Dragon Age: Origins is supposed to be the big role-playing game this year. You can tell because the trailers feature portentous music, big battle scenes, and a bunch of characters looking Very Serious about the Overwhelming Evil that is threatening the Vaguely Medieval* world they inhabit. Needless to say, I am playing the shit out of this game. I’m a sucker for all of that. Drop me in Faux-Europe, point me in the direction of whatever horrible monster needs a-choppin’, and I’m thrilled.
*What is it about medieval times that made them the default setting for any RPG? Why not Rome? Why can’t I be an Aztec or a Pharaoh? Or like…I dunno, an Aborigine? I bet you could have a lot of fun as an Aborigine.
There’s a lot to recommend it. The combat system is fluid and complex, and responds well to what you’re trying to accomplish with it. The graphics are lush. The voice acting is excellent (have you ever seen what bad voice acting can do to a game? I played the first Resident Evil at my aunt and uncle’s house in Italy, and even the people there who spoke no English were laughing at how bad the voice acting was in that game). BioWare makes the game, and I’ve liked roughly everything they’ve done. Something about the way they put the whole package together just appeals to me; their games feel right. I can usually tell within about five minutes whether or not a game will hold my interest just based on the tone it sets.
What really sold me on Dragon Age, however, was a very brief trailer regarding the party interaction system. Your character walks around a campfire, talking to each of his buddies in turn. They respond to you with various ways; one is reticent, another flirtatious, one is grateful for something you did in a previous interaction. Another begs for food*. It’s designed to showcase how much work they put into making the characters seem believable.
*This character is a dog.
None of that is what grabbed me. I’ve seen tons of games that do characters well. Heck, most of them were BioWare’s to begin with, so it’s not like this is something I didn’t expect. It’s like EA Sports making a reasonable approximation of what it would be like to coach a football game if you could ride the SkyCam, or the guys who made Myst making another shitty point-and-click adventure that doesn’t go any-damn-where.
What grabbed me is this: you’re sitting around a campfire, and that’s all you’re doing.
If this seems strange to you, you have to consider the one factor that is the center of nearly every popular non-sports, non-puzzle game of the past ten years:
OK, murder is maybe too strong of a word. I apologize. Sometimes I use words to shock you and draw you in despite the fact that they may be less-than-accurate. I wanted to be a sportswriter once. It’s a bad habit.
Let’s rephrase. One series I’ve kept up with along the years is Halo; I’ve played it since its inception and through its various sequels. The most recent incarnation has an online application that tracks your various stats—medals won, hours played, and so on. I checked it recently and found that, in the campaign mode (in which you Save the World from an Alien Menace), I’d killed something along the lines of 7,000 enemies in three playthroughs.
This didn’t take me as long as you’d think. I’ll be conservative and estimate that each playthrough took 20 hours, maximum, so that’s a little more than a hundred baddies dead per hour.
A hundred per hour! In game-time, Halo 3’s campaign takes place over the course of maybe…three days? A week at the outmost if you’re being generous with estimating what you don’t see in between levels? The most deadly soldier in history, in terms of enemy lives personally ended, is a Finnish guy by the name of Simo Hayha*, who killed something along the lines of seven hundred Russian invaders during the Second World War. He did this in three months. That works out to eight per day.
*In case you’re wondering, his answer to how he pulled this particular feat off is “Practice”.
Now, Halo 3 is awfully well-paced, but you’re basically killing, killing, killing constantly. There’s no downtime.
Pretty much every other game does this. You’re either killing something, in transit to killing something, or spending a perfunctory amount of time recovering from killing something. From Mario to Master Chief, I’d say I’ve probably ended hundreds of thousands of virtual lives.
Let me be clear: the effect this has had on my fragile conception of right and wrong has been zero. If you’re a sociopath, you’re not more likely to kill someone because Call of Duty 4 somehow presented you with the idea that killing is good. About the only real-world skill that could possibly be carried over is the importance of leading one’s target. The first and only time I picked up a gun*, which was in a skeet-shooting activity on a cruise ship when I was twelve, I hit exactly half the moving targets I shot at, simply because I had the good sense to fire at where they would be rather than where they were. ‘
*Shotguns are really heavy. Also, my shoulder hurt for a day afterwards.
In the context of games, however, this has two effects. First off, why the hell are there no consequences from my character outdoing Rambo in half the time the movie took to get him to Vietnam? Video game writer Tim Rogers has written about this at length*, but if there’s a psychological consequence from killing one person in real life, why do video game characters (many of whom start the game as adventurers or scientists or some other relatively non-murderous profession) mow down hundreds without even a sniffle? Do they all go straight to the PTSD ward of their virtual Walter Reed after I hit the power switch?
*He writes about everything “at length”. If you think this is long, try slogging through 12,000 words about it.
Second, and this is where the crux of my argument lies, constant conflict is just not believable, because it’s actually kind of stressful. Even Simo Hayha had time to chat with his buds in Finnish before sending some poor Ukrainian conscript to an early grave. He wasn’t cooking off thousands of rounds in ten minutes. My favorite part of all of Gears of War 2 was a short segment where you’re on top of a mobile drilling rig, looking out at a vast and tree-covered valley, and nothing is trying to murder you. That lasts about a minute. Give me some time to hang out, guys. Let me chat with the other gruff space marines riding shotgun before you barrage me with stuff I need to aim at in order to progress to the next part where I (in a stunning and newfangled concept) find more stuff I need to aim at.
I can get plenty of non-stop bullet storms in the game’s online mode. This is single player. Let me relax.
Back to Dragon Age.
Most of the games I mentioned above are not RPGs, so this argument is a little bit less applicable to them. RPGs do have downtime (you have to go to a town to purchase supplies or break into people’s houses or whatever), but they’re so rarely an actual break. You’re just replenishing the numbers that represent your life, or stamina, or killtasticity. What Dragon Age is selling is the promise that there’s something to do beyond all the head-cutting. Sometimes, you have to take a break, but that break can still serve the story. Maybe it’ll even be the best part of the game.