Category Archives: Videogames

Digital Love Stories

I spent a couple of hours this evening playing through don’t take it personally babe, it just ain’t your story. It’s billed as a “visual novel”, and by the end I was wondering whether I wouldn’t have been better off just reading a novel instead.

I downloaded it in the first place because I’d previously played Digital: A Love Story, a game by the same author, and while it did not quite live up to the hype, it had a lot to recommend it. You’re surfing around bulletin boards on your circa-1988 computer, uncovering the story as you go, along with a lot of incidental but amusing side-plots and details. It had a clever concept, some puzzles which were just difficult enough, and the brilliant idea that whenever you hit “reply” to one of these bulletin board messages, you never see what you write – you only see the response, and have to imply what you wrote. Where it fell down was on the story – maybe it was an intentional nod to the 1980s and cyberpunk, but there was no surprise in finding out that the mystery girl I was corresponding with was an AI, and then it went on to do some standard stuff with self-aware AIs and uploading and I’d have to help them in some way, and then there was the ending, and judging by the reviews, nearly everyone found that more affecting than I did.

don’t take it personally, babe, is another game about love and sex and relationships and the internet and how they all interact, although we’ve jumped forward to 2027. You play a high-school teacher in an exclusive private high school, and play through several months with your class, watching their relationships evolve and change, through the uncomfortably voyeuristic mechanism of being able to view all their public and private messages on Amie (the Facebook-equivalent of 2027). It’s much less interactive than Digital – you run through scenes, simultaneously keeping an eye on the main plot and on the conversations the students are having on Amie, until you reach a decision point and have to make a choice. I’ve only played it once, so I don’t know how much influence you can actually have on the story, but while my character was clearly a bit of a dick and a loser, I decided he was not quite enough of a dick to sleep with one of his students. It’s very much playing with the metatextuality – alongside the anime influences, you can check out “12channels”, a version of 4chan which comments on the story like a Greek chorus, and the sections between each chapter are foreshadowing what will happen next. It’s all entertaining enough, and there are some sweet moments – there’s a nicely-handled coming out story, and I felt like my decisions did prod some students towards a happy ending however ineffectual I was.

At the end, it all seemed to be coming to a head. I was about to be rumbled for reading all the kid’s private messages, which seemed a little unfair, since it was part of the game mechanic that I read their messages, and while I might have been able to play the whole game avoiding them, why should I deliberately avoid the interesting parts of the game only to have my character punished for it at the end? Of course, that doesn’t happen – I make a pre-emptive confession of my snooping, which there’s no way to avert, and find the kids knew all along I was reading. It’s trying to say something interesting about privacy and the concepts of public and private lives in the age of ubiquitous social networking, but it didn’t manage to say anything new or unexpected, and it fell flat. I couldn’t help thinking of The Quantum Thief, which I wasn’t completely sold on as a novel but delves into the same ideas of privacy and shared knowledge and different levels of public and private life, and does it in a much more interesting fashion.

The game title is true in some ways – this one ain’t my story. Digital won me over from the start with happy nostalgic memories of usenet and modem connection noises and replying to trolls about spaceship fights, but don’t take it personally is about a future I haven’t grown up in, and doesn’t resonate in the same way. It suffers from lack of interactivity, being a more straightforward story-with-decision-branches, rather than having puzzles to solve. Good and engaging gameplay can compensate for an unoriginal story, or you can get me invested in the protagonist and eager to see what effect my choices have, but when it comes to playing a mostly-fixed character in a mostly-fixed story, it has to be better than just reading a good book instead, and sadly neither of these games have quite reached that level.

Dragon Age 2

Note: Spoilers through the endgame. I wouldn’t normally warn, but given that knowing what might happen can affect your choices in a way that book spoilers do not, I thought it best to give a heads-up.

I liked Dragon Age: Origins an awful lot. I’ve played it twice through, and given it takes about 80 hours to play, that’s quite a time sink. And while I liked it a lot, it’s not without its flaws, so I was excited by the prospect of a sequel, which would hopefully be more of the same but with a chance to fix what never worked so well. Does it succeed? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding “sort of”.

You play as Hawke, a refugee from the Blight your last player-character defeated in Origins. Over the course of seven years in the city of Kirkwall you gather a whole bunch companions, fight hundreds of enemies, pick up and sell everything that isn’t nailed down, and eventually rise to be the Champion of Kirkwall, the person everyone turns to when it’s all going wrong. It’s all framed as one of your longtime companions narrating your story, a nice framing device which is used for some mild foreshadowing and some good gags, including one where the unreliable narrator is not only exaggerating your badassery, but your sister’s cup size.

It’s the same gameplay mechanics in the same engine as Origins, but it’s been streamlined, just as Mass Effect 2 improves upon the same basics as Mass Effect. Sometimes it’s been refined for good: companions all have fixed armour sets, so there’s less inventory juggling than in Origins, and it’s easier to know what to sell rather than carrying twenty sets of armour while I work out how to manage the upgrades. But that goes to extremes: all the rubbish I pick up to sell is marked as trash when you pick it up, and you can sell it all at the push of a button, so why not just cut out the middleman and give me money instead? Having the same city setting is fine, although it would be nice if it changed a little more over the years, but it’s not just the city – every time I go into a warehouse, or underground tunnel, or cave, it is the same warehouse or tunnel or cave except there’s a door somewhere to make it a little bit different. It’s lazy and annoying.

