The Fantasy Cyborg: Reading Passing Narratives in Dragon Age

(Spoiler warning for the Dragon Age series)

Topics about social minorities in video games typically manifest in the relationship humans have with other sentient characters of their world or universe. Games often present humanity as space-warfaring Americans or in a setting reminiscent of feudal England, making the “Other” someone of a different species or robot of some sort, since contemporary minority rights don’t exist in these situations. Games haven’t produced a sizable amount of characters that make their cross-species (like Half-Elves) or cyborg identity important to the theme or action, effectively cutting out a large portion of already scant analysis on multi-racial and transgender politics in games.

Passing narratives, the experiences of a multi-racial or transgender character in relation to the identity society views them as, in media appear in LeiLani Nishime’s “The Mulatto Cyborg,” citing cyborg characters from films as expressions of anxiety over miscegenation. While the popular imagining of cyborgs are part human, part machine beings, the mages from the Dragon Age series act as a high fantasy response as part human, part spirit characters. Mages can receive equal treatment if their mage status is unknown. However, once revealed, they receive skepticism, whether they are good or evil, a practitioner of blood magic or not. Most of the mages that travel with the Warden and Hawke live passing as human while managing their cyborg identity. Using Nishime’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Mulatto Cyborg” structure, Dragon Age II shows a successful beginning of representing multi-racial and transgender politics. Whereas the multi-racial cyborg negotiates between multiple races, the transgender cyborg balances their transgender identity with a ‘recognized’ one of their society, usually as a woman or man.

The Good Mage

The Good Cyborg is the tragic figure trying to become more (white, cisgender) human, but still outcast by society. In Dragon Age: Origins, the player encounters Tranquil mages, who celebrate their disconnection from the Fade even though it came at a high cost. Many mages volunteer for the Rite of Tranquility, as a self-loathing mage can be convinced to do in the mage starting section of Origins. The plight of the good mage rests in the essentialism of society; once born outside of the standard, one could never hope to achieve the status of a “true” human. The Tranquil are often put into positions of servitude and practical application that mages are absent from, now seen as acceptable and safe to interact with other humans. The player’s interaction with one such Tranquil shopkeeper broaches the topic of humanity, implying the general assumption of the Tranquil being less than human and mage. As Nishime puts it, the Good Cyborgs are nostalgic for something that never existed for them, and can only occur inside their own minds. It is telling that taking away the mage’s connection with the Fade and spirits takes away what is mage-like about them, and leaves something other than human as a result.

The Bad Mage

These mages confirm the suspicions and accusations made against their kind by the Templars and Chantry. How the player encounters them is telling: the main character battles demons and blood mages, many in scenes of destruction and rebellion. Dramatic cut scenes depict the use of blood magic and demonic transformation than any other type of magic, mirroring the unmasking of the Bad Cyborgs in films like The Terminator. They embrace dealings with demons and any grab at power that their magic affords them. Rejecting humanity by attacking it, Bad Mages resonate with the fears our culture has of identities that defy binaries. Dragon Age II’s Meredith plays on this anxiety by highlighting the mages’ ability to hide amongst the populace and strike down the everyday person, very similar rhetoric to opponents of minority rights. This also places value in being purely human, with anything different on the path to taint that purity. Nishime observes the only way towards redemption for Bad Cyborgs and Mages alike: total sacrifice and submission. Meredith acknowledges this sacrifice near the end of the game, but forces it on the mages, seeing the “people” of Kirkwall the real victims, not the mages. Juxtaposed in this manner, mages are second-class humans without all the rights that come along with being human, even if they are well behaved.

The Mixed/Trans Mage

Instead of looking to pass as completely human or of the Fade, the Mixed/Trans Mage embraces their hybridity and shapes their circumstances to fit their identity. These characters disturb and confuse onlookers by occupying a space that lies outside of the binary of good and bad. The progressive tone of the Dragon Age series arises from the many Mixed/Trans Mages the player can encounter, namely Morrigan, Anders, and Merrill. Mage-skeptical characters, such as Alistair, Fenris, and Aveline, are bewildered each time they attempt to apply the Good/Bad Mage mentality on them only to hear a rebuttal traversing into a gray area. Much like multi-racial and transgender people in reality, these characters manage their lives under the pressure to pass as standard while typecast as the bad cyborg and avoiding the fate of the good one. They often talk to the player as a teacher or from an enlightened viewpoint of someone who sees the social construction of being human and a mage. What is confusing to both Dragon Age’s society and our own is the perceived hubris of the Mixed/Trans Mage; why are these people being so loud? Who are they to disrupt the natural order of things? Why do we have to change for them?

