State Of The Nerd Report: DRAGON AGE 2, A CLASH OF KINGS

Devin has spent the last week immersed in medieval fantasy geekery. Here is his report from the kingdom.

I’ve been going medieval this week.

Some folks expressed interest in me giving updates on my reading of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which I had once abandoned but picked up again in anticipation of the HBO show. I’ve also been playing BioWare’s Dragon Age 2 on Xbox, and I figured since I’ll never get around to writing about that (and even if I did it’ll be in two months, when the game is ancient), I’d throw some discussion of that here as well.

So, George RR Martin: I still wish he wrote better. He has a number of shitty fantasy tics: He writes in a style that I call ‘Check the Map,’ in that he’ll assume you have his fantasy world map open at your side as characters discuss the world. Almost every fantasy writer does this, as though they’re writing in-world and OF COURSE everybody knows the exact contours of the King’s Road. He also does the lazy fantasy writer thing of having characters repeat stuff in their internal monologue instead of giving them character defining action. Jon Snow constantly wants to muss his little sister Arya’s hair, Arya herself is constantly thinking of sword lessons she got, etc. I assume big epic fantasy writers have macros where they just insert this shit into the book. To be fair Martin doesn’t do this as badly as the king of it, the late Robert Jordan. He said, while tugging on his braid.

But where Martin fails in prose he succeeds up in plotting. And while his main character characterization is clumsy, the secondary (ie, non-point of view) characters are awesome. Martin’s really strong at creating motivation - even the most evil characters have believable motivations. Martin’s plotting can be slack - I feel like he’s writing the books stream of consciousness, and there are often dead end tangents and characters - but when it picks up it’s unbeatable. He also does something rare in epic fantasy fiction - he has shit happen. Characters die, wars start, alliances change, lands are won and lost. Most fantasy fiction seems to be about teasing shit out for nine books, but by the end of the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin has really gotten things roaring.

In many ways it feels like Martin was writing for television all along. The first two books have the same basic structure - introduction, slow futzing around of characters and plots, a sudden, middle of the book reversal, and then a big, giant finale. That’s a good structure for a TV season; especially good for TV is the way that Martin rarely shows action. Most battles happen off screen, with people telling each other what happened. Only the climactic battles of each book are actually portrayed in any depth. All other action is smaller scale and personal.

By the end of A Clash of Kings all sorts of magic is coming into the story, and I’m torn about that. It ups the ante, sure, but I also was really enjoying the more grounded aspect of the books previously. Too much magic can imbalance a story, especially one as heavily about people as this one. The magic feels unnecessary; schemes and conspiracies are much more interesting than dragons or wizards.

Meanwhile I’ve also been playing Dragon Age 2. Dragon Age: Origins was one of my favorite games of all time, and I was looking forward to the sequel something fierce. I rarely buy games new, but I pre-ordered this (sadly I was at SXSW when it came out, so I only just started playing).

I’m torn on DA2. I understand what BioWare was doing here, and I respect what they’ve tried. I just don’t think it’s totally successful.

First the gameplay: I like the idea of the more hands-on fighting system, but it just ends up feeling like mashing buttons. There’s zero in-fight strategy - you just set up your tactics in advance and hope for the best. This new system also has a multiple wave problem; you’ll finish killing the guys you were fighting and then a dozen new guys spawn. It’s frankly tiresome. The fact that the game sends SO MANY enemies against you indicates the designers understood there was an imbalance.

Storywise I’m impressed in theory - a multi-year tale, set largely in one location - but BioWare seems to have forgotten to bother with a throughline. I’m 15 hours in and feel like I’ve just started the story… maybe. It’s frustrating, and I spent the first five hours wondering what the hell the point of anything was. I like having a strong, compelling central story pulling me along from the beginning.

DA2‘s structure is even more disorienting because it has huge leaps in time. You begin the game during the events of the first Dragon Age, then you come to the new setting… and then the game jumps ahead a year. A year during which you’re getting to know the city and its inhabitants from an underworld POV. Why the game skips this is baffling; it feels like the perfect tutorial/low level scenario, one where you can really explore the new setting and become familiar with it.

To be fair you get familiar fast. There are precious few locations in the game, and you keep visiting them again and again. I can navigate Lowtown with my eyes closed. Many of the missions feel like Fed Ex missions - go here, talk to that guy, he’ll send you somewhere else - and you spend A LOT of time looking at load screens, which feels inexcusable.

All of those bad things aside, I’m mostly enjoying it, although I feel like I’m enjoying the game for what it’s trying as opposed to what it’s doing. There’s a scope to DA2 that feels unusual - it’s a personal epic. I just don’t think the ambition of the game designers worked out in the end. Although who knows, maybe at hour 20 everything will suddenly snap together. That’s an awful lot of hours spent, though.

In the end, there’s no excuse for the fact that the game has about two caves and three dungeons, though.