Connect with us

Gaming

Dragon Age and Diversity in Fantasy Video Games

Barbara

Published

on

Dragon Age has always been on the frontlines when it comes to diverse protagonists, though it is far from the only game to offer this. And giving gamers a chance to play as various genders, races and sexual identities is an awesome thing. But it also makes storytelling more complicated, because if the story doesn’t reflect this diversity, it only makes sense in a world where there is no discrimination based on these things.

Some fantasy universes actually go in that direction. Not always wholly successfully or consistently – frequently the implication is that the universe is all equal, but it just so happens that most people in power are straight white males. This is probably partly a result of lingering prejudices and partly thanks to pseudo-medieval tropes tied to the fantasy genre. It can break the suspension of disbelief just a little, but overly, it’s not such a big deal.

Many other universes, on the other hand, decide to keep some form of systemic injustice, usually in the form of fantastic racism. Dragon Age is just one of them. And this is where the complications come into play. Because ultimately, complete freedom in character creation makes sense only in a world without structural injustice. That means an utopia, and nice as it might be to live in one, they are rather boring as far as narratives go, proving little in the way of tension for the story to use. The most interesting tales usually employ conflict with society in some ways, and that almost always means systemic oppression.

But once you do incorporate structural injustice, can you really afford to give players complete freedom in what character they come up with?

Let me use the three Dragon Age games as an example here, to illustrate the problems inherent in this approach.

As I said, its world is not one where the universe pretends at no prejudices and your character has, in fact, no background, their race and gender influencing nothing at all. No, Dragon Age limits your choice to a few available backstories, and with these backstories go specific dialogue options and even quests in the game. Where games like Elder Scrolls do the equivalent of colourblind casting, with all the problems it entails, Dragon Age theoretically does the equivalent of writing roles for minorities, telling their particular stories.

But. (There is always a but.)

The different games are a very good example of the different ways in which one can deal with such an approach, and different measures of success.

In some ways, the best example of how to do it is Dragon Age: Origins.

There are specific origin quests for different character backgrounds picked, and most of them are even quite well-done. They also have tie-ins later in the game, where you get a chance to meet characters already familiar to you. Mostly, whenever something arises where your origin would likely make you react in a specific way, you actually get the option to do so. There are a few slip-ups, but nothing major. Great job, right?

But the only reason why Origins can be this good at story customization is because, at its core, it is a fairly generic hero story.

A novice comes into a mysterious order, their mentor dies, and the task of saving the world falls to them. Individual subquests then have you circling through all the places your past can tie in to, so that every fantastic race has a chance at their customized experiences. The mysterious order in question gives the hero legitimacy beyond any background they might have. It is a decent formula to make it work, but unfortunately unless you want to make all of your games effectively identical, it can only be used once.

Dragon Age II decided to go a different way and limit the number of background choices. There is, effectively, only one backstory, just slightly tweaked depending on your character’s class. In most ways, they decided to abandon the path of different origins in this installment. I still mention it in this article, though, because in spite of this, they rather ironically managed to mess it up. Because they still let you to pick your character’s class, and it just so happens that the central conflict of the game is all about mages and their discrimination.

The oppression of free mages is supposed to be everywhere. So when you play for one such free mage, publicly casting your free magic everywhere the entire game and the most you get for it is slight lip service…well, that is just a little strange.

The lesson should be pretty obvious here: if you make oppression of a particular group one of the central themes of your story, and yet your hero, belonging to that group, never really experiences it, then you are doing something wrong. It weakens the story by making the odds less, it breaks the suspension of disbelief, and it adds to the feeling that your protagonist is really just a generic stand-in. I really shouldn’t need to spell this out.

Mages? What mages? There are no mages here, what are you talking about? What, does that look like a staff and robes and a mage cowl to you? Naah…

Apparently someone should have spelled it out to the game creators, though, because the very same problem appears again in Inquisition. That game returned to more diverse origin stories, but didn’t actually keep the different origin quests, only giving you your character background in a very brief summary. Later, too, the specific quests tied to your origins were just tabletop missions that took two clicks to solve, and some of them with deeply problematic implications to boot. All of that is a pity, but doesn’t touch the main problem, the one carrying over from Dragon Age II. Just as people would not treat a mage and a non-mage the same in a world that hates mages, so, too, the treatment of other oppressed groups would be much different from the privileged ones.

On my first playthrough of Inquisition, I was a free elven mage, an intersection of two despised groups (she was a woman, too, but let’s pretend we buy the fiction that there is hardly any sexism in the world of Dragon Age for now). On the second, I was a human noble, so two privileged groups. The character starts the game in a very vulnerable position, and they were both treated the same.

To put it quite plainly, that is not how it would go.

In fact, given the circumstances of the beginning of the game and if I see the way the noble character is treated as base comparison, I am quite certain the free elven mage would actually be dead. Beaten to death by an angry mob. Because these are things that actually happen in the world, and they would certainly happen in the world Dragon Age is set to take place in.

It is not that you never encounter any racism when playing as an elf in Inquistion – there are a few cases of casual remarks. But nothing near to what would be realistic in the setting we’re meant to believe in. Nothing that would actually influence the story in a meaningful way.

There is one nice case, though, that well-illustrates what this game actually does. When the protagonist encounters her scout in what is essentially an elven mass grave of a genocide, the scout comments that it just seems sad there are so many dead elves. If you play for an elf, you can stare at her incredulously and then quote an ancient oath at her to make her realize that yeah, you have in fact thought about this before and it seems quite sad to you, since it was the genocide of your bloody ancestors she’s talking about. She blushes and apologises to you for not realising it was this personal for you. This kind of casual erasure is brilliantly captured, and it is also what the game does all the time.

Lavellan is sad because everyone constantly speaks over her where elves are concerned. That is my headcanon for why she so often wears an expression like this, anyway.

