Monday, February 15, 2010

The Friends of Bioware

I have two groups of friends who will never meet and both were created by Bioware. The first is a racially diverse group of adventures from around the world, recruited to stop an impending evil. The second is a racially diverse group of adventures from around the galaxy, recruited to stop an impending evil. They have so much in common. There are even characters in both games who sing to the protagonist. Yet they are not equal. Amongst the fantasy heroes of Dragon Age: Origins and the sci-fi posse of Mass Effect 2, I have my favorites. Comparing the two sets of relationships is a means to explore the successes and failures of Bioware's recent foray into the creation of compelling friendships.

Moving back and forth between playing ME2 and DA:O is a strange experience. There are times when, irritated by Morrigan's cruel attitude towards all living creatures besides herself, I long for Mordin's scientific approach to life. Conversely, I sometimes favor Alistair's youthful humor over Jack's cold demeanor. The games are similar enough that, were it not for the setting, I would not be surprised to find Garrus roasting marshmallows around the Ferelden campfire.

Early in each game, the protagonist is given two core allies. The majority of each experience is mostly spent recruiting the remaining party members, as individuals or as representatives of their people contributing to the war effort. It is understood in both cases that the success of the long term mission hinges upon their support. Unfortunately they are so morally disparate, some quite ethically ambivalent, that trusting them and finding a way to please them can be difficult.
Take ME2's Grunt for example, the epitome of a Krogan: gruff, stoic, eager to commit violence, and potentially unstable. Sten may be His DA:O counterpart, a gruff, stoic, and potentially unstable Qunari known to have murdered an innocent family. Both party members are optional, but if accepted, they are ambiguous additions to the friends group. Managing their inclusion is a narrative task for the player seeking to justify and understand their place in the story.

Each cast member has their own personal history, which comes into play during optional side quests. Completing these quests offer mechanical rewards, insight into their character, and opportunities to enhance emotional bonds. Yet these emotional bonds are stronger amongst one group. When it comes to the final battle, I would rather have the crew of the Normandy by my side.

Despite the similarities between the two games, Mass Effect 2 creates more compelling relationships between the protagonist and her cohorts for one reason - the friendships are more personal. To begin with, ME2 has the advantage of being a sequel. As I have discussed once before, the sentimentality of ME2 evokes a sense of nostalgia, deepening the in-game relations between Commander Shepard and the crew with which she is already familiar. Yet even with her new crew members, Shepard builds a stronger rapport.
Voice acting goes a long way in this regard. While Shepard is not the most emotive person in the galaxy, her verbal interactions with crew members, particularly during loyalty quests, display the emotional attachment she has with her team. The same can be said for scenes of haptic communication. A paragon-leaning Commander Shepard appears more willing to hug her friends, or give them a reassuring hand on the shoulder, than her DA:O counterpart.

The story foundation also constructs more personal relationships in ME2. Commander Shepard pursues individuals to join her ranks, while the protagonist of DA:O recruits armies. Collecting individuals is just a side effect. Similarly, the personal quests available in DA:O seem less personally significant than in ME2, taking a relatively short amount of time. The over-all mission is always of the utmost importance.

The loyalty quests in ME2, however, are very emotional, and are particularly interesting for Shepard. There are times when she must decide to uphold her own principles or protect her friends. These decisions are not easy to make. Also, it is hard to measure the outcomes of these choices.
Dragon Age, on the other hand, monitors the affection of your friends and displays it numerically. This relationship meter is DA:O's biggest barrier to realistic friendships. While it offers a mechanically interesting addition to the game, it creates bizarre circumstances where behavior is tailored to fickle allies and is easily measured. The games seems to reassert that these are not your friends, they are your troops. Pleasing them is a responsibility, not a personal desire.

This is not to say the relationships in Dragon Age are vapid. On the contrary, Bioware surpasses the vast majority of games with party mechanics in regards to compelling cohorts. Additionally, more impressive than creating believable friendships, is Bioware ability to evoke emotions by threatening these characters. I have arrived at the point in both games where I proceed with trepidation, fearing for the safety of my team. I applaud the lead writers for ME2 and DA:O for this achievement (Mac Walters and David Gaider respectively). Regardless, when the suspense of a game depends on compelling relationships, Bioware should pay more attention to the Normandy crew of Mass Effect 2 than the fireside camp of Dragon Age.


  1. I think you missed one important point here: Shepard is a character that exists outside your head. You get to make choices at key points, but you're more serving as the angel (or devil) sitting on their shoulder than the neurons firing in their brain. This means that they can give Shepard much more meaningful emotional output, and the scene as a whole becomes powerful in a way that DA:O's hands-off approach to the protagonist cannot support. Definitely the other things you bring up are large factors, but Shepard's ability to surprise you is one more thing that ups the ante.

  2. @ Julian

    Absolutely. Although with significant playable background stories, I think Bioware was trying to make the created characters of Dragon Age has the same appeal. You're right though, she is much more of a pre-imbued character. Which is why the voice acting was so effective as well.

  3. That's a good point about the origins. I'm still not quite finished with my first playthrough and have yet to explore the other origins, but I felt like my city elf origin gave me a strong perspective on Ferelden and its society and people. It's interesting and exciting to see Bioware exploring two opposite ways of getting you invested in the world and characters. I hope that they continue to explore both avenues and refrain from abandoning one to focus on the other.