War. War Never Changes – Thoughts on Conflict and Context

War. War Never Changes – Thoughts on Conflict and Context by Joe “Shadon1010” Dillon

Every story requires conflict or there is no story, just stagnation. But the word “conflict” itself is distinct from the context that it revolves in. For example, there can be conflict in deciding if you want regular cornflakes in the morning or those with a sugar frosting, or there can be conflict in a dread cosmic entity deciding to devour all of reality. In both cases there is conflict, it’s just the context that differs.

Yet when conflict is mentioned the context is often what first springs to mind. Or rather that we have a stereotype of conflict: war. After all, battles in the media are often called conflicts these days.

Why is this relevant to games? The vast majority of game plots have war as the context as it’s something we are all familiar with even if we have never been directly involved in it. And while war as a context is all well and good, it’s the layers of context that are often placed above this that often frustrate me.

I am of course referring to the many games set in modern times, in the real world, in countries or locations we are all too familiar with. Call of Duty, Homefront, Battlefield, you know what I’m talking about.

My gripe is that because we are now all too familiar with real world wars and battles past and present, game developers and writers are resorting to the middle east country name tastefully removed template of context, such that the word “conflict” and that all too often used context are now synonymous. I can see why this is done; it makes the game easily identifiable and recognisable. If you’ve seen the Captain America trailers as of late the film is being presented for the most part as a standard war flick from the selection of shots they’ve taken, yet of course Marvel are using this technique of identification to draw people in to this story where the context is only dressed with 1940’s World War II era styling and locations, as opposed to being the entire world in which the story plays out.

Allow me to segue elsewhere. I recently completed Crysis 2, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the game despite my PC being still somewhat sore from the abuse it took, something niggled at me. Something I couldn’t initially put my finger on about a variety of things; the de ja vu, the wasted potential, the similarities.

Firstly, the setting of New York, while brilliantly rendered for certain, is so far gone of a cliché that it forced me to recall a similar game story wise: Prototype. Private Military Corporation? Check. Rampant Viral Outbreak? Check. Arsehole Commander of PMC who you kill? Check. Both set in New York. The fact that the Ceph and the mutants from Prototype had similar colour schemes did not help.

Secondly, I realised that the gameplay, as open ended as your choices were in how to approach each set piece, was all too similar to Call of Duty that I couldn’t help but wonder: If I were to show this game without spoiling the title to someone who was familiar with the Call of Duty series but not with Crysis or Crytek, could I pass it off as Call of Duty: Future Warfare? Quite possibly.

My fear is that game writers are becoming too safe in their choices of contexts such that conflict and context become synonymous, likely with this template of real world scenarios that are otherwise unchallenging and instantly recognisable. When I say conflict, this will mean “noble soldier versus third world terrorism”, rather than merely being a mechanism around which a story revolves. Conflict is required in a plot certainly, but the presence of Middle Eastern terrorists is not, nor is military bravado. It’s up to you what you put in there, but try to at least challenge the gamer with something a bit more out there. Remember Bioshock? If that wasn’t a wake up call to the industry that games can’t both be challenging in the story and the actual gameplay as well as being profitable, I don’t know what is.

This is why Crysis 2 was a minor disappointment for me, because it had all the unusual elements in place (Nanosuit, aliens etc) but chose a more pedestrian location with all too familiar characters. It had the potential for something more out there, but instead fell back on the easy option. Still, I applaud Crytek for not going full lazy and injecting the scenario of a devastated New York with those elements I mentioned, and I hope future instalments of Crysis or other series follow suit. Indeed, if I recall correctly, there was initial resistance from Activision in moving Call of Duty from its World War II roots to the Modern Warfare era, yet as a result they actually pulled off, at least in Modern Warfare 1, a solid story with great atmosphere and made untold millions. But now that setting and context has become frankly boring and if it continues to be recycled game stories that utilise it will become as stagnant as they would be without any conflict whatsoever.

Ranting aside, I have one final question. What exactly do writers have against New York?

– Joe “Shadon1010” Dillon is a wannabe writer and has actually been to New York. Despite what is required of him, he does not hate the city. Maybe one homeless person at most. That’s all.  

Love Is A Game – And Like Love, Don’t Be A Dick About It

Some Thoughts on the Dragon Age II Romance Controversies by Joe “Shadon1010” Dillon.

Relationships are funny things. Sometimes they’re stupid. Sometimes they last a lifetime. Sometimes they end in heartbreak. Sometimes they end after fifteen seconds of the okie cokie, if you know what I mean. But suffice to say that everyone who walks this earth has their own spin on relationships, that is, on both their perspectives towards being with someone and their anecdotal experiences; I certainly have plenty to say about both of those.

Romance and relationships have featured in Bioware games as far back as when I started playing them with Star Wars: The Knights of the Old Republic. Certainly they’ve cropped up in other gaming media since then but it’s pretty much a given that in Bioware games your player character is able to engage in romantic overtures or downright bow-chicka-wow-wow if you so want.

So it comes as no surprise then in Dragon Age II (hereon referred to as DA II), Bioware’s latest work and the sequel to Dragon Age: Origins, that your character, Hawke, can engage in romance and sex without you resorting to fanfiction.net, Notepad and perverse drunken fantasies. But what’s fascinating is that the player base of DA II, at least in certain circles inside that strata of gamers, made a significant outcry against the romance options. The first group complained that there was no catering to the straight gamer in the available romances, the second that the gay, lesbian and bi relationships denigrated homosexual gamers. It’s quite a rare occurrence when writing a work of fiction that you manage to piss off opposing camps at the same time and I feel sorry for David Gaider, lead writer of DA II, imaging his reaction to this controversy to be so dumbstruck even a Picard strength facepalm would not have been sufficient.

