Patreon Updates

I’m still writing my review of Planescape Torment, which should hopefully be up by next week, but in the mean time I thought I’d give my patreon backers a few updates:

First of all, thanks to Jared and John for becoming my second and third backers on Patreon. I’ve already hit my first two milestones, which means that the WordPress Wordads will soon be joining the Darkspawn in the black abyss of the deep roads and my blog will be moving to a private host instead of WordPress.com. WordPress is a great site and it’s served me well, but it does have it’s limitations. I’ve been wanting to redesign the site for years now so that readers could see and read articles in an intuitive way, where as now it’s easy to miss the fact that an article might be part of a larger series. Unfortunately to do that on WordPress requires you buying one of their Premium Themes, which are ridiculously expensive, it would be far more cost effective to move my stuff to a private server and then I can tweak the wordpress code however I like. Thanks to Eric, John and Jared I can now do just that.

I’m currently in the process of looking for a good host, so hopefully in the next few weeks I’ll be on a private server with a completely revamped website layout. In theory this shouldn’t affect you at all, the site will still be at the same URL (www.johnswritersblock.com), the switch should happen entirely in the background. However that’s just the theory, so in the case something goes terribly, terribly wrong and my site leads you to a 404 error or something similar, send me an email at j.stevenson88@gmail.com and hopefully I can get it fixed quickly.

Secondly, my Patreon now has a fancy Header graphic thanks to a terrific artist I know!

WritersBlock

 

Thanks to the outpouring of support I’ve already received, both in actual dollars and supportive messages from people who couldn’t afford to contribute, I’ve been thinking of expanding the Writer’s Block to include my own works of fiction. I’ve been reluctant to do this because, and this isn’t easy to admit, I can talk the talk but walking the walk scares the shit out of me. Yes, I love getting up on my soapbox and criticizing writers who, even if they failed, put themselves out there and tried to tell a story. As badly as I piled onto the writers of Dragon Age: Inquisition, they at least actually published a story for the world to see, and I respect that. Unfortunately because my ego is held together with chewed bubble gum and ancient mummy-wrappings I’ve always been a bit reluctant to open up myself to similar criticism.

Well no more. I already have a series of stories that will be published on http://www.fantasyrockopera.com, one of my freelance writing clients. I also have a science fiction short story that’s near to completion that I’ll be publishing.

Now only will this help me become a better writer, but I’m hoping it’ll also greatly improve my chances at finding a job in the game industry. The one thing holding me back, I think, is my lack of actual content that I created with my own fingers. The storytelling reviews and copy writing  experience on my résumé is all well and good; it shows my experience in professional settings and the ability to relay complex information to an audience, but it doesn’t really showcase my creativity. At least not in a way that would make a potential game company look at it and say “yeah, this guy could create a world for our game.” Basically I’m Gordon Freeman in Half-Life 2, I go around ripping things off the wall with a gravity gun and giggling like a maniac.

"You have destroyed so much, what is it, exactly, that you have created!?" - Pertinent Half-Life 2 quote.

“You have destroyed so much! What is it, exactly, that you have created!?” – Pertinent Half-Life 2 quote.

I’ve also recently gotten back into playing Freespace 2, one of the greatest space simulators ever made: it also happens to feature a powerful mission creator so simple even a poorly trained monkey could use it. I used to make dozens of my own campaign when the game came out in 1999, so with everything I know now and the much more powerful FRED editor provided by the Open Source Project, I should be able to create some really cool stories. Not only will this get my own stories out there, but it’ll give me a chance to experience making a story using gameplay and having to keep things like game balance and pacing in mind while creating a story. After my Planescape Torment review, I’ll be doing a review of Freespace 1 and 2 and why they did a terrific job telling their stories.

So prepare yourselves, for stories are coming. They might be bad, but they’ll be mine. So we’ll just see how this goes. My Patreon page may eventually expand to include milestones for short stories and perhaps novels at some point, but for now, just enjoy.

And support my Patreon if you can, and if you can’t, share it on Twitter and Facebook!

 

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The Importance of Death and Failure

Well it’s been an exciting two months here. Lots of new readers who apparently all agree that Dragon Age Inquisition is perhaps the most disappointing Game of the Year in history. I’ve had my first, hopefully of many, backer on Patreon (Big thanks to Eric!) and am playing through Planescape Torment now to review the story. I’ve been playing it for about two weeks now and it’s become clear that it’s going to take a while to write a proper review of the game. The narrative is deep, the characters believable, and there are important facets of the game’s multilayer, in media res, checkovian, greek-tragedy style storyline that must be analyzed and meticulously um…analyzed to um… provide maximum reviewyness.

You’re… you’re not buying it are you?

Okay I’ll admit…

I suck at the combat!

Awaiting death should have been my character's name.

Awaiting death should have been my character’s name.

I remember classic RPGs from the 90s being hard, but after years of playing games that go out of their way to help me win, they’re almost impossible. The part of my brain that used to see games as a challenge has completely atrophied. I’ve woken up on that lonely slab so many times I consider it a close personal friend. Not to worry though, I’m sure I will eventually get the hang of playing a game that doesn’t hold my hand.

Eventually.

In the meantime, I want to talk about how refreshing it is to play a game that’s actually difficult and why difficulty is important to a game. I touched on this in my review of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the inability for the character to fail in anyway cheapened the story and completely undermined the stakes. Now I’m not going to sit here and say how much better games were back in my day…

Now that's a game!

Now that’s a game!

Games are definitely far more fun and accessible now than they were when I first started playing them in the early 90s as a kid. UI’s have been streamlined and made more intuitive, improved graphics have made it easier to actually tell what the hell your shooting at, and on the whole, writing has been greatly improved. Still, in the effort to make games appeal to wider and wider audiences, the difficulty of games has gone down dramatically.

For instance a few weeks back I played Dying Light, which is actually a pretty good game at the beginning. You’re so pitifully weak and out of shape that trying to take on more than two or three zombies at a time will either send you running for your life or screaming as they feast on your flesh. And because I felt so weak during the day, Night was an absolute nightmare. Nighttime is when the freaks come out, they’re fast, strong and utterly merciless. When you first encounter them, you have to run through the pitch black streets and try and make it home again while dozens of these monsters are tearing after you. As a complete and utter coward even in video game settings, my heart was pounding in my chest as I ran through the streets while hearing their grunting and screeching cries just behind me.

And then they caught me.

