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April 2020

Building character: The slow burn of Dragon Age II

Dragon Age II has the longest and most in-depth character creation system ever seen in a video game, clocking in at around 30 hours. After the initial, perfunctory decisions about lip colour and combat class, the game quickly allows players to craft their ideal fantasy protagonist over the course of several years. When they’re done shaping the soft clay of their unique Hawke into the Champion of Kirkwall they always wanted, the credits roll and the game is over; your quest is complete. Flawless efficiency.

In Origins, the first Dragon Age, BioWare created a universe that was brimming with possibility. Like many other big RPGs, it centered player choice and an ability to affect the world around you. The titular origins were important in setting up where the Grey Warden had been in their life, and what contacts they might already have, but there was a strong focus on the idea that the player had a very powerful role in shaping the destiny of fictional Ferelden. Player decisions were largely external, and also very large: save an entire race of people by risking the safety of another, kill mages to avoid them becoming a danger later, execute the ruler of a nation because you don’t like him very much. Dragon Age II instead opts for an inward-looking approach, where the outcome of events is de-emphasised in favour of putting the spotlight on how the main character reacts to narrative moments and the people around them. It’s less important what Hawke decided to do with the Qunari than how it shaped his or her view of the world.

This shift in priorities is reflected in the way dialogue functions in the game. Superficially, it’s similar to other Dragon Age titles, Mass Effect games and other modern RPGs: the player is given a choice of different responses, all of which either embody a particular emotional response or are purely informational. Diplomatic or helpful responses are friendly and non-confrontational, aggressive or direct responses are generally the opposite, and humorous or charming answers are for when Hawke wants to be sassy. What makes the system in Dragon Age II so interesting is that these responses will slowly warp the mind of the player’s Hawke, bending them further towards one of those three personalities. From the very first dialogue choice in the game, a system begins tallying a player’s responses and choosing a general tone for Hawke based on those choices. While early in the game, players might find themselves having to pick the sarcastic option themselves, late-game Hawke might offer a witty barb of their own accord.

This has a nominal effect on the overall flow of the narrative (the game will never take away any important choices) but makes a huge difference to the way the main character is perceived by the audience. Rather than being a simple mouthpiece for player choices, or a static face and class decision made in minute one, Hawke becomes a malleable character who is growing and changing as events unfold.

Altering the concept of an RPG to focus on the long-form creation of one character isn’t wholly done by mechanical means. Everything in the narrative of Dragon Age II is designed to support the idea that Hawke is the centre of this story. The game opens with a simple and oft-used framing device: the storyteller. Varric Tethras has been captured by the Seekers of Truth, and is being asked about the ‘Champion of Kirkwall’ by Cassandra. The Seeker wants to know how the Champion started a war between the mages and templars in the city, and Varric—being a bardic sort of chap—is going to tell her in the most roundabout way possible. This framing of the entire game as a story reinforces the mythic idea of a hero with a benevolent hand in matters far beyond their station. Behold the mighty champion, see how their decisions shape the world we live in. Except the reality of the story fails, on purpose, to bear that out; Hawke is no doubt an important figure in the city and present for many of the mad things which occur there, but Varric’s story frequently makes it clear that Hawke was often swept up in events beyond their control, and that tensions would have escalated regardless. By presenting the audience with the winking and unreliable narrator of Varric Tethras, it invites the player to question not just the events they witness but the role their ‘hero’ might even play in them.

So, if the story of Dragon Age II wants us to see that heroes aren’t always the most important part of a story, what does it want us to see. If you look at the companions in this game, compared with others in the series, there are some clear differences. Where in Origins and Inquisition, the main character is flanked by powerful, important and driven individuals, Hawke gathers a group of misfits, folks barely holding on to their place in the world. Fenris is a slave, consumed by revenge and despised by most; Merril is an elf cast out of her own clan thanks to her relentless pursuit of forbidden lore; Anders is a mage on the run from everyone. Through the story, the characters form a strong bond with Hawke and are drawn into the plot by that bond, rather than a menacing external threat, like The Blight, or a giant green hole in the sky. While not explicitly stated, it’s easy enough to extrapolate that if Hawke had not come to Kirkwall almost every one of her companions would have been killed by their respective obsessions or problems. With this reliance on the player character, the narrative further reinforces the idea that who Hawke is holds more importance than what they do.

