Why Corypheus is a Bad Villain

Apologies for the long wait on the follow up, but the holiday season is always a busy one. Before I start, I’ve seen a number of questions online about my article, mostly relating to why I didn’t mention Corypheus was a DLC character from Dragon Age 2. The reason is I never played Dragon Age 2, once I saw the boring map design and the cartoonish new look for the Darkspawn I knew I wasn’t interested. Then my “brother” died, but that had absolutely no emotional impact since we’d spoken once, and knew I wouldn’t be bothering with that game. I’ve since heard the story is pretty good, but I still hear so many complaints about the game I have very little motivation to go back and play it.

Having the main villain be a character from a DLC that probably very few people bought is a huge dick move. Way to go EA!

They should have just slapped the EA logo on a torso and named that the villain of Dragon Age: Inquisition. It would have been far more satisfying than Corypheus…

Why Corypheus is a Bad Villain

Dragon Age: Directed by JJ Abrams.

First of all, Corypheus dialogue. It’s bad. It’s just…so bad. It’s not just that he’s a generic evildoer, it’s that every line of dialogue he spews reveals nothing about his character or his motives. Every word is dedicated to making sure we know that Corypheus is evil. Even the responses to his dialogue are bad.

Corypheus: I knew you would come

Player Character: It ends here, Corypheus!

Corypheus: And so it shall!

-Dialogue at Final Fight of Dragon Age Inquisition… or possibly the dialogue from an episode of Adam West’s Batman.

It’s like this whole exchange was pulled from the Big Book O’ Cliches. It’s dry, unimaginative, and utterly anemic when it comes to generating any kind of excitement for that final battle.

Remember Saren’s dialogue from Mass Effect? Now that was good dialogue, especially the scene on Virmire where he reveals that his motives aren’t about personal power or his hatred of humanity, but preserving life. Even as indoctrinated as he was, his arguments made a certain amount of sense, he was basically the Anti-Shepard: they had the same goal (preventing the extinction of the galaxy) but different plans for achieving it. Saren didn’t fully realize the effects of his indoctrination until the very end, but up until that point he thought he was saving the galaxy. Saren wasn’t evil for the sake of being evil. He was simply a character that walked down a road paved with good intentions and ended up turning into a monster. That’s a good villain.

To bring up Origins again, while the Archdemon was the final boss in Dragon Age: Origins, the villain you interacted with the most was Loghain. Now Loghain was another good villain, because he had motives and reasons beyond just “I need to be an obstruction to the main character.” If you let Loghain live after the Landsmeet, you can question him on his reasons for abandoning the King at Ostagar.

“What would you have had me do instead? Sacrifice the entire army to save one man?”

And quite honestly, what kind of a self-important douche goes to battle in gold armor? King Cailan had it coming.

And quite honestly, what kind of a self-important douche goes to battle in gold armor? King Cailan had it coming.

Loghain did attempt to convince King Cailan, several times in fact,  to retreat to the rear rather than play warrior on the frontline. And Loghain was entirely correct in his assessment, Ostagar had been a trap, and to waste the rest of the army in order to save Cailan would have been a foolish and most likely futile endeavor. Even had they somehow won the battle, the Archdemon had yet to show itself, so the Fereldan army would have been severely weakened in the attempt with no real gains to show for it. More Darkspawn would have emerged from the deep roads eventually (and in fact you see hoards of them marching to the surface when you visit the Deep Roads) and the Fereldan army would no longer have the manpower to stand against it.

In fact Cailan’s plan is so stupid I don’t even know why Duncan agrees to risk his Grey Warden’s on the frontline, or even bring them to the battle at all. The only way this would have made sense is if Duncan had just been using the Fereldan army as bait, hoping to draw out the Archdemon or at least enough of the horde to convince the other nations of Thedas to help the Grey Wardens. Which is actually a really good possibility given the Grey Warden’s infamous pragmatism.

To get back on point though, Loghain and Saren were good villains. Their motives, personalities, and histories were all revealed through dialogue. That’s what good dialogue is supposed to do: characterize.

Corypheus’s dialogue just sits there and it’s only purpose is to reinforce him as an evil bad guy.

I will admit his generic plan fits rather well this is generic character and generic appearance.

I think its pretty clear this is the bad guy, Bioware, you don’t have to keep reminding us.

The only point at which Corypheus comes close to actually becoming a character, and not a scooby-doo villain, is during an optional quest to visit the Temple of Dumat. There you can hear Corypheus’s thoughts, and he reminisces about his experiences invading the Golden City and gives some insights into his character. Yet even these are too short and too few to really reveal anything interesting about Corypheus. Of all the problems Inquisition has, this one is the problem that confuses me the most, because it’s not like Corypheus couldn’t have been a good villain. In fact, he could have been a great villain.

Think about this man for a moment and the world he came from. He went into the fade thinking he was one of the most powerful people in the world, and he strode into the Golden City to claim its power, and then he watched as it turned black around him. The city began twisting and warping around him, swallowing him up in darkness and corrupting him. His body twisted and deformed beyond recognition, probably in constant pain. There were so many different motivations and personalities that could have emerged from such a traumatic event. Even though 99% of his dialogue is trash, there was one line that really stood out.

“I’ve seen the throne of the gods…and it was empty.”

That was a good line, because it revealed something about him, that even though the Tevinter Imperium didn’t believe in the Maker, Corypheus was still expecting to find something. For a spiritual person, I can imagine no greater horror than visiting the home of your god and finding it empty. For Corypheus, watching the power that should have been his, turn on him and twist him into something less than human must have been equally traumatic. His old gods didn’t come to his rescue, and he was cast out as if he were nothing more than a rat invading a giant’s palace.

So did Corypheus want to be a god because he was afraid people would lose hope, as he did, when they found out there was no Maker?;

Or did he believe his corruption really was the Maker’s punishment, and attempt to assault heaven to destroy the Maker’s world?;

Or did he simply want to return because the emptiness that he found drove him mad?

We’ll never know, because all he could think to say was “I will be a god!” at every opportunity.

You know maybe if you shut up once in a while, you could actually do something right for a change.

You know maybe if you shut up once in a while you could actually do something right for a change.

Of course his stupid cliched dialogue is nothing compared to his biggest problem: he’s terrible. He literally fails in everything he ever does.

  • Went to the Golden City and fucked it up.
  • Managed to kidnap the divine in the middle of the most heavily fortified place in Thedas…and then forgot to lock the door. 
  • Manages to drop his god-orb just as his anchor is about to spawn, then stares at it like a confused kitten as it rolls away.
  • Attacks a tiny little mountain hamlet with a huge army and a dragon… and somehow loses.
  • Tries to corrupt the Grey Wardens, fails and loses his immensely power Fear Demon ally in the process.
  • Marches into the Arbor Wilds where his army is immediately annihilated and he fails to drink water from a pond.
  • Finally reopens the rift, laughs maniacally, and then promptly falls over dead.

In order for a villain to feel like a threat, they have to at least succeed once. They have to feel like an actual obstacle to the protagonist’s progress, otherwise they’re just some minor character who doesn’t serve the story.

My character was always acting so angry when he talked to Corypheus, and I never understood why. Okay he blew up the conclave and the divine… but why is my character taking that so personally? Corypheus’s attack on Haven results in the death of a bunch of nameless soldiers and a couple of minor characters, okay, but we never see our character bond with any of them so why are you taking it so hard? I didn’t even know there was a bartender in Haven until my second playthrough, was her death really that traumatic?

We needed a Battle of Hoth, or Ostagar, or Virmire. We needed a section where Corypheus stands triumphant, where everything seems lost, to really make Corypheus a good villain. When I saw the burning ruins of Eden Prime I knew Saren was a threat, but when I had to sacrifice a member of my crew on Virmire, that made it personal. Stopping the Darkspawn was important, but making Loghain pay for his betrayal and getting my friend Duncan killed was the real motivator.

The closest Corypheus gets to his moment of triumph is at Haven, but then he starts monologuing while you casually walk over to a catapult and bury him under a mountain. That kind of undermines the whole thing. 

Corypheus never felt threatening because he never won, the whole game is Corypheus going from failure to increasingly crippling failure. Wil E. Coyote was more successful. I mean nothing short of a miracle that Corypheus doesn’t get himself killed in one of his botched plans.

