Nobody ever said that being a part of the most exciting medium of storytelling was going to be easy. Allowing the audience to play a role in your art brings its own challenges as well as opportunities. Video games must have mechanically sound gameplay. Fail that, and a great story might be overlooked.
There is no parallel to draw from another medium; novels, movies, plays and television shows have no comparable mechanic they must master. Video games live or die by whether or not the gameplay and the story are in sync.
There is no simple or set answer for how a developer can marry gameplay mechanics to their story. In an attempt to help illustrate the conflict, I have come up with five rules for avoiding gameplay and story segregation. Each rule will come with an example of a game that is let down by not successfully marrying gameplay to story. Each rule will also come with an exception, and in every single case that exception will be Silent Hill 2 (there is a reason this game is a masterpiece).
Rule 1: Gameplay Must Be ‘Fun’
The hint is in the name. Video games are a kind of entertainment, and thus games should be fun. If they are a chore to play, then a player will likely not bother. Provided they are provoking some sort of emotional response in the player (beyond boredom or frustration), a game can be described as ‘fun’ in my book.
Six Days a Sacrifice, the final installment in the Chzo Mythos saga by famed game critic Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw, tells one of the most intricate, inventive, and incredible stories I have ever had the good fortune of experiencing. Unfortunately, it is also an old-school style adventure game. It is plagued with inventory puzzles and an awkward point-and-click interface. It is a chore to play, particularly in its first half as the story builds slowly and quietly. The eventual denouncement is excellent, but the lack of fun in its gameplay means I will likely never play it to completion ever again.
Fun, therefore, is an essential part of gaming. Yet ‘fun’ is a relative concept that does not always line up with the dictionary definition of fun. Horror games employ tension and dread to create an emotional high for the player. This still counts as ‘fun’, and thus does not fail the rule. The premier example of this exception is Silent Hill 2.
Protagonist James Sunderland must also solve illogical inventory puzzles, but the ‘fun’ is not undermined thanks to the constant tension the game employs. Dreading what is beneath a hatch when you finally manage to open it can go a long way to distract you from the insane way in which the game expects you to open said hatch. (The solution involves a horseshoe, a lighter and a wax figurine. I dare you to try figuring it out).
Rule 2: Avoid Deliberate Frustration
Do not, under any circumstances, think you can get away with deliberately frustrating a player. This goes hand in hand with the ‘fun’ problem just discussed. If a player is not enjoying themselves on some level, then you have failed as a game designer. Do not be fooled into thinking this frustration will be forgiven if you do it for story reasons.
The infamous bottle puzzle in Life is Strange is widely derided for good reason; it is boring, poorly implemented, and utterly destructive to the pacing. However, it is clear what the developers intended. The idea was to have the characters indulge in pointless recklessness while distracting the player from the building tragedy. That way, when the tragedy struck, the player would feel responsible.
This is good storytelling, but it is also horrific game design. It does not matter how strong the eventual emotional gut punch succeeds in being (and yes, it is absolutely heart-breaking, but that is beside the point), it will never make up for the half hour I spent wandering aimlessly around an obtusely designed junkyard as I slowly lost my goddamn mind. The fact that the frustration was intentional is not a saving grace, it just makes the design even more galling.
Silent Hill 2 gets away with having frustrating combat mechanics because of its genre. Feeling powerful is the antithesis of horror. It is fine that James is difficult to control in a fight because that increases a player’s sense of vulnerability. Every enemy, from recurring grunts to boss monsters, can kill you if you are careless. In this case the frustrating gameplay leads the player to fear every threat, thus ensuring that they are still ‘enjoying’ the experience on some visceral level.
Rule 3: Dissonance, Ludonarrative or Otherwise, is Dangerous
When making a game, be very careful about not creating dissonance between your story and gameplay. If the player starts to find themselves at odds with the ‘heroic’ protagonist then any emotional investment is compromised. The developer must carefully consider every action of the player character before shipping a game for sale.
Nathan Drake, wisecracking hero of the Uncharted series, is an unrepentant mass murderer. His body count is in the thousands. The story tells me he is a charming rogue. I want to believe he is a charming rogue. Yet it is hard to overcome his utter (and unintentional by design) disregard for human life.
His lovable persona in cutscenes simply does not square with his sociopathic slaughtering of his fellow man in gameplay. This is an all too common flaw of action games caused by developers failing to consider the reality of the violence being employed by the player character. The challenge is in creating a player character whose role in the story is not dissonant with their actions.
Silent Hill 2 subverts this challenge by making the dissonance deliberate. We start on James’ side as he faces horrors in the search for his wife. The more we get to know him, however, the more we start to feel unease. The dissonance between the player and the player character works because James is not being painted as a hero. Questioning his motivations is the point, not an unintentional side-effect of wanting exciting violence in your game.
