An Empty World
Playing through the Mass Effect franchise in preparation for ME3 and the never ending runs through Dragon Age: Origins after chugging through Skyrim late last year has brought to light a striking dichotomy in the world of gaming: the freedom of an open world versus the freedom of choice.
Now, some might balk and cry that open world games are quite obviously games founded on choice. But there is a distinct and significant difference between these styles of freedom. A game like Skyrim is built off the premise of unrestrained exploration. It is far more important to these types of games that the player is free to roam at his or her leisure and do practically whatever they please within the mechanics provided. It is a type of freedom. A game like Dragon Age, however, limits the world and restrains the players more in terms of exploration but opens a vast world of freedom in how to interact with characters and act within the events occurring. In many ways it is a simple divide: Skyrim is devoted more to mechanics and gameplay while Dragon Age is far more devoted to its characters and the story sweeping around them.
Skyrim is undoubtedly a vast and gorgeous world filled with wonders to discover. There is even an extensive lore that gives the world some amount of depth that some games never bother with. However, for all this there is still an evident trend in Skyrim towards a simplistic bare boned narrative filled with often one dimensional characters more often there simply to dole out quests. There are clear exceptions to this and I would be remiss to not mention a character like Aela that manages to show actual depth. However, most characters are relegated to nothing more than base characteristics. It’s a bit hard to describe objectively since, as a role player with a fierce imagination, I have built elaborate back stories and events in my mind that that I now fully attribute to these characters despite the game offering none of this itself. For example, my wife Ysolda is little more than a basic merchant type that you can marry with practically the same tactics of any other possible spouse… but in my “canon” she is a sturdy but romantic woman who was smitten with my character when my normally sure footed huntress stumbled into her while trying to buy her a drink and blabbered a string of apologies while blushing. They slowly worked up from this and never once did the required necklace come into play. I had to create this though. None of this was present in the game at all.
Contrast that to Dragon Age where not only does every one of your companions have a detailed and nuanced personality with a back story rife with intrigue, but many of the supporting characters do as well. I didn’t need to create scenes of my Elf Warden trying to catch Leliana’s attention, or buy her a gift, or delve into her colourful past, or create her obsession with shoes… they all existed within the game. I would see all these scenes without having to create it in my head… that is if I so choose to woo the red headed bard of course. And that is the premise of a game like Dragon Age. Take the player, drop him or her into a role that is loosely defined from the outset and let them take that personality and develop it, interact with other characters, and see how the world reacts and changes dependent on your choices. And it is that freedom that I crave in gaming.
Skyrim’s open world is nice, but the shallow and hallow soul of the game leaves me feeling unsatisfied. Sure, I can go and wipe out every villager I see… or wipe out some bandits… or simply ignore a quest… but that isn’t truly reflected in the world. The base reactions of characters never really changes and the world is more or less the same as when you first started. And of course there is the lack of actual choice in the game. There are many quests of vile evil, but rarely are you offered anything more than be evil or walk away without being able to deny the quest. And most quest lines are tied to certain types of role-playing mentalities; the thieves guild is the perfect example of railroading a character into one mentality: sometimes I might just want to be a thief in a guild, not a bloody slave to a goddess.
And there’s the true rub: Skyrim doesn’t offer that type of freedom. You cannot truly give your character a definitive personality because the game will just ignore it in favour of mechanical progression through quests. In fact it is a rather rigid game when it comes to such matters. One I’d hardly call truly free. However, Dragon Age is almost the opposite. Don’t like the recommended style to complete the quest? Well, here are three other ways to work that range from ruthless, to compassionate, to pragmatically cautious. I am allowed the freedom to create a personality, act according to that personality, and see how that affects the world. I am free to act and react how I see fit. And by the end of the game, I am rewarded with several different major scenarios and a multitude of varying epilogues that reflect how I played.
There is no one path. There is no one way to play. I am truly free to create my character, be that character, and see where the hell I’ll end up when all is said and done. That is the freedom I want first and foremost. It gives depth and heart to the world and its characters. Such a world is actually full of life, of soul. Skyrim is simply… empty.