You know who was a threat though? That could have really raised the stakes of the game’s story?

Pictured: A far more interesting and capable Villain.

You rang?

The Fear Demon Should Have Been the Villain

Had I been writing the story I would have kept Corypheus, but in the end revealed him to be a mere pawn of the Fear Demon. In fact the title “Elder One” is a far more appropriate title for the Fear Demon than it is Corypheus. Corypheus is what, a thousand years old or so?

Fear is timeless. 

Fear is the most basic and primal emotions, present in every single animal on the planet. For complex animals like humans, we can experience so many different types of fear, ranging far beyond the basic fear of death. Fear of crowds; arachnophobes; children afraid of the dark; people with anxiety disorders.

The Fear Demon would feed on them all, and this demon is probably as old as time itself. It has gorged itself on fear for countless millennia. Then Corypheus rips open the fade and the Fear Demon can begin manifesting itself in the mortal world, taunting the world with nightmares and twisted creatures, bending people to its will by exploiting their deepest fears. Fighting Fear itself would have been a battle worthy of the Inquisition. You see, while no one’s motivation for Corypheus was really believable (I mean did they really think he’d be a good god?), people siding with fear would be totally believable. People surrender to fear all the time, and to be spared living your worst nightmares every night, I could easily see people doing anything Fear wanted.

No it's okay, I'll leave. You can have the planet.

No it’s okay, I’ll leave. You can have the planet.

Then the inquisition could actually act like an inquisition, rooting out those who have surrendered to fear. The Inquisition in the game acted like a straight up military or kingdom, but an inquisition is in theory an organization whose primary role is investigative. You never saw the Spanish Inquisition march to war, but you did see people disappear into their dungeons and arrest people on the testimony of people they tortured.

Of course the most interesting aspect of having the Fear Demon as the villain would have been that we were no longer just fighting armies and demons…we’d be fighting an idea, and ideas never truly die. Even if we drove fear back into the fade, it would still be there waiting and feeding. Growing strong until the day it could emerge back into Thedas once again…

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All That Matters is the Ending: Dragon Age Inquisition

When I wrote my breakdown of Mass Effect 3’s ending debacle, I took several days to properly organize my thoughts and make sure everything I was saying made sense. By contrast, when I wrote my critique of Dragon Age: Inquisition’s ending, it was a stream of consciousness straight from my raging, bitterly disappointed mind onto the vast wastes of the internet. So let me take a moment, now that I’ve calmed down, to reiterate the reasons I think Dragon Age: Inquisition failed in its ending. And why that halfhearted ending makes an otherwise remarkable game…less than the sum of its parts.

First of all I should say that I was exaggerating when I said this was a worse ending than Mass Effect 3. It clearly isn’t. Inquisition’s ending didn’t throw out the established rules, lore and setting of all the other Dragon Ages, or end with a stupid closing soliloquy from an omnipotent god caught in a feedback loop of stupid. It’s not even really a bad ending, it’s just so…underwhelming. It avoids all of the horrendous mistakes made by Mass Effect 3, but at the same time we get such a pitiful and anticlimactic ending that it renders all the awesome stuff we experienced along the way seem less special.

[The following is based on my 65-hour initial playthrough and the 15-hour 2nd playthrough (yes, you can plow through the main storyline in about 15-hours, probably less if you’re better at the combat than I am) to see if any of the major decisions changed the ending. Spoiler alert: They didn’t.]

1. Every Story is Isolated

Don't let the other people fool you. You're all alone here.

Don’t let the other people fool you. You’re all alone here.

Interactive storytelling is hard, I get that, but that’s also why it’s so amazing when it comes together beautifully. Dragon Age: Origins remains one of my favorite RPGs because of how well all the stories meshed together, regardless of which origin story you chose or which choices you made along the way. Dragon Age: Inquisition has some remarkably good stories and some of the best characters I’ve encountered since Mass Effect 2. Yet very few of those stories actually interact with any of the others. They all take place in their own isolated little corners of the main story, sometimes being peripherally mentioned but never really impacting anything.

For instance, at first glance, I felt the new War Table was a wonderful new method of storytelling. Not only did it make me feel like I was really running a kingdom, but it allowed the game to tell me stories that impacted the entire world of Thedas rather than just the isolated corner my character was inhabiting. When Darkspawn appeared in southern Orlais I felt dread, for surely this was a sign that Corypheus was somehow summoning these creatures to aid him. Fortunately I had just saved Empress Celene’s life and secured Orlesian support for the Inquisition and thanks to Josephine’s skillful diplomacy I was able to call upon my new Orlesian allies to aid me. I thought this would help limit the Inquisition’s casualties in battle, though I was conscious of the fact that since Empress Celene’s treacherous cousin had held the loyalty of Orlais’s Chevaliers, I might not be getting their best troops. Still any little bit would help, or so I thought. After all, I didn’t want to deplete my own army when Corypheus might appear with his own at any time.

It’s a fine story in and of itself, and it really makes you feel like larger things are happening all around you. Unfortunately this feeling is completely undermined by the fact that the story doesn’t affect, nor is it affected, by anything else happening in the game. For instance my siding with Celene didn’t affect Orlesian support, nor did my destroying the Darkspawn army in anyway weaken Corypheus, and any troops I lost to fighting the darkspawn didn’t affect my army’s performance when I finally attacked Corpyheus’s army in the Arbor wilds. It didn’t even affect my approval rating with Blackwall, and he was the one guy I thought would be pleased with my destroying a darkspawn army.

Though with a beard that magnificent, I can forgive him.

Though with a beard that magnificent, I can forgive him his nonchalance at the news of the Darkspawns defeat.

And speaking of character approval, I never once saw a character’s approval rating come into play. It was a thing that might as well never have existed. Nor did any of the character’s side quests ever come to affect the ending or even the characters themselves.

When I helped Sten find his lost sword in Dragon Age: Origins, it had a lasting impact on his character throughout the story. He was no longer the standoffish and hostile brute I met back in Lothering…well okay he was, but not to me. Sten began to address me as Kadan (a sign of respect) and even began smiling when I talked to him, which up to that point I thought was physiologically impossible for a Qunari. When I helped Morrigan obtain Flemeth’s Grimoire and then slay the old hag, she became more genuinely confident rather than hiding her fear and hate behind a thin veil of nonchalance and arrogance. I didn’t treat Zevran very well my first playthrough (in my defense, he did try to kill me) and as a result when the Antivan Crows sent a second assassin, Zevran was quick to betray me. These are instances of where the character’s stories had real meat to them, where my actions directly affected the characters and in turn their characters affected the story at large.

Compare that to Inquisition. When I helped Cassandra find the lost Seekers, nothing really changed for her or the story at large. She seemed conflicted and then angry during the mission itself, but once we slew the Head Seeker and left? Outside of a couple conversations you have directly after the mission, it was like the whole affair never even happened. Again, the story itself is fine, I liked seeing her confront a betrayal of her fundamental beliefs. And I was genuinely curious what would happen after she was confronted with the fact that the Rite of Tranquility could be reversed and that her Order had become less a peacekeeping force and more a kind of Secret Police of the worst kind. Unfortunately my curiosity was never sated, because nothing changes. Are there perhaps subtle changes to Morrigan’s narration if Cassandra becomes the Divine? Perhaps, but considering that could take dozens of hours to get to that ending depending on when you do her quest, and compared to the very full and engaging character storylines of DA:O, it still falls depressingly short of good.

Which is a shame, because all the characters are wonderful. They just don't end up affecting the story.

Which is a shame, because all the characters are wonderful. They just don’t end up affecting the story.

Even each individual zone in the game remains totally isolated from everything else. Completing the main storylines of the Western Approach doesn’t affect how the siege of Adamant plays out. I thought capturing the keep in the area would not only weaken Corypheus’s hold over the Grey Wardens, but provide my own forces with a forward base from which to launch an attack. Go through the game without doing a single sidequest though, and the siege of Adamant plays out just as it did before. Same with every other zone and every other story. They all play out as if in a vacuum, all the stories are within sight of each other but they never interact directly. The closest we get to any of the stories interacting is with the War Table and certain zones, such as building bridges across the sulfur vents or setting up watchtowers in the Hinterlands, but even then those interactions are minimal and don’t affect any other nearby story.

