Life is Strange: The Vortex

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a year since my original review of Life is StrangeI want to first apologize to everyone for letting my blog sit idle for so long, and secondly I’d like to thank everyone who’s contributed to my Patreon despite the fact I’ve been totally falling down on the job. And I’d like to extend a personal apology to Martin, who gifted me Life is Strange and then waited patiently for a follow-up I never provided.

Well the wait is over, Martin. Here’s the first of several follow up articles on Life is Strange.

Life is Strange

The Vortex

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On my first playthrough of Life is Strange, I was so impressed with the characters that I didn’t pay attention to the symbolism present in the game. Fortunately my second time through the game, I took the time to fully appreciate the imagery and symbolism that you’d never even notice if you didn’t take the time to look.

I’ll talk about some of the more subtle symbolism in another article, but for now I want to focus on the one symbol that dominated the game: the Vortex. From the tornado to the Vortex club, vortex’s are the most obvious and most important symbol in the game. Destructive yet strangely beautiful, the supernatural tornado that almost destroys Arcadia bay is the harbinger of death that sets the stakes of the game’s story.

At first I’d just assumed that the giant tornado was a representation of nature reacting to the changes in the timeline, and perhaps it really is that simple. But if you’d care to follow me down the rabbit hole, subsequent playthroughs have suggested that maybe the vortex isn’t just nature attempting to right itself. Perhaps it’s something deeper, and far more disturbing.

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The vortex club is a bigger problem than the tornado.

After the tornado itself, the Vortex club represents the biggest symbolic enemy in the game. Though Mark Jefferson is the story’s antagonist, the Vortex club is what allows him to operate with impunity and, worse yet, are representative of much bigger problems. They’re a microcosm of Arcadia Bay itself, outwardly beautiful and welcoming but harboring darkness and ugliness beneath.

The Vortex Club represents everything that Max hates about Blackwell: the elitism, the bullying, their casual cruelty. Their name is never really explained as far I could tell, but Vortex club? That can’t be a coincidence.

What if the Vortex is the physical manifestation of her frustration and rage? Let’s face it, on her long journey through the game’s story, Max finds far more wrong with this little town than she finds right. Drug dealers, violence, corruption, and the cruel dispassionate way it grinds the life out of the people living in it. There’s a ton not to like about this small town. Admittedly it doesn’t differ all that much from pretty much every other city in the world, but for Max? She’s seeing her hometown for what it is, for the first time in her life without the benefit of a child’s sense of optimism.

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Like this old woman, left homeless on the street, Arcadia Bay is dying. Perhaps the tornado was simply finishing what the people in Arcadia Bay started.

Arcadia Bay has destroyed Max’s best friend’s hopes and dreams, trapped Chloe under a mountain of debt and crippling hopelessness. Arcadia Bay stood by quietly while Kate was ruthlessly bullied to the point of suicide, and it wasn’t until she was standing on the rooftop that anyone gave a damn. Nearly every member of the Arcadia Bay community that we meet is in some kind of pain, emotional, physical, or financial. The only exception being Samuel, the groundskeeper.

Perhaps the Vortex is Max’s subconscious wish to see this town washed from the face of the Earth. Which would suggest she’s far more powerful than she knows. Moments of extreme emotion allow her to stop time, but subtle frustrations and indignities can be just as powerful. Getting angry might cause you yell at someone, but living life in a constant state of frustration and fear can lead you to doing things far more destructive. With Max’s powers, she might very well be summoning this tornado without even realizing it.

And in true Max fashion, she even tries to warn people of the impending destruction, and true to that nature of most people, they ignore the obvious.

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A vortex of ants near a dead bird. She’s not exactly being subtle here!

Birds die en mass, a snow storm in 60 degree weather, whales beach themselves, and an eclipse comes out of nowhere. It’s as if the entire world is warning Arcadia Bay to get the hell out of dodge, but no one is listening. Which is the problem that continually plagues Max throughout the game.

Principal Wells doesn’t listen when she tells him about Nathan’s gun. Victoria doesn’t listen when Max warns her that Kate is being driven to the edge. Chloe sure as hell doesn’t listen whenever Max tries to warn her off from doing something stupid.

Even with the power of time travel at her command, even Max can’t force someone to listen if they don’t want to hear. Hell, even with the ability to manipulate time, Max struggles to make even one person’s life better in this hellhole of a town. So is it really surprising that deep down inside, she might want to destroy it?

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From the horse’s mouth.

The vortex is symbolic of time and time travel of course, with every event in time spiraling outward to affect everything else around it. But if you dive deeper you’ll find it’s also symbolic of life, a rather poignant observation of our lives in this existence.The vortex is symbolic of frustration as well, but only in so much as life is frustrating.

If you were to stand in the center of a vortex and looked out, all you would see is a whirling mass of air, debris and mist. You wouldn’t be able to see outward or move in any direction other than where the vortex was already heading. You would essentially be trapped inside.

In a way we’re all in the center of our own personal vortexes, we just can’t see them. It’s easy to begin to feel trapped just as Max and Chloe do in their lives. We’re trapped on the inside of this swirling maelstrom of life, at the mercy of random circumstance and the inertia of events that were set in motion long before we existed. The honest truth of the matter is that we have very little control over our lives, and all we can really do is to create our calm little center in the middle of the vortex.

And if we’re lucky, we find someone to share that center with us.

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Whether my theory about the tornado’s origins is correct or not, unraveling the symbolism behind many of Life is Strange‘s recurring images has been a wonderful challenge. I’m looking forward to continuing my exploration of the game’s themes and imagery, so stay tuned for more articles.

 

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Life is a Strange Journey

Life is Strange is an amazing story that I recently got to experience thanks to the generosity of one of my readers, Martin, who gifted me the game on Steam. The only catch? To do a review of it.