In my panic I’d run into a dead end, and I couldn’t parkour myself up the walls fast enough to escape.

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Wait! Stop! Do over! DO OVER!

So I splashed some cold water on my face, psyched myself up and hit the continue button. This time I’d remain calm, avoid that alley, and try to stick to the rooftops.

And then suddenly I was back at the Tower, a safe zone.

And like that, all tension in the game evaporated. Your death in game has absolutely no penalty aside from the loss of XP if you die in the day time, but at night there’s no penalty at all to dying. Without that, the game loses any sense of threat or challenge because you know, no matter what you screw up or how hopeless your situation seems, you’ll wake up back in a safe location. Now I wasn’t expecting an Ironman mode where dying would result in a complete reset, that would just be annoying, but I was at least expecting the game to put me back at the beginning of the chase scene.

Death is one of the most basic and effective means to establishing the stakes of a story and creating challenging gameplay. When you take that away you better have a damn good mechanic in place to replace it, Dying Light didn’t and after that the game just didn’t have any thrill to it. Beating zombies to death with a baseball bat isn’t nearly as intimidating when you know that losing just means waking up in complete safety with ammo and health available for purchase at the nearest store. In fact sometimes when the game made me run off to remote locations to complete a quest, I’d jump off a cliff or something just so I could use the Magic Teleporter of Death to warp back into the city.

And the game only gets worse from their as you unlock abilities and weapons that allow you to take down hundreds of zombies at a time.

You see zombies, I see a crop of XP waiting to be harvested.

You see zombies, I see a crop of XP waiting to be harvested.

Allow me to compare Dying Light to the only game I feel did zombies correctly: State of Decay. Now in State of Decay you could gain experience points from killing zombies, but these didn’t unlock special abilities so much as it simply represented a character becoming more familiar with his weapons. If your character takes a baseball bat to zombies, he’ll naturally progress in melee skill. A character who runs at the mere sight of a zombie will become more athletic and able to run faster and farther. But even when all your stats are maxed out, more than a handful of zombies will ruin your day unless you have a gun with a suppressor.

More importantly, if your character dies… he dies. Though you can recover his equipment if your fast enough, death in State of Decay is permanent. And when your first character dies screaming in terror because you stupidly thought you could take on a dozen zombies, it really reinforces the stakes of the game. And when you see a character taken down by a feral and literally torn in half, through no fault of your own but bad luck, it makes the game world feel dangerous and unpredictable.

Now Dying Light has some great things going for it, it’s one of the few games where I felt like melee combat had any real weight to it. I could practically feel the impact of my blows while playing Dying Light, and its physics engine is top notch, with zombies tumbling over and picking themselves up in realistic ways. Once you play it, the zero-mass rag-dolls of yesteryear’s physics engines will seem utterly ridiculous.

crackdown2_small

You know, just in case you didn’t already think they were ridiculous.

But if you’re looking for a satisfying sense of danger and fear, Dying Light will not scratch that itch in the slightest. In fact you’ll probably find yourself doing more missions at night because you get bonus XP.  And while I’m using Dying Light as the whipping boy here, it’s only because it was the most recent example, there are plenty of other games guilty of reducing difficulty to the point where there’s no satisfaction to winning.

And I do understand why games have become easier. As a person with increasingly less and less time to actually play video games, I don’t want to have to repeat the same level four times. However, there’s streamlining the difficulty for the player’s convenience and then there’s just holding their hand the entire time, and tutting us like an irritated mother when we fuck it up. Dying Light falls distinctly into the latter category. When you die in Dying Light, the game gently soothes you, wraps you in a blanket and gives you some hot coco before placing you safely back in the game. What it should have done is tell you what a disappointment you are to them and then toss you back into the streets with the monsters.

Now some of you might be finding this stance a bit hypocritical given that Planescape Torment does pretty much the same thing. You die, you end up back in the Mortuary safe and sound. The difference is that Planescape Torment’s death mechanic makes sense in its world, and not only that, it also fits into the themes of mortality and identity. Plus I’ve heard, though not yet experienced myself, that certain powerful deities and creatures you meet in the game can Permakill you if you piss them off. That’s the key, Planescape Torment makes its death mechanic part of the story and thus it doesn’t undermine the stakes when you’re reborn.

Dying Light just teleports you to safety with no explanation and no penalty.

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Yeah, if you could just carry me back to my room, that’d be great thanks.

My brain’s ability to deal with difficulties has been completely atrophied after years of playing games like Dying Light that go out of their way to make sure I never feel challenged. Planescape Torment, aside from having an amazing story, has reminded me just how important difficulty and the possibility of failure is to a satisfying video game. Hopefully I’ll be back soon with a full review and story breakdown of Planescape Torment.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll support my Patreon page and keep on reading the site!

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The Failure of the Inquisitor

So, one last swipe at this dead horse before I leave its carcass to rot, okay? Let’s talk about one of the most disappointing aspects of Dragon Age Inquisition, the inquisitor itself. For a roleplaying game, Dragon Age Inquisition didn’t provide a lot of opportunities to play a role.

Despite being able to customize your character to an insane degree, from gender/race to which voice actor you wanted to represent your character, the ability to define that character in game was anemic at best. In fact one could argue that it was because of this extreme amount of customization that the character itself was a blank cipher. Obviously the player character is supposed to be blank so that players can project their own personalities into the game, that’s not the problem. The problem is that projecting a personality into Dragon Age Inquisition is damn near impossible.

While different dialogue choices in the game allow you to react differently to different situations, there’s no coherent structure tying those dialogue choices together. The dialogue suffers from the same problem as everything else: it’s completely isolated from the rest of the game. The only character you can play is a schizophrenic suffering from multiple personalities, because there’s no way to craft a fully realized character.

The inquisitor is an empty helmet with no way to fill it.

The inquisitor is an empty helmet with no way to fill it.

Let’s talk about Commander Shepard for a moment; as I pointed out in my Mass Effect 3 review, no matter what choices you make, Commander Shepard still has several important characteristics that are always present:

Courage

Loyalty

Perseverance 

There are several others but let’s focus on these three. As I said, these characteristics are present in every Commander Shepard, but it’s the player’s input that helps to define those characteristics. Is Commander Shepard’s courage simply conquering his fear of death and charging into danger, or does it extend to moral courage too, the ability to do what’s right even if it isn’t easy? That depends entirely on how you play the character. Shepard is courageous no matter what, otherwise Shepard wouldn’t be the last hope for humanity, but it’s the player’s choices that help to define that characteristic and make it feel real. Is Shepard Loyal to his friends or to Humanity as a whole, willing to put human interests above everything else? Does Shepard’s perseverance come from stubborn pride or righteous morality?

