Thursday, June 24, 2010

In an Age of Dragons

Why do we seek out fiction? The answer is escape. Whether through books, television, movies, or video games, fiction allows us to escape our own mundane lives and live vicariously through others. In doing so, we immerse ourselves in another world - one similar enough to our own to be relatable but different enough to be fantastical. Finely crafted fiction allows the audience to "temporarily suspend their disbelief" and accept the story as though it were reality. We grow attached to the characters who we are following, through which we experience feats that are exciting and oftentimes heroic. We become invested in them and their struggles as though we know them, and when the story ends we're both blissfully grateful for the journey and yet feel simultaneously empty that it's over. The character, were they alive, would venture on. We, the audience, feel left out. It's likely this reason that book series have such appeal. Returning for the next chapter of the characters' lives in a finely crafted world feels like revisiting an old friend - one that we are loathe to say goodbye to with finality.

The worlds of fiction are so compelling for escape because of their sensational nature. Fiction, while natural feeling, is life compressed. Sleep, bathroom breaks, and idle time are removed (if they serve no narrative purpose). We experience life distilled down to its most meaningful. In doing so, even the most mundane biography becomes epic. We revel in love and romance that may be no more inspired than our own, yet it feels magical because it stumbles from one intimate moment to the next, with no breaks for the slower times in life. In this way, no real life can live up to fiction. We become addicted to the action-packed pace of life retold - life from concentrate.

There are numerous ways to increase the dramatic involvement of the audience, usually at the expense of imagination. For instance, visual media such as movies and television actively present your senses with a world of fiction and fantasy. Your emotions are further manipulated by the addition of auditory stimuli and mood-appropriate soundtracks. This presents another reason why real life feels more mundane than fiction: because there is no soundtrack to your life.

Video games present the ultimate promise. Where other forms of fiction give you the feeling that you've experienced a bit of someone else's life, make you feel like you know them, and leave you feeling like you might want to be friends with them (how many children wanted to meet Spider-Man or date Sailor Moon or catch their own Pikachu?), video games offer the opportunity to be part of the story, to meet and interact with these fictional characters, and to play the hero.

Until recently, however, video games have been viewed as an inferior medium for storytelling. With simple plots and substandard acting, the interactivity often came at the expense of the quality of the emotional experience. However, as the video game industry strives toward an increasingly cinematic experience, its potential as an emotionally involving fictitious experience seems unrivaled.

From time to time, you may have heard me gushing about the sweeping space opera Mass Effect. This shooter-RPG from development studio BioWare had an incredible setting, fantastic voice-work, and engaging story and gameplay. I played it three times. Three times.

But for the last week if not more, I've been locked away in my room, pulling all nighters, bleeding my eyes out trying to finish BioWare's (almost) new fantasy epic Dragon Age: Origins. Whatever impressions I had about storytelling in Mass Effect were completely blown away by Dragon Age.

So fantastic was the setting, that I genuinely felt like the world of Ferelden was one that existed. Everywhere I traveled in that world, people spoke as though it were a vast and real world. Even places I would not have the opportunity to visit in the scope of this game had fully fleshed out cultures and backstories and lore. The characters, particularly my companions, felt so real and so memorable that I genuinely enjoyed conversing with them. I'd often feel disappointed when I would return to camp to speak with my comrades and they would have nothing new to say to me. So engaging was the world that I expended serious thought and contemplation deciding which road to take and what decision to make.

Everything felt so believable that sometimes the little things, which in other games of lower caliber would have been entirely unremarkable, gave me pause. Why was I going into people's homes and stealing from their chests - particularly the poor? How did I get captured, escape, and return only to have my companions greet me with the same dialogue as though I had never been gone? These types of qualms demonstrate that the world of Dragon Age was so immersive that the expectations for character behaviour were almost on par with those in the real world - an experience that no movie could provide.

My girlfriend, Sandlot, will no doubt read the above paragraphs with disapproval. She will, inevitably, shake her head at my overzealous involvement with this fictional world. She will, possibly, question her boyfriend's grasp on reality. She may, briefly, contemplate whether she can stay with such an awkwardly geeky boy. In response to these protestations, my response is as follows:

Fiction involves us. As I learned in high school drama, the performer seeks in the audience the "willful suspension of disbelief" - the ability to, for the duration of the performance, drink in the fictional setting as real, despite the foreknowledge that they are sitting in a theatre or in a living room or at a desk. A good performance is able to make worlds, people, and events come to life. It's able to engage our imaginations and allow us to whimsically dream about greeting aliens or fighting dragons. A good audience is able to put their disbelief on hold an step into that setting.

In many ways, fiction is in fact practice - practice for the real world. It allows us to observe human behaviour from the artists' point of view. Believable fiction teaches us about the world and about people, while at the same time showing us landscapes and events that are improbable if not impossible. It's an enigmatic paradox.

