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Ian O'Rourke
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Turning The Difficulty Down

As I've been playing Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2 another contrast between traditional tabletop role-playing games and computer role-playing games has hit me. The thorny issue of turning the difficulty down.

The issue came up because I played Dragon Age: Origins on normal for 95% of the time (probably 99.999% for Dragon Age 2 and I've completed Act 1), but I did occasionally turn the difficulty down a notch to casual. Not an issue you'd think. I did it and didn't lose any sleep over it, but there was a small part of me who felt like it was cheating. Weird. It's weird because in a tabletop role-playing games I don't invest significantly in the gamist challenge. We had gamist challenge as an element of the 4E Campaign, but there was never a feeling of guilt for being cheated out of the challenge (as far as I was concerned).

What's interesting is this: when I play a computer role-playing game like Dragon Age the gamist challenge element of it gains enough importance that I feel like I'm cheating when I turn the difficulty down. The gamist challenge is sufficiently woven into the experience that I do feel like I'm diminishing it when I make the choice.

Games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect are forced to wrestle with how much of the game is about the gamist challenge and how much of it is about the narrative. Since it's a fixed medium once it's boxed and shipped they usually end up annoying a percentage of the potential audience. There is an audience who see the old Baldur's Gate games as role-playing games, and insist Mass Effect isn't one, for instance. Thankfully, market forces put them in a minority, hence the differences in Dragon Age 2.

What's also interesting in these two franchises is: where does what constitutes the tabletop 'game' end and what would constitute 'player delivery' begin?

This is particularly true in the two Dragon Age games. It could be argued, from one perspective, that the mechanics of the game and how they influences play, aren't orders of magnitude different? The talent trees are different but it's still a live action, party-based system with pausing for orders. I think Dragon Age 2 feels a lot different, more immediate and visceral, but I can see the argument and wouldn't discount it out of hand.

The major difference between the games is how they are delivered, the role the players would take at the table. Dragon Age: Origins was very much a tried and tested experience with long dungeon crawls, plenty of exposition and an old school feel to the plot (like 90's Bioware games). Dragon Age 2 is different, it scene frames aggressively to the drama, often shows rather than tells and everything is quicker and shorter. The two stories could be done with 4E Dungeons and Dragons, it can be played like Dragon Age: Origins, a or more like how we played it, which Dragon Age 2 gets closer to.

This also influences how often you hit the difficulty switch. As an example, the whole final segment of Dragon Age: Origins I played on casual. It wasn't because it was difficult, as I never got to experience whether it would have been a problem or not, it was just because I felt I'd reached a dramatic denouement, new what needed to happen next, but between me and it I felt like someone had inserted a whole new war film I had to slog through. The final segment was my 'Deep Roads'. In tabletop terms, the players had decided to have two sessions of combats between one dramatic moment and the next despite knowing exactly what the next dramatic encounter was about. It was a serious pacing gaff, a problem with a lot of the game. It's the tabletop equivalent of 'not another combat encounter' and being less engaged and the brain ceasing to be applied.

In Dragon Age 2, I suspect the hitting of the reset switch because of 'too much gamist content' isn't going to happen, due to the delivery choices, the better pacing and the way the games content is packaged up in manageable chunks. It may still happen due to difficulty, as it did with the final boss of Act 1. I didn't take Anders with me to the Deep Roads and as a result my healing capacity was never going to meet that demands of the encounter. It was the first serious, MMO-style combat, and just like an MMO if the resources aren't their it's just frustrating to keep trying.

In terms of the discussions on this site so far, I differ with respect to the two mediums. I tend to see the arguments for player skill in computer games, but favour character skill in tabletop games. I can see the point of gamist challenge enough that I'd rather not admit defeat in computer games, but don't really care about it at all in tabletop games. Still, I want to experience the narrative enough that I will turn the difficulty down. In terms of character death I'm pretty much equal, in neither medium to I see the point of it being excessively random, punishing or frustrating.

Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 30/05/2011 Bookmark and Share
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