Deciding to buy a video game, as opposed to renting from GameFly or borrowing a game from a friend, is a big deal when you’re an adult who has to be mindful of what you spend your money on. Prioritizing paying next month’s rent is much more important than blowing your paycheck on that AAA title everyone is playing right now. When you do buy that video game you have to have, you’re hoping you’ll get your full money’s worth from the purchase and a good gaming experience. Does buying a video game necessarily give you an incentive to complete every single aspect a game offers you? It depends on how much you enjoy the game.
I’m a huge Dragon Age fan. HUGE! There, I’ve said it. This may not come as a surprise to most people who either know me in real life or have been following my blog regularly. I credit this series for fully cementing me into the world of gaming and it has since convinced me to explore more games beyond Dragon Age. I’ve played other great games after Dragon Age and will continue to play other future games yet to be realized, probably into my old age. My love for this series knows no bounds and the upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition in November has me counting down the days until its release date. The people at Bioware are well aware of fans’ high expectations for the next installment in the series and, rightfully so, they have come out with deluxe editions and a limited quantity of a collector’s edition for Inquisition.
Usually when we choose to purchase a video game, we tend to make our choices based on reviews, gameplay, graphics, and story. What often gets overlooked is the time and detail artists take to make the environment you’re playing in truly spectacular.
Why do we replay games? It’s one of my worst habits — though I only call it “worst” because it leaves me with less free time to play the new games coming out. Obviously, some games try to get you to replay them with extra storylines, special unlockables, new game modes. We even give that special something a name — replay value — and it’s considered a big plus when you purchase a game.
However, there are some games that are so big, it’s hard to find the time or willpower to replay them. The Witcher 2 is one of my favorite video games of all time, but I’ll be honest and say that diving into that difficult combat and detailed story is so intense, once feels like enough… at least for a long while. Yet The Witcher 2 is set up for people to play twice, because there are two very distinct paths you can take after a key decision. It’s like you play two-thirds of the game in one go, and then have to go back for that other third when you replay the game. I loved that when I first bought the game, but I ended up just watching playthroughs on YouTube to get a feel for the other path because who has time to replay such a long, intense game?
But as soon as I say that — who has the time? — I can think of several other games I replay over and over again for no real reason other than how much I love them. For me, it’s all about the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. I’m constantly in the midst of a playthrough of each of those, which I pick up and put down whenever I get the urge. I’ll play intensely for a couple of weeks and then leave it, sometimes for months, while I play other things. When I get that itch to kill darkspawn or hang with my Normandy crew again, I pick those games back up. And because I’ve played them so much, I know exactly where I left off. I have the stories memorized. There’s not a lot of novelty there, other than some missed conversations and alternative dialogue options — nothing major, really. But that makes the games easier to pick up and play after long absences, which only feeds that addiction to replay them.
Other games aren’t known for their replay value, yet I still find myself going back to them. The big game for me last year was BioShock Infinite, and I feel like I keep bringing it up here and on my blog and on Twitter even though most people were satisfied to play it, get to that wild ending, and put it down forever. I just bought the strategy guide for it. I completed a whirlwind second playthrough of the game right before Christmas, in just a few days’ time, and I’m ready to jump back in and 100% it ASAP.
Why do I want to replay a game like BioShock Infinite? Unlike The Witcher 2 and Mass Effect, it doesn’t have alternative storylines or any dialogue options. You don’t reenter the game choosing a new character class. There are no options. No surprises. You simply launch the game, play through Booker’s adventure, get to that ending — the one that has such impact the first time you play — and set it down. It doesn’t make sense to play it again.
But I was drawn to the beauty of its world. I wanted to spend more time in Columbia, as messed up a place as it was. I was also attracted by the game’s combat — something most people didn’t like. I already wrote about some of things I enjoyed about the game’s combat on my blog here; it boils down to loving the weapons and vigors enough to enjoy what would otherwise be lacklustre FPS action. And the fact that BioShock Infinite only takes about 10 hours to play through makes it even more appealing to replay, because at least I can justify that I’m not wasting too much time on it.
