Jennifer Hepler was right

One of the strange things about the stupid Internet outcry over some remarks that BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler made a few years back — which does a good job of illustrating exactly what’s wrong with both Internet culture and gamer culture — is that the games Hepler’s worked on, Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II, are pretty good examples of why she has a point.

There’s a mod for the PC version of Dragon Age: Origins called “Skip the Fade.” It deals with a sub-quest that happens during one of the main quests, in which a demon puts your group into a shared dream world and you need to snap them out of it and defeat the demon. It’s a clever idea, but in practice it’s a bunch of labyrinthine dungeons, made even more useless because you can’t get any loot. What the mod does is cut out all the combat and puzzles, leaving only the dialogue with your companions and the final battle.

It’s an imperfect solution, but a huge improvement over the tedium that dominated the game’s original version. Especially in a game like Dragon Age, which trades heavily on replay value, once you’ve fully explored a dungeon and figured out all the puzzles, going through again and again and again, being interrupted by the same stupid random encounters while you do, can be a serious deterrent.

And you don’t even have to hate fighting to think so. When Hepler mentions how little time she has to play games, she’s describing what happens to a lot of people who get older and face bigger professional or social demands on their time.

One of my biggest problems with RPGs is that they seem to hew too closely to the idea that a proper game needs to include a ton of time-filling content that does nothing to advance the role-playing experience, and the Dragon Age games have it worse than usual. I’ve repeatedly caught myself thinking that the combat is essentially the annoying stuff that happens in between the dialogue sections. Admittedly, that’s partly because the combat in Dragon Age isn’t that good: Despite completely overhauling the battle system between the first and second games, they still rely on the notion of throwing a ton of tiny sprites against your increasingly overpowered characters.

Now, in some games, the combat works great. Including some RPGs; in Skyrim, for example, getting charged by a bear out of the blue, or having a dragon dive out of the sky, helps to make the world you’re exploring feel more perilous, as is the idea that you can just kill everyone in a village and face the consequences instead of following the rails the game laid out for you.

But the BioWare games are different. Their primary goal is clearly to construct a compelling story; the world and the things you can do in it are much more heavily structured, in order to service that story. But probably 95 percent of the battles have nothing to do with that story, which basically makes them filler.

When I played Dragon Age: Origins, my main complaint was that the dungeons were too big and the combat too boring. With Dragon Age II, I thought the story fell apart in the third act. If both games hadn’t been so focused on padding out the play time with repetitive battles, and the developers had more resources to focus on expanding player choice and narrative, I think they would have both been better games.

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