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Opinion: What makes a good Party? (of the geeky kind)

Bow in hand, my super hot archer-chick was standing there, looking at her adventuring party. These were the dudes and girls that had stood by her as she kicked butts across an entire continent. And I could not care less about them.

Spoiler Alert: Probably not safe if you care about the character development in Dragon Age: Origins and, to a smaller degree, in Chrono Trigger. Although, to be fair, the whole point of the article is that you shouldn’t care.

Bow in hand, my super hot archer-chick was standing there, looking at her adventuring party. A mix of races, classes and personalities. These weren’t just any characters, these were the dudes and girls that had stood by her as she kicked butts across all corners of a an entire continent. Her friends, her allies. And I could not care less about most of them.

The game in question is Dragon Age: Origins, which is one of those games that really make a point of the player exploring dialogue options and getting to know their party. And I did! I crafted pretty close relationships with the two party members that I liked the most. They told me their deepest secrets, I completed their special side quests and my character even forged a strong sentimental relationship with both of them: one romantic, one friendly. But me? I just did not care.

All right, I get it, you guys hate each other.
All right, I get it, you guys hate each other.

And as I finished the game and turned it off, I wondered why it was so easy for me to eject the disc, why these ultra-developed characters couldn’t do for me what the 2D sprites of Chrono Trigger’s characters could. When I killed Morrigan’s mom, who turns into a freaking dragon, I was excited during the battle (it was a pretty difficult battle) and little more. But when I traveled to the past in Chrono Trigger to save Lucca’s mom, by heart was beating so fast that I almost got the code to stop the killer machine wrong.

My impression is that it has to do with over-developing a character. In Chrono Trigger, party members speak just enough for the player to get a good idea of their personality. All of them are honest, and none of them is pretentious in their development. They don’t have incredible, epic backstories. In Dragon Age, however, I could barely stand Alistair’s humor an hour after I met him, so I stopped talking to him. Which made him become even more obnoxious. And as far as backstories go, one is the bastard child of the king, another is the daughter of the most epic witch to have ever existed, the other used to be a bard, then became a missionary, now wants to be a bard again… heck, I would have added the dog to the party if I didn’t find the idea of my dog fighting at my side so ridiculous.

Why do you love me so much?
Why do you love me so much? I'm so tiny and pixelated!

The risk with developing such rich characters is that all of them, because they are meant for the epicness of being part of your parties, will have strong personalities, intricate backstories and specific points of view. So, out of a room of 7 strong personalities, could you genuinely like 3 of them enough to hang out with them for 50 consecutive hours? Probably not. Yet you must if you want to play most hardcore RPGs.

This has led me to be increasingly displeased with the members of my parties in the RPGs I play (which, admittedly, aren’t that many). I can perfectly imagine the whiteboards in the design rooms, the spreadsheets filled with all of the character’s names and their views on different topics of the game. Maybe there’s even an email thread “What do you guys think Morrigan would think about the hero supporting this decision?“. And at the end, they come up with these very rich characters that at the same time feel hollow. A bunch of pixels and decision trees crammed into a virtual body. A party that falls into the uncanny valley.

These parties are so real, so planned, that they become unlikable. So yeah, Morrigan, I understand that you don’t agree with my wasting resources to save this dude so what’s that account to? A -2 to your “like me” meter? Sure. Sheesh, just give me Magus so he can be all quiet and smooth with his cape. Now that’s a dude I’d like to have in my party.

Originally published in my design blog at www.franciscosouki.com/designblog

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