Sunday, June 5, 2011


I was struck recently by a similarity by a character and scene in my first major mod, Fate of a City, and Dragon Age 2.  This came as a result of a discussion of the emotional impact of Dragon Age 2, where the issue of Hawke's family was brought up.

As anyone who has played the DA2 demo knows, one of Hawke's siblings dies in the opening sequence of the game, killed depending on the class choice of the player. If the player is a mage, then the sister Bethany (also a mage) dies, but otherwise, the brother Carver will die. Hawke's mother is overwhelming distraught, and Hawke also gets to utter a few words to his/her mother in an attempt to console her. Many players found this sequence forced and trivial, because they did not care about their dead sibling at all. They had known them for a matter of minutes, and had formed no real connection with them whatsoever because of the lack of interaction.  On my first playthrough, where Carver died, I did not care a whit for him. In the short timeframe I had known him, all he had done was complain about my every decision. I wasn't really sad to see him die at all.

Hawke's family: Who's expendable now? Hrm, I guess it's Carver.

Comparatively, in Fate of a City, the game starts off with an attack on the city of Darthall.  The player meets their apparent friend Meylana, who gives a brief run-down on the circumstances and situation. She provides the immediate setting in an interactive fashion rather than having it carried out entirely through a non-interactive cutscene  (though you get that afterwards to show it play out as well). After the invasion, the player meets up with another friend/acquaintance, who informs them that Meylana has been killed. The player has the option to respond as though they cared (or didn't) and the dialogue continues and the friend provides the player with information they need to get in contact with people trying to fight the new rulers of the city.

Some players critised my approach saying them simply did not care about Meylana because they didn't know her. I've also seen exactly the same criticisms leveled at your sibling's death at the start of DA2. In Fate of a City, I never expected players to care about Meylana. If they wished to decide for roleplaying purposes that they did, I gave them that option, but I gave them intermediate options that either indicated a lack of connection with her, or effectively ignored her death completely. I never had any expectation the player would form a connection, but used her as a means to motivate the NPC that they were talking to. The player already had impetus to fight against the invaders: revenge, imprisonment, wealth, safety, or a number of others reasons. Meylana's death was used as a means to provide motivation for an NPC.

The defenders didn't do so well here...

Similarly with DA2, your sibling's death cannot really have any major emotional impact on you. Hawke can deliver a line of a fittingly consoling nature to your mother, but the scene is not about Hawke's emotions, it's about Hawke's mother. The impact that their death has upon your mother is significant, and reiterated numerous times throughout the game. I'm certain that the writers were fully aware that the player wouldn't have time to form a meaningful connection with their sibling, which is why the focus of the scene is on the mother and not Hawke. The fact that your mother has lost one of her children is something that has a significant effect on her character, and thus on her interactions with you at key points in the game.

Given the raft of players who complained about this in DA2, and those who took issue with it in Fate of a City, it appears that it may be a bad design choice. Part of this is due to the fact that players are constantly told by games that they are the most important person in the game. Now, to an extent, I'd have to say that I agree, as the player should be the one driving the story and making events happen. If everything is being driven at a high level by NPCs, then the player feels somewhat powerless to control their own destiny. Oddly enough this is completely true, because (in almost all cases) the player has to play through a pre-defined story with set events. When the player does not feel like they can control their path (even if that control is merely an illusion), they feel railroaded down a path. But of course, it is an illusion: in DAO you always defeat the blight, in Crysis you always defeat the mothership, in Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne, Arthas always overcomes Illidan, etc, etc.

The curiosity here is that sometimes players take their expectations too far and almost seem to demand that no one else can have any reaction to events because it impacts upon their experience as the protagonist. This mindset appears to be more prevalent in the RPG genre than other genres, and that's no doubt a product of the focus on providing player choice in this genre. The more you allow the player to be in control of their story and also try to effect them through emotional scenes, the more they will feel that they should be the only character for whom such scenes are made.

Villains get the limelight, why can't others?

To be honest, I might argue that's a failing on the player's part, particularly in an RPG. RPGs are designed to be built on the context of a believable world with believable characters. If those characters cannot be allowed to have their own (strong) reactions to situations and have the attention sometimes focus on them as opposed to purely on the player's character, then that believability is immediately lost. No, the player should never take a back seat for too long, but if the designers (and players) do not allow NPCs to occasionally take the limelight and develop and showcase their own emotions and reactions to situations, then the world becomes inherently less interesting and realistic.

