Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Dragon Age Blues

As you may have noticed, there has been an smörgåsbord of triple-A video games over the past year, and I have commented on relatively few of them. Assassins Creed 2 and Dragon Age came and went without comment.   Heavy Rain and Allan Wake, the sort of narrative-driven titles I relish, arrived sans discussion. Even the exquisite Red Dead Redemption, which people have hailed as a triumph of Literature, Literature with a capital "L" Literature, remains unexamined. And now there is also StarCraft II to consider. Rest assured, I still plan to discuss these titles in detail, but I have been too busy trying to play through them that I haven't had much time to write.

Applying to graduate school, finishing college, getting married, moving across the country, and starting graduate school have kept me busy, but the games themselves constitute considerable time-investments. I have a backlog of roughly ten titles. Each of them off anywhere from 40 to 80 hours of gameplay, excluding any applicable multiplayer components. This tells you several I am (A) very spoiled and (B) very unfocused, but the very fact that I refer to the games I am currently playing as a backlog, says something about the modern videogame: They are digestible artifacts; things to be consumed and completed rather than relaxing methods of passing the time.

In short, it is the difference between playing table-tennis (Pong) and reading War and Peace (The Witcher). This transformation has blurred the lines between leisure object, and laborious objective. This is especially true if you play a game while following a guide to try and wring out all of its secrets and sidequests, or if you find the title to be exceedingly challenging. This environment of purposeful, highly structured play and frequent frustration can transform play into chore. Such is my relationship with Bioware's Dragon Age for the PC.

Behold the best written game of 2009. Pity that accessing the narrative can be such a chore.

The game is brilliant written. It wins my vote for best-written title of 2009 hands-down. Ferelden is a world of splendid squalor, caked with dirt and dried blood, besieged by demons and despots, and filled with a number of truly fascinating thought-experiments. For example, "What if the catholic church believed that god had turned his back on creation?" (Answer: Catholic Nihilists. There may be nothing scarier.) Then there's also the whole "using drugs to control magic users" thing which is a concept I hold dear to my thoroughly medicated heart. Best of all, the game manages to be both dark and tragic without succumbing to the sort of absurdist nihilism that is evident in many other games with mature narratives. Rockstar, I'm talking about you. The characters are also a lot of fun, and their histories are much richer than the cast of Mass Effect.

Accessing this excellent narrative though, can be a real slog at times. Truth be told, I'm not great at video games. I have this uncanny ability to find every possible pitfall, dead end, and failed strategy before making progress. This is a unique gift (read: personal problem) and I realize that. At the same time, I've played a lot of videogames of every kind, and I can usually cut through a game's "Easy Mode" without much trouble. Not so in Dragon Age. The first boss took an embarrassing number of attempts, and I have had to get into the habit of saving before every fight to avoid serious backtracking. My wife, who has played fewer videogames has had even more difficulty with the title. The fighting system isn't broken, or unpolished, (though it feels bit a dated), just punitively challenging. It bears mentioning that I'm playing the PC version, which I have heard is the hardest permutation of the game, so those looking for lighter fair may want to check out the console releases.

In any event, frequent death and backtracking in a game with a narrative of 80+ hours (with a variety of unique 6 hour opening sequences to choose from) makes play a daunting proposition. It requires the same sort of commitment as going to the gym everyday, or reading a seriously challenging text. And like reading a challenging text, a strange sort of Stockholm Syndrome comes into play. After spending so much time with a game, you tell yourself you're in love with it. Oh yes, there may be genuine affection in play, even genuine love, but like a battered wife, you excuse the game's punitive challenge and mind-numbing repetition as a part of the 'epic experience.' This is not a condition that is inherent, or exclusive to videogames mind you. Hell, I would argue that many 'Literary Classics' are guilty of similar long-winded self importance, and many of the people who claim to enjoy them are merely justifying their time investment.

This topic came up in a conversation I had with fellow graduate student and all-around good guy Chris DeLeon. Chris runs where he regularly writes articles designed to help aspiring game designers. He's also Vegan. It wouldn't surprise me if I learned he found homes for orphaned diabetic kittens in his spare time. Anyway, he recently published a post about short videogame design, where he writes "Videogames used to be light on content due to limitations of technology...The latest and increasingly dominant limitation now seems to be consumer time and attention." I am inclined to agree. Now that I am ostensibly an adult, finding time (and mullah) to invest in my habit has become a lot harder. This has led me to the dubious practice of buying games used, but even worse, it has also caused me to buy games that I will never finish. The industry's $60 price point is particularly egregious because, it's a lot of cash and I'll feel cheated if I don't get my money's worth, but at the same time, finding time for 60 to 80 hours of gameplay isn't exactly easy. Given those constraints, it's easy to see why iPhone and downloadable titles are seeing so much success. Chris' article lists a number of indie titles that make good on the promise of brief play in various ways.

On a related note, Donut Games' Cat Physics is another excellent free title for iDevices.

One base that isn't covered however, is narrative. Brief, aggressively affordable games are great, but I have yet to encounter an iPhone game with an engrossing story. Some titles may qualify as digital poetry, but narrative seems to be reserved for bigger budget console releases. I know that there are some episodic, downloadable games like the Sam and Max franchise, but for the videogame industry at large, mature, meaningful storytelling is shackled to big budgets and long-hours. I never believed that you need impressive graphics or a high page count to tell a good tale, and I like to think that someday soon, the short story game will have its day.

At the same time, I don't think long-form games will ever go out of fashion altogether. But given the tremendous success of casual controllers, I think we might start seeing play systems that allow people to access the later chapters of a game's narrative more easily. I don't mean to advocate the Mario Party approach to game design where everybody wins all the time; games must be challenging if they are going to be meaningful. But I know there is a market for game narratives outside of hardcore, gamers. I actually have a professor who is actually looking for somebody to play Red Dead Redemption so she can watch.

Over the next few days, I'm going to attempt to address a few of the titles I mentioned at the beginning of the article, but depending how grad school develops, I may get swamped. In any event, I will also be writing a review of Monday Night Combat for Technique, Georgia Tech's school paper, and I believe it will be available online. If so, I'll be sure to Tweet the link. Thanks for reading!

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