Monday, 30 January 2012

BioWare: Choices and Consequences

BioWare: Choices and Consequences

What happens in the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games when player choice is at odds with narrative direction?

Australia, January 29, 2012

 Warning: This is only for gamers that have finished the first two Mass Effect games and all the Dragon Age content released to date. Major spoilers ahead!

BioWare wants you to choose. Throughout the course of Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, your Commander Shepard has no doubt made some pretty hairy decisions. In Mass Effect 3, we're hoping to see the final manifestation of those decisions, some of which have been developing over the unprecedented course of two games. Yours truly rocks a goth FemShep with noir lip-balm and a renegade way of solving everything. A promiscuous bisexual with an appetite for destruction, she really has no business commanding the Normandy – or taking advantage of its crew. First she melded naked minds with Liara's blue allure, then she rode Thane's terminal green machine. Finally, she sampled the perilous erotic delights of Morinth and, well, perished. Zevran nodded approvingly when I reloaded after that last one. "I would have done ze same thing," he'd said.

She's my Shepard, and I wonder what the end of her story has in store for her.

But is she BioWare's Shepard?

A lot of Mass Effect fans I know are agonising like crazy. They're on their fourth or fifth playthrough of the first two games in the lead-up to the third: "This time will be my canon story," they insist, every time. Maybe you know what's up. It's often difficult to shake the feeling that you have chosen… poorly. When I capped Wrex for harshing my Krogan-neglect buzz and summarily had his corpse disposed of in a nearby swamp, I felt a pang of uncertainty. Not because it was a totally brutal act that saw the end of a long-standing comrade, but because it seemed somehow incongruous. Wrex felt like a character who should be there at the end. Upon meeting Urdnot Wreav in Mass Effect 2, a sense of narrative displacement was felt again: Am I doing it wrong? Offing the Council, picking Ashley over Kaidan (really, who's more interesting?), putting a hole in Conrad's ADIDAS when I should've nailed him in the plums; a lot of it doesn't feel "right." Why should anything need to feel right? Those choices were mine to make.


Urdnot Wreav - you're doing it wrong. Or are you?

Dragon Age: Origins is largely responsible for sowing these seeds of insecurity. It soon became clear that, although the choices afforded your Warden were drastic and their outcomes severe, BioWare had a plan in mind. When Morrigan came to my bedchambers on the eve of battle demanding that I poke around in her enchanted forest one last time, I had to say no. She wanted to birth a terrible demon spawn using my Dalish goodness. Sounded like a bad idea to me. "No demon intercourse tonight, babe" was quipped, and so she became a sexually frustrated wolf and disappeared. Super, possible Old God apocalypse averted. Didn't think much of it. The final battle loomed and, despite Loghain's generous protests, my Warden consigned himself to the void for the good of everyone. A tragic, fitting end to a reluctant anti-hero cruelly plucked from his nomadic tribe to battle Tolkien knock-offs.

But then, a wild Dragon Age: Awakening appeared and it asked me whether I'd like to import my character. My heroically dead character. "Er, sure," I told it. Quoteth the manual's fine print: "If you choose a character that died during the climax of Dragon Age: Origins, you play Awakening as if the character had lived." Thus the fatalistic finale of Origins was wiped clean in an instant for narrative convenience and there he was again, very much alive. Okay, weird but workable. It wasn't until Dragon Age II that the ripple effect of BioWare's historical dissonance truly began to blot the pages of a story I thought I had been writing. Some folk around Kirkwall referred to the Hero of Ferelden as dead, others as very much alive and ruling his roost with ruthless glee. What the?

The option to play Awakening as a new Warden arriving from Orlais is given, but not in the capacity where you can continue on in this fashion if your Warden died in Origins (which I thought would've been great). It starts a new game entirely, no ifs, no buts. Clearly a proviso for first-timers rather than returning players, I began to wonder: Is all this choice destined for irrelevance, ultimately wound around a centralised canon because it has to be? Hey waitasec, is that Leliana in Dragon Age II? Thought you were dead. Oh, the Divine said it wasn't your time, right, of course. By the sequel's curtain call, it didn't matter what you'd done or even tried not to do. Refuse to help Anders load the Chantry with magic bombs? He does it anyway. If he didn't, there'd be no explosive catalyst and subsequently no unavoidable future war with the angry mages of Thedas. Likewise the fate of Isabela. Keep her in your little black tome or give her up to the Arishok, it doesn't matter. She'll escape to the seven seas regardless. Hmmm. Wonder if we'll be seeing her again?

Leliana - the only way to kill her is to hurl her into the fires of Mount Doom.

I wondered harder still as Origins' DLC continued to assemble en masse. None of them resonated quite as much as Witch Hunt. It resonated because of how much it seemed to illustrate exactly what I'd started to become wary of: That BioWare's mandates and mission are at odds with each other. Much like Garrus, they had reach, but they'd overextended it and their vision didn't have flexibility. Witch Hunt served as an accidental public admittance of that. Morrigan is clearly supposed to be pregnant with a Warden's demon spawn at this point. Quite likely, this'll have something momentous to do with Dragon Age III. If you didn't do the demonic dirty, she's pregnant anyway, somehow, magically. Maybe your Warden was a woman, in which case Witch Hunts makes even less sense. Oh, and Flemeth's not dead and Morrigan had it all wrong. Funny that. There she is in Dragon Age II, because she needs to be.

The illusion of Dragon Age's liberty began to unravel before me in the face of mounting narrative need. BioWare is telling a tale, and the denser it becomes, the more it must be told in a certain fashion. If you don't follow the program, they'll just retcon your ass. What else can they do? In a way, it might even be our fault. Maybe it was never supposed to be anything more than an isolated epic, and the pressure to continue the saga intervened with the original script's potential for finality.

Welcome to gamer guilt on a new level.

The synergy of canon and self is delicate, maybe even only applicable in confined spaces. It's why the looming interstellar shadow of Mass Effect 3 fills me with both excitement and dread. This is it, the final chapter in an epic trilogy that has been with me – and a whole lot of you – since 2007. Five years in the making, I don't want to get this wrong. I want it to be perfect. More accurately, I want my FemShep's imperfection to be perfect. I'm scared of what I've made her, scared that her bad-lady ways will be overwritten if they don't happen to match up with BioWare's bigger picture – and it is big. What if the Rachni suddenly need to play a pivotal role in the fight against the Reapers? Whoops. I pushed the "Gas Queen lol" button. "Oh, that never happened," they might say, whistling inconspicuously.

FemShep, clearly about to go renegade.

I've always wondered about the latter half of what Dragon Age's former lead designer Brent Knowles meant when he said: "I'm not the same person I was when I started, and BioWare isn't the same company," after resigning. Maybe Mass Effect 3 will answer that unspoken question – but if I was given the choice, I would tell it not to. And abruptly kick it out a plexiglass window onto the cyberpunk spires below. That's how my girl rolls. Question is, when BioWare see her rollin', are they gonna be hatin'?


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