Dragon Age II’s Passing Narratives

The struggles Anders and Merrill fight to achieve their identity-driven objectives while negotiating respect with their party members and evading Templars successfully speak to passing and identity issues for multi-racial and transgender people. Anders’ struggle with Justice describes how these minorities fair in the current social climate in reality, fearing the persecution of those who don’t understand him while controlling his deserved anger from being destructive. No one has answers for Anders’ problems other than to be a good, patient mage, and eventually society might change to make things better. This frustration builds in a culture for which there is no outlet for his feelings, much like predicament of multi-racial and transgender people finding little comfort in their allies while performing saint-like behavior around the oppressors. Anders’ story shows that society will not change quickly enough for the Mixed/Trans Cyborg, and instead, a cataclysmic change to the oppressive structure must occur. Merrill has even more hybridity to her identity; she is a Dalish who lives in the city, alienated from her clan, humans, and city elves while also marginalized for her blood magic. Her tense dialogue with Anders reveals the need for a pluralistic look on their issues, as Anders is quick to criticize Merrill despite their similar paths. Dragon Age II tells a tragic story of the Mixed/Trans Cyborg that tries to hold onto their roots while developing their borderless identity: instead of eliminating an overarching institution, Merrill can only be free once the bond with family that holds her back is destroyed.

Identifying the Mixed/Trans Cyborg/Mage amongst the numerous Good and Bad ones serves as a tool for not only reading multi-racial and transgender topics in games, but also creating successful minority characters overall. Development teams need more encouragement to include these identities and their issues in games; revealing and discussing passing narratives will lend material for more diverse game characters.

Ludonarrative Resonance

Games and narratives seem to have a contentious relationship within gaming discourse; what is a game and should we read them as a narrative? What is a narrative and when does it belong in a game? Thankfully, I don’t care about these questions, as they are disguised methods of drawing lines in the sand. The how’s are much more interesting: How are narratives important to games? How does narrative fit into game design? How do games communicate narratives? How narrative originates from the game design is a rather abstract concept; in fact, most games that zero-in on ludonarrative game mechanics are thrown into the “art game” category, though all games could successfully strive for ludonarrative resonance.

Any familiarity with design will be helpful in understanding a vague statement such as “narrative grows from the design and echoes the game mechanics,” which would be in a defense of narrative in games. The elements of game design work in the same way elements of other mediums do; good design arises when elements echo their alignment to the surface aesthetic received by the viewer. Take the opening stanza to “The Raven:”

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
” ‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this, and nothing more.” (Edgar Allen Poe)

Poe didn’t just throw together words to tell the reader what was happening, but chose words that reflected the aesthetic of what was going on. For example, he used multiple gerunds to simulate the action within the story; all those rappings and tappings (as well as a napping and nothing) form a rhythm that would have the reader easily imagine the acoustics of someone knocking on a door, or window as we come to find. As well, in good Poe fashion, words that conjure feelings of the macabre and supernatural appear to set a tone without directly saying, “this is a supernatural event!” Without diving into elements like meter, the placement of every word, especially in relation to one another, makes up the design and is incredibly important to the aesthetic of the poem. This all may seem esoteric concerning games; however, artists of their particular field and the enthusiasts who consume it often are sensitive to these elements and interactions, extracting more meaning and enjoyment from a well-designed piece. This could easily apply to game designers and gamers, who are already aware of game design just by the amount of games they play.

How does this relate to games and narratives? Imagine narrative as the aforementioned repetition, diction, or meter for game design; it can strengthen and give meaning to what the player directly experiences. It gets trickier to understand with games because they add in the dimension of interactivity, and players experience the game design strongest through interaction. Let’s start with how we receive narrative in games currently; in Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, a perspective on how narrative appears in a game divides it into embedded narrative and emergent narrative. Embedded narrative is how we commonly think of narrative in games, immutable and shown to the player without their control. This often appears as cut-scenes, dialogue, encyclopedic entries, to give context to the player. This is comparable to exposition in fiction, as it is relied on to give meaning to the actions and conflicts the player will encounter. We can often use literary critical analysis to dissect embedded narrative because there is little unique to it other than being appropriated by a video game (though, this does factor into the interpretation). There is a heavy emphasis on the embedded as anything narrative tends to occur near the end of production. Emergent might be familiar as it is a common buzzword the game media and developers use to put focus on unintended, player-driven content. Narrative rarely acts in this manner because it needs narrative design to happen early in development, or happen at all. Emergent narrative acts similarly to a reader going over the ‘rappings’ and ‘tappings’ of Poe’s poem, as the connection between the rhythm and diction is implicit and is figured out by the reader rather than informed directly from the surface narrative.