Around Halloween this year, an article appeared in the newspaper postulating that our fascination with fictional monsters - Dracula, Frankenstein, zombies, etc. - was in fact a sign of the safety of our society. When we hear scary stories and we watch frightening movies, we get an adrenaline rush and we desensitize ourselves to the fear. We do this because genuine threats to our survival are few and far between. But by tackling our fear response in this manner we train ourselves for those situations. Nobody, as the article posited, wants to be the boy who runs away in a pinch leaving his girlfriend to fend for herself. Unprecedented situations can lead to unpredictable reflexes.

So, it's perfectly normal (adaptive even) to take fiction with a little bit of seriousness and a little bit of emotional investment. This also increases the level of entertainment and makes both the performer and the audience satisfied.

Now that I've properly justified my investment in this game, we're ready to talk about the experience itself. BioWare billed Dragon Age as a "dark fantasy epic." Dark was meant to imply a mature, adult experience. Epic was meant to imply a grand, sweeping story. I dismissed this as public relations fluff. No doubt "mature" was meant to refer to frivolities such as the persistent blood that stains your characters even after you're done fighting (a feature which I quickly switched off - I preferred my armour shiny and my loved ones neat, not gory) or the sexual encounters with other romantic (or casual) love interests that were possible. I was, however, quite wrong. Dragon Age did feel both appropriately mature and incredibly epic. The storytelling and acting occurred on a level unprecedented in gaming to date.

One of the features that BioWare, as a veteran producer of role-playing games, championed with Dragon Age was choice - the ability to make decisions that genuinely affected the outcome for not only your character, but for the world. Again, I dismissed this as a frivolity. The same thing was said about Mass Effect, but only a few decisions had genuinely meaningful consequences, and the story always converged. Yet in Dragon Age, the decisions you were forced to make were everywhere - some small, some big, some ideological. They coloured the world you lived in, how people reacted to you, and appeared to be referenced in the subtlest of ways. The world really felt alive. I thought a good way to express how exciting this game would be to describe some of these decision points.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!

Let us begin with the love story, because love is a topic which is of universal human interest. My character, Andy Cousland, had the option of pursuing romances with two of his companions (though not simultaneously): the pious bard with a jaded past, Leliana; or the cold-hearted mage, Morrigan. Andy opted to woo Morrigan, brilliantly voiced by Claudia Black (Farscape, Stargate SG-1). Morrigan was a far more interesting character, but it was far more difficult to win her affections. I played Andy as a heroic and moral character. Morrigan was pragmatic - she valued power and survival. She didn't approve of going out of one's way to help others, she often disapproved when Andy turned down moral plea bargains by villains, and she was certainly not one to be doted on. Despite her cold demeanour and utilitarian attitudes, she was hilariously sarcastic. Her battles of wit with Andy's other companions were by far the most entertaining of companion interactions. She also hid underneath an unexpected sensitivity, and it took much patience getting to know her and warming her approval of Andy before this became apparent. She liked pretty things, and was hopelessly torn once she fell in love with the protagonist. Such feelings of affection were completely foreign to her - she felt it was weakness to have her feelings so desperately tied to another, and she begged him to end it between them, though at the same time unwilling or unable to truly desire this outcome. "You selfish bastard!" she would exclaim. "You're going to regret this... I'm going to regret this... but maybe that's the way it's meant to be." Indeed, few of Andy's other companions approved of their union. All suspected some ulterior motive.

They were not wrong, however. When it came time to slay the mighty "old god", or dragon who led the creatures known as darkspawn, it became clear that Andy would have to sacrifice his life in order to terminate this mighty being. Morrigan came to Andy with a ritual - they would conceive a child, and the spirit of the old god would be channeled into the zygote. Where such a transfer would kill an adult like Andy, the zygote would survive... changed. In exchange, Morrigan would raise the child alone and never be seen again.

Of course, this was a bitter outcome. On behalf of my character, I felt used and discarded. I had Andy agree to the joining, because I knew that if I did not, she would suggest it with another of my characters, Alistair. The idea of that turned my stomach. Yet, despite all things said and done, Morrigan paused in the midst of the final battle of the game to uncharacteristically open up and bare her feelings. While she acknowledged that she had complicated her purpose in seeking Andy out by developing legitimate feelings for him, she could not bring herself to regret what they had shared. She loved him, and had hurt herself by what she knew she must do.

In the end, she took off as promised, staying only to complete the final battle with him. During the epilogue, Andy was asked what he planned to do now. Would he stay and help his friend Alistair, who had become king? Would he help to rebuild the order of knights of which he was the last remaining? In some way, I felt duty bound to help Alistair, who had kingship thrust upon him by my doing and with whom Andy had found a close and earnest friend. However, I instead led my character to strike out in the world in search of Morrigan, knowing full well that she did not want to be found. Perhaps, if Andy found her at all, she would feel obligated to strike him down dead, with tears in her eyes. But still, translating my personal beliefs into my game character, I could not help but shirk off everything in the pursuit of true love.

Another game-changing choice appeared with the aforementioned companion, Alistair. Alistair was a royal bastard and Andy and his allies presented him as a legitimate heir to the throne against the villain, Mac Tir Loghain. Loghain was a legendary general who betrayed the king and seized the throne. Eventually, Andy defeated Loghain in honourable combat.