On the surface Dragon Age: Inquisition gives the player a false impression that they’re experiencing a vast tapestry of stories all woven together to form a coherent narrative, but once you dive beneath the surface you see its not a tapestry at all…it’s an anthology of stories. They all take place in the same universe, and maybe they even take place at the same time, but they can all be read independently of one another or ignored entirely. That’s not to say it’s a huge problem, anthologies can be fun too, but when you combine this with all of the game’s other major problems, things start to unravel.

2. Choices have no consequences

…Story and Choice as a Fundamental Pillar of the Game.

How you choose to lead is up to you, but remember, in Dragon Age: Inquisition choices have consequences. Making a new ally can also lead to the creation of a new enemy. – From Dragon Age Inquisition’s Promotional Material, emphasis mine.

That’s just a small section of the marketing campaign that preceded Dragon Age: Inquisition’s release, and yet in the game itself very few of the player’s choices have any real consequences. Let’s examine the very first choice we’re given in the game: your race. Go ahead and pick a Qunari. Now you’d think being a huge hulking beast from a strange land that has fought several bloody wars with her Chantry, Cassandra would be a little more suspicious of you than if you’d chosen human or elf for your race. Unfortunately aside from a few minor dialogue changes, Cassandra’s attitude towards you remains static. You’d think it would be harder to win her approval and trust, but she’ll happily thrust control of the most powerful organization in Thedas into your waiting hands, even if you make it perfectly clear you think the Chantry and everything Cassandra holds dear is a lie.

But okay, maybe its too much to ask to change the beginning of the story based on your race (even if that’s the exact thing that made Dragon Age: Origins stand out and started this whole franchise.) Let’s tackle some actual gameplay and see what kind of consequences the player experiences:

After being led by Cassandra to the Inquisition’s forward camp, you’re asked to make the decision on how to approach the Rift. Do you take the mountain path, and risk casualties among your soldiers. Or charge with your troops, but risk losing your scouts in the mountains? Or do you just flip a coin because there are no consequences for this choice?

I’m not asking for this early game decision to have butterfly effect ripples across the entire story. I didn’t expect the ending to shift because I lost some soldiers or scouts, but I did at least expect this to have some kind of change to the encounter with the Pride Demon at the Rift. I chose the scouts the first playthrough, and was gratified to see Archers (who I thought were the scouts) loose their arrows as the Pride Demon came through the rift. I thought, upon a second playthrough, that these archers would be replaced with more soldiers or different kinds of soldiers (two-hand wielders or something). Unfortunately there is no such change.

Nothing changes based on your choice apart from which road you take, a gameplay mechanic so simple that even Gears of War managed to integrate it on a regular basis.

Come on Bioware, you can do better than this can't you?

Choices in an RPG should have more significant consequences than a Gears of War game, don’t you think?

But okay, it’s early in the game, maybe they just didn’t have the time or inclination to make the beginning amazing. Fine. Let’s skip to halfway through the story.

The Inquisition attacks the Grey Warden stronghold of Adamant to free them from the corruption of Corypheus. Once you’ve succeeded, you’re given the option of allowing the Grey Wardens to join with the Inquisition or exiling them from Orlais. In theory this presents sweeping and potentially dire consequences for the player. On the one hand, Grey Wardens are Thedas’s only line of defense against another Blight as it’s their mastering of the Darkspawn’s corruption that allows them to kill an Archdemon. Yet on the other hand, it’s that same corruption that allowed them to be twisted to Corypheus’s will. Allowing the Grey Wardens to serve the inquisition might give you a powerful ally against Corypheus should he somehow summon Darkspawn armies to his side, but at the same time Corypheus might use those same Grey Wardens to undermine the inquisition from within. It was a choice that demanded careful consideration. So what affect does this choice have on the story?

None.

Okay yes, it does end up affecting which portrait you get in the closing epilogue and Morrigan’s narration, but that’s it. Don’t take that to mean I don’t like “slideshow” endings, I have no problem with having slideshow endings or narrations, in fact I think both can be incredibly effective storytelling techniques. Both Dragon Age: Origins and Fallout New Vegas had great endings, and they both heavily relied on slideshows. My main problem is that Inquisition’s slideshow is anemic and unsatisfying compared to most games that have used this technique, including Inquisition’s predecessor Dragon Age: Origins. Inquisition’s epilogue covered only a few of the decisions the player could make and only told us the story of which character became the new Divine, all of your other companions were left in the dust. The epilogue for Origins covered every major choice you made in the game and told you the fate of every character you met, which made it infinitely more rewarding than Inquisition’s.

"When fellow qunari asked if there were worthy people outside Par Vollen, Sten would answer that in all his travels he had only met  one.” - Sten's Ending

“When fellow Qunari asked if there were worthy people outside Par Vollen, Sten would answer that in all his travels he had only met one.” – Sten’s Ending Slide, after my Hero of Ferelden died slaying the Archdemon.

I will say this for the game, it was very good at making you think everything you were doing had a consequence, it’s why I was so happy with the game right up until the end when the illusion fell apart. However there was one choice given in the game that almost went out of its way to make sure you knew what you did was pointless, and that was the Templar mission. Early on in the game you’re given a choice to save the Templars or the Rebel Mages, with a specific warning that choosing one will deny you the other.

Now if you went for the Mages, you probably thought all the Red Templars you were running into throughout the game were the consequence of your choice, and you probably went through the game thinking that was the meaningful consequence of your actions. I, unfortunately, chose to side with the Templars in my first playthrough. So you can imagine my annoyance when, not only were there no rebel mages to fight outside of the attack on Haven, but even worse there were more Templars fighting for Corypheus than were fighting for me. I never once saw a Templar come to my aid in battle, or march along side my armies during the attack on Adamant. They didn’t show up to help me battle Corypheus at either the Well of Sorrows or in the final battle. Instead all I came across were legions of Red Templars? So what was the point of saving their order? They showed up at one brief cutscene when you seal the rift and that’s it. We might as well not even been given a choice in the matter (especially since the Templar mission is such a royal pain in the ass compared to the Mage mission.)

Yes I'm talking to you and your bullshit ground AoE attack!

Yes I’m talking to you and your bullshit ground AoE attack!

The only place I felt like I had any kind of impact on the story was at the Well of Sorrows. First you’re given a choice to either follow Corypheus’s followers down a crevasse to the well of Sorrows or undergo the Rites of Metel and pay homage to the Elven Gods. This does actually seem to affect how the Ancient Elves regard you and allying with the Elves allows you to bypass most of the combat by taking secret passages. Then you can choose whether the player character or Morrigan drinks from the Well of Sorrows. If Morrigan drank from the Well of Sorrows the she’s able to transform into a Dragon like her mother Flemeth once did and do battle with Corypheus’s corrupted dragon. If the player drank, you have to first subdue a dragon and bring it under your command using the power of the well. And that’s it. That’s the sum total of the impact it has.

And you know what, that’s actually fine, and had there been more small changes to the ending based on your choices I wouldn’t be writing this. Having small amounts of feedback throughout the course of a long game can be just as satisfying as having wildly divergent branching endings. Unfortunately Inquisition failed to deliver on either of those, because those consequences to the Well of Sorrows choices are the only real impact you’ll have on the story or ending. As much as I hate to keep comparing Inquisition to Origins, let’s look at how the choices my choices in Dragon Age: Origins affected the story.

My first character was an Elf from Denerim’s Alienage, and because the Arl’s son was a monstrous rapist, I gutted him like a pig in his own bedroom to save my cousin. Much later down the line I was trying to gather support for the Landsmeet, but because I had butchered the Arl’s son, I lost not only the support of that Arldom (which had fallen into Loghain’s hands) but I also was unable to convince the landsmeet that Loghain’s plot to sell the Elves into slavery was a bad idea, because now they all saw Elves as murderous psychopaths.

You butcher one castle's worth of people and suddenly your the bad guy. Go figure.

You butcher one castle’s worth of people and suddenly your the bad guy. Go figure.

A seemingly inconsequential choice at the beginning of the game had a profound impact on the story later down the road, now that’s a consequence. So when the Landsmeet turned against me and Arl Eamon, did the ending change drastically? No, you end up having to go mano a’ mano with Loghain no matter what you do. Yet seeing the consequences of my actions from the beginning of the game having an affect on the story so late in the game was incredibly gratifying. It made me feel like a part of the story, a part of the world I was in, rather than merely a spectator. That all important word, immersion. That’s what I felt playing Dragon Age: Origin.

