Archive for the ‘Immersion’ Category

Dragon Age 2
There are a severe shortage of good dialog system screenshots on the web that aren’t photoshopped mockeries by angry fans.

BioWare has been trying to add interesting player choices into their RPGs for a long time, and each game they release has a new refinement on their systems. They’ve increasingly streamlined alignment in the Mass Effect series, and the Dragon Age games have abandoned it entirely in favor of your companions developing personal opinions about your hero. Dragon Age II breaks from its predecessor by implementing a Mass Effect-style dialog wheel and full voice acting for the main character. This doesn’t fundamentally change the mechanics of how its dialog work — but even so, it has angered a lot of players.

Dragon Age II’s New Dialog System

Dragon Age II stars a main character named Hawke, fully voice acted, and it keeps track of your dialog choices on Hawke’s behalf in two ways. The most visible way is that your companions gain friendship or rivalry points depending on how they approve. Different party members react differently to the same situation, so you may have difficulty pleasing both the magic-hating Fenris and the radical mage Anders at the same time. Maximizing either scale gains you bonuses to that party member’s abilities, and developing rivalry with them won’t, in and of itself, make them leave. There are gameplay and plot ramifications of your party members’ feelings.

The second way Dragon Age II tracks your dialog choices is by an invisible metric that assesses your main character’s personality over time. There are three personality types: Diplomatic, Aggressive, and Humorous. The personality type currently considered dominant in the game colors various involuntary dialog reactions the main character makes, and determines the kinds of comments your character makes in combat. A humorous character may initiate a sensitive conversation in a cut-scene with a joke to lighten the mood, while a diplomatic character will avoid implying any hostile assumptions, and an aggressive character gets right to the point. The combat voice overs work similarly, with different clips available based on the personality the player established for Hawke. The second effect this personality type has is that it unlocks different responses in some conversations. Sometimes a diplomatic solution to a particularly difficult situation isn’t available to habitually aggressive characters. This is rare, barely communicated, and the fact that all personality types get these bonuses at different times helps to avoid any incentive to power-game.

Dialog options in Dragon Age II are provided using a dialog wheel, adapted from Mass Effect. As in Mass Effect, you select a thought, and the character says something along those lines, but never exactly what you chose. Unlike Mass Effect, the dialog options aren’t just implicitly ordered based on their position in the wheel, they’re also given an associated icon. The icons communicate to the player what the tone of the chosen thought is. For example, a laurel represents a diplomatic response, and a gemstone represents a charming reply. These icons are color-coded according to what personality type they align with. A few icons are special, like crossed swords to represent cutting the conversation off to kill the person you’re talking to or initiate combat, and diverging arrows to represent a substantive choice with more serious ramifications than just picking how the character delivers the line. Overall, the system is pretty intuitive.

…And Those That Hate It

Early reviews tend to like the direction BioWare has taken the dialog, but some players deplore it. I’ve seen many frustrated players complain that the dialog in the game is dumbed down, simplified, bad. Most concerning to me from a design perspective is that a huge proportion of players see the dialog options as “good/evil/funny”. They get that the middle option is meant to be humorous, but they don’t get that the top and bottom aren’t good and evil. Part of this stems from the fact that we like nice people more than aggressive people, and good people are traditionally shown as nice and trying to find a peaceful solution to everything. However, the “evil” choices aren’t evil, they’re mostly just angry, which is a time-honored response to slavery and blood magic. Then, in Dragon Age 2, when you get to substantive moral choices, they pull out the diplomatic/aggressive/humorous choices entirely and assign everything the same diverging arrows icon. Your choices about what to do, who to side with, who to kill and who to let live, these have no impact on your personality and don’t use the personality icons.

Despite all this, some players think that their dialog choices are boiled down to essentially choosing a character class, picking from a trinary good/evil/doofus choice, and executing on that strategy through the whole game. This is how games with bad alignment systems do it, like Knights of the Old Republic and InFAMOUS, but BioWare has been trying to avoid that since they made Mass Effect, and Dragon Age abandoned it entirely by lacking an alignment system. BioWare has gotten extremely sophisticated in trying to build compelling choices into their games, and Dragon Age II is loaded with situations where the humorous and aggressive choices are situationally better responses than the diplomatic option.

When alignment systems were relatively uncommon in electronic RPGs, they were great, because they showed the game was responsive to your choices. As player tastes matured, alignment systems became too simple, too obvious, for discerning role-players. With Dragon Age, BioWare abandoned alignment entirely, trying to give meaningful outcomes of your actions without relying on a global judgment. Dragon Age II continues that tradition, while trying to merge the best of Mass Effect’s dialog into it. Personally, I love it. But for some players, these almost cosmetic changes are enough to bring the delicate role-playing immersion tumbling down. It’s amazing to see how easy it is to make the game look like the dialog has been simplified, and crush any sense of freedom.

There’s a way to fix this, and make everyone happy without moving backward. As Dragon Age II shows, we haven’t found it yet. Of course, once the problem is solved, then they’ll complain about something else instead of dialog choices. But that’s a good thing — game designers would get bored if we were always solving the same problems!

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Batman watching over Gotham City
“Vengeance blackens the soul, Bruce. I always feared you’d become that which you fight against. You walk near that abyss every night but haven’t fallen in and I thank heaven for that.”