So how does this fit with your sibling dying in DA2? Is it a fault of the designers for not telling the players "actually, you're not meant to care here, but if you choose to for roleplaying purposes, that's fine"? Should designers expect that player will have a desire to care about someone that dies that their character supposedly knows well, and thus give them a chance to know them properly? Many people cared about their father dying in Fallout 3 (though that's possibly because Liam Neeson is awesome), yet there had been very limited opportunity to build any sort of relationship with him. Many people were sad to see Duncan die in DAO, again even though there had been little meaningful interaction with him.

Some players loved Duncan as much as Alistair did

All this said, I'm still not confident that either Fate of a City's or DA2's scene relating to the death of your friend/sibling were wholly effective. Players felt that they should be feeling something, when arguably they weren't expected to. But we can have scenes that elicit an emotional response from an NPC but doesn't demand one from the player - typically when the friend of the random stranger we are helping dies in some fashion due to an unfortunate series of events. Quite often in this case, the player doesn't care about the dead NPC, but can empathize with the character who is feeling emotion regarding their death. In this way, the player actually gets the emotional impact via proxy - they don't necessarily care that someone is dead, but they can actively see that someone else is distraught as a result and this will elicit an emotional reaction.

The issue appears to be where the NPC is someone the player "feels" they should have a connection to, like someone who is supposedly their friend or sibling. In this case, natural human psychology appears to come into play and the player expects that they should care, and thus becomes frustrated when they don't because they have no connection to the character who has died. In this case, the game is too powerful for its own good, demanding a natural human reaction when one cannot be given because the lack of that connection.

The take-home message appears to be to not kill off a family member or "friend" of the player character unless the player has been given the chance to know that person. Otherwise the player will expect that they should feel something, even though they won't.


  1. Clearly it should have been just Bethany, and if Hawke is a mage once you get to Kirkwall she pops up with a greatsword and says "lol, rerolled fighter, need melee deeps" ;)

    The proxy technique is a good one, cheers.

  2. You seemed to have arrived at the same conclusion I have in general. Not sure I 100% agree with the natural human psychology part though. If DA2 had been a narrative instead, the death of your relative would have been more acceptible despite not knowing them. The reader won't feel any emotions and probably never will from a book - least I never have. Its not about the reader, its about the character. In a game, you have to be able to create character and immersion. Lack one and people complain.

    The problem with DA2 is that they give the player the option to create the character and choose what to do within a small selection of choices. Anything that happens to the character, for immersion's sake, the player shoulod be able to empathize with the character. The death of your relative has hidden qualities behind it, especially since you've been around them all your life. The player can relate to the character, because realistically, the player has only known the annoying brother or whorish sister for a few minutes. The design choice of your relative's death seemingly was supposed to be about the mother though, not you. For some players, in particular the ones playing the "Good" character route, they felt like they should have cared about their brother even though they couldn't care less. This breaks immersion, something that the game should be trying to create.

    Storywise, the dead relative served no purpose whatsoever other than to give the player a warrior/mage type. If you ask me, a 3rd Templar should've been there rather than the dead beat relative that dies. That way BioWare can let him live and no one has to see him again. Cheaper, players wont complain, no more fake drama, and it has a better design overall.

    Of course this isn't DA2's only fault. They only made about a hundred design faults throughout the game. This one is so minor compared to the other ones that if this was really the only problem with DA2, I think people wouldn't care as much.

  3. I meant to say "The player can't relate to the character, because realistically,..." Forgot an important letter :)

  4. My female Hawke was a good intentioned wise-cracking snarky character. I felt like I should care about Carver, but I didn't because he'd disagreed with everything I'd said. My roleplaying mind inserted a history of antagonism between Hawke and Carver, and while she was somewhat upset from a family perspective (because her mother was so distraught) she found it hard to care.

    But yes, it still broke immersion because you didn't have any in-game reason to care. Oddly enough, in an old gold-box game where your imagination had to do more of the work, I think it might have actually worked better.

    As for DA2's design faults, I agree there are plenty of them. But I'd also argue that some of the issues that people say are faults are merely a change in design approach - being different is not a fault. But this is a topic that warrants discussion of individual aspects of the game in separate blog posts...

    For me I thought I found this topic interesting because of the similar shortcoming in my previous mod and DA2. Learning from mistakes is vital for improvement.

    PS Anduraga: I now think you're a robot for never feeling any emotion while reading a book. :P