Meanwhile, my choice to choose the mountain path? To exile the Wardens? To Save the Templar Order? To save Empress Celene? I got no feedback from the game. And these were huge choices that implied dire consequences no matter which choice you made. By comparison, the choice to kill the Arl of Denerim’s son seems downright trivial, and yet I got more feedback from that than I did any of the major decisions with Inquisition. So I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that, when I finally did reach the ending that -

1. The Ending is the very definition of an Anticlimax

Perhaps all of these problems could have been forgiven if at least, at the end, I’d had seen a battle worthy of all the buildup. To battle a Godlike Corypheus in the depths of the fade, perhaps even in the center of the Black City itself, while in the normal world our two armies clashed in a bloody maelstrom of steel and magic. Unfortunately we didn’t get any of that. Instead we got Corypheus alone in the ruins of the Temple of Sacred Ashes giving us a cliched (and hilariously misguided, given his track record of failure) monologue about his imminent ascension to godhood. Then we fought him, and it was a boss fight so pitiful I almost felt sorry for him at that point. The dragons I had killed throughout Thedas had been more challenge then him. His Fear Demon ally in the Fade was tougher than him. Most Red Templar mobs were tougher than him. His half dead dragon was tougher than him.

Then we blast him into the ether of the fade, go home and have some drinks with the guys and roll credits.

The closest I got to feeling excited in that final battle was when Morrigan grappled with Corypheus’s Dragon. Watching those two colossal beasts having at each other was a spectacular sight to behold, but every time I got close to feel some excitement it would cut away from the amazing aerial dragon battle to focus once again on the pitiful old man Corypheus. The last time I felt this apathetic towards a boss fight was when Ezio punched the pudgy old Pope to death in Assassin’s Creed 2.

And quite honestly, the Pope put up a better fight.

And quite honestly, the Pope put up a better fight.

As I wrote originally, it was such an anticlimax I thought it was Bioware trying to fake me out. This was all just a ploy to take me off guard when the real villain showed up, and the one thing convinced me that was the case right up until the end was Skyhold. Chekov’s Gun is an old literary axiom that basically says if you introduce something to the story, it better serve a purpose. The saying is from, of course, Anton Chekov:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there. – Anton Chekov

Skyhold is the gun hanging on the wall. Why did you give me a huge, epic keep and allow me to personalize it if we weren’t going to have an epic siege there? You don’t give the player a castle and then not attack it. Imagine Dragon Age: Awakenings if at the end of the game, the keep you spent so long rebuilding just… sits there, doing nothing. Or flying the SSV Normandy II into the Omega 6 Relay and then peacefully landing on the Collector Base without a single shot being fired. Or even better, imagine leading the counter attack on Earth at the end of Mass Effect 3 and finding no Reaper fleet or vicious ground battle being fought, and instead cutting to those last godawful 10 minutes immediately after landing.

Just imagine this.

Just imagine this.

Skyhold was the perfect setting for the climactic final battle with Corypheus. Defending the walls of the keep you’ve come to love, watching as Morrigan in Dragon form fights the Archdemon in the skies above the fortress, while great siege engines rain down fire and destruction. It would have been every definition of epic. There could have been so many amazing ways to make the Siege of Skyhold the epic ending we all needed. All of your characters would have been involved too, rather than just the 3 you chose to take with you.

It could have been a tense, bitter fight as the gates are shattered and Darkspawn come pouring into the courtyard where, without the help of the Grey Wardens, my soldiers are beaten back into the keep proper. Or if you kept the Grey Wardens perhaps the Darkspawn are scattered, leaving the Venatori and Red Templars to lead the vanguard of the assault.  Blackwall and Cullen could lead the defense of the courtyard. Sera and Varric could direct the archers on the walls and rain death upon the enemy ranks or take potshots at the dragon. Cole could assassinate priority targets and cause chaos in the enemy ranks.  Iron Bull and his Chargers could lead a vicious counterattack and buy the time necessary for Cullen to withdrawn his exhausted and wounded troops into the keep where the Inquisition would make its final stand.

A climax worthy of the term would have made Dragon Age Inquisition my new favorite RPG and I would have overlooked all the other problems with the game. Instead we got a pitiful whimpering boss who could barely put up a fight and made every other flaw in the game come through with glaring clarity. I don’t need a dozen amazing endings, I just need one good one.

Give a dragon and an army to fight, and I will give you my undying praise.

Give me a dragon and an army to fight, and I will give you my undying praise.

Marching on Denerim at the head of the army I had worked so hard to build is still one of my fondest gaming memories. Sending packs of Werewolves to shred the Genlock Archers harassing me while a newly crafted Golem took on an Ogre with help from the stalwart Legion of the Dead was incredibly satisfying, it was a final battle that really made me feel like everything I did in the game actually mattered. All of the alliances, all of the sacrifice, all of the death: it had all been building towards this moment, and it was a moment that did not disappoint.

Mass Effect 2’s Suicide Mission remains the epitome of the epic ending for me. A mission in which everyone can die, including you, and an explosive finale that sent a chill down your fucking spine.

Even Mass Effect 3 had a damn good conclusion until they fucked it up in the last 10 minutes. That final charge towards the Citadel Beam may have seemed stupid, but it was the stupidity of desperation. It was a desperation that said “we either do this now or we go extinct.” It was a desperation I felt right down to my bones.

Thanks, Harbinger, you did good son.

I like to pretend the game ended here and we all died. It’s less depressing.

Those are the endings that will stay with me for a long time. Not because I’ll remember the specifics of why or how or when, but because I’ll remember how I felt.

Dragon Age: Inquisition… well it’ll be just another game I’ll probably remember having played at some point, but I won’t remember what it was about or what happened in the end. And most importantly I won’t remember how I felt.

Because Dragon Age: Inquisition didn’t make me feel anything…

I wish these amazing characters had appeared in a story worth the telling.

I wish these amazing characters had appeared in a story worth the telling.

In Closing:

Dragon Age: Inquisition is a game filled with some amazing, unique and fine crafted stories. It has some incredible world building. And while the main plot is pretty mediocre, the underlying plot of the Dread Wolf and Flemeth and ancient magics awakening is really compelling. Yet good storytelling is about more than good characters, plot and world building.

It’s about bringing all those elements together to form a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s like cooking, you can have all the best ingredients but unless you mix them right and cook them properly, you don’t have a good meal. Dragon Age: Inquisition had the best ingredients, it just undercooked them.

A note to Mark Darrah:

Hi Mark,

First of all I appreciate your response, I really do, that’s not sarcasm or anything. While I can see where you’re coming from, citing the “lose texts” as alternate endings is a bit disingenuous don’t you think? By that train of thought any game that has any kind of text message when you die technically has multiple endings, which would make Sierra Adventure Games of the 1990’s king of the alternate ending. I remember playing Space Quest when I was a kid, I used to get all kind of hilarious messages when I died.

And I died so many times...

And I died so many times…

And while wanting to emulate Sierra Games circa 1995 is a laudable goal, perhaps releasing serious RPGs like Dragon Age: Inquisition aren’t the best way to go about achieving that. I’m totally on board for a Dragon Quest parody game though.

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Star Wars: The Bad Awakens

So the teaser for the newest addition to the Star Wars Franchise is out and…and it’s pretty damn underwhelming. One might even go so far as to say…bad.

Real bad.

So as a teaser this is should be showcasing the best they have to offer so far, and if they looked at this teaser and said “yeah, these of are some of the best parts of the movie so far” then oh boy…we’re all in a lot of trouble.

First of all, it opens on fucking Tatooine, the most boring setting in the entire franchise. A giant fucking desert with absolutely no interesting landmarks. The whole reason it was used in the first film is because it was a visual representation of Luke’s boring, pre-jedi life. In the hero’s journey of Luke’s life, that was the Ordinary World. Yet for some reason, everytime someone makes a Star Wars movie now, it just has to show Tatooine. Enough already.

Tatooine sucks.

My god...it's boring...It's nothing but boring for as far as the eye can see!

My god…it’s boring…boring for as far as the eye can see!

But okay, it cuts from the poor bastard stuck on the Mexico of Star Wars to some more Stormtroopers on a transport. And you know that part looks alright, I’d actually like to see a movie from the perspective of an ordinary Stormtrooper. That’s not what we’re going to get, but still, that’s a good scene. Very atmospheric.