Every dialogue choice and every action you could take in Mass Effect helped to make Commander Shepard feel like a living, breathing person. It’s why there are dozens of Facebook fan pages and twitter accounts for Commander Shepard. It’s why people cosplay as Commander Shepard at conventions. Shepard was a fully realized character, someone we could not only project ourselves onto, but also relate with.

Now name me three characteristics for the Inquisitor…

Anyone?

Okay, let’s make it easier, is there even a single characteristic to work with?

Courage? One of the first dialogue options you can pick is trying to wiggle out of going to the Rift.

Loyalty? The inquisitor doesn’t even know any of the characters when he first arrives, and can choose to kick out almost every companion he has.

Perseverance? The inquisitor certainly does persevere through a lot, but there’s never any motivation for him to do so. He perseveres because the plot demands it, nothing more.

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

Ugh, do I really have to collect 10 ram meat, again? This is an inquisition, not a shopping mall!

There’s a reason you’re not going to see people cosplaying the Inquisitor, and its not just because that uniform is so darn generic: it’s because he’s nothing but a uniform.  There’s no way to consistently project any characteristics onto him. And I think one of the main problems is that, once again, Inquisition needed a prologue: an opportunity to get to know our character.

Mass Effect started out with Admiral Hackett and Captain Anderson giving us a brief description of Shepard’s past, whichever one you chose, followed by an opportunity to meet some of the characters. You’re conversation with Dr. Chakwas and Ensign Redshirt (I forget his name), allows you to decide whether you’re going to play a hardnosed no-nonsense commander, or an informal commander who treats his soldiers like friends. Then you meet the Turian Spectre, and you can choose to be either diplomatic or xenophobic in your reply.

More importantly though, these choices continue to present themselves throughout the game. You can continue being xenophobic when talking with aliens, or maybe as Shepard works with Turians, Krogan, and Salarians, Shepard becomes more accepting of their cultures. Shepard can continue to be an aloof commander that keeps a discreet distance from his soldiers, or one that likes to share a drink with Garrus after a hard day’s sniping.

1764420-mass_effect_3_garrus_4_super

And if you don’t want Garrus as a drinking buddy, you have no soul.

Dragon Age Origins gives you a pretty blank character as well, but again the prologue is what allows you to get to know your character and decide how you want to play the role. If you picked the Dwarf Noble origin, are you a stuffy aristocrat who refuses to even speak to the lower castes or a rebellious heir to the throne who is disheartened at how the lower castes are treated?

The Dalish Elf, are you the curious adventurer who wants to explore that ancient ruin or the cautious voice of reason when your friend decides to investigate?

The City Elf, are you bitter and resentful at how humanity has treated your people, or do you rise above it and hope your calm resolve eventually triumphs over human arrogance?

And once again these choices can continue to be reinforced or changed during the course of the game. Elves will be continually harassed by human characters for the rest of the game, and you can react calmly or threaten to gut them. Then your actions within the game will determine whether your character is brave, cunning, cruel or compassionate.

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

Kill ‘em all.

Now let’s look at Dragon Age Inquisition. When you’re first arrested you can act like a total coward and try to talk your way out of leading Cassandra to the Rift, but later on in the game there is no option to continue playing your character as a coward. When you’ve officially been named head of the Inquisition and move to Skyhold, one of the options for your speech is “for my own power!” and yet there are no future dialogue choices that allow you to continue to playing as a power-hungry dictator in the making. Even the romances are badly designed in that there is no way to screw it up.

Romancing a character in Mass Effect or Dragon Age Origins meant picking the appropriate responses, ones that would please whoever you were romancing. If you were romancing Zevran, crude sexual innuendos and a certain amount of arrogance would get you a long way.  Try being arrogant and crude with Lelianna and you’ll lose relationship points fast. The same was true with Mass Effect, their responses to your flirtations was dependent on how you flirted and their personality.

Come Dragon Age Inquisition and this has all been replaced with a single dialogue option in the upper left of the conversation wheeled marked with a big goofy heart. You want to romance someone, just click that button and your character will take care of the rest. No need to actually get to know the characters and what they like, oh no, that’s too complicated. And sometimes if you want to romance a certain character, the Inquisitor ends up making decisions that are totally out of character for the role you’re desperately trying to play.

I was trying to play my character as a ruthless Inquisitor, willing to do anything and everything to obtain his goals. This was already difficult enough with the shizophrenic dialogue choices and lack of any meaningful input for my gameplay choices, but when I romanced Josephine all of that went straight out the window. I had to duel Josephine’s suitor to win her heart because apparently someone at Bioware had just read Romeo and Juliette before writing Dragon Age Inquisition. Was I given the option of poisoning my opponent before the duel, and thus ensure my victory? Or could I send one of Lelianna’s assassins to kill him and make it look like an accident? Could I throw honor to the wind and simply plunge my sword into my opponent’s heart?

I wanted to go Count of Monte Cristo on his ass?!

I wanted to go Count of Monte Cristo on his ass!

No I couldn’t do any of those things. My Inquisitor showed up and had a stupid duel when that would have been the last thing my character would have done, but that didn’t matter because the game just railroads you along a very specific path.

Would Josephine still have loved my character after I presented her the severed head of her former lover? No, she absolutely wouldn’t have, that would be totally out of character. She probably would have spat in my face and never spoken to me again.

But that’s what I wanted: the ability to fail.

I wanted to be able to fail to romance her. Not a stupid dialogue option that allows you to end the relationship, but a real, plausible way that our relationship could have been irrevocably broken. Instead every single romanceable character in the game will fall in love with you, just so long as you’re the correct gender and you keep pushing that Love button in every conversation. Your character will shift personalities faster than a sociopathic serial killer in order to match the desires of your love interest.

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

No wonder the Envy Demon couldn’t copy the Inquisitor’s personality…he doesn’t have one.

The fact of the matter is that Dragon Age Inquisition was badly mislabeled when it was declared an RPG, because it’s impossible to play a role of any kind. The infrastructure necessary to make the Inquisitor an interesting character that feels real just isn’t there. I never felt any attachment to my Inquisitor. I’ll always remember Commander Shepard and the first Hero of Ferelden I played because they both felt like real characters.