And what does Hawke get out of all this peripheral heroism? What do they get as a reward for being the Champion of Kirkwall and offering snarky commentary as magic civil war breaks out? Nothing good. From the moment they arrive in the city, the Hawke family are forced to claw their way back into society, participating in organised crime and generally letting folks step all over their dignity. Where the Grey Warden Hero of Ferelden dies a martyr, or perhaps lives long enough to become a monarch beloved by all, and the Inquisitor becomes a similarly beloved hero, Hawke mainly deals with anger and death. Regardless of the player’s choices, one of Hawke’s siblings will always die in the first act of the game. The other either dies later, is forced into isolated servitude, or actively joins the enemy to the player’s cause. Hawke’s mother is kidnapped and cut into pieces, then reassembled like a terrifying maternal zombie.

Hawke provides the player with a sympathetic, broken canvas on which to paint a picture of what they think a champion looks like. With the narrative framed around the character instead of the events they participate in, and with the mechanical tools already in place to allow for shaping the way they behave, players can take an active role in deciding what kind of character they want to build. And, since the narrative is never structured to require heavy involvement from the protagonist, players can feel comfortable tweaking their personality and world view right up to the final scene. Rather than deciding how the character players envision might react, they can have a more loose idea of their behaviours, and be guided moment to moment, leading to a more collaborative and improvisational process, akin to creating a Dungeons & Dragons character.

So who is Hawke? More than most other RPG characters, Hawke is a hero shaped by whoever plays the game. She or he is the sum total of all the decisions made from moment one to the end of the epilogue. And they’re always changing, just like a real person.

Quick and the Dead: The lie of split-second choices

Asking questions that have no answers is part of being human, Markus. This article contains spoilers for Detroit: Become Human and Life is Strange. Click here to be taken back home.

A shot rings out, and you press X. Too slow, the bullet goes into your stomach. You fumble with the new dramatic camera angle and try to glean some small piece of information about the scene. Again, you were too slow. If only you’d looked a little further to the left, you might have seen the prompt to call for help. Anyway, you’re dead. Sorry. I trust you had an immersive time.

Detroit: Become Human, and many games like it, frequently asks you to make fast decisions to decide the fate of characters and situations. Sometimes the consequences are small, like an ally trusting you less in the future; sometimes they’re big, like death. These quick choices come in many forms—choosing between dialogue options, picking from two paths during a chase, mashing a button fast enough to open a door—and are supposed to simulate the speed of real choices, as well as the responsibility of owning them. But how well do they actually convey those ideas to the player? Does it ever really feel like you have a hand in the fates of these characters?

Let’s discuss Connor dying in Detroit’s news broadcast building, and Life is Strange’s Kate Marsh jumping off a ledge. These are both dramatic, permanent events which force in-the-moment decisions; both of them strip away some player agency to impress the urgency of the situation. Connor first, though. In many timelines he doesn’t die, but we’re only interested in his gruesome, preventable, frustrating death. While interrogating a set of androids, one of them manages to rip out Connor’s power supply and pin him to a table with a kitchen knife, which is rude. Getting out of this situation with your life requires the player to handle a shaky camera (already not Detroit’s strong suit in general) and press a specific sequence of buttons while a timer counts down. The camera difficulty is deliberate here, an attempt to replicate the physical stress and mental uncertainty of a traumatic injury. At this point in the game, regardless of your nuanced dialogue choices or investigative skills, Connor’s future rests on the player’s physical capabilities matching up with the control system’s operational ability.

