Amalur, Dragon Age & Elder Scrolls: On the Appeal of Western RPGs

Kingdoms of Amalur comes out this week and I find myself almost totally uninterested in it. I want to spend this article trying to unpack why I feel this way. Even though both series have their faults, I’m a big fan of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls games, and of Bioware’s Dragon Age games. I feel like Amalur is falling into this weird gap in between the two where it apes elements of both franchises but misses out on the core elements of what draws me to them.

If one were to make a list, without the particular games I’ve mentioned in mind, of what the key draws of a Western RPG were, you’d probably end up with things like a huge world with an epic story, filled with quests and loot. But none of that really gets to the heart of the matter.

What makes Dragon Age so exceptional for me is the companion characters. The moments I take away from the game all have to do with them: Wynne and Leliana teasing Alistair, Sten interacting with my character’s dog at the camp, and, of course, Alistair insisting on sacrificing himself at the end of the game. Dragon Age 2 is a more challenging case. In a way, it’s an exercise in how much can be stripped away from an RPG while still making it appealing. I complained a lot while I was playing the game (see here, for example) but the reason I complained so much was because I actually cared – I was deeply invested in the characters and their stories. As frustrating as some of the lead-up to it was, the decisions the game requires you to make in the endgame – I still feel deeply ambivalent about the choices I made, and who I could and couldn’t forgive.

Growing to care about these companion characters is a slow process. It takes time and sustained interaction (as well as superb writing) for it to work. But when it works, the payoff is tremendous. It makes the world feel more complete and coherent when my character isn’t a lone schizophrenic psychopath who is apparently very Important, and the only one who can solve all the problems in the world, great and small. When there are characters I like who care about what happens to the world, I care more too. I have to actually consider the impact of my choices. When things get really bad, or outright absurd, having someone else along for the ride, someone who is programmed to be aware of the situation and comment on it, makes all the difference – it forces me to be engaged and take things seriously.

The Elder Scrolls games appeal to me on a very different level. It’s me against the world. No meaningful companions, but instead, an immense degree of freedom. The world is gorgeous and huge and scary, and my job is to make my way in it. To survive, and thrive, and conquer. There’s a real feeling of danger to stepping off the beaten path. Is that bear on the next hill going to attack me? What’s in that cave, and, given that it’s charging at me, do I have any hope of fighting it, or should I run? When I do succeed, it’s because of choices that I made. I harvested those ingredients, made that potion, used it at just the right time. I found that sword, and then I practiced with it, and I made it more powerful.

I want to emphasize that it’s not merely the conquest, the power fantasy, that I find appealing about Oblivion and Skyrim, it’s very much the exploration. The feeling that I can head of the path, and choose to follow this riverbed or awkwardly scale this mountain, and it will definitely lead somewhere interesting and cool.

So now we come to Amalur. I highly recommend watching the Giant Bomb quicklook of it, since that’s really crystalized my feelings on the matter:

On the one hand, it’s got all the meaninglessness of an Elder Scrolls game. There are plenty of choices to be made, but they don’t feel like they’ll matter to me. I’m not going to agonize over whether to betray this or that NPC. There’s no shortage of static quest-givers, but they’re just doling out content. If I help them out and make their day, or if I ruin their lives, it’s just not going to have an impact on me. There are plenty of choices, but little in the way of consequences. Making it explicit in the world’s lore that I’m Special and Important and that the world revolves around Me doesn’t help. If nothing can happen without my help, it doesn’t make me feel more engaged with my character; it makes me feel less engaged with the world.

On the other hand, the world feels flat and closed off. I can’t truly free-roam – the map is a series of open areas linked by choke points. It may be unusually colourful, but that doesn’t save the world from feeling bland. I can’t look up and see the sky. I can’t climb that mountain, or jump off that cliff into the river below. I can’t even step down off that ledge when it’s a two-foot drop.

Perhaps the art style bears some blame for this. I appreciate the impulse to make it colourful and cartoony. However, it doesn’t seem to make the characters more expressive, or help me relate to them. On the other hand, I don’t really engage with characters in the more realistic Elder Scrolls style either; it’s the landscapes draw me in. And even in Dragon Age, the facial expression helps, but it’s really the writing and voice acting that are the draws for me.

There’s also a real lack of risk to the combat in Amalur. Early reports are that combat is painfully easy, at least on the default difficulty. Tap, tap, tapping on the X button does not make for interesting, engaging fights. I know some people criticize the Elder Scroll’s melee combat, and I’ll admit that at times it looks a little goofy, but I find it tense and interesting. There’s maneuvering around for position, and keeping your guard up, and trying to find an opening to slash away. Combat in Amalur may look flashier, but it doesn’t seem to have the sort of tension and diversity that’s needed to sustain the experience for its 60 hour duration. The worst thing that can happen for a game is for its core gameplay loop to start feeling rote and dull and routine, and that seems to happen really quickly in Amalur.

So I don’t think Amalur is a game for me. I’ll probably try it as a rental some time, but I’m in no great rush. It’s probably not a bad game. It’s certainly one that a great amount of effort and marketing went into. I like that more people are making and playing these styles of games, but, as the saying goes, I just can’t get behind this one.

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