Saturday, 30 January 2010

Sibling Rivalry: Mass Effect vs Dragon Age (Part 2)

In the first part of this piece I covered the areas of Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect which are non-interactive: the setting, the player character, the NPCs. In this part I want to look at the parts where the player has to press buttons and move the mouse around. For the record I have played both on PC, so I can't speak to the console versions.

The first difference, and a fundamental one, in the two games is the basic interface. Mass Effect adopts a standard third person shooter UI, with the player taking direct control over Shepard. Objects such as crates and doors are interacted with using a standard 'use' key.

DA:O provides two modes of interaction. The first is a control scheme that is used in many PC RPGs in which you have a cursor moved by the mouse that is used to click on places in the environment you wish to interact with. To move, you click on a part of the landscape and the player character moves, etc. While this has been a long used standard in PC games, it subtly removes the player from their character. Rather than "I'm going to move to here," it feels more like "I'm going to select that guy and tell him to move over there." Although this is minor, in what is purportedly a character driven narrative it adds a level of distance between the player and the actions taken by his character. The second interface is a cut down version of the one used in Mass Effect in that you can take direct control of the character, but interacting with objects in the environment still requires the use of the on screen cursor.

Add to this the fact that you can take direct control of any member of your party and the connection between the player and his carefully constructed avatar is expertly severed.

Jibber Jabber
I've already covered the difference in the way conversation is presented in the two games, but there are also some key differences in the game mechanics of it. In Mass Effect, the conversational options are presented a few seconds before the NPC finishes talking and if you choose one before they finish speaking, Shepard will reply straight away which leads to quite natural conversations. This doesn't need to happen in DA:O because the protagonist doesn't speak. This leads to what Radix once described to me as conversation grinding: having to go through every part of the conversation tree to ensure you get the quests rather than because you're interested in what they have to say.

Hunter gatherer
Disclaimer time: I don't like loot management gameplay. I'll save that rant for another time, but suffice to say I think it adds nothing to a game. That said, both games have extensive loot management and I get the impression that Mass Effect's is more streamlined while DA:O's is more intricate. Someone who enjoys spending ten minutes picking which items to equip, which to sell and which to keep for a rainy day can decide which is better.

DA:O has a level of crafting gameplay in which players can make potions and so forth from raw ingredients gathered as they travel around the world. This level also feeds into the item management gameplay, because most of the raw ingredients can be used before being crafted, although for smaller benefits. Keeping a balance between expedience and future use adds an interesting tweak to the game.

Phenomenal cosmic power
Both games use a level based class system for progression. In Mass Effect each character has a small number of total powers, around six to eight depending on your class choice, of which half are passive and so don't need management. There is very little power dependency (for example you need four points in pistols before you unlock shotguns, but that is the extent of it) which means that you only have the powers you want and don't have to spend points on things that are of no use.

DA:O uses a much more traditional power system with a skill tree, character stats, and class specializations. I have a character at level fourteen who has more powers than I can fit alongside the health and mana potions in the shortcut bar, as do two of my three party members (the third being fairly unskilled on account of being a dog). While it is not inherently bad to have a lot of active powers, it is only good design if each power is both specific and unique. Specific in that ithas one effect, and unique in that it is the only available power which has that effect. Most of the powers in DA:O are specific, but they are not unique as there are multiple powers which have similar effects. For example, a shield and sword warrior can take Shield Bash, then Shield Pummel, then Overpower, which knock down, hit three times and then stun, and hit three times the third being critical and then knock down, respectively. The warrior now has three powers to do almost the same thing, where a single power that inflicts more hits and has a quicker cooldown would achieve the same purpose.

Overall, DA:O produces a very complicated power structure which does not translate into complex mechanical interactions within the gameplay, which means complex tactical gameplay decisions are replaced with choices which have little impact on the flow of combat. Which leads into...

Round 1, Fight
Combat is the central game mechanic of both games, and both follow the same outline: see bad guys, use powers, pick up loot, go to next encounter. This takes up the majority  of your time with the game, and so it is disappointing that DA:O's combat is so bad. It is essentially turn based with real time trappings, which is a workable but tricky genre (the Grandia games do it well, FFXII wasn't too bad at it), especially as you move close to the real time end of the spectrum.

