Dragon Age: Origins — Great Game or GREATEST Game?

My in-laws bought me two games for Christmas, both of which were high on my little-kid-wish-list, and both of which I expected would keep me well occupied for the next year. In this expectation, I do not believe I will be disappointed, except that Dragon Age is so wonderful I can scarcely leave.

I’ve got over ninety hours into the game so far in about a month, which is flippin’ crazy. 52 of that was my first play through over winter break, so it’s not like I had work or anything, but in the 3-4 weeks since then my gaming has become no less focused. I’m very close to beating the game a second time, and I’m about 1/4 through on a third character already. The game demands at least five full play throughs to satisfy my role-playing desires.

Dragon Age appeals to me for a few different reasons, and they’re not ones that appeal to everyone. I know at least one person who hasn’t enjoyed it (though as far as I’m concerned, he never gave the game a fair shake–I don’t think he even made it past the introduction), and it’s certainly not for everyone. But there are two things that you may have loved when you were a bit younger, and if you loved them then I think Dragon Age will nestle comfortably into your arms. These two things are Baldur’s Gate and Choose-Your-Own Adventure books.

Baldur’s Gate was a role-playing game some 10-15 years ago where you could control one character and fight battles in real time or pause and control each character individually. Your party would range up to five members, each with unique voice acting (though full conversations weren’t generally recorded, but when you clicked on them or they did something they would vocalize that) and personalities. It was good sized world, and the expansions only made it better. I can’t recount how many hundreds of hours I played BG. Dragon Age has been touted as the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate, and it is.

No one but me seemed to check out the Choose-Your-Own Adventure books from the library, but I always really enjoyed them. In particular, I enjoyed seeing the different paths available, flipping back and forth through the book to see what might have been if I’d made a decision differently. The multitude of possibilities fascinated me, and that’s what keeps me playing Dragon Age long after I know the overarching theme and plot. I know that at the end the good guys will win, but I don’t know how that will play out. Different alliances can be forged, different people can join or leave your party, and there are many different things to experience. I keep playing the game over to see what would change if I did something differently. Dragon Age doesn’t disappoint. Its art is beautiful, its voice acting is really good, and its decisions are myriad and challenging. It’s like reading a book and getting to interact with it at the same time.

The only problem with it is 1) I haven’t played Assassin’s Creed 2 as much as I would like to have, though I’m also really enjoying that game, 2) I haven’t written as much as I want, though I don’t regret this too much considering how stressful the last few weeks have been and how playing a game on the weekend has rejuvenated me, and 3) Mass Effect 2 is coming out in a couple of days, which is another life-consuming-OMG-let-me-replay-it-over-and-over game. ME2 and DA:O are by the same company, by the way.

Anyways, yeah… that’s what I’ve been up to. If you have been wondering whether to check out Dragon Age or not, this probably won’t convince you if none of the other nerds on the Internet frothing at the mouth over how great it is hasn’t already pushed you into trying it. But I wanted to express my continued appreciation, excitement, and joy over it. Good times.

My Love Affair With IRC

You may not know this about me, but I was quite a shut-in as a young lad. It began when I was about eight years old and we first moved to Springfield.

Our home had been ironically named Trouble’s End by my parents, a hopeful epitaph following my father’s retirement from the military and marking the reunion of my parents after a separation filled with lies, poor financial decisions, adultery, and culminating in my father’s assignment to Korea for two years (unrelated to the separation, of course–he was required to go to Korea prior to retirement). It was out in the country, as my father desired, and also closer to his family (also his call), which put me in the unfortunate situation of being out of the suburbs for the first time ever. I had no friends, and the few people I met on the school bus lived too far away to visit.

Between my parents’ troubles, the bullies at school, and my burgeoning interest in girls coupled with their complete rejection of me, I elected to escape my circumstances rather than confronting them. I dove into books, escaping into fantastic worlds where good and evil were clearly defined, chivalry and honour were always rewarded, and the main characters were close friends who stuck up for one another.