And then we’re back on Tatooine.

God damn it, people! What did I just say!?

And then as if being on Tatooine isn’t bad enough, we’re introduced to the Star Wars equivalent of the Dyson BallVac.

Yes, that is a Droid rolling on a soccer ball while tense, thematic music strums in the background. And this isn't a joke.

Yes, that is a Droid rolling on a soccer ball while tense, thematic music strums in the background.

When Stephen Hawking said real life often comes to mirror Science Fiction... this isn't what he meant.

When Stephen Hawking said real life often comes to mirror Science Fiction… this isn’t what he had in mind.

Then we cut to some X-Wings skimming across the water and I’ll admit, this scene is as impressive as hell. My mouth actually dropped open. It looks like they built real, functioning X-Wings and filmed them flying across the waters of Lake Como. That’s as close to photo-realistic CGI as I’ve ever seen. And just when I’m starting to think that maybe this won’t be such a disaster after all -

This happens.

This happens.

Now I’m not going to go into the impracticality of this design. After all, this is Star Wars, a fictional universe where building giant space-borne death cannons are practically an everyday occurrence and magical space wizards hold flaming sticks of molten energy right next to their faces. I don’t care about practicality. I do care if this looks like the goofy drawings of a 9-year old, which it totally does. I’m pretty sure I drew this exact same thing after I saw the original trilogy for the first time, because that’s how a nine-year-olds brain works.

What would make lightsabers even more awesome? I thought. Attaching even more lightsabers to the lightsaber!

I was hoping the creative minds behind the newest Star Wars movie, their last hope for redeeming a franchise that’s become a parody of itself, would have a bit more imagination and restraint than my nine-year-old self. It also doesn’t help that this scene is accompanied by some of the most hackneyed and overwrought evil dialogue I’ve ever heard.

The Dark side…and the light… – Darth Evil

Really? Why don’t you just throw in some references to those darn kids and their dog while you’re at it. Couldn’t you have at least gotten a voice actor that could pull off that dialogue? Hire back James Earl Jones for god’s sake.

Then, as the conclusion to the pulse-pounding teaser that’s supposed to getting us excited for a new Star Wars movie, they show us the Millenium Falcon.

On Tatooine.

God Damn It! 

Is this whole movie going to take place on the worst place in the fucking galaxy? 

Though I guess I can take solace in the fact that, even 30 years later, Tie Fighter pilots still can't shoot straight.

Though I guess I can take solace in the fact that, even 30 years later, Tie Fighter pilots still can’t shoot straight. Seriously guys, you had one job!

Yeah. I’m thinking we should probably write the whole thing off as awful right now.

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The Problem with Dragon Age

Super Edit: 

I have a new, much more coherent review of the Dragon Age: Inquisition’s ending right here. Just click anywhere on this giant block of text. 

Edit: Since this post was written in the heat of the moment and not up to my usual standards, I’ve done a new review of the ending. I figured I’d leave this one up though in the interest of full disclosure, and for anyone who’s curious as to what my first drafts usually look like. 

So I’ve been in a bit of a funk lately. I’ve found that I’m just having a hard time concentrating on my writing and my blog. Maybe it’s the soul crushing loneliness. Or maybe it’s the fact that my recurrence of depression has me living in a bottomless pit of despair. Regardless of the reason, I just haven’t been writing like I should. To try and pick myself up I bought Dragon Age: Inquisition. I never planned on buying this game, but after seeing so many people recommend it and so many positive reviews, I finally decided to get it.

I should have remembered that Mass Effect 3 had glowing reviews too...

I should have remembered that Mass Effect 3 had glowing reviews too…

I was hoping to do a review of it, like I’ve done for The Walking Dead series, praising its storytelling and characters. But what I got was even better…

I got a bad ending.

And there’s nothing that motivates me like a bad ending. After all, my most successful post was eviscerating the horrible ending of Mass Effect 3.

So thank you BioWare! Thank you for giving me an ending that’s somehow EVEN WORSE than Mass Effect 3. You have given me reason to exist once again.

All That Matters is the Ending:

Dragon Age Inquisition

DAI-Box-art

 

Now let me preface this whole review by saying that I have something like 60 hours logged in Inquisition. It’s a good game. And I totally understand why the game is getting such great reviews from everyone. Just like Mass Effect 3 though, it’s the ending that totally derails the whole thing. The main plot is competently written, the characters are amazing as usual, and the huge expansive environments really let you experience Thedas is a way the Dragon Age: Origins never allowed. Yet the ending…

The ending is somehow even worse than that of Mass Effect 3.

“But John, how can that be!?” I hear you ask, “Mass Effect 3’s ending was without a doubt the worst finale in the history of video games!” 

Well… it’s worse because it doesn’t even try.

As harsh as I was on Mass Effect 3’s ending, on some level I still respected what they did. They dreamed big. And really the main problem with the ending was the last 10 minutes of the game with the Star Child and his Architect-like explanation of the Reapers.

In fact I'm surprised BioWare didn't get sued for lifting their ending straight from Matrix Reloaded.

In fact I’m surprised BioWare didn’t get sued for lifting their ending straight from Matrix Reloaded.

As many wise people have said over the eons:

If you’re going to fail, fail spectacularly!

For all its failings, at least Mass Effect 3 tried. It tried hard. The finale in the smoking ruins of Earth’s cities is still one of my favorite moments in gaming, and ignoring the last ten minutes, it’s a fine ending to the series.

Dragon Age: Inquisition on the other hand…well it doesn’t even try. It fails so pitifully that I almost hate to tear it down further. Mass Effect 3 was a worthy opponent, an ending whose many grand mistakes demanded a long detailed analysis. Inquisition practically apologizes to you for having such a bad ending, before immediately offering to sell you a better one. Ten, twenty years down the road people will look back and remember the hilarious aftermath of Mass Effect 3’s terrible ending, and the otherwise amazing game that led to that ending. Ten, twenty years down the road people will look back on Inquisition and say… “What game was that again?”

So why is it so utterly forgettable? Well…

1. There’s No Payoff

Let me just say this… I never really got into the plot of Inquisition once “The Elder One” was revealed to be Corypheus (really Bioware, Corpse? That’s the best anagram you could come up with?) Up until the attack on Haven I felt like this story had the potential to go anywhere, who was the mysterious voice in the ruins of the Temple of Sacred Ashes. What was the purpose behind the Divine’s “sacrifice”, what was the ultimate plan behind the rifts? This story could have gone in so many epic directions, told us strange and wonderful tales.

Instead it went with the old and incredibly tired megalomaniac aspiring to Godhood route.

Sorry Corypheus, but I think that whole schtick has been done before...

Sorry Corypheus, but I think that whole schtick has been done before…

Now I’ll be the first to admit that there’s nothing new under the sun, every story has been told. The challenge of writing a good story lies in telling the same old crap in new and interesting ways. Bioware failed to do so. All of Corypheus’s dialogue sounds like it came straight out of an “Antagonist Dialogue for Dummies” book complete with the deep, gravely voice. He wants to become a god and remake the world in his own image…well get in line buddy, there’s long, long line of people ahead of you that already had that idea.

Even after Corypheus proved to be a disappointing reveal, I was hoping maybe his plan was imaginative or would reveal something interesting about his character. Did he learn something when he was lost in the Fade? Was there a secret to Godhood? Was he behind Red Lyrium and its corruptive properties?

We may never know because his whole plan seems to be “enter the fade” and… well that’s it. Nothing else. There’s only a Step A, with Corypheus apparently hoping that the rest will somehow take care of itself.  Yeah, that went real well for you the last time you tried it, Magister. Oh did I forget to mention he was one of the original Tevinter Magister’s the penetrated the Golden City, turning it black and unleashing the Darkspawn? Well he is. That’s the same plan he has now, because surely the same plan couldn’t fail twice right?

And yet despite the fact this same plan has already failed before, everyone is convinced it’s going to work. Why? If he didn’t become a god from penetrating the Golden City, why would entering the Black City herald any different results? The better explanation is that his tampering with the fade might unleash powers that will destroy the world, but everyone acts like that’s the less likely option, despite literally no one explaining why.

I will admit his generic plan fits rather well this is generic character and generic appearance.

