No, Mr. Hawke, I Expect You To Feature A More Robust Inventory System


I have spent a fair amount of time of late think­ing about the com­plex­i­ties of the rela­tion­ship between a seri­ous game play­er and a seri­ous game devel­op­er, and have iden­ti­fied three trends which I wish to dis­cuss. The cat­a­lyst for this dis­cus­sion was my rel­a­tive­ly recent playthrough of Dragon Age II, a game which left me feel­ing rather jerked around.

So, for the next three weeks, I wish to dis­cuss three spe­cif­ic trends in the gam­ing com­mu­ni­ty: Expectation, Entitlement and Exploitation, and though I will dis­cuss these trends in var­i­ous con­texts, each dis­cus­sion will use Dragon Age II as a cen­tral exam­ple. I have cho­sen to us DAII as the lynch­pin for this con­ver­sa­tion part­ly because it has been some­thing of a per­son­al obses­sion, but also because its var­i­ous con­tro­ver­sies have shown that it is thus par­tic­u­lar­ly relat­ed to sev­er­al issues in the games indus­try.

A Quick Review

Before I get start­ed, I fig­ured it would be worth pro­vid­ing a brief review of Dragon Age II, so that there isn’t any doubt about my opin­ion of the game.

Generally, the first two thirds of the game aren’t quite per­fect, but are very, very excel­lent, and the last third exag­ger­ates the prob­lems of the first two thirds, con­tain­ing moments of bril­liance, but pri­mar­i­ly being char­ac­ter­ized by a sort of unfin­ished, buggy rushed­ness. Finally, though its last few hours begin with a moment of absolute bril­liance, the rest of the cli­max is absolute­ly dread­ful and is char­ac­ter­ized by a dra­mat­ic and incon­gru­ous shift in tone and style, major char­ac­ters (par­tic­u­lar­ly antag­o­nists) behav­ing in whol­ly unbe­liev­able ways, and, in a tremen­dous­ly egre­gious exam­ple, the reuse of a char­ac­ter model from the first game’s DLC as the penul­ti­mate boss. They did­n’t even both­er to make it a palette-swap.

To deal with a few issues specif­i­cal­ly: the changes in the com­bat sys­tem are inter­est­ing and enjoy­able, and many of the mechan­i­cal ideas are fresh and worth explor­ing, the teamwork-inspiring “cross-class combo” mechan­ic in par­tic­u­lar. That said, the design­ers skimped on the num­ber and com­plex­i­ty of antag­o­nists: you spend most of the game fight­ing the same four or five kinds of enemy, and even the most com­plex of vil­lains rarely have more than two or three sep­a­rate kinds of attack. Furthermore, some­times the game’s more action-oriented spin gives it trou­ble– it is both easy and nec­es­sary to kite a few of the ene­mies, for exam­ple. (Though this is prob­a­bly part of a whole ‘nother arti­cle, mechan­ics which encour­age or even real­ly allow kit­ing or other silly mechan­i­cal exploits are bad.)

The deci­sion to half-heartedly limit the inven­to­ry sys­tem, such that you can change allies’ weapons, but not their armor, is more than a lit­tle con­fus­ing. It is impor­tant to note that there is noth­ing essen­tial to the idea of a role­play­ing game which neces­si­tates inven­to­ry micro­man­age­ment, and I can def­i­nite­ly under­stand the the­mat­ic sym­bol­ism of not allow­ing you to change your allies’ equip­ment– the UI’s repeat­ed admo­ni­tion that “your friends make their own deci­sions about what to wear” makes sense. The game repeat­ed­ly reminds you that these are peo­ple with their own lives above and beyond your own adven­tures, so it makes sense they might want to be a bit less com­mu­nal about their pri­vate pos­ses­sions than char­ac­ters in other RPGs. But if that’s true, why can I fid­dle with their weapons and acces­sories? An indi­vid­ual who is pro­pri­etary about his or her cloth­ing is like­ly to be more so about his or her tools and jew­el­ry. In short, it just ends up feel­ing lazy, and pleas­ing nei­ther camp: peo­ple who enjoy equip­ment micro­man­age­ment feel cheat­ed, and those of us who might have pre­ferred a Mass Effect 2-style stream­lined sys­tem still have to deal with too many menus.