It is nice to have this one shout-out, but when you go through the plains where the genocide happened and collect quest points for landmaks commemorating the killings of individual elven heroes, the elven protagonist is allowed no reaction. When you have to listen to one of the companions expound on how your heroic knights were probably just thieves and murderers, you are allowed no reaction. When you come to an elven temple, two of your companions (one of them actually not even an elf) translate the elven writing for you. And, best of all, at one point when you find a crucial piece of elvish history, your own elvish character suggests that you could give it to the Chantry – as in, the religious institution responsible for the genocide. Oh, and also one your character has been kind-of affiliated with from the start of the game, because why not?

You see the problem?

There is a lot of elvish material in the game; it’s one of the cornerstones of the story. But it’s treated in exactly the way all non-Western cultures are treated in the real world. Namely, simply exploited without any regard for the actual people it might tie in to. Much like with romance, though much less amusingly, the creators of the game brilliantly captured the same aspects of racism and orientalism in the structure of their story itself. The elves have always been a stand-in for racial minorities from our world, and here they are, always an object and never truly a subject, even when one of them is the supposed protagonist. The very same thing, to a lesser degree, goes for the mages.

Now the question: is this a problem when the cultures and races in question are not actually real races, but instead Thedas elves or, you know, wizards?

My answer is, yes, absolutely. Less of a problem, but still. Because it still perpetuates the patterns of oppression. It still teaches you, as you play the game, that you can stand in a temple of one culture and speak over a member of the actual culture in question as you explain its meaning. That you can ignore someone’s religious sensibilities completely. It teaches you an outsider can somehow have access to the “true” meaning of a cultural tradition, better than the insiders do. And so on.

Of course, it begs the question of how much of this is actually a product of some kind of racism (given that the groups in question, elves and mages, are not ones actual real world prejudices can be connected to) and how much of it is simply a byproduct of having multiple origins for the story protagonists. The harmful effects I’ve outlined remain whichever the case, but it rather changes the conversation.

“Well, *actually*, the Dread Wolf was…”

It is entirely possible that it is simply a byproduct. But it is curious, is it not, that it just so happens to be the group that is underprivileged in-universe which gets the short end of the stick in the story. When playing for a human, you can waltz through countless elven ruins without giving the religion they tie in to any respect. When you play for an elf, you have to at least pretend to be the herald of a human prophet. Is it something about crafting a narrative of oppression that makes the story itself warp into this sort of shape? Do the writers become so immersed in their own world that they become subject to its prejudices?

But these are fanciful musings. To get back on point, as long as you have diversity both in character backgrounds and in the cultures they encounter, there are going to be differences between the reactions of different characters. Profound ones. Perhaps bigger ones than can ever be covered by a few dialogue changes. As I said, the elven free mage would likely have been dead at the beginning. That rather changes the story, does it not?

Simply said, most stories cannot be crafted without paying mind the the protagonist’s background, because their background shapes who they are and how the world reacts to them, and that is what any good story grows from.

Most games avoid this by having a clearly defined protagonist. Others do so by ignoring any differences in background. Each approach has its own upsides when it comes to diversity. The second frees you from the necessity to constantly play for cis straight white men, which we all know would happen if the protagonist was a fixed choice. It is, of course, merely a visual thing, since the way these games are written normally means the protagonist is treated as a white man would be, no matter what they look like, but that is refreshing and transgressive in its own way too.

The first, on the other hand, can do much good when the creators actually do not make the hero at least one of these categories. Because then, all who play the game go through the experience of being, for a time, someone other than the most common idea of a hero. When the background is well done, it can be very rewarding. But still, the thing is, we do not need games for that. Films and books work in this way, with a clearly defined protagonist who, hopefully, doesn’t always have to be the entitled male. Games have the potential to do something more interesting.

This is why, in spite of all the issues it brings, I much prefer the way Dragon Age decided to go. I much prefer actual diversity in my options regarding the hero. Still, all of the problems mentioned above should not be ignored, and generic stories in the mold of Origins are hardly a general solution.

In fact, I believe the essential direction Dragon Age II went in was a good one. I believe that limiting the diversity somewhat is the only way to have the stories actually be diverse, not just white man tales with different visuals and a bit of lip-service. However, it is telling that when they had to choose one race to concentrate the origin story on, they chose the most privileged one.

The multiple-origins approach is viable if different, but in some essentials similar characters are found. Speaking of the Dragon Age world, an elf from an alienage, from a wandering clan and an ex-slave from Tevinter will have many disparate experiences, but also many shared ones, and the way people will react to their presence will also be similar enough not to tax the storytelling overmuch. A casteless dwarf and an alienage elf have different cultural backgrounds, but the experience of being the poorest and most downtrodden in a city can be enough to build a similar story on. A mage and a rebel Qunari would have dealt with a lot of similar prejudices in their lives, though again their views would be quite opposite to each other. I suppose a human and dwarven merchant, too, would have a lot in common, though telling that story seems much less interesting.

There can be enough diversity left when the choices are curtailed somewhat, and the story this results in would be more faithful to a character’s chosen background. It would look less like people’s stories and cultures were interchangeable and unimportant for who they were. I, for one, hope that this is the way the eventual Dragon Age IV will go.


All images courtesy of BioWare

Barbara is a religious studies grad student who uses fandom to avoid working on her thesis.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Comments

Analysis

Sith Inquisitor’s Journey to Freedom

Angelina

Published

on

Minor spoilers for the Sith Inquisitor class quest chain; minor spoilers for the Knights of the Fallen Empire/Eternal Throne DLCs

It is a great part of RPG experience, and even a greater part of RPG enjoyment, to like your character.  And by “RPG” I mean any RPG whatsoever, from LARP to tabletop to video game. Which is only natural, as you can’t really relate to the character you don’t like. And what is RPG if not relating to a character so that you can share its fictional experience?

Which, mind you, doesn’t mean that person should be likable. More like, they should be interesting. An interesting piece of shit, after all, has a much bigger chance to win over your emotions than a bland, shallow Stainless Hero. Like, when you watch The Thief and The Cobbler (the recobbled cut, of course, not that abomination), you sympathize with the first much more than the latter. What a perfect role model he is! But I digress.

