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The Games Of Christmas: December 24th

My dwarf is in big trouble!

And so our journey comes to an end. It’s the eve of the day on which we celebrate the infinity of Horace the Endless Bear, and so we must also celebrate the final game of our seasonally festive advent-o-calendar. What could it possibly be? Could it have anything to do with beards? Let us allow the arm of the one true leader of the Autobots to guide us one final time. Take it away, Optimus…

Dragon Age!

Kieron: I’m the first one to write my notes on this one, and I suspect the tone’s going to be slightly less euphoric than our previous two games of the year. Portal in 2007 and World of Goo in 2008 united us totally. We all played each to completion and adored each one unreservedly. It’s also worth noting that both of those were two of the shortest games of the period, singular statements, easily absorbed and agreed with. Dragon Age is about the furthest thing away from that. In fact, if you add together the total time of the three games and then divided by three, you’re going to end up with far more than the average time of a game. Dragon Age is an enormous game. As such, your own route through iy – your own priorities, choices and tactics – are going to alter it enormously. How can we agree about the game entirely? It was a functionally different game for all of us.

It’s made more so because I also doubt any of us, other than John have, completed it. You release an 80-hour monster towards Christmas and other things are going to get in the way of actually playing it. We all probably played different intros – well, I like, as Jim and I both played the Dwarf one – and we all did the different quarter of the game first, and probably a different one second. Alec did the Elves, I think. I never got to the elves or the dwarves and only a bit of the main city, instead playing the DLC, the tower of magic and the keep and… Christ! I put 35 hours into the thing, and enjoyed the great portion of it. It’s generally well written. Its world-building, while not as radical as you’d have hoped, is a strong riff off standard genre-conceits. Bits really made me grasp they weren’t fucking around – I believe I tweeted THE GREY WARDENZ! THEY IZ MENTALZ! at a certain point near the end of the prologue. In Alistair Bioware pulled off their best attempted at a male romantic lead, good without-out being entirely punchable (though, like many others, I wished I could have set him up with Morrigan – the fact they wanted to explore each other’s high-level instances couldn’t have been more obvious if they started pulling each others’ pony-tails). Shale was a fine playful companion. And…

Basically, Dragon Age was extremely strong genre work. Part of me suspects we’ll never see its like again, and the passing it may signify is probably enough for me to choose it at the game of the year. Hell, even those who cry “Witcher” at this point will have to accept that’s a game which crams you into Geralt’s seedy codpiece. With the multiple dancing intros and character-related paths, it doesn’t compare. It’s simply a different thing.

That’s the thing which probably more endears Dragon Age to me. Despite the months of fretting before its release, it was a full on PC game. I suspect the last thing anyone would have expected before release that the most common complaint after playing it would be “The Battles Are Too Hard”. It’s as a combat-RPG that Dragon Age appeals to me most, in many ways – though I do wish that they’d have tried to work out a non-healing-based system.

One of my fonder memories of Dragon Age is actually related to that, if in a meta-way. I took great joy in mocking John about him having to tone down the difficulty, knowing that he actually was often playing an earlier build with even higher peaks. He took great pleasure in noting that at certain points, I totally would have to do so. All his other friends had, and I would too. Clearly, I didn’t. A handful of encounters required a proper hard think about how to deal with it, but I persisted and got through. Until I hit a battle with a trio of Drakes in the early morning, which hammered me five times in a row. I stopped playing, knowing it was late and I had a few drinks, and I’d work out a way to deal with those micro-dragon fuckers when I returned in the morning.

I didn’t return in the morning, the knowledge I actually had a serious problem awaiting me putting me off. In fact, with the Christmas season approaching, it’s been enough to keep me away ever since.

But one day – and one day soon – I’ll be back. And those Dragons are going to be three fucking scaly rugs.

John: There’s no question in my mind about a game of the year for 2009. For me it’s a lot harder to pick a second place. But Dragon Age stands alone in first, unchallenged. It is an absolutely extraordinary game. It is one of the extraordinary games.

So yes, I’m the story eater. My number one desire from gaming is to experience a story. In Dragon Age I experienced so very many. I have come away with a hundred anecdotes, tales of adventures that are unique to how I approached them, and unique to my race and background. My understanding of the Dwarven city of Orzammar is that of an outsider looking in. Play a Dwarf and it’s home, the obscurities and caste structure something your character was born with. And neither of us understands what it is to be a subjugated Elf.