Rule 4: A Player Must Retain Control
If a game promises the player is in control, then they must remain so. The cheapest thing a game can do is to steal control away from the player so that its story can continue as intended. Either a game is strictly linear or the player can dictate the story. Trying to do both will invariably damage your game’s quality.
Witcher 3 is ordinarily excellent at allowing the player choices that dictate the fates of characters and countries. Its expansion Blood and Wine is less so. At one crucial juncture in the story Geralt (the player character) is given a handful of days to track down Dettlaff (the central antagonist). Dettlaff has promised to attack the city if he is not presented with his former lover who betrayed him.
Clearly there are two paths Geralt can now take, yet the player does not get to make the decision. The story abruptly jumps forward a few days with Geralt having failed to find Dettlaff. The city is attacked because of Geralt’s failure. This demonstrates a complete breakdown of established gameplay mechanics because the writers needed the city to be attacked for the sake of the story.
Silent Hill 2 gets around the problem of choice by having the plot be 95% linear. The player can only impact the very end of the game through their choices. As the ultimate resolution is usually what people care most about, this allows the writers to dictate their preferred pacing without making the player feel as though they have no control.
A whole host of subtle things you do inform the state of mind of James Sunderland. Examine his wife’s photo frequently and James will end the story devoted. Examine a knife frequently and James will end the game suicidal. This level of subtlety is in stark contrast to the blatant ‘cut to a few days later’ that Blood and Wine pulled.
Rule 5: Justify Your Interactivity
This is the big one. If there is a clear conflict between a game’s story and its gameplay, a player might ask why this story is being told in an interactive format at all. The best way to avoid players asking this question is to ask this question of yourself before you sit down to make the game.
This is a question I really wish David Cage would ask himself. His games (Heavy Rain, Beyond Two Souls) are all styled like movies with minimal interactivity present. There is no good reason for these awkward hybrids to be video games aside from the fact that Cage probably cannot get backing from a movie studio for his grandiose yet also somehow boring ideas. (Incidentally, even as movies these games would still be terrible, as Cage cannot write a cohesive narrative to save his life. But I digress…)
Silent Hill 2 tells an excellent story. Would this story work in another medium? Could it be successfully adapted into a movie, a television series or a novel? Yes it could, the story would still work and the final product would still be worthwhile.
Yet in no medium could it ever hope to be as effective as it is already as a video game. This is the best possible medium for horror because of interactivity. The player immediately relates to the protagonist because, in a sense, they are the protagonist. It is thus far easier to make them fear what they protagonist fears.
Creating empathy is immensely difficult when telling a story. Sympathy is easy, as all it requires is a halfway likable character to befall some sort of misfortune. Having someone actually experiencing the same emotions as the character is hard to pull off, but Silent Hill 2 uses the unique conventions of its medium to do so effortlessly. It unequivocally justifies its interactivity.
Bonus Rule: Pure Gameplay Is Also Fine
Tetris has no story. Tetris is one of the best games ever made. These two statements do not contradict each other.
A game does not always need to tell a story. It is a unique medium in that it can survive without any narrative whatsoever. Tetris is pure gameplay and no less rich for it. If the gameplay is strong enough (and that is a big if) the game can survive without a single story beat or contextualizing detail.
However, as fun as these things can be, I still see the future of gaming as being a narrative one. Compare Tetris to Portal. Both are pitch-perfect puzzle games, but one also tells a rich and entertaining story. The path from one game to the other was a three decade long process of trial and error. The medium is richer for being able to produce art like Portal when once Tetris was the absolute pinnacle of what could be achieved in video gaming.
And just in case you were wondering, yes, the opposite of the bonus rule is also true. Pure storytelling is also fine. The thing to bear in mind, though, is in that case it stops being a game at all and literally becomes a movie. Gameplay cannot be divorced from the medium, even if storytelling can.
Is it arrogant of me to come up with all these rules of game design when I have never designed a game? Is it not my business to come up with rules to guide people doing a job I could never do myself? The answer to the first question is probably yes, but I would dispute the second question’s validity. Any and all artistic mediums need a thriving environment of critique to sustain themselves. If there were no one around to point out flaws then we could never learn from them and progress.
As I said at the top of this piece, no one ever claimed that making good video games was easy. It requires an enormous amount of technical knowhow and storytelling proficiency. It is perhaps the most challenging medium in which to create something truly worthwhile.
Yet with great challenge comes great potential rewards. Get the right balance of gameplay and storytelling and some random Irish guy will praise your achievements all day long. I am sure this sort of adulation is exactly what Team Silent were after when they sat down to make Silent Hill 2.
In all seriousness, balancing gameplay with storytelling is a maddeningly difficult enterprise. Games like Witcher 3, Life is Strange and Uncharted 2 are all great despite not nailing the landing. It may be that perfectly balancing the two is impossible. That said, even if perfection is beyond us we should still strive to reach it. That way when we inevitably miss there is a decent chance we will have created something great regardless.
