Full Effect – BioWare Evolution?

Posted on 23/08/2010


Dragon Age: Origins was an interesting beast. A game that went back to the traditions it’s creator BioWare abandoned after finishing up Baldur’s Gate II in 2000. Basically, the gameplay these titles use attempt to closely mimic the mechanics and dynamics found in desktop roleplaying. Which in case of Baldur’s Gate is hardly surprising, since the series was founded on and grounded in (Advanced) Dungeons & Dragons and it’s Forgotten Realms setting.
In a way all BioWare games up till Mass Effect did a similar thing, mainly emulating not only specific genres, but also the specific mechanics found in tabletop roleplaying, even if during actual gameplay the mechanics were tucked away in the background.

Baldur's Gate's inventory - A system that should stick with BioWare games for some time.

With Mass Effect (and Jade Empire) however BioWare chose a different path, and did – mostly – away with emulating other media, embracing a much more video game centric approach on, well, a video game.
They didn’t stop there, however. The second Mass Effect did away with a lot of the micromanagement the first part sported, had overall a lot less customization options, but a lot stronger narrative presentation overall.
Which lead a lot of gamers and fans raise the question whether or not Mass Effect 2 could still be called an RPG in all right.
Of course, RPG is not really a genre that can be easily defined by static confines. Almost every other game these days features some sort of levelling element or character upgrade system, some better some worse implemented. But that does not turn a first person shooter into a roleplaying game.
Also, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Mass Effect 2 is a roleplaying game. What it is, is a damn good video game.

In fact, a damn good video game should not try being anything but. Which is exactly where Dragon Age falls flat. Which also is where a lot of so called roleplaying games fall flat.
Which incidentally is the reason why I personally prefer a new Force Unleashed title to The Old Republic.
Of course a video game apeing the desktop RPG experience can be a good thing if that is what you want. But I don’t need turn based combat and micromanagement of my characters’ inventory in my video games for being able to call them RPGs. That is not what a good video game RPG, or a good video game -period- needs. Also I don’t think that is the part of the desktop RPG experience video games should try to take over, no matter how convenient it may seem.

A thing that always bugged me about Baldur’s Gate to some and about the Knights of the Old Republic series in particular was the feeling of not being part of the action. Of just being the onlooker who clicks here and there and then sees how the clicks pan out.
The immediacy was missing. The participation was too small, the action too passive for me to really get into it. Character attachment wasn’t really there – at least not in combat situations. It never felt like really being the character, walking the walk. Talking the talk – that’s another story, especially since that is something BioWare get right most of the time.

Mass Effect highly streamlined levelling. Mass Effect 2 went even further, reducing micromanagement to a bare minimum.

The Mass Effect games go after an experience that takes hints from various sources other than pen-and-paper RPGs: Movies and TV series on the one hand for the presentation, point-and-click adventure games with branching dialouge trees on the other. The games’ other mode though is actually a video game with some slight RPG mechanics going on in the background. Mass Effect’s shooting mechanics might not be the best in the world, but they are utilizing the medium to a much fuller effect than other video game RPGs do.

Which is of course where the Dragon Age Sequel comes in.
The mourning of the PC RPG community was pretty loud when BioWare announced that Dragon Age II would not continue the Baldur’s Gate gameplay legacy, but instead opt for a more Mass Effect like approach, a single (slightly customizable) character at the center of the story, no more click-and-watch-attack-animation-and-numbers-bubbling combat (at least that’s the impression the game’s FAQ leave me with – and the players being weirdly immature pricks with the question of virtually sexable NPCs at #4).

Generally speaking, Dragon’s Age II sounds like quite promising. Baldur’s Gate might’ve been a really good series back in the day, but gaming has evolved. Dragon Age II is not a step back, it is not a dumbing down of a great old complex idea.
Yes, it is a concession to the gaming market. Hardcore roleplaying games with huge micromanagement and comparatively slow, indirect combat don’t sell well enough, and, more importantly, don’t translate well from PC to the lucrative console platforms. Dragon Age on Xbox was a mess of a game that had strayed way too far from home.

The desktop experience: Battlegrid, miniatures. Not pictured: Dice, character sheets, players & DM.

Ultimately turn based combat in roleplaying games is a staple, a remnant even of the  wargaming roots that desktop roleplaying games have sprung from.
And that is a shadow I would dearly hope for ‘electronic’ role playing games to step out of. Mass Effect and the new Dragon Age, but also Alpha Protocol to some extent as well as other games from entirely other genres that now start to use RPG like elements are proving that this is in fact a valid possibility.

What my argument comes down to, is that it is impossible to pinpoint what a videogame RPG needs to be a true RPG. Not only is it impossible, but also it is entirely irrelevant.
What is relevant, is that we as a people who play games don’t turn into old fashioned backwards looking nerds that won’t accept a new game as ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ only because it does away with some unnecessary features which ultimately do not embrace or come from the medium – and yes I am playing devil’s advocate here.
Only because it is easy taking an established set of rules and adapting it into an interactive form doesn’t mean that it should be done. Just as games should not necessarily turn to movies for how to pull storytelling off.

That said, I think Heavy Rain is a very good example of a game that takes hints from both roleplaying and movies and yet manages to operate entirely within the realm of video gaming.

I will continue with some of these thoughts in the posts to come over the course of the next weeks.