this is not the greatest song in the world

Dragon Age: Remember when I said of Mass Effect that I’d almost rather read a novel set in that universe than play a game in it? With Dragon Age, I feel as if I’ve already read that novel.

Follow along: in a world where magic is heavily regulated by a religious order (Wheel of Time), a secretive order of knights defends against irregular incursions of demonic creatures (A Song of Ice and Fire). Our young hero sets off from the home he once knew into the unknown world (everything, really; it’s Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces monomyth, but just to keep to the trope I’ll pin it to Edding’s Belgariad) and meets exotic strangers along the way (The Lord of the Rings). And so on.

Dragon Age turns a genre convention from previous Bioware games into an outright, obvious flaw. I’ll explain by way of example: one of the lands you can explore is Redcliffe Village, a hamlet under siege from hordes of undead that pour out of its castle every night. Here’s how a talented production team with an eye for direction might have introduced you to this dilemma.

How It Might Have Gone

(The party approaches the village at night, fog wafting up from the canyon on which Redcliffe sits. Suddenly, a shambling figure bolts from the mist – a miller from the village, bleeding from many wounds!)

Miller: The … hordes … (dies)

(Suddenly, a bunch of skeletons show up. AWESOME FIGHT SCENE!)

(As the skeletons are dispatched, the village mayor, Murdock, runs up, his blade black with the ooze of the undead)

Murdock: Thank the Maker! Whoever you are, we’re in dire need of help. Walking corpses are assaulting our town!

(The party follows Murdock into the village, where skeletons assail panicked knots of spear-carrying villagers. ANOTHER AWESOME FIGHT SCENE!)

(Once the last corpse is put down, Murdock approaches)

Murdock: Thank you again for your aid. This was the closest battle yet. If any more of those creatures had come out of the castle, we’d’ve been done for.
You: Out of the castle?
Murdock: I’ll explain. For the last three nights, (EXPOSITION DUMP)

Fun, right? It puts you right in the heart of the crisis and starts the action at a good pitch.

How Bioware Actually Did It

(Heroes amble up to village in broad daylight)
Alistair (who’s in your party): By the way, when we get to the castle, there might be some awkwardness. Regarding me. You see, (EXPOSITION DUMP).
You: Ah. Well, thanks.

(Heroes walk another five feet)

Town Guard: Thank the Maker you’re here! Our town is under assault by the undead.
You: What, now?
Town Guard: No, at night. Every night. You see, (EXPOSITION DUMP).
You: Ah.
Town Guard: You should go speak to our Mayor.
You: Right.
Town Guard: And to Bann Teagan, who’s in the Chantry.
You: Right.
Town Guard: And to Ser Perth, who’s leading the defense.
You: Okay, got it.

And so on. There’s a minimum of twenty minutes of conversation – dialogue trees, running up and down hills, fetching and delivering items for NPCs – before you slay your first walking corpse. I don’t know why this didn’t bother me more in prior Bioware games, but it’s exasperating now.

Though the plot may be cliched, Dragon Age tries to innovate a little in combining MMORPG gameplay with console controls. But the result confused me more than it helped. Take crafting, for instance. As you level your characters up, they can learn how to combine herbs and make useful potions. So let’s say you’ve gathered a mess of herbs and want to start brewing healing salves. Do you click on an herb? No. Do you go to the Character Record screen and click on your Herbalism talent? No. Do you click on an empty flask? No. You open up the radial menu using the left trigger, select Potions, then select the Herbalism talent – oh, you’re already on a character who knows Herbalism, right? if not, back out and start again – and then pick the potion you want to brew. It makes a certain kind of sense, but why the designers felt the need to get creative was beyond me.

What bugs me the most is my lack of investment in the story. You start with one of six origins, depending on the race and class you pick. I was a Human Noble, schooled in the arts of war. I played through a little vignette where my noble father sent off a detachment of retainers to fight against some darkspawn. A Gray Warden, one of the knights traditionally charged with defending against darkspawn incursions, shows up at the house. When a treacherous relative betrays my family, the Gray Warden helps me escape, on the condition that I join his order. My father, with his dying breath, agrees. (You have enough control to decide whether to join reluctantly or willingly, but you have to follow this guy out of the house)

This backstory complete, I’m now thrust into the middle of a demonic invasion. I have almost no investment in how this turns out: the war sounds nasty, sure, but a traitor sits in my ancestral keep! And shortly thereafter, I’m given the quest to travel to various points around the country and draw more recruits for the Gray Wardens. But I’ve seen nothing yet to suggest they’re more capable of defeating darkspawn than anyone else.