He was given the choice to spare Loghain's life, in which case Loghain would have become one of his companions - a legendary general humbled back into line. Upon defeat, seeing Andy's resolve, he regained his wits and returned to the patriotic, caring tone for which the people loved him. He was repentant. He certainly would prove a useful ally. What I did not foresee, however, was that Alistair would not accept Loghain's surrender. Having betrayed the king, tortured his own people, and hunted down Andy's party throughout the whole game, Loghain was beyond redemption in Alistair's eyes. Sparing him would mean that Alistair, Andy's friend, would leave, bitter and betrayed. Killing Loghain would mean the loss of one of the nation's great heroes, simply gone astray. I bid Andy remove Loghain's head himself. I cringed as I watched.

There was, in fact, a way to spare both Alistair and Loghain. However, Andy would have needed to spent every conversation with Alistair "hardening" him - using his position of influence to strip him of his firm moral convictions, his inflexible sense of justice, and his faith in the Maker. Being of a similar character myself, I had not, and if I could go back, I would not, do this.

There were plenty of other situations that challenged my moral judgment in shades of grey - particularly in down and dirty dwarven politics. (See? Even in video games politics get a piece of my mind!) Should I support the tyrannical and power-hungry heir take the throne so his progressive and no-nonsense policies can see the light of day? Or should I support his father's general's bid for the throne - an honest man but with conservative values which would keep dwarven society isolated and living in the stone age (quite literally). I chose the former, and was quite horrified when the new king's first decree was the execution of his rival.

Should I support one hero's bid to destroy the means to create golems (powerful warriors made of rock) he invented because the cost (dwarven souls) is too great? Or should I support another hero's bid to reclaim golem technology despite the tortuous means of creating these weapons (and the disapproval of most of my companions)? I chose to support my war effort by reclaiming golem technology, then I lied to my golem companion about what really went down so that it wouldn't desert me. I felt kind of bad about that too. At least Morrigan approved.

In the end, Dragon Age provided an immersive and believable fantasy environment. The characters proved lovable and complex, and the story was appropriately epic. More importantly, the choices that your character is forced to make are both ubiquitous and deep. They proved more intricate than a mere style choice of good versus evil, but presented the world in realistic shades of grey. Additionally, few choices came without consequences, and it was the damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't catch-22 situations that really gave reason to pause and think.

The game's epilogue sheds some light on the consequences of some of your heroic actions. For instance, enlisting the elves gives them respect with the humans for a time. Previously, a richly cultured race, elves were conquered and enslaved by humans and subsequently emancipated but remain highly discriminated against. Their assistance in your quest gives them a reprieve from this, however it does not last long. Only the stalwart elven leader keeps racial tensions at bay. It is a story that is sadly reflective of many real world struggles such as those in South Africa, where apartheid ended, but racial tension is again high - possibly because of Nelson Mandela's presidential absence.

More than 24 hours after finishing the game, it still remains in my thoughts as I continue to ponder this incredibly personal journey and the consequences of those choices.

3 comments:

sandlot said...

I hope you never wanted to date Sailor Moon. That could be considered questionable.

I think your review of the game is far more interesting than the game itself. But that's mainly because I can't sit through an RPG - way too much dialogue to read! Why can't we just slash and pew pew things?

Have you ever read the "Choose your own adventure" books as a kid? I have a hunch that you might have liked those.

I also read 90% of this post. That should garner some accolade considering this post is the equivalent of one of the later Harry Potter novels.

a_ndy said...

You never had a crush on a cartoon character when you were little? When my brother was a wee boy he had quite the little crush on She-Ra, so I'm told (oops, I don't think I was supposed to share that!). As for me, no of course I never had a crush on Sailor Moon... it was Sailor V.

Well, since you only saw the game's beginning I can see why you might feel this way. The game, like a Joss Whedon series, took awhile to warm up. But I can assure you there was lots of slashing things, and the characters became so intricate that I the roles really did become reversed - I was slashing things just to get to the next point where they would have something to say to me. In the end, the heart of an RPG is the living, believable world that it provides for you to experience.

Hehehe, yes, I did read "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. In fact, when I was really small, we used to sit in a "clubhouse" in my grandparents basement made of a refrigerator box with a door cut in it. The top of the box was also cut off and the pull-string lightbulb was right above the box. It was a really exclusive feeling environment. My eldest sister would read Choose Your Own Adventure books to us. She never read us the choices, we just chose. I imagine if we chose something that was not in the book, she probably made up something to take us back to the original choice. She's quite creative. That, however, made the books feel so much more organic and alive. We also used this method to pass long car rides. I remember sometimes we would beg her to do so.

Yes, I'm proud of you. Maybe one day, I too, can be a millionaire writer.

Terence said...

I like what you said about why we read fiction. It's kinda true. All action, no mundane details. You get the fruits of your labor and glory of your success in the time it takes to read the book. Reality is opposite: slow, cumbersome, full of uncertainty. Water is murky and you don't know what you are wading through. This however also adds a bit of suspense to life. And when success comes around, the feat of having accomplished it is more rewarding, inspiring, meaningful than the quick but superficial "2D" experience of our heroic fictional characters.