I’m having some real difficulty with Dragon Age: Origins.

I feel like I want to play it.  There’s — not peer pressure, but a sense from my peers that they liked this game.  From people with whom I’ve had detailed discussions about games we both liked.  In other words, people whose tastes I felt were very similar to mine.  These people love Dragon Age: Origins.  I’m very near the end of my patience.

One character, my Rogue ( a Human Noble), is stalled out in the first fighting area which comes immediately after her origin — in other words, the first bit of common question. I’d done that with my Human Mage, who very nearly got stalled out fighting the Ogre, in what is essentially the first area after the one my Rogue is in.  She is slightly beyond that, but not much, the experience with that fight is making me hesitant to want to continue, and now that I’m faced with too many choices, my natural hesitancy kicks in, and I rolled a new character.

I like a damage-dealing character.  The slogan for my Mage Zhenette (a standard name for my Mage characters) from WoW is “DPS is healing you don’t have to do.” Its a play style that involves doing lots of damage to enemies before they get to you, and minimizes the importance of defense. My WoW mage is a very tactical character, and the play is characterized by bursts of action and then downtime. I have a rogue on WoW,too, and she was a damage dealer, and a bit harder for me — as her damage was more over time, and required different tactical skills to accomplish, but the idea was much the same: do enough damage to avoid getting hit.

My play style in Torchlight is similar: run in clicking on things until they are dead.  I ususally remember to renew my buffs between battles, but not always — and yes, I can tell when I forget.  Just give me the biggest damage weapons and spells, and I’ll be on my way.  Armor is okay, too, but it’s secondary, or tertiary. I’ve got a pet in that game that more or less takes care of itself, although I think it ran away a couple of times. I never remember to heal it, so I learned a spell that heals us both, and that seems to work okay.  If playing Torchlight required keeping my pet buffed and healed, then I’d just quit, as I’m just not going to remember to do all that.  Make it so I have to manager it’s targets, too, and I’d probably leave.

Torchlight doesn’t have a lot more going for it than the explore/kill/loot cycle.  It’s frenetic and clicky and has a very basic, ignorable story.  Thankfully, they got the combat right, and I’m cool with it.  But I’d be pulling my hair out with DA:O’s combat if I had any to pull. (Goatee not an option, per the wives.)

Here’s the thing: both of my origin stories were awesome. I played the Mage one 1.5 times, and the Human Noble one.  I”m told these aren’t even necessarily the best origins.  I left those areas feeling like a kick-butt character, off to help kick-butt in other areas.  I knew it would be hard, but I was there to take names and chew bubblegum. My mage didn’t die in her origin, although my Rogue did once, my dog saving the day that time. {And so my Rogue, unlike myself, has a fondness for the thing.}  But I still felt like I could focus on my character and do some damage, and the stuff around me — the pet and my Mom, they did their part.

Then I’m dumped in the wilderness and it’s a different game. Alistair is the only one who isn’t constantly dying.  The Mage does slightly better than the Rogue, since she’s got a healing spell, when she has mana to cast it. My rogue has a bridge she just can’t get across.  Every time she sets foot on the far side, death is there, taking her back to the Fade.  Not fun.

Now, I’m not always upset about dying.  My WoW mage spent an inordinate amount of time either running from fights (WoW Mage Survival Tactic #1) or running back to fights.  It’s okay, I was a mage, I was going to die. Of course, Death in WoW or Torchlight is only a temporary state.  In DA:O, it’s a reload-last-save.  That fact taught me that there was a Quick Save option in Dragon Age, something I haven’t used since the last FPS I played.  There I expect some death and re-trying.  (And some is okay), so I reload and try again. I played that bridge scene 6 times Saturday night, all with the same result.

I’ve been working on it for a week.  More on this tomorrow.

My Goddess Daughter evidently didn’t get the memo that the only thing she should bring home from school was refrigerator art, so all of us wound up catching the stomach flu she shared so well. (Momma always taught me to share, after all.)  The good news is that I had a day off for MLK Jr Day, the bad news is I spent it sleeping.  At least I’m not losing pay for a holiday my temp service doesn’t pay for (although my “real” employer treats it as a paid holiday).  I had hoped to do some writing today, and get some game playing in.

I did get some of the latter done, I admit, but it was pretty lightweight.  I started BioShock up in Easy mode — evidently I’ve not played BioShock under my XBOX360 profile (I played it at Girl’s house under a different profile, and I own a PC copy that I never got very far in).  I’m not feeling very invested in it — I certainly know the coming reveal already, but every time I play BioShock, it makes me miss SHODAN.