My obsession with fantasy fiction resulted unsurprisingly in an attraction to roleplaying, and I subsequently became involved with Dungeons & Dragons in eighth grade. My father hosted the games at his house (my parents were divorced by this point) after I cajoled him into DMing for my friends and I, which lasted for a wonderful few months where we made character after character, fought countless orcs and even a few dragons, and generally had a lot of laughs and pizza. We played for the time we spent together rather than the game itself, and I loved every minute of it.

I was never fully one-way-or-the-other with roleplaying: I loved both the social aspects and the appeal to imagination. The immersion in a fantastic world where I was the hero with a company of comrades who watched my back and took care of one another. It appealed to my intellect and ingenuity, challenging me to find solutions and giving me a chance at glory when I came up with the right ones. I was a star.

And then I discovered Carcassonne Haven.

Carcassonne was a roleplaying game run over IRC (Internet Relay Chat) with a website for character sheets, inventories, maps, and everything else needed. A dedicated group of GMs (definition: Game Master, a title similar to Dungeon Master (DM) and generally used with every game not-D&D) coordinated the storyline and kept everything going, with adventures run every couple of nights in two hour blocks. Because all of this was over IRC, it required all actions and roleplaying to be typed as quickly and descriptively as one could. Extra points were given for creativity, but you had to keep up with  everyone else so you had to write fast.

It was challenging, fun, and a great community, and it sparked my love of IRC.

I had already been extremely active on talkers for years, so the transition to IRC (which predated talkers and was significantly simpler) was an easy one. The difference seemed to be that IRC was far less dramatic because there was a great deal less investment in an IRC channel than there was in a talker. Talkers were like BBSs on steroids, hosted by someone on a server and often painstakenly coded to have all sorts of neat things like unique rooms with descriptions, games, fun commands to display different text items, etc. When you connected to a channel on IRC, you just hit an IRC server and typed /join #room and bam, you’d joined #room (or created it if it didn’t already exist) and were done. There were hundreds of IRC servers with thousands of rooms, so you could always go elsewhere if you wanted to find other people. The emotional investment wasn’t in building the space or coding the rooms, but in simply chatting with people and getting to know them.

And I had found an IRC server with nothing but roleplaying games, with Carcasonne as the crown jewel.

RPing on Carcasonne taught me a great deal about how to interact with people who didn’t like you. It was obviously a game and we all understood that any negativity was in-character, not out-of-character, but I was playing a good guy and that naturally made the bad guys dislike me. Similar to my real life, the bad guys tried to kill me, to stab me in the back, and to generally hurt me every chance they got.

But unlike my real life, I had friends who protected and defended me, and with whom I could commiserate and share my tribulations. I even had an in-game romance that went my way for once, unlike so many of my bungled attempts in real life. I learned how to deal with challenges in a mature and healthy way, and in particular the game planted the seeds that helped me learn how to cope with loss, death, and destruction.

The stories we spawned in Carcasonne Haven would make for a wonderful and epic novel, but unfortunately the woman who ran the game claimed copyright on everything and the stories are so tied to the characters that I have trouble changing the names and writing it. It’s unfortunate, but though I’d love to share those stories, I don’t feel like they’re mine to share. They were ours, built collectively and wonderfully, and even if I were to put them into the public domain, I would feel like I was stealing something from each of the players.

But at least I have the memories, coupled with the lessons and the typing skills I learned from RPing on IRC. Though such games seem to have gone the way of the DoDo, I remember them with fondness and hope that someday they will rise again. The sense of community and the fun of the game surpasses any MMORPG I’ve played.

I hadn’t been on IRC since high school, when Carcasonne Haven slowly dissolved and I moved on to college and Star Wars Galaxies (followed by World of Warcraft, Dungeons & Dragons Online, Eve-Online, and then back to WoW). But with my recent registration for the Penny-Arcade Expo, I saw that they had an IRC channel and decided to join.

Unlike most of the tech IRC channels I’ve hopped into over the last couple of years for answers to Linux questions, this one actually had people chatting. Friends who knew each other, and who were part of a community, were sharing their lives and jokes one scrolling line at a time. Laughing out loud at their inane chatter, I realized with amazement how long it had been since I had joined a good Internet Relay Chat. And as they asked me questions and we talked about where we worked, the games we played, and how best to escape zombies, I sat back and sighed.

I was home again.