When I first set out to play Star Wars: The Old Republic, I was highly unsure if I really wanted to do so. I’ve always had problems with video games in the sense that they don’t actually let you create your character. You get a not-so-wide variety of characters and must choose one to try to empathize with. This makes every game a hit-or-miss case for me: either it’s love at the first sight, or it’s “who are those people and why should I have anything to do with them.”

Sith Academy; a gloomy place, isn’t it?

Meeting the Sith Inquisitor

I confess, I made my initial character choice based on my desire to shoot lightning. I thought it would compensate for the lack of emotional involvement I expected. Luckily, I was mistaken!

The story was captivating right from the start because it had questions to ask. And those questions were directed to me, a player. It was me who had to answer them for myself. It was me who had to choose for myself. Because my course of action depended not on what were my plot goals and neither on my gameplay preferences. It depended on my opinion on certain problems.

Basically, you start in a very unprivileged position, that of a slave. An alien slave, if you really want to experience this story in its full power. You finish in a rather privileged position, that of a Dark Council member. On the surface this seems like a typical rags-to-riches story. However, the action/adventure story is only a minor part of the experience. The main part is the inner path—looking back to your past to create your own future and, more importantly, your future self.

In a nutshell, it is a story exploring how you deal with the trauma from past abuse: do you internalize the point of view of the abuser or the abused? As a survivor myself, I can only praise the way this narrative was given and framed in-game.

Dealing with the Trauma

So, you are a slave. You spend half your Prologue experiencing constant verbal and physical abuse from your sort-of teacher. He wants to get rid of you so that a free, Sith Pureblood candidate will win the golden ticket. But justice is served, and the ticket is finally yours. You are no more a slave, but a Sith—a person in the position of power above all non-Sith. What do you do now? And more importantly, how do you do it?

The game has a Light/Dark Side system in it. Before it was totally remade (broken, I’d rather say) it worked like Paragon/Renegade system in Mass Effect games: you choose one of two alternatives, you get certain amount of Side points, you become more attuned with a certain side of the Force. Or sometimes there is a neutral way, that’s neither. It doesn’t give you any points, but still is important in this storyline.

Your first encounter with Dark vs. Light presents a very typical kill the baby/save the baby dilemma: you can torture a witness to extract the criminal’s name, or you can talk to him and exchange help for information. A very easy choice, is it not? The next encounter is the one that gets under your skin.

It is with the evil mentor who wanted to kill you, who humiliated you, who was your abuser. You can scorn him now that you are free and a Sith in service of a Lord far above your former teacher’s station. You have every reason to hate this man, you have to wish to humiliate him in return. The first option is to threaten him, and while taking it would be extremely understandable, it is not a neutral option–it’s Dark Side. It is still playing along the rules of the system: might is right; you now have both, he has neither.

The Light Side option is to thank him, to break those unholy rules. You may not forget it, and you may be quite bitter later on about your early experience. You may never actually forgive him. Yet you refuse petty revenge, you refuse the power play. Because evil can’t mend or undo another evil.

I swear, something in my heart trembled when that rat of a man smiled to my character in return and thanked him. Because at last I saw the real Dark vs Light narrative, where Light begets more light–and Dark begets more dark.

Thus I understood that I really want to experience that story up to the end.

How can it be Dark Side? It’s fairly innocent… or is it?

Your Choices

While both versions of the Sith Inquisitor’s class story present him dealing with his trauma, I could never get myself to try the Dark one. It was really, really dark; the story of a person broken and driven to the edges of sanity, who would never let anyone have anything that person was once denied. I really couldn’t help pity the creature that person would eventually become. It’s not that this story is exactly bad, but I think it is somewhat toxic and too much in line with “being tortured makes you evil” narrative. Not exactly the trope that is in any way helpful for abuse survivors.

The Neutral path—what you tread if you don’t follow any consistent course of action—was less devastating on the personal level. It is more of a quest for identit-y than anything else. Your character does eventually give in to the darker side of their nature, but also eventually does something truly and genuinely good and selfless. In the end they receive the name Occulus, for being a mystery to everyone , including themselves. Because they really don’t know themselves. After all, the Sith Inquisitor is presumed to be very young; somewhere in their early twenties.

Sith Inquisitor

My own perfect cinnamon roll of an Inquisitor

I really loved the third option, the Light Side. It is a path of empathy, a path of true freedom. It is also the path most difficult both for your character and for you as a player, for it consciously sets you against certain old tropes and easy decisions.

Good Is Not Easy

Many games try to “convince” you to do right thing by making good choices less hard than bad ones. In general, this game is no exception; if you were to take the Dark route as a Jedi Knight, it would require more time and work from you than the opposite. But on this route it’s the other way around. Being a good person here is not—just as in real life—easy. It is hard.

I can’t describe Light!Sith Inquisitor as anything but a Suffering Empath. Having experienced much trauma in the past, this Sith Inquisitor struggles their best to shield others from the same trauma, even when it doesn’t benefit themselves. Even when it means direct harm to themselves.

For example, their power is based on that of the restless spirits they’ve bound to their soul. Letting those spirits go means the Sith Inquisitor goes back to the start, where they are fairly ordinary a Sith and no match for the truly mighty ones. It means a real threat to their life or, at the very least, their well-being. But because it is right, they fulfill their promise and let the spirits go and find peace.

In another instance, they encounter a racist, foul-mouthed, self-infatuated prick, and they don’t kill him. They choose this because that abominable creature is someone else’s loved person. and your own (both player’s and character’s) desire to punish him cannot be given a higher priority than someone else’s love and anxiety.

This route is hard, because it requires additional quests and lines of dialogue. It is hard, because sometimes you really want to teach someone the hard way, to vent your own (player’s) disgust and rage, to punish the bad guys. But as long as you remember the “two wrongs don’t make right” rule, you can really enjoy that story.

Well, “enjoy” is not exactly the right word, but you get it.

When they spoke of finally knowing true freedom (in being released to the Afterlife) I really cried from happyness

True Freedom

This story is about real freedom; that is, spiritual freedom.