Which wasn’t much a catch, because Life is Strange is an amazing story filled with memorable characters and a unique time traveling mechanic that requires you to think outside the box to solve most of the puzzles. It’s also a game that explores important themes and shows you that life is a strange journey for all us, and sometimes we all need a little help to get through it.

Life is Strange:

A Storytelling Review 

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Life is Strange is the story Max Caulfield as she returns to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon to attend the prestigious Blackwell Academy. It’s a game that fills its cast with typical trope characters: the bitchy popular girls, the fat loner, the crazy rich kid, and every other character you can think of. It’s beginning is a giant cliche as Max walks down a long hallway filled with students while monologuing about her life to an admittedly great song.

It lures you into making assumptions about characters and let’s you think you know where this story is heading… and then completely challenges all your expectations and turns the tropes on their head. In most adventure games, you have to explore your environment to find the solutions to the puzzles. In Life is Strange you have to explore the characters around you, talk to them, in order to find many of the solutions. It’s a game that rewards you for interacting with its NPCs, something more games need to do. And most importantly, it’s a story that makes you examine yourself just as much as the characters you meet.

I fell in love with this game less than twenty minutes in when we’re introduced to the Blackwell’s groundskeeper, Samuel. Max’s internal monologue states right up front that people find him creepy, and Max tells us that he isn’t stalker creepy, but more X-Files creepy.

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His spirit animal is a squirrel guys… this is seriously the nicest guy in the game.

Yet despite Max’s reassurances, as soon as Samuel spoke I said to myself, “oh yeah, he’s creepy as fuck.” And I hate that that was my gut reaction to him, because it says something horrible about me. It says I’m willing to judge a person based on his appearance and voice, and I don’t like that one bit. I think of myself as a tolerant and nonjudgmental person, but when confronted with someone who doesn’t conform to societal norms… I acted like a total Trump. The groundskeeper ends up being one the kindest and quite possibly wisest character in the game.

That’s when I fell in love with this game, because I think the best stories are the ones that make us look at ourselves and consider how we might act. Games have the unique advantage of actually putting us into those situations and seeing how we act. Life is Strange held a mirror up and I didn’t like what I saw in the reflection, and it made me want to change that about myself. So now when I meet someone in real life that acts or sounds like Samuel, I hope I remember the monster I saw in that reflection and treat them like Max treats Samuel; with dignity and kindness.

Which is really the theme and message of the entire game; treat everyone you meet with dignity, respect, and with the understanding that they’re all facing struggles of their own.

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Shockingly, treating people like crap doesn’t pay off for anybody.

One of the most shocking moments in the game comes when a viral video of Kate Marsh hits the internet. Kate is one of Max’s classmates, and she’s incredibly sweet. She’s a shy girl that keeps to herself, to an even greater extent than Max, and she’s very religious. As a shy person in school myself, I can attest to the fact that often times shyness is taken for arrogance. People assume you don’t hang out with them because you think you’re better than them, when in fact you don’t hang out with them because you’re afraid they don’t want you to. Combined with the fact that Kate is very religious and the rest of the students at Blackwell assume she’s an arrogant, holier-than-thou stuck up bitch.

So when a viral video pops up of Kate making out with several boys at a party, everyone is quick to pile onto the poor girl. Because now they can label Kate a hypocrite, and there’s no worse kind of bullying then self-righteous bullying. People wrote horrible messages on her dorm room panel [Will Fuck 4 Jesus being one that stuck out in my mind as being thoroughly disgusting] and posted links to the viral video everywhere they could. As Max, I did my best to erase these disgusting remarks and links, and helped Kate when I could.

But no… that’s not entirely true. One morning things were clearly coming to a head for poor Kate, she ran crying out of Mark Jefferson’s class after he refused to help her and she was keeping to herself far more than usual. Earlier that day using my time bending powers, I’d explored her room and seen terrible messages from her family about how she had disgraced them and shamed herself. I knew she was in pain, I knew she needed help.

But I was with Chloe at the time, playing with my time powers.

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Her mind went to exactly the same idea mine would if I had time powers…

So when Kate called while I was with Chloe, I chose to ignore it. After all, it’s a video game, what’s the worse that can happen?

Kate Marsh Jumps
OH
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MY
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GOD

 

This is one of the most powerful scenes in the game and an unfortunately accurate portrayal of what leads people to suicide. When Max sees Kate leap off the roof, her sudden burst of emotions freezes time its tracks, giving her enough time to reach the roof and try to talk Kate down.

I tried to reach her, I really did. Unfortunately I tend to get tunnel vision playing through a good game and rush towards resolving the main plot, skipping a lot of the optional stuff so I honestly didn’t know Kate very well when I tried talking her off that ledge. And because of that, I ended up metaphorically pushing her off that ledge. Kate felt utterly alone and because I didn’t know her well enough, I couldn’t provide the human connection she desperately needed.

And she jumped.

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I’m so sorry Kate.

What I absolutely love about this game is that it’s entirely possible to save Kate, and you don’t have to find some secret McGuffin or complete some sidequest to do it. All you have to do is invest a little time into talking with Kate and get to know her, so that when you are on the roof with her, you can show her she’s not alone. Having metaphorically been on that roof a few times in my life, I know that the most important thing in those moments is knowing someone out there cares.

And if you do manage to save Kate you meet her at the hospital, where she’s already feeling much better. Because suicide is always a spontaneous decision (with the exception of end-of-life euthanasia that is) and the reality is, the desire to die never lasts very long. It’s one of the most sensitive and accurate portrayals of suicide I’ve ever seen, and the first one I’ve seen in a video game (at least the first one that didn’t involve a zombie bite.) The game is worth it just for this sequence alone.

