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Entries in game design (5)

Icon inspirations for Cabin Wars!, my GameChef 2013 entry

Wahoo! I lived up to a personal goal and crafted an RPG for GameChef, an annual competition where designers are given a theme & ingredients and are charged with crafting a game out of it. Not unlike the Iron Chef, and hence the name. This year’s offerings took the form of graphic icons, which bothered me a little at first. I’m a words guy, so working with proscribed images felt more limiting.

I got over it though, and made Cabin Wars! A game that is about campers vying for a Camp Cup by winning points, while also being about trying to keep your head above water in a sea of demerits stemming from your vicious prank war. Peering through the entries today, I have to say that while there are a few themes (the bug-in-apple icon seems to have pushed a lot of designers in a certain direction) the field of entries submitted is pretty wide. The icons don’t seem to have been limiting at all.

I put this bit at the end of my game, but as I probably won’t leave it in the game text forever I thought I should post it here, too. So then, for the curious, and a peek behind the curtain, here’s how I used this year’s GameChef ingredients and theme to inspire Cabin Wars!

Theme: An up-and-down arrow with a bespectacled person standing in front of it. I used this as the basis for the idea of points and demerits in tug-of-war with each other. The stylized person is Authority, the force on high that watches as the players rise and fall via points and demerits. In this case, the staff that are watching the campers and judging the games leading up to the Camp Cup.

Ingredient: A big head with a snowflake inside it. To me, this looked more like a big head with a gear inside it. That implied to me plans, plots, schemes within schemes all being hatched out of the mind of this egg-headed person. So, something about making plans… this one didn’t come into focus as planning a prank until I had a good idea from the next ingredient.

Ingredient: A belted tunic covered in a smattering of diamond shapes. This icon fascinated me. I knew I didn’t want to use the bug-apple icon, and this one seemed like it could determine a lot about my game, once I knew what it would be. Then I had it: merit badges! I’d considered something about summer camp once I settled on “points & demerits” from the theme, but this clinched it. Merit badges would be An Important Thing in my game.

Ingredient: A paper lantern in the corner softly illuminates a person’s silhouette. This just played more into the idea of summer camp stuff. Sneaking around at night when you should be in bed in your cabin is a time-honored tradition, and since I already wanted my game to be about the interplay of winning prestige (via points) and breaking rules (earning demerits), a sneaking element was a perfect fit. Since most of the sneaking I did in my summer camp days involved messing with other cabins and pranks, I figured it should be the same in this game. And I liked too how it suggested that trying to pull a prank, which is perhaps the most obviously fun action to take in the game, is a risky action that must be attempted with stealth.

And there you have it! You can see the ingredient I chose to leave out here, it seemed very out of keeping with the form my design was taking. Also, a game is only supposed to use 2-3 of the 4 ingredients anyhow. For now, all that’s left with Cabin Wars! is to leave it be while other GameChef participants comb through it and pass on their reactions.

The genre problem undermining BioShock: Infinite

I beat BioShock: Infinite. I liked it more than disliked it. It’s got an ending that my nerd heart truly enjoys. And I think I’ve got a bit of a theory going on why the parts that don’t work failed in the way that they did.

Beating the game’s not really a crazily impressive achievement, except that I’m extremely flighty about videogames, and actually finishing them. This is especially true of typical AAA titles; little morsels like Braid or Fez have me slavering for more and more until I’ve gobbled everything up (Fez got me but good; it’s the first game I’ve taken to true 100% completion in ages). By comparison, I let the final acts of games like Mass Effect 3 or Red Dead Redemption linger on and on until I’m busy with something else. I’ve solved this problem, sort of: being cash-strapped, I’ve chosen to rent via Redbox instead. The pressure of a fee accruing day-by-day is a nice one to actually see things through to the end.

Anyway, it’s a big part of why I finished BioShock: Infinite despite having issues with it, whereas I’ve only mucked about in the original BioShock that I actually own and hold in higher esteem (though I know the plot well-enough via spoilers). The first BioShock toyed with the ideals of Ayn Rand and Objectivism as the Prime Movers that shaped the world of Rapture for the player to explore. It played some clever tricks, too, with the idea of the player’s (in)ability to choose, and that of their in-game persona, which won it just as much attention as its absolutely lovely “ruined underwater Art Deco fever-dream” aesthetic.

