Dragon RAGE 2!!!

Last night, I finally played the first three hours of the new XBOX 360 game Dragon Age 2— to which, I had been looking forward for many months.  And it was terrible (unlike the first Dragon Age, which was awesome).  And as a writer, I think I know what the problem is.  It’s Story.

No, not story in the general sense, though that is a part of it. . . but Story, the 1997 manual on screenwriting by Robert McKee. 

A little background for the uninitiated: Story is probably the most popular and definitely the most influential book ever written on the subject of writing a movie.  You can detect its influence in almost every mainstream Hollywood film, and, increasingly, in video games.  

The only problem with Story is that dumb people sometimes misuse it, or use the tools it provides to cover-up bad, lazy writing.

This book is like "The One Ring." It can be used for incredible good, but when idiots get ahold of it they'll always use it for evil.

Video games can have wonderful, sweeping narratives, delightful characters, and musical scores– just like movies.  But they’re not movies.  They’re not movies because you are trying to “beat” or “win” them.  (This is not my original idea.  Roger Ebert pointed it out in a recent essay.)  I feel like the problem with Dragon Age 2 is that the designers got so caught-up in telling the story, they forgot they were making a video game.

Back to Story.  McKee’s book is full of narrative devices you can use to start a good movie/script/novel.  From flashbacks, to opening with a violent narrative event, to the “How did we get here?/How did it come to this?” flash-forward device, to the reluctant hero– McKee chronicles many, many satisfying ways that writers can begin a tale.  But I feel like the creators of Dragon Age 2 got ahold of Story and decided it would be “innovative” and “cutting edge” of them (in a Peter Molyneux sort of way) to just use all of them at once.  I imagine a writers’-room conversation that went something like:

“Dudes, let’s start Dragon Age 2 with this “framing narrative” thing–like, just a guy telling the story. . .but it’s the story of our game.  Bob McKee says those are a clever, attention-getting way of starting.”

“Ooh yes, and then McKee also says starting with strong narrative action is good–like a battle, or an arrest, or an argument– so we can have someone being arrested and intensely interrogated!  And we totes won’t explain why.”

“And then what if it’s an unreliable narrator–like in Usual Suspects!?  McKee loves that movie.  So like, the first playable section is this crazy adventure, where the characters fight Darkspawn and a giant troll-thing and a dragon, and then boom!!!, the narrator was lying!!! it didn’t even really happen!!!”

“OMG, totes!!!  People won’t know what’s going on, the tone will constantly shift, and even after 3 hours, players will have no sense of the ‘rhythm’ of gameplay.  This will be the most innovative opening to a video game yet!!!”

And let’s stop right there.

People like to play Role-Playing video games (like Dragon Age 2) because you get to solve mysteries, accrue possessions and abilities, and accomplish things.  There is a feeling of progress.  But when you play through a combat sequence and then learn “It was all a dream” and the things you accomplished didn’t really happen or “don’t count”, you’re left with a profoundly empty feeling.

And I don’t want to make this too long, but there are other sections where it appears that the designers of Dragon Age 2 stole specific examples from McKee, but then ignored the lessons he was using those specific examples to illustrate.  For example, characters want things.  Most stories are the story of a character trying to get what he or she wants.  They can want something relatively modest (to get a date to the prom, to win the big game) or something huge (to defeat the entire Darkspawn army and restore the land to peace), but what they all have in common is the wanting.  Dragon Age 2 begins with the main characters’ home being destroyed by the Blight.  McKee’s book is full of examples of stories that start with disasters or destruction as a way of establishing what characters want.  (McKee cites the destruction of Kal-El’s planet at the beginning of Superman, as I recall.).  But after you have the disaster, you must then imbue the character with a corresponding wanting. 

But for the first 2.5 hours (the length of an entire movie) of Dragon Age 2, I have no idea what my characters want.  Their home has been destroyed, yes, and they are “fleeing the blight” by running from and to places with great intensity, but beyond moment-to-moment survival, I don’t know what they want.  We get no backstory to give us clues.  Two hours into the game, the actions of the characters have been so disparate and frazzled that we don’t really know what this story is the “story of.”  Like, what’s remarkable enough about this narrative that would make it something you’d tell someone (as the narrator in the framing story is doing)?  I have no answer to that question. 

But also, Dragon Age 2’s opening is just poorly-plotted and full of bad writing.  That’s the real problem.  Robert McKee’s Story is a rulebook for writing– but as McKee points out in his own book, you can break all of the rules you if you do something funny, cool, and/or awesome.  McKee cites the example of Steve Martin’s dentist sequence in Little Shop of Horrors.  It doesn’t advance the plot at all, or tell you anything new about the main characters, or build tension.  You could remove it from the movie, and the movie would still make sense.  But it’s funny and awesome.  That’s the only reason why they left it in. 