I found myself so invested in the characters and their relationships, I actually found the mystery plot surrounding it to be almost dull by comparison. The mystery revolves around the disappearance of Rachel Amber and the Vortex Club, where girls are getting drugged and abused (including poor Kate, which leads to the viral video). Max is also haunted by visions of a massive tornado destroying the entire town of Arcadia Bay. Honestly I think the game should have spent just a little more time on these plots, because they feel almost like afterthoughts compared to experiencing the interpersonal relationships between the characters.

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The big reveal at the end of the mystery is that Mark Jefferson, the famous photographer turned teacher, the reason Max came to Blackwell, is actually the serial killer she’s been hunting. This was a brilliant twist because it makes complete sense in hindsight. Mark Jefferson’s creepy fixation with Max’s entering his contest, the weird photographs he was famous for that were plastered across the campus, and even his personalty: his Ted Bundy like charm designed to make someone lower their guard.

Max manages to stop Mark Jefferson, but only by doing multiple warps through time and space, and by the end time itself begins to unravel. The huge tornado that Max had seen tearing through Arcadia Bay is the result of Max’s continuing use of her powers. Leading to one tragic, but ultimately inevitable decision.

Max has to return to the moment it all started… and let Chloe die, rather than change history.

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Two moons is nature’s way of saying you’ve really fucked something up.

Or you can choose to sacrifice Arcadia Bay and kill thousands, get a 30 second clip of Chloe and Max driving through town, and roll credits. I honestly have no idea why this ending is in the game, clearly the team didn’t like it since they put no effort into making it emotionally fulfilling or offering any sense of closure. Maybe this was a decision by some soulless corporate suit that wanted to appeal to a wider audience or something, I don’t know. The fact this crappy ending is in the game is almost insulting, and tarnishes an otherwise shining jewel of storytelling.

The confusing thing about Life is Strange‘s two endings is that it really didn’t need it. I hold up the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead as one of the finest storytelling experiences in gaming, and it didn’t need two endings. Instead Life is Strange should have done something similar to the Walking  Dead: offer a single ending but with two small but still incredibly emotional choices. The Walking Dead let you choose to let Lee turn into a zombie or have Clementine mercy kill him. Life is Strange should have had the same kind of choice, and I’m honestly surprised they didn’t offer it. It should have offered us the choice of sacrificing Chloe, which they gave us…

Or sacrificing Max.

I was expecting this option to appear and was rather shocked when it didn’t. Nathan was already so keyed up that all Max would really have to do is jump out from behind her cover and scream at him, and he would have shot her on instinct. Yes she would be changing the timeline one last time, but Max would also die, and with her, the power that was destroying time.

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Honestly I think sacrificing Max would have been the more tragic and emotional ending. Not to mention making more sense. After all I don’t think trying to save Chloe was the reason time began unraveling and created a huge tornado. It was Max’s continuing use of her powers and ripping time a new space-hole in the process. And while Chloe was indirectly the cause by forcing Max to continue saving her, Max is the real problem. Even with Chloe dead now, how long until Max uses her power again?

At several points in the storyline, Max uses her power instinctually to protect herself or others. What’s preventing that from happening again?

Still all that said, as long as you pick Sacrifice Chloe as your ending, the final act of Life is Strange is still emotionally satisfying. Would I have preferred something a bit less conventional and less of carbon copy of The Butterfly Effect? Of course. An ending that challenged my expectations just as much as the early chapters did would have made Life is Strange a narrative on par with the Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but as it is, it falls short.

Yet I have to admit that the final scenes of Life is Strange hit all the right emotional notes and provided closure to the series, which is all I really look for from an ending.

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I’ll admit, the appearance of the blue butterfly brought a few tears to my eyes…

The ending isn’t what I would have liked to see, but Life is Strange is still an amazing game filled with memorable characters and a great message we should all take to heart:

Life is a strange journey for all of us and we should all try to help each other through it as best we can. Because one day we’ll all find ourselves staring out into an unstoppable storm and when we do, we should have someone at our side…

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Even if it’s just to hold us until the very end…

 

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt Review

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a thing that exists and that alone is a miracle. After everyone rushed to pile awards at the feet of Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game that was mediocre in every sense of the word, I was beginning to feel like no one gave a damn about stories anymore. After spending nearly a hundred hours in the world of the Witcher 3 though, I can say that this is one of the best RPG’s I’ve ever played. This game is everything Dragon Age Inquisition should have been, everything it promised and failed to deliver, was delivered in spectacular fashion by The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

The open world is mind blowingly huge, and unlike Dragon Age Inquisition, there are no artificial boundaries that turn the maps into a series of corridors. You can cut through the middle of a forest or swim across a lake, just beware what lurks within. You never know when Nekkers will crawl up out of the ground around you, or you’ll be sailing along minding you’re own business or riding along on your faithful steed when a Griffon will swoop down and rip off the top half your torso.

Your choices have real consequences, some that are immediately apparent and others that won’t reveal themselves until you’ve nearly forgotten about the choice you made…only to have the stark consequences slap you in the face. Every single choice yo make has a consequence. At the beginning of the game I met a scholar who wanted to write about the war between Redania and Nilfgaard. I told him to go for it, tell the real story of the war. The next zone I entered, I found that scholar’s corpse dangling from a tree; hanged on suspicion of being a spy.

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But most importantly, the story is one worth experiencing. It’s not about some evil sorcerer trying to conquer the world or finding a plot McGuffin, it’s about characters. There are no pointless side quests in this game and no collecting ram meat for nameless refugees. Everything matters and everything tells you a story, and they’re all worth the telling.

That concludes the spoiler-free portion of my review. If you don’t want the story spoiled for you turn back now, just trust me when I say this is a story you won’t regret having experienced. What Game of Thrones did for television (completely redefining what’s possible for the medium) The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt does for video games.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the game I’ve been waiting to play all my life.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

A Storytelling Review

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The world of the The Witcher is George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones meets high fantasy. There are elves and dragons and magic, but this is no Tamriel or Middle-Earth. It’s a world of political intrigue and brutal warfare inhabited by monsters drawn from mythology of every culture. Yet of all the monsters you’ll fight in this game, none will be so monstrous as man himself.