Batman is an amazing character. He appeals to our craving for justice and order, and our desire for a hero. His strength is his brilliance, his athleticism, his wealth — and he inherited the wealth. He is exceptional, but not superhuman. And he makes his own rules, then lives by them. Part of the compelling darkness of Batman’s mythology is that he forms his own moral judgments, without regard for the views of others. He is sometimes hated by society, sometimes loved, but he does what he believes in, and we are fascinated by it. Games rarely touch on anything like this. Alignment systems discourage players from making their own moral judgments, substituting the game’s. At worst, players choose once what sort of character they are from a selection of two alignment extremes, and every junction, the player reiterates that, without regard for the intricacies of the situation. This undercuts the power of moral choices in games. Are we better off dropping alignment completely?

Before playing Dragon Age: Origins, I perceived many of the arguments in favor of stripping alignment systems from games to be reactionary: Alignment systems as currently implemented are broken, therefore, we should remove alignment from games and allow players to explore morality without them. This didn’t strike me as necessary. The core problems with alignment are in two domains: Mechanical, and psychological.

The mechanical problem comes when a game gives incentives to the player to adhere to a specific alignment. The worst offender that I’ve seen for this was inFAMOUS, which punished the player for inconsistent alignment choices by stripping the player of access to abilities they’ve already paid to unlock. Other games, like Knights of the Old Republic, take a less severe stance, but still give a mechanical effect to your alignment choices that dissuades inconsistent decision making. Why is supporting inconsistency important? Because most of life — and most moral choices — are not black and white. If all moral choices in a game are whether to mug beggars or save children, you’ve not put real moral choices in at all. You’ve put a class selection into the game, and allowed the player to decide whether he or she wants to be good or evil. Good writing will allow believable characters to make choices have inconsistent alignment effects, and if the mechanics discourage that, you’re just punishing the player for exploring the moral space the game creates, which sabotages many of the ideas behind having an alignment system in the first place. I won’t talk too much more about this, since I already have.

The second problem is psychological. Alignment systems typically are linked to immediate and high-profile feedback on alignment changes resulting from your choices. It’s as if you have an angel hovering behind your shoulders and taking notes at all times, butting in to inform you of its judgment. It follows the principle of giving vivid and immediate feedback for player actions, but strips much of the meaning for those actions away. Your own views about an issue tend to become replaced by the game’s, and most players act in accordance with the game’s perspective on morality. Moral choices lose their punch for players. Batman judged his actions by his own moral structure — is it even possible for players to do the same when the game is micromanaging your moral choices like this?

Alignment systems can be done well. Even the much-maligned Dungeons and Dragons alignment system, with a good-evil axis and a law-chaos axis, has been used effectively in Planescape: Torment, where the world was so alien that your choices were boiled down to things like choosing to side with psychic rats, the walking dead, or killing both. Due to the deep writing in the game, and the lack of emphasis on alignment, this worked. But in the ten years since its release, Planescape: Torment remains unique.

Now BioWare has started to explore de-emphasizing alignment. Mass Effect split its “good” and “evil” analogues into separate scales that accumulate points, stepped down their terminology to “paragon” and “renegade” to avoid loading the system with good and evil, brought in more ambiguous choices, and detached alignment from skill development for combat, reserving the effects for determining your persuasion specialization. Mass Effect 2 takes it a step further by merging the two forms of persuasion into a single skill, and simply spinning the character’s dialog based on alignment, and further emphasizing difficult choices. But the most bold and simple implementation they’ve tried so far has been Dragon Age: Origins, which drops the concept of alignment entirely, without removing the moral choices.

The game does give feedback for your actions, but it’s not an angel with a clipboard, it’s not the game itself passing judgment — it’s your party members. Their feelings toward you, and their loyalty, change based on your actions. Many of the party members have strong personality clashes with other party members, giving multiple points of reference. But these are not simply one or two dimensional points on an alignment grid. For example, Zevran, the elf assassin of the game, has a severe deficiency in his respect for life, and may at first point appear to be a classically selfish and evil character in many ways — perhaps a neutral evil or chaotic evil on the D&D alignment grid. He will disapprove of most self-sacrificing choices or unnecessary heroics. But when you encounter people that are enslaving elves, he will be furious if you decline to bring them to justice.

After I played Dragon Age: Origins, I reflected on its lack of alignment system. As promised, I felt liberated. I chose to do what my character thought was right, what fit him. I felt torn between my characters, but not between mechanics. I liked it. Perhaps this was better.

Some people were more ambivalent about it. When these choices were not enforced, they felt less meaningful. These are games, after all: Nobody really dies in games, nobody is robbed, nobody is victimized, at least not in single player experiences. They’re all pixel colors and bit flips. If the game doesn’t tell you something was immoral, is it really immoral? If the player doesn’t feel a sense of reality in the world, then the weight of choices can easily become insignificant. To some extent, it’s a matter of immersion.

There are challenges developing a game that gives the player freedom and customization, and still brings a compelling experience. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile. As a player, I want the freedom to decide what the rules are for myself. I want the freedom to be a dark knight. As a designer, I want to give players that freedom.

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