I have an embarrassment of riches here, on the PC.  I spent around $80 over Christmas on the Steam Sale, and have somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 games (some of which were purchased over the past year), none of which I’ve gotten very far in.  I have several big RPGs: Fallout 3, Dragon Age:Origins, Morrowind:GOTY (my third(?) purchase of that game!), Eschalon:Book 1, Mr. Robot, Witcher:Enhanced Edition, Sacred 2, Torchlight, Hinterlands, and StarWars:KOTOR.  I also picked up a NWM2 module on someone else’s sale, I’m not even sure I can install Neverwinter Nights at this point (I have my keys, but do I remember any of the other DRMific info?).  And that, my friends, is just the list of RPG or strong RPG-elements games.  I bought the Indie pack, I’ve got some FPSs, I’ve got some RTSs, and a pleasant handful of Adventures (Loom!, the Space Quest collection!)

Now I hate it when games do that thing where they give me too many choices.  It’s one reason I only play Final Fantasy games with a guidebook in my lap. I’m given too many choices without any idea what the consequences of my choices are.  Several times in the past week, I’ve sat down at my computer looked over my list of games (over half are installed) and ponder what I’m going to play.  Then I go over to FaceBook and play TikiFarm for a few minutes, then hit Kongregate up for a Tower Defense game.  It’s just easier than deciding.

Given that the much-vaunted first quarter releases have few things I care about, I’d hoped to write some about the games from Steam, but I’m just not playing them.  It’s kind of funny, really. I have enough games to keep me busy for a year, and I can’t focus enough to play one.  I’ll admit I’m trying very hard with Dragon Age, but I’ll write a bit about that tomorrow.  It’s still instructive, though, even if things are occasionally frustrating.

By virtue of the magic circle, all games can be said to exist within a liminal space.  But liminality is a mental state, you have to have the buy-in of the player to get them into the space.  It requires that choice to transgress out of their normal space and into the new one.  Otherwise they are standing on the the border and never truly in both places.

I suspect different games will do this with varying efficacy. While we may take on a liminiality when playing any game, some games are much more successful at it.  Appointment-gaming games don’t feel strong in this area, although the person who obsesses about their FarmVille crops even when not in the game may feel differently than I do.   I think these days the games that make me feel most in a space are the RockBand style games.  I don’t just play the game, but become a rock star for a moment, being the idolized musician I never managed on the trombone.

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A liminal space is an other space, one which exists within the world, and separate from them.  I’m interested in these spaces and much of what I practice and am attracted to are about being in them.  In a pagan ritual, we “cast a circle” which creates a space in the world and separate from it.  We did something similar in the Methodist church I grew up in, starting the rituals with the lighting of candles, and by doing it the same way every time.  I’ve often done that in my BDSM practice as well, in order to get myself and my partner into the roles and head space we wanted to be in.

It creates a bubble of space where we exist differently.  Many times this space transgresses on normal reality, existing outside of society’s rules, yet we join a new society with it’s own rules.  We can argue about whether these spaces and societies are objectively real, or only exist in our minds (and I’ve had many of these conversations with Priests and Priestesses of my church), but I don’t think it  really matters. The important thing to me is how we feel in these spaces, who we are and who we become.

Transgression sets us apart from the world, and joining brings us into another place.  The easiest way to do this is to enter the magic circle of a game.  Games are particularly nice as the rules inside are usually quite defined, and often clear.  Certainly the ones inside video games are at least rigid.  This is comfortable in it’s own way, and when you can also step outside your role as a accountant or computer programmer, receptionist or clerk and be some sort of kickass somebody, that’s nice too.

To belabor my terminology, we’re transgressing our role in our society-sanctioned life and taking on an unsanctioned one inside a game.  In modern games (ones developed during the current generation of consoles) I think that there is a direct relationship between how unsanctioned that in-game role is and  how “hardcore” the game is considered.   I don’t think it’s causal, but rather a good bit of marketing.   A lot of the causal PC games that I’ve played — the ones with interspersed stories, anyway — the story is about success in a small business and/or romance.  There’s no world saving or conquering, and no real violence either.

But in the more hardcore styled games there is violence, world saving and conquering.  But what’s more is that the players’ role is much less heroic for all of that.  We have these disaffected anti-heroes set on a revenge plot against some large faceless enemy.  Our heroes are outcasts, opportunists, thieves and assassins.  I think this maps to the emotions the hardcore market is feeling about games.  They are starting to feel like outcasts — or want to feel that way, as it’s part of their identity.

In fact, I think games have a great opportunity here to let us feel what it’s like to be in an Other space, being something Other than what we have, by bringing us in and letting us join the liminal space.  Or, perhaps,  even by making it difficult to join that space where the game is trying to get across a feeling of difficulty or prejudice.  Obviously not all these ideas are going to fly in the AAA space, but I think we’re at a point where there are other options to the artist-game designer.

Here’s a thought that occurred to me as I was writing yesterday’s post.

If Tetris came out today, it’d be a casual game.

So, why isn’t it considered a casual game? It’s success on the Game Boy was a lot like other Nintendo successes since then, many of which have garnered them derision for pandering to a larger market (do people complain to Coca-Cola when they come out with a new flavor or drink that might expand their market?) Well, I think the simple answer is that there was no need for differentiation.  People who owned Game Boys were gamers, and gamers were that transgressive group of enthusiasts who played and enjoyed video games.