I have already come out in favor of the nam­ing and voic­ing of the game’s main char­ac­ter, and found the con­ver­sa­tion mechan­ics joy­ful and excel­lent. Further, all of the recruitable char­ac­ters, includ­ing the DLC char­ac­ter, are excel­lent, some of the absolute best and most nuanced char­ac­ters in role­play­ing games. Several moments in the first two acts con­tain some of the most amaz­ing bits of con­ver­sa­tion I have ever expe­ri­enced in a role­play­ing game. The game also prac­ti­cal­ly dou­bles the num­ber of strong and inter­est­ing female char­ac­ters in all of video game his­to­ry. Aveline is awe­some. The plot is won­der­ful, up until the third act, when it is quite rushed– character-specific quests, which up until that point have been absolute­ly excel­lent, begin to feel very rushed and con­fused.

In short, Dragon Age II con­tains bril­liant ideas and some­times excel­lent exe­cu­tion, but the game is clear­ly not fin­ished. It’s a real­ly, real­ly, real­ly excel­lent sec­ond draft.

With that said, let’s move on to the actu­al meat of the arti­cle.

Quality and Enjoyment

The first point I wish to make is an impor­tant dis­tinc­tion which will be quite rel­e­vant to this arti­cle and any other arti­cle I ever write again.

The dis­tinc­tion can be sum­ma­rized as the dif­fer­ence between “lik­ing” a work of art and stat­ing that a work of art is “good,” or the dif­fer­ence between “favorite” and “best.” The words “like” and “favorite” refer to the amount which a per­son enjoyed a work of art, where­as the words “good” and “best” refer to what the per­son per­ceives as a work’s qual­i­ty. These are two very dif­fer­ent con­cepts.

Enjoyment is a pure­ly sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence, and offers no real room for dis­cus­sion. The state­ment “I liked it,” refers only to the feel­ings gen­er­at­ed in me by the work. Quality, on the other hand, is an objec­tive char­ac­ter­is­tic of a work. The state­ment “It is good,” is inher­ent­ly a nor­ma­tive state­ment– it states that not only did I find the work valu­able, but that most other peo­ple ought to, too.

In this way, you could not real­ly argue with me if I said “I real­ly liked The Phantom Menace.” You could be sad for me, and might be moral­ly oblig­at­ed to pray for the state of my obvi­ous­ly degrad­ed soul, but would have no real avenue for dis­agree­ment. The facts involved relate whol­ly to whether or not I liked the movie. I am only mak­ing a claim about myself, and I am, after all, the only real expert on the topic of my own likes and dis­likes.

If, how­ev­er, I was to say that “The Phantom Menace is a good movie,” there would be room for dis­cus­sion. In that case, I would be mak­ing a claim about the movie itself. Should you feel com­pelled to argue this point with me, you could point to the lack­lus­ter script, the obnox­ious spe­cial effects, the fre­quent­ly wood­en act­ing, the exe­crable plot, etc, etc, etc, as rea­sons why The Phantom Menace is not a good movie, regard­less of how much I might like it.

It is whol­ly pos­si­ble to like some­thing that isn’t very good, or to not like some­thing which is. I hap­pen to have some­thing of a soft spot in my heart for Lady in the Water, though it’s not what you would call a par­tic­u­lar­ly good film. Similarly, though I gain lit­tle to no enjoy­ment from the aver­age Gran Turismo game, I under­stand that they are usu­al­ly very good. Furthermore, there’s noth­ing wrong with this. Taste dif­fers, and not every work of art will appeal to every per­son.

You’re Not A Very Good Dog, Cat

One of my Fundamental Axioms of Games Criticism is that a game’s artis­tic qual­i­ty is at least part­ly deter­mined by its scope, and I wrote an arti­cle a few weeks back dis­cussing that idea in some detail. The fun­da­men­tal point behind the axiom is that a game’s artis­tic qual­i­ty should be judged, in large part, based on what sort of game it is try­ing to be. This is, fur­ther­more, just as true of any other work of art as it is of video games.

At a very macro level, no one’s going to dis­agree with me about this. It would not make sense to be mad at Portal for not includ­ing an inven­to­ry sys­tem, or to crit­i­cize Final Fantasy VII because it’s not a very good sur­vival hor­ror game, but it does make sense to crit­i­cize Gears of War 2 for hav­ing a non­sen­si­cal plot. But on a more spe­cif­ic level, I find that this ties in very close­ly with the Problem of Expectation.

