Sunday, May 26, 2013

Reexamining DA2: Mark of the Assassin

"I suppose nothing ever goes as we plan, does it"
(Pretty much the story of this chick's life.)

So I just finished playing the Mark of the Assassin DLC and was very pleasantly surprised. The dialogue was witty, the conversations weren't awkward (much), there was actual playier choice involved, and what was said in dialogue actually kinda mattered.  Like the core game, MotA made a few shoutouts/references to Dragon Age: Origins, but unlike some (not all!) of the ones in DA2 they didn't feel forced. Sometimes the reference, as seen with Bann Teagan's cameo, didn't even mention the previous game. Those were perhaps my favorite since they knew players would make the connection all on thier own. There were also a number of major fights that actually involved some level of strategy to win.  The final fight was a challenge, but it wasn't an unfair one.  A lot of fighting was involved with this DLC, but I never felt like the devs were throwing enemies in there just for the heck of it.  In fact, for the most part, there were not a lot of spawning enemies.  If I saw fifteen bad guys, then I was fighting fifteen bad guys.  I cannot express how much I hate the spawning enemies in Dragon Age 2.  I really, really hate it.  When you have wave after wave of enemies coming after you, sometimes with the "big" character (chief, commander, etc) not showing up until the second or third wave, the amount of strategy the player can actually employ is limited.  When, however, you know that all the baddies onscreen are all you are going to see, then the player can actually plan out which moves they will make.  Who will they take out first? Who will the PC focus on?  Which group of characters will best utilize each companion's skill set? I really miss that part of Dragon Age: Origins.  In DA:O, the only spawning of bad guys you saw happened during major boss fights.  At that point, waves of them were scripted to appear in between boss attacks. That kind of "spawning" is pretty much par for the course, and once a wave happened, that was all you had until after the Boss attacked again.  

I know I've been hating an awful lot on Dragon Age 2 even though I said that i was going to give it a fair go.  I'm still trying  to give it a fair play, but it's so hard when things like spawning enemies annoy me to no end. Mark of the Assassin is proof that the DA2 devs could have done so much better.  In MotA there were new environments and interesting things to see.  There were only one or two non-doors, but that is no more than you would expect in any other game.  The doors weren't blocked to make a reused map "new", they were blocked b/c they were just dummy doors.  Nothing to see there.  Combat was interesting, and I actually enjoyed it rather than dreaded it. The story was perhaps a bit contrived, but not enough to warrant censure, and certainly no  more than the genre normally allows.  The main puzzle made you think, but was not impossible.  I normally could do with out them, but this were a nice change of pace. I will mention that there is a very poorly done stealth sequence in-game, but players have an option to forego stealth in lieu of all out bloodshed.  I did give the stealth portion an honest to God effort, but it was more headache than it was worth.

Perhaps the best thing though, is that the companions finally ceased all their moaning and groaning. With a rescue-from-prison sequence, we also witnessed a brief return of the companion buddy comedy from DA:O's Fort Drakon. (In fact, come to think of it, about 50% of this DLC reminded me of the Fort Drakon story arc). Fenris stopped whining about mages and how hard life is.  Anders almost stopped moaning about the Chantry and the Templars. Gloriously, the one time he did make a snide comment, Tallis called him out on it. Even better, however, was the fact that Anders and Fenris actually sorta kinda got along!  There was one moment where Anders actually deferred to Fenris for an answer about [some plot centric thing], and disregarded Tallis (even though she knew more about it) because he didn't trust her. 

I also really liked the way this DLC used the Varric storytelling ploy to bookend its narrative.  Despite the fact that he is the one telling DA2's tale, the game very rarely reminds us of this fact.  In fact, it reminds us of it so little that the first time I played DA2 I was a little shocked to see Varric pop up in between game chapters. I do have to hand it to the devs thought.  When Dragon Age 2 does acknowledge Varric's storytelling role, they do so to great effect.  

So all in all, I really liked Mark of the Assassin.  I won't say it's the best thing I've ever played, but it is a far cry better than anything else I've seen in Dragon Age 2 so far. Despite my general hate for DLC, this one was actually well worth the money I paid. MotA shows that the DA2 team was capable of so much more than what they presented in the core title.  I just wish they'd taken advantage of that fact before hand, and not waited until a  DLC release to show their hand.

