Archive for October, 2018

Why DA2 is more addictive than DAO

October 10, 2018

So, I’m playing DA2 right after finishing some stories in DAO, and it turns out that DA2 has an addictive quality to it that DAO never had, meaning that it’s often hard to stop playing DA2 for the day, whereas it was usually much easier to do that for DAO. And the reason is because of the quest structure.

DAO was built around stories that took place in specific areas, with some backtracking occurring when later quests told you to go back to certain areas. Lothering is the prime example of this because once you leave Lothering the village is destroyed and you can’t go back there to finish up any quests that you didn’t finish. This fosters a playstyle where you follow a story thread to an area, do the story, do all of the sidequests you can along the way, finish the story, and then leave. Thus, you are encouraged to finish an entire full area while doing its story, and to not leave that area until you finish everything you can. Which also means that once you finish an area, it always seems like a good time to stop for the day.

DA2, on the other hand, doesn’t have those really big areas with their own self-contained story. For the most part, Kirkwall itself is roughly equivalent to one of those big areas, and the story always runs through Kirkwall and its environs. But Kirkwall is divided into a number of small areas, and there are more of these small areas than there were in any big area in DAO, and that’s even if you don’t take into account the fact that all of the city areas are duplicated at night and that there’s an outskirts to play with. Quests pop up in these areas at times and also move from area to area as you go along and resolve them. And since there’s a rough Act structure to the story, if you start the final story quests for that Act it’s like Lothering all over again; you simply cannot go back to finish quests that you started in the previous act. Thus, this structure fosters a playstyle where you start with an overall area — Kirkwall Day, Kirkwall Night, or Kirkwall Outskirts — and complete all of the Companion and non-story quests there, move on to the next area, repeat until all areas are clear of quests that don’t directly relate to the main story, do the next main story mission, see what non-story quests pop up, rinse and repeat until only the last main story quests are left, finish them, and finish the Act. Thus, the only natural stopping point is after an Act (and even there the game tends to dump you back into the middle of the action after the time jump so there are still things you can do and that the game encourages you to get on right away). But Acts are longer than most DAO areas, so you might not be able to play one through in one sitting, and the game structure gets you into a pattern where you start forgetting about time because it becomes so habitual to just hop to the next area and clear all of its quests until there aren’t any more to clear, and it’s only when you are pointedly reminded of the time or run out of quests that you realize that you’ve been playing quite a bit longer than you intended.

I really, really like DA2’s quest structure, and wish more games would do something like it rather than the “Run around looking for all the quests in a big area” thing that most do. DAI returned to DAO’s structure, but with bigger areas as they were trying to simulate the open world structure of Elder Scrolls games, and all it did was force me to grind out each area completely for fear that if I didn’t I wouldn’t have enough XP to do well at the next area. DA2 had that as well — there were a couple of shady quests that I skipped but worried that doing so would mean that I couldn’t get enough money to move on, although at the time of at least one of them I unknowingly already had enough money to move on (and the quest giver taunted Varric that I looked like someone who spent money rather than saved it [grin]) — but the quests were shorter and moved you along to different areas enough that it felt less grindy; I wasn’t doing all of them just so that I could move on to the next area safely, but to clean all of that up so that I could directly advance the story. Unfortunately, it seems to be the sort of thing that you can only justify with limited resources, because if you have the resources to build bigger areas more people will enjoy those, and it’s hard to see how to fit this sort of thing into those sorts of areas without turning it into DAI.

Still, it does mean that I play it a bit longer than I’d like to unless I have a specific appointment to push me to stop. I can’t say whether that’s good or bad [grin].

Final Thoughts on Dynasty

October 8, 2018

Season 9 is the Platonic Form of Dynasty, as it perfectly captures its essential nature in its strengths and weaknesses. It combines very strong character acting with an utterly ludicrous set of plots that make no sense and aren’t interesting besides.

