Rio Liang Explores Interactive Writing in “Dragon Age: Origins”


So I’ve spent the better part of the past month playing Bioware’s latest role playing video game, “Dragon Age: Origins.” With reviews touting its great writing, I couldn’t not buy it. And even though I’ve just finished it, clocking in at about 80 hours overall playing time, I still can’t get my hands off it. And part of that has to do with the fact that the storyline I pursued in this playthrough was just one of many. Video games after all are interactive, and in a game like this, every decision you make causes ripples throughout the rest of the story. So the ending I arrived at after 80 hours is just one possible ending, and the outcome of relationships I’ve sustained (or not) with characters throughout this particular playthrough is only one outcome of many others. I may have missed many plot opportunities just by certain decisions I made earlier in the game, many of which I want to revisit by virtue of seeing how things would have played out differently. The game is rich because it provides so many variations of a story all in one package. This, alongside the fact that you can always hit the “reset” button and rewrite your story, is the allure of video games for me as a writer. There are many novels and short stories out there whose endings I can abide by, regardless of how emotionally bittersweet they may be, because of the strength of the story itself. But what if you could be more involved in the unfolding of the story? If you could decide the ending, more or less?

This is of course tricky territory for the writer. The whole idea of “interactive writing” brings up a good question about the author’s role. If you as the player get to choose the story, doesn’t that minimize or subjugate the role of the author? Authors of short stories and novels as we know usually dictate the story to you and you as the reader must take that story in as it was intended for you. In a video game setting such as this however, it’s more collaborative, as it were. I personally don’t see this kind of writing as one in which the author relinquishes “authority” to the reader. Rather, I see this as an opportunity for game writers to showcase their ability to be masters of storytelling. A video game story, regardless of whether it’s being tailored by the player, still has to have a solid story as a foundation. It’s all a matter of being able, as a writer, to see all the possible tributaries a story can have. In essence, you’re writing several stories under one title. It’s like writing a novel but then writing it five (or however many) times over, all with different character decisions and endings.

In fiction writing, the author chooses the BEST possible storyline; a video game writer must thus come up with SEVERAL BEST possible storylines. That’s a tough task as you can imagine, and is what makes it that much more of a challenge. Most video games unfortunately don’t take this into account; it’s evident that certain endings are better than others. The problem with most RPGs is that there’s a canon version, that is, the intended storyline of the story. All other story outcomes are just slapped together, without the meticulous attention afforded the “canon” version. I think that the best (in my opinion) type of interactive story is one in which all its possible outcomes are equally well thought out, with more than just minor variations. The stories-in-one must feel like distinct stories indeed.

IMMERSION

“Dragon Age: Origins” does a great job of providing variety to the game player. And as a “gaymer,” I truly appreciated the strides this game makes in introducing even the possibility of a male-male romance. Video gaming is still largely a heterosexual male-dominated hobby (or at least the industry abides by that thinking and caters accordingly), so it’s so refreshing to see lead writer David Gaider even make the gay-friendly attempt. However, as much I appreciate the commendable and well-meaning effort, it’s an often (albeit endearingly) clumsy one. There is a very clearly and well-wrought heterosexual romance possibility for male and female players, yet the “bisexual” options are rather iffy. The possible gay male love interest is in fact a hypersexual who swings both ways and will bed anyone he comes across. How’s that for a stereotype? Not to mention that that potential gay love interest is perhaps the most annoying character in the entire game (he’s got a cassanova accent, a scrawny build, and is of questionable morality). The heterosexual females have a more intriguing romantic path ahead of them, as they can choose to love a dashing, caring, and compassionate warrior who will become king (I engaged in a bit of bromance with him, quite honestly). Alistair, the man in question, is off-limits to male players, which is a shame. And a shame not because straight guys should be made available to gay guys, but rather because it would have been nice to have made the only gay (actually bisexual) guy on the same plane as the straight guy. (I think the video gaming world could do with some actual gay writers; I personally volunteer!).

So what is this whole spiel about? Believe it or not, it ties back to writing: The writer, who is an open-minded enough kind of guy, stressed how keeping all your audiences in mind can really deplete your resources fast. There’s only enough money to go around for the writers, and if you’re writing for male and female players, and then have to take into account sexual orientation, that’s a lot of time spent tailoring the story. This brings up the question of just how customizable should a story be? Romance often plays a big role in most stories, so it’s hard to dismiss that element. But a good role playing game such as this depends on the concept of immersion. The player is engaged on a level above that of a sympathetic reader. The player is essentially living in this game as a character, as opposed to being a mere witness to the story. So if I were female, I would definitely appreciate it, thank you very much, if the story could be custom-made for me. Same goes for being gay. Regardless of my being part of a minority, I do believe that gaymers should be afforded the ability to immerse (and believe me, I don’t wanna have to play as a female character. It’s just not the same).

In this game, the “author’s” intent was to have things the way they were, in terms of romance options. But what if you can modify even that original intent? Should you? The great thing about Bioware is that they allow and rather encourage players to tweak the game through a toolset made available to players. There are already numerous player-made “mods” out there that allow you to change anything from the characters’ appearance to the actual storyline itself. There’s a mod currently in circulation allowing a gay romance with Alistair, though he still refers to you as if you were female. A better mod is coming out in the (hopefully near) future which seeks to do extensive rewriting of the Alistair  romance storyline to accommodate a gay audience. But should you modify the storyline, even if the author didn’t intend it to be any other way?

I personally would hate that happen to me if I were the writer, but as a gamer I certainly would! I can’t keep my hands off that hunk, Alistair! (See funny spliced YouTube video below).

Recommended reading on “Dragon Age: Origins,” as it relates to writing:

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