Find some Mark of the Assassin comment-as-I-go tweets after the jump.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Celebrating World Goth Day 2013

@GothDayOfficial
Happy World Goth Day folks!  Pop over to WorldGothDay.com to find out which stores are offering holiday discounts and to see if there is a WGD event happening near you.


World Goth Day is also receiving some more mainstream media acknowledgement in 2013!  My favorite of the day is from TIME.  This feature highlights some seriously beautiful photographs - contemporary and historical.  One of my major passions is black and white film photography.  Black + white film and wet plate photography have such an amazing visual essence that simply cannot be duplicated. This Lightbox feature bears testament to that. 
CNN.com's blog GeekOut also has a pretty nice piece about the day.  It briefly highlights more serious issues the subculture faces.  In doing it so, it mentions the senseless death of Sophie Lancaster ('07) along with some more recent attacks.  In all of the cases mentions, the victims became targets for abuse because of their appearance and thier participation in the subculture.  It is nice to see a major media outlet, even if it in a blog piece, use this day to bring attention to these issues.
While you are at it, I would highly recommend taking take a moment from your day to visit the Sophie Lancaster Foundation website.  Find out more about their mission, see what they are doing, and find out how you can get involved.


From their website:

A note from Sophie's mum, Sylvia
Since Sophie's death on August 24th 2007, following the horrific attack on her and her partner Rob in Stubbeylee Park, Bacup, Lancashire, we had lots of kind offers of support and donations. Sophie and Rob dressed in their unique way, expressing their individuality as creative artistic people.
After consulting family and friends, we felt that a charity should be set up in Sophie's name. The charity, known as The Sophie Lancaster Foundation, will focus on creating respect for and understanding of subcultures in our communities.
It will also work in conjunction with politicians and police forces to ensure individuals who are part of subcultures are protected by the law.
Enjoy the website. And please get in touch with us if you have any messages, feedback or questions.
More than anything though, remember to celebrate! Go out. Have fun. Get your goth on. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Reexamining DA2: The Cardboard Chantry, Pt.2


"So, a drunk says the grand cleric funded a rogue templar. And here we are."

Today's post largely centers around Bioware's portrayal of party members' relationship with the Chantry.   It also comes with a major asterix attached.  For the sake of discussion, I will argue that most of my impressions are true ~98ish% of the time.  There is always an odd event or character comment that breaks the mold, but these instances are not the norm.  Out of necessity, today's post concerns a Sabastien-less DA2, and I am aware that I'm only touching the surface here.  Opinions have been very streamlined for brevity's sake. Please note that this is one of those subjects I think about a great deal while in game, but I've never actually tried to vocalize it before.  Hopefully you can at least get the gist of where thoughts were going.

Characters' Relationship with the Chantry:

Excluding Sebastian, who I will discuss next week, recruitable NPCs in DA2 have a very one dimensional relationship with the Chantry ... if they have an opinion on the matter at all.  This is particularly striking since the mere concept of organized religion is divisive at best, and it can easily leave people with very firmly set positive or negative views.  Even those who choose to not even think about religious institutions at all seem to have some kind of opinion.   This is especially true when priests and corrupt politics mix, something that is not an unusual occurrence in Kirkwall.  Because of this, it seems exceedingly unusual that among the six base recruitable NPCs, (Sebastien is acquired via DLC and I have not experienced Mark of the Assassin's Tallis yet) that every one of them would be antagonistic, atheistic  or simply ambivalent when it comes to Fereldan's only officially recognized religion.  Even Hawke, the PC, doesn't have a great deal to say on the matter.  In fact, the only NPCs that really have any opinion whatsoever are the human mages in your party - Bethany and Anders.

Bethany is very fearful of the the Chantry as an institution, but seems to have little opinion on its attached belief system. This is of course thanks to the Templars. The Templars are the arm of the Chantry which polices the Circle and hunts down apostates.  Having been an apostate all her life, Bethany's fear is well founded. It is disappointing though that Bethany did not take a moment to consider the Chantry as individuals vs. the Templars/Chantry as a collective.  As a former resident of Lothering, both Bethany and her family would have observed and received Chantry relief as the Blight approached and refugees poured into the town.  We know from DA:O that Lothering's Chantry had a considerable presence throughout the town, but the Reverend Mother was not an unreasonable woman.  The sisters seemed to care about the town's physical (not just spiritual) welfare, and acted accordingly.  The prominent Templar presence would have certainly placed all of Hawke's family on pins and needles, but they would have had to be blind to not see the good that the individual priests were doing. I'm not saying that those efforts would have changed her views, but  acknowledgement that the Chantry as a whole did not necessarily 100% = the Templars would have been nice.  Party banter between Aveline and Bethany does intricate that she is curious about mages in the Circle, but one still gets the impression that she is inquiring more out of fear, as opposed to genuine curiosity about how a healthy/ideal Templar/Circle relationship functions.

