Dragon Age, characters and the rise of ‘cinematic’ gaming

Is the rising standard of characterisation in games truly beginning to rival cinema? Sam takes a look...

As interactive entertainment strives ever more for the elusive tag of ‘cinematic’, the same old debates get dragged up over frame rates, lifelike visuals and storyboarded cutscenes ad infinitum.

While parallels between the two mediums are at their core valid, the onus is often placed on the games industry to somehow ‘catch up’ with the bright lights of film, which could well be underselling aspects of storytelling that games can handle with great power.

With the raw horsepower of the new generation of consoles, and the high-end of the PC spectrum supplying dizzying levels of visual fidelity these days, it’s worth a look at how that great cornerstone of storytelling is handled – character development. Could it be argued that the leading lights of the RPG genre perform better in this department than their tinsel town counterparts?

The genre is arguably the most fertile ground for crafting a character, with the importance of developing and shaping their growth in terms of ability, appearance and, relatively recently, personality. Whilst a film will present us with an entirely prescribed narrative experience, games are capable of providing a flowing, tailored storyline for every player.

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Firing up Mass Effect for the first time is an interesting example – Shepard is a somewhat pre-defined character, with two possible sets of voice acting depending on gender, but his/her appearance can be altered as much as we see fit. The evolution of Shepard’s character begins even at this embryonic stage, choosing a background, war story and so forth. Thus, no two players will ever truly have the same Shepard, even if the story events from two playthroughs can closely mirror each other.

Dragon Age: Origins takes this even further, giving us an entirely silent protagonist who we are free to tweak to our own specifications, with three playable races, three classes and six different prologues to play through. Here we aren’t playing as an a la carte character, but as an avatar of ourselves. Voice acting for the Grey Warden in whichever form they take is limited to a few incidental barks, with all dialogue in the game played out as a character talking over their shoulder, to the player. Though again certain elements will match up between players, the Origins character is entirely our own.

Of course, a finely-tuned central character doesn’t necessarily need player input to tell a story well, as films have shown for a century. We all feel emotionally involved in Michael’s spiral into a life of crime in The Godfather, or in Jake’s turbulent life in Raging Bull without any kind of interactivity being handed to us. A huge part of this is of course down to the finest nuances of screen acting, which can capture subtle emotional touches with far less steps in between performer and viewer. That’s not to say that games aren’t capable of this too – back in the late 90s, so many of us craved revenge on Sephiroth for that moment at the end of disc 1 of Final Fantasy 7, even though it happened entirely to Cloud, over whom we barely have any personal input outside of the gameplay mechanics (with the possible exception of the Golden Saucer date scene).

Probably the best single example comes from outside the RPG sphere however, with last year’s The Last Of Us bringing two fully fleshed-out central characters to life on screen before us. Beyond small incidental touches, we again had no control over the personality or story arc of Joel and Ellie, but for an invested player the emotional impact of the final third of that game can stand toe-to-toe with anything cinema can offer.

Voice acting has come a long way in recent years, particularly with performance capture thrown into the mix – much of The Last of Us was played out on a sound stage with actors interacting with each other. With performers like Camilla Luddington, Jennifer Hale and Troy Baker imbuing their characters with deep personalities even through a digital mask, games can lay claim to some of the strongest character-driven narratives around at the moment. Any doubters can simply be pointed in the direction of Ellen Page’s top-drawer star turn in eccentric supernatural adventure Beyond: Two Souls to see the extent to which talented on-screen performances can enhance a game’s storytelling.

Perhaps it is RPGs, though, particularly those with constantly adapting storylines such as Dragon Age, which offer the most immersive experience from a character point of view. Put two players who have just polished off the Mass Effect trilogy in a room, and you’ll hear very different tales of their playthroughs. These move beyond being other people’s stories, and become our stories.

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The other huge, almost untapped potential that story-driven games bring is as a tool to further understanding. At a time when the entertainment industry faces constant debate, sometimes amongst the most toxic workings of the internet, to maintain a progressive, inclusive atmosphere, it is the ability to step into another person’s shoes with direct control that has the potential to foster far deeper understanding. So much of Bioware’s output have enabled players to explore themes of sexuality or race; even to the extent of upsetting Fox News with a same-sex love scene in Mass Effect. Agency is a powerful tool for exploring alternative perspectives. Even a silent protagonist avatar-led RPG like Skyrim enables players to hear out both sides of a political conflict with no real answer. When we see an issue in first-person through another’s eyes, the complexities are that much more apparent.

As the games industry continues to mature and evolve as an art form, it’s only natural that it will spend time in its celluloid cousin’s shadow, but they possess a fundamental difference, with games enabling that extra layer of participation. A game like Dragon Age is not merely a story that is produced and put in front of us to consume, but indeed is a coming together of developer, performer, writer, and crucially player to tell a story as deep (or indeed deeper) than any Hollywood blockbuster. A second playthrough is rarely as fun as the first, as that feeling of experiencing the legend through our own eyes isn’t able to be replicated.

To flirt with something of a cop-out conclusion, then, neither medium is objectively ‘better’ than the other at imparting character, but to ascribe filmic qualities to a videogame is often to fail to acknowledge the form’s great strengths. For every great on-screen performance in film, bringing subtlety and nuance to complex roles, the existence of immediate player agency in the average RPG is a powerful counterpart indeed. We grow along with these characters, whether that be making agonising choices with Shepard in Mass Effect, playing out our pre-war life in Dragon Age: Origins, or even just picking the right shade of iris in the character creator in Skyrim.

As evolving storylines and acting performances continue to advance in the games industry, perhaps the answer is not that the two sectors are converging, but on course to run in parallel, each playing to their own strengths to tell similar stories in very different ways.

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