In the end, that’s what playing games really comes down to: time. I’m always saying, “Just five more minutes,” in the midst of an intense shootout before bedtime. Last weekend, I felt awful because I had to retry a Fire Emblem: Awakening battle several times to get through it — an activity that took me almost two hours… after I’d promised my sister I’d make her breakfast “in 20 minutes, after this battle.” I get excited to hear that an RPG takes 20 hours or 40 hours or 100 hours to complete — and then I have trouble finding that time as more and more new games pile up on store shelves. It’s easy to rewatch your favorite films for two hours or listen to your favorite albums over and over while you drive, while you commute, while you walk to the coffee shop, while you work out… but video games require a hefty time investment that’s unique in the world of entertainment.
This year, I have a New Year’s Resolution to finish one game a month. But I know I’ll be playing more than that at a time. I can’t help myself. There’s a part of me that would like to say I’ll break the habit of replaying video games, but I know that will never happen. The act of replaying a game is a statement about how much you enjoy it: You can’t get enough of it. You have to reenter that world, relive that scenario, remake that decision to take a different road. When video games are that compelling, they’re doing something very right. Going back to those favorites takes me back to a feeling of unadulterated fun that is really what video games are all about.
It’s kind of old news now, but did you guys see the design document for the next Mass Effect game?
That is one massive bible, and I am so excited to see where BioWare takes the next Mass Effect game now that Commander Shepard’s trilogy has come to a conclusion.
BioWare has always been known for story-driven games with strong character development, but I’m placing a bet that Mass Effect 4 (for lack of a better title) will be open-world. That seems to be the future for gaming: more exploration, more customization, more player choice. And since it’s sharing core systems with the upcoming “multi-region” Dragon Age: Inquisition, it makes sense that Mass Effect 4 will also have open world elements. It might not be entirely open-world, but I like the idea of expansive maps and lots of non-story content à la Knights of the Old Republic.
Already we know of some changes Mass Effect will undergo, besides just moving on to a new story. After fans flooded Mass Effect executive producer Casey Hudson with ideas for the next game, he tweeted to acknowledge one trendy topic: playable alien races. And that leads me to the first thing I’d like to see in the next Mass Effect game, particularly if it’s going to be a more open-world game with some sandbox style gameplay:
1. Origin Stories
The origin stories in Dragon Age: Origins are some of my favorite things in any video game ever. They are little adventures (1 or 2 hours long) that kick off your character’s journey in the video game, with six different origin stories available depending on which character class and race you chose. My first was the human noble origin story. They all lead to the same place: Your character meets Grey Warden Duncan and is asked to join the Grey Wardens to face the upcoming Blight. But having that personal story at the beginning made the rest of the game feel so much more grounded and relevant to your character.
I would love to see that in the next Mass Effect game. It would be an exciting way to kick off the new feature of playable races, and it would help players get a sense of alien cultures. For instance, if I end up playing as a turian, I might spend an hour or two on the turian homeworld of Palaven, getting to know the culture and getting a feel for what my turian character values. It would also be cool to peek into a day in the life of an asari or see what a krogan childhood is like through origin stories.
Let’s be honest: Lots of loot is never a bad thing in video games. And collectibles are a big part of open-world games, because they encourage exploration, interaction with NPCs, checking out shops, and undertaking quests in hopes of looting dead bodies for goods. And you know what you can do with all those collectibles and loot? Put them in:
3. A House
Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, Elder Scrolls — they all have houses you can go back to if you want to save your game or rest from your adventures. Personally, I dig the Elder Scrolls style best, because you can actually decorate your houses with your loot. Sometimes, I would go on a Skyrim quest specifically because I wanted the reward at the end of it to hang above my in-game bed, and having houses made me want to keep things instead of selling them or replacing them all the time. When I out-leveled a piece of equipment, I would throw it on a mannequin or sword rack to remember my adventures. (You heard about what happened to my Skyrim puppy, right…?)
In the Citadel DLC for Mass Effect 3, Shepard gets an apartment from Anderson. The decorating options are pretty disappointing, but the fact that a (slightly) personalized pad has already been introduced in a Mass Effect game is a good sign!