One of the easiest paths to achieve your goals in Star Wars universe is by using Mind Trick. You simply make the other person do and think what you wish them to. It is often used as, well, an easy and harmless workaround. It is often marked as a Light Side option in the Jedi class stories (the Dark option being to fight).

But on this route it is never a offer as a good option—usually neutral, but sometimes even bad. Because, y’know, it’s about freedom. What is more abusive, after all, than to deny a person that person’s free will?

I cannot fathom an action more free of will, of an agency more openly expressed, than denying a whole system of oppression while being raised as a part of it. But the Sith Inquisitor does just that.

Every time they eschew their own in favor of someone else’s, they deny that system. Every time they refuse to acquire more power because it would others more dearly, they deny that system. Every time they choose to respect the free will of the others, even if it means problems for themselves, they deny that system.

 Conclusion

What I really wanted to do, right from the beginning, was to thank the author.

Rebecca Harwick created a fascinating story that works perfectly for a genre that requires deep emotional connection with your character. RPG is about living other lives, those we can never experience IRL but those still having an impact on us and our life. We all know that stories matter, and I think we need more stories like that.

And it is a highly satisfying story. You really feel it by the end, that peace and glory that come with being righteous.

Personally, it helped me deal with my own trauma and helped me sort out things and realize that some options are not really an option—that giving in to the abuser’s point of view would really keep me stuck in that trauma forever.

That, while trying to be a good person is often hard, it’s worth it.

P.S.: And Then They Ruined It…

When you experience something that great, you want more of it, do you? Well, I wanted. So I went on to playing DLCs that are supposed to cover the later life of the same hero.

Sadly, the story-line there was clearly written as a continuation of the Jedi Knight’s class story, and any difference in dialogue was purely cosmetic. This actually came out bad for many classes, but the Sith Inquisitor suffers not only plot-and-logic-wise, but also thematically and, I daresay, problematically.
You see, it is generally okay if a privileged golden boy of a Jedi, who was always treated as someone special and a Chosen One, gets a lecture from those still above him about him not being special and his real role being a mere gear in a much greater machine. It serves him right and it even has some thematic significance. I am, of course, referring to the Jedi Knight—the supposed Anakin-done-right hero, the most obviously coded as male and most irritatingly problematic in and of himself.

This kind of lecture is certainly not okay when delivered by two uber-privileged guys (a Jedi Grandmaster and a Head of the Dark Council) to a former slave. They tell this slave to be nothing more than a cogwheel, that freedom is overrated and that they need to subjugate themselves to someone or something greater. They directly say, “you are weak because you fight for your freedom, become a willing slave (to the Force, but still) and you’ll be strong.”

It is problematic, isn’t it?

It really ruined the thing for me. The narrative that was centered around freedom, around acquiring it, understanding it and using it right…it was thrown away in favor of a rather lazy “we all are slaves of the Fate” plot device. And that’s only when we talk themes and not slavery per se, and the narrative completely forgetting about it.

My only solace is, it was written by another person.


Images courtesy EA Entertainment

Continue Reading

Gaming

A Retrospective on the Gothic Series

Michał

Published

on

By

Welcome to yet another article where I reminisce about old things, dear readers. This time, it’s a German action-RPG series, Gothic, by Piranha Bytes. It still has a following in Germany, after all this time, or so I’ve heard. It certainly has a strong place in the collective memory of Polish gamers – as well as others in Eastern Europe. Why did it stick in our memory so persistently? I’ll try to dissect it. For better or worse, those games are quite special.

To start with, I’m not sure why they’ve got the name they do. They have nothing to do with Gothic art, architecture or literature. Perhaps it was a working title when the game’s concept was much different? In the end, the series became fairly typical, if dark, fantasy…at a first glance. But there’s more to it than that.

Gothic 1

The series begins with our protagonist thrown into prison. Or rather, a penal colony. The game’s intro paints a very simple picture: a generic fantasy kingdom fights against orcs, which requires a great quantity of ore to make weapons and armor. The king mines it using prisoners in the penal colony of Khorinis. To prevent escapes, he has his magicians create a magic barrier around them. However it was supposed to work, it didn’t. The barrier grew too large, capturing the mages as well, so the prisoners used the confusion to stage a riot and take over.

The king needed his ore, so he negotiated. He would trade with the prisoners, sending them goods in exchange for the metal. New prisoners would keep being sent there. The barrier allows inanimate objects to pass through back and forth, but living beings can only go in. No one ever gets out.

We meet our protagonist at the edge of the barrier, as a judge reads out his letter of condemnation. However, before he can get to our hero’s name, or the crimes he’d committed, a mage approaches. He gives the Nameless Hero a letter, saying that if he delivers it to the Magicians of Fire in the colony, they’ll reward him. He agrees, provided the judge shuts up. The mage agrees and has the soldiers toss him in. I’ll refer to the protagonist as Nameless Hero from now on, he never does get a chance to introduce himself.

The first thing the Nameless Hero sees in the colony is a fist. After he lands in the water beyond the barrier, a pack of bullies decides to haze him by means of punching. They leave after Diego arrives. An old and experienced convict, Diego explains to the Nameless Hero how the colony works, and gives him some directions. Then he leaves, telling the Hero to meet him in the Old Camp.

The Nameless Hero’s first goal is to deliver that letter, so he can claim the reward. But it’s not so easy. The Magicians of Fire reside on the upper level of the Old Camp, a settlement of convicts built around the guards’ former residence. Rank-and-file convicts have no entry there. Which sets up the game’s first challenge: join one of the three camps that arose in the colony.

The Old Camp is the oldest one, and the first one players will encounter, unless they deliberately go wandering. The people in charge are the “magnates”, which means the most powerful and influential convicts. They get the lion’s share of the goods from the outside. The most powerful among them is Gomez, and you’ll have to talk to him to join. But before you’re allowed to even see him, you need to get into the good graces of several prominent camp members, who are either Gomez’s guards or lower-ranking agents called shades.

The New Camp is a collection of people unruly even by the convicts’ standards. Although to be fair, plenty of people who end up in the colony are minor felons, people who couldn’t pay their taxes, or just unlucky folks who got on the wrong side of the law by accident.