As usual, John Forsythe does an excellent job, along with Gordon Thomson and Michael Nader. Linda Evans leaves part-way through the season, which removes a sometimes weak actress although she always worked well enough for the role she had (it’s hard for the good girl to get really good opportunities to chew the scenery). Heather Locklear finally seems to get comfortable in the role of Sammy Jo, which is especially shown in the friendship/rivalry she has with Fallon which is completely believable. Stephanie Beacham comes on from The Colbys to chew the scenery in a way that only a soap opera villain/villainess can. Tracey Scoggins also comes over from The Colbys and has wonderful chemistry with John James as friendly semi-siblings. But the real improvement is Emma Samms, who after taking over for Pamela Sue Martin as Fallon always seemed to struggle to capture Fallon’s snark while doing a much better job with the vulnerability that Fallon had to show at times. In Season 9, she manages to figure out the snark part and manages to keep the vulnerability part, doing an excellent job with the character. Joan Collins seems distracted in Season 9 — she is deliberately absent for a number of episodes, suggesting that she was doing something else at the same time — but a distracted Joan Collins is still Joan Collins.

Unfortunately, the plots are exceptionally stupid. The main plot revolves around the recovery of a perfectly preserved for some reason body of Frank Grimes, who was Alexis’ lover when Blake threw her out and then disappeared. The body is conveniently found when Krystle starts to lose her sanity due to a previous injury and runs off to a lake for … some reason. Fallon finds the body compelling for some reason, and so starts looking into the murder and hooks up with the police detective who suspects Blake had something to do with it. Meanwhile, Blake, Jeff and Dex are being cagey about the whole thing because it turns out that their family had gotten involved in smuggling some Nazi treasure into the country and hid it there, and Blake doesn’t want to let that get out for … some reason. Alexis, of course, thinks Blake killed Grimes. It turns out that Fallon had shot him after he got too rough with Alexis, and Fallon’s grandfather covered it up and they both blocked it out of their minds, which makes no sense whatsoever. The treasure itself was moved but finally found by Krystina and the boys, leading to a hostage cliffhanger which is where the series ends. The B-plot was Stephanie Beacham’s character trying to take Colby Co away from Alexis, with international intrigue and terrorism on both sides, which was dull.

However, one improvement on the plot front was removing Stephen from the show. Up until Season 8, his main plot was about how he was gay but still wanted to have sex with attractive women, which was dull and repetitive. In more ways than one, actually, because he repeated with the same women, doing it with Claudia twice and Sammy Jo twice. However, in Season 8 Blake makes him the head of the company in a triumvirate with Fallon and Adam, and he becomes pretty much a dictator, and the plot has to contort itself to make him both unreasonable enough so that Fallon — who is very close to him — can oppose him but also ultimately make him out to be right. The idea situation would have been to have Adam in favour of the deal, Fallon neutral, and Stephen opposed, but this would make Adam too stupid, so they give the strongest support to Fallon. Except Fallon is smart enough to get Dex’s advice, which forces Dex to both act like his instincts are telling him that there’s something wrong but that the deal still seems on the up-and-up enough for Fallon to use that as justification for pushing for it. It turns out to be a disaster, of course, but getting there was ridiculous and did no favours for Stephen’s character. It was a relief that he left for Season 9.

The show really didn’t do Adam’s character very well. In hindsight, he was the perfect character to mostly side with Alexis — because she accepted him as her son right away — while being available to do shady things for Blake when Blake really needed someone shady to side with him, and to pull away from Alexis when she went over the line (a role that went much less interestingly to Dex). Instead, they kept trying to pull Heel-Face-Heel turns on him, and it didn’t really work because they would continually try to make him a Heel immediately after making him sympathetic. A prime example of this is the arc with Virginia, Krystle’s cousin who had a past as a streetwalker that connected her with Dex. Adam is feuding with Dex, finds out about it, seemingly gets involved with her to get at Dex, asks her to wear what she did for Dex, which humiliates her into leaving, which causes Dex to attack him, which causes Blake to reject him for humiliating Virginia, which angers Adam and sends him back to work with his mother. But this happened right after he lost custody of his surrogate child, at least in part because his wife at the time didn’t support him fully with an angry outburst suggesting that she thought the child should go with the mother. This is even brought up during the relationship with Virginia. It’s hard for us to see him as that cold and manipulative at that point — although it is consistent with his character — to do all this just to get back at Dex. It would have worked at lot better if Adam had taken up with her because he found her interesting and it replaced Dana for him, then find out about her past, then think that that was great as he’d be able to get the nice girl in the world and the slut in the bedroom, and then have him try that which humiliates her and then kicks off the rest of it. That way we could see that Adam has a point in being upset that Blake won’t believe him but can also see why Blake would jump to that conclusion, thus justifying his return to his mother again. As it stands, Adam is made at Blake for believing that he’d do what the show implies he was actually doing, which makes his protests hollow.