4. Customizable Ships
You know what could be even cooler than a house? A customizable ship. If the game has my character commanding a ship like the Normandy, it would be a dream come true to be able to select which type of ship I want, paint it, and decorate the inside of it. I would also like to be able to hire my staff, but that’s another thing altogether.
In Mass Effect 2 and 3, players were able to personalize their quarters — however slightly — with model ships and small pets like the fish that never seemed to stay alive. A personalized ship in Mass Effect 4 could easily be my character’s permanent home, and it would work well if the story has players jumping around space like the trilogy did. Plus, it’s a subtle way to keep the spirit of the original Mass Effect trilogy alive… because that Normandy was everything.
Everybody loves pets, right? A lot of games I’ve played have included pets, such as the horses you ride in Red Dead Redemption and Skyrim and the dogs of Dragon Age: Origins and Fable II and III. Being able to adopt a pet and keep it at your character’s house or ship would be a fun, personal touch to the next Mass Effect game, and the designers can come up with all kinds of exotic alien creatures for players to adopt. Maybe they can be mabari warhound-ish so I can take my pet into battles with me. Or there could be more of those dog-mechs.
I’ll take any kind of pet except a fish.
I’m not talking about the Mass Effect 2 mini-games that have players hacking doors and stuff. Those can be tedious. What I’m talking about are card games like Pazaak or Triple Triad. It’s fun to immerse yourself in the fictional world by playing fictional games that are popular in the fictional cultures you’re exploring. Plus, card games can mean collecting cards — the best kind of collectible! In Mass Effect 4, I’d love to run my character around challenging NPCs to card games, collecting cards everywhere I go, and even earning achieements based on the size or style of my card collection or how much I’ve been playing the card games. And if I can gamble for loot like you do in The Witcher 2, so much the better! (See “Collectibles” above. This is a vicious cycle of loot here, guys.)
Speaking of games within games, I want to know what sports people play in the Mass Effect universe. Characters in Mass Effect 4 could attend sporting events and bet on the results — a simple, realistic diversion that lets players make (or lose) some extra money while learning more about the fictional world. We had that in the run-down Tuchanka of Mass Effect 2, where players could bet on varren fights. But something like Star Wars‘ pod races could be even more exciting… or heavy mech arena battles. Remember the swoop races of Knights of the Old Republic? Maybe our Mass Effect 4 characters could participate in the sports once in a while to earn some extra credits and earn reputations as athletes or racers.
8. Factions to Join
You know all those factions you could join in Skyrim? Mass Effect could absolutely do that, and it would be a fascinating way to explore the vast wold and various cultures that make the Mass Effect universe so detailed and realistic. I might not personally want to join the Blue Suns, but something like that would be awesome. Being able to work your way up in a faction to become one of its more important members would feel rewarding, and some factions could be unique to wahtever race you choose to play as or the planet you call home. (That would also mean more replay value!)
The trick is to make each faction’s quest line mean something to the player character — so I’d like to see more consequences for actions that what we see in Skyrim. For instance, if you join one faction, you can’t join its rival faction too. Except as a spy. That would be cool.
9. Character Missions
Mass Effect 2 was all about the character missions, and I loved them. An interesting way to create more content for an open-world, sandbox style game would be to include quest lines that follow squad members and other important NPCs. Finishing a quest line might be necessary to fulfill a romance with an NPC, for instance — and it would be an awesome way to get to know the character better. I would love to see new missions for characters unlock throughout the game, so you can keep learning more about them as you go. Maybe gaining the trust of certain characters would even unlock more areas to explore, such as little colonies or home worlds typically off-limits to outsiders. There could also be one-off missions when a squad member asks you to join him in a battle on his home planet (rather like Garrus’s recruitment mission in Mass Effect 3), an assassination (for a character like Thane), or even a research project (for a character like Mordin or Tali).