All I know is that I have to go to these three cities because the game won’t progress until I do. Contrast this to Mass Effect, where I was getting evidence to bring in a rogue Spectre, or Jade Empire, where I was rescuing my kidnapped master, or Knights of the Old Republic, where I at least saw evidence of what the main villain was capable of in the destruction of Taris.

I’m only eight hours or so into the game, maybe 20% of the way through, so I’m not passing final judgment yet. But Bioware’s starting to remind me of Kevin Smith. We all got excited by Clerks: what a bold voice! what a creative talent! Then each succeeding movie grinds the shine off his reputation, until he’s producing unremarkable stuff like Dogma and Jersey Girl. Dragon Age isn’t quite Dogma-bad, yet. And, again, I haven’t finished the game entirely. But Dragon Age reminds me a lot of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back: a whirlwind tour of cliches and genre elements, a series of entertaining moments with a threadbare plot to wrap them together.

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that’s where I caught her eye

Hey all.

If you’re into console RPGs, like the Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest series, then you should check out my Overthinking It post on what makes a console RPG an RPG. It’s pretty great.

Not big into video games? Check out some of our recent guest posts, like this article linking Batman and Dostoevsky in The Dark Knight. I didn’t write it, but I edited it, so that counts for something.

If you don’t like video games or Batman, I’m not sure why you read this weblog. Go home now.

I love committing sins and my friends sell crack

Last week, Leonard asked what form of art or culture I deliberately resist for whatever reason. Thinking about it, I had a hard time coming up with a lot of answers – except perhaps Japanese animation. But I could go on at length about games.

I’m a gamer, but not a serious one. I get together an average of once a month to shoot dice, currently GMing a Mutants and Masterminds campaign. Sometimes I play more often, sometimes I wait longer stretches. But I game as a way to socialize and have fun with friends. I have a really hard time rolling dice with anyone I don’t already call a friend, or at least a good acquaintance.

I play video games, but I’m at least one generation behind the latest consoles. I never pay more than $25 for a video game if I can help it, meaning I usually wait until critical feedback and word of mouth have slashed a new release’s price by 50% before buying. I have a thin, eclectic collection. I never play for more than 2 hours at a time.

My tastes run pretty wide, but there are three types of games I’ve resisted getting into for years and very likely won’t: massively multiplayer online rpgs (MMORPGS), live-action roleplaying (LARP) or online first-person shooters (like HALO, Counterstrike, Team Fortress, etc).

I originally intended to give each of those a paragraph explaining why, but they all boil down to the same root cause: they all sound really cool except for the people I’d have to deal with.

From a cooperative standpoint – guild play, “roleplay” servers – I hate the immersion break that comes from watching comrades bitch about “nerfing pallys for the n00bs.” Or from standing on a damp lawn with a foam sword, listening to a pasty guy with a Systems Engineer beard rally the troops. I game for escape, not for status or an adrenaline rush. For me, immersion is critical.

From a competitive viewpoint – PvP, FPS, etc – I know that I cannot devote the same time or money to the game that the Dew-addled twitchers playing it do. These players make up the majority; as such, I will always be behind the curve. That’s not fun for me. I don’t relish spending $15 a month to consistently lose.

Here’s the funny part: take that online gaming experience and remove all the other people, and you get a game like Morrowind or Half-Life. And I love those games. So once you eliminate the crucial variable I warm up like butter.

Oddly, several good friends of mine, whom I also game with, play one or more of those games listed above. They clearly enjoy themselves, so it’s not like they’re weird or unnatural. It’s just not for me.

on the cover of the magazine, there’s no question why I’m smiling

Local software powerhouse Vecna Technologies has blitzed the Red Line with ads recently, looking for new developers. Most of these have really stood out – showing handsome people with eloquent pull quotes talking about the meaningful work they do. However, one that I spotted last week, and again last night, makes me laugh in derision:

Vec-na
(Czech)
Eternal (i.e., Built to Last)

Sure. You named your company after an obscure Czech adjective. Right. Not one of the most infamous recurring villains in Dungeons and Dragons’ thirty year publishing history. Okay, fellas.