Using the perspective of embedded vs. emergent narratives, I will attempt to show ludonarrative resonance, when the emergent qualities echo and strengthen the embedded narrative (or the overall design). My current stance assumes most games do not exploit emergent narrative to strengthen its design, and that a stronger focus on emergent narrative will result in a sturdier outcome. The intent isn’t to diminish the function of embedded narratives, but show that all we are doing is relying on the embedded when the emergent can add a considerable amount of depth. In fact, Jason Rohrer’s Passage flips this around and has the player drawing from the emergent narrative to extract meaning from their experience. Games like this are often tagged as ‘art games’ as the minimalist style allows mechanics to shine without much artifice piled on top. As such, Passage will give you a feel of an ‘art game,’ however I think it is an attempt to have the player engaged on a cerebral level that doesn’t involved being ‘addictive’ or ‘entertaining’ as these terms are conventionally used. That being said, spoilers for the game are up ahead, and seeing that the game will only take minutes of your time (you can play through two or three times in about ten or so), play it and see if you caught what I’m observing in relation to emergent narrative.

Passage needs emergent narrative to make any sense; the embedded narrative is scant at best. You have control of a man who can travel across the screen (mostly right) and around objects. Eventually, he meets a woman to fall in love with, and she travels in front of him the rest of the way. There are some treasure-chests further on and the characters visibly age as the past and future of the path ripple on the sides of the screen. After a certain amount of time (possibly measured by steps), his partner dies and then he does, with the title “Passage” fading in on the screen. Just from this description, a player would miss large chunks of the game relating to the passage of one’s life that rests in the emergent gameplay. The player comes to understand what the game is commenting on when they realize they are unable to navigate the map easily because of their partner, missing treasures that they would easily be able to get themselves if they went solo. This feeling is strengthened on subsequent playthroughs when the player realizes they only have a certain amount of time until both characters die, and that the clear, unobstructed path at the top of the screen yields no treasures or entertainment, just a march to their deaths. There can be multiple interpretations of this game, however very little of the meaning comes from the embedded narrative. Passage is also a good example about how the narrative can be a part of the overall art direction, as players receive narrative elements by the changing landscape and the shift of a preview of the path to the reflection.

This isn’t to say Passage is the pinnacle of gaming or did everything right. Rather, it is doing something more games could; this is particularly pertinent to RPGs as they explore opportunities to engage the player with the narrative. As this game displays, complete player freedom and authorship isn’t necessary for an emergent narrative to work, or are limitless dialogue options or character customization. Linking this to a previous article, “An Apology for RPGs,” figuring out how to create meaningful gameplay when engaging the player with the emergent narrative would reconnect digital RPGs with involving the player with the narrative. Emergent narrative can appear in battles, exploring, dialogue, and many more instances than I can imagine up here. In addition, taking away the reigns from the embedded narrative and relegating it to context will thin out a lot of the unnecessary exposition and other weak storytelling attempts at instilling any sort of feeling in the player. Using the emergent narrative takes advantage of the digital medium by having the player parse through the feelings that arises through their experience with the game, rather than a few lines of text or voice acting telling them the moral of the story.

An Apology for RPGs

I’ve been rather grouchy with gaming lately. This new console generation hasn’t produced anything to wow me and I butterfly from one Steam sale to the next, forgetting the vast majority of games in my library. Probably because I grew into a gamer through RPGs, specifically J-RPGs, and the climate for said genre is rather… underwhelming. There has been a lot of talk about RPGs lately, particularly tugs about the definition of RPGs and the possible death of the genre. The existential panic that will begin (if not happening already) to clamor is represented by Greg Zeschuk’s (VP of BioWare) comment regarding trying to figure out what RPGs are currently. This is somewhat alarming as BioWare is oft synonymous with RPGs, but their rhetoric surrounding Mass Effect 3 sounds as if they are distancing themselves from their roots. From what I can tell, it sounds like the company feels it is abandoning a rotting ship and embracing a broader appeal.

After Final Fantasy XIII finally had me throw down my controller (read: set down with furious care [those are expensive!]) fed-up with what game designers felt were good RPGs to be charging so much money for, I knew something was wrong. This shouldn’t be happening twenty years after Final Fantasy IV. I broke off my sixteen-year relationship with Square, having pre-ordered every Final Fantasy on faith that they would be amazing. While the latest Final Fantasy was decent, I felt a company who has weighed in so much to this genre shouldn’t be producing decent games, but epic ones. Games touting their mastery of narrative, like Heavy Rain, shouldn’t think gamers are simple enough to fall for multiple endings that aren’t significantly different from one another. I noticed that the same tricks and conventions appeared repeatedly, with innovation ignored for convention humping. There has to be more to RPGs than this; my favorite genre can’t really be dying… right?

