Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dragon Age and Baldur’s Gate

Here is the primary difference between the Baldur’s Gate series and the Dragon Age series:

Most people quit Baldur’s Gate after 20 minutes, when they are killed by wolves after walking out the front gate. Baldur’s Gate used the full range of game mechanics to build a world, and that included making your first death nearly inevitable as a learning experience. The people who quit Dragon Age did so because the prologue never ends.

Here’s why that primary difference is so important to Baldur’s Gate: after bandying about in the world for a significant period of time, growing stronger and gaining party members,  you might encounter some of the wolves who gave you Death #1 (or Near-Death #1)--and you beat the shit out of them in seconds. They're not a threat anymore. Your growth is clear and evident. Is the conquering-what-once-conquered-you method primitive in terms of emotional engagement? Sure! It's a method using the narrative of games; “you died, try again” (aka losing) is the most familiar element of a game, and Baldur’s Gate is sure to teach you this lesson early. Is this mechanic user-friendly? Not as implemented, although low-level D&D is a crapshoot to begin with, but it's certainly possible to make death less frustrating through judicious use of auto-saves, fast reload times, and/or a "rewind" function  (god bless the PSP’s Tactics Ogre for this function, by the way).

Baldur's Gate used game mechanics to 1) show you the world is a big, unfriendly place and 2) make you feel powerful after a long progression of incremental progress. Furthermore, an important part of Baldur's Gate’s expansive  and hostile world is the constant reminder of being underpowered - nothing’s more demoralizing than stumbling on a Lich’s tomb and getting wiped out after a single Time Stop spell - but once you’re more powerful, you can return and wipe the Lich out and claim his useful stash of weapons and spells. It's an emotional roller coaster, which keeps you engaged in short bursts across the sixty hours it takes to complete the game.

It's also reflected within the central conflict of the plot, which is (GENTLE REMINDER THAT SPOILERS FOR A TEN-YEAR-OLD GAME ARE INCOMING. I HOPE THIS DOESN'T OFFEND YOUR DELICATE SENSIBILITIES) the revelation that the player character is one of the offspring of Baal, a God of Murder And Stuff. Which grants a shitload of Power, which the sequel’s Big Bad, Jon Irenicus,  wants to corner the market on (specifically, the Murder Market, and specifically by utilizing the act of Murder, multiple times, until no competitors are left). The PC hunts down other Baalspawn, and later Jon, across multiple realms while struggling to control/go completely fucking bonkers with his own infusion of Power. So yeah, it's a D&D plot, not exactly subtle, with the expected levels of thematic density (none) and emotional resonance (marginal), and yet, the theme of "power" is constantly reinforced by both the plot and the game’s mechanics.

With Dragon Age 2, as you progress from poor disenfranchised slug to Champion of the City and engage in an open three-way power struggle with the SeriouslyRealChristianity church and the We’reNotTerroristsWe’reModerateMagicians mages, your enemies are--from the beginning of the game until the end--the same mix of ogres, darkspawn, and human/quasi-human beings. Who look exactly identical. And take nearly the same amount of time to kill.

I would love to say that Dragon Age 2's plots are about the Futility of War, but unfortunately while DA2 is a bold move away from The Bioware Plot, it is Not A Plot. It's a series of vignettes that tie in with each other, but not necessarily with the player's emotional state while playing the game or with the combat mechanics (i.e., using magic in front of Templars has no in-game consequences, compared to BG 2 where the use of magic in-city got you Effed Up right quick). Progression means something that gets you the next cutscene, not something that makes you feel like you’re systematically mastering combat.

I think it says a lot that DA2’s only skill check comes in the form of locked chests, whose contents are hilariously worthless--because giving powerful items to the small subset of players who can pass the skill check might mean the game isn't balanced! You might become too efficient at killing ogres and darkspawn, and the facade would crumble.

TL;DR: In Baldur's Gate, when you first encounter wolves, they will kill you and you will have to reload from a save that you almost certainly didn't make. When you see wolves later, you kill them mega-fast and feel great. In Dragon Age 2, when you first encounter an ogre, it kills your sibling in a cut-scene and then you kill it. When you see ogres half a dozen times later, it takes the same exact amount of time to kill it--every time.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Persona 3 Portable

Shin Megami Tensai: Persona3 Portable (!) is actually two games. As part of the Shin Megami Tensai series, it’s a dungeon crawler populated with demons from a wide range of cultures who can be recruited to fight, breed, and hand over powerful spells and items used in the turn-based combat system. As part of the Persona sub-series, dungeons are a small part of an otherwise normal world populated with characters you can befriend, date, or leave for dead - but there is only so much time, and too many possibilities. Unlike many other RPGs, Persona makes you pick and choose what you want to spend your time on. Your social life enhances demons of a certain alignment (represented by the tarot’s Major Arcana), and capturing demons of a certain Arcana in turn makes it easier to connect with friends of the corresponding alignment.

The interplay between these two games is compelling. New dungeons open up once every 30 days, but going into the dungeon gives you less time to spend with your friends. Scarcity of time means your time has great value – picking one person to hang out with means forsaking dungeon time, study time, and other friendships. By the end of the game you can easily max out about half of the total friendships, but each friendship is one you’ve chosen for any number of reasons – maybe they are genuinely interesting, or attractive. Maybe they correspond to an arcana you use frequently in dungeons. Sometimes, it’s because you don’t have anything else to do – it’s either hang out with a six-year-old girl or head to bed early.

Another tension that arises is emphasized from the very beginning – when you enter your dorm to find a girl with a gun pressed against her head, you know you’re into some freaky shit. See, the dungeon lives outside the normal time/space continuum – in the Dark Hour, a witching hour squished somewhere within the stroke of midnight. Consequently, not many people know the school becomes a magic tower of demons every night – the “normal” world containing your school and your friends is almost entirely mundane, save for the mysterious, mildly concerning “apathy syndrome” secretly linked to the appearance of the dungeon. You therefore lead a double life: one involving school trips and vacations, and one in which you court demons and explore dungeons.

The plot does a great job of exploiting these mechanics to give meaning. The majority of the game is about establishing the balance between school, friends, and slaying demons – between the dangerous and the mundane. After you solve the mystery of the dungeon and banish it along with the Dark Hour, however, the game doesn’t end. You keep living your life, but instead of a city full of activities, there is nothing left for you. The shops serve no purpose anymore. Your friends are too busy for you. School is over, so there is nothing to study for. You can search in vain, but time only passes when you take an action, and there are no actions left to take save heading to bed. And the next day, the same. And on the last day, resigned to a life without monster hunting or chance encounters, empty of all actions to consume your time, you fall asleep on the roof while waiting for your friends. They aren’t coming to make you more efficient, to give you better stats, to make your strategies more effective – they come because you are their friend too, but in a world without monsters to conquer, the player has no more role to play – and the game ends.