It is your destiny.

My primary problem with Dragon Age:Origins is the same as it has always been with Bioware RPGs, and it is currently my primary concern for their Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO. Dragon Age comprises a world which is ruled by old and powerful Gods who control the fate of all existence, which they bend to their will and whim.

We call these Gods developers.

And they are fickle.

A small spoiler now follows for Dragon Age, you have been warned.

One of the early objectives of the game is to enlist the help of the Arl of Redcliffe. When you reach Redcliffe village you find it under attack from the undead, and after defending it from attack you make your way into Redcliffe Keep to find the source of the evil and rescue the Arl. The source of the evil turns out to be the Arl’s child who has been possessed by a demon. When you confront the boy and his mother she pleads for you not to harm him and to find another way to defeat the demon, with the more immediate option being the death of the child by your hand. At this point you are presented with a choice: kill the boy and thus the demon, or travel to the Tower of the Circle of Magi and try to get the help of someone there to exorcise the boy. My offer to go and get Jane Fonda and exercise the boy was met with quiet contempt.

Now I already knew that the Tower of the Circle of Magi was in some sort of trouble, so getting there and back was going to be tricky and possibly involve epic quests. For a change. Since the boy was possessed by a demon that was bent on slaughtering all the local population (which had been reinforced by my having to defend the village first before entering the keep) I took what I thought was the hard decision to kill the boy, sacrificing one innocent life for the many. It had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that his mother was an annoying whining bint who had caused the whole problem in the first place, honest. Of course the game let me know through various lengthy patronising conversations what a monster I was for doing such a deed, and yet I imagined the situation if I had gone to the Magi to have been worse: coming back to find everyone who lived in Redcliffe to have been slaughtered in the intervening period. Zoso happened to choose that route, and so happily informed me that, no, you can take as long as you want to go and get the help; the demon seems to be distracted from its previous plans to destroy all life in Redcliffe for the entire time you are away. Perhaps a really good episode of MacGyver was on Fade TV, who knows?

I became a bit fed-up at this point because I was being made to feel like I had done the wrong thing, when in fact I felt that I had taken the harder choice with every good intent in mind; but my good intent was negated by the fact that the developers had decided that the seemingly obvious thing that would happen if you went away – demon enjoys its temporary reprise by slaughtering everything with a pulse and then raising them as an army of undead slaves in an attempt at world domination – doesn’t happen at all, instead the demon suddenly has a pang of existential crisis long enough for you to conveniently fetch help. There are villains in the 60’s TV series of Batman that feel less contrived. I couldn’t help but feel that the developers were laughing behind their hands “Oh ho ho, you thought *that*? Ha, surprise!”.

I’d put this all down to my unreasoning belief that all game developers are out to get me, but I have another brief example from a different Bioware RPG.

You’ll have to excuse any inaccuracies because I’m recalling this from old, worn sections of my brain. In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic you encounter, at some point, a beggar in the street asking for credits. When you ask them how much they want you can choose to give them nothing, the amount they ask for, or more than they ask for. Being a noble Jedi Knight of the Shining Order of Smug Superiority I gave them more than they asked for, since I could spare it, it felt like the right thing for a Jedi to do, and because you never know – help someone out now and you may run across them later on and gain something in return. Now altruism like that, as opposed to genuine generosity, is possibly a learned perversity that these games encourage, but regardless of the fact, I thought I was doing a Good Thing. You do indeed meet the chap again later on, dead in an alley, mugged because of all the credits he had on him. Credits that you gave to him.

“Oh ho ho, you thought *that*? Ha, surprise!” say the developers in my mind.

And that’s what annoys me about these dialogue choices in Bioware RPGs, and why I really worry for Star Wars: The Old Republic at the moment. The result of your actions is based on the fickle whim of the developer writing the story, and it is entirely too easy for them to set things up in a way that appear very obviously to suggest one thing, whilst actually delivering something entirely the opposite. This, when used very carefully can make for an excellent plot twist and following dramatic dénouement, but Bioware seem to use the trick far too often in their games for no better reason than to keep players second guessing what the actual outcome may be.

It’s a tricky problem to solve because the opposite end of the scale is a game like Mass Effect where there were generally always three options, one piously good, one tediously neutral and one blatantly moustache-twiddlingly villainous, and whichever option you chose, you got the reaction and plot progression that you’d expect. It allowed you to build the kind of character you wanted but at the expense of any real surprises.

