Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Dragon Age 2's Friendship/Rivalry System

6 years since I played it, Dragon Age 2 continues to confuse me, and it probably always will. Not in the way that Chrono Cross confuses me, wherein the plot is simply too needlessly and stupidly convoluted to ever be fully disentangled into a comprehensible whole, nor in the way that Lunar: Dragon Song confuses me, wherein I simply cannot fathom how such a godawful piece of rubbish was ever created by thinking, feeling human beings. No, DA2 confuses me in the sense that I am still, and probably always will be, unable to tell whether it’s a good or bad RPG. I’ve just never been able to figure out which of its ideas make it work, which are too poorly executed or fundamentally flawed to forgive, where to weigh the lopsided personalities and character developments of its cast, and whether or not the major decisions of its storytelling process and thematic focus, in the context of its being a continuation of Dragon Age 1, are a step in the right direction or a tremendous blunder. Hell, so long as I overlook its horrible finale (great job on creating 40% of the worst RPG endings I’ve ever seen, Bioware!), I’m not even sure whether I, personally, liked the game!

One such puzzling aspect of DA2 is its system of Friendship and Rivalry between protagonist Hawke and her/his party members. For most RPGs in which companions’ loyalty to the main character involves player input, things work in a pretty simple way: when you have the protagonist do/say stuff that a party member likes, that party member’s approval/affection will go up, and once you hit a certain point of approval, they’re, like, totes BFFs, for legit. It’s a functional enough system for most RPGs, and Dragon Age 1 itself had a similar linear affection system. The trick to building lifelong friendships between DA1’s Grey Warden and her/his party members boils down to giving the right gifts to the right people, speaking to them in a way they like, and not having Morrigan in the party any time you want to say or do something intelligent, or display the barest shred of human compassion.

God, Morrigan was such a pill.

Anyway, Dragon Age 2 had an idea that shook things up a little. Instead of just playing nice with each party member in the way that they most approve of, you can also forge just an ironclad bond by doing...well, basically the opposite. Yeah, you can be a flippant, careless jerk in Dragon Age 2, and Hawke’s Friendship points with Isabela will go up...but you could also choose to be selfless and demand a higher standard of dignity from your friends, including Isabela herself, and Hawke’s Rivalry points with Isabela will go up, instead. But rather than just being a measure of disapproval, Rivalry is a path of its own for Hawke’s relationships to go down, one which deepens and develops as the story progresses, just as much as the Friendship does. As one might expect, a fully developed Friendship results in an extra combat ability/bonus for each character, which has become a standard in such situations for RPGs, but a fully developed Rivalry also results in such an ability/bonus, should you decide to take that route.

It’s a truly interesting dynamic to me. First of all, it allows for the protagonist of the game to have a more concrete set of morals and personality, I think. I mean, often when playing an RPG involving party members with approval ratings, a player may bend their perception of their character slightly in selecting dialogue and actions, in order to have a chance to witness a party member’s character development in full, since that usually requires a maxed out approval rating. A good RPG will always provide you with enough chances to max a character out without absolutely needing to uncharacteristically bend a protagonist’s moral code in dialogue or actions, but it can get tricky. I recall, for example, that it’s difficult to really get in good with Kreia in Knights of the Old Republic 2 if you’re sincerely devoted to the Jedi way (and the same is true for Sith playthroughs; Kreia’s not much for falling in with either side), and it would be a damn shame to miss even a single sentence of the philosophical excellence that is Kreia. But with a dual Friendship/Rivalry system for each character’s approval of the protagonist, you can have a protagonist with a more concrete, defined set of personal ethics, and not have to give up on seeing a party member’s personal story through to completion. Is Hawke a generous, compassionate, stalwart defender of the right, uncompromisingly good and just? Well, obviously she/he will get on just fine with Aveline and probably not have any issues with Sebastian, but the shenanigans of Isabela and the selfishness of Merrill won’t sit right with Hawke. Well, thanks to the Rivalry option, they don’t have to; she/he can butt heads with Isabela and Merrill all she/he likes without sacrificing a relationship.

I also appreciate the fact that this system recognizes that strong, positive personal relationships don’t have to always be about hugs and kisses. Sometimes, the person you value most in life may very well be your polar opposite; you may even both frustrate each other more often than not! But our opposites can be our most valued companions for the fact that they challenge us, they view the world differently and offer insights we simply couldn’t have seen ourselves, and sometimes, they’re the ones we need to force us to be better than we think we can be, who drag us into the light to keep us on the straight and narrow. In this way, a Rivalry can be as valuable, or even more than, a Friendship.

