We play videogames for many reasons, but a primary one is how videogames make us feel about ourselves. Videogames can make us feel like indomitable crusaders of the forces of “good” as we go about crushing the denizens of “evil,” or they can make us feel like heroic saints in the way we are regarded by the game’s other characters. Videogames can make us feel like important, good people. But once in a while, a game fails to provide us with an uplifting experience. We don’t often like such experiences, but I think we need them.
Dragon Age II is known by RPG fans to be one of Bioware’s greatest flops. At metacritic, users scored it 4.0 (for PS3) and 4.4 out of 10 (for PC & Xbox 360). There are several valid complaints about DA2 (e.g. repetitive dungeons), but I suspect the real reason why fans don’t like DA2 is because some narrative elements hit too close to home. Here are 3 ways how the story of DA2 might be too close to real life [warning: spoilers to follow]:
We are drawn to stories which portray good versus evil, and in videogames, we typically take the role of the champion of good which would eventually triumph over the forces of evil. In real life, however, the inter-personal conflicts we experience are rarely so explicit about right and wrong. Usually, each party thinks that they are in the right and the other party is wrong. Conflicts are less about good versus evil, and more about the justifications behind each position.
In DA2, the central conflict is between two factions, the mages, a group of people cursed to be born with magic powers (who run the risk of being possessed by demons), and the templars, the order of knights entrusted to oversee the mages and keep them in check. For most of the game, I was cordial and sympathetic to both sides of the Templar-Mage conflict. I understood where both came from: the Templars want to ensure the safety of the general populace, and the mages want to be treated more humanely by the Templars. I believed that there was genuinely enough room and opportunity for both parties to understand each other and reach an amiable compromise.
I believe that most inter-personal conflicts in real life are like that too. Often there is real opportunity to work out a compromise. But each side feels so justified in their own cause that they condescend and dehumanize the party. In so doing they become blind to potential avenues to work out a win-win solution. They become only interested in tearing the other party down. We probably know incidents like this between feuding family members or friends. Neglecting to understand the other side and refusing to entertain the idea that we might be wrong, often results in hurt feelings and broken relationships. For the city of Kirkwall, the inability of the Mages and Templars to work out a resolution resulted in the shedding of blood and the loss of lives. Both parties shoulder the responsibility of this.
Most folks would say that they care for their friends by being nice to them. They offer a listening ear when they go through troubles, and give them encouragement and support when they face doubt. We encourage them to persevere and fight for their dreams. In DA2, I had two companions who were facing doubts and approached me for advice. Merrill was banished from her Elven clan because she wanted to fix a cursed mirror (the Eluvian), believing that doing so would reveal to her the history of her people. Anders was helping fellow mages who were escaping ill-treatment from the templars by smuggling them out of Kirkwall. After the templars cracked down on this operation, Anders wonders if he should champion the cause of the mages even more fervently.
I did what I thought good friends should do – be nice, supportive and encouraging. I supported Merrill in her repair of the Eluvian, and Anders in his political aspirations. But little did I know that I encouraged Merrill down the path where we wound end up killing her entire clan – her only family. And I encouraged Anders down the path which resulted in him murdering the Grand Cleric, the only person who could have prevented the templar-mage conflict. Futhermore, Anders was directly responsible for the all-out war in Kirkwall. So much blood was on Anders’ hands . . . and mine as well, I encouraged and emboldened him.
In real life we are also similarly tempted to think that the best way to love our friends is to be supportive and encouraging–to tell them, “I believe in you.” But perhaps why we do so is because we belong in a culture where we like to keep relationships friendly and cordial, and we are uncomfortable telling someone that they might be making a mistake. Perhaps truly caring for a friend means warning them about the dangers that they might be walking into, even if they don’t appreciate it and accuse us of being a poor friend. Perhaps loving our friends means loving their well-being more than loving how they make us feel.
On being Important
I suspect most of us consider ourselves unimportant people. On the other hand, in videogames, we are usually the most important person in the game. As the protagonist, the fate of the universe often lays in our hands. If we fail, certain doom will befall the world. If we succeed, we achieve lasting peace for the universe.
But this isn’t the case in DA2. As the protagonist Hawke, we are helpless to prevent too many tragic incidents from happening. Despite our best efforts, we could not save Hawke’s mother from being turned into a zombie, we could not save the Viscount from being brutally slain, we could not prevent Anders from carrying out a terrorist bomb plot, and we could not prevent the templars and the mages from killing each other. Sure we defeated all the big bosses, and attained some minor resolution to affairs, but in the grand scheme of things, we didn’t obtain some grand victory or establish lasting peace for the land of Thedas (if anything, the epilogue suggests we made things worse). In other words, Hawke did not feel very heroic. We did not feel very heroic.
I suspect that one reason why we play games, particularly western RPGs, is because we want to feel heroic in a way which we can’t in real life. We want to feel like a badass which can overcome any obstacle sent our way, defeat the most challenging of bosses, and become savior of the universe. Hawke, despite being champion of Kirkwall, lacked the power and influence to create lasting peace. Real life is like that too. You and I, despite being champions of videogame consoles, lack the power and influence to make a difference in many areas of our lives. Perhaps we don’t want to be reminded of that, and that’s why we go to videogames.
But therein lies the problem. When we defeat the final boss, the credits roll and we turn off our videogame consoles, we have to encounter life’s real problems. Going on a hero-trip is fun, but that’s not who we really are. We struggle with relationships and other decisions in life, we are involved in messy inter-personal conflicts–we are not all-important world saviors. One real-life danger for gamers is that we retreat into videogames when we no longer feel like confronting our problems, and prefer a universe where we become the all-powerful hero. If so, then maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all for DA2, to remind us that life’s not really like videogames.