In the following scene—if you’re still alive—Connor chases the android into a corridor and needs to make a three-way fast decision when the suspect grabs a gun. One of these choices kills you, with almost nothing by way of warning. Again, the game prioritises quick reactions over thoughts, reflex over considered decision-making.

Kate Marsh’s attempt to commit suicide on the roof of the school dormitory is no less stressful. Not only is a friend of main character Max driven to take her own life, but Max’s usual ability to turn back time is out of action, which means anything that happens in this scene is irreversible. Stuck on the roof, alone with Kate, the player must rely on their negotiation skills and the information they picked up about Kate so far. Much like the rest of the game, this scene plays out as a series of dialogue choices, and the wrong decision will lead to Kate leaping to her death. But for much of it there’s no literal timer, nothing hurrying the player along beyond their own desire to resolve the situation; and the mechanics of the scene are in-sync with the previous play experience. Everything you did up to this point has prepared you for the scene, so even though your powers are gone, you feel comfortable making the right call.

Detroit’s approach, while outwardly more realistic, ignores external factors like distractions, accidental button presses, and familiarity with the controls required. It also leaves players feeling unsatisfied because their fate is in the hands of a reflexive, physical action even if the focus of the narrative is normally testing your mental and emotional abilities. The story becomes “did I press the buttons in time” instead of “did i make the right choice.” In addition, a lack of contextual information leaves players unable to make an educated choice; without proper context, the likelihood of an unexpected outcome is high. The end result is players feeling cheated out of their planned path through the narrative, with no easy way to reverse the mistake.

Character death is something of a canary in the coal mine when it comes to this sort of decision problem, even in games otherwise lauded for choice. In The Witcher 3, players can encounter the sorceress Kiera Metz, and eventually come to a narrative point where she and Geralt disagree on a particular issue. Many players will be blindsided by a particular dialogue path, which ends unexpectedly when Kiera suddenly decides to fight Geralt to the death. Wow, we were having a lovely dinner naught but a few hours ago, you’ll think, as an angry blonde woman fires lightning into your chest. Assuming the player doesn’t let Geralt die, they’re forced to kill Kiera and left confused by the interaction. Again, the lack of context is what causes consternation, as there’s little indication before the battle that Kiera will react so poorly; with some digging and hindsight, one can glean the probable reasoning is her fear of being hunted by the mad king, but in the moment, when the decision is presented, players are walled off from the information but still expected to make the choice. It’s a scene which stands out by virtue of the rest of The Witcher 3 being so dedicated to providing narrative nuance.

Contrast these with Life is Strange, a game built with a narrative conceit that allows for choices to be reversed, pondered within a certain time frame. Max can rewind time, up to a few minutes, and (like the player) retains the information she gathered before the rewind. The player’s ability to act quickly is sometimes hinted toward but never becomes the focus of the decision, since players can decide to skip backwards if events fail to go their way. Serious situations are still possible, and they can definitely still end in failure, but they never rely on physical capabilities in a game that focuses on mental acuity. Players can retain the consequences but also take responsibility for their actions, given the appropriate context.

Designers of such fast choices would argue that forcing players to make snap judgements is a better simulation of making decisions in real life. You choose, and life goes on. No take backs just because the outcome causes discomfort. Except, of course, there are a thousand ways to take back a decision in real life, few of which are ever simulated in games. Maybe you say something rude, then apologise; maybe you drive down the wrong road, so you turn around; maybe you get into a fight and realise halfway through that you should back off. What a game like Life is Strange understands is that it’s better to emulate the idea of choice, because a simulation will fall short. You can’t go back and convince a character you didn’t mean what you said, but you can rewind time until it never happened. And just like in real life, even when everything is smoothed over, you still feel the sting of the mistake.

