Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

The Importance of Plot Hooks (Dragon Age II)

04.01.11
by Ty Franck

While I think the much anticipated follow up to Dragon Age: Origins is inferior in a number of ways, I’m going to pick on one in particular in this post.

The absence of compelling plot hooks.

In many ways a computer (or console) RPG is like a novel.  You create the character, but the game designers drop your creation into their world, show them what needs to be done, and then give them the tools to do it.

The joys come in a variety of ways:  Increasing the potency (and thereby their ability to solve the big problem) through levels, or skills, or new items and spells.  Each increase in our character’s abilities generally gives them access to new areas, or the ability to fight new monsters (thus leading to even more levels and loot).  And just this joy in ‘leveling up’ can take a person a long way in a computer game.  Older games like Diablo were basically just click fests that kept our attention by throwing levels, powers, and limitless loot at us.  I played a lot of Diablo, so I can personally attest to the sleep depriving power of “One more dungeon and I can get enough XP to max out my firebolt spell!”

But then a little game Baldur’s Gate came along and showed me that along with my leveling and looting, I might actually enjoy the story, too.  By the end of Baldur’s Gate, I was not only cackling over the +3 sword I’d just found, but over the twists and turns of the plot.

Baldur’s Gate II only exceeded its predecessor in this.  And for the first time, not only did I care about the loot and the plot, but about the personal lives of my  NPC party members.  Would Haer Dalis wind up sweet talking his way into the arms of Aerie?  And how did my character, who’d been wooing Aerie up to that point plan to deal with that?  Would he fight for her?  Or take a cold comfort in Viconia’s dangerous embrace?

This was revolutionary stuff, and I must have played through Baldur’s Gate II and it’s various add-ons a dozen times or more, exploring all of the possibilities.  Not just the possible characters *I* could make, but how each of them fit into the world and the lives of the people they interacted with.  Then sadly, Black Isle, the company who’d made these revolutionary games, died.

Years later, I switched from primarily PC gaming to console gaming.  I enjoyed the console games, and many of them a great deal.  But I could often be heard bemoaning the loss of the truly great CRPG.  Button mashers like Champions of Norrath, that replaced depth of story with a diablo-esque frenetic ‘kill and loot’ style play just weren’t the same.  Ironically, a game called Baldur’s Gate came out that used this style of play, which seemed only to mock my pain.

Then I heard rumors of EA getting ready to release a revolutionary new console RPG called Dragon Age.  I was intrigued.  I heard they’d hired the writers from Black Isle to work on it.  I began salivating with anticipation.

And man, did they not let me down.  Dragon Age: Origins was everything I’d been hoping for.  Rich story, lovely game play, and a varied cast of NPC characters to interact with.  They had their own wants and needs, they got angry with me for doing things that violated their personal codes.  They squabbled with each other, or flirted.  Sometimes they fell in love with me.  It was beautiful.

So, like nearly everyone else, I was pretty excited by the prospect of a Dragon Age sequel.   And they got a lot right.  There are a new cast of NPC characters to meet and interact with.  Some of their storylines are just as rich as those in the first game.  But I largely feel like I’m going through the motions as I go from quest to quest and gain my XP and loot.

“Why is that?” I kept wondering.

Plot hooks is the answer.

In the first Dragon Age, you begin the game in one of several starting areas depending on the race and class combination you chose.  After a few easy missions within that area to give you a feel for the game and the control system, you are drafted by an ancient order called the Gray Wardens to go and fight an evil army called the Blight.  Within just a few hours of beginning the game, the Gray Wardens have been betrayed and murdered, the throne has been usurped, and you are cast adrift in a land soon to be overrun by ancient evil.

You are tasked with building an army out of the traditional Gray Warden allies, and once strong enough, with driving back the blight and killing its leader, the Archdemon.

You are given this task literally within a few hours of starting the game.  The next fifty hours or so you play will be in the service of this quest.  And the game does a wonderful job of keeping the tension high.  Periodic attacks from the blight.  The loss of towns that were once available to you as the blight overtakes them.  Periodically coming across a murdered caravan or a lot of dead soldiers.  You feel a palpable sense that you’re running out of time.  So much so that several of my friends skipped major chunks of side quests because they were worried that the blight would destroy the kingdom if they didn’t finish the main quest fast enough.

The game tells you what’s wrong, and what the character needs to do to fix it.  You know, like a novel.