I will admit his generic plan fits rather well this is generic character and generic appearance.

Corypheus, apart from being utterly forgettable, is also just really terrible at his job. He’s built up as this all-powerful demigod and yet he fails every single time we meet him. The whole reason this plot even begins is because the all-powerful sphere of magic slips from his hand. Yes, the inciting incident of this entire story can be summed up as “Oops…butter fingers!”

Next he attacks Haven, a tiny little village utterly isolated from the rest of the world. Yet despite having an army of thousands, magical abilities powerful enough to rip open the sky, and a fucking dragon, he can’t even do that properly. Then he marches into the Arbor Wilds in search of the Well of Sorrows, and fails to get there before the Inquisitor despite having a head start. Oh, and we only know he’s heading there because he takes his entire fucking army with him. Why not just take a small team? You’re a demigod after all, why did you need thousands of soldiers?

And while we’re on the subject of the Well of Sorrows…why wasn’t this your plan A, Corypheus? If the Well of Sorrows could have taken you into the fade, why rip open a giant green sky hole and announce to everyone your intentions? He could have gone into the Arbor Wilds and taken the the Well of Sorrows before anyone even knew he existed.

And finally we get to the final boss fight? Finally, Corypheus has a chance to show us all the power at his disposal…

And he’s basically a mediocre Mage. The unstoppable Demigod, who everyone was telling me would easily kill me if we met in battle, who can levitate an entire temple and the bedrock it sit on… is apparently not all that powerful in combat. Hitting him repeatedly with an axe seemed to work just fine guys, but thanks for all the concern.

Pictured: A far more interesting and capable Villain.

Pictured: A far more interesting and capable Villain. Also a headcrab.

Ultimately the game is 99% build up and 1% crushing disappointment. Everything in the game fools you into thinking that the story is building into an epic finale. It’s like watching the fuse on a firework slowly burn down, and you brace yourself for the spectacular light show you think is coming, only for the firework to fizzle pathetically to nothing.

2. None of Your Choices Matter

Aside from the horrible dialogue and awful contradictions that Mass Effect 3’s ending introduced, the other major complaint was the fact that in the end none of your choices really mattered. Whether you chose to kill or spare the Rachnid Queen, whether you sided with Krogan or the Salarians, none of it affected the ending. It was a perfectly valid criticism, ultimately nothing you did in Mass Effect had any effect on the ending. Now take that utter lack of meaningful impacts from your choices and multiply it by a hundred.

That’s how useless your choices are in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Not only do none of your choices affect the ending…they don’t affect the game period. One of the early story missions asks you to choose between seeking the aid of the Mages or the Templars. I chose the Templars because I thought their anti-magic abilities would be the most useful against a mage like Corypheus (at the time I didn’t know he was less dangerous than the wildlife in this game.) When Corypheus attacked Haven, his Venatori were supported by rebel mages and then…well they’re never seen again. From then on it’s just Venatori and Red Templars, Templars corrupted by Red Lyrium. Okay, I can accept that maybe I didn’t save all the Templars and that they’d still show up…but the utter lack of mages? Where did they all go? You telling me they were wiped out at Haven? Every mage from every circle?

Bioware couldn’t even make their first meaningful choice in the game last beyond one mission. But at least it showed up in one mission, that’s more than I can say for the rest of the choices you’re given.

Another mission later on asks you whether you want the Grey Wardens to join the Inquisition. I exiled them from Orlais because I figured they were too susceptible to Corypheus’s darkspawn influences. So was my caution rewarded and a mutiny in my own army avoided? Or were my troops slaughtered by Darkspawn without the Grey Wardens to protect them? Uh, apparently neither , because as far as I can tell, not a single thing changed. I looked it up, even if you let them stay, all they do is show up at Skyhold. It’s a purely cosmetic choice.

Did you save Empress Celene or allow her to be killed so her more militaristic cousin could take over? Hint: It doesn’t matter, you get Orlais’s army no matter what.

I don't know why we went through all that effort to build an army in Origins. Apparently they grow on trees in Orlais.

Remember when building an army was a huge undertaking?

And while I wasn’t expecting every single operation on the war map to have a significant impact on the game, I did expect some kind of feedback. I helped Queen Anora of Ferelden broker a peace with Orlais. I sent my troops to combat an army of Darkspawn and hunt them down when they retreated into the mountains. I gave financial and medical aid to civilians affected by the Orlesian Civil War. These were big missions with far ranging implications, and surely those would have some impact.

Nope. You can go through the entire game without doing a single operation and it would’t affect the outcome, not even a single line of dialogue would change.

I paid special attention to the Keep missions because those, I thought for sure, would play an important part in the ending. Surely the ending would feature all out war with Corypheus and his army. Maybe even the Tevinter Empire would send its legions in support, and my strategic positions in the keeps would be the difference between victory and defeat. So I captured the Keeps, and did all the operations to make sure they were operating at maximum efficiency. I found a new source of water for the keep in the Western Approach and made sure they had good food to eat. I rebuilt the highway at Empris Du Lion so that troops could march through the area quickly.

And it didn’t matter, because the only thing Keeps do is operate as another campsite that you can fast travel to. They also have a merchant or two that will sell you some good stuff. But as for an impact on the story? Nope.

Welcome to the table of worthless bullshit.

Welcome to the table of worthless bullshit.

So what about character side quests? Surely their approval would matter in the end. Cole, a spirit of Compassion, was worried that Corypheus might bind him. So I found an amulet to protect him, and then helped Compassion learn to forgive the man who killed the boy he couldn’t save. So did Corypheus attempt to bind Cole and impotently rage at me when he failed? Nope, as far as I can tell he never even made an attempt to do so.

And yet in the final meeting in Skyhold’s grand hall, Cole has the gall to say “Did you see? Corypheus tried to bind me and he couldn’t!”

No Cole, I didn’t see that. I would loved to have seen that. To see some kind of feedback from my choices.

The only choices that have any impact on the story are the ones from previous games. And it’s kind of impressive they managed to integrate so many of your previous choices into the game world. It’s just a shame that they couldn’t do the same thing for all the choices you make in the game you just spent nearly $70.00 on.

3. The Story is a DLC Marketing Tactic

I think the saddest part of the ending, is that I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. When my final objective was “Retire to your Quarters” I thought, Bioware you crafty Dog. This is a fake ending isn’t it? I’m going to retire to my room, and then my Inquisitor will wake up in the middle of the night as Skyhold is besieged by…someone. I didn’t even care who at that point, just tell that anemic boss fight wasn’t the ending. But no, I retired and the game gave me a final whimper as it gave me a couple of portraits explaining how my actions had consequences. Even that final ending monologue was pathetic compared to Dragon Age: Origins, at least Origins went through every choice you made and told you the fate of all the characters you got to meet. Inquisitions final monologue covers like 3 of the major choices in the story and maybe like 2 or 3 characters. That’s it.

Still, even as the credits rolled I thought, nah. Bioware couldn’t have fallen this far. No way. Mass Effect 3 had a bad ending, but surely the company hadn’t fallen this far from grace.

When I saw this after credits stinger, it suddenly all made sense. The whole, shamefully underwritten plot and story of Dragon Age: Inquisition was just a preamble to a series of DLC.

It was the video equivalent of this message.

It was the video equivalent of this message.

Oh, so you didn’t like the ending? Well guess what, there was this far more interesting story going on in the background this whole time! But you’ll have to pay to see that one, because forking out $70.00 fucking dollars just isn’t enough to justify us giving you a good story. – EA Games, apparently

Well guess what Bioware and EA. Fuck you. If you couldn’t get a decent story written for the main game, what makes you think I’m going to trust your storytelling abilities in any of the undoubtedly long series of overpriced DLC adventures you have planned?

So in Conclusion…

Bioware took our criticisms of Mass Effect 3’s Red, Blue and Green endings by giving Dragon Age Inquisition only a single color ending.

And that color is white.

White as in the color of really old dog shit.

As in the color of really old dog shit.

 

 

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Tell me Another Story of The Walking Dead (Season 2 Review)

I’ll admit I was a bit wary of playing Telltale’s The Walking Dead season 2 for the same reason I was wary of The Dark Knight Rises, I was afraid that the second season wouldn’t be able to live up to the original. I’m happy to report that my fears were proven wrong and that not only does The Walking Dead: Season 2 live up to the original game, but in many ways it’s superior to the original. It manages to correct the few mistakes from the last game, and tells a story even more riveting than Lee’s… the story of Clementine.

