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Rooted to the spot – The True Curse of Ferelden

This is a follow-up to Josh Bycer’s blog post “Too much RP, not enough G: A criticism of Bioware”. I wanted to add a few criticisms of my own about the static game world of Dragon Age: Origins and the clumsy way the game handles enemy encounters.

Christoph Kaindel, Blogger

March 10, 2011

8 Min Read

This is a follow-up to Josh Bycer’s blog post “Too much RP, not enough G: A criticism of Bioware”. While I agree completely with everything Josh wrote, I wanted to add a few things of my own; it would have been too long for a comment, so I decided to put it into a separate post.

“There is this entire hub city of Denerim, but all of the doors (save one, the tavern) are locked from exploring, and there are no random villagers populating the city you are trying so desperately to save. The half-dozen people you do meet are always in the same place throughout the game – they change their dialog as you come back to see them over time, but you'd think they'd have better things to do than just stand in one spot and wait for over 20 hours for you to come to their rescue.

This is old-school RPG design, and it totally breaks the illusion that Denerim is a real place that needs your help.”

If you played Dragon Age: Origins, you will probably agree that this is a fairly accurate description of Ferelden’s capital. However, it is not. This is a quote from an IGN review of the 2005 PSP game Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade; I just switched “Aven” for “Denerim”. Dragon Age: Origins has been widely praised as an old-school RPG; I have been playing RPGs for about 25 years now, but when a current-generation RPG has gameplay features that were criticized in a 2005 PSP title, that's no more "old-school" - that looks like dated game design to me.

I have been playing Dragon Age: Origins for a year now, on and off. I am about halfway through, but I don’t think I will ever finish the game. Partly for the reasons that Josh mentioned in his post, but mostly because of the game world. Dragon Age: Origins is the Silmarillion of games: a great collection of background stories, about people, history, natural history, legends and religion, but it just isn’t that much fun. A lot of work went into the design of the game world, I’m sure, you just have to look at the hundreds of codex entries (I couldn’t care less for codex entries and only read a fraction of them). Most of them, as far as I can tell, are completely irrelevant to gameplay. For me, an interesting game world is the most important part of a role-playing game. I like my game worlds vibrant and alive; and Ferelden, sadly, is neither.

I found the land of Ferelden ugly, dull and lifeless. Regions are quite small, there only is a handful of objects to interact with, and invisible walls are everywhere. I HATE invisible walls; they should really be a thing of the past by now. When you decide to split up a game world into tiny tiny fragments, you could at least take care to put in visible, logical boundaries. Even in supposedly big forests the only accessible areas are along a few narrow pathways. Still worse are areas where your mighty warrior can not go because they are surrounded by knee-high fences. The small regions are populated by a few immobile NPCs. I found their behavior – or, rather, non-behavior – irritating right from the start. For instance, there were several refugees in the village of Lothering, standing in the same place the whole time I spent there. Shouldn’t they, well, flee? Or at least be distraught, sad, depressed, or look for shelter? I suppose a refugee camp should be a chaotic place, lots of people begging for food and water, looking for their relatives, getting into fights with each other, with others trying to help and keep up a semblance of order … but Lothering, and all the other locations in Ferelden, were like paintings, tableaux full of silent people who never moved. Never was there a sense of urgency, nobody really seemed to care about the rapidly approaching end of the world.

With enemies, it was the same. My standard tactic of dungeon-crawling (most people’s, I suppose) is to put the rest of the party on hold, then have a rogue – my main character – sneak ahead to disarm any traps and scout for opposition. Enemies can be found standing alone or in groups, but they do not move or chat or do anything to suggest they are “real” people (or spiders, werewolves, whatever). They only react when the party comes close enough to trigger a reaction; a rogue may often sneak up behind a motionless enemy and kill him. But sometimes a strange thing happens: when the rogue crosses an invisible trigger, a nearby door will open and a group of enemies will pour forth; but they do not see my sneaky rogue, so they will just stand in a huddle in the middle of the corridor. They do not look around, they do not search for the source of the sound that presumably alerted them, nothing. Until I throw a bomb at them.

In the old D&D games, there was the concept of “wandering monsters”. The dungeon master would throw dice every few minutes to check for random encounters. So, in a cave you might encounter giant rats, bats, troglodytes etc. And of course there were jokes among players how wandering monsters spent their time while waiting for adventurers to invade their dungeon: playing cards, eating, sleeping, torturing each other – basically, the Dungeon Keeper game concept. There are no wandering monsters in Dragon Age. The game instead shows us what computer generated monsters really do until triggered into fighting the player characters: absolutely nothing. Oblivion had its faults, too, but at least there was a day-night cycle, people moved around, talked to each other, performed some tasks during the day and slept at night. All of the creatures had behavior patterns and reacted to each other - if some baddie attacked you on the road and a royal guard was nearby, he would come to your aid. All this made it easier to pretend the game world and its inhabitants were “real”. No such thing in DA:O. In the dwarven city of Orzammar, I was attacked by followers of a local prince and fought them right under the nose of the captain of the guard. You should think he would react somehow, make an effort to keep the peace or run away to get help. No, he just kept standing in his allotted spot like everybody else around.

NPCs as well as enemies frozen in place until an invisible trigger is crossed is such a mechanically crude and obvious game device that it reliably kills game immersion for me. My own party members were not much better. They did have some amusing or interesting dialogue sometimes and generally reacted to the main character’s actions in a fitting way, but otherwise they would just stand there waiting for player input. This was especially obvious in camp. There is no danger, so you might imagine people could move about a little and get acquainted with each other, but they don’t. Not even the dog.

One more thing that kept bugging me was the persistent gore. Yes, I know it can be turned off, but I usually do not turn off game features because I believe that they were put in for a reason and should add to the game experience, and I don’t mind gore usually. But the way DA:O handles gore is quite weird. What would you do if you had lots of blood in your face? I suppose you would wipe it off immediately after the fight, I know I would. But the Dragon Age characters do not mind at all, they just allow the blood to fade over time. So, here Alistair stands and declares his love for me in his charmingly awkward way, with his face all covered in blood. Irritating, to say the least.

After playing Dragon Age: Origins for a while, I finally realized that it is not the Blight at all that troubles the land of Ferelden. It is some other curse that keeps people frozen in space and time until talked to by the only person who seems able to resist the curse: the player character. Then people are allowed to move, utter a few lines until the player character cruelly ends the conversation and they, again, slip back into stasis. This is a terrible fate, I’m sure. Even more terrible is the fact that the Blight doesn’t seem to progress unless the player advances the story … the village of Lothering is only overrun by darkspawn after you have been there. So it is in fact me, the player, who brings destruction upon the land. It might therefore be better for the game world not to progress along the story. In fact, it might be better not to play the game at all, as then the curse might be lifted, there will not be a Blight, and all the citizens of Ferelden will be allowed to live their lives in peace. We shall never know. But just to be on the safe side, I will keep away from Dragon Age II.

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