(For nerds who’ve been out of the loop: Vecna got promoted from demigod to full on godhood in 4th Edition. Update the Satanic altar in your basement accordingly)

# # #

Karaoke on Wednesday had a rather small crowd – post-election fatigue plus cold drizzle kept people indoors. I saw a tiny house of regulars, plus a handful of new faces. A girl at the table in front of us sang some pop staple I can’t recall, largely because her intoxicated friend kept keening at her. She made noises at the parts of the song during which normal humans might cheer, but not in the right volume or tone. It was a funereal wail. I know no other way to describe it.

I dedicated my first song – “Jesus He Knows Me,” by Genesis – to “the city of Cambridge, which went 87% for Obama last night.” Nobody got what I was going for until I started swapping words out in the final chorus:

‘Cause Obama knows me, and he knows I’m right
I’ve been talking to Obama all my life
Barack Obama knows me, and he knows I’m right
Well he’s been telling me everything’s gonna be all right

It didn’t help matters that the intoxicated friend from earlier stood up and tried to take the microphone from me. This was before I started singing about Obama, mind you: I had barely hit the first chorus before she latched on. “Jesus doesn’t know you,” she slurred.

I extricated it from her grip as gently as possible (twist, don’t yank) while DJ Paul escorted her away from the booth. Apparently she burst into tears in front of her friends sixty seconds later. I couldn’t see; I was too busy being clever.

I wear chains that excite the Feds

Melissa and Fraley had folks over on Friday to watch the Presidential debates for a bit. The magical scorecards from CNN entertained us for a bit, though I didn’t see the point of them. “Obama’s up 12 to 8,” Auston would say, tallying the four-faceted scorecards each panelist had. “12 of what to 8 of what?” I asked.

We tried muting the debate and pretending that the candidates were arguing about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (“I have never been a fan of that Shia LeBoeuf vine-swinging scene, and my record is clear on that”), but that didn’t help much. So we put in Idiocracy instead, which is still funny.

On Saturday, I started some laundry, then invited some folks over for gaming. We had an action-packed session, demolishing the Zakim Bridge and a historic house in Salem in the process. Unfortunately, my laundry was still damp by the time we finished, so I had to drive to the Highland Ave laundromat in the pouring rain and buy $10 in quarters.

“You doing laundry here?” the guy asked. “Yes,” I said. Then I took my double handful of quarters, got back in my car (right outside their window), and drove home. That’s probably the most evil thing I’ve done in a long while.

I fought the temptation to stay in on a rainy night and it paid off, as I had a hell of a time at Boston News Net on Saturday evening. I shot the nonsense with Jackie and Jen D., who were working the theater bar that evening, while waiting for the BNN cast to filter out. Once they finished striking their tech-heavy set, I joined them for a quick drink at The Field around the corner.

Confidential sources had told me that Vickie and Michelle B. were hosting a girls’ slumber party at their house, a mere two blocks from my front door. I decided I had an obligation to crash it, so I showed up a little after midnight. “Ladies,” I told them, “I just wanted to offer my services in case any of you need something brought down from a high shelf. Or perhaps any stuck jars that need opening.” They gave me a beer, which was my original goal. Wheels within wheels, my friends.

Sunday was pretty straightforward: I had Gorefest rehearsal, stopped by Marie’s to drop off her leftover Magner’s, then got a grilled cheese from Deli-icious. I got a call back from the apartment manager, after having left a (non-urgent) message on Saturday night. “Is the window still leaking?” he asked.

“Not currently,” I said. “Just when it rains.”

“Okay,” he said. “Is it bad?”

“Not too bad. It’s bound to get worse, y’know?”

“Right,” he said. “You can put, like, a towel or a bucket under it.”

“I have.”

“Right. Well, someone will come by to look at it once the rain lets up.”

“Okay,” I said.

the way you love me is frightening

On Friday, I brought Marie up to speed on the joy of Road House. “Do places like this exist in the real world?” she asked. “Yes,” I told her.

I tried to access Vanguard‘s website on Saturday, but discovered that:


  1. You need a separate account for retirement planning and for individual investing. I can see an argument for that, but you figure Vanguard would at least put some links up indicating that. I spent 15 minutes poring over my 401(k) page before realizing that there was no way to just put dollars into other funds.
  2. Customer service doesn’t come in on Saturdays.
  3. All of their FAQ links point back to the home page. Convenient!
So Vanguard lost my business. I tried Sharebuilder next, but it took each page about 90 seconds to load, which strained my already bruised patience. I get easily frustrated with poor website layout.