Dragon Age II, sadly, totally fails in this regard.  It looks like Dragon Age, mostly.  It sort of feels like it while you are playing it.  I liked some of the NPC’s.

But there’s no plot.  I mean, sure, when you get to the end you fight a big battle that sort of resolves a major conflict.  But it was a conflict I was basically unaware of at the start of the game.  The first third of the game was about getting enough money to buy my mother a house.  I mean, fine, establishing myself in the city is a fine goal, but what does it have to do with anything else?  The second third of the game hints at what the final conflict will be, but drops a giant red herring about an invasion in your lap.  When I defeated the leader of the possibly invading forces, I honestly thought the game might be over at that point.  When there was another 12-15 hours of gameplay, and a whole new problem to solve, it felt tacked on.

It was pretty disappointing, story wise.   But what really bugs me is that Bioware knows it.  They know the game has this flaw, and they try to fix it with a cheap framing story.  Between each section, you see a knight questioning a dwarf about someone called The Champion.  You get a sense that this champion did something to upset the balance of power in the world.  You get a sense that the dwarf knows the champion personally.  When you then run into that dwarf early on and he becomes a member of your party, you realize, “Ah, I am the champion.  Check.”

But what the champion did, or why this knight is interrogating this dwarf remains nebulous as best.  It’s like the game keeps jumping in to say, “I know this all just seems like some random shit at this point, but really, something important happens later.”

And it feels perfunctory.  I’m going through the motions until the game decides to let me know why what I’m doing matters.  And by the time it does, the games almost over.

Plot hooks.  Just like in novels you need to tell your reader what the problem is, and why you should care about how the characters are going to solve it, you need to do that in this type of role playing game.  And Dragon Age II doesn’t.  It winds up being unsatisfying as a rich story, and it’s not good as a button masher either.  It’s this sort of limp thing in between the two, but not enough of either one.

Honestly?  It made me want to return it and play Origins again.

22 Comments

Another interview

03.31.11
by Daniel Abraham

This time with the inimitable Jeff VanderMeer at the Omnivoracious blog.

Share and enjoy!

0 Comments

Another Dragon’s Path Review (Locus Edition)

03.29.11
by Daniel Abraham

The seem to like it.

“Prepare to be startled, shocked, and entertained.”

That’s good, right?

3 Comments

Twitter

03.28.11
by Daniel Abraham

Just a heads-up, folks.  If the biggest problem in your life is that you don’t know enough minor trivia about mine, I have joined the twitterverse.  I’m @AbrahamHanover.

0 Comments

Dueling Dragon’s Path Review

03.27.11
by Daniel Abraham

Not one but two (somewhat contradictory!) reviews and a nifty new look at Fantasy Book Critic.

One of the really interesting things about this gig is that everything you put out there is a Rorschach test.  Is it any wonder that writers are a neurotic bunch of folks?  Everything we do is given to the world for the casual judgment of others, and there isn’t even an objective scale.

Still *way* beats tech support.

4 Comments

In Defense of Exoticism

03.24.11
by Daniel Abraham

I should be writing something besides a blog post.  Seriously.  Caliban’s War, the second book of The Expanse, and The King’s Blood, follow-up to The Dragon’s Path are both due June 1st, and I’m paying a little now for kicking back last year.  Oh, they’ll be done, but a blog post?

But some recent conversations about escapism and racism and fantasy have got me going.  I’ve been thinking about exoticism.  And about guilty pleasures.  I’m still thinking through all this, so it’s going to be a little rough around the edges.  It’s all part of the conversation after all.  When I have it all figured out, I’ll stop talking about it, probably.

The power to cloud men's minds, especially when they really want to get clouded

So here’s what’s on my mind.  Exoticism is — rightly — something of a dirty word.  It is the commodification of the Other, appropriating the thoughts or clothing or music or food or religion of an unfamiliar culture for the charm of the unfamiliar.  The example that always comes to mind for me is Lamont Cranston — The Shadow — who learned the power to cloud men’s minds “while traveling in East Asia.”  But there are a thousand other examples.  Charlie Chan.  The cliche of the magical negro.  Even overly racist propaganda like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion have at their heart the impulse — the attraction — of a world outside the familiar.  And by familiar, I mean familiar to the audience for whom the works are intended.  There are billions of folks who travel in East Asia every day without learning the power to cloud men’s minds.  They’re Chinese.  And while Jews will find the Protocols unfamiliar, they don’t find ’em exotic.

