Playing for Dramatic Effect

I’ve been hanging out in a Dragon Age discord lately (nerd), partially because I got re-obsessed with the storyworld, but also because I’ve been curious how others respond to and think about the games. One of my most interesting observations has been that some players, perhaps many, play this kind of game fundamentally different from the way that I do.

“This kind of game”: The Dragon Age games are role-playing games that allow the player to make hundreds of choices throughout the game that impact the outcome of various events and color the manner in which the central story unfolds. 

When I play these games, I tend to play a neutral-good character, which aligns with my general moral compass. “Well, others play it evil, that’s not that big of deal,” you may say. True, and you’re right. It’s not a big deal. The alignment or morality of our different roles is not a fundamental difference. But the reason why we may play those roles is.

At any given point in the story, I could make a choice that my companions will react to. My companions are all different characters with different moralities, motivations, and interests. Some will agree with me, and some will not. The game displays those changes: “Morrigan disapproves -5. Wynne approves +15.” There is a part of me that just wants everyone to like me, because, of course, getting to 100 is the best goal. Get that A! But this doesn’t typically overcome my moral choices. Even if Morrigan disapproves, I will likely still make the choice. In fact, maybe because she disapproves, I know I made a choice that more aligns with my own moral compass. My goal in that interaction is not to maximize my points with Morrigan – it’s to do the right thing. Sometimes I may play a character who is less of a good person, and I will make choices I think are consistent with that character. In both cases, I want to make the choice according to the moral compass of my character

Another reason I may make a choice is because I have an outcome in mind, and I want to try to make the choices that will lead to that outcome. Perhaps I can predict in a situation that there is a possibility of a neutral outcome, where no one dies and no one’s emotions overcome them. That is the outcome I want, and I will gauge the possible choices I have by whether or not I think they will achieve that outcome. This is more of a narrative reason for making choices. I want the story to go in a certain way, so I choose options I think will lead to that result. This could be that I want an event to conclude favorably for the elves, or it could be that I want to romance Morrigan (in which case, this may trump a “good” moral compass).
But there’s another reason for making choices that I had not considered.

While listening to players discuss the games on Discord, I noticed that frequently, they would mention that a particular choice would have the most dramatic effect. Someone may talk about their choices and say, “I chose to romance Solas, because I thought it would have the biggest effect on the story to come.” [Constrast with: I chose to romance Solas, because he’s a sexy elven scholar.] They don’t know what the effect is, but they value an effect of any kind more than no effect. The value to them is not the morality or the outcome, but the drama itself. “I play evil, because I think those choices usually lead to the most interesting outcomes.” Their reason is also a narrative one, but not directed. Their interest is in storytelling as such, storytelling defined as dramatic. Consider this conversation:

The players here are discussing a choice in Dragon Age: Inquisition. At this point in the game, the player is with two characters and they must abandon one of them in the world of spirits (where they will likely die). The two characters are 1) Hawke, the main character the player played in Dragon Age 2, and 2) a Warden, either a companion from Dragon Age: Origins or another. (This variance is due to the choices players can make in these other games. Thus, 3 of the 4 possible characters they see are likely to be emotionally significant to the player.

Above we see the first player saying that since their Hawke has lost everything, perhaps they will leave him behind also, just for the most dramatic resolution to that story. Lower, a player says that they can’t choose the neutral Warden, because it isn’t fun enough. Both of these rationales are directed toward the most dramatic effect. Next, a player says they made the choice because of what their character would have done, similar to my first reason listed above. And lastly, the final player makes the choice due to their reasoning about the storyworld and what they thought would be the best outcome for everyone, which is a decision made according to a moral compass.

I realized that whereas I play with an outlook toward how I want the story to go according to some moral compass, some players play for surprises. I want to resolve situations in the best way for all parties (usually this means having to persuade everyone to be less emotional, so max that Coercion skill asap), whereas they don’t really care what happens to everyone as long as it is interesting. The player above is willing to abandon themselves essentially, simply for the drama! They expect the game to allow them to experience an interesting, dramatic story, and they judge the game’s possible choices by their potential for dramatic effect.

I don’t mean to say I want a predictable experience. I still want my choices to matter, and I expect there to be some ambiguity in those choices (it may be the “right” choice, but it is difficult and/or has unintended consequences). But I don’t think about my play as a way to generate drama. I expect the drama to exist by virtue of the choices having been designed to be variably interesting. I expect that every choice has an interesting effect, and I do not judge those based on the extent to which they are dramatic. They are all dramatic; how they differ is in the particular quality or shade of that drama (moral/immoral, micro/macro, etc.).