The story follows Geralt, the titular Witcher, as he tries to find his old ward Ciri. The Witcher 2: Assassin’s of Kings made reference to Ciri, as well as Geralt’s former lover Yennefer, but they were so vague that none of it seemed all that important. The Witcher 3, however, does an absolutely astounding job with the characterization. Every single character feels alive and you’ll come to love each and every one of them, or love to hate them as the case may be. As you experience Ciri’s life through a series of flashbacks, you’ll become just as eager to find her as Geralt, if only because she’s so incredibly badass.

At first I was afraid this was going to turn into a “princess in the tower” scenario where you have to rescue Ciri from danger. But basically most of the story is spent chasing her because Ciri keeps rescuing herself  before Geralt can even get there.

This is no princess you have to save.
In Polish stories, the Princess rescues you.

Ciri is being pursued by the Wild Hunt, considered a legend by most  and a wraith by those who’ve seen him, but who Geralt and Yennefer know is very real. The Wild Hunt is a huge monstrosity of an elf from a parallel world, who is able to cross between worlds and is desperately seeking a way to save his world from destruction. Of all the characters, the Wild Hunt is the only cipher among them, he’s not really characterized at all and so he comes across as a bit of a stereotypical villain. He’s basically The Witcher 3’s Corypheus, only his boss fight is actually climactic and difficult, so even the weakest link in this game’s story is infinitely stronger than Dragon Age Inquisition’s entire chain. His part in the story is extremely small though, as it should be, and the focus is on the amazing characters you’ll meet.

Most of the game is spent trying to pick up Ciri’s trail and piece together her story from the peoples she’s met along the way. First all this is a brilliant way to do a story in an open world environment, because it lends itself to the exploratory nature of the game’s world. There’s an urgency to finding Ciri, but at the same time it’s not the same urgency as trying to stop an apocalypse. It makes sense that Geralt would choose to take on a monster contract while scouring a village for clues to Ciri’s disappearance. It starts making less sense once you find Ciri, but by that time I’d finished most of the side quests, and the main quest had become so intriguing that I rushed through to the end of the story. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the Witcher universe, that phrase usually means the Emperor has literally taken your head.
In the Witcher universe, that phrase usually means the Emperor has literally taken your head.

The game has an impeccable sense of pacing, for instance after a long arduous journey finding Ciri’s trail and finally deducing that Uma is the key to finding her, you have a chance to get some real work done: Drinking. Along with your fellow Witchers, Lambert and Eskel, you get the opportunity to relax. I can’t tell you how fun this scene was, but after what must have been 20 or 30 hours spent hunting Ciri and witnessing terrible atrocities in that time, this was exactly what I needed. Most importantly you remain in control and in character the entire time. So if you’re playing Geralt as a straight up professional, you have the choice to go to bed early. The game doesn’t just jump to a cutscene, and by doing that you feel completely immersed in the experience.

Now I’ve never developed a taste for alcohol, it just tastes so awful I can’t drink enough to get drunk, so I have no idea what it’s like to get drunk. Thanks to the Witcher 3 though, I feel like I really did get blind drunk and dress up in a frilly frock, because the scene was just that expertly written and presented. I felt like I lived it myself, it was that good. I also nearly broke a rib laughing.

The writers know how to craft a story, because after every major event and heart rending moment, there was moment to balance it out. The Battle of Kaer Morhen was quite possibly one of the most intense battles I’ve ever played in a video game. It’s just a handful of defenders against dozens of the Wild Hunt’s warriors, and yet the small number of combatants did nothing to detract from the pure epicness of the siege. In fact the small number of defenders made me feel like everything I was doing was absolutely vital.

More importantly, I knew the who each of the defenders was. There were no faceless, nameless defenders being killed in a failed attempt to raise the stakes like most video games. No, I knew the face and name of everyone fighting by my side, they we’re people to me, and that made every moment of the siege feel real. My heart was in my throat the entire time. And when Vesemir gave his life to save Ciri, I felt the same rage Ciri felt.

Burn them all, Ciri.
Burn them all, Ciri.

But back onto the point of pacing, directly after this incredible scene, the writer’s wisely decided to give us an opportunity to laugh. This is absolutely vital to any good story, because if it’s all horror and death the audience will grow numb to it and eventually bored of it, that’s something the Witcher 3’s writers understood. After a somber funeral scene and a few days to recuperate, we’re treated to a snowball fight between Ciri and Geralt. Again the incredible people at CDProjekt knew the best way to tell this moment was to leave the player in charge, so it’s you charging around exchanging snowballs with Ciri.

And when you’ve slain the Crones of Crookback Bog and avenged Vesemir by killing the Wild Hunt’s general Imrelith, you share a tender moment of peace while watching the sunrise. That’s the other great thing they did with Ciri’s character, they didn’t fall into the trap of making Ciri a badass by draining her of emotion. She laughs, cries and rages like every other person in the story. She’s human.

And it’s in these interactions with Ciri that Geralt is best revealed. Once again you remain in complete control, you can choose to not have a snowball fight with Ciri and play it cool and distant. But though you may not know it now, even these small moments have huge consequences on the story.

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My friend also played through the game and played almost the exact opposite Geralt, a pure professional who did only what was necessary. He didn’t have a snowball fight with Ciri, he didn’t gleefully smash up Avallac’h’s lab, and he didn’t let Ciri lay to rest Skjall (the man who led Ciri to safety in Skellige). In his ending, Ciri had disappeared and was presumed dead.