When I play an open-world game, I tend to specialize in something almost as if it’s my in-game career. Some people got really into blacksmithing in Skyrim; I got really into alchemy. Other people are miners and go look for new mines all over the map. In the next Mass Effect game, I would love to try odd jobes on different planets. The game could even introduce certain jobs you could do over and over again to become an expert, such as researching biotics, building weather domes on remote worlds, constructing colonies, or mining for element zero. It wouldn’t be as tedious as just scanning planets in Mass Effect 2 (worst mini-game ever) if you can actually plant your character’s feet on the ground and feel a part of the world as you perform these duties. The jobs could also have collectibles and achievements attached to them to make them more enticing, and I sort of love the idea of setting up a shop somewhere to sell the weapons or medicines my character makes…
Anyone who follows my blog Robo♥beat probably knows by now that I’m a huge BioWare fangirl. I love the stories, characters, settings, combat… and the romances. I can understand people skipping the romances as a waste of time, but the way I see it, the romances add emotional depth to the already gripping stories, create more motivation for the protagonists, and provide new and interesting ways to get to know the NPCs. They’re entirely optional, but I always pursue romances in BioWare games. They’re part of the fun.
There are many intriguing relationships you can pursue in BioWare games, and I’d round out a top 10 list with Liara T’Soni (Mass Effect), Isabela (Dragon Age 2), Kaidan Alenko (Mass Effect), Jack (Mass Effect), and Fenris (Dragon Age 2) being in the running. But if I have to pare down my list to just my very favorites, these are my top five BioWare romances.
5. Zevran (Dragon Age: Origins)
The elf Zevran is extremely charming from the start, which is exactly why I didn’t like or trust him when I first played Dragon Age: Origins. He’s an Antivan Crow — an assassin — and the first time he sees your Warden, he’s supposed to kill you. When that doesn’t go as planned, he negotiates his way into your party, woos you with tales of Antiva, and eventually flirts you into his tent for a massage… and stuff. It’s easy to brush off his romance as a fling if you’re into someone else in the game, which is what I did at first.
But recently I replayed DA:O and decided to romance him for a change of pace. And I’m so happy I did, because winning him over for the long-run is a rewarding challenge if your character really falls for him. What I like most about him is that he can be romantic and chivalrous, but he also respects your character as a warrior and is never overly sentimental. Even when he commits, he doesn’t lose that side of himself that’s a little irreverent.
4. Tali (Mass Effect)
It’s hard to think of anyone who can match Tali’s unique cocktail of intelligence, sweetness, and the occasional bit of “babbling like an idiot,” as she says about herself. She lets down her guard to become one of Shepard’s closest friends, and occasionally she gets drunk… very carefully. It’s hard not to love Tali, but I never had much use for her in my squad during early playthroughs of Mass Effect.
That’s why I had to dedicate a playthrough to having her around and trying out her romance with a male Shepard. Romance her, and she opens up with some of the most stirring dialogue in the Mass Effect games… seriously. If she’s going to jump your Shepard, she has to not only let down her guard but also take off her mask… but a smart girl with an accent who’s willing to take antibiotics to be with Shepard? She’s worth the wait.
3. Aric Jorgan (Star Wars: The Old Republic)
This is a very personal choice, I know… but I just love Aric Jorgan. And let’s be honest: he’s not hot for his looks; he’s a pretty tough-looking Cathar with bright green eyes. But he’s a slow, hard woo, which makes him perfect for any woman who likes rough-around-the-edges. Sure, he digs through your character’s private records to find out if you’re up to the challenge of leading Havoc Squad. But he’s a soldier first and foremost — so of course winning him over will take time. You just have to be patient and put up with his gruffness for a while.
First, you’ll notice that flirting with anyone else drives this guy up the wall. Later, after teaming up on missions, you realize you’ve earned his respect — and he’s into more than just “barking orders and sniping Imperials.” But don’t expect romancing him to completely whisk the soldier out of him; one of his most romantic lines involves him offering you the “position” of being his wife. Really, this guy can only take so much heartfelt sentiment in one day, and that’s kind of cool.
2. Alistair (Dragon Age: Origins)
Oh, Alistair. This was my first BioWare romance in my first BioWare game, and there’s a reason he holds such a special place in the hearts of so many Dragon Age: Origins players. He’s a Templar — actually, it turns out, a bastard prince — and just when you think he’s suave, he fumbles into awkwardness as your Grey Warden attempts to hit on him. Although he often hides behind sarcasm when you ask him personal questions, he eventually opens up to the Warden and appreciates others with a sense of humor, too.