I’m curious whether this observation would have any impact on how I would design these choices. Even before considering their motivations for choice selection, I would have thought that every choice needed to be interesting to some extent (or else it would not matter). Yet, I think a frame of drama rather than morality is a better way to think of choices, because it can avoid the trap of designing everything around a schema of good/neutral/evil (thinking SWTOR right now). It’s also a good reminder that some unpredictability is necessary in order to make choices interesting, even if the unpredictability doesn’t change the expected outcome.


In Love with a Dread Wolf

I finished Dragon Age: Inquisition (again) and Trespasser (for the first time) this week. Somehow, every time I play this game, I fall in love with Solas. And I mean matter of factly. I don’t just have my character romance him as the game allows me. I actually feel love in my real self. This time, it was particularly strong, and I’ve been puzzled by it.

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Solas is the kind of villain you want to forgive. In this way, he reminds me of Medea, and perhaps this is partly why he fascinates me so. Medea is a woman I sympathize with and perhaps cheer for as I read. Who among us hasn’t been mistreated by such a man, one who so cavalierly tossed aside the woman who loved him? She is a victim of injustice around her, yet a vocal advocate for herself. We side with her in her battle of words with Jason, and we also thirst for vengeance. But the vengeance she chooses is a vengeance that horrifies us. Like a ghost in the corner of your vision, you can almost understand her choice, and you almost want to. But never quite.

After 110 hours (this time) of playing this game with Solas at my side, I know him well enough to understand his choices and almost justify them, participate in them, in fact. The game is quick to remind me that, actually, destroying the world is bad and our only choice is to fight him. But for me, a female elf, it’s more complicated than that.

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Long ago, before any history humans could remember, elves lived in a world where matter and spirit were intertwined. Wonders we can hardly imagine were everyday life. But what seemed like a utopia had that one flaw common to us all – the heart. The leaders became corrupt. They enslaved their own people, and eventually murdered one of their own because she was kind and caring to the people. But one person stood against those rulers. He created secret havens for escaped slaves, and he taught them how to fight for freedom. In time, he led a slave rebellion, but in order to overthrow the ruling elites, he had to cleave reality from itself, thus creating the world we have now. Earth, the world of matter, and the Fade, the world of spirits.

That Pyrrhic victory for the elves destroyed their world and way of life, but gave them freedom. It was a choice Solas says he made because “all the alternatives were worse.” To him, freedom is worth the loss of everything else. But now, that freedom too is long lost, and once again, elves are slaves to cruel rulers, silenced and sidelined for existing. A desire for freedom and a vengeance against the unjust is natural.  And this time, he doesn’t just want to give them freedom. He wants to restore the world that was to give them the perfect harmony with nature they had so long ago. When it comes time for him to say this world is also worth destroying to achieve that goal, I can almost agree.

Solas stands for the downtrodden. He is the hero of the enslaved, the silenced, the ridiculed, the mistreated. A person like this you may expect to be kind, but he is not kind. Nor is he cruel. Any action may be the right action if it results in a better world. When you bring a problem to the Dread Wolf, you may get an unexpected solution. He is too clever for a mundane response to injustice, too smart to not see around the corners. The world is grey for Solas, and even enduring love cannot shift his commitment to the freedom and happiness of his People at whatever cost.

Sounds noble, right? And he is. He is a loyal friend, someone who despises authority but respects a kind leader. Despite his dissembling, he has integrity, refusing to more than kiss his lover when she didn’t know the truth of who he was. He has regret for mistakes and a fierce devotion to knowledge.

So why is he a villain?

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We think of the destruction of the world as necessarily bad because it inherently requires mass annihilation of life. You can’t simply remove the Veil, changing the very nature of reality, and expect many survivors, even if doing so in the interest of others. His plans only have room for his own People, and everyone else is as worthless as the dust they’re made of. Even his own life is of value as only a sacrifice for the freedom of the elves. It’s all so inequitable, you know. Why should the elves matter more than anyone else?

But I wonder. Has the status quo resulted in any less of a loss of life? Centuries of enslavement, violence, rape, disease, and murder. Residents of Thedas have been content to allow this and in so doing have allowed a mass annihilation to happen, slowly, over time. Have any fewer people been murdered in this slow march of apathy? Have we, in our disregard, shown that we think we matter more than others?

We aren’t uncomfortable with the number or the loss of life itself. It’s the optics we don’t like. It’s easier for us to look past the slow pileup of death. Our own world has poverty and disease, violence and murder in spades. Would we be willing to save them if it meant destroying ourselves if we had the chance? Or would we rather let the lives pass slowly, as through an hourglass, believing that one day change will come, believing we are doing as much as we can. Perhaps beyond optics, it’s simply that this time it isn’t in our favor. We are quick to say that you can’t value one life over another, so you can’t destroy the world for your own people! But we implicitly value one life over another by continuing to be content in a world of injustice. The lives of those we love hang heavier on the scales.