In my ending, as my Ciri stared into that strange energy field from which the White Frost was coming, in her mind’s eye flashed all the great moment’s we’d shared throughout the game’s story. The snowball fight, the lab, and the visit to Skjall’s grave where she told the villagers of his heroism. The moments that reminded her that there were things worth living for.

And she came back.

Together again.
Together again.

Again the brilliance of the conclusion is that I still retained control, I was the one who had “Sparrow” inscribed on Ciri’s new silver sword, and rode to meet her at the Inn in White Orchard where this whole story first started. When I talked about emotional closure and the importance of resolution in the Story Arc in my Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age Inquisition reviews, this is exactly what I was referring to. A few brief moments when we can relax and allow the story to come to an end, like the last trailing notes of a grand symphony.

“Well then, let’s try it out…” – Ciri to Geralt 

Then of course we’re also given the slideshow ending that answered any unanswered questions and gave us resolution to the interesting, yet ultimately unimportant subplots such as the Nilfgaardian invasion. Much like Game of Thrones, The Witcher 3 dangles fascinating political stories for you to focus on that ultimately have nothing to do with the actual plot. This is a story about characters, and the slideshow tells you what became of the people you came to love.

Geralt spent a few months with Ciri teaching her all he knew of the ways of the Witcher, and then they parted ways, with Ciri going on to become a Witcher even more famous than Geralt. And as for Geralt himself?

He retired to Kovir with Triss, taking on occasional monster contracts, but for the most part living out the rest of his life in the peace that had eluded him for so long.

That was my story. My choices in the game led me to an ending that left a warm glow in my heart, and was one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had in a video game. And if you haven’t already, get out there and start your Geralt’s story because no matter how it ends up, you’ll never forget the experience. 

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Hard to believe it all started years ago with a game so rough I can barely believe it got a sequel.

All That Matters is the Ending: Pillars of Eternity

Pillars of Eternity surprised me, but not in the ways I expected. I’ve always had a soft spot for Obsidian because their games are exactly how I would expect mine to be if I ever made one: an amazing story stuck in a lair of bugs. So I was surprised when Pillars of Eternity ended up having very little bugs, at least in my experience with the game. I was also surprised to find that the story was… okay. By average video game standards it’s a good story, but from the people who gave us Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Fallout New Vegas, it’s probably one of their least interesting stories.

Don’t get me wrong there is some absolutely amazing writing in this game, I mean god damn spectacular writing.

This what you call painting a picture with words.
This what you call painting a picture with words.

There were moments in this game that brought me close to tearing up and yet… I never felt truly engaged in the main storyline.

Pillars of Eternity came out two days before I began my new job as a transcriber, and I couldn’t finish the game in that short period of time. Yet when I started my new job I felt no desire to stay up late and play Pillars when I got home. At first I thought maybe I was just becoming a responsible adult, a truly horrifying possibility. But then I binged on watching Netflix’s Daredevil (review coming soon!) and stayed up till 3am on a Sunday to see how the first season concluded. So clearly I was still willing to screw my future self over for the sake of good storytelling.

The simple fact of the matter is that the Pillars of Eternity main storyline just never grabbed me. I feel bad that this is going to be mostly a negative review because I absolutely love the ambition on display here. Obsidian shot for the moon on this one and it just…didn’t quite get there.

All That Matters is the Ending:

Pillars of Eternity

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Pillars takes place in an entirely original fantasy world, and though the combat rules are pretty much just Dungeons and Dragons, the world itself is as alien as it gets.They very clearly spent a lot of time and effort on making sure their world felt lived in, and it has a history that goes back thousands of years. You could point to any location on Eora and there would be a fascinating story to be told.

For me I ended up wanting to be a sailor in this world, because the oceans of Pillars would be an amazing setting for an HP Lovecraft style horror game. In one of the many books you can read, there’s a description of Krakens the size of islands, great spiked whales that ram ships, and strange humanoid sea-creatures with hair of seaweed and great unhinged jaws like snakes that invade ships in the black of night. I really hope Obsidian does a sequel for the game because this world is absolutely magnificent, it really is.

And yet…

The sheer amount of information that needs to be conveyed means you get tons of exposition dumped on you a lot. For instance you’ll hear the story of Saint Waidwen and the Saint’s War a dozen times from various people. The first couple of times you’ll appreciate it because the history of this troubled land is incredibly complex, but after you’re halfway through the game and you’ve had it explained to you a dozen different ways you’ll end up wishing there was “shut up! I already know!” dialogue option.

Then there’s the backstory you’ll need to know about the War of Black Trees and War of Broken Stones that lead to the current situation in Dyrwood. Oh and you’ll need to know about Waidwen’s Legacy, which means you’ll need to know about Animancy, which means you need to know about how Souls work in this world, which means you need to know about the Glanfathan’s…

They basically needed to give you a history book to read before playing the game.

They basically needed a history book to be provided with the game...oh, nevermind, they did.
Oh…

I hate that their huge epic world ultimately becomes a negative to the overall story, but it is. There’s simply so much information you need to know in order to even understand what’s happening in the story that at some point you simply stop caring. Exploring and learning about new, strange worlds is half the fun of these kinds of games. Yet when you’re forced to refer back to your glossary just to understand the context of a conversation you just had, it’s no longer fun.  In many ways I think they should have limited the scope of their story, because while the story is confined to a single country on their huge world map, it’s a larger than life adventure that drags you into a huge history-spanning conspiracy.

What they should have done instead is make their story a character driven human drama, because that’s where the writing really shines. When I was learning about the various gods and the political machinations of Defiance Bay I was left utterly disinterested. When I found a the body of a small murdered boy and experienced his final moments I nearly cried.

When Lady Webb was trying to explain the political infighting between the Crucible Knights and the Dozens, I couldn’t have cared less. But when she told me about her love affair with Thaos, I was fascinated.

Humanizing a villain is always a smart move.
Humanizing a villain is always a smart move.

