Dragon Age: When Narrative and Gameplay make Fun

I think I fell in love with Alistair the moment I came out of Flemeth’s hut and he was so happy to see me alive. I knew it was just because he was relieved to not be alone in the world, but I was still head over heels.

Narrative in a game has the power to be so much more than just a framework of a universe or a generic plot to satisfy the genre. Game narratives can help create emotional experiences.

In Dragon Age:Origins, superb voice acting, fabulously animated facial features, developed histories, and consistent moralities somehow combine into a magical, sparkling, non-vampire known as Character. Alistair is sarcastic, playful, good, strong, sometimes conflicted, always gorgeous, loyal, and … interesting. I gave him some kind of runic symbol and he looooved it.

Why? Why does he like runes? Maybe I just hadn’t spoken to him enough to find out, but I knew there must be a reason and I was going to dig it out of him – I was going to get to know him.

Alistair is just one example of great character design in DA:O. But, is that enough to make a great game? Couldn’t I just go read Tolkien or Jordan or Martin if I wanted a good fantasy character? (Shhh, let’s only think of the first few Jordan books – let him rest in peace.)

I could. I don’t need to play a game for good narrative and if that’s all I wanted, I’d probably read a book. But we play games because we also want to have fun. We want to act. We want to play and I firmly believe that no amount of even superb narrative will, on its own, make a good game. A good game also needs good gameplay.

What is about DA:O’s gameplay that’s good? How does it interact with the narrative to create a seamless “game-goodness”?

One of the ways is I think the game’s focus on moral choices. Not only do they influence how the story plays out, they also influence whether your party members stay and fight beside you. Some class specializations are only unlocked by certain moral choices. NPC interactions vary dependent on choices you’ve made that have influenced them. Some preferable choices simply can’t be made because you haven’t worked on your character’s cunning and Coercion skills. The entire game can simply not be completed 100% on one playthrough, not just because there are different class/race beginnings, but because you will experience different parts of the game dependent on the choices you make.

It's not what it looks like...

All right, moral choices, but how does that influence the buttons I push and my heartrate in combat? Well, it may not influence the buttons you push for your main character, but it does influence what buttons you can push for your other party members. As I mentioned, some may leave you if they don’t agree with you, but also, their own abilities directly match their character as developed through the narrative. Of course, Alistair is a tank. Of course, Oghren fights with a two-hander. Of course, Wynne is a healer. Etc., etc.

Sometimes, narrative may even help make up for less-than-superb gameplay. The dwarven main questline is too long by most players’ estimation, but we know Branka must be out there so we keep searching, and the longer we search, the greater the suspense builds. Had I been a real adventurer, I would have assumed the darkspawn ate her and went back much earlier than I actually did. It dragged on and was the only area I left partially unexplored. At the end, though, I was rewarded with great narrative and a good battle. It wasn’t just a dungeon crawl – it was an epic search for lost Paragons and legendary technology.

The game is fun for more than just Alistair (and his very dreamy…mm). It’s fun to fight in this game. It’s fun to find class specializations and new recipes. It’s fun to get new spells and discover spell combos. It’s fun to give gifts. It’s fun to hear my characters talk to each other. It’s fun to open chests and find love letters. It’s sad to see characters leave or die. It’s exciting to recruit someone new. It’s scary to fight the Broodmother.

I could go on and on. The important thing to see is that it is almost impossible to separate the threads of narrative and gameplay in this game. Either they are so fine, I just cannot discern the boundary, or else they are so finely done, they merge.

Badadum Blogroll

On my weekly 8-hour drive, I typically listen to a few podcasts. This week, I tried a couple of new ones alongwith the regulars and thought I would give a review for you, my readers. Most of them are LotrO themed, what with the expansion coming in less than two weeks. Enjoy!

LOTRO Reporter

A Canadian duo (I hear your accents!) with clear voices and delightful humor talk about their adventures in LotrO as well as news and updates about the game and community. This week, they also had an interview with Sapience, the CM.

I loved the podcast. I think the interview was terrific, the best really of the three four I listened to today. The co-hosts interact well with each other, audio is well-tuned and well-edited, and the show was organized and varied enough to make the 1:24:xx length fly by. Thumbs up.

GameOn!

A  professional interview with two of the Turbine folk. This episode is really just an overview of all the new things coming in SoM. I say “just” because I am a rabid consumer of media and already knew most of what was said. However, he did ask his guests some questions from the community (including one of my own), the answers of which were quite interesting.

Although Shawn’s voice was clear, the two guests sounded like they were on a rather crackly phone line and one of them was much louder than the other. Regardless, the show was less than a halfhour in length and well worth a listen if you are craving SoM, in the know or not.

A Casual Stroll to Mordor

Here we have another duo, husband and wife this time (also a baby hobbit *gasp*). On this episode, they also interviewed Sapience, but this time along with Patience. It is a good opportunity to learn more about the two CM’s as well as the daily life of a CM and their thoughts on the future of LotrO.

Although the episode is a bit long and the interviewing was just a blunt Q&A, some good conversation and fun came out of it. I found myself chuckling along with the CM’s many a time. As to audio, the guests come through very clearly, but occasionally the two hosts are undertuned and the episode could have benefited from some (more?) equalization.

Massively Speaking

This podcast isn’t centered on LotrO, but it is one I listen to almost every week. Shawn does a superb job covering news from across the MMO world. This week he had Sera and Rubi on as guests – Sera of the terrific personality and strong opinions as always and Rubi of the sexy voice (less of the personality and opinions). If you are like me and enjoy keeping your finger on the pulse of this genre, definitely check them out. The show usually hovers around the one-hour mark, is well-organized, and pristinely edited.

Another Castle

This was my first week listening to this podcast. It seems to be simply two guys from college who interview various professionals in the gaming industry. This episode they host Richard Rouse III, game designer and author. I found it incredibly interesting for my own work because they speak at length about the place of narrative in gaming and how narrative and design interact.

Sadly, audio quality is dreadful. They sound like they are in an auditorium with the microphone in the 20th row while various members of the orchestra warm up backstage. Atrocious sound, but some good conversation.

After these, I started listening to a BBC philosophy podcast and then just hit shuffle until finally, I arrived back at home!

If you have any suggestions for my iPod, please send them along. Find me on twitter or send me an email (adaplays AT gmail DOT com) – I’d love to hear from you.

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