So, should Connor die? There’s no reason to make him immortal, and part of the allure of Quantic Dream et al’s games is choosing your path. The idea of heavy, consequence-laden decisions is perfect, conceptually, for the medium of games; indeed, you could argue that giving players choices and making them mean nothing is disingenuous at best, and poor design at worst. But for the death to be meaningful, for players to actually care about the outcome, and for them to take responsibility for how the story plays out, designers need to let go of the notion that a decision needs to directly reflect the real version of the same choice. Games consistently tweak the time and space of video game situations to present a particular view or provoke a certain emotional reaction. A fast decision doesn’t need to be fast, it just needs to feel fast. Picking a path should test the player in ways that are appropriate to the game’s mechanics and message, rather than be simple motor-skill and reflex challenges. Shocking twists at the hands of player choices don’t need to be spoiled ahead of time, it just needs to feel like the logical result of previous events.

Connor doesn’t die, of course, even if he does. Detroit: Become Human’s story does not function without the awkward detective Pinocchio, and, soon after his blue-bloodied corpse has been appropriately cried over, they dispense another copy from the Connor Factory. This is, perhaps, a tacit acknowledgement by the developers that such a heavy consequence can’t be entered into quite as quickly as the design requires. That maybe the game should treat the survival of the character as seriously as the script. And honestly, most players would probably be fine with a dead Connor, as long as it felt like it was their fault, and not because Connor refused to look left.

Getting to know the human animals of Animal Crossing

There’s an ugly frog living in my partner’s village. His name is Frobert, and he hasn’t done anything wrong, exactly, but she hates him a lot. It’s not been so long since Animal Crossing: New Horizons released, and already a lot of her playtime has been dedicated to making sure Frobert has the worst possible time on her island paradise. Hitting him with nets, refusing to speak to him for days, even reporting him to Resident Services for foul language and inappropriate clothing choices. Frobert has a weird face that makes everyone uncomfortable, and he has to go. Not long after the island settled, a mouse named Chaddar moved in; he is very literally made of cheese. His home is furnished with nothing but toilets and a hot tub. He brings nothing but further hate to the shores of the village.

Something about Animal Crossing villagers provokes strong emotional reactions in players. Superficially, they’re just strange looking anthropomorphic animals who spout limited variations of the same phrases as you walk back and forth breeding rare flowers; NPCs like any other, except perhaps even less than that, given that they don’t even have a particular informational purpose. But they are beloved, reviled, talked about as if they had real personalities, nurtured and punished in equal measure. People form genuine friendships with these bobbleheaded weirdos, some of them lasting decades, and work to predict—or even shape—their thoughts. Every morning I go and talk to Phoebe, the mean girl ostrich who lives near the beach, and every morning I’m hopeful this won’t be one of those times where she makes a passive aggressive comment about my shirt. Yes, Phoebe, that’s right, it’s a normal jumper, again. Oh, you think it’s impressive how well I can pull of basic styles? I should give you tips on how to look so basic?!

Why are Animal Crossing animals so interesting? Because they’re boring.

Boring in a very deliberate, very calculated way. Boring the way that your friends and family are, the way that all humans are boring. Villagers are written to be almost painfully normal, eschewing the standard video game writing style of packing non-player characters with as much quirky uniqueness as possible. Where the biographical information for the average NPC might be “traveled the world and searched for mysterious artifacts before returning to the search for his lost brother,” villagers tend to be summarised with something more like “enjoys lifting weights and fishing in the rain.”

The key to writing Animal Crossing villagers is keeping them mundane and, in a traditional video game sense, useless. Sometimes a villager will give you information about an upcoming event or something happening elsewhere in town, sometimes they give you gifts or ask you to do them a favour, but most of the time they will simply talk to you about their day. A cat wants you to know they don’t like the other cat villager, the local elephant got a new shirt and she thinks it’s absolutely delightful, a monkey you don’t like very much keeps talking about the way bugs whisper to him while he sleeps. None of this is actionable information, nor does it push forward the state of your village, but it makes them relatable. Crucially, it also avoids reducing the villagers to tools or markers on an objective board; without the distractions of guaranteed extrinsic reward, the intrinsic value of experiencing their personalities and interactions can take on greater importance.