Obviously this review is going to contain spoilers so, you know, don’t read it if you haven’t played it. Which you totally should.

The Walking Dead: Season 2

A Storyteller’s Review

2013-12-20_00001

When last we left Clementine, she’d just finished blowing Lee’s brains all over the wall in one of the most emotional finales I’ve ever encountered in a video game. Season 2 begins with Clementine tagging along with Omid and Christa as they make their way north. Who are Omid and Christa? If you, like me, hadn’t played the first season of Walking Dead in a while you probably won’t remember these two. They were introduced late in Episode 4 and thus didn’t get as much screen time as the more memorable characters. Don’t worry though, they’ll be dead before you really have to worry about remembering them. Also like me, if you’re missing your savegame from Season 1, not importing a save doesn’t have any significant impact on the story as far as I can tell, so feel free to dive right in.

It’s been about a year and a half since the events of Episode 5 of Season 1, and Clementine is now bigger, more mature and, let’s face it, a bit more disturbed. After Omid is killed by some stupid teenager looking for an easy score, Christa blames Clementine for his death. Though personally I would be blaming the two adults who thought it was a good idea to leave a 9-year-old alone in a zombie infested wasteland. Anyway after one the most intense chase scenes I’ve ever played through, Clementine falls into a river and is swept away by the current, leaving behind a horde of walkers and the thugs that tried to kill her.

And leaving one of the thugs minus a thumb, because you don't fuck with my Clementine.

And leaving one of the thugs minus a thumb, because you don’t fuck with my Clementine.

This is where the story really begins, with everything before providing the inciting incident; Clementine finds herself alone, unarmed and with no supplies in the middle of a forest with winter fast approaching. Fortunately Clementine finds herself a new friend:

Man's best friend.

Man’s best friend.

Together Clementine and her new Canine companion go on many magical adventures; playing fetch, scavenging for supplies, and sharing a meal. Oh the good times I imagined me and my new friend would have together. Just me and my faithful dog against the scary, zombie-infested world. Soon we’d…we’d…

Clementine attacked by Dog

Dude, what the fuck!? I thought we were bros!

This scene shocked me on so many levels. When I was taking Creative Writing at the local college, my teacher told me a very specific fact about dogs and stories, a fact that I’ve never questioned.

You can have your protagonist kill men, women, even children and still have your audience rooting for your character. But the minute your character kills a dog, say goodbye to your readers.

I’ve always found this to be true, and apparently so do many other writers, because you never see a hero killing a dog. If you see a dog die in a story, it’s almost always a result of either the villain’s actions or environmental factors. This is mostly because dogs are often always the heroes in stories, even the powerful Dire Wolves of the Song of Ice and Fire series are seen as heroic companions rather than the apex predators they are. That’s not surprising considering that canines have been our loyal companions for thousands of years. This scene with Clementine though, is probably the most realistic depiction of dogs I’ve seen in a video game.

In the right conditions any one of us would turn into a heartless, cold blooded killer. We’re all predators, but because we live in comfort with readily available sources of food, safety from the elements and disease, we’ve suppressed the instincts that have made us such efficient killers. Dogs are no different, in a loving environment with food, warmth and safety, dogs are one of the most loyal and dedicated friends you could ever ask for. Throw a dog into the cold, deprive it of food, put it in constant danger and isolate it from people, and they will quickly revert to their most basic instincts: that of the wolf.  That’s what happened to this dog. To its credit it was friendly for most of the time, but once Clementine found that food, the dog’s overwhelming instinct for survival took over.

It’s a credit to the people at Telltale that they so brilliantly lured you in with the dog’s pleasant demeanor, we trust dogs almost implicitly and they used that trust to shock us with this powerful scene. When a story needs to reinforce the stakes of a story, reiterate the harsh realities of their world, most of them will kill off a human character. That’s a fine way to do it, but Telltale’s decision to use this dog instead was simply…brilliant. We love dogs, and to see what many of us consider to be our closest friends, reduced to a wild animal willing to kill a little girl over a can of beans, that reinforced the stakes of the story in a way that shocked our sensibilities. It told us that the world we live in was truly gone. That dog dragged Clementine to the ground and dragged us into harsh, unforgiving reality of her story.

Dog dying after attacking Clementine

I’m so sorry.

I wanted to be angry at the dog, but I couldn’t. I understood why it attacked me. I chose to kill the dog, not because I was seeking revenge, but because the dog deserved mercy. I wasn’t about to let it spend hours in agony slowly bleeding to death. With a tearful goodbye I forgave the dog and ended its suffering.

That’s just the first fifteen minutes of the first episode by the way, and it does an absolutely terrific job setting the stage for the rest of the game. In fact the dog represents a microcosm of the story itself; will you become like the dog? Will you put your survival above all else, even at the expense of other people’s lives? Or will you try to hold onto your humanity?

Obviously this isn’t the first story to explore such questions, but exploring those questions through the eyes of a 11-year-old girl makes this one of the most riveting and compelling explorations of these themes. While most stories shy away from showing children in pain, The Walking Dead takes an almost perverse pleasure in not only making you watch her suffer, but making you work with her through the worst pain she’s ever experienced.

"I'm going to make you stick pins into a little girl's arm... just to watch you squirm." - The Game

“I’m going to make you stick pins into a little girl’s arm… just to watch you squirm.” – The Game

Holy shit this sequence was crazy, absolutely crazy. The game shows you, in excruciating detail, Clementine disinfecting and stitching shut her gaping wound by herself. The dickheads she meets up with are convinced the arm wound in a zombie bite, so the stupid bunch of cowards go and lock her in a storage closet to see if she turns. I was ready to see all of these idiots die horribly because they pissed me off. Who leaves a little girl to die in a utility shed? Really guys? What the fuck is wrong with you?

Once again though, Telltale never makes things simple for you, and as you get to know this new group of survivors, you’ll not only understand their decision but will in all probability forgive them for leaving you to die in a drafty old shed. And yes, once again, it’s these characters that make this game so incredible.

All of the problems I had with the previous Walking Dead season have been completely eradicated in this one. There are no more forgettable characters like Omid and Christa, each and every character you meet in this game will stick in your memory. Even the ones that die only moments after you meet them.

Sometimes especially the ones that die after you meet them...

Especially the ones that die after you meet them…

My biggest gripe from the first season came in the form of the Walkie-Talkie-Baddie, the strange villain that came out of nowhere and served no purpose than to give you an overwrought overview of your actions over the course of the game. This time there is no impossible to explain villain and no contrived kidnappings; it’s just you, your company of survivors, and the hard decisions you have to make in order to survive. Also, unlike the ending of the first season which railroaded you towards the ending, you get some time to rest and appreciate the characters you’re travelling with.

This scene around the campfire is yet another great example of juxtaposition, I was smiling and laughing right alongside my companions, especially when Luke began talking about his sexual escapades with Jane.

I just wanted to forget about everything for ten minutes. – Luke

Ten minutes? Hell I wouldn’t last that long at this point. – Mike

Well, okay, maybe not ten minutes. – Luke

That’s gross. – Clementine

It’s a puerile sex joke, and in any other context wouldn’t be that funny, but after the stress of surviving zombies, crazy Russians, and a mentally unravelling Kenny, it was the funniest thing I’d heard all day. For a few moments, while huddling around the fire and listening to people laughing, I thought maybe this group would be okay. That maybe we’d all survive. Maybe everything would be alright.

Of course then we tried to cross the river and everything went to hell.

Of course then we tried to cross the river and everything went to hell.

Luke falling through the ice and drowning proves to the final straw for this group of survivors. Kenny, who has been becoming increasingly unhinged since the death of Sarita, is ready to kill Arvo and leave the rest of the group behind if necessary. Alvin Jr. (AJ), the newborn of Rebecca, has become an obsession with Kenny. His entire reason for living becomes wrapped up in the survival of the child and he begins seeing anyone who doesn’t agree with him as a threat to the kid’s survival. Mike, Bonnie and Arvo are completely terrified of Kenny, and I can’t say I blamed them. What I can blame them for is shooting Clementine before running off into the forest. Though perhaps she should thank them, because after being shot, Clementine wakes up in the arms of a familiar friend.