The State of the (Gaming) Union
The PlayStation 4 Pro and the Xbox One X represent the half-life of the 8th generation consoles. Given that, an apt question is, where are we?
It’s hard to explain.
The 8th generation has brought us remastered game after remastered game. And we love what’s been served up; the Bioshocks, the Uncharteds, the Crash Bandicoots, the Gears of War. It’s exciting, to play the games that shaped our childhoods on these newer consoles. And then we pull those out and put in, what? Another Call of Duty (CoD). I remember the trailers for CoD 3, way back on the PlayStation 3 in 2006. And now this November we’re getting another World War Two-set Call of Duty.
Dice gave us something only marginally fresher with the release of Battlefield 1. But with the exception of mustard gas and trench warfare, not much else is different. There are still all the modern scopes you could dream of, and you’re spoiled for choice if your taste is for something automatic (though period accurate). It’s New, but we’ve Seen It Before. But now with 64 players per server on Conquest. Which is still a raucously intense good time. Sometimes more is better.
The Metal Gear Solid saga ended with the release of The Phantom Pain, and while it was an interesting game from a technical and gameplay standpoint, it didn’t feel much like a Metal Gear. There were flashes of it—most of the missions in Africa, the battles with Sahelanthropus, and some of the story with the child soldiers. But beyond that? It felt tame, as far as Metal Gear games were concerned. In its defense, however, that was less the fault of director Hideo Kojima and the suffocating effect of Konami, Kojima’s publisher’s influence.
Mass Effect Andromeda was a beautiful shooter, but a crappy Mass Effect game. In Andromeda, decisions were mostly arbitrary, the story was lukewarm at best, and the romances were all over the place in quality, mostly lackluster or even bad. In a series that had always been short on the men-loving-men (mlm) options to date, Andromeda was even more barren at launch than the previous entries. Bioware’s talked about fixing these issues, too, but so far hasn’t really done anything to remedy the situation.
And while Bioware does bear some of the blame for the mess that was Andromeda, it isn’t all their fault. Electronic Arts is the publisher that oversaw Bioware’s production of the game. It set the new Bioware IP up to fail almost from day one, with constantly accelerating deadlines, no unified vision, and an almost entirely rookie team spread across three physically separate studio locations hundreds of miles apart. And even if those disparate pieces finally found a way to work coherently together, they were undermined by the accelerating deadlines.
So where are we? The titanic force of Activision, 2k Games, Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, and such believe we want more multiplayer-only cooperative games or the same rehashed franchise, but with a different location. This is what their focus groups tell them. The evidence of this exists not just in the modern slew of games on the shelf but in the developmental difference in a game called Fuse.
When it was first introduced, it had a unique art style, it was almost wacky, it was quick and light and interesting and fun and cool. And then the developer, Insomniac Games, turned to Electronic Arts for help with getting the thing published. The result was the game was neutered, broken, and beaten into a stale-gray GrimDark knock off of the same old Call of Duty veneer that’s gotten increasingly more worn-out with every new release.
This is the difference between catering to an audience, and catering to a focus group. The latter is boring as hell. And year after year, we the audience clamor for something different.
In the midst of this dysphoria between audience and publisher, there are developers that heard the cry, and delivered a remedy.
Guerilla Games did something new with Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s a third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective game that takes place from the point of view of Aloy, a woman and an outsider, as she struggles to find a place amongst her tribe and the larger world beyond. It’s not necessarily post-apocalyptic, it’s post-technological. It’s beautiful, interesting, thought provoking, fun, and combines so many rare little touches that it feels utterly unique. It reflected an audience that’s largely ignored by the Triple-A publishers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the talking heads who tout the invulnerability of those publishers predicted its failure.
Which must be terribly embarrassing for them, considering how well the game has done, critically and commercially.
Telltale Games continues to release narratively immersive and entertaining new entries into the episodic game market. Some big studios noticed the popularity of the newer format and tried to compete there. Square Enix, a publisher on the same scale of Activision and Ubisoft, released their new Hitman game in two-mission chunks. Except there was a huge difference. While there’s an over-arching story throughout the episodes of a Telltale game, each “episode” features a coherent beginning, middle, and end that’s unique to that story, and influenced by the chapters that preceded it.
Instead of understanding this and building the new Hitman game to fit the episodic format, Square Enix just amputated a complete game and released it in small chunks and called it good.
The result? In spite of some of the most finely finessed gameplay and most beautiful graphics of the series, the game was tonally inconsistent, the pacing was unpredictable, and the little chunks of story you got in the small cutscenes didn’t actually set up a narrative to experience so much as just introduce the next sandbox for Agent 47 to kill his way through. Thus? An episodic game that’s quite clearly not designed to be experienced in the little pieces you got, but compiled as a whole. Personally, the game became more fun to replay linearly when there were more episodes to go through at a time. Because it comes together that way, like it was designed to.