Powers in DA:O take period of time to invoke (the activation time, listed with the power) but then they also take some time to execute, which is essentially the animation time of a fireball flying to its target, or an ogre swinging its club. This wouldn't be a problem in a turn based game, as the combatants don't move when it's not their turn, however in a real time game the instinctive behaviour when you see an ogre lift its club is to run away. Sadly, in DA:O, the point at which you see the power effect, it is too late. Run as far as you want, the ogre's club will hit you, get behind the thickest wall in the castle, if that fireball had you targeted at the end of its activation period, you're getting set on fire. The purpose of the visual part of a game is in many ways simply to inform the player of the goings on of the underlying mechanics, and DA:O does a poor job of doing this.

Given how independent and stubborn your party members are, it's remarkable how dependent they are on instruction to get anything effective done in combat. There are the tactics slots, which help a certain amount, but even then most of the time your team mates' most useful powers get no use unless you do so explicitly. This further adds to the feeling that you are a puppet master controlling a group of on screen combatants in which you have no personal interest, which is at odds with the character driven aim of the game.

On top of all of this, the view you get of the combat, no matter your choice of camera angles, is atrocious. The zoomed out view never zooms out far enough to take into account the archer on the nearby hill, which leaves you constantly switching between characters trying to get line of sight to targets so you can assign party members to actually do something.

I'm done with this guy
The aim of this piece is not to say that Dragon Age is a bad game or that Mass Effect is flawless (the fact it crashes every hour or so is quite frustrating). Nor is it to provide an exhaustive critique of either game, I haven't gone into the things that both games do badly or really what they do well. Rather it is to observe the apparent regression that has occurred from the latter to the former. Dragon Age feels in many ways like a throwback to games from ten years go, ignoring the improvements that have been made in the intervening period, even games made by the same developer a year or two earlier.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Sibling Rivalry: Mass Effect vs Dragon Age (Part 1)

I recently saw some preview footage of Mass Effect 2 and thought it looked pretty good. Given they've kept the same protagonist I decided to go back and play the first one to try and get through it before the sequel comes out, which in turn meant putting Dragon Age: Origins. The first impression Mass Effect made was that it's hard to believe it came out eighteen months before DA:O. This would not be a big deal if it wasn't for the fact that the two games were released by the same company and are, from a genre perspective, basically the same game.

Oh look, there's Aragorn
DA:O is Bioware's first big western fantasy RPG out of the shadow of the D&D licence which saw them produce Neverwinter Nights and the Baldur's Gate titles. The setting they have created is an unimaginative and quite frankly uninteresting generic fantasy world populated with humans, elves and dwarfs a stock array of skeletons, werewolves and ents to fight. In visual media the viewer is constantly reminded of all of the components which are taken from other works to a degree that points of difference are easily lost. By contrast written works can establish the similarity to an existing environment once and then only describe original and unique ideas. In this manner it is much easier for fantasy settings which are in many ways unoriginal to appear far more original in text than they would if converted to film or computer game.

Mass Effect in a lot of ways is no better, opting for a galactic empire of hundreds of species run by a council, with the majority of races being humanoid four limbed species who for some unknown reason display the same gender differentiation traits as humans. The advantage science fiction has in this case is that the look and feel of each species has to be decided and created because there are a lot fewer standards to fall back on. Similarly it is easier to make unique gun and ship designs than it is sword and armour designs. Easier or not, it means that Mass Effect feels a lot more like a new universe to explore than DA:O, which feels like a small province of the same medieval fantasy world many of us have been killing skeletons in for decades.

Speaking of which...
In Mass Effect you play Commander Shepard of no fixed gender or first name, in DA:O you play a character of no fixed race, gender or name. There is no better or worse here, in both cases you can heavily customise your character's look and pick a class customise their style. The place where Mass Effect's protagonist is better than DA:O's is simple: Shepard talks. In the many, many conversations that take place in the game, you pick a conversational gambit and then Shepard says something along those lines, thus driving the conversation forward. In DA:O, the conversation system is almost the same except that you pick the exact response and then the NPC responds to it without your character actually saying anything. Although this may sound like a small difference, it means that in DA:O you are subjected to a wall of voice and it feels as though you are not doing anything to influence a particularly long monologue.

Best supporting cast
Both games are story heavy, if not story driven, and as such have a large number of NPCs that the player can interact with in two main categories: party members and quest characters. In Mass Effect other people are maybe a little bit too ready to join your party, but they do at least have some interest in what you're trying to do and will have what is a fairly normal conversation given that one of the participants is a giant toad looking thing. Other people routinely ask you to do things for them and aside from the obvious puppy-rescuing missions they ask you do to understandable things like go and get evidence to prove corruption.