Which is why the ending really doesn’t work for me. For one, it was my relationship with Thaos that was the most fascinating part of the game for me. In the flashbacks that occur throughout the story, you relive your past life as a follower of Thaos; watching yourself go from an unknown acolyte to his right-hand man. I had actually grown to like Thaos character, especially after learning about his love for Lady Webb.  He was very human character, despite having lived thousands of years.

Yet at the end there was no real sense of resolution to this character arc. Instead we get one of the dumbest and most pointless plots ever conceived.

In the end you meet a woman named Iovara, who you’ve seen tortured to death in a former life. When you meet her she’s entombed by the gods for heresy and she tells you that the gods aren’t real…

Pretty sure Bender made the same argument about evil Santa, with pretty much the same results.
Pretty sure Bender made the same argument about evil Santa, with pretty much the same results.

Yes, after riding a magic carpet of souls made by the gods themselves, a ghost who has literally been damned by the gods tells you that the gods aren’t realI’m sorry, I thought I was playing a well written Obsidian game Iovara, I seem to have made a wrong turn. Can you point me back to the real story?

The gods in Pillars of Eternity are gods by every human definition of the word! They make themselves known to the world, speak directly with certain people and grant magical powers to their followers. These aren’t like the gods of our world, where they’re so ephemeral and distant their very existence is doubted. If the Christian God sent down a Jesus with a head made of blazing golden light, my first instinct isn’t going to claim his god isn’t real.

You're god damned right
You’re god damn right it’s on fire, kid.

Morrowind had a similar storyline but here’s why Morrowind’s story works: Morrowind let us peak behind the curtain. We got an opportunity to see Vivec and learn that he is not an all powerful god, but simply a man who was given god like powers through several powerful magical artifacts. And even before you meet Vivec, if you visit the ruins around Red Mountain, you can find writings and artifacts that prove the same point.

When I finally met the gods of Pillars of Eternity, they were exactly like I would expect a god to be: beings living on a different plane of existence. I got no impression from those meetings that these gods were anything than what they appeared to be.

This is made worse by the fact that Iovara doesn’t actually tell you what made her reach the conclusion that the gods weren’t real. She literally just says “I saw things and heard things that proved the gods weren’t real.” The entire argument basically boils down this:

Iovara: “The gods aren’t real!”

Thaos: “Are too!”

Iovara: “Are not!”

Thaos: “Are too!”

Iovara: “Nuh-uh!”

It’s like every internet argument atheists and theists get into on Facebook. Only this time the theists have some pretty damn compelling evidence on their side.

You're god damned right
Because again, flaming head guys. FLAMING HEAD!

And with all this overwhelming evidence of the gods existence, Thaos’ mission suddenly looks really, really stupid. Was all this death and destruction really necessary to make people believe? First of all I didn’t meet a single character in the game who didn’t believe in the gods, so it didn’t seem like this was a huge issue that needed an organization like the Leaden Key to prevent. In the flashbacks its made clear that Iovara eventually gathered a significant number of followers, but since we never learn what evidence she had, this seems more like a simple plot contrivance than anything.

Worst of all though, when you fight your way to Thaos, the game completely destroys any sympathy you might have had for him.

Thaos was a good villain for most of the game, especially once you uncover his love affair. An immortal man who has lived countless lifetimes but is still vulnerable to the feelings of love. His reluctance to kill his love, and the relative kindness with which he does it when his hand is forced, really made him a human being again after revealing his immortal background.

And of course that’s all utterly destroyed by his closing monologue:

“When the plague came to [a city I can’t remember now] I made sure the cure didn’t. They stacked their dead outside until the piles were as high as the walls themselves.”

Great…and that accomplished what exactly?

You know maybe if you shut up once in a while, you could actually do something right for a change.
It was a line straight out of “The Big Book of Evil Cliches” by Corypheus.

Thaos, up until this point, had been portrayed as a man who was willing to do what was necessary. He would kill and destroy anything to obtain his goal, but only if it were necessary. That and his love for Lady Webb were what made Thaos an interesting villain, he had motivations for what he was doing. Then here at the end of the game he throws both of the things that made him interesting away. First by joyfully telling you about the millions he’s killed, and then by telling you he was just using Lady Webb.

I mean maybe he was just feigning indifference for intimidating value, but it would have been nice if I could have pressed him on the subject. Something.

And then there was my relationship with Thaos. As strange as it sounds I’d come to think of Thaos as a friend by the end of my journey, I really had. He was so well written, and the amazing choices they offer in your flashback options allow you to roleplay your prior relationship anyway you choose, and I’d chosen to see him as a mentor in my past life. Like Lady Webb and Iovara both tell you, he is a master manipulator. And I hope to god whoever wrote his dialogue doesn’t become a political speech writer, because I might just believe every word he writes.

But at the end, when I relive the final moments of my former life, and have our final conversation… I’m forced to ask him whether the gods were real. Despite the fact that neither my current or former characters would have asked that.

What, you expect me to believe you just because you have giant unstoppable avatars of your god?
What, you expect me to believe you just because you have giant titans brought to life by your god?

Whether or not I believed in the gods was irrelevant to me. I wanted to know what Thaos thought of my character, to have a satisfactory and emotionally fulfilling resolution to our respective character arcs.  Yet in the end I felt like this whole relationship that had been built through the excellent writing, was left hanging in favor of resolving a plot point I didn’t care about.

One of my best memories in gaming is of the relationship between Kain and Raziel in the Legacy of Kain series. They start out as a bitter enemies, and I hated Kain so fucking much. He was twisted, sadistic bastard I wanted to see dead. But then throughout the series you learn the truth, that they were friends that had been manipulated into fighting by forces they didn’t understand.

“I am, as before, your right arm… your sword.” Raziel’s final words to Kain. I’ll be doing a full write up about the brilliance of this scene soon.