Combat is honestly not something I care about deeply as long as it’s fun, and it is even more flashy and fun than it was in the first game, but they are too fond of having enemies suddenly appear so you’re fighting twice as many as you thought – acceptable when it’s magical creatures that appear from nowhere, perhaps, but when guys in full plate armour pop into existence round a corner, it’s a little annoying. The compensation is that friendly fire is now turned off on everything but nightmare difficulty level, meaning your mages can nuke everything without fear of killing the whole party.

Mages are not only handy people to have in your party, they’re at the centre of the plot. Mages in the Dragon Age universe are dangerous and prone to getting possessed by demons and turning into crazed abominations, and the solution is to keep them all tightly controlled by the Templars, the fighting arm of the world’s dominant religion. A subplot in the first game, the tension between the mages who want to be free and the templars who want to keep everyone safe is present throughout and what drives the final third of the game, and it starts off well. There are mages who are fighting for their freedom and ones who agree they need to be locked up for their own safety, as well as everyone else’s. There are templars who like the power they have, and ones who see themselves as doing only what is best for everyone. There’s even a country where the mages do have their freedom, put themselves in charge, and you only need to ask the forrmer slaves of that country to find out how that is going.

It’s a good story, but it does have some teensy problems. For instance, this is my character:

Mage Hawke

I could only be more obviously a mage if I were wearing a hat that said “WIZZARD” on it, and I regularly run round with my magey friends through the streest of the city casting flashy spells and making people explode. I should have been arrested after ten minutes. I appreciate there’s a balance between story and gameplay, and there will always be some contrivances, but when the whole plot is hinging on this, it’s a bit hard to take.

And there’s the endgame, where having decided that I would take the side of the mages, they start making it really difficult. The leader of the mages not only turns to forbidden magic and becomes a many-armed abomination, he reveals that he researched it with the crazy psychopath who killed my mum a few years earlier, and he doesn’t even have the decency to turn himself into an abomination where it might do any good in the final battle instead of attacking me. Thanks a lot for sabotaging your own cause, guys.

One of the mechanics which does improve on the original game is the system of companions. Instead of having them approve or disapprove of your actions, they have a friendship/rivalry meter, with both ends bringing you benefits. In Origins, it was far too easy to make your companions like you, and counteract their disapproval by giving them endless gifts; in the sequel, there’s no quick fix when you gain their rivalry, but it’s a little too hard to work out when a seemingly innocuous conversation option will lose you serious friendship points.

Part of that is the dialogue system, which has the same system as Mass Effect: you don’t get to choose your exact reply, but an idea of what it might be along with the general sentiment you’re going to express. I like the system as implemented in Mass Effect, but too often the choices seemed to boil down to good, bad, or overly sarcastic and flippant, and I wanted a middle ground. The flirtatious options are helpfully indicated with a big heart icon, which is good because some of them are really cringeworthy. Thanks for your tragic backstory, companion, did you know I find your tortured broodiness extremely sexy?

If you do find tortured broodiness to be sexy, then you’re not alone, as apparently the whole writing staff of this game feel the same way. One of the companions you can choose to befriend and eventually romance is Anders, who appeared in the original game as a snarky, cheery, occasionally flirtatious companion with an adorable pet kitten. By the second game has turned into a broody obsessive who, should you romance him, will go on about how he’s obsessed with you, how he’d die without you, and how he would drown in rivers of blood to keep you safe. Admittedly his inner demons are quite literal, as he’s now possessed by a spirit of Vengeance, but it made me wonder why they bothered carrying the character over only to make him almost unrecognizeable. It doesn’t help that they changed the voice actor to one I don’t like as much, even though his original voice actor is still in the game playing a different minor character. It takes a potentially compelling story of just how far a man will go to achieve his aims, and nearly ruins it by overdosing on the emo tragedy, and I think I’d have enjoyed his story much more if it hadn’t been laden with angsty pronouncements about how he’ll break your heart.

If that doesn’t sound like quite your cup of tea, then don’t worry – there’s another tortured and broody guy for you to romance, who has a dark and tragic past and inner demons to fight and while he does have an extremely sexy voice, he uses it to tell you stories of all the horrible things that were done to him. Luckily, most of the love interests are bisexual, so you can leave them to brood alone and romance either of the ladies instead.

My misguided romance aside, I really do like the way the companions work. They seem to have lives of their own, argue and chatter and flirt among themselves, respond to the events and places you’re visiting, and are generally fun to be with. Isabela, lack of trousers aside, is particularly fun – she’s unapologetically sexual, and has dialogues about magical fisting and what she gets up to in brothels, but will also turn out to be loyal and devoted should you befriend her, and less loyal if you don’t. And there’s Aveline, the female captain of the guard, who will disagree with your less lawful decisions but still give you a hand, and provides some of the lighter moments when you try and help resolve her terrible attempts at wooing.

I sound overly critical of a game where I did, in the end, have tremendous fun. I immersed myself in the world, cheered my friends when they turned out all right, and had serious moments of indecision where I wondered if I was doing the right thing. But it could so easily have been better – less lazy reuse of locations, a little more effort on the dialogue choices, a little more thought put into how the gameplay and the plot would work together. It feels like there’s a really excellent, ambitious game lurking in there that doesn’t quite make it. Still, based on the ending we can expect Dragon Age 3, and if they take the best parts of both games it should be something to look forward to.