Concerning Failcake

Dragon Age’s story is the condensation, in yummy game form, of the old proverb about wanting to have cake and eat it too. You can’t. It’s quite refreshing to see how at several points in the storyline your actions and choices not only do matter, but also to come across situations that are not built around success or failure, but rather just what kind of failure you prefer and how many levels you want of it.

It’s not unfair. It makes perfect sense. Sometimes stuff just doesn’t work out and if this is true right here and now in our comfortable, padded real world existence, then it’s even more so in the dark times of a land torn by internal strife, a demonic invasion, magic and politics running rampant. You will lose. At many junctures. The choices are basically about what you’re more keen on losing.

So far, story wise, it’s been a rewarding change of pace from what we’re so used to; stories that go out of their way to please everyone and written around the ideas of success and reward. When all choices point towards success, they are soft and you’re only choosing what flavor of success you want. Being served failure on a plate, several times during the game, not only makes for this nice change of pace, but also go a long way into reinforcing how believable that world is.

One of the biggest pitfalls in your common, garden variety vanilla fantasy setting is not how can we rationalize the existence of magic, how can our characters travel hundreds of miles in minutes, how much stuff can that single backpack really hold or how can you work in space goats with dimensional ships; it’s instead how everything tends to success, including the actions of the so-called heroes populating that world.

Dragon Age’s story, which is not without its holes by the way, is not an equation that tries to balance success on one side with failure on the other. It’s more like walking a tightrope with failure at both sides. Success is straight ahead, but the choice steps have to be careful. And that makes it all the more refreshing. If Dragon Age had been an MMO we would already be talking about the death of the softcore fantasy setting.

11 thoughts on “Concerning Failcake”

  1. The more sinister. or let’s call it realistic, trend is also visible in contemporary fantasy literature. For example, in G.R.R Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” heroes can die, brutally and early on. This makes also for more meaningful choices. We often have to pick the lesser of two evils, unfortunately. But things would be too easy if there would only be right or wrong, and no shades of grey.

  2. I agree with you, it’s so nice to find a game that will let you make the wrong choice without forcing you to have to restart the game. Instead, it just becomes something you live with that makes the plot richer.

    Telling the dad that I had to kill his little girl because she was possessed when I failed to talk to spirit out of leaving her alone was one of those moments for me. I wasn’t “punished” in the game by failing, so the immersive aspect of it became that more powerful because I was able to keep going in spite of failing that aspect…

  3. I might agree with some of this if the stories in Dragon Age were original or intriguing. Or if the dialog was compelling. Or if the characters were rounded and believable.

    Or if the whole world wasn’t on a piece of string that I could let out reel back in. If I couldn’t refight every fight until I get the result I desire, rehearse every conversation until it comes out as well as it possibly can, even turn back time and start again with my black soul washed clean, then it’s possible that I might feel that a choice I made matttered. I might feel the bitter taste of failure.

    But actually, no. Even if all those things were true, those pitfalls you dismiss would stand out even more glaringly than they already do. Only trivial stories can be told with such glaring inconsistencies in their internal reality, but to impose convincing limits on the perceived reality would leave nothing of left of the “game”.

    I’ve found Dragon Age to be one of those 5 minute wonders. An exciting, absorbing colorful toy for a little while when it came out of its box all new and shiny, but very soon the cheap paint began to peel off and the poorly-fitted joints began to stick.

    I’ve reached level 10, maybe 15% in according to the achievement scale tool, and haven’t wanted to play any more for two days. The main problem is that the plot is cliched, the story is featherweight, the characters are ciphers and the whole thing packs the emotional impact you’d expect from a generic fantasy novel commissioned to fill a gap in a publisher’s schedule.

    As for the proposition that in MMOs we are set up to succeed, I believe that depends entirely on the preconceptions you bring to the game. I tend to fail in achieving the majority of my goals as a player and my characters tend to fail to achieve most of the goals I set them as characters. The rare successes are memorable because of their infrequency. The important thing is, though, that the goals my characters and I are trying to achieve in MMOs are a lot more interesting than the goals of the characters in Dragon Age, because I have custom-made them to interest me. And failure to achieve them has a great deal more resonance and impact emotionally, for me, than listening to some competent but uninspired actors going through competent but uninspired dialog in a story that is all too familiar.