Grace came over and we had some beers to celebrate her passing the Massachusetts Eye Doctor Legal exam. She can now legally prescribe eyes, as opposed to selling them out of the back of her van.

On Sunday, I auditioned for Gorefest – always a fun time, and I expect big things of Bobby as a director. Then I picked up some provisions for Serpico, Auston and Katie when they came over to game (the World’s Smartest Man jumped inside Serpico’s head; it was fun). After that, I grilled up some greasy organic hot dogs and watched The Bank Job, which is a greasy organic hot dog of a movie: made with an eye toward healthier filling, but still fun and tasty where it counts.

It rained a lot.

gonna call the president, gonna get myself a private eye

This media blow’s good for either $10 cash or $20 in house credit. Have a shot while you think it over.

Chinese Democracy: Any album 14 years in the making has a certain weight of hype behind it. Chinese Democracy does not live up to that hype. But I still like it. I never counted myself among GnR fans but the mastered versions of “Madagascar” and “I.R.S.” rock out pretty hard. I don’t think drunken frat boys will be singing “Rhiad and the Bedouins” at karaoke twenty years from now, but not every album can be Use Your Illusion.1

Pandemic: I played this at Greg’s on Sunday and had a blast. You and 1 to 3 other players make up a CDC disaster team. Outbreaks of four different diseases – represented by yellow, red, black and blue cubes2 – break out in major cities around the globe. Your task: travel to these cities, quash the outbreaks, and research a cure to put an end to them.

Complications:

  • You draw cards that have city names on them. These cards act as an in-game currency, allowing you to travel across the globe in an instant or research a cure. But the limited number of cards may mean that you can’t get to a critical location at the right moment.
  • Every turn, you flip over two outbreak cards and infect the cities depicted with one disease cube each. If a city already has three disease cubes – or if you flip over an Epidemic – the disease can vector to adjacent cities. This can start a cascading effect that will plague an entire continent.
  • Each player has a special ability that makes one rule of the game easier. The dispatcher can move players between cities instantly; the researcher can hand off cards from her hand; the scientist can research cures cheaply; etc. A lot of the most exciting parts of the game happened between turns, when we coordinated our moves to deliver the right people to the best possible places.

The game immersed us very quickly, from the panicked babbling of four people planning at once to the heavy silence when Bangkok went viral. Good, quick fun.

The Happening: Not sure where all the disappointment came from. I’ve been waiting to see this team-up for a long time and I stayed on the edge of my seat throughout:

… oh, you mean that other Happening. Yeah, that shit sounds awful.

Keep on the Shadowfell: I played this with Jonathan, Dev, Jen, Nathan and Will S. on Wednesday a week. I named my pre-gen dragonborn paladin after a Santana album; he named his tiefling warlock after a Rush song. That’s what D&D’s all about.

Thoughts on the new edition:

  • I can’t imagine playing this game without minis. Tactical movement reigns supreme – a 1-square shift at the right time turns a stand-up fight into a massive beatdown. Being able to catch the right number of targets in a burst, or put a wall at your side to fence in your enemies, makes all the difference.
  • Understanding player roles helps a great deal. We nearly lost our rogue in the first fight because she went toe-to-toe with a couple of minions, instead of ducking and stabbing and gaining sneak attack damage. My paladin soaked a little too much damage in the second fight and quickly hit 0 hp. Know the difference between skirmishers and defenders, and between leaders and controllers, and the odds work in your favor.
  • Playing at 1st level became fun again. Every 1st level character has at least four options to choose from in a round – two at-will powers, one encounter power, one daily power – in addition to just running up and hitting a guy. Options mean tactics, which makes for engaging gameplay.

D&D still runs best at one speed – sword-and-sorcery combat – so I don’t think it will replace every game in my library. But it still does what it does better than any game on the market today.

Deadwood: Oh. So that’s what the fuss was about. S1 spoilers under the cut:

____________
1 Strictly speaking, only two of them can be.

2 I christened these outbreaks Yellow Fever, Red Death, Black Plague, and Bluemonia.

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