Regardless, the New Camp has its own ore mine, but it doesn’t trade with the king. The Magicians of Water gather it to use in a ritual to blow up the barrier. Other inhabitants include mercenaries who protect the mages, a collection of scoundrels, and the dregs who mine ore and grow rice. In order to join the gang, you need to get on their boss’ good side, and there are a few options to do it. The New Camp members aren’t welcome in the Old Camp, but Magicians of Water use the scoundrels to run messages between them and the Magicians of Fire. You can convince the boss to give such a message to you.

Finally, the Swamp Camp is found in, well, a swamp on the edge of the barrier. Its inhabitants worship an entity they call the Sleeper, who will one day wake up and free them all. The power in the camp belongs to the Gurus, whose safety is ensured by temple guards. The novices, meanwhile, do the bulk of the work to keep the camp running. In order to join them, you need to become a novice. That requires the consent of at least four gurus. The problem is, outsiders can’t speak with them unless they expressly permit it, so you have to get creative.

The first Gothic is one of those games where the beginning is by far the most memorable, and the purest expression of the game’s draw. You navigate the complex politics of the penal colony, trying to get on the powerful people’s good side. Those stronger than you can and will bully you or just straight-up oppress you. You’re very much a wet-behind-the-ears newcomer, in the social and physical sense. The game pulls no punches when it comes to difficulty, and it’s very possible to run into something or someone you have no hope of defeating. NPCs will usually beat you up and take some of your money, but animals and orcs will show you no such clemency. Unlike in most RPGs, where they’re training wheels for beginning adventurers, orcs in Gothic are tough and vicious fighters.

It’s hard to describe it in an article, but the atmosphere at the start of the game is intensely thick and immersive. I don’t use the word “immersion” lightly, but Gothic merits it. Several factors contribute to building it. The first is the difficulty that I’ve mentioned before, along with a technically-open world. You can theoretically go anywhere within the colony, but until you’re strong enough, you will likely die if you stray from the roads between camps. The content doesn’t scale with the player’s level, although new creatures may appear as they progress through the plot.

This creates an illusion of a world that’s much bigger than it actually is. The colony is, in fact, very small. But gating parts of it behind the Hero’s strength skilfully conceals its true size. The game generally tells you where to go, so you’re not as likely to wander off and die as it might sound.

The other factor that builds the immersion is a lot of work that went into ambient actions. The NPCs sit, walk, eat, drink, repair their huts, cook. Even though they perform them entirely at random, according to their scripts, it does create a remarkably believable illusion of life. Not just that, the Hero can perform those verysame actions. They’re context-sensitive, so you need to approach the right object, such as a chair, a loose plank in a wall, etc. It’s all entirely pointless, but immersive.

Adding to this is ambient dialogue, which is to say, NPCs talking among themselves. In most RPGs, it means you will hear the same dialogue over, and over, and over again. Like when running through Whiterun in Skyrim, and hearing the same riveting discussion about buying food. Or being told that I don’t go to the upper part of the town once. Even though I’m a thane. Or hearing the same two racist humans discuss the finer points of exterminating elves in the first Witcher.

Gothic does something completely different. When not otherwise busy, NPCs will pair together and talk. They do so by exchanging context-less bits of sentences. It won’t be long before you’ve heard them all, of course, the pool isn’t that big. But, once again, it creates an illusion. Especially in your first playthrough, it gives you the impression of catching bits and pieces of a conversation as you walk by or do something else.This might sound a little ridiculous, but somehow it works.

Finally, the immersion is built simply by the writing, dialogue, plot and gameplay. By making the Nameless Hero a weak rookie and surrounding him with people who are pretty rough around the edges at best, the game creates an atmosphere of being on the bottom of the totem pole in a harsh environment. You have to suck up to those in power and pick your battles to get ahead. You could also keep your head down and just mine the ore, but then we wouldn’t have a game.

Unfortunately, this atmosphere grows less thick as the game goes on. The Hero eventually becomes strong enough to challenge many of the tougher convicts and beasts. After you join a camp and deliver the letter, the previously branching plot merges together. No matter which camp you’re in, you will receive orders to help the Swamp Camp with their preparations for awakening the Sleeper. From that point onwards, Gothic gradually loses a little bit of what makes it unique.

What about the game’s technical side? Well, this is the less-good part. Gothic was a buggy mess when it came out, and it’s unlikely to get better on modern computers. The game’s engine is as rough and coarse as the colony and the people that inhabit it, but it doesn’t exactly add to the atmosphere.

Some bugs lead to hilarious exploits. For instance, when you fall off a great height, eventually the hero will assume a horizontal position and start flailing his arms; this signals that the fall will be fatal. However, if you press the button to sidestep mid-fall… the animation is cancelled and the hero falls to the ground safely. Even if he jumped from the highest ledge in the colony. The number of different things that don’t quite work would be too long, so I’ll just say the game could have used extra polish.

Now, the mechanics of character progression. They are dirt simple, but do some things uniquely. To start with, you gain experience and levels as usual. However, a level gets you only an increase in health and some skill points. To make any sort of use of those skill points, you must find a trainer. For some skills, it’s not hard. You can advance your basic attributes and combat skills easily enough. Other abilities are gated behind faction membership and status therein.

The basic attributes are strength, dexterity and mana, and the choice generally boils down to being a warrior or a mage, with Swamp Camp giving you the option to play a warrior who dabbles in magic. If you don’t follow the path of a mage, you’ll eventually master two-handed weapons and either bows or crossbows. But the requirement for trainers does effectively create classes in a system without them, in a more organic manner. You can theoretically learn anything, but you need to find someone who will teach it to you first.

Gothic 2 and Night of the Raven

Well, that’s enough about the first game. What about Gothic 2? It starts a few weeks after the first game. After triumphing over a major demon that had threatened everyone within the barrier, it turns that the whole temple fell apart on top of him. Only his magic armor kept him alive, until the necromancer Xardas (whom we had met in Gothic 1) brought him back. The ordeal weakened him considerably and he lost all his equipmen, thus explaining why he’s once again a wimp and not the high-and-mighty badass that he’d become.

