So here I am, an elf mage in another high fantasy RPG. This time it's Bioware's Dragon Age, filling me with Baldur's Gate déjà vu and reminding me yet again of the coalescent predictability of the genre. I say that like it's a bad thing.
It is and it isn't. Criticizing Dragon Age's formulaic plot, malleable though it may be, is like shooting fish in a barrel. The demons from the spirit realm, the shadow lord arch-villain, the descent to the netherworld, the errands, the team gathering, the mages, rogues, and warriors - it's all well-worn territory. Dragon Age elevates it with richer characters, more interesting sidequests, and a dialogue system that can lead to genuinely surprising outcomes; but a revolutionary RPG this is not.
Dragon Age explores well-defined mythic territory, so complaining about its formulaic nature is like whining about all the singing in opera. No, my problem with Dragon Age isn't about archetypes or storytelling tropes. It's about the all-too familiar mechanical constraints that have worn out their welcome. As games like Dragon Age grow more ambitious, offering role-playing that feels increasingly flexible and responsive, the rigid niggly stuff seems more out of place than ever.
Example: I enter a refugee village full of lost orphans and hungry, displaced men and women. They desperately need food, shelter, and supplies. Meanwhile, all around the village I see glowing crates full of goodies that apparently none of these refugees can see. Why? Because those crates are how game enables me to replenish my implausibly large backpack with items I need. A homeless refugee may be paces away from an unlocked stash of valuable stuff, but that stuff is for me and only me. And once I've taken it, I can't give it to anybody except my party pals. It's an RPG thing.
Show me a villager deadset on an idea, and I'll show you a villager who's mind can be changed in a moment. A simple "Don't you think you should reconsider this?" from me is enough to provoke a full 180. Why? Because I've been grinding my way through Persuasion boosts for hours. My ability to persuade has almost nothing to do with the power of my ideas or convincing counter-arguments. Who needs 'em? I'm persuasive because I've got mad stats. It's an RPG thing.
Let's say I do something awful in the game. Chances are I'll lose status points with one of my party members, but not to worry. I can always boost my status by gifting an item I find in a crate or on the body of one of my victims. No matter how objectionable my actions or how vociferously my companions object, redemption is just around the corner with a little trinket largesse. Scruples? Who needs 'em? Why? Because the game needs a mechanism for allowing me to boost my status and hold onto my party members. Mechanics trump character integrity. It's an RPG thing.
Applying a plausibility standard to games is a ridiculous idea, of course. Games require big imaginative leaps from us, and that's half the fun. One reason the spattered blood effects in Dragon Age often seem laughably absurd is that the game seems to inexplicably strive for a burst of 'realism' amidst a sea of outrageously unrealistic action and characters. I'm not hoping for a more realistic Dragon Age; I'm wishing for a less incongruous one.
As RPGs evolve - particularly western RPGs - the problem is less about plausibility and more about leftover mechanical constraints from older games. Repeatedly bumping into the incongruities I've mentioned (and these are merely a sampling) feels less necessary than it once did. We're supposed to overlook them, but I'm beginning to wonder why we should.