In some ways, perhaps Solas has the right of it. If freedom is truly an ideal above others, then the loss of everything else is of little consequence. For those who have been content to enslave or who have been implicitly complicit in silence, why would we choose their lives over those of others? Why do we think it is worse to destroy the world when we’ve been content to let the elves languish in their ghettos and die as slaves. We have kept the world from them, for no reason but selfishness. Why does it seem like Solas is worse than us for destroying everyone indiscriminately at once when we have done so with discrimination forever?

Perhaps it’s a false choice. I hope we can find a way to give us all a better world. But mostly, I just want to save Solas, because the lives we love seem worth more than others.

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Primary Probability Stew

As I continue to contemplate the feature of post-primary narrative, I’ve begun to wonder just what place “primary” has in it at all. Of course, there is always a primary. Something must always come first. In games with a multipathed narrative though, what comes first may be different for everyone. I will continue to use Dragon Age: Origins as an example.

There are 6 entry paths available to the narrative in DA:O. These are the “Origins”. However, although there are these finite beginnings, they are able to be colored differently by the players themselves. The dialogue trees in the game offer different perspectives and responses from various game characters. Although in the Origin, the player-character is destined to eventually end up at the same place, they can do so with varied experiences. Rather than 6 individual primary paths, there are actually 6 probability clouds of primary paths. And this is only the Origin. After that, the diagram would get much more complicated.

How then do we analyze a primary narrative experience? Rather than working with traditional methodologies of narrative, we may need to create a theory that acknowledges a model of narrative that has little to no stable text or primary foundation. It can be argued that any text will result in different initial readings depending on the reader, but in those cases, there is a stable text common to all.

In a multipathed narrative like in DA:O, what is common to all? The narrative is a stew of variables rather than a string of constants. There are certain plot points which do occur for everyone, but they still offer multiple avenues of experience through player choice. Although we may all journey to visit Arl Eamon, what actually takes place there at his castle may be quite different for each of us. There are many possible intratextualities and many possible cross-references, but many of them could only come to light in particular post-primary experiences, in which case, the reader’s particular primary experience of the narrative would be greatly influential.

Does this then mean that a single reader could never fully experience the entire narrative? If some post-primary features are dependent on one’s particular primary experience (of which there can only be one, naturally), then a single reader could only experience those which his particular primary allows.

Are his experiences intertextually related to another’s? These are not separate texts that readers experience, and yet, they are different.

Post-Primary Narrative: The Re-Encounter

My papers are finished for the term and I know I’ve promised summaries, but I just cannot get this topic off my mind.

When working on the Dragon Age narrative paper, I became captivated by the concept of post-primary narrative or a re-encounter with an already experienced game/text. With traditional text, some nuances may appear which were missed the first time, but no new words are actually read and there are no new speeches or revelations from the characters. In games, it is quite different. A second playthrough of many games offers entirely new experiences. Although the basic plot itself does not change, the perspective from which it is told may be completely opposite from the first and choices made by the player may actually alter how the plot is progressed. Even if one plays a second time from the original perspective, in many games, there is some element of chance which will alter the way in which the player experiences the narrative. Further, there are often areas or events which were missed the first time although present and which may be noticed a second or third time.

I have also been working on The Lord of the Rings Online, as many of you know, but hadn’t yet applied the thoughts of post-primary narrative to it and its genre. Players often complain about the fact that they must do the same thing over when leveling a new character or when completing dungeons or battles. They are actually experiencing post-primary narrative, but one in which there are very few possibilities of emergent narrative (that portion of narrative which is uncovered by other actions in the game and often requires multiple playthroughs).

The new skirmish system in LotrO highlights the presence of post-primary narrative in MMOs. In a skirmish, one experiences a particular event (such as the death of Mazog) a second time. Unlike a game such as Dragon Age, MMOs typically offer a single perspective (that of the player, regardless of player-character) and often have a lower element of chance. Under these conditions, it is quite difficult to have a new experience colored by the first:  a post-primary experience. Instead, they simply have a reminder of a former experience. We see Mazog say the exact same things at the exact same time as before. The only thing that may change at the end is how many marks (rewards) we get.

If MMO developers tried to further the possibilities available in their post-primary narratives, the player experience could be made much more engaging. There would actually be incentive to play through the game again, to re-encounter it. The current pervasive desire to skip to the endgame as soon as possible could be lessened, if not eliminated. Bioware’s upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic will certainly have more obvious features of emergent narrative than other MMOs, since each class will have its own story to play through. These will surely give incentive to experience post-primary narrative, though I am not sure how much possibility for change there will be after the main plot is experienced. I’m looking forward to it though!

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.