I probably replayed that stupid dialogue about 11 times. First try: +3 approval. Mmm, I think I can do better that that. Reload. What if at the second branch I tell them I think they're daring? +1. Reload. Alright, maybe if I act interested in their boring anecdote? +10. Bingo - approval meter just bumped up into the "love" zone. Sexytimes assured.
I've spent a fair bit of time in the last couple of weeks wondering why it is that I'm so very devoted to BioWare games. Even if I'm not completely enamored with every aspect of every game I've never run into a BioWare offering that I haven't enjoyed and replayed. I like to think I'm a decently well-rounded gamer and try to experience as many new games as I have time for. But BioWare has become a habit for me, a cozy sweater that I throw on every once in a while when the real world gets a bit too chilly. Baldur's Gate, KOTOR, Mass Effect, Dragon Age - what is it, exactly, that I find so compelling? What's behind this drive I have, this compulsion, to play the same games over and over again?
It certainly isn't the combat - as fun as it is to blast your way through Mass Effect as a biotic god or tinker endlessly with tactics in Dragon Age the combat isn't exactly groundbreaking and after a few playthroughs even the hardest difficulty settings don't offer much of a challenge. And it's not as if the subject matter is particulary fresh either. As rich and fully-realized as the settings they create may be it isn't as if the world has never before beheld a sci-fi- or fantasy-themed video game. It isn't even the agency aspect - the ability of the player to influence the course of the story through their actions - even though that is most definitely a large part of the equation for me. So what is it, precisely, that grabs me so hard and won't let go?
Well, for me it's the characters. To be specific - and just FYI this is probably going to get a bit pathetic and/or sad from here on out - it's the ability to make friends and experience romances.
A bit of background on me; let me know if you find any of this to be surprising. I've always been an introvert. I was the kid who got held back from beginning first grade because I wasn't "socially ready," preferring to read quietly in a corner instead of playing with or talking to other kids. When I first found video games it was a total game changer - it was a way for me to explore new worlds, to interact with creatures that had previously only existed in my books, to be the one to save the day. I felt important and it was (and still is) utterly intoxicating. The downside of course is that the further I fell into gaming, the more I withdrew from the real world. I've never been socially gifted by nature and I freely admit that I used my gaming habit as a way to actively avoid the stress of real-life social interactions. As a result I feel that I missed out on several of the milestones of adolescence - school dances, dates, first kisses. In my early twenties I made a decision to cut back on gaming and force myself to socialize with classmates; now in my late twenties I more or less get by but it's still pretty thin on the ground in the friendship/relationship department.
Enter BioWare. The first series I played was Mass Effect, and it was a goddamn revelation. I moved on to Dragon Age and then dug further back into Baldur's Gate and KOTOR, finding that all of them contained different versions of the same magic formula. It wasn't just that I found my squad mates and companions to be interesting, or that I felt that the line between me, the player, and my avatar in each game was thin enough to be just about nonexistent at certain moments. It was that somehow I felt a true emotional connection to these characters and over the course of many playthroughs, through hours and hours of conversations, felt that I was truly getting to know them as friends. Hell, Garrus Vakarian is possibly the best friend I've ever had. (Hey, I said it was going to get pathetic in here.)
It also must be mentioned that, in my opinion, BioWare has displayed a dedication to quality video game writing that is all too rare in AAA titles. Say what you will about Dragon Age II's gameplay, some of the dialogue is absolutely brilliant and as far as confidence and snappy replies go I do believe I'd like to be Sassy Hawke when I grow up. The way conversations are written, even down to the tiniest bits of random party banter, go a long way toward making those interactions feel authentic and allowing the player to feel as though they've been offered a small bit of insight into the history or personality of companions.
What these games offer me is more or less my idealized version of social interaction. Not only am I able to approach other people and engage them in conversation, all of my dialogue options are clearly laid out before me. If you choose the "wrong" options for a character they will react negatively and maybe even freeze you out of future conversations. Say all of the "right" things and they will continue to open up to you, their friendship perhaps eventually turning into flirtation or even sex. Social cues that are maddeningly elusive to me in real life are presented clearly and concisely, and any sense of rejection can be immediately remedied by simply reloading and trying again.
I'd like to think that I've actually learned something from these games, that in some way they've served to supplement my real life social interactions instead of replacing them. I'm not going to lie, I've actually visualized a Mass Effect-style conversation wheel in my head when I've been stuck for an appropriate response in real-life conversations - and weirdly enough, it's worked for me. (As far as I can tell. Which is admittedly not far.) I feel as if my social skills have improved greatly in the last few years; maybe it's because I've been corralled with the same small cohort of students for the last couple of years, maybe it's because I've started to reach out to others through online multiplayer games and message boards, or maybe - just a little bit - it's due in some very small part to the "practice" I've gotten from playing my favorite games.
Dragon Age image by Desiree Matas via DeviantArt.