The Inquisitor, just like the game he stars in, is utterly forgettable.

Thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out my Patreon Page! And a huge thanks to Eric for becoming my first patron, I’m already playing through Planescape Torment and hope to have the review for it soon!

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The Stories that Never Were: Dragon Age Inquisition

So it’s just really not been a good time for blog posts. The last few weeks have been busy with freelance work and with doing newsletters for the amazing theater show I’m a part of. My Dragon Age Inquisition article has been incredibly popular however, and the number of hits I’ve been getting keeps going up, no doubt because more and more people are finishing the 150 hour and realizing nothing they did mattered. I’d love to start posting more frequently,  but to do that I’d need to be making enough money to start turning down some of my freelance writing work. So with that in mind…

I’ve Created a Patreon Page

It’s straight forward and easy to use. I was originally going to have it be per article, but then I thought I wanted to post more often, so I didn’t want people getting constantly charged. Unfortunately I don’t have any cool prizes to give away, so you’ll basically be supporting me just because you like me. Of course my stuff will still be appearing on here for free, the success of the Patreon will simply indicate how much time I’ll have to dedicate to writing blog articles. Just for reference, if everyone who read my article on Dragon Age: Inquisition donated one dollar, I’d have enough to live on for a year. Just sayin’.

I’d also like to send a thank you out to @XUfan2012 for pointing out Telltale Games has a job opening as a Episodic Game Writer.

https://twitter.com/XUFan2012/status/557728739426304000

If anyone sees any similar jobs, please let me know. Also, it wouldn’t hurt if people tweeted at Telltale telling them what an amazing writer I am…

But now, onto the article.

The Stories that Never Were:

Dragon Age: Inquisition

DAI_Judgement

I’m going to skip the usual “Story We Got” section since I think I’ve covered that pretty well.

There were several sections of the game that I thought were foreshadowing a richer and potentially much more interesting story. As I wrote in the first review, there was a lot of different ways this story could have gone, and any one of them would have been far more fulfilling than the Corypheus The Angsty Ghost storyline we ended up with. So what kind of stories?

1. The Price of Power

One of my favorite scenes from the game is when the Envy Demon invades your mind and begins showing you visions of a possible Inquisition in the future. I liked this scene not because of the mechanics, seriously fuck those invincible demons and the pointless retracing of your steps, but because it hinted at a very interesting story: the effect power has on people and the difficulty in restraining your power. Power corrupts isn’t exactly breaking new ground storywise, but after naming the game Inquisition, I kind of assumed this is where the game’s theme would be heading. The demon shows you people are jailed without cause, even your closest advisers like Leliana and Josephine are locked in cells demanding to speak to the Inquisitor, while countless others beg for their lives. Meanwhile you hear your soldiers talk about you like I imagine soldiers talked about Caesar or Napoleon, with a kind of fanatical devotion that would lead them to follow any order you gave no matter how horrific.

At first I thought this was some clever foreshadowing. Obviously I didn’t think it would let us go to this extreme, because as much as I would love to play a megalomaniacal dictator bent on world domination, I think the game would be pretty boring if you locked up all of your companions. (Though perhaps as one of the endings that could happen, that would be pretty cool.) Nevertheless I thought this was foreshadowing the dark, thought provoking choices you were going to be forced to make throughout the game. Boy was I wrong.

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

You’re breaking my heart, Envy Demon!

The demon’s name is very apt, because I really do envy the game that he showed me, the one where I had power over life and death. To arrest and condemn without evidence, to destroy lives in my hunt for Corypheus and his agents. I mean the game even gives you a Dungeon but never actually does anything with it, every time I had a judgement waiting to be carried out I would head down to the dungeon (which was stupidly down a flight of like 1000 stairs by the way) only for the jailer to tell me “no prisoners, mi’lord!” Well if there’s no prisoners what the hell am I paying you for!

Whenever you capture someone in the game your only option is to judge them. Why? Shouldn’t we be getting as much info as possible out of them first? Give us the option of torturing the suspects. I know game companies don’t shy away from torture scenes, hell there’s one in Grand Theft Auto 5 and it doesn’t even serve a narrative purpose (that’s what I’ve read anyway, not played it yet and won’t be able to until PC port is out), it’s just there for shock value. This scene could actually be about stuff, they could have made the video game equivalent of Captain Picard’s torture scene in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Remind us what an awful thing it is because apparently, judging by recent events, we seriously need a reminder.

Make it skippable for people who would find it uncomfortable (although the whole point of it should be to make people uncomfortable). Have it so we can Leliana to go in and torture the information out of someone, or allow Josephine to use gentler methods. This would have given us a choice that actually meant something: how much of our humanity are we willing to sacrifice to find Corypheus. Remind the player of why the Spanish Inquisition is a black stain on the history of mankind. Give us a game that shows us just how easy it is for good intentions to wreak unimaginable evil. Give us a story that’s actually about something.

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

Instead of a story of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

2. Investigation and Espionage

The really baffling thing about this game is that the Inquisition in Dragon Age acts nothing like the inquisitions in our world.  It’s name is just wholly inappropriate, it just doesn’t make any sense in the context of the story we got. The Spanish Inquisition, which nobody expects, wasn’t a military organization. It didn’t go around fighting armies. If it had, the kingdoms of either Spain or France would likely have crushed it immediately, because you don’t let an army not under your control just wander around your lands willy nilly. The Inquisitor General was appointed by the Spanish Monarch himself. In other countries the Inquisition used the political influence of the Church to get their way. My point is that the Inquisition was something that very much worked behind the scenes, it was politics and espionage, not open warfare. And the same is true of similar institutions, like McCarthy’s House Committee on Unamerican Activities was an inquisition, although thankfully it died off before getting to the burning witches stage. Inquisition, by its very definition, implies investigation.

Dragon Age’s Inquisition, by contrast, is just a standard medieval kingdom. Dragon Age’s Inquisition is looking for the cause of the Rift and later Corypheus’s agents. Yet they do very little investigating (and no I’m not counting the War Table missions, because they don’t ever give you information, they just deliver trinkets back to you). Instead their whole strategy seems to be occupying territory in the backwaters of Ferelden and Orlais that no one cares about. Meanwhile the Inquisitor is running around collecting Ram Meat for Orphans or whatever instead of trying to find the cause of the world ending cataclysm and his investigative technique is limited to hitting stuff with his axe (because there are no swords for the inquisitor) until it falls over.

Otherwise known as the Iron Bull technique.

