Is Bioware’s Dragon Age the last of its kind? A solo-player game absent an integrated online component? Or is it actually the next step in what Spore designer Will Wright calls the “massively single player” experience?
Dragon Age (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows) heralds Bioware’s return to fantasy role-playing, a “dark heroic fantasy” that lets you choose from six origin stories designed to change up your game in more than the usual cursory ways. It’s out on November 17th.
In the final part of our interview with the game’s lead designer Mike Laidlaw, we talk about the “death” of single-player gaming, a fantasy version of The Wire, the death of moustache-twirling villainy, social networking, and how to get noticed in a crowded room.
Game On: A Theory of Fun author Raph Koster argued single-player gaming was doomed back in 2006. He went on to clarify that he meant games in which “only one person [is] making decisions.” That pretty much describes games like Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and now Dragon Age coming out three years after his pronunciation. Your response?
Mike Laidlaw: I think the glory of stories–and I think this is something computers are only now starting to be able to participate in–is that stories are shared experiences. It’s the shaman telling the tale of whatever around the campfire, the boy scouts with the flashlight under their faces. All these things are primal ways that we as a people communicate, share experiences, and quite often, share wisdom and growth. Before written communication, before the printing press, and before computers certainly. Lore and legends were often wrapped up as fables and parables, for the purposes of sharing experiences.
So to my mind, the most valid story is one that can be experienced but also shared, that can have moments that really resonate with you. And in an ideal world, we’re looking at playing to the strengths of computer gaming, and making the game and story reactive, but also enabling people to share that story and say “Look, I did this, and then this, and then this,” and feel like an experience happened to them that they want to relate to others. That is where gaming transcends where it’s been in the past.
I don’t think a single-player experience means you have to do it in isolation. I think that’s where the fallacy lies, the sense that by firing up a single-player game you instantly shut down your messaging utility, destroy your Facebook account, and close your Twitter account. These things don’t happen. People want to post about what’s happening to them, and you’re seeing games now that’ll for instance allow you to post a Twitter update from inside the game.
We’re actually developing something for Dragon Age called the Social Engine that allows you to share the experiences and growth of your characters. Even though it’s a single-player game, you’ll be able to hold it out for people to take a look and go “I can see what you’re doing there, and how you’re doing it.” One of the big strengths of Dragon Age is that by the time you finish playing, we hope players don’t feel like they experienced the story we wanted to tell them, but that they played through their story. We’re using specific techniques to guide the experience, to make it so you’re not lost and wandering completely disengaged, but within that there’s substantial choice and variety. At the end I think it all comes together and you’re like “This feels like something I did, and I want to tell people about it.”
GO: What kinds of ethical level does the game operate at? Is it broad stroke “with us or against us,” good versus evil, Clash of the Titans stuff? Or more like a mythic version of The Wire?
ML: The strength of shows like The Wire, which is fabulous by the way, is that the ethical dilemmas you face are ones that resonate with you. Because you can understand–and I think The Wire does this better than other attempts–that it’s showing you people in relatable situations, and it shows you how they got there, and why they’re still there. You can empathize and sympathize, even with the guys doing really bad things. You can empathize with the corrupt cops. You know you can really sink your teeth into it because you can see that deep down they’re also people. You can understand how people could end up in these scenarios. It’s easy to look down from your perch and go “Oh, that would never happen to me,” but The Wire shows that in its particular reality, it’s the only way to survive.
Where Dragon Age falls into that spectrum is…it’s kind of halfway between the two, because The Wire, to use it as our touchstone example, deals very much with the kind of mundane, the smaller day-to-day stuff, whereas Clash of the Titans deals with issues that are so gigantic it’s almost impossible for us to conceptualize without thinking metaphorically. You know, fighting Medusas and things that are completely off the hook. Somewhere between those two, I’d put Dragon Age, where the characters and interactions you have are ones that–especially if you go digging and read the lore and ask questions of the characters you meet–you can understand the motivations behind what seems to be apparent villainy, and you can rationalize how someone could end up there.
That’s where I am very excited about our villains. Because they aren’t just moustache-twirling “I’m here to destroy the world.” They’re people reacting to things that happened in their past, things that happened directly to them, and they’re responding in the only way they feel is reasonable.
So for instance, and I think this is a major theme within the game, there is very clearly an evil on the horizon. There’s a storm cloud a-brewin’, and that is The Blight, the Darkspawn, and they’re coming. But at the beginning of the game they’re not fully formed, they’re on the way, but you’ve got people questioning whether the stuff that’s happening is really portentous. “It’s been 400 years, is it really going to happen again?” That kind of…it’s almost denial. Later you can see how characters reacted to the fact that they weren’t sure, that they didn’t know, how that indecision or perhaps ambition drove them to attempt something because “Oh look, everyone’s distracted, I can get away with this right now,” and so on and so forth. As a result you can get into a space where you can understand our villains and yet still have this big looming wall of evil heading your way, which I like, because it means there’s something you can be opposed to even while feeling sympathetic for characters that have fallen into some sort of depravity.