Anyway. I digress.
Games made by Telltale or Guerilla or Arkane are not the norm. The game industry is in a feedback loop of only ever putting time and effort into developing Triple-A games that satisfy a focus group. And that focus group just keeps calling for a new and improved CoD, because Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was the freshest thing – in 2007.
If that sounds callous forgive me. Except look at the number of first person shooters with a military flavor that it spawned.
It’s a lot. And the problem with emulation and not innovation is not that we don’t like first-person-shooters with guns we can recognize and political situations that aren’t entirely dissimilar to the world we live in. We do; even with consistently shrinking sales year after year, CoD remains a best-selling series.
The problem arises when the mimicry these successes spawn fail to emulate the things that made the original interesting. I’ll explain more about that in a moment.
The audience, those of us out here wanting to buy games, are calling for something else. Jim Sterling expressed a similar sentiment in a remastered episode of the Jimquisition, citing variety as the actual spice of life.
We, as an audience, don’t want one game with only slight variations between them. We want different experiences. XCOM 2 is a turn based strategy game that is so successful it’s threatened to become its own franchise by itself. Which would be awesome, because it’s a fantastic game. But it’s something of a unicorn in the ever-expanding Call of Duty emulator market. XCOM 2’s turn-based strategy is quite a Far Cry (pun intended) from the traditional game being published. Unrelated to this, Far Cry 5 looks beautiful and for once in my life I can say I’m absolutely excited by a game being made by Ubisoft.
Moving on. Let’s look at another piece of the 8th generation that’s gaming speed on both console and PC markets.
Virtual Reality is a trend hot enough right now that the PC market is adapting and evolving its hardware to compete with the consoles directly. Alienware and Dell had booths that focused on their new VR-ready hardware at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). That would be exciting, too! Except, there doesn’t appear to be anything really unique about VR. At that same E3, Bethesda showcased its own VR experience, where Fallout 4 and Skyrim were now VR compatible. Which would be cool, if it didn’t look incredibly cumbersome to play, and not particularly evolutionary.
VR doesn’t feel like a unique platform to play games on. It feels like a gimmick. And an expensive one at that, with the barrier to entry for most VR devices costing far more than a standard console. Oculous Rift costs $600, and the HTC Vive costs $800, and that’s before you have a PC to plug them into. Given how expensive that is, what does it offer in terms of gameplay? Not much. Roller coaster simulators and arcade shooting galleries.
Despite its cost, however, I have a point of contention. I don’t think the rules of this storytelling medium have been figured out yet. To explain, I need to flash-back to the earliest days of gaming.
In 1972 when the original Pong released with the first Atari home console, I imagine there was a similar sentiment. Video games are a gimmick. Nothing more. I mean look at it! It’s just moving two paddles and bouncing a ball between them. And yet, Ashley Johnson, voice/motion capture actress for the character Ellie in The Last of Us won TWO BAFTA awards for her role in the game and it’s DLC. She earned two of the most coveted awards in acting for her role in a video game.
This is the level gaming has evolved to. More than forty years separates the release of Pong, and the release of The Last of Us. Gaming has evolved by quantum leaps in that time. And the leaps have almost always involved narratively pushing the hardware you’re telling a story on. Hideo Kojima did this every time he released a game. He did it first with the 1987 release of Metal Gear on the MSX2. And later on in 1999 with the release of Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation One.
We have yet to see that innovation in VR gaming. That’s not to say we won’t; actual VR gaming is relatively young and we have yet to meet the inventors that are going to take VR and make it something worth paying attention to. But for the moment, it remains unimpressive.
What about the rest, though? There’s a surge in popularity for open-world games on the scale of The Witcher 3. First things first, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is one of the best games I’ve ever played. Narratively, it’s fascinating. Visually, the spectacle is almost incomprehensible and when encountering monsters, often terrifying. The sound design is equally brilliant and the music is haunting and evocative. It is worthy of the almost obscene number awards heaped upon it. It’s not without faults, however; a game that features such a diversely imagined bestiary can’t seem to invent a fantasy world with people of color in any role.
But the success of the game has led to emulation. It’s almost inevitable. We’re still inundated with Call of Duty 4 impersonators, and that came out ten years ago at this point.
The problem is; when a game succeeds, those trying to mimic the game to replicate its success often mimic the wrong parts.
The Witcher 3 would have been a poorer game if it had been made by Ubisoft on the production deadline of an Assassin’s Creed game. Which is to say, an open world game is not just about the size of the sandbox, it’s what you do in that sandbox. And climbing towers to unlock vantage points doesn’t keep me wanting to play for 100+ hours. Sooner or later, you’re gonna run out of towers.