Anders, much like Bethany, equates the Chantry with the Templars.  While hers is a relationship of fear though, his quite obviously is one of relentless antagonism.  Part of me wants to give Anders a pass here for his all-or-nothing approach to the subject.  After all, he does explain that his hate of the Templars has warped Justice's sense of ... well ... justice.  Hawke sees Anders and Justice feed off of each other's strong emotions regarding injustice a number of times, and both times the situation gets pretty out of hand.  This is where my "impressions" come in though.  No matter how many times I've played this game I still can't shake the feeling that Anders' all out antagonism towards the Chantry was the easy way out.  Not only does he assume that Chantry = Templars (I'll get to that in a second), but this single minded obsession is a mentality Bioware echoed in other companions throughout the game. For example, Fenris so completely hates Denarius (and through him, Teventir) that there is no room in his mind for the concept of a "good" mage. Isabela is so focused on her sexual escapades that literally every companion banter conversation somehow centers around it.  She is either regaling the others with her adventures, using her prowess in an attempt to impress others, or using her experience to shame/embarrass others (most specifically Sebastian who is celibate).  Fenris and Isabela concentrate on issues other than death-to-all-Templars, but the concept is the same. Bioware's modus operandi in DA2 was to take one particular characteristic and make that single thing encompass the entirety of a NPCs personality.  On one hand, this makes perfect sense for the Anders + Justice relationship.  It transforms their combined emotions into all out antagonism towards the Templars and anyone related to them.  This means that Anders is taking a clearly defined, unquestioned role in the Main Quest storyline. On the other hand, doing this is a major cop-out, and an excuse to not examine the apostate/Templar/Chantry relationship on a deeper level.  DA2's writers made Anders representative of all disenfranchised apostates. He is essentially spokesperson for one side of the story's central conflict, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Bioware, however, really does the game an injustice by not using Anders' place in the mage/Templar conflict to give DA2's story more emotional and intellectual depth.

As for the other recruitable NPCs, few of them seem to even think about the Chantry at all.  I have a couple feelings about this. First of all, as mentioned a few paragraphs ago, I find this really odd.  The Chantry is Fereldan's primary religious entity and so everyone,  be they religious or not, is bound to have some kind of opinion on the matter.  Secondly, it is one thing to be unopinionated due to purposeful ambivalence.  This at least is "human".  It's another, however, for a character to be unopinionated because they were written to simply not care.  Does that make sense? The latter is nothing other than flawed character writing. Isabela is too sex obsessed to have an opinion about the Chantry (except when mocking clerical abstinence of course). Fenris is too eaten up over his past slave-hood to think about anything unrelated, and Merrill is too busy being (adorably?) obtuse to have much room on her character sheet for anything else.  Admittedly, Merrill does give a small glimpse into the Dalish spiritual construct during her companion quest.  She advises the spirit of a dead hunter to be careful of the Trickster.  She also blesses another hunter's soul, and wishes it well in its journey.  That is pretty much about it though, and no larger context for her actions is provided afterwards

"I'm pretty sure that any decent priest who prays for Bartrand would burst into flames."
The only two base characters that are believably ambivalent to the Chantry, are Aveline and Varric.  Yet, this appears to be more due to the fact that they are actually well rounded characters, and less due to any kind of intentionality on Bioware's part.  I, as the player, assume Aveline has vaguely pro-Chantry views since she was once married to a Templar.  By extension one can believe her to retains mostly positive views of the Circle, but it really isn't an issue that comes up much.  Occasional companion banter gives a glimpse into her thoughts on the issue.  I'm generally left with the impression, however, that while Aveline respects the Chantry as an institution, she has few significant religious ties holding her to it.

