Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Decisions are Hard

I'd like to go off the reservation a bit today and talk about Dragon Age: Origins and non-linear gaming. I'm not really going to get into specifics about the game, but I do want to cover a particular plot point, so there will be spoilers. You have been warned.

This article spawns from a concept that hit me while analyzing the difference between the two non-MMO games I'm playing right now: Dragon Age and Final Fantasy 13.  They are both part of the larger RPG genre, but are quite different in their goals and execution.  Final Fantasy is linear.  Dragon Age is multi-threaded.  Dragon Age is pretty basic, graphically.  Final Fantasy is breathtaking.  Both rely heavily on an in-game AI system for battle, but they implement it completely differently.  Both have a great, engaging story line.  You may not like one game or the other, but I think it's clear they are both well-designed games from companies that know what the heck they're doing.  Neither Square Enix nor Bioware need any introduction among RPG gamers.

The aspect I want to focus on today is the linear vs. multi-threaded difference.  I think a lot has been written about the two approaches, expounding on the pros and cons of each approach, so I'll spare you the regurgitation.  Suffice it to say, neither is explicitly better than the other; it depends very much on the desires of the player at the helm. Rather than reopen this debate, I'd just like to point out my personal, emotional reaction to a certain choice in Dragon Age, and how, for ill or good, I will totally avoid such a tangle in Final Fantasy.

As an aside, am I the only one that feels that consulting the internet before you've finished an RPG is, in a way, a failure on my part?  As in: I couldn't figure it out on my own and that's somehow bad?  More on this in a second, but I just found it odd that I have this stigma.  Not with MMO's mind you (hence, blogging), but with single player games.  It's one thing to read, ask around, get general advice.  I think it's another when you have to look up a specific quest or something because you're "stuck".  To me, stuck = fail.  In a way though, stuck = win because think of how good you feel when you eventually get un-stuck.  Shouldn't that be sort of the goal of a game designer, to get the player stuck?  Not horribly, irrevocably stuck, mind you, but enough so that when the hurdle is eventually overcome, it feels like a triumph?  To me, that's an interesting thought.

That, however, is only an aside.  As I pointed out.  Right.  If you have not run off to save yourself a spoiler yet, then this is your last chance.  I'm totally delving into it in the next paragraph.  No more waffling.  Waffle House.  Even the sign looks like a ransom note.  (Gaffigan anyone?)

Near the end of Dragon Age, you have to make what seems to me to be a monumental decision.  Namely, Morrigan approaches you and offers an "out" for your Gray Warden, involving some kinky impregnation ritual and stuff.  For those that may just be reading out of mild interest, the short version is that if you (or a fellow Warden, if you happen to be female) don't sire a child with the, um, friendly Witch (friendly is probably a stretch and totally depends on how you play, but theoretically she is on your team at this point), then one of your number will die.  It's a classic "how far are you willing to go" scenario.  Do you impregnate a woman of dubious moral standings, possibly giving her some sort of "super baby" for her nefarious purposes or do you willingly offer yourself or a friend up for sacrifice to save the world?

And here's where I got "stuck".  You see, I played the romantic route with Morrigan.  My hero was very much in love with her, and perhaps she with him.  Yet, to me, none of the choices reflected this.  Basically, you were given really two options.  You could say no and probably die.  You could say yes and never see the child or your love again.  Oh, and saying no would also make Morrigan leave.  Let's set aside the fact that if you'd liked using Morrigan in your party, you would be denied her services unless you, you know, serviced her.  (I guess tit for tat is quite literal in this case.)

Another aside here: I find making decisions difficult.  I can't be the only one out there.  I think there are a lot of people who find decision making an anxiety laden activity.  This isn't to say I find all decisions difficult.  Some you just have to make and are easy and clear.   However, sometime choosing where to eat is a real chore.  If neither my wife or I feel very strongly about anything, it's like "no you decide", "no you", "no, don't put this on me."  I know we're not the only couple that does that.  Sometimes you just don't want to make decisions.  Deciding is hard, mmkay?

With that in mind, sometimes a non-linear game like Dragon Age can be a bit of a chore for me.  I agonize over some decisions.  I mean, I'm not ashamed to say I get a bit tied up in my characters.  That's what RPGs are all about, and I want to see a good story played out.  So how in the hell am I supposed to feel when the culmination of the game comes down to two choices, neither of which I believe fit my character.  I mean, I get it.  It sort of had to be cut down this way for the story to work.  You can't have a completely non-linear game if you still want to tell a story.  Bioware does a great job, but they're not God, and as far as I know it'd take a omnipotent deity to be able to truly make a non-linear game.  There's just no way you can account for free-will in game design.  There will always be the player that thinks outside the box.

In this case, here was my reasoning.  I thought my relationship with Morrigan was going well, as such things go.  I mean there was some drama and she has some issues, but really she was opening up.  It was like the start of any relationship, except with a couple thousand Darkspawn thrown in.  It's sort of like meeting a girl's family for the first time.  Darkspawn = In-laws, amirite guys?  (jk, my in-laws are actually really cool and fun people, but making a good impression when you have designs on the daughter is sort of hard, IMO.)

So if I have this relationship, why can't I talk with Morrigan and compromise with her.  She obviously feels strongly for me.  She even says how much she wants to save you.  She may be a complete selfish bitch, but my character would have at least tried to reason it out with her.  She may have understood.  He wouldn't just take her word as final after some awkward, fact-finding questions (Yes, I've told her to "get in the tent, woman" before.  That's the kind of guy I am.  What now?).  He's this incredible badass hero, and he's just going to let her walk away?  She loves him and she's just going to say "welp, it's been fun..."