Similarly, BioShock: Infinite, only weeks old, has inspired lots & lots of writing already, and I don’t want to pile on too much where others have written posts covering the territory extremely well. If you poke through some of those critiques, though, it’s easy to see a few camps emerge: those who look at it as a game, those who look at its collection of ideas, those who pick apart the experience of working through the story, as well as many others harder to define. Each group has its own host of issues that stand out as “The Problem”, and I’ve got criticisms of the game that pop up in each category, so I agree with what a lot of those posts say—but I feel like I’ve puzzled out one thing about Infinite’s successes & failures I haven’t seen anywhere else.

Spoilers, yo.

Infinite swaps Ayn Rand & Objectivism out as references and installs Revivalism & American Exceptionalism in their place. Rewinding the clock from the 1950’s heyday of Rapture in the first BioShock, Infinite’s floating city of Columbia sets out to embody all the best & worst traits of America in the 1910’s. Factoring largely in the “worst” part of that scheme: the racism of the American South, resurgent after the Civil War. Emancipation Proclamation or no, the people of Columbia think they know better. (The white ones do, anyway.) It’s all moot, anyhow, as the philosophies supposedly in play are mostly a dodge, and quantum mechanics is the real matter of discussion. Which is just fine, except for those ideas your game raised, and then dropped…

Back to the first BioShock: Ayn Rand never got anywhere with Objectivism, really. Atlas Shrugged never came to pass, no matter what neo-conservatives & Tea-Party libertarians might think. There isn’t a generation of longsuffering John Galts out there, fettered and ground down by the ethics & morals of lesser men. Using those ideas as a backdrop in a game without giving them their due: a missed opportunity, but certainly passable.

This cannot be said for the issues of class, and especially race, that Infinite raises in its construction of Columbia but totally fails to resolve with any satisfaction. Racism was and is a real force that fucked over millions, and shows no sign of stopping. Using it as window-dressing only, without a solid connection to the plot or themes, is like setting a 1940’s BioShock game in some space-Nazi metropolis, complete with cosmic Auschwitz, only to have the game really be about String Theory. Why drag Holocaust tropes into the game at all? “Because it existed in history” isn’t much of an excuse.

What’s worse, extending the analogy makes the flawed logic more clear. Say in this imagined game, a faction of Jewish rebels plotting to overthrow the Nazis did seize power of their space prison camp—and they turn out to be a bloodthirsty mob, slaughtering every German they can find regardless of ideology. And now the hero of the game says in passing that you know what, maybe these Jews and Nazis deserve each other after all.

Woah. What?

But that’s embarrassingly close to what happens in Infinite. Usually the rules of internet debate would say that by invoking Nazis, I lose, except BioShock: Infinite pretty much went there for me. Just with a coalition of largely-Black freedom fighters instead of Jews.

So why make this choice? There’s evidence of the years of thought & planning that went into Columbia everywhere in this game, even though shooters tend to bore me (including pretty ones like Infinite). Why choose your dramatic tools so poorly? Well. I think the secret lies in the game’s genre, as a top-tier FPS title.

Over and over again, through the middle & end of the game, I felt myself bemoaning that so much work went into creating such a fascinating, intriguingly-flawed place as Columbia… which I can only shoot at. It’s almost literally true: I can walk around in Columbia, I can look at stuff, I can raid a hundred trash cans for hotdogs & cash… and I can shoot people. I can get a little better at shooting people, and sometimes shoot them with magic, so I can get to the next part of the city, with more people to shoot… etc., etc.