2014-08-26_00011It was good to see Lee again, I didn’t realize how much I’d missed his character until this scene. Clementine’s mind, reeling from the shock of a bullet tearing through her shoulder, retreats to the last moment when Clementine felt safe. This scene gives us not only a much needed break from the constant stress of survival, but a valuable glimpse into Clementine’s subconscious. As much as she’s grown, as much as she’s proven that she can care for herself, inside she’s still a little girl. Inside she wants what we all want, to feel safe and loved. It’s a nice scene that reminds us that, even though Clementine has killed more than her share of Walkers, and even a few human beings, she’s still a child. A child who just wants someone to tell her it will be alright.

Clementine's flashback to Lee

It will be alright.

When Clementine regains consciousness she finds herself in the truck that Kenny managed to get started, with Kenny and Jane arguing over their next course of action. Kenny wants to continue searching for Wellington, an almost mythical sanctuary at this point that might be more rumor than fact, while Jane wants to head back south to Carver’s old base where they know supplies are being kept. It’s clear a choice has to be made, Kenny and Jane are both too stubborn and shortsighted to put aside their differences, leaving Clementine to make the decision.

After getting separated in a Blizzard they regroup at a rest stop, but when Jane arrives without AJ Kenny finally loses his tenuous grip on reality and goes completely crazy. Like any good narrative, this scene hearkens back to the scene with our dog friend. I trusted Kenny, he’d been a good friend, but a person can only take so much before he’s irrevocably broken. Sarita’s death was Kenny’s breaking point. I tried to reach him, to pull him back from the edge. Like the dog who attacked Clementine though, Kenny was beyond reasoning when he attacked Jane. Finally… he left me choice.

2014-08-26_00019

To my surprise, the bullet lodged in Kenny’s hip seemed to make him a bit more lucid, and he forgave me for shooting him. The man who only a few minutes ago was prepared to stick a knife in a girl’s heart…finally seemed at peace.

I’ve asked for this for so long… and now that it’s here… I’m scared. – Kenny

You’re going to see Duck and Katjaa… – Clementine

You always were good for a smile… – Kenny’s last words.

Kenny dies after being shot by Clementine

Goodbye my old friend…

Saying goodbye to Kenny was just as emotional as saying goodbye to Lee in the previous episode, and this time it wasn’t tainted by an inexplicable villain. The finale of episode 5 ranks as one of the finest endings in any video game ever, and Telltale once again shows us what a powerful storytelling device video games can be. The Walking Dead may not always be good for a smile, but it’s always good for an incredible journey. And it’s a journey I urge you to undertake because it’s one of the finest, most emotional journeys you’ll ever take inside a video game. It may be filled with tragedy, loss and darkness…

But that just makes the moments of hope all the brighter.

But that just makes the moments of hope all the brighter.

 

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The Writer Returns to the Block

So those of you still with me after these months of silence: my humblest thanks for sticking with me through another bout of depression. You’re probably confused now, since my last post was so smugly self satisfied that it was practically an invitation to my inauguration as mayor of awesometown, population 1. Well I did believe what I wrote, at the time at least. Yet the human brain can be an absolute bastard sometimes, and it wasn’t long before it began taunting me:
What if that was your one and only shot, and you fucked it up? What if you never make it as a writer? What if you never find love in this lifetime? What if all of existence is a sucking black hole of misery and despair from which there is no escape?

 

My mind escalates things quickly.

My mind escalates things quickly. 

Of course it didn’t help that my living situation was uncertain at the time, though I didn’t publicize it on here I was actually living with some friends for a few months. My first time living away from home. Things started brightly, my friends were extremely accommodating and it was a real pleasure living there. I got on a semi routine schedule, and began applying for jobs so that I could eventually move out on my own. Riding the high of a new experience I did really well… until I couldn’t find a job. After a solid month of submitting applications and not getting a single nibble, I began slipping into old habits. Staying up late watching netflix, playing video games 12 hours a day. It wasn’t pretty.

After leaving my friends I went through a couple months where I didn’t even know where I was going to live, and a freeway underpass was looking like a more and more likely option as time went by. It’s hard to concentrate on writing when you spend all your time worrying about living out of a tent and wondering what garbage can cuisine tastes like.

Though I admit I was looking forward to being roomies with the Freemont Troll.

Though I admit I was looking forward to being roomies with the Freemont Troll.

Fortunately I was able to stave off homelessness thanks to my awesome friend Hali!  I’m now living in an awesome loft apartment with my three cats, complete with an amazing view of the Puget Sound. It’s basically a perfect perch for doing writing, because the beauty of the Puget Sound never fails to inspire me.

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So with things settling back into a normal rhythm I can start concentrating on my blog again. I’ve got plenty of material coming up, including posts on Doctor Who, the first 4 chapters of Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 2, and plenty of other amazing, stupendous topics that I just haven’t quite thought of yet. I know they’re there though, so stay tuned!

 

 

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Games, Microsoft and the Future

So apologies for my long silence everyone, but exciting things have been afoot. About three weeks ago I applied for a job with Microsoft as a Game Writer, which has pretty much been my dream job since I began writing professionally. I didn’t actually take it that seriously at first so I slapped together a sample piece of writing in about fifteen minutes, and sent it in,  figuring there’d be a long line of qualified writers with years of previous game writing experience behind them. Compared to industry veterans, what chance would I have? Well it turns out I had a really good chance, because I heard back from the recruiter almost immediately.  After talking with him over the phone, he said I sounded like a great candidate and he’d forward my name on to the project lead at Microsoft. All of that took place over the course of about two weeks, two weeks of delirious happiness. Had I finally made it as a writer?

I spoke with the team leader at Microsoft last Monday and was, unfortunately, completely unprepared for the kinds of questions he was asking. He asked me to describe my creative process and… well I couldn’t really give a coherent answer. I told him I make a general outline, and there are usually a couple of drafts I go through, but that’s it. I can’t describe how I write, I just sit down and do it. The rest of the questions were similar, how would I interact with the team? How would I work side by side with a graphic artist? How would I interact with stakeholders? I did my best to give coherent answers, but I think most it was just rambling. How would I interact with these people? I have no idea, I won’t know until I meet them and get a clearer picture of what kind of work I’m doing. That’s why I was really hoping to get an in-person interview, where it’s easier to get a feel for people thanks to all those subtle, subconscious clues we get like body language.

A firm handshake can be the key to getting a job... also a bribe never hurts.

A firm handshake can be the key to getting a job… also a bribe never hurts.

Unfortunately last Thursday I found out that I didn’t get the job. I’ll admit, this was a crushing disappointment and I’ve spent much of the last week just moping around feeling bad for myself. After mentally regrouping however, I’ve taken stock of what I accomplished; I manage to impress enough people that I got to talk with the project lead at Microsoft! Not only that, but the guy read my blog and revealed he worked on Bioshock: Infinite before Irrational Games closed and that he really enjoyed my articles on the subject. Microsoft is a notoriously difficult company to get a job with, and I managed to get a phone interview with a project leader! Most people don’t even get past the job application.

That’s not meant to be a boast, but rather my own realization that I have real talent. I didn’t attract attention through a long, impressive resume or an impressive educational pedigree, it was entirely my writing. A piece of writing I wasn’t even taking seriously because I figured there wasn’t an ice cube’s chance in hell I’d get the job. Clearly I’m doing something right, the last twenty years I’ve spent writing haven’t been for nothing. Scribbling stories out as a little kid about dinosaurs and ninjas, the aborted novels I tried writing as a teenager, and the four years I’ve been working on this blog have all been contributing to my future. Part of me is always doubting, maybe I’m at talentless hack and I’ve been merely deluding myself for all these years. Attracting the attention of a huge company like Microsoft though, that’s not just a fluke. I didn’t make it through four levels of interviews because of dumb luck.

So no, I didn’t get the job, but holy shit I came so close! And next time I get an opportunity I’ll be more prepared for the questions they’ll ask, and I’ll spend more time on the writing sample, because now I know… I’m a good writer. And for someone who lives to tell stories, that means everything to me.

“Write without pay until someone offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this as a sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.” – Mark Twain

Mark Twain's quote on writing.

 

No wood chopping for this writer, no sir. I’m going places.

And the first place I’ll be going is a little blue box that travels through space and time. Keep an eye out for it later this week.

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