And I also like the Rivalry option presented in this game for the fact that, well...good rivals, specifically ones who aren’t murderously hostile, are damn hard to find in RPGs. Frankly, I feel that most of the time in this genre, characters get put into the “rival” category not because they genuinely deserve to be there, but because the writers felt, for whatever reason, that the protagonist needed it. I mean, in Mana Khemia 1, did Roxis really feel like his personality, his values, his goals, etc., were authentically opposed enough to that of protagonist Vayne that they really should have been considered one another’s rival? To me, Roxis felt like a character who should have held a small dislike for and competitiveness with Vayne initially, and gotten the hell over it because there wasn’t really anything about either of them to sustain either negativity or especial competitiveness. The writers just twisted the character they had to fit a mold they wanted to fill, rather than accept that what they’d created really didn’t feel right for it.

With DA2, on the other hand, there’s potential for Hawke and her/his party members to be sincerely on opposite ends of certain personal values, such that, while their experiences together and reliance on one another guarantee that they share a strong bond of companionship, you can genuinely see that they stand in true disagreement with how the other lives and thinks. You can actually develop rivalries in this game that feel organic and right for the characters.

So yes, the Friendship/Rivalry system has some definite potential benefits, and on the conceptual level, it’s not only a creative and refreshing take on party member approval systems, but also perhaps ahead of its time. And yet...at the same time, it has its downsides.

One of the major downsides is that, quite frankly, it’s not a universal enough idea for the workload it’s stuck with in this game. In many cases, the possibility of 2 different paths a personal bond can take will work just fine. But at the same time, it doesn’t really work for every character, and it certainly doesn’t seem right for every member of the cast. Sure, I can totally see Isabela greatly valuing a rival who tries to force her to be a better person, just as I can see her greatly valuing a friend who just joins her for her fun and agrees with her on everything. But by contrast, the character of Aveline in DA2 is that of a hardline, black-and-white good person who does not appreciate or want challenges to her rigid, though largely adequate, view of morality. Isabela may be annoyed by selflessness and virtue, but she’s the kind of character who can reluctantly allow for it, and even be changed by it. Aveline, on the other hand, really just does not come across as a personality who can accept certain kinds of selfish behavior, and as a result, a Rivalry with her seems forced and insincere in its attempt to convince you that Aveline genuinely values a Hawke so much an opposite to herself.

Similarly, while it’s believable that a party of friends who you’ve gone out of your way to support all throughout the game will stick with you through thick and thin, it’s...kinda hard to buy the idea that you can treat everyone around you like shit enough times that they’ll be similarly devoted to you.

It’s also worth noting that the quality for these Rivalry relationships isn’t always all that great. I mean, I appreciate being able to create a Rivalry with Merrill, because for Salamando’s sake, someone has gotta be there to make sure she damn well knows that the tragedy that comes from her personal quest is entirely of her own making, and ensure that she will learn from her selfish mistakes. And honestly, I think that the Rivalry romance with Isabela is definitely the best romance in the game, creating an interesting and touching story of tough but genuine love that inspires a woman to become something better than she thought she could be for the sake of the woman/man she’s fallen in love with, culminating in a conversation that is not just a confession of love, but also a pledge to become worthy of it. Solid stuff.

But aside from those 2 cases...the Rivalry friendships and romances generally range from being a bit uninteresting, to subpar, to, at times, kind of indistinguishable in any major way from the Friendship path. I mean, hey, whether or not you’ve given Anders a big hug every time he mutters something dark and extreme, or perpetually told him to cut that revolutionary shit out, the shortsighted asshat’s still gonna become the Fereldan Unabomber, so what was the point of trying to Rivalry him into being less of a jackass? Not to mention, some of these Rivalries kinda lessen Hawke as a person. I mean, how unpleasant a person do you have to be to be the polar opposite of Aveline? In the end, not a lot of real, actual cases of character depth and value get added to the cast thanks to adding the Rivalry duality to Hawke’s relationship paths, honestly.

And yet, there’s the confusing part. It doesn’t pay off well, but is that the problem of the dynamic itself, or simply Bioware’s inability to use it effectively enough of the time? The writing quality for the game as a whole is a chaotic grab bag, so this could just be an extension of that. And even if not much good really came of it, is it still worth it, as a storytelling tool, if it did provide probably the best moment of romance and character development in the game (via Isabela)? Is the Friendship/Rivalry system truly a good idea at all, when it so clearly has limitations to how far it can extend over a whole cast, limitations which standard approval systems don’t have to worry about? Then again, isn’t it just a bit of a relief to see any system, even if it’s only viable every now and then, that can offer a more functionally complex system of approval and relationship-building than a Youtube Like/Dislike bar?

I guess in the end, much like the rest of the game, I just don’t know how I feel about the Friendship/Rivalry mechanic. I’d like to think it has better potential than was capitalized in Dragon Age 2, but I can’t really imagine how you could make it work for any standard-sized cast in a way that would seem realistic in general and provide worthwhile alternative friendships for all possible characters. Nonetheless, I can say that whether or not I ever determine whether the Friendship/Rivalry mechanic was a positive or negative for Dragon Age 2, it’s still an approach that was interesting to see in action, at least this 1 time.