Let me establish my credentials here. I have played the game through twice, firstly as a Male Hawke who romanced Isabella, the face that crashed a thousand ships, then as a Female Hawke with Fenris, the elven Sephiroth expy with a monopoly in having a chip on one’s shoulder. I have not pursued any of the homosexual relationships, although my reasons are not out of any dislike of said sexuality, rather simply because Isabella and Fenris fit my conceptions of how I played each of my characters. Male Hawke was a rogue with a wild side but a good heart, Female Hawke was a mage who was attracted to someone who had prejudice against them as Fenris did. Simple as that.

A particular sticking point I recall being brought up more than once is that during his quests, Anders, the wannabe Che Guevara of mages, actually comes onto your character irrespective of their gender or overt sexuality. If you then turn him down, he gets a bit miffed and you earn rivalry points. That was the point of contention, that Anders disliked you for rejecting him.

Allow me a moment to be blunt here. Anders is acting like, you know, many people would when they are turned down by someone they attracted to, which is hurt, which in turn is like a fucking human being. What did you expect him to do, go “Oh, cool. Talk to you later, got a revolution to plan. White Riot, I wanna riot…”? Heaven forbid we have a character who is written three dimensionally here.

I think the problem though lies in the fact that the romance is tied into the friendship/rivalry disposition, an ironically two dimensional in game measure of a companion’s disposition towards Hawke. That measure is quantitative in that it is based on a number range of, I assume, +100 to -100 for friendship and rivalry respectively. Romance of any sort is qualitative and based on feelings and contexts. While potentially you could say that on a scale of 1 – 10 your love for someone is a 9, you can’t use the same scale to say why you love them.

Therefore, lumping in this rejection to the rivalry system suggests it to be part of the whole feeling of how your companion sees your Hawke. Yet if you think about it, Anders resentment towards you being rejected because you’ve got a thing for white hair and pointy ears and Anders disliking you because you think Jedi, I mean, mages are all scum are different things. Summing up a character’s dislike or like of your Hawke on a glorified sliding scale seems rather simplistic and, if I’m honest, unnecessary. Good writing and dialogue should be able to convey a character’s opinion on you, not a blue or red grinding bar.

The problem with the “straight gamers” crowd was apparently also with Anders overt coming on to your character and the fact that the romance options for the straight Hawke among us are limited to the queen of STDs and grand pirate wench Isabella or the meek, fragile sometimes downright annoying Merryl. Indeed, when I was playing through with Male Hawke, I thought “let’s see if I can romance Aveline” (I imagine some of you were thinking more along the lines of “let’s see if I can penetrate her armour, you know what I’m saying, HOOOOO YEAH”)

Yet, Aveline, as the first companion Hawke meets and a truly loyal, not screwed up and relatively normal individual, is, best I’m aware, uninterested in your affection. Indeed, Aveline might just be in my opinion the most alive character in Bioware’s works because she seems to have a goddamn life outside of working with Hawke. She seeks her own relationship with a guardsman, in an admittedly hilariously incompetent but somewhat touching way, and they end up married. And despite me hitting every “I ❤ you” dialogue option available she was simply not interested, and that was after I made sure I hadn’t equipped the Belt of Eternal Chastity or the Ring of the Religious Wackjob Coven on her.

I’m not sure if others had a bone to pick about this, but initially this peeved me off. Why place the romance option there if it wasn’t possible to romance Aveline? Then it hit me. That is just sometimes how things go with romance and love, which is to say, unrequited. That out of the three women available for you to try your luck with (Bethany doesn’t count you sick sick fuckers) she is most normal and mentally stable is a daring move on the writer’s part. That frustration you might have felt when stuck between picking The Whore of Bablyon meets Jack Sparrow or that sappy bumbling idiotic Welsh elven pixie? That is just a recreation of what you might feel in real life when frustrated by your own feelings and romantic emotions.

Essentially, DA II’s romance options are just that, options. Were it up to me I would de-incentivise the romances by not having an achievement tied into getting your Ron Jeremy on with the man/woman of your choosing. As I recall, Jade Empire had lesbian, gay and bi romance options and yet I have no memory of any similar controversy. But that was before the achievement age, and I wonder if some gamers who have been firebombing David Gaider’s inbox felt their brains fizzle at the lack of straight options when grinding for their achievement points.

As I said, that frustration? That might just be how real life works. Your circle of friends may not have any one attractive to you. You may desire someone who has no reciprocal interest in you. That is life. And if any of these people complaining on the internet about DA II’s romances didn’t pick up on that, well, that’s a shame. I personally was never aware it was a crime to try and make fictional characters act like real people. Sure, DA II is a fantasy, but when was the last time you conquered a lusty double-d maiden with flowing golden locks and rouge lips by slaying an evil beast in a real life bar as opposed to an RPG?

I thought not. Although when the cosplay train comes to town, that might change. Until then, be thankful for good writing, difficult choices and characters who seem alive. But never forget, it’s still a game, and that’s no excuse to troll. Save that for HotOrNot.com.

– Joe “Shadon1010” Dillon is a wannabe writer, gamer, drunkard and incomprehensible lunatic. His favourite chat up line is to try and roll d20.