Friends & Rivals

19 May

So I’ve been working on a book chapter over the last couple weeks on BioWare’s Dragon Age II, specifically examining the friendship-rivalry mechanic that the game employs. This is one of my favorite mechanics, not because it’s particularly fun (it isn’t… it isn’t un-fun, either, but it doesn’t substantively make the game more enjoyable in any measurable gameplay sense), but because it’s intellectually and academically interesting.

What I like about it is that it forecloses the idea of absolute morality. So many games – including BioWare games – place the player-character within a continuum of “good” and “evil” (“dark side” and “light side,” “paragon” and “renegade,” whatever). Now I know that this isn’t always as black and white as “good” and “evil,” per se, but it still uses a static continuum of behavioral evaluation for all the player’s actions. Did you kill this NPC outright? Yes? Dark side. No? Light side. And yes, some actions will gain more points to either direction than others, but such a system still evaluates the player-character’s actions as though there is a moral truth.

Not to start a philosophical debate about the (non)existence of Truth, but the real world doesn’t work that way. If there is a Truth (and I’m a skeptic on that), it’s very, very difficult for us to know what it is. A game continuum with clear parameters (and often an iconographic representation in the choice menu) is clear. We know, when we choose to hit the left or right trigger in Mass Effect, that we’re choosing Paragon or Renegade. But the world does not kindly provide us with flash events that are clearly color coded.

Instead, we have to decide for ourselves what we think about the issues of the day, and we are evaluated not by some omnipotent designer granting us points on a good-evil scale (at least that we’re aware of, which is a completely different philosophical debate that raises the issue of divine feedback, which I’m just not going to get into), but by the other people we live with, work with, and encounter on a daily basis.

Which is why I like this mechanic in Dragon Age. Because each of the player-character’s party companions comes fully equipped with his or her own evaluative continuum, ranging from friend to rival. And if you-as-the-player are going to maximize that slider (in either direction), then you have to consider what you say, what you do, and who you’re taking with you on your missions. Just as you wouldn’t invite a religious fundamentalist to a talk by Richard Dawkins unless you wanted them to become your rival.

This isn’t the most profound post ever, but I’ve been spending a lot of time with this game, and a lot of time thinking about the reasons a developer would choose to take away the security of a single evaluative continuum – because the choices in Dragon Age aren’t obvious, they’re not easy, and it’s sometimes deeply unsatisfying to make a choice just because Fenris or Anders or Varric will like it.

And that’s exactly why I like the mechanic. Because it’s important for us as humans to think about why we’re making choices – if we play as paragon, do we do it because the game will reward us by telling us what good people we are? Because we get presents (as in Bioshock, where Tennenbaum sends you bears full of ADAM for saving her creepy girls)? Because we think that’s the better choice, even though there’s no appreciable advantage or disadvantage for choosing it? Or because we have to choose something, even though we aren’t certain of the consequences? The last two, for me, are the most compelling, and those are the kind of decisions in Dragon Age II.

Ultimately, I think a lot of my affection for the game (and the mechanic) springs for a growing distaste for the high fantasy conventions of pure good and pure evil. Even in Dragon Age: Origins, which also had the friendship-rivalry mechanic, there was a clear good and bad (darkspawn and archdemons, anyone?), but it just isn’t that simple in Dragon Age II, and I really appreciate the recognition that there aren’t always going to be clear sides – clear goods and bads – in the real world. Because I think that’s where our games (and our movies and books and television) should be taking us – back to the real world and the complexities of ethical evaluation that we have to make on a small scale (for most of us) every day.