By “expec­ta­tions,” I sim­ply mean the pre­con­ceived notions of what you believe a game ought to be that you bring to the table (or couch, more like­ly) when you start play­ing a video game. These expec­ta­tions can orig­i­nate from a game’s asso­ci­at­ed mar­ket­ing cam­paigns, pre­vi­ous games in a fran­chise, other games made by a devel­op­er, the opin­ions of friends, recur­ring tropes in the game’s genre, or any num­ber of other sources. These expec­ta­tions are part of what allow us to sort through a col­lec­tion of games on Steam and decide which ones are like­ly to appeal to us.

The Problem of Expectation can arise when one’s expec­ta­tions become too spe­cif­ic, and thus engage in con­flict with the design­ers’ artis­tic vision. Allow me to illus­trate what I mean with an exam­ple.

When I first began to play Assassin’s Creed, I had a very spe­cif­ic con­cep­tion in mind for how I thought an assas­sin should behave, and attempt­ed to play the game accord­ing­ly. Assassins, I rea­soned, should attempt to flit in and out of a given area com­plete­ly unno­ticed, deal­ing as lit­tle extra dam­age to per­sons and prop­er­ty as pos­si­ble, and draw­ing as lit­tle atten­tion to them­selves as pos­si­ble. While play­ing the game, I thus attempt­ed to be per­fect­ly unde­tect­ed in my every move, never to engage in com­bat except when absolute­ly nec­es­sary, and only to do high-profile actions like run­ning on rooftops or attack­ing mis­cel­la­neous guards when I absolute­ly had to.

And I was­n’t haven’t a par­tic­u­lar­ly good time. Getting across any of the cities took for­ev­er if I strolled casu­al­ly through the city streets, and was just as monot­o­nous as it was time-consuming. I over­planned my major assas­si­na­tion con­tracts only to have my intri­cate plans thwart­ed by script­ed events which called for me to rapid­ly run on rooftops in mor­tal com­bat with sev­er­al ene­mies at once.

Frustrated, I com­plained to Matt (I was play­ing it on his Xbox) that “I thought this was sup­posed to be a stealth game.” He looked at me and said some­thing to the effect of “No, not real­ly. It’s a sand­box game with stealth ele­ments,” and the lights of heav­en opened up above me. I final­ly under­stood! Assassin’s Creed is not a game where you play an unde­tectable shad­ow, it’s a game where you play a badass. Suddenly, all of the jump­ing off of impossibly-high build­ings and bru­tal coun­ter­at­tacks made a lot of sense to me, and I found the game much more enjoy­able. Assassin’s Creed is far from per­fect, but it works a lot bet­ter when held to its own stan­dards, rather than what­ev­er arbi­trary things I had cooked up and brought to the table.

I had let my expec­ta­tions for the game get in between me and the artis­tic vision of the devel­op­ers, and in so doing, dam­aged both my enjoy­ment of the game, and my per­cep­tion of the game’s qual­i­ty. Rather than engag­ing with the game itself, I was try­ing to engage with the game I thought it was, there­by gain­ing a skewed and incor­rect per­spec­tive about the game’s qual­i­ty and enjoy­a­bil­i­ty.

Look, I Found A Slightly Better Hat,” and Other Epic Tales

I think very few games have suf­fered more from the vagaries and foibles of Expectation than Dragon Age II, which, as men­tioned above, opted to dra­mat­i­cal­ly change sev­er­al key mechan­i­cal ele­ments and design philoso­phies from Dragon Age: Origins, and instant­ly received a great deal of flak for said deci­sions. At the end of the day, it deserved some of this flak, as I’ve men­tioned in my quick review above.

But what is most curi­ous is that it received a great deal of this crit­i­cism long before the game ever hit stores. Longtime BioWare fans com­plained at the con­sol­i­da­tion of the numer­ous char­ac­ter options from Origins into a sin­gle named and voiced char­ac­ter. They com­plained about the less tac­ti­cal and more action-oriented nature of the com­bat. They com­plained about the sim­pli­fied inven­to­ry sys­tem, and they did all of this even before the demo came out, when at most, if they were very lucky, they might have played 20 min­utes of the game at PAX or some sim­i­lar con.