So, ultimately, what did I think of the show? Well, it’s probably best to compare it to the show that inspired it and that it’s most like: Dallas. While the acting was overall better on Dynasty, the plots were far worse, and that’s even accepting that Dallas had some very stupid plots. Joan Collins was probably a better actress than Larry Hagman, but J.R. was a much more competent villain than Alexis and got to play the good guy more often and better than Alexis did. The show didn’t have the Bobby character to play off of, as Blake was more the main protagonist than mostly a foil for Alexis, and while both Stephen and Jeff played the good guy at times they didn’t really have the prominence to go toe-to-toe with Alexis. So, ultimately, it’s a deeply flawed show, even for a soap opera. That being said, it’s still entertaining enough to watch and does manage to mix sex with convoluted schemes and wealth that was the formula for success for night-time soap operas. I’ll probably watch it again at some point … but I’m likely to rewatch Dallas first.

Sick …

October 5, 2018

So, as I already mentioned, there was an extended power outage here a couple of weeks ago. I happened to be on vacation the following week, and joked to my parents that after the power outage and all I needed to do to recover after it I was pretty much back to the point where I could go and start doing the things that I wanted to do at the start of my vacation by this past weekend.

And then I caught a cold.

While many people would complain that getting sick on their vacation would ruin it, I’ve never really felt that way. Years ago, I had my wisdom teeth removed, and deliberately scheduled it for a Friday so that if I ended up reacting badly to the anesthetic or in pain I had the weekend to recover from it. One of my co-workers expressed some surprise at this, to which my response was that if I was sick enough that all I could do was sit around and watch TV all day, would that be a bad weekend, or a good weekend? I considered it to be a good weekend. The same thing applies to getting sick on vacation: I’d rather be sick when I really don’t have to do anything than sick when I need to be or should be at work. That way I don’t really feel bad at all if all I do is lie around and read, watch DVDs, or play games.

As it turns out, the weather impeded me more than my cold did, since it rained at least part of almost every day making it too wet to do the outside things I wanted to do, which are the only things that I really needed to get done before going back anyway.

That being said, while replacing my window handles I managed to pick up all of Eccleston’s, Tenant’s, Smith’s and Capaldi’s runs on Doctor Who, which means that I can watch them again after watching them twice while I had Shomi and not being able to watch them since. I also finished off all of my characters in Dragon Age: Origins and have started my analysis run of DA2, which is turning out to be a bit too addictive a game for me [grin]. So, stuff happened and I’m feeling better now. All in all, not the vacation I was hoping for, but it worked out well enough …

Dragon Age: Origins: Issues with Secondary Antagonists …

October 3, 2018

So, over the past couple of weeks I’ve now played the end sequence of Dragon Age: Origins three times, finishing off all of my characters (except my very first character, a human mage, which I redid — even keeping the same name, although accidentally — as my last character). Since I always leave Orzammar for last, that also meant that I replayed at least parts of that storyline for at least two different characters. I’ve now played as a City Elf, Dwarf Noble, Dalish Elf, and Human Mage. With the last character, I also made Loghain a Grey Warden and ended up losing Alistair, which I didn’t do for any of my other characters. And that story really drove home something for me about the secondary antagonists in this game, which I think is best exemplified by Prince Bhelen … and the fact that I never chose him to be king with any of my characters and can’t really see how any of them could do that.