Xardas brings our hero up to speed. The demon’s dying cry summoned many creatures of darkness, including dragons, which are now amassing in the mining valley. Our hero must go to the order of paladins and requisition a magic amulet known as the Eye of Innos.

If it sounds trite, well, it is. That was a major disappointment to many, when Gothic 2 came out. The first game had a fairly original premise, even if it became a more typical fantasy RPG plot later on. Gothic 2 began with an army of darkness and a magic amulet we need to find to fight it. It’s not nearly as simple in practice, obviously, but it makes for a vastly different start.

This game lets us explore the land beyond the confines of the penal colony. Which turns out to have been on an island all along, to keep the available space manageable. To be fair, the penal colony did include a sea coast.

As we try to talk to the order of paladins and ask for the Eye, we run into a very similar problem. Namely, they don’t want to talk to a random nobody. In fact, even getting into the island’s major port city is going to be problematic. The war with orcs has everyone on edge, and now some jackass went and freed all the convicts from the colony. Even if you get through, entering the upper city is reserved for citizens. Even if you do become a citizen by apprenticing to a craft, the paladins still won’t talk to you without a good reason.

So, despite the much more typical setting, we engage in some very similar activities. We suck up to the important people, gather favors, and slowly become stronger. Our options are the city guard, the Magicians of Fire, or mercenaries. The last group features many people from the New Camp of the first game; this time, they serve a wealthy landowner who decided to rebel against the crown. Magicians of Water are absent until the expansion.

 

Gothic 2 is a good example of a sequel that improves on the original in many technical aspects, but loses something unique in the process. The choice of faction remains relevant, like I said, but the story itself is much more generic. The atmosphere is still there, as are all the tricks that make us think the game’s world is much bigger than it is. But it’s just not the same. Not to mention that the Hero is no longer the rookie he was. Even if all his skills are arbitrarily removed.

Character progression is also more varied, but the game’s variety comes at a price of deep imbalance. Properly utilizing the mechanics can remove many challenges. The biggest offenders are alchemy and crossbows. Alchemy lets you brew potions that permanently enhance your attributes, elevating them to great heights at a low cost in skill points. Crossbows deal lethal damage at range, while having minimal attribute requirements. Combining them is deadly.

The game’s expansion, Night of the Raven, strives to fix this, among other things. It adds a new storyline and an entirely new part of the island, but both run parallel to the original story. This…isn’t as seamless as one might hope. New NPCs and quests stick out rather visibly. You have to leave the original plot behind for a long time as you deal with the other potentially world-threatening thing. And then you get back to the old areas and never mention it again. Mind you, the vanilla areas need to be beefier to deal with your newfound strength and gear.

The expansion’s attempt at balance comes in the form of driving up skill point costs for higher attribute values. Once you advance past a certain point, every new point costs two skill points. Then three and four. It then adds the double whammy of racking up attribute requirements for items. This is brutal, and results in an even harsher early game experience than the game’s convention dictates. More importantly, it encourages using alchemy to crank up your attributes and scrounging up every possible way to raise them without spending skill points. The original game already rewarded meticulous planning; in the expansion, it’s almost a requirement if you don’t want to die horribly.

Gothic 2 might be more generic and have balance problems, but it was still a success among the game’s niche of fans. The greater variety of story and options, more land to explore and being able to revisit a much-altered former penal colony all appealed to players. The recurring NPCs were now a familiar staple that players had formed a bond with.

In the first game, we eventually run into four other convicts who help the Hero in some way; Diego, who greets us, is one. The others are Milten, a young fire magician, Gorn the mercenary and Lester the novice. The four turn out to share a friendship and alliance, which the Nameless Hero joins. Thus, he knows he can rely on them in the second game. It’s fairly well-developed.

You’ll notice that these are all men. And…well, the women really don’t get any sort of representation in those games, to put it bluntly. In the first game, the only women we ever see are servants of the most important people in the colony. We can’t talk to them, while every peon gets some generic dialogue otherwise. In the second game, there’s more of them, and we can interact with them, but they’re almost universally housewives. That’s progress I guess?

These games are old, but not that old, so there’s really no excuse. The third game is somewhat better in that it reaches the general industry standard for gender parity, but that isn’t exactly a ringing achievement.

Gothic 3 and Beyond

So, the third game. It’s controversial, and for once I think there’s a good reason. It begins where the second one ended, with our hero and his friends sailing to the mainland after defeating the undead dragon and abandoning the island of Khorinis to the rampaging orc horde.

After reaching the mainland, it turns out orcs had won, and the kingdom of Myrtana is now under their occupation. King Rhobar locked himself in his castle and had his mages create a magic barrier around it. On purpose, this time. Resistance against orcs continues, but some people decided to work with the occupiers instead.

The orcs, I should mention, are not like the brutes who attacked us on sight in Khorinis. They look different and don’t act much different from your usual occupying army. They still look very similar to one another, and their culture seems fixated on honor in battle to the exclusion of anything else. But as one-note as they are, they’re now in the territory of the “honorable warrior race” archetype, rather than dumb and ugly cannon fodder. The sudden change is supposedly due to the orcs of Khorinis being a degenerate, demon-worshipping bloodline. Or something.

After we arrive and liberate a seaside village from orcs, we’re informed that Xardas (the necromancer from Gothic 1 and 2) nullified rune magic, which made paladins and mages easy pickings from orcs. He then disappeared. We have to look for him, and that’s basically all the direction we get.

Thus we run into the game’s first, biggest problem. The first two games had open worlds, but small ones that also had careful directions and natural barriers. The third Gothic is a more classical open world, in the vein of the Elder Scrolls games. And it’s clear that the writers couldn’t handle it.

There are many roads we can take from the starting location, but precious few directions. All we have to go on is that if we resolve the situation between orcs and rebels, someone might tell us where to find Xardas. So we have to defeat the orcs for the rebels, or vice versa. If we’d rather not get involved, we get nothing. And siding with one of the groups has us fight a whole settlement by ourselves, or maybe with some minor NPC help.

