionally decide who I will fight, and if I will fight. And if I push my companions far enough into rivalry or friendship, they will gain passive abilities that will affect their battle ability, though rarely in an obvious manner. And that's it. Since the game has removed diplomacy points and barter points that were options in previous Bioware games, I can't even say that the experience I get in battle can be used to purchase skills that grant new conversational options. The game is constantly shifting gears, and every so often, it stalls.

Granted, videogames have long attempted to fuse nonlinearity with plot, and the story/fighting dichotomy is hardly anything new; the classic space exploration game Star Control 2 had an even worse combat system, yet people persevered for the stellar story (pun not intended). And it beats the traditional videogame option, which was to provide no story options at all, and keep any nonlinearity, if it's there at all, purely in the exploration phase of things—the action and story just forces you to the end.

But there are other ways of doing things. A friend of mine played the leaked demo for the new Deus Ex game, and it may have found an alternative. (I haven’t played it myself, so this is all apocryphal.) Apparently, if you spend too much time exploring in the game during a hostage situation, the terrorist starts killing hostages. It’s a small thing, easily monitored by the computer, but it’s a clear case of action taken during the “battle” phase of a game that meaningfully affects the “story” at hand. That’s the sort of responses that I wish Dragon Age II had more of. If I spend untold hours fighting a black dragon when I've already in the middle of the quest to rescue some villagers, maybe the villagers shouldn't be waiting by the time I get back. Granted, this method has its own drawbacks, but to make choices like that so important would, I think, ultimately make my own play more meaningful to me.

Later Days.

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