This game had to inherit the gameplay style of its forebears, for better or worse, and as a sci-fi lover (and avid Fringe fan) I think the conceits of parallel dimensions, time travel and so on to explain away the similarities are admirably done. But the setting of high-tension survival-horror and claustrophobia of Rapture was a good fit for the gameplay, where wide-open, sunny Columbia is not. In Columbia, you are the fly in the ointment, upsetting their elitist eden and bringing terror to the streets; if not for you, things might be peaceful. In Rapture, you fight with the desperation of a man with no other options: kill and progress, or die. Everyone there lost their minds years ago anyway; what’s the harm in killing a homicidal mutant before he or she kills you? Only, the game waits until the end to rub your nose in the “choice” to move forward and live, and it’s revealed you are being manipulated through key phrases that implant the suggestions of Rapture’s NPCs in your mind as total commands. In the city where Man was meant to live unrestrained, you have been enslaved from the start. It’s nothing earth-shattering about Rand’s philosophy, but as a historically-influenced veneer, it’s neat.

Not so for Infinite. The Vox Populi, those freedom fighters of Columbia, are an interesting idea when they first pop up, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. (They were supposedly inspired at least in part by the Occupy movement, which is a complete botched job as well.) Led by Daisy Fitzroy, a Black former housemaid, they have legitimate complaint with the excesses and racial oppression of Columbia’s ruling Founders. Yet, when the time of their revolution comes, they are shown to be mercilessly violent to all in their path, totally beyond reason. Fitzroy herself morphs into an off-the-rack villain in about two lines of dialogue, going so far as to execute unarmed enemies and threaten a Founder’s kid with the same over the course of a couple hours in-game. Suddenly, instead of the oppressive Columbian Police Authority, the people you’re killing on every street corner are the Vox rebels themselves. Waves and waves of the heavily-armed, minority underclass. It’s almost incomprehensible.

So what if it’s all because of a jump into a new, parallel universe in the game’s fiction: the game-makers are choosing to show this universe to us over other options, and it’s a shitty choice. Why? I think it’s because that of nagging issue of mine from before: in Columbia, all I can do is shoot.

The makers of Infinite wanted to include a nod to historical race issues in their game, and they want their players to interact with that game, so my only method to interact with Infinite’s race issues is to shoot at them.

Whatever convolutions of plot were needed to make it possible, they made them happen. It’s even more obvious than it might otherwise seem, since of all possible universes, these are the ones we see—they could have easily been different. In sticking so close the the style of play from their earlier games in Rapture, they painted themselves into a corner for Columbia. It’s possible that the team could have been just as tone-deaf working within the confines of another game genre, but I think it’s a hell of a lot less likely.

D&D, by any other name, would smell as sweet

As a gaming experience, Dungeons & Dragons is just too iconic for me to let go. There are plenty of other games that are tighter, more modern, or have a host of other benefits, but it doesn’t seem to matter. It wasn’t even the first game I touched! That would be the d20 Star Wars Roleplaying Game, while I was in high school — yes, I’m a youngun. So, I can’t precisely say why I’ve taken such an interest in “recreating” a flavor and experience I’m not sure I’ve ever had.

I played a bit of D&D 3.5 in college, and liked it fairly well. I think that had more to do with the GM and his setting than the rules themselves, which I always found too fiddly. “Use Rope” as a skill always seemed out of place to me in a game about adventuring heroes, and I think my group in the day had similar qualms. We played a lot more of Savage Worlds, for one, than we ever did of 3.5 D&D. One guy was even intent on developing a wholly homebrewed d6-based generic system to run any game that struck his fancy, and had the monster Word file drafts to prove it.

D&D’s Fourth Edition came out during the summer after my senior year when I moved back from Spokane, and after a long dry spell for me when it came to tabletop gaming. Parts of my old college group had graduated or moved away, and getting folks together reliably had been hard. Being back in my hometown of Portland and having access to some solid friends combined with the promise of a newly streamlined version of the RPG genre I loved was a sweet promise. I bought the 3-book set on a whim from my local gaming store on the day it released, and in my giddy excitement managed to rope a couple friends into rolling up new characters post-midnight — on a weeknight! Ah, those were halcyon days. We had a blast for a while (years, really), but the constant rollout of content led to feature-bleed between classes, and ruined some of the magic once we began to see all the raw math at work, repeated in every new power. We had grown as gamers, too, and had tried indie games that did fascinating social & storytelling things that made D&D seem lacking.