Fallout 4, dodgy story, bugs, and all, fills its world with interesting things to do and encounter as you explore. Which is the point of an open world game. It’s about inhabiting the world. Any world. Even quasi-linear games like Dishonored 2 and Prey, both created by Arkane Studios, are brilliantly rich and dive deep into the mythos of their chosen worlds. Because immersion isn’t necessarily connected to how detailed or photorealistic your graphics are. Journey and Azul are two other games that are fascinating and invoke great emotion when played. And they can’t technically hold a candle to the graphical fidelity of Batman: Arkham Knight (post patches.)
Which leads me to the point. Eventually, the purpose of games isn’t to maximize the number of polygons in a character model. We will eventually hit a technical wall where we can’t make something any more realistic. And that’s okay. The entire Borderlands franchise remains graphically interesting despite its age because it is stylized. Call of Duty 4, on the other hand, showed its age within a year.
Firewatch would have been a poorer game if it had tried for outright realism instead of building around its own stylization. Because even stylized, it is beautiful to look at. The sunsets gave me moments of pause to simply stare at the visual of it.
The whole point of this is to demonstrate one thing: gaming is not a one-size-fits-all market. And what was interesting once, ten years ago, may not be what’s interesting now.
Games like The Witcher 3, Journey, Azul, Dishonored 2, Prey, XCOM 2, Fallout 4, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and even Overwatch, demonstrates that the one-size-fits-all philosophy of the biggest publishers is outdated at best and outright ignorant at worst.
And while I haven’t mentioned all the best high-points in the 8th generation, this goes to illustrate a singular point: we, as gamers, want more. And the companies that provide it—Arkane, Naughty Dog, Guerilla Games, Ninja Studios, CD Projekt Red, among others—are going to be more successful than the Ubisofts and Activisions and the Electronic Arts that rehash the same games with improved graphics and expect us to be impressed.
Because we’re not. And the diminishing returns of each consecutive CoD reflect that.
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Solas, Bull, and the King’s Gambit (a Little Game of Mind-Chess)
One of the most brilliant conversations in gaming occurs between Solas and Bull in Dragon Age: Inquisition, yet, depending on their choices, it’s a scene many gamers may have missed.
Spoiler Warning for all of Dragon Age: Inquisition.
“I’ve got my whole army bearing down on your King, and you’re moving a pawn? Are you even trying anymore?”
“Think about it, my friend.”
With a new Dragon Age title reportedly on the horizon, now is a perfect time to revisit great moments in the previous trilogy. In Dragon Age: Inquisition (DAI), The Iron Bull’s all-important loyalty quest, “The Demands of the Qun,” sets up a huge number of game-changing possibilities for the Qunari character, who is a complex mix of subtlety, humor, and divided loyalties. If you save Krem and the Chargers, the family of lovable rogues and misfits Bull had assembled (one rescue at a time) over the past decade, you save Bull as well. Even though he goes through a tough period of adjustment and fear at going rogue, or “Tal-Vashoth,” Bull will then continue to evolve and enrich both his character and relationships as the game story continues.
However, if you don’t save his family, or if you skip Bull’s loyalty quest altogether? Bull’s character development is markedly different, darker, and more tragic. And you also miss one of the best and most beautifully conceived dialogue sequences in all of gaming.
While he’s happy to have saved his loved ones, Bull is now haunted—unmoored and uncertain, filled with guilt for turning his back upon the Qun, as well as with the fear and anxiety that he’ll lose control and give in to his own savagery and rage (something that actually happens sometimes to Qunari who escape the shackles of life under the Qun).
However, when Bull turns away from the Qun, one of the first companions to react with comfort (after a sympathetic Inquisitor) is, somewhat surprisingly, Solas, who shows real warmth, caring, and support in the aftermath. Previously critical and disapproving of Bull’s loyalty to the repressive Qunari regime, Solas appears genuinely moved and impressed when Bull leaves for the sake of the Chargers. It’s not exactly surprising that the secretive ancient trickster god of elven rebellion should heartily approve of Bull’s actions, but it is a warm and believable character note. And, it’s another example of the way the game’s banters show us actual relationship progression between our companions depending on our choices, and it leads to a terrific scene.
In the aftermath of his choice, Bull himself is now nervous, defensive and on edge, terrified of what he’s done and of what he may become. There’s also an element of guilt here for Bull—how many Tal-Vashoth did Bull himself hunt, kill, or capture in years past on behalf of the Qun? Were all of them savage, as he had believed? Or were any of them like him—sane and fully cognizant, and simply unwilling to sacrifice all they loved in order to live under a repressive yoke any longer?
“You are No Beast”
While Bull is wrestling with this issue, Solas speaks up. In their first moment of real warmth together, the following conversation takes place:
Solas: You are not Tal-Vashoth, Iron Bull, not really.