Trying to explore on our own can get us killed in short order, as there’s still no level scaling, but also no clear warnings about dangerous areas. And besides, the basic wolves and boars can do a perfectly good job murdering us in the starting area.

That’s right, the combat system is also pretty wonky, as are various other mechanics. The combat tries to be more elaborate, which results in animals stagger-locking and murdering us. Instead of the simple but crisp animations of the first games, everyone swings their weapons as if they weighed ten kilograms, telegraphing their attacks like crazy. Needless to say, two-handed weapons have it the worst.

Shields finally appear in the game, as does dual-wielding, which is as graceless as the other methods of combat. The character creation is more expanded, and skills aren’t otherwise locked behind factions anymore, although different trainers might require you to do something before they teach you. And then they cost exorbitant amounts of money to learn. It’s all really… sloppy. There’s no rhyme, reason or pacing to it. It wouldn’t be so bad on its own, I imagine, but combined with the plot, it contributes to the general feeling of aimlessness. What am I supposed to be doing? Where am I going? What do I want to learn?

That really sums up my experience playing Gothic 3 for the first time. I wanted to like it, but I spent my time wandering, trying to keep up with the plot somehow and learn magic. The game insisted on throwing me in the midst of massive battles by myself, with maybe one NPC to help. The second time, I tried to play a warrior, but was worn down by the intensely inconsistent difficulty, the same sense of aimlessness and the poor combat animations.

There is, I should note, a fan-made patch for Gothic 3. It is sprawling in scope, rebalancing the gameplay and even adding content. Some say it makes for a great game. More power to them. I tried it, but still couldn’t stomach Gothic 3.

It’s sad, really. It could have been great. It has the making of a good game. There are a few small innovations I like. Health no longer automatically grows with level, for instance, so you don’t out-level challenges just by virtue of having too much health. All healing items restore a percentage of health or mana, so they’re as useful early on as they are later. In the previous two games, you started out healing with food and herbs, then moved to progressively stronger potions. The new attributes and skills might have been a good combination of the training model with more flexible growth, if they hadn’t been such a mess.

Unfortunately, the designers just couldn’t handle a more open world and story. It’s really a pretty good example of an open world gone wrong, where you have no idea where to go, what to do, or how to play. The first two games directed us in a way that felt natural and organic; the third one just throws us into the world.

That wasn’t the end of the franchise, but further titles were created by a different team. Forsaken Gods is an expansion that I haven’t played, but everyone consistently reviles it. Arcania: Gothic Tale continues where the third game left off, but does so by abandoning most everything that made the previous titles what they were. It’s linear, character progression resembles just about every other RPG; the protagonist is an incredibly typical Chosen One, living in a small village with his girlfriend until (spoiler alert) the village gets torched and the girlfriend dies. Riveting.

So that’s that, for the Gothic series. Through some issues with copyright, some of the people responsible for the original series moved on to create Risen, which is very similar to Gothic. In fact, the setting is basically the Gothic-verse with serial numbers filed off. The backstory is eerily similar to one of the three possible endings of Gothic 3. Piranha Bytes now owns the rights to the series again, but no one knows if they plan to do anything with them.

Well, I hope you enjoyed my thorough dissection of this old, but unique game series. For all their foibles and flaws, I think Gothic games offer a unique experience that no other game has replicated. For better or worse, they’re their own special thing. I encourage you to try them, even though it’s not going to be easy. But if you endure the obscurity, bugs and difficulty, you’ll find something valuable.


Images courtesy of Piranha Bytes

Continue Reading

Gaming

The Final Decay of Half-Life 2

Bo

Published

on

By

half-life featured

Ten years have passed since the release of Half-Life 2: Episode 2. Ten years since Alyx Vance’s hoarse voice ended on a massive cliffhanger fans never received resolution for. Over these long years the wait for another entry in the series has become little more than a meme. Hell, so many years have passed that “Half-Life 3 confirmed” became old, stale, and nowhere to be seen. Many have moved on to the many other great games series out there.

Some of us faithful have held on to increasingly slim hopes Valve would give us more Half-Life despite the loss of much of the development team responsible. With the release of Marc Laidlaw’s Episode 3 “script,” however, the time has likely come to let go. Half-Life 2 and its episodes will never see closure. Alyx’s grief-stricken whispers will remain the last memory of the series.

For those unaware, Marc Laidlaw was a writer and designer for the Half-Life series. He left Valve in January 2016, a clear sign on its own of the chance for further sequels. On August 25, 2017, he posted an entry on his site named “Epistle 3” that was, for all intents and purposes, a story summary for Episode 3. The names were changed, but the subject matter clear.

Since this post was made, Laidlaw has claimed the post was not a leak, but his own version of the continuing story. Whether this version was leak or “fan fic” ultimately does not matter. The fact Laidlaw would release this at all speaks to the ugly truth about Half-Life, or at least Half-Life 2 and its episodes.

This is it. This is all we well get for closure. All that’s left is one question; is this enough?

half-life guards

A common speculation for the delay has always been the iconic, influential status of the series. The original Half-Life was one of the single largest influences behind the rise of story-driven First-Person Shooters. The second game redefined the genre and featured physics-based gameplay of such quality that even modern games struggle to equal it. A common hope for the future of the series was always this history of innovation. We hoped Valve’s delay was out of desire to make another jump forward in gaming such as the first two games accomplished.

However, that’s not what many fans wanted. If the series had ended on the base Half-Life 2 game alone, this outcry wouldn’t exist. While certainly something of a cliffhanger, the game ended in a way that did not demand more. Valve would have been free to take their time and make something entirely different and transformative, much like the sequel was to the original Half-Life. Maybe we even would have gotten more Half-Life by now.

Everything changed with the Episodes. Valve decided to continue the story and left it in a place demanding more. For many years that was all fans wanted; another episode to give us closure on the story. I don’t exaggerate when I say more than a few fans claimed they would accept even this little bit. Of course we wanted to play more of the series, but follow-up to Episode 2’s cliffhanger was just as important as more gameplay.