People tend to stick with the hobbies they do in the teens and early twenties.  People who did model railroad in the early 70s still do model railroading today.  I saw it at origins once, there were three groups of gamers: miniature war gamers, pen and paper RPGers, and CCG (primarily Magic:The Gathering) players.  There was a noticeable age difference between each group.  These games have a set market and group, which is gradually aging, but it’s doing it all as a group.

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Let me say up front, that I love designing worlds, particularly ones where I’m going to tell stories within them.  Usually that means game worlds.  My favorite game system of all time (that I never played) is Aria, which won’t let you create a character until you’ve created the world, his nation, his city, and his heritage group and profession.  So I’ve never managed it.  I always got stuck up in the details (incredibly interesting details) of world creation.

I used to be very much in the simulationist camp, which mean I built a logical world with people and pressures in it, and dumped the characters and/or players into it and let them see what happened.  It’s interesting, but the players always warped the world around them, which frustrated me as a simulationist.  They were part of it, not the point of it, right?  Well, no.

I mean, why does the world exist if not for the story teller, reader or player to enjoy it? Certainly a fleshed out world is more interesting, but much like a play, the only things that need to be right are the things that face the player.  Knowing more is good, as it gives you flavor and feel and intuition to tell more, but it doesn’t all have to be perfect or told.  Video games and taught me this: games like Zelda reflect their game design and mechanics in the world itself.

The world I am creating for this game will be different than those, it is created to be a place for the players to be heroes.  It will enable and challenge them to become heroes, and while it will have a history and (presumably) a future, it exists primarily as a place for the players to be and become awesome.  Just as Hyrule is largely that place for Link, so will Amaranth be for our players.

Hyrule is for a solitary hero, though, and Amaranth needs to be ready for a group.  It needs to reflect the game mechanics for the game we’re playing and our plot needs to allow us to get into Zelda-like cycles and fractals.

Zelda is largely focused on the number three (despite the later game’s use of the number 4), and that’s implicit in the Triforce.  Amaranth has the Tetraganon (which is both a Zelda reference and a play on the number 4).  Why the number 4?  Well, several game mechanic-y reasons.  D&D 3.x is designed around a four-person party.  There are four basic styles of class: fighter, rogue, wizard, and priest.  So Amaranth is divided into fours.

Zelda usually has a regular world, and a shadow world. Much of D&D has a “Shadow Plane”, so Amaranth will have one as well. We can add two more planes, one of spirit and one of material, to mirror the Astral and Ethereal plans from D&D.  This is somewhat important, as we want to enable a full palette of choices from the D&D books, and make sure spells work logically without doing a lot of modification to the rules of the game.

There are four Goddesses/Great Spirits, which represent four virtues (Strength, Courage, Wisdom, and Wit).  Those don’t map directly onto the character classes, but that’s a good thing.  The Kingdom of Amranth is divided into four duchys, the city into four quarters.

Also, standard D&D has 20 levels, so the party should gain a certain number of levels per area, as they work through the whole story, capping out at 20 when they enter the Shadow realm and defeat the final enemy. Or enemies. There might be 4.

Four is a good working point, and gives a feel for how big things will be and what the cycles will be that we’ll use.  I don’t want to go into too much detail, things will change as I move forward on the world design.  But there are guidelines here, and that helps.  I’m documenting it all on our wiki.  A good place to start is with the Amaranth page itself, which uses another bit of influence, the Aesop’s fable of the Amaranth and the Rose, which gives me a bit more theme to work with.

I’ll write more about Amaranth as the design fleshes out some, and as I can write things that aren’t integral to my plot ideas.  That’s not a huge concern, as the cycles and fractals will give the players a feel for the shape and size of the plot, and it’s rhythm.  The next part is how to make the players care about and feel a part of the world.

My gamer roots are with pen and paper games.  Oh, my family played the classic board games: Monopoly, Life, Connect Four. We later got Stratego and Risk and some more esoteric things — but that was after the pen and paper revolution. We played a lot of card games — Bridge was my father’s favorite, although Mom and I struggled to keep up with him and his mother.  But there was just something about pen and paper games that got to me, and to my friends.

D&D was first, with the red box.  We quickly switched to Traveller, because one of our players (the one with the best play space, at the time) was the son of a Southern Baptist minister and spells and demons were not okay, but lasers and aliens somehow were.  We never told Blair’s dad about his Ultima game collection.

My computer was an Apple][c (unlike my friends Commodores), and I didn’t really have any games on it — Temple of Apshai Trilogy, which someone had copied for me and for which I had no books nor idea of how to play.  I had a copy of some baseball game where I always struck out, and I had Bureacracy which was freaking hard and I never beat.  Not that I didn’t use it to game, no my AppleWorks MegaTraveller ship building spreadsheet was a thing of legend.

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