That was the kind of resolution I was hoping for from Thaos, not specifically that we’d been friends…just the satisfaction of seeing whatever our relationship reach its conclusion. Did he betray me? Did he hate me? Was he regretful of how he used me?

According to him, he didn’t even care. Which would have been fine had I been allowed to respond to that in some way, but he pretty much immediately launches into trying to kill you. When he died I thought, maybe now I can interact with his soul and see the truth about how he felt about me, but instead it just reinforces the same tired plot point: the gods aren’t real.

And the evidence we see is that these giant Glenfathan machines extracted souls from people and somehow coalesced them into gods. That’s it, that’s the big secret he’s been trying to hide all these millenia. That still seems pretty godlike to me.

If the ending had been framed as “the gods were created by an act of pure evil and we should stop following them,” then yeah I could have hopped on board with that. Or if it had been “clearly the gods are fucking up our lives more than they’re helping, we should get rid of them” then I could have worked with that. But the gods don’t exist? Yeah that’s not something the setting lends itself to.

This dude can hail down fire from the heavens through the power of faith. Atheism really isn't something that can exist in this world.
This dude can hail down fire from the heavens through the power of his faith. Atheism really isn’t something that can exist in this world.

I thought at the end of the story we’d find out what the Pillars of Eternity really were, and why they channeled souls. But it never is. In fact the titular Pillars of Eternity have absolutely nothing to do with the game’s story at all as far I could tell. Even the nature of souls, the core of the game’s story, are left infuriatingly ambiguous. How exactly were the gods created using these souls? Did the souls themselves become the gods? Or was their power used to grant a single being god like powers? And how was collecting all of the souls in Dyrwood going to bring back the Queen?

I know this is a fine line to walk. Explain too much about souls and the pillars and suddenly we’re back talking to the AI God and Architect, but explain too little as is done here and you have a story that ultimately goes no where and means nothing. Maybe a few months ago  I would have been content with having no answers at all for fear of having a Catalyst moment, but then I played Planescape Torment and now I know that you can reveal enough of a mystery to be satisfying while still sparking the reader’s imagination.

Of course all this said, it’s still a good game. It’s far better than Dragon Age Inquisition in that it’s writing is top notch and it doesn’t waste 100 hours of your time to figure out the plot is worthless. So pick it up if you have the money, because I’d definitely like to see a sequel set in the same world. That’s for sure.

This is but a tiny fraction of the world map of Pillars of Eternity. And somewhere out there is a story that will absolutely blow my mind.
This is but a tiny fraction of the world map of Pillars of Eternity. And somewhere out there is a story that will absolutely blow my mind.

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 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!

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.

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.

All That Matters is the Ending: Dragon Age Inquisition

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

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

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

1. Every Story is Isolated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Choices have no consequences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come on Bioware, you can do better than this can't you?
Choices in an RPG should have more significant consequences than a Gears of War game, don’t you think?

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

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

None.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The Ending is the very definition of an Anticlimax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just imagine this.
Just imagine this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Harbinger, you did good son.
I like to pretend the game ended here and we all died. It’s less depressing.

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

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

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

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

In Closing:

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

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

A note to Mark Darrah:

Hi Mark,

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

And I died so many times...
And I died so many times…

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

 

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More on Dragon Age Inquisition:

The Ending Isn’t The Only Problem

Why Corypheus is a Bad Villain

The Failure of the Inquisitor

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.

 

 

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

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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.

 

Burial at Sea: The Cycle Ends

And so we come to the end of the journey, in more ways than one. With the death of Irrational Games, this is truly the end of the Bioshock series as we know it.  In a way I’m glad they had time to wrap up the storyline of Infinite, but in other ways I wish they’d had more time to give us a more satisfying ending. One filled with more closure and understanding, and less with random retcons and useless scenes.

Burial At Sea: Part 2

A Storyteller’s Review

I suppose it's fitting that it ends where it all began.
I suppose it’s fitting that it ends where it all began.

When we last left our heroes Zachariah Comstock had just suffered a heart bypass via pneumatic drill while Elizabeth solemnly watched in an attempt to satisfy her hunger for vengeance. Of course we all know that’s a hunger Elizabeth will never satisfy, so Part 2 of Burial At Sea begins with us waking up as Elizabeth and staring into the face of Comstock’s corpse. Having achieved nothing beyond petty vengeance and ruining the life of one little girl, Elizabeth is tasked by Atlas to find a way off his prison in order to save the girl she just screwed over.

Like Bioshock Infinite, you spend most of your time trying to figure out what the hell just happened but somehow this plot didn’t seem as coherent as Infinite’s. Infinite was a complex plot filled with time travel and multiple dimensions, but I always felt the plot knew where it was going and the great character interactions kept me invested in the story even when I had no idea what was happening. Part 2 of Burial at sea, by contrast, sort of meanders around for most of its story and I felt like it didn’t quite know what it wanted to do with itself. It doesn’t help that Elizabeth is suffering amnesia, making her just as confused as the player. And like the first part of Burial at Sea, I felt that the majority of our time was spent just killing time and waiting for the story to resume. I liked the conversations Elizabeth had with her hallucination of Booker, but again, these were too sparse to fill the hours of vent crawling and sneaking around. When the story is present, and not just taunting you from the other side of a locked door, it’s pretty good but also filled with strangely unnecessary scenes and plots.

Daisy's Retcon is horrible in Burial at Sea Part 2.
I don’t think even the Luteces understand what the fuck was supposed to be going on here.