Iron Bull: Well that’s a fuckin’ relief.
Solas: You are no beast, snapping under the stress of the Qun’s harsh discipline. You are a man who made a choice… possibly the first of your life.
Iron Bull: I’ve always liked fighting. What if I turn savage, like the other Tal-Vashoth?
Solas (firmly): You have the Inquisition, you have the Inquisitor… and you have me.
Iron Bull (quietly): Thanks, Solas.
I love this conversation for so many reasons. It’s an important moment for both characters: Bull, no longer operating under his previous, smooth-talking secrecy, is now actively admitting doubt and fear. Meanwhile, Solas is no longer detached and cold. He not only offers support and friendship, he is telling Bull directly, “If you need me, I’m here.”
It’s a pretty huge moment for the quiet elven mage, whose previous impulses were typically to stay silent versus to speak, to observe but not to act, and to disengage, not to engage. Significantly, it’s also one more moment that shows us Solas’s journey on his way to falling in love with the modern world in which he’s found himself…even the muted, corrupted version that now exists under the presence of the Breach and the Veil.
It’s interesting to observe Solas’s situation in counterpoint to Bull’s; Bull may have just passed his own crisis of faith, but Solas is just beginning.
The King’s Gambit
Not long after this moment of encouragement, in a genuinely compassionate gesture, Solas tries to distract Bull from his pain and anxiety by suggesting (with a slight glint of mischief) a nice game of chess. And not just any chess… MIND-CHESS. As in, no board. Just the two of them, playing mental chess as they walk and fight their way through the countryside.
Of course… as you do.
What’s fun here (and impressive) is that Bull makes noises about the inconvenience of playing the game that way, but he’s actually more than willing, and pretty soon the two men are off on their game. And when they do, I geek out the entire time. First off, because, MIND-CHESS (and why, yes, I do have to keep referring to it in all-caps), and secondly, because it’s another great way to show how brilliant Bull actually is under all the deflective tough-guy bluster, acquitting himself impressively even in a MIND-CHESS game against the freaking elven god of mischief himself.
Basically, everything about this situation is fantastically cool. The only way it could have possibly been cooler is if a glitter-covered unicorn riding a dragon had landed in the middle of a nearby field and sung an impromptu rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness.” Maybe with Corypants doing a little soft-shoe nearby. (Too much?)
But we don’t really need anything else. Not even visuals. The fact remains that just listening to these two men play chess in their minds is a terrific high point in the game, and the scene would be equally so in any film or novel.
Meanwhile, even though I’m a pretty mediocre and erratic chess player myself, I love the game, and found the entire sequence absorbing and beautifully written. Kudos to Patrick Weekes, David Gaider, and the DAI writing team because—as usual with Dragon Age: Inquisition—the scene is successful on many levels at once.
The Immortal Game
First off, a little history. The game played by Bull and Solas here is actually a reenactment of one of the most famous chess matches ever played, referred to as “The Immortal Game” or “King’s Gambit.” The original game took place informally between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky on June 21, 1851 in London (on a break during the first international tournament). It quickly achieved fame for its daring, creativity, and for the showstopping drama and brilliance of its final moves. It is considered to be the epitome of the dashing, “romantic” chess of the time.
The game created an electrifying sense of drama and suspense, and was so impressive at the time that when the game was over, and he had lost the match to Anderssen, Kieseritzky himself actually telegraphed a recap of the entire game to his Parisian chess club, just to share the experience. From there, it quickly became a sensation in chess history, with the French chess magazine La Régence publishing the entire game in July 1851. As its fame grew, it was eventually nicknamed “The Immortal Game” by the Austrian Ernst Falkbeer in 1855, and the name stuck.
Chess as Personality
What’s fantastic about this particular game serving as the match between Solas and The Iron Bull is that it’s a gorgeous encapsulation of both men and their personalities. Solas developes his pieces early and makes moves that are dramatic and aggressive while Bull responds more circuitously, warily hunting for weak spots. While some might assume that Bull would be the aggressor and Solas the cautious one, for me it’s actually very true to form that Bull, as a lifelong spy, would be more subtle and careful in his approach, protecting his pieces as he lays his traps. Solas, on the other hand, is bold, almost reckless, sacrificing his Rooks, a Bishop, and (tellingly) his Queen, while laying the final trap for checkmate with his Bishop (“Mage”), and two Knights.
It’s a superb and beautifully layered scene that recreates one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of chess… and yet manages to use that existing chess match to tell us everything we need to know about these two characters. There’s even a sly elegance to the dialogue that communicates just a hint of its 19th century origins, with Solas for instance naming the King’s Gambit and Bull accepting in gentlemanly fashion. Adding an additional layer to the action is the fact that the two are literally translating the game into and out of their own cultures for one another, with Solas fascinated by Bull’s Qunari names for his pieces, even as Solas himself also does a bit of this, in calling his Bishops “Mages.”