So what is an RPG? Are-pee-Jee? Whichever.

Let me start my adventure with a large caveat: I place little value differences in definitions when it comes to concepts and genres. Definitions, to me, are useful purely for communication and not end-all Truth finding. In the end, where we decide to draw the line is completely arbitrary; you might have a convincing argument, but that doesn’t mean much in the face of Truth. I’m not looking for Truth. I seek new ideas, enlightenment, to uncover a path. Just see this as the “Where have you been?” to the “Where are you going?” Pretend I didn’t make that analogy, it’s completely inappropriate.

It would be too easy to sound off everyone else’s opinion on the matter, only to subvert them with a witticism or two afterwards; however people tend to fall into a typical ‘ludology vs narratology’-like arrangement. This frames RPGs either in their mechanic traditions (character progression, turn-based combat, stats) or as stories (complex plot, role-playing, detailed world), both extremes being problematic. These are more conventions of the genre rather than what makes them a unique way of playing a game. As Zeschuk noted, and the Mass Effect series exemplifies, as genres are appropriating more RPG elements, RPGs become flat as they have little more to offer on their own.

Trying to take a holistic approach, I look back to Dungeons & Dragons and subsequent tabletop adventures to be the progenitor of what we consider RPGs. What makes these games both stylistically and formally distinct are their attempt to create a system where players can interact with a narrative. The rules show how players can determine something qualitative via a quantitative method, with primary focus on building a character through statistics and direct, extemporaneous acting within this game-story world. This is where I find that tingle inside me when I go to play an RPG; it has found a way for me to interact with a narrative. When we look to the start of digital RPGs, we see these conventions carry over: manage stats of a character that interacts with unseen formulas, traverse through dungeons, go on loosely related quests. Digital RPGs made it so the player didn’t need a DM nor had to remember formulas, which is definitely convenient and breakthrough use of technology. However, it didn’t add anymore to what RPGs have been doing; in actuality, these games took away methods of interacting with the narrative. So I’m going to say something a little naughty.

RPGs have been dead this entire time.

Digital ones, at least. Tabletop has continued to grow (more people [including myself] should be interested in it!) and shape how players can interact with narratives; some have pitched the idea of a DM, stats, or too many equations over all, which digital RPGs rely on. RPGs on computers haven’t done anything tabletop ones didn’t already cover, which is a huge problem. I take that back, digital RPGs have supplied us with rich visual and sonic worlds. I don’t take back the ‘huge problem’ part though. These qualities are bittersweet for RPGs, as the demand for a better audio/visual experience conflicts with the method digital RPGs enact a narrative. These games have yet to solve the issues of borrowing heavily from novels and movies while addressing the particular needs of narrative in an interactive medium. Computers may have made RPGs more convenient, but they haven’t used their unique qualities to create an experience tabletop cannot. This isn’t to say tabletop is inherently a better medium, or that I want computers to faze them out, but rather to have a genre that does more than substitute a role-playing group. There are a couple of evolutions that make it seem like current digital RPGs do allow you to interact with the narrative; choices in decisions and who your character is. These are but a fraction of the places interactivity and narratives intersect, and are rather topical. Choices often feel insignificant or unharmonious with the story, and characters can either be blank avatars or poorly planned and in need of a restart.

So, what’s the solution? Find out what computers can do players cannot, and work them in as mainstays to the genre. Instead of using their computational power for convenience, use it for the impossible. Create webs of cause and effect a DM wouldn’t be able to keep track of and associate all player actions with something other than statistics. Manifest audio/visual perceptions words are unable to create, and link them to the player’s progression. There is so much more, and this article isn’t about listing them off. Rather, it is a call to start thinking and implementing.

What is and isn’t an RPG is beside the point, it’s how a game appropriates the cultural understanding of what an RPG is. Video games have been using character progression through stats and experience points, a strong sense of story, and tactical strategy to draw what they can from the genre, but the heart isn’t there. What we really have are action games, interactive fiction, and shooters that use the tropes developed from tabletop RPGs. There is very little role-playing to be had; rather, you are given an extremely limited amount of ‘roles’ to ‘choose’ from.

