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Dragon Age 2: When Designers go Bad…

Courtesy of Tom, I played the DA2 demo a few days ago. It’s the first Bioware game I’ve played that was so inherently dull and boring I lost all interest after 10 minutes. This rarely happens to me with any game, let alone one from a mega-studio like Bioware. I suspect, in fact, it’s just a really bad demo – the real game is nothing like this. I hope.

Intensely detailed (intensely sexualised) player-characters, but otherwise a depressing art-style (grey on grey with a backdrop of de-saturated blood – i.e. red-tinted grey – and an overcast sky of … multi-hued grey. Oh, and the enemies use a single-hue pallette too: grey).

There was some classic Bioware-ism in the intro itself – sounded and felt like NWN redux – same focus on narrative, but with an engine so badly broken it miserably failed to lip-synch (in a way that no other studio has done so badly for more than ten years), and the eyeballs appeared to have been sucked out, and replaced with ill-fitting glass bearings.

Hmm.

That kind of amateurism on the engine anim/renderer worked OK with something as rickety as NWN and even NWN2 – but now Bioware has a major Uncanny Valley problem: all other parts of the character models are intensely detailed textures, with oodles of shaders to give realistic skin textures, bright detailed eye irises, etc. And then the armour goes and interpenetrates the main character *in the pre-made intro movie* so badly she’d be dead of blood-loss before the scene was over (seriously – she’s got 4 inches of metal digging into her chest – medical EMERGENCY!)

But the worst part is simply this: the game had no depth, no sense of player agency, and no reason for you to care. Characters were randomly dropped in your face with zero explanation of who they were or why they were there, and you were expected to give a flying monkey’s – but since they were all immortal, and overly whiney, I found it hard to. Then they’d randomly disappear with no explanation other than a brief cutscene implying that “everything you just did was a waste of time HA HA! start again from scratch”.

Original? Hell no!

(I compare this against NWN2, whose opening sequences I remember well. Exact same idea, but pulled off with less over-dramatization, and a lot more clarity. Even though the NWN control-system meant it was often viciously confusing for the first few minutes unless you’d played NWN-1 before)

This has never happened to me in an RPG, except the truly dire ones. Same trick (again) was used in Assassin’s Creed 1, and lead to a lot of misery among players – but the joy of AC often kept people playing. At least until they got bored of walking everywhere.

But most people I know never appreciated this device existed until / unless they’d achieved a moderate mastery of the game. I.e. you had to play the game for 3+ hours and then *start again from scratch* in order to really appreciate this conceit. It was a nice idea, but I suspect overall a fail (note: just how differently AC2 approached the issue) – people got bored and dropped the game. But even that was given to you with decent narrative explanation – and believably.

Dragon Age 2 tries the same trick, but does it less cleanly, and smacks the player in the face, with no excuse given. Just: “I’m a game designer. You’re the less-important people who buy my works of art. Sucks to be you.” This is the antithesis of most good game-design. Also: not original. In fact, these days it’s almost a cliche. Sure, Bioware were one of the first major studios to do it, but … AC1 + AC2 + AC3 continue their worldwide domination, with bajillions having experienced life as Altair, Ezio, et al … so this is no longer a niche way to start a game.

And then I found this recent interview with the Lead Designer. I also found a bunch of players complaining that Mike Laidlaw may have missed the point when trying to “fix” Dragon Age with his sequel.

(giving me flashbacks to the fail that was Ultima 8, and the designers belief + claim that “Ultima 7 wasn’t good because you could bake bread – don’t worry, we’ve taken that out”…leading to horrified reactions from players: No, you really don’t understand: baking bread is EXACTLY what made Ultima 7 great)

In the interview, Mike is apparently “excited” by the use of narrative to replace / control the game. I’m not quite sure why; this is nothing more than what NWN2 did, many years ago (from the same studio!) – only it worked more in hand with the player back then, less against them. And without the gratuitous breasts-and-faces-covered-in- … *cough* blood *ahem* … shots.

(I’m not complaining, I’m just saying: the art direction on this project clearly had *someone* who was determined to get facials (of the pornographic kind) inserted into a live computer game. It’s funny, but it’s not subtle, and it’s hard to ignore – especially with heaving bared breasts, straight out of the old D&D covers where over-excited artists were depicting all women in “suicide armour” – holes in the most lethal of places, more a fashion statement than believable chain-mail)

In practice, it seems suspiciously as though Bioware has set a frustrated Author to design the game. The narrative conceit is OK if you wanted to watch a movie, but it takes away so much from the “game” aspect of the game that anyone looking for … game … ends up disappointed. And, as noted – the graphics engine is FUBAR.

A second opinion

So, Tom is a professional author (books), and until recently was a commissioning Editor for a major international political and literary magazine. To use a horrible phrase: he breathes words. Always has. And he really hated DA2’s start, because of all this failed narrative. I was zoning out at this point after a 20-hour day, but it seemed he was saying something like: this narrative is NOT inventive, it’s obvious, pointless, badly written, and would have been better off being left out entirely.

In summary

For me, there’s two major fails: the intro gets in the way of the game … and then does the one thing that an RPG is never allowed to do: invalidates everything the player has done to date.

When my characters started levelling up, I found I couldn’t care less. I’d already had my characters taken away from me once, with no choice in the matter (not even an illusion of choice). I’d spent several minutes with them auto-killing everything in sight, and now I was offered a bunch of bland and meaningless figures, all of which had LITERALLY no relation to anything I’d been doing up to that point in game … plus some bugs in the mouse-control for the level-up screen meant it took 6 clicks just to get to the screen. Level up was presented as an optional (and irrelevant) aspect of the game. There was no indication it would make an iota of difference.

Compare this with Diablo (the first one – go way back, to when Blizzard was a tiny company by today’s standards). See how exciting and in-your-face and *immediately relevant* they made every level-up. Despite IMHO achieving exactly what Mike claims the DA2 team were aiming for: “You get to an RPG and fire it up, and … it hits you in the face with a thousand stats. Those stats are very cool, but you may not be mentally or emotionally prepared to deal with them as your first thing to do in the game,”

Mike – please go and play Diablo. I think you’d enjoy it. There’s no stats at all, until you need them.

Oh, and the colour-scheme for DA2’s level-up screen, I believe – and I’m not making this up – was light grey text on a dark grey background.

Apparently, Dragon Age 2 is “The Game Of GREY!”. Certainly, the demo has convinced me (sadly) not to play again unless forced. I’m sure there’s a good game in there … somewhere … if you can get past the boringness. Maybe someone will hack it and provide a way to skip to the fun parts? More likely (I hope) the demo just isn’t representative of the real thing. Or, if not … roll on NWN3…

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