As for Varric, well, he has a couple of things in his court on this.  One, despite his status as a Surfacer, he is still a dwarf.  One can forgive a dwarf for not really caring about human religious constructs.  When combined with his seemingly cavalier nature, Varric's ambivalence is pretty believable.  If the Chantry does not bother him, then why should he bother doing anything with it?  Secondly, Varric is just so good at being concerned about ... himself (plus close friends, family). It would be odd to see him spouting religious rhetoric about the Maker and Andraste, with no way to fit his "strong and handsome and so very smart" self into the story. To be honest, I get the impression that, if following dwarvern tradition, he were to worship the ancestors ... then he would only consider doing so because ancestors = family.  Religion is not all that important to him, but familial ties are something on which his character places a great deal of value.  Since ancestors are part of one's family, Varric probably would be able to rationalize ancestor worship.
------------------
In the next week or two be looking for part three.  At that time I'll give my impressions of Sebastian.  Some companions suddenly start having thoughts about the Maker/Andraste/The Chantry once Sebastian is introduced into the active party. I hope to touch on that. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

cRPG World Observation No. 2


Observation:
You are unknown to me or anyone I know, and are therefore a stranger.  This means that you are the perfect candidate for representing my private interests in a mission that will take you halfway across the world, and will likely involve exchanges of a very sensitive nature. If you look at me just the right way before you depart for said mission, I may even bare my soul to you and impart my deepest darkest secrets that you will in no way be tempted to use against me. I, after all, trust you completely. 

Conclusion:
Despite your own penchant to roam the Earth, and the startling number of inns available for one to stay at, no one travels in medieval not-Europe.  Because of this, strangers are a novelty.  Your presence being a novelty, the common Joe looks upon you with wonder instead of fear or skepticism.  No one ever told them that strangers are unpredictable or untrustworthy.  The idea that you are just as likely to rob them blind or slaughter the whole town, as you are to trot across the globe on their behalf in exchange for a pittance, is completely incomprehensible.  (Let's face it though, you'll still inevitably rob them blind. It's a law or something.)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Reexamining DA2: Varric's Friendly Concern

"Listen, as your friend, I feel like I'd be doing you a disservice
if I didn't say something."

Yesterday evening, Cerian went to visit Varric at the Hanged Man as part of the companion quest "Friendly Concern". During their meeting, Varric expressed his reservations concerning Cerian and Anders' new relationship.  This moment produced what is quite possibly the best line to date.  (Please Varric, don't hold back.  Tell us how you really feel!)
"Maybe, just maybe, getting involved with the possessed mage might be dangerous.  There: I've said my piece."  
According to the Dragon Age Wiki, the Varric will say the following if the PC is in a relationship with Fenris.
"You do know the elf is covered in in spikes, like an angsty porcupine? He might have some ... issues."
I also know from past playthroughs that if the player is in a relationship with Merrill, he will say:
"Merrill is a sweet girl , but there's a whole lot of crazy in that little package."
These character judgements are all hilarious, because they are all completely true.  Seriously Bioware, why can't the PC romance Varric?  He's amazing.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Reexamining DA2: The Cardboard Chantry, Pt.1


At this point in writing I can probably declare myself to be over halfway through Dragon Age 2 [I took a number of weeks off due to other obligations].  Having collected all possible permanent companions, including Sebastian from The Exiled Prince DLC, and completed a couple of their personal quests, that seems to be a pretty accurate estimation.  I know I promised not to constantly complain about the game, after all this playthrough is all about giving it a fair chance. I also know that the subject at hand would probably be best discussed further on in the game as the main plot line comes to a head.  The problem is though, I'm getting to a point where not saying anything is becoming difficult.  There are a number of things that bother me in DA2 - spawning enemies, faux doors, dialogue wheels, the lack of an isometric camera.  While some of these drive me positively batty, they are not necessarily deal breakers.  The topic I currently wish to address then is not a deal breaker either, but is does fill me with significant disappointment and is quite possibly what I dislike most about DA2.  The manner in which Bioware handled DA2's Chantry is, from a personal perspective, significantly lower in quality than we saw with the game's predecessor. This may sounds like an odd complaint, but bear with me for a moment.