In my head, though, I was always on the lookout for a system that could be the D&D I wanted. I toyed with Savage Worlds for a time, as it’s a favorite for generic pulp roleplaying, but I found its social mechanics even less developed than D&D of any stripe. Running a Deadlands: Reloaded game with Savage Worlds also turned me off the system for D&D, as its feel wasn’t quite what I wanted in the end. Our group played a fantastic run of the Dresden Files RPG, set in an urban fantasy version of our own city (before it was cool enough for TV!), and for a while I was sure I had my winner. Even now, if I was going to try a story-focused game in a D&D style world, FATE and the DFRPG would probably be my starting point. It has a universal system for combat, skills, and social encounters that makes sense for each of those uses, which is impressive as hell.

It was playing DungeonWorld, based on Vince Baker’s ApocalypseWorld, that proved to be the real watershed moment. This, this was the ticket. A solid 90% at least of what that game is doing is what I want, and I’ll be psyched to see what the game looks like in its finished form. Its philosophy of interesting success & failure is one that more games should employ.

So DungeonWorld had a lot going for it. It was dead simple to play. It was fun. It was class-based, and those classes felt really cool in different ways. It did genius things with turning gear into a storytelling resource (the Adventurer’s Kit with spendable uses for undending purposes was a favorite). It pointed the way to the D&D I wanted to play… but it didn’t give me enough. A campaign with those rules, and I’d run out of room for players to advance pretty quick. Monsters were thin on the ground. And I still wasn’t totally happy with the social end of things. A near miss, but I was hopeful.

And then… I heard the rumblings. The blogosphere was disturbed. Could it be true, so soon? Wizards of the Coast soliciting player input for the next edition of D&D? Was this rumor, or fact? To my surprise, it was real. To my further surprise — I liked a lot of what I was hearing.

Whether by design of Wizards or by player demand, D&D Next is shaping up to be something a lot more like my ideal D&D than any previous version. Its classes remind me of that feeling I got looking at DungeonWorld class booklets. It has a skill system that seems both stripped down and versatile. It’s got modular systems to add complexity where your game might want it, but doesn’t lump it in by default. It encourages more free-form play. It weights non-combat mechanics evenly with combat ones (best shown in the excellent background benefits). It restores interesting-ness to mundane equipment, and special-ness to magic items. As of this writing, the math for some things still seems a bit off, but they’re still in early stages of the design & development process. I kind of like how bumpy and unpolished the experience is thus far, though — it gives a genuine sense of seeing a game designed in real time, and with your feedback helping guide that evolution. I have high hopes for the finished product it becomes.

Someday, I need to run Primetime Adventures, and see how good a fit that might be for a D&D game. I tend to conceptualize my games as TV series or movies to begin with, so using a system meant for that is something I really need to do. Alas, the original version is out of print and the new one is still in a limited playtest (last I checked).

Right now, and somewhat ironically, there’s another take on D&D influenced by modern indie games, and that’s the one I’ve chosen to kick off a new campaign this month: 13th Age, being designed by former Wizards honchos Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet. It too is still in playtest, though it is an order of magnitude closer to being published, as is the expansion book currently being Kickstarted (three more days — get in on that!). Heinsoo helped design D&D 4e, Jonathan Tweet did 3.0/3.5, and the game feels like a smart hybrid of what each version did well. It also incorporates some baked-in social roleplaying & storytelling elements to give players & GMs more hooks from the get-go.

Why start my campaign with 13th Age and not D&D Next? Frankly, from a pure numbers standpoint, it has a load more finished classes & monsters for me to use in my game. I’ll let D&D Next continue to percolate and evolve in the meantime. I’m still very new to the 13th Age system, as is my group, but so far we’re definitely enjoying the game it offers. It has a nice mix of the familiar and the new. How close will that mix be to my ideal D&D? I don’t know. Between 13th Age and D&D Next, I’ve got a lot to look forward to, and only time will tell. You can certainly expect to see more information about how 13th Age is panning out, as our campaign develops.

In pursuit of the ideal D&D experience

I first started the ball rolling on this particular blog in 2008. The four years between that year and this one have seen an awful lot of edition-warring and soul-searching about the nature of D&D. What defines it? What makes it tick? Some of discussion has been pedantic and rage-filled, but plenty too has been insightful and thought-provoking.

I know these debates aren’t new, even to the internet, but I wasn’t much of a BBS or list-serv person when the 2nd edition AD&D transition into 3.0/3.5 D&D happened, so I can’t speak to it. I’ve heard tales it was every bit polemic as the flame-wars during the lifespan of 4th edition. But with social media making the broadcast of opinions (and yes, rage) easier for the layperson to follow, I think the community has felt the impact of the debate more keenly this time around. Few probably took the whole ordeal more to heart than the D&D team at Wizards of the Coast.

When my own dissatisfaction with D&D 4th Edition set in, our gaming group was starting to get antsy in general. We swore off d20 systems for a time, and enjoyed long-running campaigns with Shadowrun and the Dresden Files RPG. If d20 came up as an option, it was usually for old-school D&D with the 80’s-style Rules Cyclopedia, or for a night’s one-shot in the Tomb of Horrors, or a special session for those who’d never actually touched 3.5, being late to the hobby (halflings, you have my continued sympathy for your truly cruel jump penalty). So while we weren’t doing much D&D, we were still exploring that space a bit. And oddly, we never got back into a regular game with “medieval fantasy” as the genre until this year’s foray with Burning Wheel.

Partly, I think that’s because I’m the guy with the biggest love for the typical D&D milieu, at least as RPGs go. And I had run enough 4th Edition to know it wasn’t my top choice, nor were any of the other variants of 3.0/3.5 D&D & Paizo’s Pathfinder. The editions older than those had too many arcane & counter-intuitive systems to sit right with me. So I kept casting about, trying to find my ideal system and define what the D&D touchstones are, in my mind. I never sat down & wrote up a list, but I did have things rattling around in my head that still won’t leave…

D&D is class-based. The iconic D&D classes are key, so classless systems are a dealbreaker (much as I love them). If I weren’t so attached to classes, FATE/DFRPG would probably be able to pull off being a top-notch D&D impersonator.

D&D has fun fights with cool monsters. Every group is going to swing the pendulum on the social/combat continuum where they like, but fights are always going to be a big deal. The fights should be fast-moving, tense, and cinematic. Meaningful fights should be the norm, but there should be room for surprise a la wandering monsters, without obvious appeals to XP-grinding.

D&D has simple & versatile core rules. I understand well the allure of having subsystems that better represent actions like driving vehicles, fighting in the sky, grappling, and so on, but until mastery is achieved I find these kinds of detailed rules a real bother. Solid rules that apply to many situations and smartly allow for innovation and improvisation are where the action is.

D&D heroes are badasses. This hasn’t always been true in D&D’s history, but it’s true to me. Lots of games exist that drive home how precarious battle really is for all involved — instant death is a terrifying possibility. In D&D, this is true for the common folk, but much less so for adventurers.

D&D promotes fun & complex social encounters. And this is where so many systems fall apart! The games with social/exploratory rules that are as well-designed as combat rules are few & far between. The problem is only compounded when multiple linked skill rolls are standing in for meaningful complexity. Does this contradict my “simple & versatile” note above? A little. But that’s pointed at the core of a system: I expect some situational complexity on top of that core. Class features & combat get this kind of attention; skill & social systems often don’t.

D&D has interesting failures. The “skill roll with binary outcome” doesn’t go far enough for me by a long shot. Failure shouldn’t be the boring result that “nothing happens”. Dwelling on repeated failures that do little beyond expend player resources (hit points, abilities/spells, turns attempting skill checks) is mostly wasted time. Success shouldn’t be guaranteed, but if failure lacks a real consequence, a roll is probably unnecessary. The best handling of failures is to introduce new complications for the players into the situation, whether they be immediate or delayed.

That’s six rough points that cover a lot of what I want; wanting to have them all in one game has meant trying a lot of RPGs and never finding the one that seems quite right. As quests go it may be a little quixotic — especially since there are ineffable qualities about my ideal D&D that are hard to pin down, but easily noticed in their absence. And there’s a few qualities that are on the fence… I think a list of “is not” qualities is far less useful than trying to figure out what something is. These are the things, though, that I’ve found I don’t need.

D&D does not require d20. I love and hate the d20. It’s fun to roll one; the thrill of the natural 20 is unparalleled; it has remained a constant throughout D&D’s history. But at the same time, it’s probably a bigger die than it needs to be, and it’s hard to ignore that one die with so much variance decreases the impact of a character’s skill & ability scores. (I’ll probably write more in the future about how well the FATE system avoids this with its Fudge dice rules.) A D&D system that can use the d20 well & address its shortcomings is tough to do, and very welcome at the table.

D&D should not demand minis or a grid. Minis are another thing I love, as a person with strong visual/kinesthetic tendencies and an interest in crafts. But, they can do more to restrict the imagination than open it up, and bog the action down with more petty realism and “how would this work in real life” tangents than I’d like. There’s also the logistics impact. Being able to play just fine without opens up a lot more real world spaces for play.

D&D shouldn’t be driven by strict realism. This is another “personal preference” area, and one where I distinctly come down in favor of “rule of cool” decision-making. Suspension of disbelief is important for everyone involved, and I certainly don’t want the mood at the table to be cartoonish in a typical D&D game. But I do want the adventurers to feel exceptional, and for encounters to have lots of stylistic highlights. Putting mechanical limits on this one is hard. I like the at-wills and dailies of 4th Edition overall, but find that encounter powers mostly rub me the wrong way. The associated/dissociated mechanic divide plays a role, too. Mostly, I just want my games to play out like episodes of great TV, no matter what system we’re using.

So what games fit these lists? Not many! More on which ones come close (and which ones fall far short) in a future post. 

World-building in Dragon Age: Origins

Guess that’s why they call it “Dragon” Age.

There’s a lot to admire in BioWare’s latest RPG. The world is vast (at 27 hours of playtime, I’ve progressed through a mere 18% of the game), what parts of the story I’ve explored so far have been enjoyable, and the overall opportunities to actually “role play” feel much richer than in similar entries within the genre. Indeed, getting into the mindspace of an RPG character has always been easier for me at the table with dice, rather than in front of a screen with a controller.

In many ways, the setting of Dragon Age: Origins (which doubles as pencil & paper RPG setting to be released soon, in a smart move by the powers-that-be) has much to recommend it as well. The tension between the Templars and the Circle of Mages is excellent, without establishing either side as the good guys. Sure, the Templars often act like jerks to mages — and everyone else, really — but at the same time, what’s said in the game about careless or weak magicians becoming unwilling vessels for bloodthirsty demons is, you know, true. See, a mage shines like a beacon to the denizens of the Fade, an immaterial realm of dreams, spirits and demons. And like moths to a flame, they hone in on practitioners of the arcane arts to wreak havoc in flesh.

I also love part of the backstory for the creation of the Darkspawn, the primary evil that players battle against in Dragon Age. Way back when, a group of powerful magicians ran out of terrestrial power to covet and acquire. What to do, what to do? they asked themselves. I know! Let’s go to heaven and conquer the vacant city of god! And so they did.

Two words: Bad. Ass.

Now obviously this doesn’t turn out well, since it results in the creation of the Darkspawn. Judging by the name alone, you can probably figure they’re not nice dudes. But at any rate, these are just a couple examples of the parts of Dragon Age that establish an engaging and unique world. It’s a shame, though, that not everything about the game’s world was created with such loving care and an eye to individuality.


Pictured: New Fantasyton. Motto: “No hobbits here, no sir.”

The assemblage of races and nations in Dragon Age is your typical Tolkien Standard Array (not a real term, but should be) meets medieval Europe: Welcome to 90% of fantasy settings, fellas. Now, to BioWare’s credit, they subvert a few tropes in their world-building. Elves, for example, are a subjugated race of second-class citizens, having only recently won freedom from their former human masters. Many elves still do serve those same human masters, so recent is the change.

Though dwarves are, sigh, toiling away under mountains crafting the finest weapons & armor in the land, their once mighty empire is now is near-total collapse. And not because they dug too greedily, or too deep! Those Darkspawn mentioned before first bubbled up from the deep parts of the world, and dwarves were the first stop on the path to the apocalypse. But the dwarves can dodge all the blame for that, too — a lifetime living and working with the physical stuff of magic, “lyrium”, has rendered every last dwarf a magical non-starter. Sure enough, it were those dastardly human mages what done the deed. Nice move, guys.

More annoying still are the lazy Euro-centric ethnic stereotypes renamed and redecorated to fit into the fantasy schema. The world might be called “Thedas”, but it still feels a lot like home. The game’s main nation of Ferelden? UK accents and cultural flourishes abound. Nearby Orlais? Home to wine-, fashion-, and bard-loving francophones (so it’s pronounced or-LAY, of course). Somewhat more-removed Antiva? Spanish-accented rogues and schemers. And on and on like that. Obviously, the developers require voice actors from our real world to populate their game, and they will have accents, but there are more interesting ways of addressing this issue, and turning it into an advantage.

Digression time!

Put in whatever contacts you want, man; I don’t think you’re getting on the cover of National Geographic.I’m a big fan of the two Dune miniseries that were produced by the Sci-Fi Channel. For various reasons, (financial, logistic, etc.) shooting was largely done in studios in Prague, with Czech cast members fleshing out many of the side roles. Notably, nearly all Fremen were played by Eastern European actors, many of them with very distinct Eastern European accents. Now, the Fremen of Dune are already a culture assembled in many respects from historical pastiche: author Frank Herbert borrowed greatly from the Arab and Islamic societies of the Middle East in creating Fremen society.

It could have been awkward, but when you put swarthy-looking Czechs in stillsuits and have them start treading the sands, suddenly disparate elements are working in your favor. The Fremen are a race of humans on a desert planet in the far future, where Earth is but a memory. Having our expectations subverted (seeing a white guy in Bedouin kit speaking oddly-accented English) gives our imagination some more room to suspend disbelief. In a game, where all the visuals can be created from whole cloth, there’s no reason a similar technique couldn’t work. (Complain all you want, but you can’t say appropriating the English patois of the Caribbean region didn’t help create a… unique culture for Star Wars’ Gungans.)

None of these elements seems obvious in the first hours of play. But as your progress toward acquiring the Urn of Sacred Ashes becomes more and more almost-comically identical to the quest of Arthur’s knights for the Holy Grail, it’s hard not to feel like someone just pulled a quick “search-and-replace” on the Wikipedia pages for history and folklore of the Dark Ages, then slapped it all on a new map.

There are some rough spots in the plot as well, which are perhaps more jarring for for the story’s overall quality. But I haven’t seen it through to the end yet, and I’ve detected a few whiffs that plot machinations that seem rote or obvious at first blush might have a little more complexity to them, as the player and their heroic surrogate both learn more.


Don’t mind us, just doin’ a little light demon summoning before supper.

Truly, though, Dragon Age has captured my attention in admirable fashion, regardless of any flaws it has. The decision to include six different starting zones based on character creation choices, with six separate introductory stories, is an excellent move — all the more so since those choices have real effect on the game world. Play as an elf, for example, and expect to be on the receiving end of human prejudice fairly often, and have the opportunity to confront the same head on, both in social and combat encounters.

Welcome, too, is the lack of any kind of “morality continuum” for the playable characters, mechanics-wise. Instead, your options change only your standing in the eyes of your adventuring party as permanent effects go, with possible ramifications for the greater narrative, depending on what’s at stake. So rather than worrying about earning immersion-breaking “dark side points”, you can concentrate on maintaining the trust and esteem of your friends and allies as you make your mark on the world. Much more realistic, and much more amenable to complex decision-making. So, too, is it easier for a player to have their character make interesting choices (and ones more in keeping with a unique outlook) without being penalized by the game.

I think more than anything, it’s those two game design choices that draw me in, by letting me imagine my character as a realistic person and having the game reflect and give opportunities to realize that image. The flashes of originality that can be found in its world of Thedas are a factor as well. I just hope that I won’t continue discovering more seams and frayed edges in the world as I explore it.