I’ve taught myself three words in order to be able to express the game to myself and others. Acculturation, enculturation, and inculturation. (I link to their definitions because I’d no idea what they meant three months ago.) These are the three key themes of the game. When I reviewed it for PC Gamer a few months back I’d only learned the first of these. But since I’ve realised it’s often more complex than the exchange of culture. That makes up much of the game – your choices as a character can be defined by the culture you’re from, and in turn the cultures you experience, explore, and learn from. And the impact you make on those cultures is a part of this exchange, rather than gaming’s more familiar “Hello, I’m here to fix everything for you, simple locals!” But I’ve realised since that occasionally it was a matter of being enculturated by my surroundings, and reacting only to that. My background was so irrelevant that to base decisions upon it would only be inappropriate. Then even later still I’ve been considering the inculturation, and the impact the three conflicting religions had on the story. Redeeming features of the Chant seemed to be lost in a manner not accidentally similar to the Roman adoption of Christianity.

I didn’t give these thoughts to any other game this year. As it happens.

I think Dragon Age takes large battles as big as they can get without tipping over into RTS territory. The limitation of having a party of four, and therefore being sensibly limited to able to take on enemy groups no larger the twelve, keeps the scale necessarily small. The clever technique used at the end of the game (not a spoiler, don’t worry) where it lets you fight much larger armies by drastically reducing their hit points certainly makes you feel more powerful right when you need to. But a whole game like that would lack tactics and grace. That achieves a feeling of a final epic battle, but it would make for a woolly RPG throughout. Where can RPG battles go next?

I think Dragon Age takes the volume of tasks and quests as far as is reasonable without the game losing direction or focus. There’s just so much to do, and brilliantly you do almost all of it without taking ridiculous detours from your planned route. You’re heading most places anyway, so why not fight that group, locate that missing item, or talk to that person about that thing when you get there? There’s possibly room to criticise it for having you complete somewhat trivial tasks in light of the impending Blight, but in my first play through that criticism never applied. I was going to the Mage’s tower anyway to recruit them for the war, so why not ask about the Dwarf’s application when I’m there? And thanks to the three act set up of the game, the sense of escalation of immediacy works anyway. What more could be added to an RPG?

I think the trouble with being the best example of your genre in many years is you also highlight the boundaries of your genre. Dragon Age reveals the limitations of the RPG in its current form. It’s getting too big for the box it’s kept it, and the cracks start to show. A new box is going to be needed to take things to the next level.

Where I think there is room for improvement, however, is in the relationships with the companions. And wow, is that a slightly unfair comment, since Dragon Age does it better than any game before. But it still doesn’t get it quite right. I was able to use up all my conversation options with Alistair way too early in the game, maybe just over halfway. So for the rest of the game any attempt to talk with him was met with that most annoying of situations:

“Hello Alistair, let’s talk.”
“Okay, what would you like to talk about?”
“So, we should get going.”

First of all, never let that be something that even can happen. Secondly, force conversation possibilities to get held back until various milestones, so the next time I try to chat there’s likely something left to say. It’s such a clattering frame-breaker, and surely simple to prevent. If there’s anywhere the NPCs lose their human skin disguises and reveal the robot programming underneath, it’s in those campfire chats. They’re close, but they’re still missing something.

I should probably take this opportunity to quickly comment about the difficulty too, since Kieron brings it up. I know for a fact that some of the most ludicrously difficult battles were patched into something sensible on day 1, meaning no one faced the troubles I experienced reviewing it beforehand. Especially that damned Brood Mother. But I also know that many who’ve talked to me as they’ve played it since have still been forced to sneak down to Easy here and there. Kieron may not, because he is a Giant Man with Enormous Testicles. Although I’ve recently started replaying it, and while it’s rewardingly tough on Normal, so far I’ve stayed on Normal.

So yes. Game of the year, unquestionably. I keep promising myself I’ll catch up on all sorts of games this Christmas break. But it’s already obvious I’m lying to myself and others and it’s going to be Dragon Age again. And I don’t play games twice. Not without waiting at least a few years. But this one – I get the feeling it’s not going to be like playing the same game this time. New race, new class, new background, new motives, new religion, new allies, new reason for fighting the Blight. I’m going to find out what it’s like to be that subjugated Elf.

