Friday, March 25, 2011

Appealing & Appalling

My feed has recently been slammed by a bunch of links to various people whining about whether Dragon Age 2 made the game too "gay friendly" at the price of being boring for straight people. After a moment's thought, I decided I didn't really get it. It's boring for straight people, sure... but I'm pretty sure it's boring for gay people, too. I think the characters are just boring.

I had a bit of a discussion on Buzz about it, but I'd like to expand on my thoughts. Before I begin, if you've played the game, try not to get upset if I have a different opinion than you. If you haven't played the game, there are spoilers here, but the plot is so poor that you won't care.

I'm not here to talk about the plot. I'm here to talk about the characters. Specifically, why they (with one exception) are so bad.

Every single character in the game is lovingly modeled out and animated. The voice actors are fantastic. The banter is great. But they are all... so... boring. None of them are appealing (with one exception), and I can't imagine very many people, gay or straight, finding any of them attractive deeper than their visuals.

My own personal dislike for characters and plot arcs ripped from Vampire the Masquerade aside, the main reason I think these characters come off as so dull is that their plots basically ignore the player.

I've been using the term "brain damaged" to describe two of the characters in particular: Isabella the pirate stereotype and Merril the elf with a bad accent. After thinking a bit, I realized why they both seemed so brain-damaged: their plot arcs require them to hold the idiot ball.

Isabella is constantly talking about how she needs to find this idol thing to appease someone she pissed off, and how much she wants a ship. Not too long into the game, I've killed off dragons and syndicates and demonic rogue mages. I've helped random people out for absolutely no reward. Why is it I don't say, "Forget the idol. I'll buy you a ship, we'll go sailing, and we'll off the guy you don't like. There, done."

Actually, they do let you basically say something similar to that, but Isabella just blows you off. Why? Because there's still another 10 hours of gameplay before you get to the next part of her arc, so she has to continue to be an idiot until you get there.

Merril's the same way. "I want to use blood magic to save my people, because it's strong!" My response: "Merril, I just killed 57 blood mages, their demonic zombies, and a spate of weird undead things they summoned. I'm a spirit healer - the exact opposite of a blood mage. You are not cut out to be a blood mage, and even if you were, there's no actual statistical advantage to being insane and weird."

Merril's response would be "Oh, but I have to be a blood mage. Because we need one mage of each specialty in the roster, and I drew the red straw!"

After a little thinking, I realized that the reason I didn't find any of the other characters interesting (except one) was for the same reason.

It's time for the big unsurprise reveal! The character I like is... Varric. Like every other player I know, Varric is my favorite character. Why?

It's not that he's a big smooth-talker. There have been plenty of smooth-talkers in RPGs that I've hated. No, it's something more fundamental.

Let's review the introduction plot for each character in one sentence.

Anders: "I have to hide from everyone because I'm possessed by a demon!"

Aveline: "I'm stuck with you guys and I'm so sad because my hubby was killed."

Fenris: "I'm being hunted by people, and I need to kill them to be free."

Isabella: "I lost my ship and need to fight off all the people who don't like me!"

Merril: "I have to leave my tribe because I practice blood magic!"

Varric: "Hey, *you*, join us. Let's go someplace cool!"

The only one of these plots that involves you more than skin-deep is Varric's. Everyone else is "I have an arc! Help me accomplish my arc!" Varric is "Hey, let's go! Let's do stuff, you and me and whoever else!"

Interacting with Varric is inevitably like interacting with someone who is a respected friend. Even in non-plot-related interactions, he is thinking about you as much as he is thinking about him. Varric includes the player in every interaction he has with the player.

The other characters do not. All of their interactions are "I need to do this for me, can you help me? We'll do it at my pace, you're basically a hammer for me to use against my enemies."

I have no problem with helping people in RPGs, but Varric's approach is much stronger. He doesn't want me to help him. He wants me to help us.

I'm pretty sure it was written this way on accident, largely because of the necessities of the framing device. But it's a valuable lesson either way.

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