Friday, June 14, 2013

RPG Legacies

Have you seen the teaser trailer for Dragon Age: Inquisition? It's very good! The graphics look incredible (though I'm not a huge fan of the new look for a certain returning character), and it gives a great taste of the enormous scope of conflict in this game.

Of course, the immediate disappointment is that the release has been pushed back a year (from late 2013 to fall 2014), but the fan community has been encouragingly supportive of that. People want Bioware to get it right, and are willing to wait for a better game. This comic perfectly sums up my reaction to the news.

I've recently gotten involved in several online discussions that were kicked off by the trailer. With fans this passionate, and so little solid information to consume over such a long wait, it's inevitable that conversation turns to wild speculation and navel-gazing. One point that several people have brought up is the introduction of a new protagonist for this game. I've always assumed that we'll get a new character, but apparently some people have been hoping that they would be able to continue as Hawke, or even choose between playing as their Hawke or as their Warden.

Gameplay considerations aside, I can't see how this could possibly have worked from a technical perspective. Bioware already had a tough enough time translating several Dragon Age: Origins character models into Dragon Age 2 versions, and the results weren't always pretty. Given that they're moving to an entirely new engine for Inquisition, I don't think they could reproduce every possible permutation of character design that people could come up with. (Even that's leaving aside the fact that lots of people like me play with new morphing mods that allow for custom eye colors, hair styles, and more that Bioware never created in the first place.)

That said, I think there are some ways that they could squeeze in cameos for the Warden and Hawke, depending on your players' choices. One simple approach would be something like building a stone statue of the Warden in the courtyard at Weisshaupt. Because of the lower fidelity of stone, they would just need something that approximates your Warden: a Male Dwarf Commoner Rogue, a Female Elf Mage. If they stick on a helmet or one of those hideous mage cowls, it'll be relatively straightforward to identify as "your" Warden, without requiring a faithful copy of your in-game model.

Other than that, though, I don't see many opportunities for a Warden appearance, primarily because the Warden was mostly silent; I think most players have a head-canon version of what their Warden sounds like, and it would be jarring to have a full voice actor taking over "their" character. I can imagine people referring to the Warden (who might be leading a company of Grey Wardens, or running errands for Morrigan, or something), and perhaps a funeral or something, but probably not an active role.

I think there's a bit more opportunity to include Hawke. The same character model restrictions will limit exactly what Bioware can do here. However, Hawke has the huge advantage of having been a fully-voiced character, so as long as there's a reasonable explanation for hiding the face, I think Bioware can go nuts with this. I would love to run into Hawke at an Orlesian masquerade, for example.

But, anyways: given that we do have a new character, I'm very interested to see how they handle the ongoing continuation of each player's canonical story. Bioware has re-affirmed their intention to honor prior player choice; they haven't yet said exactly how they will do this, and given the support for next-generation systems it seems like it probably won't involve importing an old save game file, but I'm really glad to see that they're continuing the challenge of accommodating choice and consequence.

I've alluded to this on the blog before, but over the long run, I think their approach could be revolutionary. By using a fresh character each game, they avoid the "god problem" of leaving one character in too-powerful of a position to make sense in the next game; by allowing for continued stories, though, they can build compelling multi-game arcs (and just judging from the trailer, we'll be getting some powerful growths from seeds first planted in DA:O); financially, players are likely to want to continue with a franchise if they feel a sense of emotional ownership with the story; and finally, by daisy-chaining plots, Bioware can create short-term divergent player canons while eventually consolidating into long-term game canons. (My prior example: during DA2, different players will have different Ferelden monarchs depending on their choices during DA:O; however, by the time of DA:I, it's possible that a new monarch has taken the throne, thus allowing the plot tributaries to rejoin the main canon river.)

Since I have 18 months (*shudder*) to wait until I get my hands on this game, I thought I'd reflect on how other RPG series I've played in the past have handled continuation, and how it varies from the approach Bioware is attempting here.


The Ultima games featured a single character who continued through all 9 games in the main series, as well as several spin-offs. Interestingly, that single character was you: part of the fiction was that you, the person who is currently reading this blog post, gets transported into the fictional land of Britannia.

The story carried over  from game to game, but there wasn't any save importing, and really no overarching plot character choices. Within each individual game, you had a staggering amount of freedom: you could murder innocent peasants, poison Lord British, build a castle for yourself out of stolen barrels. However, each game had a single ending: you discovered the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom and gave it to the people of Britannia; or discovered Lord Blackthorn's plot, got the sandalwood box, and rescued Lord British; or whatever. This let the game's plots continue in significant arcs across multiple games (your actions in Ultima IV trigger dire consequences in Ultima VI), but every player will have the same major arc experience.

Interestingly, the game handles the lack of character progression within its fiction. By the time you beat each Ultima game, you're a supremely powerful character who might know a ton of spells and be incredibly strong; when you start the next game, you're back to being a weak character again with no spells, no experience, and low skills. You can comment on this, and other characters will let you know that it's because of your travels between Earth and Britannia: you grow more powerful while in Britannia, but whenever you return, you go back to the original form of your old body. (As a child who read the Chronicles of Narnia, this explanation made perfect sense to me.)