Most of these folks did not seem to con­sid­er that it was con­ceiv­ably pos­si­ble that the design­ers behind Dragon Age II had very good rea­sons for the changes they made. Further, at the time every­one first became so upset, since the game had yet been released, it was still pos­si­ble that each of the changes worked beau­ti­ful­ly and con­tributed to a dynam­ic and beau­ti­ful whole. The only pos­si­ble rea­son to be upset at this point was if the game did not con­form to your expec­ta­tions.

And that, my friends, is a silly rea­son to be mad at a video game. Players whined that they were going to be forced to play the role of Hawke, rather than one of a num­ber of pos­si­ble char­ac­ters from dif­fer­ent back­grounds, when that is the entire point of Dragon Age II. The entire devel­op­ment team behind Dragon Age II fre­quent­ly described it as a small­er story, focus­ing on one indi­vid­ual per­son­’s rise to power. Whether you “like” this kind of story bet­ter than the sweep­ing epic of Dragon Age: Origins is up to you, but it is pre­pos­ter­ous to crit­i­cize DAII for hav­ing a small focus when that is exact­ly what it was try­ing to do. It’s like pick­ing up a jar of grape jelly, clear­ly labeled “GRAPE JELLY” in large, attrac­tive let­ters on the label and then some­how being sur­prised when it con­tains a sticky, jam-like sub­stance fla­vored large­ly like the fruit of Vitis vinifera.

WTF is this?

You don’t have to like grape jelly. You are def­i­nite­ly allowed to pre­fer straw­ber­ry jelly, or even peanut but­ter. But the qual­i­ty of a jar of grape jelly needs to be eval­u­at­ed com­pared to other jars of grape jelly. The reduced scope of the game should be used as one of the premis­es against which to eval­u­ate it, not an eval­u­at­able (not a word) fact in and of itself. The prob­lem with DAII’s tight­ened scope is the fact that it aban­dons it at the very end of the game. Dragon Age II deserves to be crit­i­cized for a vari­ety of rea­sons, but among them is not the fact that it is not peanut but­ter.

Conclusion: On Expectation and Art

Some will argue that the design­ers behind DAII should­n’t have made the changes they did because the audi­ence clear­ly did­n’t like those changes. If every­one prefers peanut but­ter, and you make grape jelly, it might be good grape jelly, but you still haven’t pleased your audi­ence. This is a prob­lem I will most­ly tack­le next week, in my dis­cus­sion of Entitlement, but I will leave you with the fol­low­ing thought about the dif­fer­ence between art and enter­tain­ment.

Art is about what the artist(s) want(s) to com­mu­ni­cate. It is not about giv­ing the audi­ence exact­ly what they want to hear/see/play. Successful art cer­tain­ly needs to engage with the audi­ence in order to com­mu­ni­cate with them, but art is not sim­ply about giv­ing the audi­ence exact­ly what they expect. Giving the audi­ence what they want is the pur­pose of enter­tain­ment. Art may some­times func­tion as enter­tain­ment, and usu­al­ly needs to be some­what enter­tain­ing in order to appeal to a large crowd, but it is a fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent thing.

No fan of 19th-century sym­phon­ic music would have said that he or she par­tic­u­lar­ly want­ed to hear loud, bom­bas­tic brass and per­cus­sion in the con­cert hall, and cer­tain­ly would not have expect­ed it. But that’s what Beethoven gave them, and we are very, very glad that he did. If Beethoven had focused only on giv­ing the audi­ence what they want­ed, not only would we be with­out the great mas­ter­pieces he wrote, the whole his­to­ry of west­ern music would be much, much less inter­est­ing.

Game devel­op­ers do need to keep gamers’ expec­ta­tions in mind, as any game which com­plete­ly sub­verts them in every way is like­ly to be very dis­ori­ent­ing and dif­fi­cult to fol­low. But if we, as gamers, want to expe­ri­ence games as art, and not mere­ly as enter­tain­ment, we have to be will­ing to put our pre­con­ceived expec­ta­tions of genre or con­ven­tion aside, and try to engage with games on their own terms. We will almost cer­tain­ly end up pre­fer­ring cer­tain types of sto­ries and modes of sto­ry­telling over oth­ers, but this does not mean that we must dis­miss out of hand as “bor­ing” or “bad” works that fall out­side our favored gen­res or styles.

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and groundskeeper of The Ontological Geek, now that it has shifted over to archive mode. If something on the site isn't working, please shoot a DM to @ontologicalgeek on Twitter!