Monday, December 28, 2009

Interactive Fiction Review: Dragon Age: Origins

There are plenty of reviews of the computer role playing game Dragon Age: Origins, but I wanted to take a look at the software as a piece of interactive fiction.


The main story arc of a fantasy hero or heroine facing down a world threatening evil is the spine of any story you can experience in Dragon Age: Origins. It is the personalities, relationships, and the details that are under the player's control. Your choices determine what kind of person the hero is, good or evil, pure or corrupt, innocent or hedonistic rake hell. And what kind of hero you have brings out different qualities in the supporting cast of the story.

Conversation is by "pick a line." The screen shows a close up of the person you are talking to. You click on what to say at the bottom of your screen. If the game designers don't provide an option, you can't create your own. Most of the time there is a "cut to the chase" option, where you focus on the main story problem, a few probing questions that can give you deeper understanding of the situation, and a snarky insult or two.

Once you say something, the supporting character replies in smooth animation, and you hear it spoken by a voice actor and see the text at the top of your screen. It can be as short as a "No." or as long as a song.

Sometimes your options include actions, such as "Kiss her" instead of dialog. When she deflects your kiss with a joke, you have the option of laughing it off or showing her how serious you are. It's amazing how easy it is to flirt if your dialog is all chosen from a menu. There is no problem telling in advance which response is going to piss her off when you see it in text, juxtaposed with some serious heart-felt sentiments. If real life were like this, my dating days would have been much less stressful.

The graphics are very good, and can show a lot of emotion. Morrigan appears cold and callus almost all of the time, but every once in a while her face registers a deep sadness and regret if what you tell
her pierces her defenses.

Most of the time, the choices that you have made in the past are reflected in how people treat you and what your current choices are. You get so used to that, that when it doesn't happen, you are thrown out of the illusion and are slapped in the face that you are just dealing with a piece of software. The worst example of that I ran into was in the elven ghetto called the alienage. I had just defeated a secret conspiracy, came out a back door, and ran into a blind man who wanted to give me a quest to look for a secret conspiracy. I wanted to say "I just did it!" but that was not an option.

As the supporting cast reacts to you, their attitude changes. If they like you a lot, it might lead to romance depending on the person and your reactions. Anyone who likes and trusts you more becomes more powerful in the action scenes. You can find or buy gift items and then give them to your friends to further improve their mood. Different characters respond to different gifts in unique ways. Their dialog will often include throw away lines that are clues to what items would please them most.

At it's heart, Dragon Age: Origins, is a game. You can't not save the world, except by putting the game down. You can't just do the interactive fiction bits and not play the game. But if you like the game anyway, the story will drag you into the interaction. Which is done well enough to make you forget you are playing a game.

My wife walked by while I was conversing with a character, saw them speaking, and asked "Are you watching a movie?"

No, I was in the movie.

Book Review: Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Storm Front (The Dresden Files, #1) Storm Front by Jim Butcher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like urban fantasy, but it's dominated by women writers and after a while the girly-girl and lady-porn aspects can distance me. Well, at least the girly-girl scenes. :)

I picked this up because Jim Butcher is the best selling male author of urban fantasy, and he has a male protagonist. I'm writing an urban fantasy, and I have a male protagonist, so there is my motivation.

Great, book, with powerful, muscular writing. Not a girly-girl scene in sight, and plenty of great fantasy-noir action. The magical action choreography was riveting, and there were parts where I found myself unable to sit and read -- I was so pumped up I had to stand and pace while reading.

The protagonist, Harry Dresden, is a Wizard/Private Eye in Chicago, and people are turning up dead in gruesome ways and it looks like Harry better find and stop the killer or he will be next.

The world building is well done, if a little inconsistent. Vampires, fairies, wizards and more exist in the shadows of our modern world. Magic and technology do not mix well, and Harry's mere presence causes machines to fry. In this world, most people do not believe in magic, but there is plenty of proof and plenty of believers, so I had to shut down the part of my mind that insisted this magic stuff would be on CNN 24x7.

While some of the initial character motivations were lost to me in the world building of the first few chapters, once the plot was rolling, I couldn't put the book down. Lots of quirky minor characters, including a horny spirit who lives in a skull in Harry's basement, gave the book a wise guy fantasy feel. Harry's cluelessness with the ladies was ladled on a bit too strong, but I have the feeling Harry will be working on this problem in the rest of the series.

Quibbles aside, I loved this book. I read it on my Kindle, and wanted to read faster and faster, so I was alway pressing the next page button before I finished the current page. I need to stop doing that.

If you like noir and fantasy, check out Harry Dresden.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Game Book Review: The Radical's Handbook

Dark Heresy RPG: The Radical's Handbook Dark Heresy RPG: The Radical's Handbook by Fantasy Flight Games

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This supplement to the Dark Heresy role playing game covers radicals. A radical, in this game-world, is someone in the Inquisition who uses the tools of the enemy to get things done. Deamon weapons, xenos tech, anything proscribed, as long as it gets the job done.

The book includes game mechanics for players who wish to stray down the radical path, and for game masters who wish to use radicals against their players. There are alternate career ranks like Sin Eater and Tainted Psyker, and elite advance packages including Deamon Vessel and The Exorcised. And plenty of radical toys for players or adversaries.

Also covered are many different radical cults: including those that believe they can enslave chaos to do the Emperor's work, those that believe have damned themselves by using chaos, and there is no salvation, and radicals who believe that the Imperium is stagnating to death and must be forced into radical change.

A topic that is not covered, but I wish is were, is what happens to an Adepta Soritas who goes radical?

There is some repetition of material between this and Disciples of the Dark Gods, such as deamon weapons. While the book is useful to players who wish to be radicals, it has many spoilers. A GM who is worried about this might want to change a few names, and not to protect the innocent.

This book would be useful for an Dark Heresy GM. Radicals make great opponents, even to other radicals. For those who want to run a radical campaign, this is indispensable. Plenty of great artwork, and a fun read for any Dark Heresy player or Games Master.

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Book Review: Magic to the Bone by Devon Monk

Magic to the Bone (Allie Beckstrom, #1) Magic to the Bone by Devon Monk

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I met Devon Monk at Orycon last weekend. She was on an Urban Fantasy panel, and she's sharp and sounded like she knew what she was about. And she sets her Urban Fantasy in Portland. I'm writing an Urban Fantasy set in Portland.

So out came my Kindle and 42 seconds later I had Magic to the Bone.

It's a fun, fast read. Allie Beckstrom is a Hound, a person who uses magic to track down other magic users, like the person who almost kills a young boy in Johns Landing. She runs into Zayvion Jones, a close lipped man who has been hired by her father to watch her.

Violence, romance, and some very intense magic ensues as Allie tries to stay alive. And when she uses magic, she often looses memories. Large parts of her life are gone, and the more she uses, the less she can recall. A serious price to magic.

The book is in first person, from Allie's point of view, except for a few scenes in third person that center around a strange prisoner called Cody. Since it's in Allie's PoV, it's very jarring when she can't remember what happened a few pages ago. The reader feels the price she pays.

I would give this four stars, except for the ending. I enjoyed the entire book, but the ending did not grab me. Will the other books have endings more to my liking? I liked this enough to want to find out.

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