    1. I felt similarly to you, Bhagpuss, but I persevered and eventually found myself enjoying it. It took me until about half-way through, but it was worth it.

    2. What I meant by success in MMOs was strictly related to story progression. You’re driven to success in most cases and the heroes’ actions rarely have any repercussions beyond that success. And even when there is scripted failure, when these stories move you towards an inevitable failure, you just have that feeling you were meant to have that failure simply as a setback and preparation for a larger success down the road.

      Whatever their particular flavor, stories in MMOs (that I have seen, at least) are plain tales of heroism to a fault. When you go down to dungeons, go through encounters, do quests… the vast, vast majority of those things turn out to be the right choice in the end. Those things were supposed to happen and resolutions are always successful. It’s almost like having an innate knowledge of “this must be done because we know it’s good”.

      Dragon Age’s story, while plain and cliched at several spots as you point out, does not necessarily run in those lines. It’s perfectly possible to choose wrongly and have to live with the consequences of that choice.

      Of course we’re talking about two completely different frameworks that we’ve found no way of making compatible yet; stories tailored for one player, and stories made for many more people that have to be more static. But it goes beyond this. In MMOs, how many times do we make our players go through encounters as “the wrong choice”? What if, say, killing Ragnaros was really a bad choice overall, and yet your band of do-gooders went in and did it anyway?

      We’ve been breeding this success-driven behavior for years. Go and kill whatever entity and do whatever quest for whoever. Doesn’t matter. 90% of the time, guess what, it was the right choice anyway.

  4. An example of a fail situation was Alistair meeting his sister. But it was still satisfying in that despite your helplessness to being the family together, the outcome did not impact the overall experience in a significant manner.

    It’s those side-quests and minor things that elevate the game, in my opinion, from good, to great.

  5. The ending, of which I shall not discuss, is the obvious prime example.

    I was left slightly demoralized and annoyed at how my story concluded – and whilst I was left wondering what I could have done differently for a better outcome, it wasn’t with the usual urge to load up an earlier save and try again. I was content with the fate that the game had decided for me, however grim. It made sense, and my decisions had been meaningful enough for me to not want to ruin it by jumping in a time machine to change them.

    It’s impressive that a game can do that.

  6. All this said, the Human Noble origin and the behavior of some characters, particularly during the Landsmeet, could have been paid much more attention. To me those are the loosest and sloppiest parts of the story so far.

  7. Plot and story in MMOs are so far towards the bottom of the list of why we play them, though, that for many players they barely feature at all. They are only really there to provide a skeletal framework for gameplay and can largely be ignored.

    A single-player, story-driven RPG like DA is almost the reverse. Although the attractions of the tactical/puzzle elements of gameplay are pretty considerable, it’s the plot that is intended to keep you moving through.

    The ironic thing is that, because of the low relevance of plot and story to the whole MMO experience, it probably would be just as easy for storylines there to be built on you “failing” as on “succeeding”, so long as everyone gets their gear upgrades and achievements as usual along the way.

    Come to think of it, isn’t the final outcome of EQ’s Planes of Power plotline interpretable as a “failure” for the player heroes?

    And thanks for the encouragement Dan! I will persevere with DA. It’s not that I don’t like it at all – just that I started out with much higher hopes for what I might get out of it than it seems to be able to live up to so far. But I shouldn’t really come to any conclusions until I see how the whole thing pans out.

  8. I loved Dragon Age all the way to the end, when it did an about face. For 90% of the game, it tells you “care about our characters” and “work with me here, we’re telling a story”, and then at the end it kicks you in the teeth for getting invested in the NPCs and punishes you for trying to help it tell the story. And not in the good way. Not a complaint; it’s still an excellent game, but just in the way that Fight Club with the ending of Casablanca tacked on would be made of nothing but excellent material and still be lacking.

  9. I’m not even going there with PoP. You spend most of the expansion killing relatively benign divine manifestations with minimal justification.

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