We won’t get any official closure now, but Laidlaw’s post delivers it in a way. This is the man who wrote the series. At the very least his fan fic was a concept considered for the game. It’s more likely that this really was Episode 3’s story, as much of the leaked models and concept art match it too well to be coincidence. And it’s really freaking good. This summary would have made for an excellent conclusion to the story of Gordon Freeman while also setting up more Half-Life with Alyx Vance as the lead. The setting was tremendous, the description of the Borealis was everything you could have hoped for, and the ending itself a logical twist set up outstandingly throughout Half-Life 2 and both preceding episodes.

So now we know what happens, or at least read an ending worthy of the story written by the series’ writer. This was  exactly the “just tell us” moment the fanbase was ready to settle on.

Will we? It’s hard to say.

Look, at this point I’m a veteran of long waits for the things I love. As a Song of Ice and Fire fan I experienced the wait for A Dance with Dragons and I’m currently going through the wait for The Winds of Winter. I wait for new Tool albums. Over a decade has passed since Kingdom Hearts 2 came out, and the third game has yet to arrive. Waiting never really gets easier. The point always arrives where you question whether you’ll get anything new. Whether you know something’s in development or know nothing at all makes little difference. Waiting sucks either way.

While disappointing, there’s a freedom in knowing something expected will never come. With so many amazing shows, games, books, comics, and so forth out there, it can be great to simply move on from something else. And if you can get something like Laidlaw gave Half-Life fans, even better! For all intents and purposes, we know how the series ends. I’ll take a written summary of an ending over nothing at all.

I won’t deny this is a bitter pill to swallow, though. Yes, we’re not “owed” anything. No one is a bitch to the fans. That doesn’t change the expectation inherent to the creation of an ongoing story like Half-Life 2 and the episodes.  When you create a property with the promise of future content succeeding the current release, how can you possibly blame fans for struggling to accept never receiving the next chapter? Of course we’re going to have a hard time with it. Even knowing how Episode 3 likely would have gone, and as happy as I am to read it, I can’t help but feel anger I will never play through the time-twisting, space-bending confines of the Borealis as described by Laidlaw.

Neither does it help that the Half-Life 2 episodes were created specifically to avoid this scenario. Valve President Gabe Newell claimed the episodes were thought up to avoid another wait like the six years spent waiting for the sequel to the original Half-Life. We were meant to see more consistent releases for the series so fans could play more Half-Life. Instead, well…here we are. Ten years later and almost certain to never see Episode 3.

Making all this even worse is the decline of Valve in general. While we can’t be sure, there’s a logical progression of events explaining Valve’s inability to put out another Half-Life game. Plain and simple, Steam happened. The PC distribution giant has become a crucial part of any PC gamer’s life and a money-printing machine for Valve. They make millions more off Steam than they ever would from making any game and without half the effort or risk. For fans of Grand Theft Auto 5, it’s the same reason they scrapped whatever plans they had for single-player expansions. Why put in the intense work and cost for profit dwarfing what easy online content pays?

Us fans are left to suffer for this decision.

It’s an easy correlation between Steam’s rise and Valve’s disappearance from game development. They haven’t released a major single-player title since Portal 2 in 2011. They haven’t released a major title since Dota 2 in 2013. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem ready to change anytime soon. Newell has bluntly said Half-Life 3 isn’t a thing. Valve has no current intention of giving us the ending they all but promised when they released Half-Life 2 all those years ago.

Fans of A Song of Ice and Fire can understand and sympathize with George R.R. Martin taking a long time to write Winds of Winter, because we know he is at least trying. Fans can’t forgive simply giving up the way Valve has. Time has dulled the once sharp sourness of gamers towards Valve, but the company will never again manage the nearly untarnished respect and trust they once had. Whatever Valve does moving forward, gamers will hold it against them for not completing Half-Life 2.

Now every fan has to choose whether to move on or not. This is how one of the greatest videogame series of all time ends, with an anticlimactic post by a former employee in place of another game. Perhaps it’s for the best. Any Half-Life game Valve released at this point would probably end up a bitter, half-hearted attempt satisfying no one. Even an amazing game would face unfair criticism just because of the wait. I suppose it’s always possible inspiration will strike Valve one day. They may decide to just move forward in the series with an entirely fresh idea revitalizing the series.

The story of Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance’s fight against the Combine, though, has passed. Their time has come and gone. For many gamers like myself, this is more than just the end of another videogame series. Half-Life carried prestige very few series in gaming history can claim. It revolutionized and inspired an entire genre. It went a long way in putting the largest PC distribution network on the map.

If you were a gamer in the late-1990s to mid-2000s, you know Half-Life’s name. If you own a PC, you’ve probably played it at some point. And now it’s over.

half-life strider

Speaking only for myself, I’m ready to move on. Laidlaw’s post has freed me. Within a day of reading it I installed each part of the Half-Life 2 series and beat them all within two weeks. For the first time I was able to listen to Alyx’s hoarsely whispered grief and not feel like I tortured myself yet again with Episode 2’s cliffhanger. I know what happens next. I love what happens next and feel closure.

Does some bitterness still linger? Definitely. I’m no different from all the others who feel Valve betrayed the trust of their fans. That betrayal won’t ever fully vanish unless they stun us all and release an Episode 3 on par with the first two. However, I’m ready to move on from the series.

Others won’t be able to let go. The Laidlaw post will probably make moving on harder for some fans. Now we know exactly what we missed out on. Knowing it did exist at one point, that combined with leaked concepts we know Episode 3 was in development, it makes it harder to accept nothing coming out over the past ten years, and nothing ever coming out. Some fans will continue to hold out hope, thinking these various elements mean Valve plans to do something at some point. Others will feel increased anger that nothing was done with those elements.

It’s a crying shame this is what became of the series. However, there’s no denying the truth staring us in the face at this point. Half-Life has completed its decay, and now every fan is left to decide whether they can leave it behind.


Images Courtesy of Valve Software

Continue Reading

Trending