Sunday, January 4, 2015

On Dragon Age and Hard Choices

Woo, long blog hiatus! I was busy moving to a new house, and then along came the holidays, so I haven't had much time for robotics or the blog lately. But somehow, I found time to play Dragon Age in the middle of all that. No, I don't mean DA: Inquisition, I mean DA: Origins. I am VERY late to the party. But I suppose with the new game out, this is as good a time as any to talk about where the series started. (This article has mild spoilers.  If you haven't played, I think you can read it without ruining anything.)

DA:O did an excellent job of creating a living fantasy world that I actually felt part of. I could believe myself a Grey Warden, a powerful figure sworn to protect the world from an ancient evil. But the part that has really stuck with me from this story is the amount of free will I had as an actor in it, its propensity for pushing me to make choices in nuanced situations, and its mature take on the results. I'm used to wish-fulfillment from this genre -- games that let me craft the perfect hero story, and if they include much tragedy at all, make it inevitable and not my fault. DA:O is a bit different.

I was kind of naive at this point.
Example: this world has golems in it. Awesome. As I dug deeper, I found that the way they are made in this setting is ... not awesome. Eventually, I was faced with a choice: preserve this dread technology and hope against past experience that someone would use it wisely, or discard it, possibly eliminating golems from the world forever. I opted to destroy the means of golem creation. As much as I love golems for reasons of both personal fancy and practicality, there were more important things to preserve here. And this was not the most painful decision the story required me to make, by far.

Thanks to a combination of numerous options and different ways for players to interpret the story, the endgame of DA:O is going to be unique for every person. For me, the path I had followed through earlier parts made it especially pivotal, and having put emotional hooks in me, the plot seemed intent on exploiting them. I was offered the perfect fairy-tale ending ... the one I had been hoping for ... at the price of a couple of sketchy choices. Alternately, I could do what I thought was truly best for the world I was trying to save, but only by giving up what I wanted most in that world. I chose the latter, and the consequences landed. There was no miraculous deliverance, no last-minute "power of true love" or "good karma" or surprise rescue to fix everything. It was miserable and incredible and different from any other game experience I've had. Dragon Age actually made me pay to be a hero, and the payment was my choice.

Whether literally or figuratively, real heroes bleed.  A lot.
Some part of me wants to replay the game as a slightly less scrupulous character. I could throw self-sacrifice to the winds and get that ending I really wanted. "It's just a video game, you know," says this part of me. "You can do that. You won't actually hurt anything." But whenever I start thinking this way, a second part of me warns that doing this would cheapen the whole experience. As soon as it becomes "just a video game" rather than a world that I embrace on its own terms, I will have lost what really makes it meaningful. As soon as I stop thinking of it as a place where I make morally relevant choices, I won't be a Grey Warden any more. I'll be nothing but a petty escapist, playing at being a hero without caring what's actually involved.

And at the end of the day ... that's not what I want. What I want is to wear my heraldic griffon shirt and feel that in some tiny way, I earned it.

I haven't forgotten about the artificial muscles and other robotics projects, I swear.  Thanks for your patience.