I’m sure you won’t be disappointed to see a normal post today, instead of an april fool’s joke, if you are like me and despise the usual practice of playing pranks on your readers. Sure, playing a joke of small scope and scale on your friends and family is always welcome once a year, but if you are a major information outlet or public service playing pranks on your userbase or readers, I perceive it as spreading misinformation and lying.
On the other hand though, if the prank is designed to be conspicuous from the get go and only intended to get a few good chuckles out of whoever hears it, then more power to you! None of that we’re shutting down the game/deleting a class/our HDD’s have failed/there’s a virus in our executable/I’ve decided to quit blogging. It’s irritating, annoying and only serves one purpose, the gloating of the pranker. Play pranks like that on people you know, who have the ability to punch you in the face, and not on complete strangers over the interwebs. Thank you.
With that rant over, let’s focus on this post. Today I thought I’d write about a game a lot of people seem to love, Dragon Age 2, and why that irritates me.
Beginning at the beginning
To explain why it saddens me to see Dragon Age 2 go the road it did, I have to start at the beginning. Once upon a time in a faraway land…
Stop, stop, none of that nonsense here. Ahem, all of my irrational hatred (I haven’t even played DA2 for crying out loud!) can be explained by saying that my first RPG was Neverwinter Nights. There you go. The same could be achieved by saying that my first RPG was Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape Torment, Diablo or anything similar. Basically, a classic RPG. But NWN was the one for me, possibly because prior to it I was only interested in platformers, FPS or RTS games. I also have to admit I’ve never played any of the above games, something I am ashamed of and will have to amend in the near future.
In any case, NWN was a game I became completely engrossed with because of its incredible immersion. It was also one huge game, with single quests being comparable to whole zones of modern RPGs. The modern games are laughably small in comparison (even DA:O). Possibly because of the fact that DLCs weren’t invented yet and that the development principles were different back then. Despite its length, I played through it a number of times, including one of the expansions (Shadows of Undrentide). NWN is possibly one of BioWare’s greatest achievements.
I couldn’t have asked for a better game for my first encounter with the RPGs. The encounter that familiarised me with the genre and taught me what classic RPGs are like. I became aware of the other genre, the action RPGs (first or third person), after playing games like Ghotic, Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind, Diablo 2 and then later enjoyed games like Risen (Ghotic’s spiritual successor), Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion and a number of other action games. The important thing is that I learned the distinction between the two genres. I would never see them being mixed and they both worked in their own way.
The two halves make a (w)hole
There’s the classical RPG that usually follows a strict set of rules (usually D&D ones), is turn based or at least requires you to pause often, has engrossing lore and a story that is more than just a fairytale with bells and whistles (in the good ones anyway) and usually has a deeper meaning. And of course, there’s the much cherished multiple choice system on which morality or alignment features can be built on.
Then there’s the action RPG which builds on the simple fact that smacking stuff in the face is fun. And that it’s even more fun when you do it roleplaying a drunk dwarf and when you’re saving the world by doing it. The story usually isn’t an object to much scrutiny though. Don’t get me wrong, some action RPGs have amazing stories and provide you with the freedom of choosing your own path. But when you have a game that’s supposed to entertain with combat and visuals, the narrative components aren’t that important of a feature.
Recently there haven’t been many AAA classical RPG titles, with the genre largely becoming the domain of indie developers, who have found that its narrative focus and the lesser importance of visuals lends itself to their limited capabilities (funds and manpower-wise). The reason for the lack of interest of big developers/publishers in making a classical RPG probably lies in its perceived inaccessibility, which drives them to think that the game wouldn’t be picked up by anyone other than die-hard fans. They probably see action RPGs as a safer bet and they can always claim that it has all of the elements of the classical one to cater to both types of consumers.
Compare this to tabletop games. They too are at large perceived as inaccessible and it’s the watered down versions like Monopoly or Settlers of Catan that are popularised get played at parties and social events (playing those might even turn away potential fans of the more involved tabletop games).
