Breaking Through The Fourth Wall in Dragon Age

For me, the appeal of video games has to do with escape and immersion. It isn’t just about gameplay. It’s about story, about investment, and about character. From the very beginning I’ve been drawn to video games that tell stories and introduce me to characters. And in the last 10 years video games have changed drastically in that respect. In fact, I’d wager that the entire formula is changing; games that immerse the player in the actual story are vastly re-writing the rules of the industry.

The first game that really made an impact on me was the original Fable. Now, I know there are plenty of naysayers out there, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was quite groundbreaking at the time. Up until that point I had never played an RPG that so fully kept my attention, that made me feel I was a part of that world. Even more so, it made me feel like I was exploring a new world, rife with possibilities. There was no single way to win. (There was, however, a way to be completely swarmed by adoring townspeople who all wanted to marry me and have my children. Horrifying.)

Having recently come to the conclusion of Dragon Age, however, I see there is a great deal of room for improvement in this kind of game. I freely admit that Dragon Age is the best RPG I’ve ever played. The storyline, the characters, the customization, the design… there really is so much that is laudable. As it is, my gripe has nothing to do with Dragon Age as a run-of-the-mill-RPG (because in that case, it’s head and shoulders above many others), but rather with what I think it could have been: and that’s so much more than an RPG.

(I’ve tried to keep this relatively spoiler free, but if you’ve never played the game and are planning on it I’d suggest turning a blind eye.)

Interactive Storytelling
So here’s the thing: Dragon Age hooked me because of the characters. Wil Wheaton said it best at PAXEast, when he expressed his personal investment in the story. When it comes down to it I keep playing Dragon Age for the same reason I keep reading a book: I want to know what happens to the characters. I feel affection for them. I feel kinship with them. They’re like my friends.

But with a well-designed video game there is an entirely different level of investment, unprecedented in most books. It comes down to control, and there is a remarkable level of control with Dragon Age. Even though my elf mage was not me, that line certainly got blurred at times. And while Dragon Age is not exactly high literature, the storyline is still impressive and, in my opinion anyway, vastly better than a great deal of what you can find on bookshelves these days. It’s better by far than choose-your-own-adventure books because the consequences are far reaching. You’re not necessarily going to open the door and meet permanent death, y’know?

All this rambling does have a point. For the first two thirds of the game the fourth wall, i.e. that line between the game and my reality, was firmly in place. I was practically ensorcelled. Then, everything began to crumble just as the game started drawing toward the conclusion. Just as everything went so epic, I lost faith because the game couldn’t hold up its part of the bargain.

The Problem With Alistair
No place was this more obvious than during the Return To Ostagar expansion. So Alistair went on and on about how much he missed Duncan, and I admit I bought the expansion just to get rep with him, reasoning that it would really bolster our budding romance. (Yes, I’m a giddy little girl sometimes.) But having listened to him blather about the pain and suffering of enduring the loss of his mentor, not to mention the fact that at that point we’re the only two Grey Wardens on the face of the planet, I had a really difficult time accepting his reactions once we returned to Ostagar. He was quiet. He occasionally said a few words, but really didn’t seem impressed. I was running around in circles so excited to be returning to the battleground and Alistair was just so… so… obviously a program and not a person.

This happens to all the characters, regardless of expansions, since as you approach the game’s conclusion you also finish their personal quests and they go suspiciously mute. Even Wynne who usually goes on and on ad nauseum. The illusion shatters. You can’t even engage them in further conversation, and the camp feels lonely.

Of course I understand that there are programming issues that make truly “human” AI very difficult, especially in a game as complex as Dragon Age. However, I do think BioWare should have done it in such a way as not to feel so painfully abrupt. By the end of the game I felt as if the characters had been abandoned and left me alone to do the dirty work. The result? The game’s conclusion felt very lackluster. I didn’t care like I did before, and that was a great disappointment, especially considering how many hours of time I’d already invested.

Reconsidering the Demographic
No game is perfect. But I do hope that in future games like Dragon Age, developers will put more value on the player’s interaction with characters, and make sure it’s sustained throughout the entirety of gameplay. Because, truly, there’s a contingent of gamers out there who play games like we read books, and there’s nothing so frustrating as when the ending just falls flat.

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