DA:O, however, in its failed attempt to be a morally ambiguous dark fantasy has a world populated almost entirely with annoying people. The two people who join your party who aren't completely obnoxious are Alistair, who is glib to the point of psychopathy, and a dog. It feels as though you have to cajole and coddle everyone you talk to in order to get information out of them, even when they want you to do something for them. It's as though everyone on the planet is a sulky teenager. This frustration is compounded by the structure that pervades so many of the quests: party A asks you to wreak vengeance upon or retrieve a thing from party B, who has committed some atrocity against them. Upon arriving, party B informs you that you don't know the whole story and then explains how party A is in fact the atrocity perpetrator. Then party A shows up and you have to pick which one to kill. Clearly the aim of this is to make you appreciate the gritty, shades of grey world and make difficult moral decisions. This would work better if the missions were story driving, but the most common approach is the horrible “I'll help you, but first you have to do this unrelated side quest for me,” justification.

What this means in game terms is that in Mass Effect you feel at most times as though you are furthering your aim of hunting down the rogue agent, while in DA:O you stop every now and then trying to remember why you are three levels deep in a dungeon killing skeletons while there is a traitor on the throne.

To Be Continued
I'll finish this up next post with a break down of the game mechanics so, you know, stay tuned.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Button Pressing Baby Talk

The quality of narrative that can be communicated in a given medium is dependent on the available vocabulary. If you watch any really old films, the primitive film, inconsistent frame rates and lack of sound severely limits the kind of movies they could make. Similarly an eight year old would struggle to write a world class novel in part because they don't have the words to do it.

Games have access to a wide variety of vocabularies. I don't plan on providing a definitive list of them because there are blurred lines and arguments to be made for and against dividing certain areas. I can get to where I want to go, however, with the following list.
  • A limited version of film. In terms of vision and sound, games can't do anything a movie can't, and can't do it as well. Graphics are not photorealistic, and where stylised graphics are used, the same effect could be used in film.
  • A limited version of books. You can use all of the words of a book, but people won't read as much text, at least in block. Although you can have text in film, the ability in games to stop reading a block of text and come back to it later makes them closer to books.
  • Interactivity. This is the one that makes games different. It allows the viewer to become an active participant in the narrative.
Another important fact is that having access to multiple vocabularies doesn't automatically improve the maximum quality of the narrative, otherwise the works of Austen could be improved by adding illustrations by kindergarteners. I think we can all agree this wouldn't in fact work.

While over the years the visual and aural vocabularies of games have improved to being near to film, the vocabulary of interactivity has made very little progress. Consider a situation in which you want to make a comedic game, with a focus on goofy comedy. Visually, you can make the characters comedically proportioned and move in an elastic way (as seen in something like Tales of Monkey Island), the colour palette can be made visually varied and bright. The sounds can be upbeat, the music a little quirky and the voice work appropriately done. So far, providing the execution is up to par, you are on your way to a goofy comedy game. But what about the interactivity? Well, Psychonauts is a platformer, Brutal Legend is some weird RTS thing, Monkey Island is a graphic adventure (I know I'm focusing on Tim Schafer, but that's because not many people try to make funny games), so clearly we just need to pick a genre and plug in the rest of the content.

Here's the problem: that's not true. The interactivity itself adds nothing to the atmosphere of the game. There is no such thing as comedic interaction. A picture can be funny, a snippet of conversation can be funny, but a button press cannot be funny. Or flirtatious, or disrespectful. You can make a funny game in any genre, but if you strip out the other content, the humour disappears. Psychonauts could be reskinned as a dystopian cyberpunk epic and not change its interactive components in the least. By contrast, if you changed the graphical style of Gears of War to something more like Psychonauts, the tone of the game would be changed. The vocabulary of visuals can have a comedic tone or a dark and brooding one, the vocabulary of interaction is not complex enough to allow such subtle variations.

Allowing for multiple interactions over time (combos and so on), the only real words in the vocabulary of interaction are soft, hard, easy, difficult, simple and complicated. I suppose you can add large and small with all of this motion control business going on these days. Given this, is it reasonable to expect a game to be able to produce a narrative as good, as engaging, as film or literature outside of some very specific genres? The interactivity, by its primitive nature, can only add primitive elements to the narrative. This works well in primitive genres, such as big dumb action. However the lack of advanced interactivity means there is no choice but to remove interactivity when more complex narrative elements are required. Removing interactivity almost by definition produces a single reaction, frustrated helplessness, which is rarely the desired reaction.

I have no idea what advanced interactivity would look like, or even if I would be interested in it if it did. Nor am I saying that developers shouldn't add things like comedy or tragedy into their games. What I am saying is that developers need to understand the limitations of the medium and not assume that interactivity automatically improves narrative, or in fact is capable of improving it at all.