I still feel that Bioware are trying to experiment with telling an interactive story in their RPGs; they have a strong foundation for telling a good tale, but it seems that how the player interacts with and affects the plot is still very much being explored and trialled with each new game. I don’t know which route Star Wars: The Old Republic will follow with respect to story choice, or perhaps it will beat a new path all of its own, but the problem comes from it being an MMO. Without the chance to save and reload as you would get in a single player RPG, you will have to be very careful of any choices that you make because they may affect your character for the rest of its career. In fact, I plan to setup ChottBot right after I finish posting this, it will be an Internet database filled with every conversation choice you can make in the game and thus allow players to pick whichever options will build the ultimate munchkin character, or open all the contacts with the best loot rewards; plot, motivation or immersion be damned, because frankly the outcome of your choices are a lottery anyway.

My concern is that where conversation options in Star Wars: The Old Republic are concerned, ‘It’s a trap!’ may become a fitting mantra.

11 thoughts on “It is your destiny.

  1. Spinks

    I agree with you. It was a very natural assumption that time was of the essence when dealing with the kid and the game didn’t make it clear how long it takes to travel. After all, Lothering gets overrun by the Blight pretty much as soon as you leave it.

    That particular type of misunderstanding shouldn’t happen with a human GM because you could just ask them. If it did, it would be because they were trying to trap you. But DAO lets you assume due to not having enough information — also it ruins the whole effect of having a Sophie’s Choice style setup when there’s a third option where everyone lives. That was a bit weak, and I wonder if they were pressed to make sure the paladin players didn’t revolt en masse.

    Having said that, I also made the decision to kill the kid for purely utilitarian reasons. It was the only solution that we absolutely knew would stop the demon (I wasn’t playing a mage and didn’t trust either Morrigan or Jowan – wonder why?)

  2. Zoso

    I can at least see what they were trying with the beggar, “ahhh, we confounded your expectations, and from thence the compelling gameplay arose!”

    The demon kid is definitely a bad case of CPRG solipsism, though, where nothing exists independently of your character, I didn’t think it was a particularly good idea to bugger off and leave things as they were and had a save game at the ready if it all went a bit wrong.

  3. ikew

    Okay. You sir are a noob.

    First, the dialogue you reffer to is in KotOR2 – a Obsidian game. Not bioware. KotOR 1 is bioware and it’s all like “Wow, you saved a kitten! Everyone you like will live forever!”
    Second, there is a third option in dragon age – if you are not an asshole and let the blood mage go free, he comes along and offers to use the life energy of the dumb broad to send you in the demon realm. Where you can kill or NOT kill the fucker.
    Third. Yes, the game asks you to make hard choices. Yes, sometimes there is no right thing to do. Reminds you of something? Oh my god, yes! Real life, for instance. Or good fantasy (like song of fire and ice). I mean, come ON. Fuck black and white. In reallity there are only shades of gray. If hitler had won, the west would not be using only products made in china right now. Dragon age makes you make tough decisions. And then judges you for them. THIS is AWESOME. It’s not unlike the difference between a blow-up doll and a real girlfriend. Grow up.

  4. Stabs

    My word! A Godwin! I thought they’d been hunted to extinction.

    Top marks for managing to provoke one in 2009, Melmoth!

    Back on topic I find the most sinister aspect of this whole affair is the fact that someone has borrowed an E from the Earl of Redcliff and put it back in the wrong place! Is there no decency left in this (or that) world?

    My antispam word is Rimbuggle which is what the Earl said when he found out what they’d done to his E.

  5. Spinks

    “It’s not unlike the difference between a blow-up doll and a real girlfriend.”

    I guess real girlfriends do tend to be more judgemental.

  6. Zoso

    You make an excellent point, ikew, it is *exactly* like real life, just the other day Geoff in accounts was possessed by an evil spirit, and Clive in sales had tried to cover it up, but after Geoff’s undead army had butchered their way down to Goods Inwards he was all like “oh no, what have I done”, and in a particularly touching and realistic moment he sacrificed himself by luring Geoff into the stationery cupboard and triggering a post-it avalanche that buried the pair of them. You try telling these reviewers that Dragon Age is presenting all-too-realistic moral choices, though, and they don’t believe you.

  7. Melmoth Post author

    @Spinks: Of course the only reason that it became an ‘issue’ is that I had someone else I knew who’d done the quest a different way and so I knew the other result; on its own it is perfectly fine, but if MMO communities are anything, they are notorious for providing spoilers and insisting that you must play the game X way or your character is broken and they will not group with you.

    @Zoso: Arr, confounding expectations isn’t a bad thing, but doing it often would make each quest choice more of a lottery, rather than any sort of actual decision, and this is something I hope Bioware will avoid with TOR.

    @ikew: Thank you for applying for the position of Senior Hater/Flamer and Technical Troll Lead for Killed in a Smiling Accident. We are currently reviewing your application and will get back to you as soon as possible. In the meantime, here are a few immediate observations based upon your application:

    Okay. You sir are a noob.

