Wednesday 23 March 2011

I'll cheer you up if you're depressed, if you get murdered I'll avenge your death

Back in school a few of us discovered roleplaying and tabletop games through the standard gateway drug of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and formed a bit of a gaming group. Thanks to geographical distribution and shifting school friendships, though, it was quite rare for three or four of us to get together with the requisite space, time and polyhedral dice for an adventure, and they’d often turn out to be slightly disappointing. You know how early teenage fumblings are; you spend weeks preparing, getting everything just right, imagining how it’s all going to play out so flawlessly, but then it’s all a bit awkward in person and you’re trying to nudge them along into a bit of delicate manipulation without being too domineering, but you know they really just want to grab your booty and get out of there. After fighting some orcs.

We still loved collecting and discussing RPGs, though, the settings, lore, art and mechanics. Creating characters was my thing; over the years we assembled a motley collection of systems including Dragon Warriors, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, FASA’s Doctor Who RPG, Paranoia, a couple of flavours of GURPS, the Marvel Super Hero RPG, Maelstrom, Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Battletech, Warhammer 40,000, and probably a bunch of others I’ve forgotten. For each I had at least a couple of characters rolled up or an army planned out, stats calculated, feats selected, starting equipment purchased, progression through to level 20 mapped out, and a provisional rota system posted for the guards of the castle he’d buy as soon as he had the money. Only a fraction actually went adventuring; a couple might even have made it to level two…

Computer RPGs were a natural evolution; about the first I seriously played was Curse of the Azure Bonds, the second of SSI’s Gold Box series of AD&D games. You control a party of six characters in it; I can’t remember if there was option to use a default party if you didn’t want to create six characters yourself, I wouldn’t have cared, I was too busy repeatedly mashing the “roll” button to get a decent set of stats for my seventh tweak of the party composition (“all right, this time I’ll have a Paladin on the front line, and a Half-Elf Fighter/Thief instead of the pure Thief for more damage…”) Other games around the time, notably the Ultima series, might have had NPC companions you’d meet and recruit, but I was more than happy having complete control over a full party, more worried about spell lists and THAC0 than personality or dialogue.

The next landmark of my personal CRPG history was ten years on, Bioware’s seminal Baldur’s Gate, once again an AD&D game giving the player control of a party of six, but this time with a single player created character and the other five recruited the rest from a cast of thousands. Well, several, at any rate. This slightly irked me at first, still being more preoccupied by stats and classes than personalities; I mean look at that character’s Charisma score, complete waste, it could be a far more efficient build… With the writing, though, I did start to appreciate dialogue between my character and the party, and between other members of the party, mostly due to Greatest NPC In The History Of Time(tm), Minsc. I found a pretty good compromise, after reading on the ‘net that starting a Multiplayer game gave exactly the same experience as the single player game but you could bring in as many of your own characters as you liked, and rolled up two ruthlessly min/maxed characters of my own (some sort of ranger/wizard/kensai/thief cross-classed death machines), then rounded out the party on the criteria of (i) fulfilling other required roles in the team, and (ii) being Minsc.

Romance had never been something that had crossed my mind in RPGs. Well, maybe something vaguely related to romance when viewing the cover of Curse of the Azure Bonds and the Armour Of Complete Protection Whoops Apart From That Massive Hole In The Front depicted thereon, but in the games there were dragons to kill and worlds to save and really no time for soppy kissing with Slimey girlS. I recruited Viconia as a Cleric in Baldur’s Gate II on the basis of her vital statistics (phwoar, get a load of that Wisdom), and only after reading a couple of guides did I bother trying “romantic” dialogue options. I wasn’t really feeling a deep emotional connection with the character, though, it was mostly to get her alignment to change to Neutral to cause fewer arguments in the party. Oddly enough, while typing this very paragraph I read Jon’s critique of romance in Bioware games and the way saving the world can become secondary to carving a series of achievement-shaped notches on your virtual bedpost, and it is something that can be a bit crowbarred in (as the actress said to the bishop). Dragon Age 2 has some unsubtle moments, with a big heart next to a dialogue option that leads to a line like “Wow, you had lyrium inlaid in your skin in a ceremony of unspeakable agony, huh? It looks HOT, let’s KISS with TONGUES!” Syp was pondering it too, but there are cases where I think they’ve handled it quite nicely as a developing relationship rather than a shag and an unlock, such as Alistair and a female Warden in Dragon Age: Origins.

The Baldur’s Gate games established the Bioware tradition of NPCs where personalities were as important as stats; Neverwinter Nights had the restriction of a single NPC party member in the original single player campaign, which limited inter-party banter, but you could wheel each potential recruit out during each chapter, engage in a deep and personal conversation about their past, then shove ’em back in a cupboard until the next chapter while you actually adventured with the one with the most useful skills. Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins cemented the formula, fully voicing companions and having them react to your actions. They stripped the RPG back to a few classes, with most party compositions being viable, so in Dragon Age if you wanted a warrior in the team the main choice was down to whether you wanted a drunkard, a strangely impassive giant or a slightly sarcastic ex-Templar running around with you.

Dragon Age 2 has extended the individuality of each companion still further. They have their own outfits, rather than sharing common armour across a class, and some have signature weapons. Their talent trees are more locked down; there are some choices, but weapon choice is fixed, and each companion has one set of talents unique to them. I think they might have taken things a smidge far, though By narrowing abilities, and developing personalities, it’s almost as if Bioware have managed to get themselves into the same position as pre-WotLK WoW raiding: if you crank the difficulty up you’re forced to pick someone for the mechanical reason of what their class offers rather than because you like them as a (virtual) person. You can avoid the issue by turning the difficulty down; as Melmoth said of Casual difficulty “…there were perhaps only three fights which required me to drink a potion, let alone worry about tactics”, and on Normal I’ve scarcely had to pause to manually issue orders regardless of who’s in the team. If you relish difficult combat *and* the interaction with your companions, though, it’s almost like you need Bioware to have their own “bring the player, not the class” moment.

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