So let’s do something, anything. Experiment and idea-dump. Take a favorite from the genre and make it so it does what RPGs are great at: letting players be a part of narrative impossible in their own realty. Create a world that tells a player “You matter, and I can’t exist without you.” Level 5’s Georama, not enough. BioWare’s dialogue trees and wheels, not enough. Square’s Active Time Battle, not enough. Bethesda’s character creation, not enough. No more multiple endings in a weak attempt to add on reply value. No more illusion of choice.

And no more freakin’ Tolkien and Star Trek!

Creation vs Destruction in Bastion’s Narrative

A lot of what has the gaming community chattering about Bastion is the role of its narrative in the gameplay. Many critics of the relationship between story and games see them as one slapped onto the other, rather than having an organically joined structure. Rucks’ narration of the kid’s journey is often merited as the ‘right way’ to do story in a game, however there a strange tension between the storytelling and gameplay that could be read as narrative dissonance (or, at least, further analyzed to view a more realistic application of the techniques present in the game).

To out my personal feelings before diving into criticism, I thought the game should have been titled something similar to Rucks. The Bastion is merely a plot device that serves as a tool for something else, but it isn’t the main idea of the story; as well, the kid could be pretty much anyone (being optimistic, I chose to see it as a critique on the stereotypical adventurer rather than the developers being lazy, though that took some self-convincing). Rucks controls the player’s experience as well as the relationships between all of the characters; the game leaves questions open about him, leaving the player to turn off the game wondering about how they feel about Rucks’ actions. His pleasantly stylistic narration is overbearing and steals the spotlight, and that (as I will argue later) makes the ending ineffectual when his narration stops. This is definitely not a slam overall on the game, I enjoyed it and it was worth my money; I just wish to extract more worth out of it rather than setting it up to be a paragon of gaming.

Ultimately, I noticed a strange ambiguity concerning the themes of creation and destruction in Bastion right from the beginning; the player is told the Calamity has everything destroyed, yet this is the beginning of a story, Furthermore, the setting is falling apart except for where the kid steps, where the path is actually being created before him. On one hand, this could be a representation of the continuing detonation and rebuilding of Caeldonia that is implied by Rucks before the player gets to choose the ending, giving the player an off-kilter and chaotic feeling to carry with them throughout the game. However, gameplay doesn’t reinforce this reading, rather, it communicates a more bleak path of destruction. I found it ironic that as Rucks extemporaneously created the story, the kid was destroying everything in his path; there were so many unnecessary destroyable objects in the way of the goal, that it made me wonder if the kid was doing as much damage to the city and its people as the Calamity did.

This makes the juxtaposition of the creative mechanics at the Bastion seem either incredibly in line with the narrative, or at odds. The Bastion is used as a focus for the player’s goals as well as the means to further launch more destruction through an armory of weapons, upgrades, and challenges inspired by the gods. But this is all really fruitless, because as the story points out, there’s little effect the order of your buildings have on anything (and this is reinforced by nothing at all being changed when you switch around the order of the buildings, as well as there being an optimal build for New Game+). It’s possible that the kid has done the same exact thing an infinite amount of times beforehand, and to learn that after it was damaged just before you completed it (twice!) adds in a bit of despair.

Now all of this doesn’t sound so bad for a game to produce, it actually reveals a complicated depth that lies below very simple and intuitive gameplay. I felt like I had things to work out right up until I had a choice in how the story was ending. My intervention isn’t determined by anything except for my interpretation of the events; not Ruck’s, or Zia’s, Zulf’s, and definitely not the kid (he doesn’t really have one it seems). Instead of furthering this volatile interaction of creation and destruction by activating the Bastion and instantaneously creating a New Game+ for the player (who can then go on to stop the cycle) and give the player a meta-viewpoint on what just happened, the choice of what to do with Zulf and the Bastion opens up the moving parts of a game that you rarely had to stop and think about much. There is no more narrator, no more certainty, and it almost feels like a different game. For me, the game lost all of its energy right after the last return to the Bastion (though, I nearly groaned out loud after being presented with the choice to save Zulf). The reason why, in hindsight, all of these elements seem so out of line, because the player is called into the sort for the first time and asked to sort things out. Why now, when the story is at it’s most intense? Especially with a lame still image at the end? The game was fine with recognizing its own metafiction, but to then double the meta undid a lot of the organic-feeling elements (the weapon training grounds did as well, but they were covered up enough in lore that I forgave it).

Because the game wasn’t about choice at all, my journey through New Game+ revealed how the creation vs destruction elements felt very arbitrary and not integrated into the gameplay. The narration seemed more of an aesthetic choice, building up the Bastion was an illusion of involvement, and the mindless destructive nature of your avatar (yes, I said it) becomes embarrassingly apparent.

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