Dragon Age and Tolkien’s Orc Problem

4 11 2009

Bookmark and Share

So now that it’s up, I can tell you that one of the reasons blogging has been so light for the last week is that I have been hip deep in reviewing Dragon Age for G4. It’s brilliant and amazing and I spent close to 50 hours over the course of five days playing through it and I’ll probably do it again with a different character. If you’d like to read the rest of my take, check out the full article on the G4 Web site. This particular post isn’t about the quality of the game, which is beyond question for me. It’s about the problem that I had with the Darkspawn, the main threat to the world the player faces.

Here’s the problem. Like the Orcs or goblins in Tolkien’s world, the Darkspawn are an embodiment of absolute evil. They are like locusts, driven to destroy, unable to be negotiated with and seemingly incapable of any higher desire than to burn, crush and destroy and make more of their kind. In short, they’re a typical rampaging fantasy horde that exists merely to provide sword fodder for the player to hack through millions of them without the annoyance of feeling guilty. That bothers me. I don’t like unredeemable fantasy monsters. It was one of the awful influences of Tolkien that turned me off of fantasy for many years.

BloodDragon_wallpaper_full_1280x1024

Now, I’m not a pacifist. I’ve supported wars in the real world knowing that real people on both sides would suffer horrible deaths and injuries because of it. Even as I did it though, I never bought into the simplistic propaganda that those on the other side were irredeemably evil or anything less than human. War is a serious matter, requiring serious deliberation with full appreciation of the consequences of legally sanctioning the killing of other sentient beings. Even when the cause is just, the process is tragic. Like my recent bout of guilt fighting the Morroval in Moria, I’m wondering how to feel about the Darkspawn I’ve killed. (Yes, I know they’re not real and that “it’s just a game.” That’s hardly the point, is it Captain Metaphor?)

What makes the moral simplicity of the Darkspawn especially glaring in Dragon Age is the incredible level of characterization the other races and societies are given. Every character and race in the game has realistic, multi-layered set of motivations. They’re not purely good, nor are they purely evil. Even the “villain” the player faces throughout much of the game is given a believable, though twisted, sense of moral purpose for the actions he takes in defense of his homeland. In fact, at one point one of the character’s henchmen, when asked about the actions she takes, scoffs at the player. “It’s really easy to be an adventurer,” she says. “No one weeps for the death of an ogre. It’s much harder when you’re facing enemies who look just like you.”

She’s right and it’s to the game’s credit that despite the threat they pose, the Darkspawn are actually in the minority of the foes you’ll face. One of the toughest choices you’ll face in the game is deciding which side of a Dwarven royal succession struggle you’ll support — knowing that whichever way you choose, you’re going to have to kill a lot of dwarves whose only real crime is choosing to support the side the player didn’t pick.

No such grace is granted to the Darkspawn, though. They are sword fodder, there to be killed in order to rack up the experience points. Yet the darkspawn wear armor. They carry swords and medical supplies. Clearly they have a culture — someone must be forging this stuff — and value life, their own if no one else’s. Who are they? Are they sentient at all? If they’re nothing but locusts, then they’re not truly evil, are they? This was the reason why in Sufficiently Advanced Magic I chose to avoid having an “evil race” and made sure to explain the motivations for why two nations are at war. I have my sympathies and they come out in the book, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m ready to retire Tolkien’s orcs once and for all.





Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears

17 09 2009

My first piece for Gamasutra Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears just went up. As tough as it was to write, there’s nothing I like better than delving into the guts of the game industry and figuring out what makes this stuff tick. DDO is a classic example of a game hurt not so much by what was on the screen (I reviewed it over at GameSpy and while it was good then, it’s gotten much better) but by the decision about what business model to put on it. It’s amazing how sometimes the littlest thing can help or hurt a game — being in the right place at the right time, having a celebrity admit that they’re a fan, putting the wrong artwork on the box… The bottom line, as with the movies, is that nobody really knows anything before a title launches. It’s a lot of educated guesses and soothsaying. You can be smart and reduce the risk, but ultimately it’s still a roll of the dice. Are you listening, Mr. Kotick?
ddo1

In the mean time, I was once again impressed at the passion that goes into the people who work in the gaming industry. I’m not just talking about designers or producers like Fernando Paiz but also PR people like Adam Mersky and Atlus Online’s Jaime Ortiz (who’s a business operations guy). It struck me while talking to them that these are people who love what they do. It may be because this is still a relatively young and small industry where the first generation of pioneers is still around even as the third generation of money-men and MBA try to corporatize it, so enjoy it while it lasts. It’s not often you get to be present at the settling of a new frontier and this is a time in gaming that will never come again.