It’s All in the Voices
The writing may be beautiful, but it’s the voices that must truly convey all of these constantly shifting and subtle emotions (remember, it’s a series of banters, so it’s set forth as a series of aural, eavesdropped conversations). With some serious heavy lifting before them in this scenario, voice actors Freddie Prinze, Jr. (The Iron Bull) and Gareth David-Lloyd (Solas) do an especially wonderful job here. Just as they do in embodying these characters in their struggles and losses throughout the constantly shifting stakes and scenarios of the entire DAI game story. I especially love the way their voices contrast during the swift back-and-forth dialogue of the game itself; Freddie’s against Gareth’s, with Bull’s rich, deep voice against Solas’s lighter one with its beautiful slight Welshness.
I’ve played DAI several times now, and I’m always delighted that these particular two men, both so well matched in subtlety, intelligence, and their capacity for deceit, are the ones playing this game. That, and the fact that they’re both former antagonists who are now on their cautious way to a friendship, one chess move at a time.
Most of all, I love the fact they’re both palpably having so damn much fun. The prospect of quiet, reserved Solas having fun is not exactly a frequent sight within the game (unless you romance him, which I highly recommend, as it’s by far the most complex portrait of Solas, and is so intrinsically tied to the main story). But he is—Solas is having a blast, and it’s even more fun to realize that he’s even enjoying the fact that he might just have underestimated Bull the tiniest bit. In return, Bull’s having just as much fun while being distracted for a little while from his inner fears, worries, and guilt.
And then, the final move: “You sneaky son of a bitch,” growls Bull cheerfully, as he realizes what Solas has managed to do. At that moment, he’s probably remembering what he himself had said about Solas not too long before—“Half our targets never even see you coming.” And Solas just proved him right, yet again. A great example of how I don’t think there’s any small detail to this game that is inconsequential.
When Bull concedes, he says “Nice game… mage,” and the title is one of respect. As is Solas’s subtle reply of, “And you as well… Tal-Vashoth.” It’s Solas capping the moment, bringing it full circle, and noting for Bull’s benefit, yet again, “You are Tal-Vashoth. And you are still yourself.”
The Bigger Picture
Upon analysis, the big-picture symbolism of Solas’s strategy here is almost painful, by the way, if you’re playing a romanced Inquisitor: He sacrifices several major pieces, and then, decisively, his QUEEN, in order to win. This can be seen as foreshadowing of both Solas’s breakup with (and betrayal of) a romanced Inquisitor… as well as the future sacrifice of Flemeth (Mythal). And let’s not forget that it’s the MAGE that takes down Bull’s King. The symbolism is all just perfect.
My own question is: does it also foreshadow Solas’s future plans post-Trespasser? It just might. Look at the game from a big-picture perspective:
- Develop a multitude of pieces as early as possible
- Place key pieces in strategic and useful locations
- Sacrifice those necessary (no matter how powerful… or beloved)
- Create compelling distractions to pull focus
- Hide in plain sight
- Pounce, kill, and win
- Sit amongst the wreckage of the world and weep for what you’ve lost
Okay, fine, that last one was added by me.
Meanwhile, now’s a great time to take a look at the dialogue for the entire chess match, so I’ve included it below, and have also joined all the separate banters into one, single conversation.
The Mind-Chess Banters (Complete):
Solas: How do you feel, Iron Bull? Do you need a distraction to focus your mind?
Iron Bull: Well, this area’s low on dancing girls. Sadly.
Solas: King’s pawn to E4.
Iron Bull: You’re shitting me. We don’t even have a board!
Solas (amused): Too complicated for a savage Tal-Vashoth?
Iron Bull (grumbling): Smug little asshole. Pawn to E5.
Solas: Pawn to F4. King’s Gambit.
Iron Bull: Accepted. Pawn takes pawn. Give me a bit to get the pieces set in my head. Then we’ll see what you’ve got.
Solas: So, where were we? Ah, yes. Mage to C4.
Iron Bull: Little aggressive. Arishok to H4. Check.
Solas: Speaking of aggressive. I assume Arishok is your term for the Queen? King to F1.
Iron Bull: Pawn to B5.
Solas: All right. You have my curiosity. Mage takes Pawn.
Iron Bull: You call your Tamassrans Mages? Ben-Hassrath to F6.
Solas: You call your Knights Ben-Hassrath? Incidentally, Knight to F3.
Iron Bull: Ben-Hassrath makes more sense than horses. They’re sneaky, and they can move through enemy lines. Arishok to H6.
Solas: Pawn to D3.
Iron Bull: Ben-Hassrath to H5. Ha! All right, take some time. Think about your life choices.
Solas: All right, Bull. If you are prepared: Knight to H4.