The age of the dragon
Maybe that’s true. Classical RPGs might really be inaccessible and harder to get into, require more time and more involvement, making casual players less likely to pick them up than action RPGs. But along comes Dragon Age: Origins, a game developed by the stalwart BioWare, the traditional creators of ye olde classical RPGs. It turns out to be one of the most successful games that combine elements of both, the classical and action RPG and a game that kicks open the door for masses of RPG fans that didn’t even know they were that.
The marriage proved to be quite successful, with the difficulty setting ultimately controlling how the game plays. On easy setting you can zoom in and play it like an action RPG, stabbing, smacking or setting on fire everything you see, without having to worry about what your companions are doing and with a few tweaks in the tactics window this way of playing scales up quite nicely with the difficulty. If you so choose however (and in this case you better ramp up the difficulty, or the chances are you’ll be bored), you can disable all tactics, zoom out, pause every “turn” and play the game like chess. Chess with swords, fireballs and dragons (mmm).
Of course a few compromises were needed to make the game playable an interesting. The action side probably took the biggest hits, with combat still feeling a bit clunky and not engaging enough when zoomed in (you quickly run out of stuff to do), which is probably because of the rolling going on in the background being synced with the animations. It really feels like the game was intended to be played by controlling multiple characters, rather than just one. And then there’s the whole “too much walking around and talking to people instead of stomping on stuff”, which is kinda what classical RPGs do. But hey, those weren’t my complaints. I love the game as it is. Not quite NWN, but still an excellent game. And I craved for more. But apparently, someone was lobbing exactly that kind of complaints at BioWare. I personally blame console owners and consequentially EA and their craving for console market moniez.
(Though there were a few interesting and mostly welcome features from the action genre too, like the execution animations, simple specialisation trees, clear class definitions and lots of toggle-based skills. Oh wait, the last three aren’t welcome additions.)
The second coming of the second age of the second dragon sequel deux
Because along came Dragon Age 2, the next second part sequel following game thing (for anyone not in the know, Dragon Age 2 was the second part of the series, just in case you weren’t aware of that). And the above complaints were amended, compromises were made. This time, to get the console market moniez, the classical part of DA got the short end of the stick.
At this point I realise I forgot to mention something very important, so pretend you read it above. In a classical RPG, with turn based (or pausing very often) combat, the fights will last much longer than in the action one. Which means that even though there will be less of them, they will still feel like an important part of the game, without eating into game’s other content. And adversely, since the fights will be shorter in the action RPG there needs to be more of them. If the RPGs focus is truly on combat, there needs to now be twice as many interesting fights. And if there’s so much fighting, where does everything else fit? You see where this is leading, right?
So, you’re asking me all doe-eyed, what sins has DA2 committed? How about linearity, uninspired characters and story, Mass Effect’s Conversation Wheel of Doom™ (which btw, is a good way to destroy any moral ambiguity in the conversation options, “oh look all the good options are on the top, meh options in the middle and evil ones on the bottom, how convenient!”), focus on combat instead of the story, the need to have enemies/characters/items look cool instead of interesting, isometric camera (yes it’s important), etc…
I’m actually making stuff up or remembering what I heard about the game, since I haven’t played it myself, but I’m pretty sure some of those hit the mark. But because I’m a perfectionist and a completionist (I mean, just look at my blog, or my Acutely Mortal series), I’m going to check it out for myself. I will be playing through Dragon Age 2 as soon as I can get my claws on a copy, no doubt only to scrutinise and criticise every bit of it. Furthermore, I will be playing through it roleplaying a bastard, twat, an asshole, a psycho, lunatic or possibly all of those. And to go even further, I’ll be attempting (not saying I will succeed) to document it right here, on this very blog. Stay tuned.
But hang on, it wasn’t the consoles that ruined DA2. DA:O was a magnificent game even on consoles and sold quite handsomely. The one that ruined the game was EA trying to dumb it down enough for Halo fans buy it, so they could get more moniez.
So let me say it now, so EA can read it: Crossing and mixing the genres is all good and well, but dumbing things down never is. The former might win you recognition and fans, the latter never will. Accessibility is rarely an insurmountable obstacle and never is it the main culprit for obscurity.
And I’d like to finish off with: don’t touch any of my other games, you bastards.
Bah, this was supposed to be a short post /facepalm. Fail.
PS: Here’s proof: