Sunday, 11 July 2010

Death of Roleplaying, Rebirth of Adventure?

I've been debating with myself over the order of the two parts in the title there, because the supposed “rebirth” came before the supposed “death”, but somehow putting it the other way around sounds wrong. Maybe it's in a way me trying to keep things positive, but well get to all that.

And I hope that you'll forgive me this, really long, rant, but it's something that I need to get out of my system. Though it has some bearing on The Old Republic (for which they've made the same choice) if you're just interested in news about the MMO then you might want to skip this.

For the last couple of days I've been... upset. I suspect that I'll probably remain such for a while to come. Last Thursday was supposed to be “a great day for BioWare fans” and for a number of them I'm sure that it was. For a lot of others, like myself, though it turned out to be quite horrible.

It started out quite good. I can safely say that my all-time favorite game is Dragon Age: Origins, giving the perfect blend of roleplaying and story. So the initial announcement that BioWare is making Dragon Age 2 was a wonderful one. However, it quickly turned out that Dragon Age 2 is going to be more Mass Effect than Dragon Age.

Read after the jump for the rest of it.

This all revolves around the reveal that in Dragon Age 2 you're playing Hawke. You can choose to be either male or female (at least that's something), but Hawke is always human, always has the same back story and, worst of all, is fully voiced. So pretty much exactly like Mass Effect's Commander Shepard. And to a lot of fans of Dragon Age: Origins this feels like a betrayal.

Of course there are also those who are happy with the decision, or at least those that call out to have some faith in BioWare. But, and I've been reading a lot of comments on the issue, it seems to me that they simply don't get it. A lot of this misunderstanding between the two 'camps' revolves around what “roleplaying” means to different people, so allow me a moment to explain what it means to me.

To begin with I'm using the term “roleplaying” instead of “RPG” deliberately. These days “RPG” seems to mean “game with stats and levels” or such, which is about as far removed from “roleplaying” as you can get. To me roleplaying is getting into the the shoes of a fictional character, becoming that character. For that it is vitally important that there is an emotional connection with said character and that the choices that you, as the player, make as that character are meaningful. Part of that is having “choices and consequences”. To me games like Oblivion and Fallout 3 tend to feel hollow as roleplaying experiences because your choices don't really have any consequences (even choosing to blow up Megaton, in the end, changes very little in the story). And in fairness games like Mass Effect tend to be much better in that regard, better than most other games.

But that's only part of it. The other, equally important, part is being able to get into the character's shoes, being able to feel like you are that character. This means that you need to be able to define that character's personality, have control of that character's thoughts and motives, that you need to have ownership of that character. The more exact you can be in defining what the character does and says the stronger that connection is. That is where games like Mass Effect fall short as in the end you're just whispering direction into Shepard's ear and (s)he decides exactly what to do. You don't own the character, you're more of an observer standing outside the character.

It is both of those parts that are important for a game to be a roleplaying game. BioWare calls this “first person narrative” versus “third person narrative”; in the latter you're more of an observer to the actions of a defined character (like Shepard) where in the first you become that character. Dragon Age was billed as a game with first person narrative, so when they suddenly switch to a third person narrative that's very jarring for those of us who liked Dragon Age: Origins precisely because it was first person narrative.

Giving the main character a voice means that as a player you're no longer in control of the character's personality, which means that you no longer have ownership of the character. The character isn't 'yours' anymore and thus half of what's required for the game to be a roleplayign game isn't there anymore.

Of course I don't expect people to understand even from that. Reading comments online I see a lot of misunderstanding as to why we're upset with this decision. So allow me to list some of the common misconceptions and reply to them.
  • People should wait for more information

    It is true that there is a lot that we don't know about the game yet. It is, however, wrong that we don't know enough to know whether this game is a first person narrative game or a third person narrative game. That has clearly already been announced. And it is exactly that announcement that has people upset.

  • People complained about lack of voicing

    It is true that people complained about a lack of voicing. I think a number of people, including some reviewers, really just wanted a Mass Effect in a fantasy setting. The thing is though, while a lot of people complained, a lot of people were happy with it too. And the people who were happy with it didn't have any reason to voice their viewpoint. But now that they are going for fully voiced you're hearing those people complain. Will that mean that the next game switches back again? I hope so. Though I would expect BioWare to retain the narrative style of a game as it's simply stupid to make a sequel that fans of the original don't recognize anymore (because of a change in narrative style).

  • Nothing says that it'll be non-linear

    I've seen a fair number of comments about the linearity of the game. And while there is some concern that fully voiced means that there will be less options (after all, options cost more money now), linearity or not has pretty much nothing to with the complaints about Dragon Age 2 no longer having a first person narrative. Mass Effect had a reasonable amount of options, and that's still exactly the kind of game we don't want Dragon Age to be.

  • Games with a mute protagonist are horrible

    This one particularly gets to me. Aside from the fact that this is just a matter of personal taste (see the next point) the problem I have with this is that unvoiced characters aren't 'mute'. They are, instead, voiced by the player's imagination. When I read the lines to choose what my character says, that is when I hear the character speak and when the character acts. I can't help but feel sad for people who apparently lack the imagination to do the same. If the character is 'mute' and an emotional shell for you, then that's nobody's fault but your own. Don't make the rest of us pay for your own shortcomings.

  • A voiced protagonist is more immersive

    Somewhat related to the previous point (I think some people say that while meaning this point) this isn't really a misunderstanding so much as just a personal preference. Different people find different things immersive. I can understand that some find voiced protagonists more immersive, and that is perfectly fine. Some of us however find it more immersive if we can get into the character's skin, become the character in a way and a defined voice gets very much in the way of that. Please do try to understand that.

  • No racial choices is a small price

    Another point that seems to come up a lot is people trying to defend the lack of racial choice. But choice of race has pretty much nothing to do with it. Sure, it would be nice to have more choices of race than just human (I do like to play my elves) just as it would've been nice to have more races available in Dragon Age: Origins (such as the Qunari). But it has nothing to do with how much of a roleplaying game it is. A game could have nothing but humans, but as long as it has choices and consequences and allows you to get into the skin of your character (have a first person narrative) it'll be a roleplaying game.

  • Other roleplaying games had a set character

    This is one I've seen a few times as well and people bring up a number of different games to prove this point. These games fall into three categories, exemplified by Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment and The Witcher. So let me approach each separately.

    • Baldur's Gate

      In Baldur's Gate you play a Bhaalspawn who grew up in Candlekeep and people say that because you had a set character there we should accept the set character in Dragon Age 2. The thing is though that you didn't have a set character in Baldur's Gate; you could completely define your character's personality, motivation and voice. Some things about your background you couldn't control, but that is alright as nobody controls things like where they're born or who their parents are. In roleplaying the character's personality and the decisions that character makes should be completely owned by the player, but everything else (the world and all the other characters in it) are owned by the DM/game. Your character hasn't really made any decisions when the game starts where in Dragon Age 2 your character has made a number of important decisions already (such as fleeing Lothering). Baldur's Gate was still a first person narrative.

    • Planescape: Torment

      In Planescape: Torment you play The Nameless One, a human male with a set background of many, many lives and in it many, many decisions (that he couldn't remember). You still completely controlled your character's personality (which could be different from his past lives) and choices though. When you first awaken that's pretty much the birth of a new character, a blank slate. Though being limited to a male character I did have a lot of trouble getting into the game and in the end didn't really enjoy it as much because of it, it was still a first person narrative.

    • The Witcher

      In The Witcher you play as Geralt who is as pre-defined a character as they come with a set personality, completely voiced, a defined history full of previous choices, etc. And, indeed, because of exactly that I couldn't get into the game at all. I couldn't stand Geralt, couldn't imagine having to try and 'be' him for the duration of the game. And, in fact, I don't consider The Witcher a roleplaying game at all precisely because it takes away that vital part; allowing the player to get into the shoes of the protagonist and becoming that character. People might've loved the game (I personally disliked it quite a lot), but it wasn't a roleplaying game any more than Mass Effect was (I'll get to that later). It wasn't a first person narrative. Dragon Age 2 becoming like The Witcher is exactly why I'm, (we're) upset with this decision.

    I hope that at least somewhat clears up how this all relates to previous RPGs; it's all a matter of whether they were first person narratives or not.

  • You had a set name in Dragon Age: Origins

    It is true that in Dragon Age: Origins you had a set (last) name depending on which Origin you chose, much as you have a set last name in Dragon Age 2 (namely “Hawke”). But that isn't what people are upset with. As I stated before, it's natural that you don't have control over who your parents are and thus it's natural that you don't control your last name. The problem is in the character being set in the same way that Shepard was, in being a fully voiced character (with the voice actor supplying personality). When it was announced that we would play as “Hawke”, before it was announced that Hawke would be fully voiced, a lot of people already saw the writing on the wall. But having a set last name wasn't the problem.

    And before you say it, yes it's only natural that you don't have control over what race or gender or first name you have either. And though I personally have a lot of trouble getting into the shoes of male characters, in the end as long as it's still a first person narrative (you get to define your character's personality and choices) it is still a roleplaying game in my book.

  • Dragon Age: Origins sold more than Mass Effect (2)

    This is one I see brought up a fair bit, almost as a defense by those who are upset with the decision. So perhaps it doesn't really fit in this list, but I thought I'd mention it anyway. This misunderstanding is based on a report that Dragon Age sold better than Mass Effect. The problem is that they referred to this being the case last November (i.e. before Mass Effect 2 was launched), that they seem to be talking about the launch of a franchise instead of lifetime sales and that Dragon Age: Origins was released on three platforms and Mass Effect only on two (and launched only on one). It wouldn't surprise me in the least the on a per-platform basis Mass Effect 1 did better than Dragon Age: Origins. They wanted to prep up Dragon Age and in marketing it's all about spin (how do you make something sound as positive as possible); by making Dragon Age: Origins sound incredibly successful you make people more excited for Dragon Age 2.

    Of course, that is also part of the problem for us. It feels like we're being abandoned by BioWare for “mass appeal”.
Don't get me wrong, I can understand that people are happy that Dragon Age 2 is going to be more like Mass Effect. I would be happy too if Mass Effect 3 was going to be more like Dragon Age: Origins. But I hope that people realize that while there are numerous games already going for the third person narrative approach of Mass Effect (Mass Effect 3, The Witcher 2, Fable 3, even The Old Republic) it seems as if Dragon Age was the only franchise which still provided a first person narrative. Now that we're losing that it seems that there are no games left for us, no games anymore with a first person narrative.

In that way this feels like the death of roleplaying games. With Dragon Age BioWare was the last developer still really holding the torch of roleplaying games. And perhaps they'll make them again in the future (though at the moment that seems doubtful; if they'd go so far as to change Dragon Age to a third person narrative then any new games are likely to follow suit from the get-go), but for the moment it seems that roleplaying games are dead.

So what about that second part of the title? It's funny. Years ago adventure games were incredibly popular; Monkey Island, King's Quest, Space Quest, Indiana Jones, Day of the Tentacle, etc. But at some point that genre seemed to 'die'; it seemed that no more adventure games were being made. That's not entirely true, there have been games since (The Longest Journey, Dreamfall, Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, and a bunch of more 'indy' titles), but in many ways the adventure games developers have been struggling with finding a way to revive the genre (just look at how Dreamfall differs from The Longest Journey, and not for the better).

It seems to me that the 'true' revival of adventure games instead is coming from an unusual corner: roleplaying games. To me games like Mass Effect and The Witcher are more adventure games than roleplaying games. Sure, puzzles have been replaced with action sequences, they added things like stats (I've already noted how I don't feel that stats have anything to do with roleplaying) and choices (much like a choose your own adventure book). But in the end, just like in adventure games, you follow the story of a set character. Whether it's about a space marine such as Shepard, or a wannabe pirate such as Threepwood, it's no less an adventure game.

That's not to say that those games can't be greatly enjoyable. After roleplaying games adventure games are my favorite genre. And I've much enjoyed games such as the new Monkey Island Special Editions as well as Mass Effect. But what upsets me here is that the revival of one genre here has to come at the cost of another. Particularly since I enjoy roleplaying games a lot more. I believe that there is room for both of them, but it seems that, apparently, BioWare does not believe so any longer and whole they used to be a great roleplaying game developer, they've now switched completely to the development of adventure games.

This, I believe, is a great loss to everyone regardless of what kind of games you prefer (variety, in the end, is good for everyone). That is why people are so upset over this. Dragon Age 2 should be a Dragon Age game, a roleplaying game. And being a first person narrative is a crucial part of that.


BakaMatt said...

It's truly unfortunate that BioWare has taken the easy path of defining a set character for DA2.

I, too, enjoy the imaginative power granted with a character that is mute and not preordained. While I admit to enjoying the Mass Effect series, Dragon Age had deeper role-playing roots that ultimately led to greater connection to the game through a personalized character.

I don't know if I share the opinion that these games belong in the Adventure category with the classic LucasArts/Sierra lines, though. I'd say they feel more like interactive movies - you're being fed a cinematic tale where every so often you're looked at to provide feedback with a one-liner or firepower.

Ayane said...

Perhaps they're not exactly like the classic adventure games, but they do follow along the same lines. More of an evolution of the adventure genre. After all, it seems to me that the classic adventure games, taking into account the technological limitations of the time, were very much 'interactive movies'. I recall games like Monkey Island being lauded as feeling 'just like being in a movie'. And since adventure games have been trying to up the cinematic quotient, but having trouble maintaining gameplay in the process.

At its core though it seems that games like Mass Effect are very much like those adventure games. They have a strong focus on story and try to provide a cinematic experience. They even share things like an inventory and interaction with objects in the environment. Just that the puzzles have been changed to dialog trees and action gameplay.

Are they exactly the same? No, not at all. But it does feel like they're perhaps closer to classic adventure games than classic roleplaying games. While it's nice to see the adventure genre evolve in such a way (I did enjoy Mass Effect quite a bit as well), I'd really also like to see the roleplaying genre evolve.

Emeraq said...

Many are disappointed in the direction Bioware is taking with DA2, and likely just as many are claiming they have lost all faith in Bioware. To a certain extent I'm one of those people.

The sad thing is that a majority of those that are upset will not put their money where their mouth is and boycott the game. In fact I believe that 80% of those that are goaning the loudest will actually still purchase the game.

It's a shame that most gamers can't stick to their guns.

Ayane said...

I know what you mean, Emeraq, but I have to admit that I'll likely buy DA2 anyway. As I said I did enjoy ME1 and ME2 and thus I'll probably find some enjoyment in DA2 as well. With how few decent games there seem to be on PC these days it feels like we can't really afford to be picky.

Just how do you send the message "we like this kind of game, but we like that other kind of game much better"?

On top of that I don't really believe in "voting with your wallet". I have never, ever seen NOT buying a game actually accomplish anything. It's like how in politics you can't NOT vote and still expect to make a difference. But unlike with politics you can't vote against a game either as there's no technical reason why one couldn't just get every game. Since developers don't know how many people are NOT buying their game (and for what reason), not buying their game doesn't really accomplish all that much.

Which becomes even more true if you're a more 'niche' gamer whose tastes seem to diverge from the masses. Because voting with your wallet, if it works at all, only works if the masses are behind it. With DA2 it seems that the masses WANT a ME2-style game anyway. The minority voice tends to be utterly ignored.

That's kind of what I feel is lost here. With DAO it seemed that BioWare set out to show that this 'minority' isn't really as small as some might think. But now it seems that they've lost faith themselves and just go after the known masses instead of sticking to their guns and improving on the first person narrative that made DAO so great. And thus, to me, it feels as if roleplaying has died and there's nothing that we can do about it one way or another.

It's that sense of powerlessness that causes such frustration because I know that no matter what I do it's not going to make a difference one way or another. If it did then me buying DAO and lauding it as (one of) the greatest roleplaying game(s) ever made would've made a difference in that they would keep DA2 in a first person narrative to begin with.