I had the house to myself last night, so I could watch whatever nerdy DVD or DVR'd movie I wanted, as loud as I wanted. I've been talking about re-watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy (extended editions, of course) for a couple of months, but when I finally had a chance to get started, I ended up playing Dragon Age for three hours instead.
I love Lord of the Rings, and even though I've been trying to get Anne to sit down and watch it with me again for months, when I had my chance to watch it undisturbed last night, I wasn't nearly as interested in going back to Middle Earth as I was in going back to Ferelden.
I've been playing Dragon Age for about 64 hours, and I'm finally starting the climactic battle portion of the story. (Yeah, I take my time and get every last second of RP out of the RPGs when I play them.) Last night, I had to make some very difficult decisions, one of which resulted in a character I deeply care about leaving my party. It wasn't as upsetting as losing my dog in Fable II, but I still felt a real, emotional sense of loss. I don't know if I'll ever talk to this NPC again (at least as this character, with this origin), and that made me feel sad.
It also made me want to keep playing so I could find out what happened next … and so I did.
Knowing that my dog would wake me up at 6am and demand to be let outside, I still played until 1am, not because I wanted to kill the damn Darkspawn, not because I was trying to level my character and not because I just wanted to complete a quest. I intentionally allowed myself just 5 short hours of sleep because I hoped against hope that I could somehow find a way get [REDACTED] to come back and rejoin me. Alas, I failed. There were a lot of Darkspawn, and I just couldn't get past them all before it was really time to go to sleep. (Guess where I'm going as soon as I finish work today?)
Some of you are probably wondering why I didn't just save scum and try out different things until I got the desired result. I should probably mention that when I play any computer RPG, I use one savefile, plus a backup in case it gets corrupted. Yeah, let that roll around in your heads for a second, kids: daddy is hardcore. I should also point out that the choices I made last night – indeed all the choices that lead up to this particularly momentous one – were all made from a roleplaying point of view, based on the background and story I created for my character. I know that I could have just told different party members whatever I thought would make them happy and keep them around, but even though that's the kind of metagaming that keeps you from dying in the acid pit, it just isn't how I roll.
But here's the fundamental difference between playing this fantasy RPG and watching a fantasy movie: when I finish this character and play a different origin, I'll be able to make different choices that will (hopefully) lead to a different result when I get to the same place, 70 or 80 hours hence. Of course, there's still the chance that I'll end up in exactly the same place and discover that this event happens no matter what I do, in which case I'll say a swear really loud … but even if that happens, the journey that I'll take to get there that time will be different from the journey I took to get there this time. Sure, the major landmarks won't change, but the little details will, and that's an experience we simply can't get from movies (The Watch George Lucas Shit On Your Childhood editions of the original Star Wars trilogy DELIBERATELY IGNORED.)
I think this says something significant about video games as narrative storytelling, and I wanted to paraphrase something I said when I was interviewed for the Sci vs. Fi Mass Effect 2 special that is apparently airing every ten minutes on SyFy this week:
Narrative video games aren't going to replace television and movies any more than television and movies replaced books, but as technology continues to advance, and games become even more cinematic and interactive, the battle won't be only for the consumer; it will also be for the creator. People who went to school 20 years ago to learn how to make movies are now going to school to learn how to use the same narrative storytelling techniques to make video games.
It's going to be a fierce battle, and even though I think it will likely be fought to a draw, we're going to get some incredible entertainment out of it. As creators and consumers, we're going to experience things that we can only imagine right now, and I can't wait.