    Although abuse is an expected and well used tool by all our haters, we expect a level of inventiveness that is a higher standard than what you have provided here. In the future, perhaps try going outside of the standard MMO hate speech and really experimenting with other terms; I would suggest some time spent observing the more thick-skulled members of sporting fandom to really get a few ideas for taking your abuse to the next level.

    It’s not unlike the difference between a blow-up doll and a real girlfriend.

    Although an excellent effort on the abuse front, if not a little confused, you should probably know by now that to qualify for full Internet Fuckwad certification this should actually have been a car analogy.

    Grow up.

    Attempting Internet’s Greatest Irony certification at the same time as Internet Fuckwad certification is, whilst admirably ambitious, perhaps a little greedy.

    Thank you for taking the time to apply, we will notify you when we can as to whether your application has been successful. Please note that this application does not affect your statutory rights.

    P.S. I stand corrected on KOTOR, I find it interesting that a different company did the same sort of thing with their RPG, I wonder if they were trying to emulate Bioware, or if perhaps Bioware tried to take what Obsidian did on board when they produced DAO.

    P.P.S. You actually make some other points that I’d like to provide a rebuttal to, but unfortunately the general tone of your comment leads me to believe that it would fall on deaf ears, and therefore I won’t bother.

    @Stabs: They also call each other Ser instead of Sir, so obviously they’re lifting more than a leaf from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

  8. Pardoz

    Actually my recollection (based on a half-forgotten interview I read somewhere with…was it Chris Avellone?) of the ‘give guy money, guy ends up murdered for it in alley’ bit is that they were trying to subvert/comment on the tropes that both Star Wars and a lot of Bioware’s games are based on. Thus also your Creepy Mentor’s whole ‘A plague on both their (Sith and Jedi) houses’ mentality.

  9. Aaron

    I went for the blood ritual option because I also thought that I didn’t have time to wander up the road and visit the Mage Circle. I didn’t fancy the idea of child murder either and much preferred the option of having the person who caused all of this mess sacrifice herself to end it all.

    The problem I had with this option was that other than Alistair whining at me, there was no other reaction. The arl (after I finally woke him up) just sort of shrugged and said the equivalent of, “Oh well, you did what had to be done I suppose.” Guess he didn’t much care for his family after all.

  10. Melmoth Post author

    @Pardoz: Most interesting! I’ll have to try and look that interview up, and seeing as I fell into the trap of buying KOTOR while it was on sale on Steam this past weekend, I will have to go back and refresh my memory as to how the dialogue options in there actually work too.

    @Aaron: Hmmm, I didn’t release the Mage though, where everyone else seems to have done so. Maybe I missed something in the dialogue, but I felt that a potential demon-calling Blood Mage who’d been secretly poisoning the Arl might not actually be trustworthy and good to his word, and was probably locked up for a reason, even if he did say ‘Terribly sorry about all the death and stuff’ from behind his prison bars.

    I didn’t fancy the idea of child murder either

    This is another thing that’s getting to me, I think. I just didn’t care. I don’t know if I’ve been desensitised to it all by witnessing too many precocious kids in fantasy stories getting into hideous trouble and everyone having to run around sacrificing themselves to save the kid’s stupid disobedient hide, or whether it’s just because Bioware can’t write compelling sympathetic characters. I’m a parent, and the most silly things concerning the suffering of children in real life have me blubbering in sympathy as I imagine anything like that happening to my child, but these characters in the game just don’t elicit the same emotion from me, nothing near to it, in fact.

    Hoom, hrum, I’m having trouble thinking of a game that has however, although I’m sure there must be a few that I’ve experienced that have done so.

    Further pondering is required.

  11. Aaron

    You’re not wrong Melmoth, the kid wasn’t sympathetic at all. There’s nothing in the narrative that makes you connect with the character or care about his well being, other than him being a kid.
    I rationalised my non-child-killing decision as being ‘in character’ for my PC. I approached Dragon Age as I would a table top RPG and decided to try and stray true to a particular method or style of resolving problems. I figured my human noble was basically a goody two shoes with a pragmatic streak who wanted to resolve the situation quickly and with as few lives lost as possible. I chose the blood magic option as it required the death of a woman who:

    a) Was not at all sympathetic as she caused the mess in Redcliffe in the first place
    b) Was mean to Alistair during his childhood
    c) Had a duff accent

    One dead noblewoman beats the potential of a destroyed village (and all the accompanying deaths) or a dead child in my character’s book.

    Still, as ropey as this bit of narrative was it’s interesting that we can all discuss and justify our choices isn’t it?

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