So I’ve just spent my weekend on something very worthwhile: I powered through Dragon Age 2, after absolutely loving Origins. I know I’m five years late playing it, especially since I’m a gamer with a soft spot for interactive fiction and I’m so keen on high fantasy that if it were a person I’d need a restraining order. But I made the mistake of trying to play it on console, as a rogue, this had me dropping in and out of the menu to change weapons every 30 seconds or so, and the lower frame rate, that had everyone speaking at the same speed as an Ent did not marry well with my lack of patience.
But this isn’t a post to bitch about crap ports this is about comparing both Dragon Ages and looking at some key points for Interactive Romance – why did one succeed in making me care where the other failed miserably. In Origins I romanced Alistair because I wanted to, I thought he was brilliant and hilarious. In Dragon Age 2 I romanced Anders, because there was a trophy for romancing someone, Varric was steadfastly unavailable, and I thought if I romanced Anders he would be more likely to stick around with his awesome healing power. Not really grounds for a whirlwind romance. But let’s take this opportunity to look at how to make romance work well in interactive fiction.
This first point isn’t a complaint for the romance aspect alone, I found it to be the case with all the characters, but a large part of the problem was depth; It’s no secret that 2 was a rushed game, only getting a year in development, so it wasn’t just the character backgrounds that were stunted. But backgrounds make a huge difference; most of what I know about Anders came from Awakening (An expansion to Origin) not Dragon Age 2 itself (although I say most of what I know, if his name had been changed I honestly wouldn’t have clocked he was the same person since he transforms from sassy mage to Captain Misery of the H.M.S ‘I can’t be with you; I’ll only end up hurting you’). Whereas Origins had its dialogue trees, full of interesting tidbits about everything, character pasts, likes, thoughts on current events.
Anders was nothing past his two issues, i.e. desiring freedom for mages and his little ‘I appear to have a spirit lodged in my head’ problem. If someone else could elaborate on another part of his character (that doesn’t come from Awakening) that would be great, because bar a few quips exchanged with Varric while I blundered around Act 2, that’s all I can really tell you about him. There was just so much more to Alistair, his Templar past, his present issues with his lineage and sister, his relationships with people like Duncan and Morrigan, and this is just naming a few.
If I visualize this as candy floss, it’s like the developers had core ideas for each character, Alistair’s character got put in the sugar spinning machine, and ideas stuck to him and built up on top of each other, so I had a really yummy candy floss to enjoy. In this metaphor Anders is the stick that the developers forgot to put candy floss on – he was just a stick.
But enough about their lack of depth, let’s talk about agency in relationships and their effect on the outcome of the game. The new dialogue method is partly at fault for 2’s failings here. In Origins you would often have six exact conversation options for what you wanted to say. In Dragon Age 2 you get a wheel, and you can choose whether to be disgustingly nice, ‘sarcastic’ or operatically evil. Your grip on things is a lot looser. So loose in fact I found myself saving before dialogue in case I picked an option and my character turned into Dick Dastardly or something. In Origins there were many ways for romances to play out, I could be playful and cheeky, desperate, considerate, even difficult (a favorite of mine). For Dragon Age 2 I was either being disgustingly in love or ruining my relationship.
I know a lot of people were down on the gift giving mechanic from Origins, plying your choice of mate with gifts until spicy sex occurs. But I have to say I disagree with that. I’m not saying it’s an ideal presentation, but it’s not as if the gift giving was exclusive to the romance characters and it was a fair mechanic to manipulate relationships that the player had agency in. At the very least spicy sex didn’t feel like the end goal, since it occurred mid game, and there were many unique conversations and developments to be had after that, sex did not mark the culmination of all the relationship had to offer. In Dragon Age 2 sex very much felt like the goal; we had the good loving, he proclaimed his love immediately after in a scene that was about two lines long and that had the comfortable feel of a Jewish Nativity, then there was nothing. I just got the occasional ‘My Love’ thrown in at the end of dialogue – it felt more like he was trying to placate me because I’d got my trophy at that point and didn’t feel the need to be nice anymore.
But let’s pretend I got to say exactly what I wanted and behave exactly as I please. There’s no pay off in Dragon Age 2 – being stuck in a relationship with Anders the cardboard cutout is not pay off as far as I’m concerned – I needed more than that. Whether I was with Anders or not he still does the plot thing he’s destined to do, regardless of what I have to say. In Origins my opinions mattered, my relationship had an impact on events, and vice versa, Alistair and I had unique scenes concerning the plot and its effect on our relationship and how we’d handle things, I felt involved and like there was much more to things than the dance with no pants.
It’s s a shame that a formula that worked so well for Origins had to be budgeted down in Dragon Age 2, because it shouldn’t need explaining to BioWare that for someone to care about a character they need to have more than one dimension, and that agency is the key to Interactive Romance. Worst of all these points seem incredibly obvious yet I’ve seen many an Interactive Fiction that neglects them, I don’t even know how you can make an Interactive Fiction where someone has no agency, it is, frankly, beyond me.
Luckily this hasn’t damped my enthusiasm to start Inquisition, either that or this feeling is simply relief that I don’t have to listen to Anders anymore.