What I would have enjoyed instead is a game that fostered a sense of paranoia, that was constantly making me question who was loyal and who wasn’t. The whole idea of the Inquisition, once you discover Corypheus is behind the Rifts, is to find his supporters that are drumming up fear and confusion all across Thedas. Unfortunately in the game this all just plays out on the War Table, which would have been fine if the War Table had any actual impact on the story, but it doesn’t. All of your attempts to stabilize the political situation and root out Corypheus’s spies has absolutely no impact on anything, all you get for your trouble is a variety of loot and money. I wanted a game that would force me to seriously consider if one of my companions might be on Corypheus’s side, where I could start seeing betrayal all around me.

I’ve been watching some Dragon Age 2 videos so I can get some background on it for a follow up article I’m working on, but the one thing I kind of like about its story is that it uses an unreliable narrator: Varric. The whole game is just Varric weaving a tale for Cassandra, and watching these scenes makes me wish there’d been some kind of interrogation mechanic in Inquisition that worked exactly like this. Where you have to interrogate a suspect and then decide whether he’s telling the truth or not. In fact I think Dragon Age: Inquisition should have played off less like World War II and more like the Cold War. And if you think about it, the game mechanics lend themselves to a story of intrigue and politicking than it does to waging war.

Think about all the time you were wasting in all those zones that ultimately amounted to nothing. In the context of the story we got, wasting all those troops and resources on holding positions scattered across Thedas makes absolutely no sense. Why would you waste hundreds of troops garrisoning backwater territories? But what if, instead of confronting Corypheus with a massive army at every turn, we fought each other like the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War? Through spies, assassins, propaganda and misinformation. After all Corypheus is supposed to be an ancient Tevinter Magister, who were famous as much for their scheming and their plots as much as their mastery of magic.

Suddenly all those pointless expeditions into far away lands makes much more sense, because you’re no longer working under the pretense of stopping Corypheus’s army by wandering around in a desert. Instead you’re rooting out his agents and supporters rather than battling for territory. The War Table features a lot of espionage, but the mistake it makes is that none of it ends up affecting the game or the story. What they should have done is add a Chaos meter or something similar, because Corypheus’s goal is to destabilize Ferelden and Orlais so that the Tevinter Imperium can rise again. Chaos measures just how successful he is, which is based on if you succeed or rail the War Board missions and certain quests. Of course if they added that they’d also need to add the ability to fail the tasks on the War Board.

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

And of course make the War Table actually affect something other than just the War Table.

Now Bioware games have never had the option to totally fail, unless you count the refuse ending of Mass Effect 3, but there’s always been the possibility of failure. In the original Mass Effect, unless you had put enough points into persuasion or otherwise built a rapport with Wrex, you were forced to gun him down. That was a failure. In Mass Effect 2, you could fail your companion’s loyalty missions and in doing so fail to keep them alive through the suicide mission. In Dragon Age: Origins, you could fail to convince Allistair to marry Anora, and in doing so condemn one of them to either exile or death. So while there was never any Archdemon/Reaper wins ending in any previous games, there were plenty of opportunities to fail.

The Winter Palace was one of my favorite missions because it was the only mission where I felt like being wrong would have serious consequences. If I accidentally accused the wrong person I might end up destroying any chance for peace in Orlais. That was what I enjoyed so much, that looming possibility of failing. It made the stakes of the story feel real for the very first time. That is something completely lacking from most of Dragon Age Inquisition, once you reach the ending and realize nothing you do affects the story, you also come to understand that there was never a time that you could have failed at anything. Aside from straight up dying in combat, there was no point at which failure was even a possibility.

That’s ultimately what kills the replay value of the game, the terrible ending is just a consequence of the larger problem: failure doesn’t exist in this game. You can’t make a wrong choice, you can’t fail to notice a critical clue and condemn the wrong man to death, and you can’t make a decision that results in one of your companions dying.

Failure here IS an option

Without the possibility of failure, victory has no meaning.

Again the Winter Palace is the only one I can think of offhand that had failure as an option, with the Court Approval rating, but given I spent a lot of time screwing around looking for clues and still didn’t manage to get thrown out, I suspect you’d have to try pretty damn hard to get approval down to zero. The only other example occurs on the War Table. Apparently, this is just an account of what I read somewhere else, if you fail to choose the correct agent to send on the Elven missions (if you chose an elf for your character) you can end up getting a message that says humans ended up slaughtering your entire clan. That’s awesome, that’s exactly the kind of failure the game needs to raise the stakes. Unfortunately it’s completely undermined by the fact that, once again, this story is completely isolated from the rest of the game.

The post I read was complaining that this mission was a total kick in the balls, because his character didn’t have any outlet to actually experience the grief this would cause someone. His elf character didn’t get to voice his grief to his romance companion, or any companions whatsoever. This horrific incident doesn’t even come up in any of the dialogues you get with other elves. All you get is a message saying everyone your character loves and cares about has been brutally murdered, and some generic loot. So either you’re so invested in your character that this just seems like an awful, and pointless, event you can’t do anything about or you don’t even care because it’s not like we were introduced to any of his clan anyway.

 3. Ancient Magics Reawakening

This is the story I thought would really be interesting, and why the stinger at the end of the credits pissed me off. Why were you wasting my time with Corypheus, Bioware, if you had this much more interesting story going on in the background?

FlemethInquisition

A story about one of the most mysterious people in the lore? Nah, we’ll stick you with an old wrinkled up tevinter mage instead.

Dragon Age: Origins has always had an undercurrent of mystery and that’s part of the reason so many people were drawn into the game’s world. There were the obvious questions, like what are the darkspawn? Are they really the result of men desecrating heaven or is there perhaps a more rational explanation for their existence? What about the Archdemon, is it really an ancient god? And why is it compelled to destroy the world?

And then of course there was the mystery of the Maker and his disappearance: did he ever really exist and if he did, why would a couple of men walking around his palace piss him off? He’s God right? Couldn’t he just like smite them or something? Why cast them back as Darkspawn and screw over the entire planet for the acts of a handful of mages? Talk about a punishment disproportionate to the crime.

There are many mysteries surrounding the history of Thedas, and any number of rich, compelling stories could be told about those mysteries. Flemeth proved to be quite a deep character when I met her again in the Fade with Morrigan and her son. After the events of Dragon Age: Origins I always thought Flemeth was evil, not as evil as the Archdemon obviously, but still evil. She seemed to be biding her time, waiting for some opportunity to finally make her move. It also struck me that she had been waiting for a long time. All of this may still be true, perhaps Flemeth is evil, but her actions in the fade revealed a humanity that I thought had long left that old husk of a body.