There are a handful of absolutely baffling scenes that seem to serve no purpose to either the story, the characters or even for the sake of entertainment. The one that really sticks out is Daisy Fitzroy’s retcon. At one point you have to use a tear to go back to Columbia to retrieve a McGuffin in order to progress through the story and while crawling through the vents of an airship you meet the Lutece siblings convincing Daisy to kill Fink’s son so that Elizabeth will become “the person she needs to be”. I really hate this scene because it’s utterly unnecessary, killing Daisy Fitzroy wasn’t the pivotal moment that turned Elizabeth into a vengeful killer, it was an important step along the way but not the pivotal moment. It also ruins Daisy Fitzroy’s character and the motivation of the Vox Populi, first of all why should she even take orders from the Lutece siblings? For one, they’re supposed to be dead, and two they were Comstock’s henchmen for most of their lives, so why would Daisy trust them? Is she also a time traveling, dimension-hopping demigod that just somehow knows that’s what she needs to do? You could remove this scene from the game and it wouldn’t change anything in the story. Nothing. I still don’t know why it was included.

At another point in the game you explore a bit of Songbird’s backstory, but that too retcons the previous storyline and explores things no one was interested in. Instead of exploring Songbird’s origins and creation, the game focuses on why and how it bonded with Elizabeth, which would have been fine if it had something to do with Songbird’s personality or had anything to do with the story at all. The game takes us tantalizingly close to some answers regarding the enigmatic Songbird, only to then totally disappoint by showing us that it bonded with Elizabeth because she plugged a hose back into its beak. “The lion with the thorn in its paw” is the analogy imaginary-Booker uses. They then use this completely anticlimactic reveal to show how the Big Daddies bonded with the Little Sisters, which I’m pretty sure Retcons the original Bioshock since I think the Little Sisters used pheromones to command the Daddies. Not to mention this retcons the previous chapter since Sally called for Mr. Bubbles before they were supposedly bonded. Again, removing these scenes from the game wouldn’t have changed the ending or the overall story of the game one iota.

Those are the two most egregious scenes in the game but there are plenty of other quests and plots that just seem to hang there like the frayed ends of a broken rope. For instance, the McGuffin I mentioned earlier turns out to be locks of Elizabeth’s hair. Again I thought this was another important part of the story at the time, like the Little Sisters are all clones of Elizabeth or something like that, but no it’s just another obstacle slowing down the story’s pace.

They might as well have made the McGuffin this doll head for all the impact it had on the story.
They might as well have made the McGuffin this doll head for all the impact it had on the story.

So after an interminable amount of time crawling through ducts and tranquilizing more bad guys than Solid Snake, we finally get to the meat of the story. After raising the prison and setting in motion Atlas’s war for Rapture, Elizabeth has to find the ‘Ace in the Hole’ in order to free Sally. Long story short, after more meandering around, you find the Ace in the Hole is “Would you Kindly?” the phrase that will set in motion the events of the original Bioshock. And we finally reach the end: Elizabeth gives Atlas the phrase and allows herself to be killed.

“It’s like a wheel of blood constantly turning…”

That’s how Elizabeth describes her existence and it’s what I’ve been saying through all the different writings I’ve done on this game. Fortunately in this ending Elizabeth finds the same strength her father showed in the ending of Bioshock Infinite. Elizabeth’s life, like Booker’s before her, is a constant cycle of betrayal, pain and revenge. She could have spent the rest of eternity trying to satisfy her lust for vengeance, but it wouldn’t have helped. And as she realized during this episode, she was fast becoming the very monster she was hunting. She took Sally away from the only person she could call a father in order to use her as bait. Ruining a child’s life in order to achieve your goals, gee, that sounds somewhat familiar. Yet it was this realization that made her return to this time, to set aside the rage and the pain, to achieve something that was truly worthwhile. In her omniscience she saw all the doors, all the paths of rage and hate that had been laid out for her, the never ending cycle of blood.

But behind one the doors, she found hope. She found a place where she could do something good.

Elizabeth couldn’t save herself, no matter how hard she tried. She would never be able to just live a normal life, never experience life with her real father, never dance in the streets of Paris. What Elizabeth could do, was prevent the same thing from happening to five other innocent girls like her. Saving Sally was about more than simply rescuing her from Atlas, it was about saving her from living the same life Elizabeth led. It was about giving them the life she never had the chance to live. It was about giving those five girls the life that twisted monsters like Andrew Ryan, Atlas (Fontaine), and Comstock sought to steal from them.

Elizabeth couldn’t right all the wrongs that had been inflicted on her, she could never go back to the girl she was, but here in this moment in time, she could save five little girls. And she was willing to make the sacrifice, the same sacrifice her father made, only this time it worked.

She gave them the father, the childhood and the future she never had.
She gave them the father, the childhood and the future she never had.

It was a bittersweet goodbye, but overall I think this was a great ending for the Bioshock series. In her final moments Elizabeth defies Andrew Ryan (and Ayn Rand) by sacrificing her own life to save the life of five strangers, altruism at its finest. She defies Comstock by choosing to accept responsibility for her actions and not hide them behind a cloak of rationalization and excuses. And she defies Atlas-Fontaine by showing him… he’s not nearly as clever as he thinks he is.

I found this ending to be incredibly emotionally gratifying, it let us say goodbye to the Elizabeth we all knew and loved: the one who was kind at heart and generous of spirit.  The cold, detached Elizabeth that drowned her father and used Sally as bait to kill Comstock died the moment Elizabeth realized what she was becoming. Elizabeth dies as the person we all grew to love, and sets aside the rage and anger that had haunted her for so long.

Goodbye Elizabeth, you were one of the finest characters ever featured in a video game.
Goodbye Elizabeth, you were one of the finest characters ever featured in a video game.

All that said, what holds this ending back from becoming the greatest video game ending ever, is all the sloppy writing that comes before the ending. The unnecessary scenes and retcons, the unanswered questions, the endless padding that killed the pacing. It was a brilliant ending for the series, but everything leading up to that ending…just didn’t work.

I love the ending…I just wish everything that had come before had been as touching and as memorable.