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Aha! Gotcha!

I’ve been at work on Dragon Age II lately, getting well into the “first act,” wherein you perform odd assignments, often shady and almost always bloody, trying to make a name for yourself and collect enough gold to finance an expedition to the deep roads. So far, so…well, not good. Okay.

Technically, the game is fine. It looks better and flows smoother than its predecessor, doesn’t try to fix what wasn’t broken, sometimes fixes what was broken, and streamlines some of the busywork between events. (Not always. The idea of streamlining inventory fuss by equipping yourself and not all your companions was a good one, but the designers didn’t commit to it, so now 85% of the items you pick up are of no use to your companions, but the remaining 15% requires the same amount of fuss as the full inventory.) Structurally, the game is fine, too; anything you might hear about changes in the tone and narrative structure should be taken with a firm conviction that the game is far more similar to than different from the original.

That means a lot of moral dilemmas, a lot of choosing sides, a lot of scenarios where you act as final arbitrator in someone else’s dispute, and a heavy dose of “there are no right or wrong decisions, only the decisions you make.” And that philosophy is cool in a game, a mature and promising outlook for Bioware’s ongoing efforts to make actual role-playing, as distinct from mere hack-and-slash, possible in electronic RPGs.

I am disappointed, therefore, by the preponderance of “pig in a poke” missions I’ve seen so far. You never know what job you’ve actually signed on to do until after you’ve agreed to do it, and are nearly finished. That makes sense when you agree, say, to help a smuggler who refuses to tell you what’s in the crates. It makes less sense when some guy is begging you to find his missing wife. And refusing shady deals to concentrate on straightforward ones isn’t an option. For one thing, there aren’t enough respectable jobs to get you through the game, but, more to the point, even the seemingly decent jobs are filled with bizarre and implausible twists just to ensure that you’re stuck in questionable ethical territory.

To illustrate—and this paragraph is a spoiler!—one mission has a magistrate hiring you to bring in a felon, who has escaped from prison and holed up in a cave outside of town. It’s a hostage situation, and the already high tension is heightened by complaints from the hostage’s father that he won’t get justice because she’s an elf and her captor is human. So you fight your way in past living corpses and giant spiders, only to learn that nothing you’ve been given represents the situation fairly. The hostage actually sympathizes with her captor: she tells you he is controlled by demons against his will, and begs you to spare him. The criminal, when you reach him, wants to die; he came here to be destroyed by monsters. (So why a hostage? And how did he get to the last chamber without meeting the same monsters you had to kill?) But he isn’t actually possessed by a demon, though he insists he is; he admits that official mages have determined that, amid hundreds of genuinely possessed people, you’ve come across the one guy in the whole world who is a genuine schizophrenic. Oh, and the magistrate who hired you? He’s the killer’s father. So he’s kind of hired you to keep the matter under wraps and bring his boy home safe, and will become your enemy if you don’t, but he didn’t bother to tell you that part of it, or even sound out your feelings on equal representation before the law before hiring you. And the hostage is actually Adolph Hitler in an elf girl disguise, so if you save her, you’re responsible for the Holocaust.

Okay, so I made up that last part. But the rest is entirely accurate, and the last bit is substantially representative of what you deal with. The immersion-destroying gyrations necessary to produce these situations would do a soap opera proud: orphanage nuns are actually child slave traffickers, bloody-handed murderers are framed, and criminals trying to go straight go about it by selling poisons and drugs.

Half the time.

And, since there’s no way of knowing what you’ve done until you’ve done it, you’re just enduring an enormous game of Gotcha! Occasional red herrings and unexpected turns are appropriate. Big decisions have unintended consequences, and sometimes protagonists are deceived. Especially in a corrupt town like Kirkwall, and most especially if they insist on making deals with strangers in back alleys. A continual diet of misdirection, however, is out of place in a game about crafting a heroic (or anti-heroic, if that’s your thing) persona and creating the tale of Kirkwall’s fate. If you aren’t given enough facts to steer the story or, worse, deliberately misled in your efforts to do so, you’re just as much at the mercy of the game designers’ whims as you would be on a strict railroad storyline, and that’s not good for efforts to bring true role-playing to electronic format.

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