Iron Bull: Arishok to G5. So, you giving up the Tamassran at B5 or the Ben-Hassrath at H4?
Solas: Neither. Knight to F5.
Iron Bull: Pawn to C6. Left your Tamassran hanging out.
Solas: And you, your Knight. Or Ben-Hassrath, if you will. Pawn to G4.
Iron Bull: Ben-Hassrath to F6.
Solas: Hmm. Tower to G1.
Iron Bull: Ha! Pawn takes your Tamassran—or Mage, or whatever it is.
Solas: I get the idea.
Iron Bull (teasing): Too much time playing with spirits, Fade Walker.
Solas: We shall see.
Solas (after a pause): If you have a moment, Bull: Pawn to H4
Iron Bull: Arishok to G6.
Solas: Pawn to H5. Careful.
Iron Bull: You’re the one who lost his Mage. (Chuckling) Arishok to G5.
Solas: Queen to F3.
Iron Bull: Oh, clever. Almost trapped my Arishok. Ben-Hassrath to G8.
Solas: Mage takes Pawn, threatens Queen.
Iron Bull: Ugh! Arishok to F6.
Solas: Knight to C3. You’ve developed nothing but your Queen.
Iron Bull: Don’t get cocky, you’re still one Tamassran down. Tamassran to C5, by the way.
Solas: Hmm. I will need to consider. (Pause) After careful consideration: Knight to D5.
Iron Bull: Arishok takes Pawn at B2.
Solas: Mage to D6.
Iron Bull: Arishok takes Tower. Check. (Pause) What are you doing, Solas?
Solas: King to E2.
Iron Bull: All right, Tamassran takes Tower. Your last Tower, by the way.
Solas: Pawn to E5.
Iron Bull: Really. I’ve got my whole army bearing down on your King, and you’re moving a Pawn? Are you even trying anymore?
Solas: Think about it, my friend.
Iron Bull: All right, Solas. I’ve thought about it. Ready to finish this? Ben-Hassrath to A6.
Solas: Knight takes Pawn at G7. Check.
Iron Bull: Mmmhmm. King to D8.
Solas: Queen to F6, Check.
Iron Bull: And now my Ben-Hassrath takes your Queen. You’ve got no Towers. You’re down to a single Mage. Too bad you wasted time moving that Pawn to… to… (Pause) You sneaky son of a bitch.
Solas: Mage to E7. Checkmate.
(The Iron Bull growls. A pause.)
Iron Bull: Nice game… mage.
Solas: And you as well… Tal-Vashoth.
Sera (if present): Uhhhh… KING me!
If you have Sera along for the final banter, her presence, and that very funny line at the end, is the perfect capper on the game (and emphasizes what a feat it actually was, and how far beyond most people it would be).
It’s a terrific and memorable scene in DAI. But just remember—you’ll never experience it, if you don’t save the Chargers.
Watching the Game on a Traditional Chessboard
Do you want a visual representation of the moves while you listen to the conversation from the game? Take a look at this video on YouTube, which provides a seamless full aural and visual recreation of the game for easy visual reference by YouTube user Huevos Rancheros.
Images courtesy of Bioware
This article is a reprint (with minor modification) of an article originally published by Angela D. Mitchell on DumpedDrunkandDalish.com.
Nazis Upset Over Wolfenstein II Promoting Nazi-Free America
Following a tweet from the Wolfenstein official Twitter account that included a short video teaser for the upcoming Wolfenstein II, online outrage erupted due to the tweet’s harsh anti-Nazi stance and the trailer’s inclusion of the words “Not My America” over shots of Nazi soldiers marching. Because apparently, the morality of supporting Nazis is a question again.
— Wolfenstein (@wolfenstein) October 5, 2017
The spin on Donald Trump’s infamous campaign slogan drew a hostile reaction from those who decided attacking Nazis is too political for a franchise that has always been based around killing Nazis. Some took it as an attack on conservatism rather than a clever slogan with a timely message, or some kind of unfitting attempt to make the series political by focusing on the very thing the series is about.
imagine seeing the words “no more nazis” and reacting like this pic.twitter.com/5L9b8CPm3s
— Vylash #TeamKICK (@MiraVylash) October 6, 2017
I wish I could feign surprise. This series has let players shoot Nazis for decades now without any significant negative reaction. Unfortunately, Nazis have become increasingly relevant lately for all the wrong reasons. I’m glad we have Wolfenstein to remind us Nazism is a terrible thing. Here’s hoping other games take their lead. Maybe even the Call of Duty franchise, which is set to return to its Nazi-killing roots with this year’s Call of Duty: WWII. I haven’t bought Call of Duty in years. Give me an ad like this, and I’ll buy five copies.
Bravo, Bethesda. Bravo.
Wolfenstein II releases on October 27. Buy it and make Nazism shameful again.