Hero Quest / Quest for Glory

This was my first-ever RPG, and while it hasn't had the degree of influence as other games on this list, it's in some ways the closest to what Bioware is doing with Dragon Age. It may have been one of the first games to allow you to import a save from a previous game to the next, which felt exciting and incredibly rewarding. You could take a single character all the way from Hero Quest: So You Want to Be a Hero in 1989 all the way through Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire in 1998.

Personally, I felt a very deep level of engagement with the series because of this feature. I would happily spend a ton of time throwing rocks at scorpions to raise my Throwing to 200, wanting to max out all my stats so I could be as strong as possible once Quest for Glory III finally came out. However, raised stats were perhaps only reason to import. I don't believe that the game kept track of any player-specific plot decisions, and while later games would refer back to earlier events, you didn't get a personalized version of the story.

There were some interesting mechanical wrinkles to the import system. Sierra developed their own skill set for QFG, instead of borrowing from an existing one like D&D or GURPS. It evolved over time, and so a prior game's save couldn't always perfectly match a later game: sometimes new skills were added, or existing ones consolidated. In one case, an entirely new class was created: you could eventually become a Paladin, but initially this was only possible if you played as a Fighter or else imported from QFG2 and passed certain tests within the game.

While I adored the series, it never really took off; fans had to beg and scream to get Sierra to release the final game (which had been planned for some time in a multi-game arc). It never felt quite at home in Sierra, which focused on its pure adventure games. I wonder if it was too adventure-game-y for RPG fans, and had too many RPG elements for adventure game fans. Its problems may help explain why other publishers have been reluctant to invest in multiple-game, save-importing systems.

Baldur's Gate

This is possibly my favorite series of all time, and is by the same folks now working on Dragon Age. There are really two import points for this series: from BG1 to BG2, and from BG2 to Throne of Bhaal. Mechanically, imports are actually somewhat similar to Quest for Glory: your old character is moved into the new game with all of his or her skill points intact. It also runs into some of the minor oddities around rule changes that QFG experienced: BG2 added new weapon proficiencies, so if you imported a character from BG1, you would have a harder time mastering those weapons than if you started fresh.

The import from BG1 to BG2 carries over your character, but as far as I can tell, it pretty much ignores any plot decisions you made. Not only that, but it doesn't know about what happened to anyone who isn't currently in your party. This led to some odd situations, like people who you could have killed in BG1 showing up in the sequel. Fortunately, Bioware took this in good humor, adding dialog options like "Wait, I thought you were dead!" that you could use to manually trigger a ret-con if necessary.

The BG2 to ToB import was a bit more integrated. Your existing party all transfers to the new game, and if you were romancing one of your companions, the game remembers that and provides the final arc of your romance. None of the main plot is affected by the choices of the previous game - it doesn't matter whether you sided with Bodhi or the Shadow Thieves, for example - but I don't think it's possible to contradict earlier canon either.

The Elder Scrolls

From a business perspective, this is probably Dragon Age's biggest competitor at the moment, and the most successful fantasy RPG on the market. Unlike the other series on this list, there's really no form of continuation at all between games. Each game starts with a new character, in a new land, often a century or more after the events of the prior game.

The passing of time from the previous game lets TES get away with ignoring player choice. Like the Ultima series, you have enormous freedom in how you proceed within a single game, but the "big events" are all fixed and unalterable.

Speaking personally, I love getting lost within the enormous worlds of TES, but I don't feel the same excitement for the franchise as I do for other games on this list (and Dragon Age). I think that's at least partly because I don't feel the same level of investment in the story of each game. Tamriel will continue along, and be the same, more or less regardless of what I do, or whether I do anything at all. It's not bad, exactly; it adds to the feeling of this being a large, real, complex world; but I'm far less interested in thwarting Mehrunes Dagon's revenge than I am in finding out where Morrigan raised her child, or whether Tallis was able to rejoin the Qunari, or if Janeka is searching the Deep Roads for another Old God. Those are all stories I helped shape, and I'm more anxious to see how they're resolved.

With all the above in mind, I think there's a huge opportunity here for Bioware to create not just a great game, but a great franchise. The Mass Effect series demonstrated the potential of creating a multi-game arc where you didn't just import your character's mechanical statistics, but also kept track of the decisions they had made, and altered the universe accordingly. However, while I loved Shepard's story, it's going to be painful now for Bioware to continue the franchise with a new protagonist. (I'm also increasingly skeptical that they'll be able to satisfy fans with any Mass Effect games set in the future, given the incredibly varied universe-altering endings depicted in the Extended Cut.) In contrast, Dragon Age isn't really about the Warden, or about Hawke: it's about Thedas. Each character can change Thedas in small ways that will lead to repercussions down the line, and over time we'll be playing to see what happens next to our world, rather than what happens next to our characters. It's an incredibly rich premise, and one that could sustain this series for... well, potentially forever!

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