After a lifetime of fearing that her mother would usurp her body, Morrigan is told by Flemeth.

 A soul is not forced upon the unwilling, Morrigan. You were never in any danger from me.

Even the ship is confusing. Is that a starship or a whale?

Unless you’re on Voyager, and then you better get the fuck off before she maroons it in another galaxy.

I gotta admit, that hit me right in the feels. Flemeth may be a monster, I don’t know, but at that moment she was incredibly human.

So yes, there are a ton of interesting ways a story of old Elven Gods awakening could go, it could even tie in with the true nature of the Darkspawn. Perhaps the Maker never lived in the Golden City, perhaps instead that is where the Dread Wolf imprisoned the Old Gods, and when the Magisters opened it they released them. Maybe the Elven Gods had been driven insane by untold millennia in the fade.

Unfortunately I don’t think we’ll ever get a chance to find out, and if we do, I can almost guarantee we’ll regret it. You see, a tale of the Old Magics awakening would be fascinating…if done properly. It’s a story that would require subtlety though. It would be like the story of the Reapers, it would have to be vague and menacing while revealing just enough abut their true nature to keep the player interested but not so much as to ruin the mystery.

But of course we all know what happened with the Reaper’s story.

Just imagine this.

Oh yeah, I went there.

The Bioware of ten years ago I would have trusted to tell me a story about the ancient magics and Elven Gods. Even the Bioware of five years ago, I would have trusted. But with so many of its best people having moved on after Mass Effect 3, and with EA still holding the whip, I have my doubts that they could tell a story like this. Inevitably it would lead to an ending just like Mass Effect 3 and Matrix Reloaded, we would meet some God figure who would give us a longwinded speech laying everything out for us and completely killing the mystery, pacing and sense of awe that made those stories great.

So perhaps, in the end, it’s better they let the Elven Gods rest. I think they’ve done enough damage to the world of Dragon Age as it is.

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Dragon Age Inquisition: The Ending Isn’t the Only Problem

Apologies for the long wait on the follow up, but the holiday season is always a busy one. You can blame Bioware for launching so late in November. Next week will see me returning to a more normal schedule and regular updates. My next article will be about three scenes in Inquisition that suggest the game was originally supposed to be a much better game, but for now, read about all these other problems the game had.

Inquisition Needed a Beginning

You're doing it wrong, Bioware...

You’re doing it wrong, Bioware…

The whole pace of Inquisition just didn’t feel right, I think most of that has to do with open world and MMORPG feel of the game’s mechanics, but the pacing is off from the start. The beginning of Inquisition doesn’t feel like a beginning and there’s no buildup to the giant explosion, you enter the game after the inciting incident of the game: the destruction of the Conclave. Now in media res is a common literary technique and works great, but starting the story after the most important invent in the game is such a stupid move. That’s like starting Skyrim during Alduin’s attack and asking us to choose our race and appearance while fires burn in the background or starting Mass Effect after the attack on Eden Prime, the whole pace of the beginning section would be wrecked. There’s in media res and then there’s just starting at a random point in the story because fuck the pacing, amirite?

The inciting incident is a pivotal part of any story, it’s literally what sets the story in motion and propels the characters into the unknown world. The only stories I can think of that successfully start after the inciting incident are the ones occur in reverse order, like Memento or Irreversible. Having such an important part of the story occur off-camera is just a silly, amateurish mistake to make. That’s writing 101 stuff right there. And no, seeing the explosion on the main menu when we press play doesn’t count! Nor does the beginning narration. Dragon Age: Origins didn’t start at the Battle of Ostagar with a narration of why the Ferelden army was meeting there, and Dragon Age: Inquisition shouldn’t have started after the single most important event in the story.

What would have been nice is if we’d arrived a few days before the explosion, and then instead of a 75 word description of our character’s background on the menu screen, we could have been properly introduced. Explain why we’re going to the conclave with some actual dialogue and coherent exposition. Have it start with the Dwarf character meeting with his Carta Boss in the deep roads and receiving orders to contact the Mages or the Paladins about supplying them with lyrium, or the Elf character talking with her Keeper about monitoring the talks at the Conclave to see if the Mage-Templar war will threaten the Clan. Perhaps we even arrived with some companions, so that we could play off of them and add some history and backstory to our characters. We could also have gotten a bit of exposition about the Mage rebellion for those of us who didn’t play Dragon Age 2 and had no idea that war had broken out. Then there could have been a section where the player character starts to realize something is happening, a conspiracy looming in the shadows and tries to unravel it. And fails.

The player obtains the anchor but Corypheus still causes the conclave to explode, killing everyone, including the friends you arrived with. That way Corypheus get’s his moment of victory, albeit robbed of his ultimate goal, and he would have taken something from us (our companions) and giving our character a reason to be pissed off. Sure, this would have meant that the story wouldn’t have been able to do the whole “Elder One” mystery, but frankly Corypheus was such a disappointing reveal that I don’t think that would have been a huge loss.

Pictured: A far more interesting and capable Villain.

Because, again, this was the far more interesting villain.

Dragon Age Inquisition is just… Dumber

Dragon Age Inquisition reminds me of the new Star Trek Movies; it’s a fine game in its own right, but its more of a summer popcorn film than it is like the thought provoking game that came before it. Inquisition is very much like Star Trek Into Darkness, it’s beautiful to look at, has some great characters and wonderful moments, but it has a plot that barely holds together and a stupid ending. They’re both good, but hardly grand, and you probably won’t remember them in a few weeks. So why does Inquisition just feel dumber than Origins? Or any previous game in the Bioware line up?

Dragon Age: Directed by JJ Abrams.

Dragon Age: Directed by JJ Abrams.

I think the dumbness of the game is best on display at the Winter Palace when the Inquisitor is attending the ball. About 90% of this quest is absolutely terrific. You spend your time speaking with foreign dignitaries trying to keep your Court Approval rating up, while stealing away for a few minutes at a time to sneak around the palace looking for clues as to who Corypheus’s secret accomplice is. It’s a real Game of Thrones moment, and it keeps you guessing as to where everyone’s loyalties really lie. It was almost about to be my favorite quest in the game…

And then the Grand Duchess Florianne waltz in, announces that she was the traitor the whole time, and then waltz out to let her minions kill you.