Bhelen is an antagonist in the Dwarven Noble introductory story. He’s the one who essentially sets the Dwarven Noble up and gets him assigned to execution. Harrowmount, in contrast, supports the Dwarven Noble and I believe is the one who gets the sentence commuted to being left in the Deep Roads, which at least gives a chance of survival (and Duncan rescues him, leading to the start of the main quest). So it’s pretty obvious that for almost all characters there is no reason for them to side with Bhelen, as what he did was unforgivable. However, those events are also hinted at in Orzammar, along with some other things that suggest that Bhelen is not to be trusted. If you actually investigate which of the two would make the better leader, you can’t help but discover that Bhelen is treacherous and Harrowmount is trustworthy if a bit staid and conservative. Given this, it’s really hard to not simply support Harrowmount because no matter whether he’s the best king for the Dwarfs, he can at least be counted on to keep his word, whereas it’s far too easy to believe that when you put out the call for Bhelen to keep his word and support the Grey Wardens against the Blight if he decides that that isn’t in his interest he’ll simply refuse to do so. Everything we know about his character suggests this. Harrowmount may not have the best policies, but he’s honest and definitely seems more concerned about the good of Orzammar than about his own self-interest. About the only character that might support Bhelen is the Dwarven Commoner, as their sister is Bhelen’s wife, which gives the Commoner a reason to believe Bhelen is trustworthy and that he might be more likely to support his family (which the Dwarven Noble storyline flat-out refutes).

Unfortunately, the game tries to present this as a choice between a good king whose ideas are outdated and so bad for the Dwarves vs someone more shady who at least has the proper ideas. The problem is that Bhelen is so shady that we can’t trust anything about him. His best idea is about breaking down the caste system, but we can be sure that he’ll maintain it if it benefits him. He is certainly willing to appeal to tradition when it suits him, like appealing to the fact that he’s the last remaining son of the previous king and so should, by rights, be made king. Even if the game presents it as working out better to make him king, pretty much no character can trust that he’ll do anything he says he’ll do, and so even if you think that his policies are the right ones you can’t really trust that he’ll actually do it. So, if you want to be sure of help against the Blight, you’ll choose Harrowmount. If you want to support the better person, you’ll support Harrowmount. If you want to do what’s best for the Dwarves, you’ll probably still support Harrowmount because he’s at least honest, will do what he says he’ll do, and cares about Orzammar first and foremost. The conflict is weakened because as an antagonist Bhelen is just way too evil to carry the shades of grey required to make that conflict really work.

The same thing applies to Loghain. It would be a great redemption tale to take that secondary antagonist — and the more visible one for most of the game — and turn him into a Grey Warden who gets sacrificed to end the Blight. Loghain certainly has enough heroism in his background to make that work. But Loghain isn’t just someone who made a tough choice that resulted in some deaths. He deliberately turned his back in the battle and left his king to die, when he could easily have simply refused to go along with the plan if he really thought it would be that disastrous. He trucks with assassins and slavers and shows little remorse or even rationalizations for doing so. At the Landsmeet, if you confront him with the slavery operations being run in the Alienage he insists that he did what was necessary but never actually explains what he needed that for, and what they were giving him. The game seems to want to present him as someone who was driven to extreme ends by the conflict, but never actually establishes that those ends were necessary. Thus, we are more likely to see him as evil rather than as merely misguided, and thus are uninterested in seeing him redeem himself. Alistair actually has a good point in saying that that sort of redemption is too good for someone who has done what Loghain has done, even if he pushes the point far too far to be rational.

And that’s the problem here. The game fell into the trap of making us want to oppose the antagonists — or, in Loghain’s case, to be able to defeat him through public opinion — by making their deeds so reprehensible that all characters — even the most pragmatic — want to oppose them and/or have no choice but to do so. But if you do that it’s very hard to make workable storylines using them that are more grey in nature. Loghain is a perfect character for a grey storyline where he always had Ferelden’s best interests at heart but through paranoia and fear did the wrong things, but his actions go far beyond that into evil or at least insane territory. And Bhelen’s policies would work to provide an interesting contrast in a character that we really believed cared about Orzammar, which we don’t do for Bhelen. They made the characters too strong of antagonists to make the “Well, it’s not as clearcut as it seems” twist work at all, especially since we need to buy that while we’re still supposed to be hating them. We simply can’t shift emotional gears that quickly when we’ve been buried in just how evil both of them actually are.