But maybe the coolest thing about Alistair is that there’s not a huge need to chase after him; he’s an old-fashioned romantic at heart, giving you a rose and eventually confessing his feelings for your Warden after the two of you have built up an emotional connection. It’s old-fashioned romance that you don’t see a lot of these days. And if you play your cards right, he can even end up king to your queen… or mistress. Which is still romantic, trust me.
1. Garrus (Mass Effect)
When I first started playing the Mass Effect series, I romanced Kaidan Alenko (also a great romance) because Garrus was not a boyfriend option in the first game — but try as I might to remain loyal to Kaidan in ME2, all I could think was how much I really, really liked Garrus. He is Commander Shepard’s most loyal friend, with a great combination of sarcasm, badassery, and always the most heartfelt intentions. When I got to Mass Effect 3, Kaidan was there and all… but all I could think was where the hell is my turian and when can I recruit him?!
So I stopped playing ME3, restarted ME2, and romanced Garrus so I could carry on with him as my Shepard’s true love in my canon playthrough of the series. If you romance him, you get to see his awkward side (mainly in ME2) as well as how suave he can be (mainly in ME3), which is why I consider him one of the most well-rounded and interesting video game characters ever. Being able to get to know him over the course of three games builds up quite an attachment, too. Now it’s hard for me to romance anyone but him when I play Mass Effect, because he’s really the whole package. Except for being fictional and stuff. =)
I posted an article on PhoenixDown that showcased some of the first concept art that contained cut ideas from the Mass Effect series and Dragon Age 2. The “what-ifs” went insane. Particularly while I looked at the visual ideas of how Tali should look beneath her mask as well as the first unsuccessful communication between writers and artists about Merrill’s appearance. It really made me wonder just how different these beloved games could have been, but it also made me think of some deeper questions. What do we find aesthetically pleasing in characters? I first asked myself this after seeing Tali’s concept images. How would we have reacted if one of those had been used, especially if Tali had actually been unmasked in the 3rd game? Would her voice match our assumptions? Would our feelings change toward her if she didn’t carry the “pleasing” qualities that normally make alien characters like the asari beautiful?
I can’t honestly answer that question. And that makes me question my own preferences toward what I find “pretty” or “beautiful” in characters. Is it possible that I wouldn’t find Tali pretty enough if she had been fitted with this image? Would my Shepard still love her if they had previously initiated a romantic relationship? Or is it simply impossible to develop an actual answer toward a picture that only shows a glimpse of “what if”?
But I guess the opposite could be the same. What if Tali was actually a bombshell?! How would her voice and personality accompany this sudden realization? Would I be able to actually accept the connection between them? Or what if Tali was just something… unexpected? Not necessarily frightening or unpleasing, but something you just couldn’t possibly imagine while listening to her prattle along about engineering beneath her mask? It’s difficult to answer because I adore Tali’s character. I love the challenges she faces beneath her protective gear, knowing that just one foreign particle outside of her suit could potentially kill her. I love the tension her predicament creates when she realizes that she truly wants to be with Shepard romantically (if that’s the route you took in the game).
It’s so strange knowing that these tiny details in the span of such massive games could have potentially changed the way we looked at our favorite characters. When I first saw Merrill’s images, I was shocked… and a little bit terrified. Matt Rhodes, the BioWare artist that posted the early concept art on his blog, wrote about the challenges and communication that occurs between writers and artists.
“Designing Merrill was a great exercise in Writing and Concept Art learning to speak one another’s language. In her early descriptions I picked up heavily on her willful dabbling with blood magic. On paper she was scary, so early drawings reflected that. After the writers understandably freaked a little, it was explained how those more deadly aspects of her curiosity would unfold and we reined her in a great deal.”
Merrill could have been one freaky blood mage… definitely not someone Isabela would call a kitten, and certainly not a character I could babble about. Merrill is supposed to be cute! Her danger is supposed to stem from her inexperience and endless curiosity, as well as the desperation to reinvigorate something as mysterious and dangerous as the Eluvian. She is meant to be the character you say “yes” to when you should definitely say “no,” and that’s what makes her character so riveting to me.