My jaw literally dropped.

She wasn’t even on my list of suspects. But that’s not why my jaw dropped. It dropped because I couldn’t believe how stupid that whole thing scene was. Not only did she give herself away when she wasn’t even on the list of suspects, but then she acts like fucking Megatron and leaves to let her lesser minions to kill the hero? How cliched can we possibly get here? I half expected the next scene to be her cussing out Starscream for fucking up again.

For the first and only time in the game I was really feeling like an inquisitor, investigating to see who among the Orlesian nobles were traitors, relying on wits instead of swords. I had to sift through lies, half-truths and planted evidence to somehow arrive at the truth; and right up until that unmasking I felt like there was a real possibility I might get it wrong. There was a good chance I might fail and arrest the wrong person, and that’s what made it such a tense mission: the possibility of failure.

It was great, it could have continued to be great. Then for reasons I still can’t fathom, Bioware just chucks the whole thing out the window and makes the villain wear a neon sign around her neck.

That is why this game is dumber… because it assumes you’re dumb. It’s as if someone looked at this mission and thought it would be too much effort for players to figure out who the bad guy was, we better just let the villain unmask herself like a Scooby-Doo villain. No, I take that back. At least the Scooby gang got to unmask the villains themselves, we didn’t even get that much.

Why did you even wear the mask?

Why did you even wear the mask if you were going to take it off yourself?

The bigger reason I think this game is dumber than Origins is that…it’s really not about anything. As a commenter pointed out in my last article, there’s no theme, no central idea behind the game. The Mass Effect Games were all about fate and self-determination, the definition of life, the importance of cooperation and trust. Things that people can relate to. Origins explored the idea of pragmatism, and what you would be willing to sacrifice in order to save the world. Even the new JJ Abrams Star Treks have themes, simple things like self-confidence versus arrogance and the importance of family, but at least they’re there.

Inquisition feels more like The Expendables…it’s just there. It’s exists simply to exist.

There was a great quote from Varric in the game, and while I can’t remember it verbatim, it went like this:

“People write stories to figure out why things are the way they are.”

It’s absolutely true, most of the time. The only time this doesn’t ring true is when the story is being told specifically to turn a profit. No writer worth his salt writes his story based on what will sell well, we write what we love and know. What we’re passionate about. Of course we all hope that our stories make us rich and famous, we all want that Pulitzer Prize, but we don’t sit down and figure out what kind of story will sell the best, we simply start writing what’s in our hearts and hope someone finds that interesting enough to buy. The only stories that are written and designed for the sole purpose of profit are those you find at the grocery store. In the gaming world, these are the Call of Duty titles [Note: I haven’t played the newest one which I’ve heard has an okay story], and the increasingly convoluted Assassin’s Creed. Dragon Age: Inquisition is another one. If there was a grander story or greater theme hidden somewhere in this story, it was obviously left on the cutting room floor because I sure as hell can’t find it.

They didn’t make this game to tell a story, they made the game and hastily slapped a story on top of it. Which is how most games are made unfortunately, but most games don’t market themselves as amazing storytelling adventures with choices that affect the story.

Say what you want about Call of Duty, but at least you get what it promises on the box.

Say what you want about Call of Duty, but at least you get what it promises on the box.

It’s an Open World MMORPG

Without the MM

Or the RP

Or the Open World

I’ve never gotten into MMORPGS, or online gaming in general for that matter. It might be because I’m a heartless, hopeless misanthrope that hates interacting with other humans even over the internet. But more likely it’s because MMORPGS and multiplayer-only games don’t have stories, or if they do, they’re god awful. I tried playing Final Fantasy 11, World of Warcraft, Age of Conan and a half-dozen other titles but each time I couldn’t be bothered to do the endless grinding required to move on. Within a month I usually quit.

Interestingly the only MMO I ever enjoyed playing was Bioware’s The Old Republic, because it had such a heavy story focus. But even then some of the character storylines start to wear a bit thin, if only because they’re forced to stretch them out over 60 levels of content.

So I guess it’s really no surprise that I ended up hating Dragon Age: Inquisition since everything from the collectible mounts and thrones to the endless fetch quests (Get 10 ram meat!) just screams MMORPG. And even comparing it to other MMORPGS, like the Old Republic, it’s still not a very good MMORPG either. I can take more than 8 abilities in The Old Republic, and I don’t have stupid respawning health bottles that run out at critical moments in the game either. The combat is more fluid in The Old Republic, the enemies more diverse, the challenges more interesting, the bosses more cunning. A boss in any typical MMO will summon minions to his aid, spawn protective shields, sometimes he’ll even have powers that affect the room you’re standing in, things that force you to change and adapt to the shifting conditions of the battle. The closest we get to boss fights in DA:I is the Envy Demon and the High Dragons, who repeat the same 3 tactics in an infinite loop. The Envy Demon attacks, burrows and erupts like a standard Nightmare. The Dragons will do [insert element here] breath, tail swipe and then take off to do a little aerial show for you before landing again and repeating it. A few of them will cover themselves with armor, like that fucking dragon in the Hissing Wastes, but all that really does is make the fight last twice as long as it should.

I was hoping for something a little bit more interesting.

I wish fighting a dragon was as interesting as it looks.

MMORPGs are a pyschological experiment that would have given Pavlov a science boner. They’ve tapped into the reward center of the human brain so well that people will literally pay money so they can work a second job in a fictional universe. I’ve never been able to get into those games though, and all my attempts to do so were motivated by my wanting to play with my online friends. For me, a good story is the reward, and so I was never satisfied. But I can see why endless piles of loot and clearing an epic dungeon with a guild of friends, could be a reward in and of itself. If Dragon Age: Inquisition was attempting to replicate those triumphs though, they failed. Perhaps, since I don’t like MMORPGs, I’m not someone who can make such a claim credibly, but again comparing this game to others in the genre it seems to fall pitifully short.

You know what I wanted most in the whole wide world while playing DA:I? A fucking sword. That’s all, just a sword that looked good on my sword/shield warrior, you’d think in a high fantasy setting I’d be tripping over swords left and right. Instead all I found were axes and maces and about a billion unique daggers despite fact that the dual-wield rogue is the worst class in game. The highest sword I found was like 130 DPS, and it didn’t even look good. You want armor? Great, but all the epic unique armor you’re going to find is going to be inferior to the crafted stuff…and it won’t even look different aside from a pallette swap. As for leveling? Making my way down the skill tree in every other RPG is a pleasure, figuring out which abilities I want and seeing my character become more powerful is a great feeling. Making my way down Dragon Age: Inquisition’s skill tree is more like a skill twig, tiny and completely unexciting. I had already started unlocking two branches of skills before even getting to the specialty unlock quest.