At the end of the day, the game tries to place redeeming qualities in characters that they’ve spent a lot of time removing all redeeming qualities from. It can’t pull that off, and so both storylines are greatly weakened by that, in at least most playthroughs.

Elite 10

October 1, 2018

So, last week I had promised to give my final thoughts on “Dynasty” today but had forgotten that I’d have something else to talk about: curling is back, with the Elite 10! This is the first year that they have an explicit women’s division of 10 teams although Rachel Homan played in it once a couple of years ago, which meant that I would actually watch it since I only watch women’s curling.

At any rate, Anna Hasselborg managed to win her first Grand Slam title — after losing her previous three attempts, including one time against Val Sweeting where she essentially choked — over Silvana Tirinzoni. It was a final that had two teams that I don’t really care that much for one way or the other, and the big difference seemed to be that Tirinzoni — who throws third rocks even though she’s the skip — didn’t play very well.

The Elite 10 uses a match play format, and I think that it was really hurt by the fact that on the Grand Slam they only play eight ends instead of ten. I’ve commented on how that has an impact before, but here it’s even worse. When you hit the sixth end and are up by 2 ends, it’s pretty much time to coast. Yes, teams can come back — Casey Scheidegger did it against Rachel Homan — but it’s really hard and a team there is forced to be really aggressive in order to do that, because a push is not going to be helpful. So the games seemed to generally start with a short feeling out period — as in curling ice conditions can change quite a bit from game to game or even from sheet to sheet — and then one team got up some and either kept rolling or just hung on and won. Those two extra ends can really help to make comebacks easier to achieve, and comebacks are one of those things in sports that everyone pretty much wants to see, because they’re so exciting.

But then it seems to me that sports these days are focusing on speed rather than on making things interesting, and are doing so in a way that makes games go faster and/or have less downtime without considering that sometimes the downtime is actually interesting. Here, they were trying out changing the time clock, where instead of having a set amount of time for the entire game the teams are each given four minutes per end to make all of their shots. One of the commentators commented that he liked it because it avoided the people who would bank time early in the game to use it later when things were more complicated or more important. Except that that point of the game is when you’d both have a really complicated situation — where it isn’t clear what the right decision is — and where the end is really important, as the game is likely tight and a wrong decision can be the difference between scoring a lot and getting back into the game and giving up a huge score and being out of it. These are precisely the times when there just is lots to think about, and where the discussions are actually interesting. If the fans know curling well, they’re going to be thinking about the shots in the same way as the players will. If they don’t and are watching on TV, the commentators will be going through that same thought process, or listening in on the players as they go through it, which is interesting. And even live and in-person they might be able to listen in on the players, as curling has gotten pretty good at making the audience in general feel like part of the game by doing so. So this sort of change runs a greater risk that teams will have to rush shots or consideration just because they have no time left and trades that rushing for speeding up the game when the slowing down of the game is the most interesting, tense, and suspenseful. I don’t see that as a good trade.

And on top of that, while banking time is boring because it’s all standard shots and everything stays open, it’s also quick and so doesn’t bore the audience that much. So you trade a fast but dull end earlier for a slower but more suspenseful one later.

There has to be room for slower and more considered sports in the sporting market. One of the things that curling is really good at is combining considered strategy with actual play. It is a bit like chess where every move you make can have an impact later on in the end, and so even trivial moves or misses can be important later. And often it isn’t even clear how that shot will have an impact, because that missed guard that came too close to the rings might be used for a runback or in-off later. So curling can allow you to consider each shot in the context of the entire end and so pondering or listening in on these discussions is one of the interesting parts of the game, and is something that you don’t really get from any other sport. Rushing the teams takes that away for a nebulous goal of “Make it faster!”, which doesn’t seem like much of a benefit to me. It seems to me that curling would be better served trying to fill that niche rather than making themselves just another “action” sport, where they simply can’t compete due to the nature of the game itself.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the Elite 10. Next up is the Masters, where I hope to finally see the all-skip team … and not just because Val Sweeting is on that team [grin].