During my Dragon Age: Origins post Here Be Dragons and a Dwarf Reborn, I stated the following:
You know one thing I really appreciate about the depiction of religion in DA:O is its multi-dimensional nature. The story does not call the Chantry evil nor does it elevate it to a saintly status. Both good and bad priests exist, but the genuinely righteous priests out number those that are corrupted (Kolgim falls in with the latter). Throughout her journey in Fereldan, Perra [the PC - a dwarf commoner] meets individuals who are all in completely different places of their personal spiritual journey. Some like Alistair have a bone to pick with the Chantry. His issues, however, don't mean that he has denounced his faith. Some like Leliana have come to the Chantry late in life and found it to be a place of solace and refuge. Others, like Morrigan, will have nothing to do with it at all - ever. Even the player has an option of being completely devout, on the fence, completely against it, or anywhere else in between. As someone for whom religion plays a very important role in everyday life, I appreciate the manner in which Bioware wrote this aspect of the narrative.

In Dragon Age: Origins, Bioware did something that one doesn't see in fantasy worlds very often, be they video games or novels. The Chantry in DA:O was "human", for lack of a better term. The Maker's followers and their leaders were not not saint-ified, nor were they demonized.  While most Revered Mothers genuinely worked for only the best for their flock and the surrounding communities, others (like the Revered Father Kolgrim) did not. The Revered Mothers sought alms, harbored the poor, blessed soldiers, prayed for those affected by the Blight, and even blessed the PC if specifically asked. The last was always an option no matter what race, gender, or class the PC was.  While all Mothers were affected by the Blight and were clearly run down by the increased demands oon thier time and resources, none of them were cookie cutter NPCs.  The Reverend Mother at Lothering would bless "treasonous" Grey Wardens and even honor the Right of Conscription, but she would not openly aid the Wardens since doing so might endanger her flock.  Mother Hannah of Redcliffe, would likewise bless the Wardens but (unless skillfully persuaded) would not provide holy symbols to Redcliffe knights because it sharply conflicted with her personal view of the Maker. (Granter her view of the Maker was also the Chantry sanctioned one, but we see evidence throughout the game that "Chantry sanctioned" does not always equal "what everyone believes".) Mother Mallol of Castle Cousland similarly would lead the PC in prayer and bless the castle's soldiers, but unlike other sisters she seems to foster a more personal, less distant, relationship with parishioners.  This is seen when she encourages the PC to use her given name and drop the formal title of Mother.  Orzammar's Brother Burkel is extremely personable and seems more concerned about individuals than he does pageantry.  In stark contrast to them all, Father Kolgrim of Haven has become the leader of a cult.  He encourages his followers to kill outsiders and worship the dragon "Andraste" instead of focusing on the Maker (much to the Guardian's dismay). 

The extensive lore and mythology Bioware crafted for the Chantry was just as easily used for good as it was for evil, and DA:O was all the better for it.  It was clear, as seen with the Circle vs. Apostate issue, that some seemingly well intentioned laws had long since outlived their usefulness or had become twisted to benefit those in power. Even so, goodwill and honest men still resided amidst those corrupted by power.  Some followed the Maker blindly while others just gave him lip service, but  a third group truly thought about the teachings of Andraste before deciding where their spiritual loyalty lay. Even amongst the PC's companions, religion and spirituality became a "grey" entity. What I found fascinating though, is that even-though the companions had set opinions of the Chantry, the Maker, and Andraste; there was a general feeling that those beliefs were organic and potentially open for change.  This is not based on something anyone actually says or demonstrates in-game, but the sense was there all the same.
 
In contrast, the Chantry's depiction, and the relationship of characters with it, in Dragon Age 2 is no where near as personal as it was Dragon Age: Origins.  Overall it generally leaves one feeling ... well ... kind of flat.  I had originally wanted to put this all one post, but it turns out that there was more to say on the matter than anticipated.  (Either that or I'm simply long winded.) Part 2, which will be up later this week, will do its best to explain my overall feeling regarding this issue.  Out of necessity it will also dip its toe into the subject of character writing and possibly a couple other related subjects.  I hope to see you then.

Friday, May 3, 2013

cRPG World Observation No. 1


Observation:
99.9% of the time, regardless the game developer's country of origin, you can tell which OST tracks are tavern music without even looking at the song title.

Conclusion: 
Just as Castlevania games all begin with the word Dracula, tavern songs begin with a lute player and the smell of ale drenched floor boards.