GO: It’s where Tolkien dropped the ball in the Lord of the Rings. Why did the orcs and trolls sign up? Why do they care? Why fight to pulverize the topography? There’s no insight into that stuff, into these other presumably nuanced ethnicities, who are of course going out and dying in untold numbers for some faceless Big Bad’s sociopathic desire to put a wrecking ball through the world. It’s not that we have to be sympathetic with what they’re doing, but at least tell us why they’re doing it, and be honest about its complexities.
ML: Well in Dragon Age, we certainly have the Darkspawn and The Blight, which is that force of evil, though you get the sense that there’s something behind even that as you’re playing the game. The nice thing is that when you do have this opposing force, where it’s kind of like “I see the arch-demon is rallying the Darkspawn behind him,” but as you encounter people who’ve been touched by the corruption of the Darkspawn, you start to realize things about their motivations. It’s like, these things are bestial and evil, but what’s really going on here?
Then when you’re dealing with the more visibly human forms of villainy, it’s definitely not of the moustache-twirling variety. It’s very much a comprehensible, almost sympathetic kind of evil.
ML: I think it’s the strength of our whole studio, that all of our writers and all of our storytellers fall in love with the characters that join you. We celebrate them, and we love their stories and histories. The more texture we feel we can give them, the more we take an element of the game that could be workaday, like “Oh he’s the guy who hits things for me,” and turn it into “He’s the guy who’s around all the time, he’s the steady part of my party, he’s part of my experience,” and what can we do with that? It’s why people love character generation and face generation and hairstyle choice and that kind of stuff. It’s because you’re always with these characters, always looking at and interacting with them. So we say, let’s expand that to the party and talk about what we can do to bring them to life.
It’s giving them things like consistent willingness to jump in and interject. One of our characters is notorious for his wry asides as you go through the adventure. And then you take that a level deeper and slowly make it more apparent that what he’s really doing is coping. He’s up against some very bad things. He’s a Gray Warden, he’s taken an oath to defend the world against The Blight and that’s finally happening, so this is his coping mechanism. It’s not just “the guy who’s there to be funny.” It’s the guy who’s being funny because of what he’s dealing with. That’s where it starts to shine.
Then you add more layers to it, with characters that interact with each another, where your party is quibbling back and forth as they explore. Internal rivalries and such. I remember a sequence where one of my party members was teasing another one for being a big softy. What that does is take moments that might otherwise be “I’m just traveling across this level to go back to that store,” or “to pick that one chest that my rogue is now good enough to open,” and makes the characters part of your adventure. It makes them part of your story. It gets rid of the mundanity. It replaces it with something that can be amusing, or startling, or insightful–something that can grow the characters. And of course as characters start to feel approval or disapproval for your leadership, their reactions change. They’ll challenge you and ask you “What the hell are you doing?” if they disapprove. If they approve, they become inspired. Sometimes they unlock new plots, or new parts of their history they want to explore with you because they trust you enough.
And then you go to the final step where there’s subtle cues, like clicking on a character that has high approval for you, and they’ll tend to respond briskly and positively. Or click on a character with low approval and they’ll respond with exasperation and annoyance. It’s adding a layer of texture to the game. If this is a primary mechanic, having a party-based game, why shouldn’t it be a party-based experience?
GO: The quality of your relationships actually affects your party’s battle performance?
ML: That’s right. There’s an approval rating that…it’s the closest thing we have to a morality index in the game. The people who are closest to you have their own opinions about how you’ve acted and interacted with them and with others. Their approval can lead them to become inspired, which is a mechanic in the game whereby they receive boosts based on their feelings about the way you lead.
And of course the party is bigger than the group you take with you immediately. What I find with many players is, they decide on a tone for their Grey Warden, often based on how their origin story played out. Some of the sterner origin stories, take the city elves for instance, tend to lead players toward a more hard-nosed approach. Players then tend to build a party that reflects off that origin story, that feels right for their particular character.
GO: Fable 2’s Peter Molyneux told me the hardest thing to accomplish in a game is, you do all this work, and getting people to notice and appreciate subtle but important things without forcing them to look, is far and away the most challenging thing.
ML: There’s a point at which you have to accept there are subtle graces that are best if they’re part of a holistic experience. You don’t necessarily want to call attention to them. You almost want the player to not notice them, but to kind of lose themselves in the flow of the game. Things like a character who disapproves of you reacting with exasperation instead of nicer tones should feel like a product of the way you’re playing and a product of the adventure you’ve been having. By doing that, I think really good orchestration and really good painting…there are subtleties to it that your eye doesn’t necessarily pick out unless you’re looking specifically for it. It’s like the sound you don’t hear until someone points it out. But as soon as they do, you realize it’s been part of your surroundings the entire time.
So there are parts where I think that subtlety isn’t something the player necessarily notices, but something that helps the player engage and lose themselves in the world, in the game, in the entertainment they’ve chosen for themselves. The more you can make someone step outside of their head and feel like they’re saving their homeland as opposed to “that guy on the screen is saving the world,” the more the game is meeting its goals.