Take my friend Ken, for example. Ken is a chicken who likes to wear karate gear, he enjoys crafting things at his crafting bench at weird hours and he is excited about absolutely everything, he knows a lot of foreign words but not what they mean or the language they came from. Ken told me that because I was talking to him so much that day I must have paid for “Ken Unlimited” and he assured me that it was silly to care why eggs came out of rocks because magic is just like that sometimes. Ken is a fantastic, well-rounded individual who brightens my day, and he has never contributed anything of any tangible value to the mechanical experience of playing Animal Crossing. It’s because Ken isn’t just a chicken, he’s a human chicken, with very human thoughts.

Player experience of these villagers is also impacted by the passage of time. Animal Crossing very purposely doles out animal dialogue sparingly; each chat with a villager will be a handful of lines at most, and sometimes they will just tell you it’s a nice day. Speaking to the same villager repeatedly without a break will frustrate them to the point where they refuse to interact. The only way to reliably experience more of what a given NPC has to offer in Animal Crossing is to just live in the village and chat to them regularly, the same way you might learn about a neighbour or new friend. This also lets Animal Crossing simulate some of the anxiety and disappointment of a first impression, as maybe that villager who seemed cool when you met them is actually kind of terrible in the long run and never puts away the mayonnaise even though you’ve asked several times isn’t that right, RICHARD?

The aforementioned Phoebe, whose days on my island are numbered, introduced herself as a perky and cool adventure woman, and in the coming weeks has revealed her actual personality to be more like the evil female protagonist from a high school comedy. In Animal Crossing, as in life, sometimes you have to live with your mistakes.

Animal Crossing games are built on the idea of time—night and day cycles, weather, seasonal events, store opening hours—but in a broader sense, all games operate based on timescales. The fact that it takes actual, real-world time to interact with video games and make progress inside them separates the medium from other forms of entertainment. While it takes time to read a book or watch a film, the chronological journey rarely factors in. Animal Crossing villagers present an idea that really should be carried on through other games: that the experience of interacting with an NPC doesn’t have to just be about the information they can give to a player, that it can be structured so the time spent with the character is a meaningful tool in telling their story in and of itself.

You can see this displayed in other games, in different forms. Dragon Age shoulders you with party members that slowly warm up and reveal more of themselves as the game progresses. Part of this is mechanical, allowing the player to feel rewarded for improving their relationships; but part of it is also the satisfaction of the relationship itself, a decent mirror for getting to know someone in real life. Someone who spills their whole life story on a first or second meeting hasn’t given you any reason to care about what’s spilling out. In Left 4 Dead, characters randomly chat amongst themselves, revealing bits and pieces about their backstories and personalities that only form a full picture once you’ve spent enough time with the game. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is linear and action-focused, but presents the audience with two characters whose relationship only makes sense and contains meaning because it developed over the course of everything else the player was doing.

Animal Crossing villagers endure because of their relatable mundanity. They’re nothing special, which makes them just the kind of special that works inside a video game. By keeping chats short and grounded, the game forces you to meet them as people, rather than entertainment. Any given session of Animal Crossing is peppered with moments where you seek out a villager to talk to, just to see what they might say. Knowing it won’t be important, and wanting to engage regardless.

There’s a lesson in this for game developers across any genre attempting to tell a story. We hear all the time that games should avoid trying to ape films or other entertainment mediums, without much talk about what that might mean. One way creators can seek to improve their storytelling—and, by extension, their games as a whole—is to embrace this idea that what makes an engaging character in the long term isn’t how many strange personality quirks they have, or how tragic their backstory is, or even how much they matter. It comes down to their value to the player over time, rather than their position as part of a story, and how keen a player is to invest that time.

When I switch on my copy of Animal Crossing later today, Jakey—an excitable bird—will most likely be reading books to my flowers. It doesn’t matter why, that’s just something I know about him. I hope he has a good time.