I mean, I get it. Sequel.  You have to leave yourself room.  It's just that the decision just didn't feel right or complete to me.   It left me conflicted.  It made me "stuck".  Like I said above, that alone probably means "Mission Accomplished Bioware".  They got to me.  I just had to go look up the possible ramifications of my decision.  I had to know what the outcomes were.  I had to cheat because I just couldn't make the decision based on what was "closest" to my character and be satisfied with how it worked out.  I was emotionally conflicted about it.

To me, this highlights a fundamental problem with the non-linear game: You cannot account for all possible choices.  It's that simple.  There may be ways that, after 50 hours or whatever, I've played my character that would make sense to me, but aren't offered.  The fact that when the little choice dialog pops up and the choice that I really want isn't there... well, that irks me.  It frustrates me.  It sort of lessens my enjoyment to some extent.  After all, everything after that sort of has to have an asterisk like "I wouldn't have really chosen that exactly", so I've created a fundamental disconnect between the character in my head and the character that keeps going in the story.

This isn't going to a problem in Final Fantasy.  The story is "on rails".  There aren't any tough decisions (yet).  All the decisions revolve around what strategies and gear to use.  In that way, it's more traditional.  In that way, for me anyways, it's more fun.

Well, I even hesitate to say moreIt's not that one is more fun than the other, it's just different fun.  There are days when I just don't want to make one more damned decision.  Those days, FF is a welcome release.  I can sit back and kill stuff and enjoy the scenery.  It's still challenging, but not emotionally.  More a cerebral exercise.  Which leveling path do I take?  Which accessory or weapon do I upgrade?  What three characters should I use for a particularly tough fight?

There are no disconnects between what's on screen and what's in my head.  After all, the characters aren't mine, but I'm okay with that.  It's more like an interactive movie that way.  I still care about the characters, I just don't own them.  I think each approach has it's own merits. A good story telling doesn't require for you to dictate the characters.  I'm more than happy to be led through a story.  I mean, I love books and movies and that's what those do.  I also used to like the "choose your own adventure" books too, and that's essentially what Dragon Age is.

So, I guess, FF is like a traditional novel and DA is like a CYO novel, but they're both books.  And I like books in general, but it certainly depends on what sort of mood I'm in.  They can all get to me emotionally, but in different ways.  I can't say either is fundamentally better than the other because they're really different.  I guess I think something of that difference is lost in reviews and such.  Also, I think a lot of times the fact that a decision can be quite stressful is not taken into account.  I always seem to see more choices equated with "better", but I think sometimes that is just not the case.  The phrase "less is more" comes to mind.  Either way, I have a great amount of respect for what both companies are trying to do, and look forward to their future titles.

Now, time to start thinking about where I want to go to lunch today... ugh!  What?  It's a tough decision!


  1. Before I add to the conversation, let me correct you on an oversight.

    It seems you STARTED developing a relationship with Morrigan, but never saw it through to the end of her character arc.

    in one of my playthroughs, I romanced Morrigan. If you see it through to the end, sleeping with her, freeing her from her mother and all, she actually calls it off. Morrigan doesn't WANT to get attached to anyone, so when she sees you falling in love with each other, she breaks up with you. I believe you can choose not to end it, but she's done with you, regardless of whether or not you're still in love with her. So, the decision at the end of the game is still in fitting with her character and almost anyone's interactions with her.

    It just didn't happen to fit the way you played it. Again, BioWare is good, but they're not God. (Yet)

    I do have to give BioWare a great deal of credit with the way they chose to handle the decisions in DA:O. In many of their other games, you basically make ONE decision, good or bad, then the rest of your choices mostly follow with how you've already decided to handle your character. DA:O has no morality system, instead having your decisions effect the characters individually. It allows you to play your character however you want, interacting with people differently based upon how you want to act in each situation, without a point system to make you feel like you're going to miss out on something if you make the wrong choice. It's something I really would like to see more of. As much as I LOVE Mass Effect, I don't even have to think to make decisions for the most part, it's either Paragon or Renegade.

    Also, I'm glad you're one of the few people that seem to be able to make the distinction between the two vastly different types of storytelling in DA:O and FF. Too many people are giving the game an apples to oranges comparison, and it's just not fair to either.

  2. She tried to call it off with me, but from whatever I choose she just kept saying "well this is going to end poorly" and stopped, ya know, tenting up with me. It was sort of like the old "let's take a break" line, but it didn't seem to me like her feelings went away to me (this is probably where you're saying she's pulling the old: "It's not you it's me"). Rather, I attributed it to her being scared about her feelings and fundamentally unable to deal with them, something maybe cured by time and unwavering patience and support (oooh the classic romantic in me). Even after you agree with her, she starts calling you "love" too. What's up with that? Most of my exes don't call me "love".

    I hear what you're saying though and that's probably exactly how BioWare intended it and I'm making it far too complicated. Still, isn't that what good RP is all about, complication? :-)

    And like you said, Bdub is doing quite well developing their corner of the genre. They're definitely heading in a great and exciting direction.

  3. You know, I hated the choices I had to choose from with Morrigan's proposal too. I played a female (big surprise) and was totally engaged to Alistair.

    Morrigan wanted me to convince him to knock her up. None of the choices reflected "hell no beotch, stay away from my man."

    I was quite disappointed that at least ONE didn't have that feel to it. My NO was less about her and what she'd do with the baby than me not wanting her to sleep with my fiance.