Thursday, July 11, 2013

1,500 Words About Sorytelling: Dragon Age and Skyrim

I keep saying, "I'm so engaged with Dragon Age!  Writing!  Plot!  Dialog!  Story!"  And the thing is, when I try to examine the story itself, saving the world from a mindless hoard in Dragon Age, versus saving the world from a smart, evil, dragon in Skyrim, I prefer the latter. Even better than the main plot, Skyrim's civil war is interesting, with characters that you don't like but make good arguments.  So why haven't I done any cheering for the storytelling in Skryim?

Some of the differences, I think, are due to what I've brought to the games, and some of them are things I think the games cultivate:

Differences that I bring:
1.  I moved the XBox up to the living room while I was playing, so instead of being by myself in the basement, I've been playing with someone.  When I was playing Skyrim, a plot point had to be 1) understandable with a minimal explanation, and 2) really squee-worthy.  Enough to run upstairs and tell someone.  With Dragon Age, I might just look over and say, "hey that was kinda neat," without it being UTTERLY AMAZING.  A lot of what has been good with Dragon Age has been that kind of small moment, and when I can have a conversation about those moments then I engage with them more.

2.  I spend a lot of time thinking about and talking about and analyzing romantic (and proto-romantic) relationships.  It's kind of what I do.  At the moment, I don't have relationships of my own to spend brain power on, and I've been feeling, more than usual, that I wish I had one.  I would probably still have nursed a crush on Alistair, even if there were real crushes in my life, but it would have been diluted, I think, by the presence of squee-moments IRL.  The only squeeing I've been doing lately has been at my TV screen.  I'm putting this under "my stuff" because, while I'm sure that Bioware intentionally wrote Alistair to be appealing, my level of squee is very much affected by my current situation.
What Dragon Age (and most other Bioware games) brings is plot structure and party dynamics.

If I were to write a story that I knew might be read in any order, not just chapters out of order, but pages or paragraphs, it would severely limit my storytelling ability.  I can write something that captures a feeling, that has reoccurring themes and characters, but narrative arc is completely out of my control.  I can't craft the pace or timing, I can't determine whether the saddest moments happen at the beginning or end.  In order to control those things, I need to control the order in which things happen.  In a sandbox style game, like Skyrim, there is enormous freedom for the player to decide what to do and when, and this means that there is little that the game designer can do to direct the narrative.

Skyrim is made up of a main quest line (defeat the Evil Dragon), and many, many, side quests of varying importance.  There is a civil war between Skyrim and the Empire.  There are several organizations, which have extensive quest lines to rise to the top of the organization.  Each province has a series of quests to become a Thane of the province.  And then, everywhere Jenny goes, there are dozens of people with things they'd like her to do for them.  It might be delivering a letter, or killing a giant, or rescuing a brother.  It might have several parts, with dungeons and dialog to navigate, or just be a matter of walking across town.  These quests are never-ending.  (I'm pretty sure that's literal.  I think the game is designed to always have a giant or a bandit somewhere that needs killing.)

In Skyrim, Jenny can skip around back and forth between quest lines, or just spend hours grinding up levels or gold.  She can rise half-way through the Thieve's Guild, then advance the main quest a little bit, then spend a day or two running errands, then go back to the Thieve's Guild.  Etc.  Each quest line has a dictated order, but the sheer number of them, and the ease that Jenny can skip between them, make it much easier to lose the narrative, or just not care at all.  The main quest is almost optional.  (The last time I played the previous Elder Scrolls game, I decided to actually ignore the main quest entirely, and just play the guild plot lines as if they were main story.)

This is not a criticism of Skyrim.  I like the freedom.  I like the playability.  I like that I can beat the game and keep playing and getting better and finding new goals to set for myself.  There is always something new to accomplish.  But it comes at the expense of narrative.  Sometimes I stop a quest half-way because the next dungeon is hard, and I'll grind for a day or two, and then pick up a few easier quests, and then get distracted by something else, and by the time I get back to what I was doing, I've pretty much forgotten what it was.

In contrast, Dragon Age, like all Bioware games, is structured as a kind of linear/sandbox hybrid.  The game begins with one or two quests that must be done in a linear fashion, then opens up with three or four quests that can be done in any order.  When all of those are complete, then the endgame is linear again.  When the endgame is finished, the game is done.  Time for DLC or the next installment.  And while there are side quests to complete, most of them are the "pick up something while you're over there anyway," or the "find the hidden chest in the dungeon you're already exploring" variety, and there just aren't that many of them.  There aren't any sub-main, but important, quests.  Enemies and resources don't respawn, so there is almost no grinding to be done.  There are no guilds to advance in, and the civil war is actually part of the main plot.

What this does is take away a lot of elements that might distract from a linear narrative.  And so, even though there are giant flaws in that narrative (why do we have time to traipse all over Ferelden several times over to gather allies but we don't have time to wait a few weeks for reinforcements that are already on their way?), I stayed a lot more focused on that story.

And when the story stops progressing in a linear fashion, because the quests in the body of the game can be done in any order, then there are the romantic relationships to work on.  Especially if the romantic relationship is with Morrigan or Alistair, because those romantic relationships are actually relevant to the main plot.  So there is still something that might change with each completed quest, even if the main story doesn't progress, because more experience might mean new dialog options.

And that's the other big thing.  Jenny has people.  People she gets to know and care about, who she depends on to get through the game.  In Skyrim, Jenny can get married, or travel with a friend or hired mercenary.  But companions in Skyrim are not usually very helpful.  They don't have stories or dialog or personalities, and Jenny can ditch them at any time.  They're not her people.  They don't matter.

In Dragon Age, companions matter.  Mage Jenny depends on having Alistair to draw opponents away from her, and Teryna Jenny depends on Morrigan freezing enemies so she can backstab them.  And companions have differences besides abilities in battle.  They have stories to discover, and likes and dislikes.  There are game advantages to having party members like Jenny- they gain perks due to her "leadership."  And they talk!  To Jenny, to each other, they're constantly demonstrating that they have thoughts and feelings.  The random backchatter that happens while exploring is one of the best parts of the game.  You learn party member's personal histories when we have conversations in camp, but you learn their personality just by walking around with them and listening to them interact with each other.

Morrigan has almost nothing to say about Alistair in camp.  But she spends the first half of the game taunting him whenever she can.  And her dialog with Sten!  They are my OTP.  I'm sure there's some kind of spell she can cast to survive the experience.  I am fond of them, as characters, in a way that I have never been fond of anyone in Skyrim.  Even without the fake-boyfriend element, I enjoy hearing what they have to say, and much like a long-running TV show, I start to feel as if I am sharing their lives.

And that's the thing that makes stories work for me.  I never really care as much about the battles as I do the dialog, in books or TV or anything else.  I care about relationships.  World events matter to me in that they affect people's lives on an individual level.  And so, despite a seriously un-thought-out bad guy (darkspawn use tools that require training and study, armor that needs to be crafted and repaired, and spells that require a connection to the world of dreams, and yet I'm supposed to believe that they are mindless and incapable of language, organization, or complex thought), I have a game I connect with.

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