The Esc key has a magical meaning in Dragon Age II on the PC; it holds the same transcendent power that the fast-forward button on VCRs used to hold for dry-mouthed pimply youths, jumping and glancing nervously around at every noise – wondering if Mum or Dad had returned home – while they desperately skipped the tedious and seemingly pointless introductory discourse between the impossibly buxom and underdressed housewife and the plumber, so as to get to the bit where an entirely different set of plumbing gets a good seeing to. T’ch, I don’t know, kids these days with their ‘internets’, and ‘digital players’ which can skip straight to the action: there’s just no adventure and peril in perusing porn in the modern era.
At least, that’s what it felt like on my second play through. Having played my perennial RPG favourite of the heavily armoured do-gooding warrior woman the first time through, and having enjoyed the game to such an extent that the nature of the ending had left me wanting more, I decided to have another go on the Kirkwall carousel but this time as a mage. My choice was made primarily because I found the mage class in the game to be really quite groovy, with them having rather a flair for the dramatic when casting spells by whipping their staff around in a curious amalgam of Bruce Lee and Gandalf, and the fact that they didn’t necessarily have to be dressed entirely in bath robes (as evidenced by my post from last week), as though they were about to open the door to a rather burley plumber with a dangerously-bristled horseshoe moustache. In addition, what with mages being generally reviled and untrusted in the world of Dragon Age, it seemed a prime opportunity to test the age-old proverb ‘before denouncing a mage you should walk a hundred miles in their shoes’. Possibly because then, as the punchline goes, I’d be a hundred miles away from them, out of fireball range, with a nice pair of mage’s shoes.
I think the issue came from my immediately launching into the second play-through with the first still being fresh in my mind. As such, and despite my generally accepted poor memory, I could remember the nature of most of the conversations in the game. Therefore, although I genuinely did enjoy the talking more than the fighting the first time through, the second time around I found myself reaching for the Esc key and desperately trying to get the conversation over with so that I could be paid or otherwise rewarded – I was skipping to the money shot, if you will. I went with the sarcastic/humorous option in most instances, and was pleased to find that my character’s uncontrolled scripted responses also gradually changed to a more sarcastic tone compared to the blandly diplomatic responses that my angelic warrior delivered in the same situation, but at the same time I was disappointed to find out that it didn’t really make much more than a cosmetic difference in the vast majority of situations.
I’m caused to wonder again what impact these sorts of issues will have on Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic, an MMO which as we all know is trying to introduce the ‘fourth pillar’ of entertainment, story, into the genre. In part, they intend to do this through the use of the conversation tree system for which they have become well known (famously or infamously depending on your view of such things) in games such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Even there, some players just want to skip to the money shot; other players are happy to allow the conversation to develop, perhaps feeling that the anticipation and delay helps build to a better climax when the conversation’s conclusion is reached; and yet other players really do enjoy the game for its immersive story, and truly appreciate the effort that goes into scripting and voicing multiple classes, sexes and ‘moods’ for the player character. The problem with the MMO, as it is with many of the genre’s technical and game-play issues, is what happens when you bring these disparate desires into contact with one another in an attempt to provide a shared experience.
Not only could the shared conversation experience be akin to trying to watch porn with friends and strangers, all of whom want to get the same thing out of it but at different levels of urgency, it’ll also have the obvious shared awkwardness factor that you’re a bunch of people trying to do something together which is usually performed solo, as a general rule. It’s a strangely compelling analogy, because in The Old Republic you’ll still be doing something that is inherently thought of as a solo activity, and you’ll still be doing it solo, it’s just that there will be other people in the room at the same time, all doing their own solo thing too; some will be trying to finish things off as quickly as possible and get the hell out of there, others will be trying to take their time and enjoy the experience, and yet others with no sense of decorum will be doing their best to ruin the experience for others by jumping up and down and waving their unfailing unimpressive epic purple equipment in the faces of those who are trying to concentrate on their own activities. Then there’s the fact that other people will be able to see how you do things: you’ll make a conversation option and then catch someone giving you a look, and you’ll be all ‘What?!’ in a defensive tone, and they’ll be all ‘Oh. Nothing’, and you’ll arch your neck and peer over to look at their conversation option out of the corner of your eye, see that they’re doing it a totally different way, and wonder whether you’ve been picking the wrong conversation options all this time. The next time you’ll try to hide your conversation away from the others, which just makes them all the more curious as to what you’re trying to hide, until you become so paranoid that you find you’re having trouble finishing your conversations, and eventually you can’t even manage to start a conversation with other people present.
Bioware have invested a huge amount of time and effort into the voiced conversations in The Old Republic, and I have to wonder just how wise that was as an entry into the MMO market, a genre whose fans are well known, trained almost, to skip to the money shot, while ignoring the story. The sad thing is that this may be what the majority of MMO players actually want now because they have become accustomed to the fact that the story is superfluous to the action, and as such it is quite often of a quality that is laughable at best. Just as there is a market for adult entertainment with a real story and quality acting, there is also a market for MMOs of the same sort, but it is a comparatively small market compared to the mainstream way of doing things. At the end of the day it’s quite possible that the vast majority people really are there for the action alone, and any pretence at story is just a compulsory framing device which is to be skipped past with all haste in order to reach the action before Mum or Dad gets home and finds you hunched red-faced over your computer screen with your keyboard in a sock.