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Dragon Age – I feel young and nerdy all over again

Posted by Bart

dd-box1A  few things converge this week… first, its my birthday today, second I am writing a bunch of abstracts for talks I am giving next term and third, I am just polishing up the Dalish Elf section of Dragon Age: Origins and the endgame is nigh.

Unlike many of you I wanted to start and finish Dragon Age before the end of term (crazy I know) because I had a mission. I needed a case study or at least some examples of a quality solo RPG to compare to the social experience of WoW. I consider solo RPGs and MMOGs to be equal but different with respect to narrative experience and although my chief analytical concern is with the qualities of the social narration implicit in MMOGs its nice to have something compelling to bounce off of.

Enter the relatively controlled variable of Dragon Age – so obviously cut from the same cloth as every sword and sorcery epic since Tolkien was a regular staple in the backpacks of high school nerds in the 70s.  The promises and perils of Tolkienesque fantasy are entirely gendered and generational. This is high fantasy with a deep but entirely solvable moral conundrum at every turn…. ah the stuff of youth.

My main mission was sidetracked to say the least and though I will be somewhat careful of spoilers… stay alert and prepare to avert your eyes if you dare to read on and haven’t yet loaded the game.


Let me begin with the usual general impressions by way of review.  This is an excellent game that restores my faith in the possibilities of the genre after Oblivion (which I truly disliked). The key here for me is that there is an experience of a character in the context of a story that the player can care about with a sufficient amount of interactivity such that one has the impression that your choices and actions matter.  The narrative has quality in this sense if it can provide reasons and justifications for player actions independently of purely instrumental action on the one hand and the player’s (as opposed to the characters) personal preference or whim, on the other.

When this works (and it works often but not always), I find I do not care that I am forced to move in a totally straight and predictable line from sentence to sentence, page to page, chapter to chapter. Dragon Age is a digital book with a tiny nod to “choose your own adventure” that advances the medium of game design as the art of illusion.  This is important… all too often we might think that better design means better interactivity (and increasing virtual reality) when in fact the best game design might be better illusions of interactivity.  In Dragon Age the player interacts so little with the game world and yet it feels great…  Its almost a relief not to have worry about clicking on every little thing, to only have to worry about a couple of forking paths rather than every point on the compass.

Why, I wonder, is this the case?  I will admit that in this birthday week things get muddled… Dragon Age totally reminds me of hours of misspent youth playing Dungeons and Dragons; playing and DMing games that recapitulated every cliche in the fantasy genre and then some. We were high culture nerds of course and Tolkien was mere pop culture at that point (mid-80s). So when weren’t trying to read Mallory in the original old English or thumbing through the Necronomicon, we were consuming the other masters… Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock and others.  Don’t get me wrong, any pen and paper player will tell you that Dragon Age doesn’t even come close to the tabletop roleplaying experience but of all the games i’ve played in the solo RPG genre this one comes closest.  Its like playing with one of those overly controlling DMs who gets angry when the players threaten to mess with their perfectly worked out plot lines and twists.  You gotta like it or lump it… and if you can learn to like it then you can actually enjoy using what little control you have to enhance the linear plot rather than deviate from it. The goal is actually to suss out what the DM is trying to do and enhance their story.

Its great – every twist and turn of the plot is totally predictable. The moral dilemmas are binary and superficial (especially for any nerd who has consumed all volumes of the Three Musketeers). The animations get tired and repetitive too and if you dwell too long with an NPC you’ll get into annoying repeats in the dialog tree.  But as the controlling DM says – “trust me.”  This is pulp fantasy made to be played quickly without overthinking and the fun comes for me in celebration of the genre that I share(d) with so many others (including clearly… the designers).

In this sense Dragon Age can not hold a candle to even the worst MMO… on a bad day in WoW there are more than enough weird interactions with other players or trash talk on global chat or just plain old side quests with quirky plot lines to keep people going. And the true role playing in Lord of the Rings Online beats anything the best Bioware writers can do. The role playing guilds in LOTRO make incredible use of collective intelligence in the generation of epic story that Dragon Age’s claim of producing something like 9 novels worth of text (which still no one reads) seems silly in comparison.  A case in point is some time I spent last year with the RP guild “Marchwardens of Ennorath” with one of those fellows who can quote line and page… it was an intense and very cool experience of narrative improvisation around classic themes of honour, trust and friendship that I remember well even though I never made it past level 20.

But therein lies the contradiction.  The supposed selling point of the solo RPG is the solo part.  Its your story, your epic fantasy… you are the only hero for once whereas in MMOs everyone is the same as you – equally heroic.  You play out the same role day after day and your only chance at heroic individuation is your capacity to spend more time doing the same things as everyone else.  Its heroism by attrition. Narratively however, its entirely different… it may seem like the story is the same for everyone but that is only if there is no accounting for social interaction.  The story in WoW is the same for everyone but the narrative experience is completely different and dependent on your guilds, your PUGs, your chat and a whole host of ever changing social and situational variables.

In Dragon Age it may seem more like you are the only hero but in fact you are playing in a social world where every player is experiencing the same thing and the fun in the game is the knowledge and recognition of that totally shared experience…. a shared experience of the exact same thing. The way we enjoy repeating lines from Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Monty Python with each other even though we may have experienced these things separately. Dragon Age is a game that opens a door on an imagined community with deep generational roots…  this is as restrictive as it is romantic. Its a geek boys game that comes from what Bourdieu would define as well educated, middle class forms of cultural consumption (which is why most nerds of this sort can say “its about time” for the homoerotic cutscenes… this is hardly scandalous to many segments of the roleplaying, as opposed to the hack and slashing, D&D set).

So in a curious twist of fate… Dragon Age is more social than an MMO and I feel young again…. I can’t wait for the final battle but I sure wish my character would wipe that smug look off her face.