After some sort of foolish hiatus, my friend Chris has returned to playing and writing about video games with a reflective post on Dragon Age Origins.

He doesn’t like its combat system:

I can see how true fans of the genre would enjoy it — if you really want to delve into tactics and planning and manage a handful of characters down to the smallest detail, I imagine you’re in heaven.  For me, it boils down to wanting to click a mouse button to swing a sword, not click a mouse button to activate an icon to swing a sword.  If I hit someone or block a blow, I want it to be based on my reflexes, not on an invisible dice roll behind the scenes.  Simple as that — it’s just not for me, and I knew that before I bought the game.  I’m not criticizing it, it’s just not the style of combat I enjoy.

I think he’s put his finger on an oddity of Bioware games.  They used to do explicit D&D games like Baldur’s Gate, and to some extent all their games are still hidden D&D games.  For some reason this is particularly evident in KOTOR, where your character will fight (though badly) entirely on her own if you do nothing, and if you like (and if you are a Cheeto-stained geek) you can call up a screen that shows all your dice rolls.

Chris loved Mass Effect, which does a much better job of looking like a pure shooter, but it really has the same mechanism… you can pause combat and micromanage your party and what spells, er mass effects, they are using.  I tend to agree that this is more annoying than fun.  I’d rather focus on the main character and trust the others to do their jobs.  There’s just something unsatisfying about the base D&D mechanic of “rolls to hit’, especially in a computer game.  Look, the dude is right there, two feet away, of course I hit him.  I don’t have a problem with my skill or my rusty iron blade being so bad that I didn’t do much damage, but this “you missed with a sword” stuff feels wrong.  If you want to make missing a game dynamic, make me use the mouse; I guarantee I’ll miss plenty.

Jade Empire feels different, without all the micromanagement… though you don’t really have to worry about aim, you just have to keep close to your opponent.

Chris apparently feels not very connected to his character, partly due to the lack of voice.  That’s kind of a poser.  Do you want to be following a character (in which case you want them to have a personality, like Jade in Beyond Good & Evil, or Sam in Sam & Max), or be a character (in which case the on-screen character shouldn’t have too many reactions of their own, in case they don’t match yours)?  Some games take a middle ground– e.g. Left 4 Dead, where your character may have some funny lines but remains pretty generic.

Bioware generally takes the path of letting you choose from a small set of PCs, and then making moral decisions along the way.  In Mass Effect, for instance, you can choose between three possible backstories, which will be referred to throughout the game.  In KOTOR and Jade Empire you play a very specific and key figure– though you can play them your own way.  I think it works pretty well, but for full immersion I like Bethesda’s games, where you feel in full control of your character.

Chris also has some words that all fantasy writers should take to heart:

Basically, you’ve got orcs from Mordor running wild and the “good” races must align to stop them from taking over Middle Earth.  So, nothing really new in the main storyline.   (Question: if the monsters ever did take over, what the hell would they do then?  Stand around roaring?  Do they have other marketable skills besides stabbing villagers and operating catapults?  Can any of them grow crops or improve roads or manage an inn?)

Obviously people like stories about battling eeeeeevil, but there’s always a part of my mind that rebels at this, since no real-world struggle is like this.  No one is an actual minion of eeeeevil; the bad guys simply have a different conception of good, and they think we’re bad guys.  Isn’t that a more interesting setup anyway?

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