Of course none of that really undermined the story, but it didn’t exactly help hide the flaws in the story either. The more I think about this game, the more baffling its Game of the Year award becomes. I know this year’s games have all been pretty blah, but surely there was something worthier of the title?

Though I guess when this is your competition, it'd be hard to lose...

Though I guess when this is your competition, it’d be hard to lose…

The bigger issue with Dragon Age: Inquisition was that it secretly wanted to by Skyrim. All the promises of an open world and exploration that were delivered before release were clearly aimed at the huge amount of people who buried Bethesda in money in exchange for Dragon Genocide Simulator Skyrim.

Now I love Skyrim, I have hundreds of hours logged in that game and it was single-handedly responsible for ruining one of my National Novel Writing Month runs by coming out in November. That said, Skyrim’s story is dull and uninteresting at best. A big evil Dragon has come to eat the world, you have to stop him by shouting at him real loud, the end. And you know I can’t say I blame them, writing a story that can run independent to the player character’s actions during the story must be incredibly difficult. You can leave the smoking ruins of Alduin’s rampage and never touch the story again if you so choose, which again, is terrific but it’s a game type that doesn’t exactly lend itself to powerful epic stories that draw you in. I think Rockstar’s games are an excellent example of why the very nature of an Open World is such a difficult medium for good storytelling.

When I was playing Red Dead Redemption, the game kept trying to sell me Marston as this former bandit remorseful of the things he’d done in life and trying to find redemption by bringing down his former gang. Unfortunately the only reason I’m going to play a western is so I can live out my secret fantasy of being Robert Redford’s Sundance Kid. So I was quickly robbing banks, trains and frightened old ladies whenever the game let me off the leash. At one point I had an entire army of US Rangers chasing me down, whom I quickly led into a canyon and commenced racking up a body count that made The Little Big Horn seem like a dinner party. So while the game was struggling to tell me the story of this bandit with the heart of gold, I kept playing the character as a wanton psychopath waging a one man war against the United States AND Mexico at the same time.

Santa Anna ain't got nothin' on me!

Santa Anna ain’t got nothin’ on me!

And for that reason I kind of ruined the story for myself. I’ve talked to fans of the game who really loved Red Dead Redemption’s story, some even admit to crying over the finale, but because I played my Marston as the almost polar opposite of the one the game was trying to show me, the ending didn’t work for. Why can’t I shoot these guys that have come after my family? I wiped out enough US Marshals to fill Arlington to capacity three times over, you’re telling me a half dozen guys with pistols are gonna end me?

Marston’s death at the end of the game felt completely arbitrary, because I had turned into a god made flesh during my playthrough. Even going back and trying to play it straight as a good guy, I couldn’t get the image of him as a sociopathic killer out of my mind. I’ve permanently ruined that story for myself. And you know what? That’s fine actually, because Red Dead Redemption is still a lot of fun and I had a ball with it because it actually had an open world. Like any world it had borders, but you could move anywhere within those borders, allowing you to have some really cool encounters that lend themselves to emergent storytelling. I still remember getting ambushed by some Marshals while crossing a river, who shot the horse out from under me and I had to make a suicide charge to try and get to some rocks on the other side.

Dragon Age Inquisition however, is not an open world. It pretends to be, just like the anthology of stories it tells pretends to be part of a seamless tapestry, but it’s not. The closest it gets to being open world is at the Hinterlands, but even then the range of things you can do is limited and quite frankly its still so small that actually using your mount seems pointless (especially since it robs you of the party banter, one of the few bright spots of writing in the game.) I can’t fight a dragon on a rocky cliff side and watch as it flings me over the edge with some great sweep of its tail, like I can in Skyrim. There are no unexpected battles because you can see all the enemies doing their standard MMO patrol from miles away, robbing you of the chance for anything really interesting happening. And once you leave the hinterlands, the open world illusion falls apart completely.

The Fallow Mire? Tiniest map in the game with a single path that branches off in only two places if you want to follow two utterly pointless minor quests. Or take the Empris Du Lion, which is just a couple of narrow trails that cut through impassable obstacles. The Hinterlands is the only thing that comes even close to resembling an open world, and even it is filled with corridors and hallways disguised as forests and cliffs.

Basically Bioware gave us all the negative features of an open world, the screwed up pacing and lack of urgency in the main quest, while giving us none of the positive traits like experiencing battles in unexpected places or the thrill of finding a lost Dwemer ruin. It also gave us the worst parts of MMOs, the endless grinding and a tidal wave of epic loot, while denying us the pleasures of leveling up (what’s the point in all these abilities if I can only use 8?) or wearing the epic gear we find (Who else found the Legion of the Dead armor and were pissed to find out that the only character who is able to wear it is a Dwarf Warrior?)

What!? You want use this Dwarven Armor? What do you think this is? Some kind of Forge?

“What!? You want us to make this Dwarven Armor fit you? What do you think this is? Some kind of Forge?”

I can see why a game maker would want to use an Open World MMORPG as a basis for their singleplayer game. The MMORPG brings with it the Pavlovian response of gamers to commit to an endless and ultimately meaningless grind, and the open world gives players an unprecedented amount of freedom. It’s seems like Bioware wanted to take the best parts of World of Warcraft and Skyrim and Frankenstein them together into the best game ever made. Much like Frankenstein’s monster though, the end result was just an abomination that only gave us the worst of both worlds.

Had Bioware focused on giving us a great story instead of an open world, which they failed to deliver, we may have had a great game. Had they gotten rid of the stupid magic healing bottles and given us a proper magic/potion healing system, maybe they could have focused on making the combat more interesting (and avoided frustrating level restarts because they didn’t put enough potion refills in the fucking Templar keep.) And if Bioware would stop making the same mistakes as a student in a highschool creative writing class, I wouldn’t have to keep telling them they’re terrible at their jobs.

But they do.

So I guess I’ll just have to keep telling them.

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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.

 

Enjoy this article? Support me on Patreon!

WritersBlock

 

More on Dragon Age Inquisition:

The Ending Isn’t The Only Problem

Why Corypheus is a Bad Villain

The Failure of the Inquisitor

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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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