Hey! I just got an idea for tomorrow’s Angry Bear column!

Read Dungeons & Dragons Online: Switching Gears at Gamasutra.

And if you like it, leave a comment and hit the button below to share this with others.

Bookmark and Share





Angry Bear 16 is Up! The Most Important Twitter Conversation Ever…

10 09 2009

I love me some Soren Johnson. For those of you unfamiliar with the name, he’s the brilliant mind behind much of the gaming goodness that was Civilization III and Civilization IV. As such, whenever he speaks at a conference or updates his personal blog, he’s always worth listening to. What I wasn’t expecting was Johnson’s July 16th entry (called “So this is what Twitter is for…”) regarding a fascinating Twitter exchange he had with some of the leading lights in game design regarding the relative importance of narrative versus actual gameplay.

According to Johnson, the conversation began in response to a somewhat controversial talk given by Too Human designer Denis Dyack at the Design 2009 conference. Johnson Tweeted to Dyack after the talk and was This was responded to by Harvey Smith. Then Clint Hocking Rob Fermier. Brenda Brathwaite and a host of other leading game designers that included Ian Bogost, David Jaffe, Damion Schubert and even John Romero started a long, complex conversation about the boundaries and importance of gameplay vs. narrative. It went on for a while.

(This week’s Angry Bear is my take on Dyack’s talk and the conversation that followed. At the risk of stepping on the toes of all these game designers whose work I’ve long admired, I’m going to say that while I understand where Denis is coming from, he’s drawn absolutely the wrong conclusion from his study. I’m hoping for some heated conversations this week.)
 
Check out the rest of the new column here!

And while you’re here, why not check out the rest of the Angry Bear Columns under the tab at the top of the page?

transformers2007vv6

Bookmark and Share





The Most Important Twitter Conversation Ever (for Gamers)

7 09 2009

(Update: Sigh. I should have known that a post with a picture of Catherine Bell would be incredibly highly trafficked. If you’re at all interested in videogames and game design, why not click on the essay HERE and take a look around. There might be some fun stuff!)

I just discovered this July 16th post on the personal blog of Soren Johnson, the designer of Civilization IV and one of my personal gaming gods. I know, shame on me for not checking his blog in a while because what Soren has is always worth reading. Still, if you haven’t seen it, check it out. It’s the transcript of an amazing Twitter conversation had by some of the leading lights in game design about a talk given by Denis Dyack at the Develop 2009 conference.

In the conference, Dyack said the following (Quoting from the Gamasutra story about the conference):

“Gameplay is not everything,” said Silicon Knights (Eternal Darkness) founder and president Denis Dyack. “If you look at the most popular games today, they are far more narrative-focused.”

“If games are to follow the trajectory of films, then the dominance of gameplay will diminish in place of an increased focus and importance on gaming’s stories and the ways in which they are told,” he added.

This apparently triggered a Tweet from Johnson to Dyack in which he asked:

SorenJohnson: Hey Denis, if you put the narrative in front of the gameplay, you are no longer making a game. You’re making a movie. http://bit.ly/193Qdz

This is what led to the conversation about the boundaries and importance of narrative and gameplay (the whole conversation is collected here) It’s a little confusing with a lot of crosstalk (This was a real time Twitter conversation after all) but it’s well worth reading through.

It’s also the subject of this week’s Angry Bear column. I may be a bit late to the conversation, but that doesn’t meant I can’t put my two cents in. This is the Internet after all. I’ll post and update when the new column is done.

(Yeah, I’m late. We spent the day at our friend’s house for a Labor Day BBQ. In penance, may I offer this awesome picture of the lovely Catherine Bell in a bikini.)

catherine_bell_7

Bookmark and Share