Alec: Yeah, not the most comfortable I’ve ever been with calling something a Game Of The Year, I have to say. For me, it wears that crown purely because nothing else hit quite as many pressure points quite as effectively, not because it was born to it. But maybe I’m missing something. Reading John’s comments about cultures and faiths above, I shake my head ruefully. I saw, or at least interpreted, very little of that: but then, I’m not as insightful in such matters as he. But at least I didn’t play the game on easy.

In fact, I was actively annoyed that my supposedly subjugated Elven background (a mage rather than a humble foresty type, granted) only offered me a very occasional extra dialogue choice, rather than the grand shift in treatment and perception that I was told it’d supposed to be. I wanted to play an outsider character, but instead I was simply The Hero, albeit with an option to say “don’t be racist” to the occasional NPC. But I appreciate Bioware starting to make class choice mean something, of making my Elfishness more than a skin texture and ear shape. They’re beginning to step outside of their long-standing comfort zone, and while DA is a Bioware game through and through, it’s their most progressive and bold in a long while.

But let me go back to the concept of “a Bioware game”, a double-edged sword if ever there was one. They’re almost a genre unto themselves, one from which we expect well-written but templated NPCs, great breadth of decisions but with consequences too brief to have real depth. Dragon Age both adheres and slightly steps away from Bioware’s stereotypes – but hanging onto them is absolutely the right thing to do.

Name another PC game this year in which you can recall the names of over half a dozen different characters, and what’s more describe their characters, their natures without resorting to rote summaries of their roles. Not “human paladin” or “shape-changing sexy witch” – instead, ‘heartbroken orphan of shattered faith who masks his hurt behind quips’ and ‘lonely, over-defensive outsider with a really annoying voice actor.”

That’s what Bioware games do – they give us characters, fascinating, memorable characters. Ones we’ll recall years later, in boring pub conversations about The Good Old Days with other aged gamers. Even the annoying characters stick: I couldn’t stand Morrigan, but I have such a clear image of her and her personality burned into my mind. Hell, I’m not ever going to forget KOTOR’s Carth either, even though I wanted to kill the useless drip on first sight. Dragon Age is no slouch in that regard – it’s given me more characters to remember, love and loathe than any other game this year. No-one else seems able to do that.

And Shale, too. Glorious Shale. Ah, ‘It’ and Alistair are the game’s most vital voices, breaking through the game’s po-faced skin, adding much-needed levity to its grim world. Darkness means much more when you’ve got lightness to contrast it with. It’s easy to create a relentlessly gritty world and story – that’s why we end up with the narratively peurile likes of Halo and Gears of War, even Fallout 3. To balance bleakness with humour and naturally- rather than purely thematically-likeable characters – that’s hard work. Dragon Age makes it look easy.

Jim: And there doesn’t seem to be much else that can be said about Dragon Age. My feeling when playing it was, I suppose, one of relief. Bioware hadn’t deviated too far from their now-familiar template, but nor had they failed to create something dashing and bold. After months of doubt we got to see that the game was an impressive revision and restatement of typical fantasy ideals, with superb quests, interesting antagonists, and brutal combat. More importantly, it was a game that absorbed me, almost from the first moments. It was with relief that I set aside work and chores to sink hours into its quests and dungeons. Sometimes that’s what I have to ask of games: that they sweep me up and drag me off into unmitigated escapism – and I’m okay with pouring time into their problems and complexities. That’s something that RPGs to best – because there’s more to think about in the set of challenges and ideas they present us with. They take up more brain time, and sometimes that’s what we’re looking for.

I was glad that it was challenging as a fighting game, even on normal. I feel like the past few years have been a steady forgetting that gamers can put up with extraordinary difficulty and complexity, if the rewards of actually playing the game are enough. The means are the ends, in that sense, and increasingly simplistic lightshows, with “accessibility” being the watchword, don’t always satisfy the need that gaming is intended to service. We want games to be rough and tumble, and 2009 has been a good year for that.

I am now wondering whether Dragon Age’s greatest achievement was to break down my cynicism and engagement me more than any other game this year, despite not really being my usual cup of gaming. Looking back at my obsessions from the decade – Quake III, Half-Life 2, Eve Online, Stalker – fantasy RPGs don’t really factor in, although I do play them on an irregular basis. That means that Dragon Age has either done something really special, or I am finally getting into that old man age bracket that some readers (rightly) accuse us of servicing. It could well be the latter Oh well, here’s to getting on, and getting a beard on.

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