Hunting for witches: Dragon Age and Skyrim
I’ve made no secret my love of systems in role playing games, a love birthed from Final Fantasies in my youth and Dungeons and Dragons in my college years. I still play Dungeons and Dragons, and when we play we run a weird mix: on one hand, we use content from every book (even the awful supplemental magazines, which introduce so much game breaking content it buggers the mind), and on the other I tend to run a very loose ship: things happen because they’re fun.
Like a bag of tricks producing a dire shark on land.
Games work because they have rules. They are worlds created by systems. The systems create the player’s perception of the game world and limits them from being something entirely different from what the game intends. Limitations breed compelling role playing choices; when we are free to do whatever we want, we will be ourselves, and then we aren’t participating in the fantasy.
That’s something I’ve noticed in Skyrim: I’m enjoying it (of course), but I’m playing someone a lot more like myself, myself playing a video game, than I am role playing like I would do in any similar game. Dragon Age: Origins, a game much more restrictive in terms of character creation and development, led me to role play much more effectively because I was placed into a specific role and forced to act that way. Systems forced me to specialize, to become the character I ought to be. In Skyrim, my focus changes with the weather because I can throw myself into everything with equal vim.
It’s led to an extremely enjoyable experience, but not one with an artistic coherency. Placed in perhaps the freest fantasy world imaginable, I am playing myself. Placed in Ferelden, given restrictions I became the Warden: yes, I was perhaps ruthless good, the traditional character type of RPG players, but I became that in the context of the game world: my actions were consistent with what a mage, imprisoned for years in terrible climes, would do. I was mean and resentful to the templars, I fell for a wild witch who represented all of my dreams for the world, I helped those I could, and I tried to tear down the system from within. I cheated death, and then I accepted the unknown, preferring it to the present.
It’s that last point I want to dwell on. The Witch Hunt DLC represents a fantastic ending for such a long saga. It represents the kind of choices RPGs can best get away with. In the first hours of a game, the player is rarely role playing. It’s a problem I’ve had in first sessions of tabletops: the player characters are still very much their players, still very much acting from the sums on their character sheets. Ask them to make a choice and they will min/max it. It’s only once they are swept up in the grand scheme of the fantasy that they will make decisions for their characters, as their characters.
And that’s where Witch Hunt succeeds. Seventy hours of RPG come before it: Origins, the underrated Awakenings (nothing has ever disappointed me more than my choices in Awakenings being discounted, until Witch Hunt‘s decision is discounted in Dragon Age 3), some shoddy pieces of DLC. By the time Witch Hunt happens, you’ve lived with your warden enough to know them. You’ve played the whole of Awakenings without your closest friends; no matter how lovely your new friends are, they cannot replace the friends you’ve lost to the four winds. So when Morrigan reappears, you go to her.
As an ending, it’s remarkable because it doesn’t rely on statistics. Sure, there’s fighting, but it’s perfunctory. It’s gamey padding to the choice you make at the end: what do you do with Morrigan? Do you go with her? Do you accept her, do you reject her, do you attempt to kill her? All are good options, and they’re all options you, the player who has played hours and hours as this character, will approach from a role playing perspective.
It’s similar to how I tend to structure tabletop games. Begin with very statistic based encounters: in the first couple sessions, gameplay springs from the character sheet. As players find their voices, I transition towards more freeform ideas. Yes, this item can do something completely impractical. Yes, you can do that ridiculous thing. You can do it because, now, hours and hours into an adventure, you’ve got the experience to know that’s what your character will do. It’s not some ridiculous min/maxing permutation, but rather something your ludicrous character would do (and I have presided over the most ridiculous parties ever. I promise).
That, in my mind, is the one failure of Skyrim, a game which otherwise has quickly moved into my top ten of all time. It elucidates the biggest difficulty involved in making the RPG art: while systems can choke player creativity, so too can too much freedom. Instead of intense role playing moments, we have series of quests and a very enjoyable treadmill.