There are plenty of sequences in the first 2.5 hours of Dragon Age 2 that don’t build tension, or tell you what characters want, or any of the other things that McKee insists scenes “should” do.  But they’re also not funny, or awesome, or interesting.  There is no excuse for them.

It takes 2.5 hours for the characters in Dragon Age 2 to survive this “innovative” narrative of boring and confusing machinations that eventually leaves them in the same place every RPG begins—  in a city with equipment to buy, side quests to solve, and a main narrative story/mystery to advance.  Why couldn’t we have just started there?  Why did you have to waste 2.5 hours of my life on a boring opening that made no sense?

Anyhow, I am filled with Dragon Rage.  Um, 2.

UPDATE 3/11/2011– Yesterday afternoon, the new issue of Gay Men Form Her arrived on my doorstep.  I felt like its review of Dragon Age 2 bore out many of my points (and did so in video game-ese).  Click here to read their review.

8 thoughts on “Dragon RAGE 2!!!

  1. Usually RPG’s need longer to build up a story. But be warned, it get’s worse. The ending will upset you very, very much.

  2. So…since they started the game with a disaster. The same way almost every book/movie/game starts, they were using that book?

    The whole it was only a dream is not true. There are the two moments when Varrec lies to Cassandra. That I thought was kind of clever. I can see how someone else may not but what ever. Other than that everything that happens affects how Verrec interacts with her. It isnt a preset story, thats why he talks after you play through an act to explain what happened and correct her.

    And you do get a back story. If you pay attention, your father was an Apostate mage, he married your mother against her parents wishes so they ran away to Ferelden and lived pretty much a normal life, besides hiding from templars I assume. Father died 10 years before the begining of the game I believe it said.
    Your charecter if warrior or rouge served at Ostagar with king cailin

    Know what that is? back story.

    2.5 hours in all your characters is to make enough money to move the family out of the slums. I didnt know that was hard to figure out.

    I do agree. The story should have been better, they could have explained things better.
    As long as you try to pay attention its still explained.

    And once you meet the Qunari it becomes pretty obvious what will eventually happen.

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful criticism and critique, Kazou. To be clear, I do not deduce that the writers of Dragon Age 2 were using Robert McKee’s STORY because the opening begins with a disaster. Rather, I seek to criticise the writers for not correspondling using the opening disaster to create tension and to give the protagonist a clear mission. Mass Effect 2 opens with a disaster, but then it gives Shepard a mission– something that sticks in his craw, etc.

      1. I’m confused. How does the disaster not “give the protagonist a clear mission”? Lothering is destroyed in the disaster. This then sets up the clear mission of getting a new home for Bethany/Carver, Hawke, and your mom. They go to Kirkwall to achieve this, but then they find out that their family money is gone and they have to start from the bottom of the social ladder. Hawke and Bethany/Carver’s mission now is to get together enough cash for their mom so she can return to the standard of living of which she is accustomed, and get away from their jerk uncle. Those are pretty classic motivations, and they are clearly explained to you multiple times. They also are all the direct result of Lothering’s demise/the disaster.

        Dragon Age 2 has a lot you can criticize it for, but these criticisms seem kind of weak.

  3. Hi James. Thank you for the well-thought out reply and critique.

    My criticism of the Lothering-destruction-opening is that it gives the protagonists a problem that (as you point out) they quickly and easily solve. (Now we need a new home. Well whaddayaknow, we found one.)

    As what screenwriters call an “inciting event” this is weak and does not create a tension sustained for the entire narrative arc.

    A stronger, more satisfying tension might be derived if the protagonist vowed to use the rest of his/her life to defeat the Blight that had destroyed his/her family home. That way, correcting the problem (home destruction) occuring at the start would take the ENTIRE GAME. As a player, I would find this more satisfying.

    1. But you don’t actually solve the problem of finding a home since once you get to Kirkwall, you find out the Amell fortune is gone, and you have to live in a slum with your seedy uncle. You’re effectively exchanging one problem for another, without really solving a whole lot (except you’re not running for your life anymore).

      The “stronger, more satisfying” solution to this that you described was 1) Already played out in the first game and 2) Doesn’t fit the character of Hawke, who has no real vested interest in stopping the Darkspawn (probably since he’s not a Grey Warden) since he’s primarily concerned with helping his family.

      1. That’s largely the problem scott is bringing up, the first game you have this huge goal of stopping a darkspawn invasion. In the sequel you get the mundane task of getting a house. The story is framed as the true story of the rise of the “Champion”, who is supposed to be this huge, world changing figure. But the game doesn’t give you an overarching goal connecting all the little things you’re doing.

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