I want to say up front that I recognize the problem of exoticism in practice.  It is dehumanizing for the people whose culture is being appropriated, reinterpreted, *mis*interpreted, and used.  It is exclusive by nature.

But here’s the thing, I don’t think the attraction of it is in its exclusivity.   When I listen to the old Shadow radio programs, I have that moment of guilt, but I also have the little frission that the writers at the time meant me to have.  Lamont Cranston is romantic and mysterious.  He knows secrets that we do not, because he’s been outside of the world we know and he has returned changed.  I don’t take pleasure from the thought that I have taken the actual cultures of billions of people and changed them into an Alec Baldwin movie.  I take pleasure in the intimation that somewhere, somehow, there’s a way out.

Yes, yes, this isn’t about the real Far East.  I know lots of folks who traveled to the real Far East, and I’m pretty certain Maureen McHugh doesn’t have the power to cloud men’s minds, or if she does, she uses it sparingly.  But it’s as true of Tomb Raider’s Kuala Lumpur or — to be really self-aware about it — John Crowley’s Aegypt.  Exoticism is an attempt to take a psychological — maybe even a spiritual — state of mind and place it in the real world.  It’s doomed to fail because most of the real world is already filled up with folks who don’t find their struggles to find clean water and food particularly exotic or ennobling.  But I have the feeling that, as with most pleasures (and especially pleasures that are hard to give up), there’s something important in it that we shouldn’t turn away from.

The other thing this chimes off in the back of my head is attitudes of men toward women.  Specifically the paired strategies of denigrating women or putting them on a pedestal.  Again, either choice is the imposition of a different story over a real human being or class of human beings.  Again, that’s what makes it toxic.  But it’s not what makes it an attractive strategy.

There’s something in at least my psychology that is deeply attracted to the idea of an Other.  Of something different than my familiar world.  An outside.

There’s a danger in looking for that in the literal world — within history.  And it’s something that screws us up whether we’re trying to put God into history or Lamont Cranston into Thailand.  But that doesn’t take away from the hunger behind it.  For escapism, for exoticism, for the idealized other.  I don’t think that desire is in itself pathological, and I don’t want to see it thrown out with the bathwater.

Does that make sense?

20 Comments

Another Step Down the Dragon’s Path with extra added Hurt Me

03.14.11
by Daniel Abraham

 

Which is to say another excerpt is up at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist.  I also got email from your friends and mine at Orbit.  They’ve got the actual book back from the printers.  While the ARCs for it are lovely, I’m looking forward to having the actual book in my hands. There are other excerpts up here and here.

And, in unrelated news, congratulations are due to my alter ego, MLN Hanover.  Her first short story — Hurt Me — has been picked for inclusion in Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2011.  It’s a blast to see my pseudonym up there with folks like Peter Watts and Joe Lansdale.  I expect the anthology will be a thoroughly disturbing read, and all the better for that.  And if you just can’t wait to read it, Hurt Me is still up as a podcastle episode with its own discussion thread.

I have to say, the response to that particular story has been fascinating.  I can’t talk about too many details without including massive spoilers, but the story I wrote appears to be the story about half the people who pick it up read.  I wouldn’t have thought this one was a Rorschach test, but I guess everything is.

7 Comments

“Clint Eastwood goes to Narnia”

03.11.11
by Daniel Abraham

Your friends and mine at Kirkus have reviewed The Dragon’s Path.

I am wildly amused.

1 Comment

SF Signal’s latest Mind Meld

03.09.11
by Daniel Abraham

 

The folks at SF Signal asked a bunch of folks (myself included) what forthcoming F&SF books had our ears pricked up.  Patricia Briggs, William Schafer, Scott Cupp, Mike Resnick, Cat Rambo, Jean Rabe, David Louis Edelman, Mur Lafferty, Ann VanderMeer, Lisa Goldstein, Mindy Klasky, Summer Brooks, and I compare wishlists here.

0 Comments

Like an old Ace double, except not old or Ace

03.02.11
by Daniel Abraham

Your friends and mine at Orbit have just announced something I’ve been keeping under my hat for a while now.  But yes, Now It Can Be Told.

The upshot is that is you buy the ebook of Dragon’s Path, you’ll also get Leviathan Wakes.  And if you buy the electronic version of Leviathan Wakes, it comes with a complimentary Dragon’s Path.

So if you were wondering which one to get . . .

14 Comments