Sunday, January 16, 2011

Being Hawke: The metaphysics of Dragon Age 2

Imagine that a foreign entity has gotten inside you. At a certain moment in your life, the entity took complete control of your body. It changed your name and appearance, infused you with new abilities, and uprooted you from your place in the world. A few friends and family remain in your life, but they don't seem to notice the change. And actually, you know none of this because the entity has banished your mind to some desolate nether plane. You have effectively become a brain in a vat, one with no connection to any stimuli.

Question: Is the person walking around in the real world still you?

Now let's say your situation changes. People have begun to notice something odd about your old body. Too much silence, too many clipped sentences. They're even starting to question details of your personal history. The entity realizes that people are on to it, so it decides to let you back in. It restores your family name and connections. Instead of controlling your body completely, it simply issues instructions. In many cases, the instructions must be carried out exactly, but in some there is leeway to speak and act in ways not intended by your master.

Consider the question again. Is the person you?

In both cases, I think the answer is obvious. In the first, the person isn't you, but the entity inhabiting your body. In the second, I think you'll agree that the person walking around is you. It may be you under the influence of the entity, but it's still you.

The point of all this, as you may have realized by now, is to illustrate how the switch to a Mass Effect-style protagonist in Dragon Age 2 impacts the relationship between player and PC. In my little thought experiment, the players are the entities - the ones who are no longer adopting another identity, but rather guiding one along. In Dragon Age 2, the player will no longer select the exact words spoken by the PC, but rather pick from a list of short phrases on a dialogue wheel. The fully voiced PC - which, in another switch from the original game, must be a human with the surname of Hawke - then speaks a longer line of dialogue with embellishments (and personality) added.

You may love this or hate it, but you can't deny that it's a major change. It's the difference between being a demon possessing someone's body, and a devil sitting on someone's shoulder. We players get to decide whether we want to sit on a female shoulder or a male shoulder, a mage shoulder or a rogue shoulder, a shoulder that bears the weight of a staff or a sword - but ultimately, that shoulder is not ours.

The standard complaint about the Mass Effect approach is that the PC's dialogue doesn't always match what the player intended. This is inevitable, as the phrases on the dialogue wheel are very brief and prone to ambiguity. However, even if the PC's dialogue always matched the player's intent, the fully voiced PC still wouldn't belong to the player. The core issue is the fact that the PC is saying (and doing, to the extent that action takes place in dialogue) things outside of the player's consciousness.

Consider how you might tell a joke in an RPG. In a traditional conversation system, you would see the entire text of the joke as a dialogue option. You might not have ever heard the joke in real life, but seeing it displayed before you pretty accurately simulates the memory of it. It's there, in your head, whether you decide to tell the joke or not.

In the new, Mass Effect approach, you might see something like "Tell joke" on the dialogue wheel. You don't know what the actual joke is about until you select the option. Then you passively listen as the character tells the joke, perhaps cringing if it's a bad one, laughing if it's a good one, or blushing if it's a dirty one. But whatever the reaction, there's a sense of distance between you and the PC, who knows something you don't.

All of this leads to the question of whether Dragon Age 2 even is an RPG. After all, most video games cast you in a particular role, but that doesn't make them roleplaying games. Some would say the defining trait of an RPG is level and stat progression (which Dragon Age 2 has). Others, however, would say it's all about owning your character.

There's an obvious solution here, which is to provide players with a configuration option to display the full text of PC dialogue. However, if Bioware wanted to do that, Dragon Age 2 would have been the perfect release for it. The criticism has been around since the original Mass Effect, and Dragon Age players seem more likely than others to want the old system because it's what they're used to. I could be wrong, but if providing the option wasn't in the plan for Dragon Age 2, I don't see it being added later.

Besides, it's not just about the dialogue wheel. Other changes in Dragon Age 2 point to a different direction for the series - one that's closer to the Mass Effect model than a traditional fantasy roleplaying game. For better or worse, Hawke is the new Shepard, and the player is along for the ride. Let's hope that shoulder is comfortable.