What We’re Playing Vol II

Constraints & Explorations

Commentary - What Were Playing Vol2

Elise Vist is a second-year PhD student interested in autobiographical games as well as fan studies. In particular, she focuses on the negotiations of power between creators and their audiences. She is also a co-founder of the GI Janes, a group devoted to encouraging women in Kitchener/Waterloo to make, play, and talk about games.
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Character Constraints in Dragon Age 2

by Elise Vist

There is rarely a time when I’m not playing Dragon Age 2. I know that it’s the lesser of the Dragon Age games, but I’ve still finished it twice, gotten to the end of Act 2 three times, and created a dozen characters that never got past level 15. It is partly due to the fact that I love each and every character (especially Aveline) in my party, but that’s not the whole story. If all I wanted from the game was interesting characters and fun relationship dynamics then Dragon Age: Origins would be a better game to play. DA:O, at least, lets me talk to my party whenever I feel like it.

Reading Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens made me realize what keeps me coming back to this admittedly limited game: DA2 offers me the opportunity to simply play in a way that DA:O doesn’t. On the surface, both games offer an experience according to Huizinga’s definition of play: “a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and the consciousness that it is ‘different’ from ‘ordinary life’” (Huizinga 28). However, DA2 lets me slip into play much more quickly than DA:O does. Where DA:O has a complex and extensive preamble to the main quest line, DA2 has a fairly quick prologue. DA:O gives narratively important backstory and context, but DA2 just drops you into the adventure. In the short prologue of DA2 you are told you’re a controversial hero, then repeatedly asked to consider how you feel about mages, templars, apostates, your family, your home, and your purpose in life. This turns out to be a pretty great way to quickly develop distinct characters.

The ease with which I can create a character and explore how my party and other NPCs will react is what keeps me coming back. I start each new play-through of DA2 with a (long) list of character traits (“hates apostates, flirts to cover insecurities, desperate for Carver’s respect”), then I decide which 3 companions will be my main party. Then, I play the game, following these voluntary constraints as closely as possible. Although these constraints don’t make the mechanics of the game any more difficult, they make the story more challenging. I won’t be able to max out my party’s Friendship/Rivalry points, because it limits my ability to manage my party and their reactions. I’ve tried doing this in DA:O and the Mass Effect games, but the complexity of the plot and the more challenging combat actually limits my ability to play around with my character.

So when I feel like playing—just playing—I reach for DA2.

Jason Hawreliak received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Waterloo. His research examines rhetorics of heroism & immortality in videogames. Other research interests include multimodal rhetoric & the psychological function of digital media. He is essays editor for First Person Scholar.
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Dark Souls 2 & Exploration

by Jason Hawreliak

Like Elise I really like Dragon Age 2. In fact my only real complaint about DA2 is that there isn’t enough space to explore. There are too few regions, and many of them feel either too small or too familiar. After all, that’s what I’ve come to expect from Western RPGs: there are supposed to be vast areas to explore with treasures hidden throughout. One reason I love RPGs like Dragon Age or Skyrim is that they give me wondrous environments that I can’t wait to explore. Dark Souls 2, on the other hand, gives me no such desire. As I mentioned in our Dark Souls podcast  a while back , I generally don’t want to explore in these games because more often than not, exploration means big trouble.

That said, because of my experience playing those aforementioned RPGs, I’m still driven by an urge to see what new reward awaits around the corner. Who knows, I might find a much needed item in the darkness. But unlike those other games, in DS2 I’m also held back by the knowledge that exploring means almost certain death and/or some permanent loss. These competing impulses—to explore and to stay safe—generate a constant sense of tension I don’t find in other RPGs.

In Skyrim, for example, exploration is a no-brainer. The consequences for failure are minor and temporary (as long as you save) and exploration is often rewarded. As such, there never feels like much failure per se, and as Jesper Juul argues in The Art of Failure, failure “goes to the heart of why [many] enjoy games in the first place” (9). In Dark Souls, failure is utterly ubiquitous; every new area holds almost certain death, and most of the time there’s no reward to be found. More than other RPGs I’ve played, Dark Souls makes me weigh the risk/reward, cost/benefit of almost every movement. It’s like being at 200% in Smash Bros, but for the entire game.

To give an example, each time I see a fog entrance for the first time, I’m unsure whether I should proceed through it or not. What’s on the other side could be nothing remarkable, such as a continuation of the area, or it could be a boss fight, which probably means at least one death. If I’m carrying a lot of souls or have a temporary effect equipped, I probably don’t want to risk them by entering a dangerous area. I don’t want to lose something valuable for good. It might be best to pick another route, or to at least go and spend my souls so they aren’t lost.

Why do I care? After all, it’s “just a game,” right? Well I only have a finite amount of time. And so each failure seems like lost time, which much like my souls, I can’t ever get back. After the 10th time of facing the same boss, I begin to wonder if it’s worth the aggravation. The choice DS2 ultimately poses to me then is potential ludic reward, or potential lost time. Put this way the stakes seem high, which for me makes the game more intense and engaging. This isn’t to suggest that playing and failing in DS2 is a “waste” of time.  It’s just that the consequences are more permanent and take up more time than I’m used to so I pick my actions carefully. All play relies on tension of one sort or another, and Dark Souls 2 is a fantastic example of pitting two urges—exploration and safety— against each other to great effect.

Works Cited

Juul, Jesper. The Art of Failure. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013.