Dragon Age and Mass Effect: A Matter of Perspective
It's becoming a bit of a GDC tradition for me. Last year I met with Bioware's duelling doctors to talk about science fiction (they were stumping for the PC version of Mass Effect, but were happy to sidetrack). This year Evan Narcisse was kind enough to let me tag along with him and meet with Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk again. The results of the conversation can be read in the feature, "So What's Your Story?"
But one point I wanted to isolate from the interview. There was a moment where I asked about out a major difference between Mass Effect and the upcoming Dragon Age: Origins. In Bioware's last game players had the power to shape conversations in real-time, controlling Commander Shepherd's voice over with a nifty conversation wheel. Dragon Age, on the other hand, uses the old school multiple choice method for conversations. Characters talk to you, with actors reading their lines. Then you pick from a handful of responses, which are never read aloud. In Dragon Age you're once again the silent protagonist. For some time I considered this a step back. That is, until I brought the issue up with Zeschuk and Muzyka. They said the choice was deliberate.
Here's the conversation:
Muzyka: In Mass Effect, you’re playing the role of Commander Shepard and that’s a defined role. There’s various ways you could play Commander Shepard. You could alter the appearance, you could have male or female. But, it’s still a character who is Commander Shepard at the end of the day. In Dragon Age, there’s six origin stories and right there, you have six very different entry points into the fiction. From there, we want the voice to be your voice as a player. That’s a philosophical difference, I guess, in how we approach the narrative flow and the way that we’re delivering story. That doesn’t mean we favor one over the other. We think they’re valid ways to convey story and we’ve adapted the story we tell in Dragon Age to really embrace that, to allow for the diversity of options. We’re making it so it’s a text response for you but having much richer responses back from the non-player characters you’re talking to, so that it reflects the weight of what you said. It also factors into the replayability, too.
Zeschuk: You get better precision over what you say. The number of dialogue selections behind the scenes in Dragon Age are two or three times more what you actually see on the screen…
Muzyka: More probably.
Zeschuk: Yeah, lots more. Depending on who you are–your origin, male or female, your circumstances–you’ll see a certain set of [dialogue selections] and others will be excluded. So, it’s actually more contextual and they’re more precise. You wind feeling that you have better control over what you want to say and it maintains a consistency. As you play, it actually moves along faster. You feel just as much that you’re in a conversation, but it’s a different type of conversation.
Mastrapa: It’s the difference between first-person and third-person.
Zeschuk: Yeah! That’s actually the essence of the difference.
Muzyka: Because with Commander Shepard, you aren’t … well, you are Commander Shepard but you’re third-person Commander Shepard. You still are him, but it’s just a different tone. In Dragon Age, YOU are the Grey Warden, whatever your name you’ve chosen and the story is told through your eyes. We found in some very early trials that to hear yourself speak [the dialogue] didn’t really work for a narrative flow. So, with the voiceover response back from the non-player characters and the range of choices you get, if anything, it’s much bigger. It’s a different kind of game with a different story on it.
What we're talking about is perspective in the literary sense. Not the perspective of the camera, but the perspective of the story telling. In literature the first person narrative is told by one person (usually the main character), the third person story is told by an omnicient narrator. I'm still wrapping my head around the idea that a video game can be presented in a third-person perpective (with an over-the-shoulder camera) but still take a first-person approach to storytelling (helping you inhabit the role of the protagonist by keeping them silent and allowing you to read those lines in your head. Does this way of looking at storytelling make The Twilight Princess and Half Life 2 more similar when it comes to story, even though the way that those games play are so divergent?