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.