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Interview With Eitanya

Garrus and Shepard

Have you ever wanted to cuddle up with your favorite character only to discover hugging the game box or dvd case is just uncomfortable and not very fullfilling? Then you need to drop Eitanya an e-mail. Her plush version of the fan-favorite character “Garrus” from BioWare’s Mass Effect series was first posted in Game Informer and then made its way around the web. Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing her on the creative process and finding out why she started making soft and squishy versions of characters.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Sure thing. I’m 26 years old, currently living on the gorgeous Emerald Coast with my husband, my brand new baby girl, and one spoiled rotten dog. I work from home designing plush toys, hats, and doing whatever other random creative things strike my fancy. When I’m not playing video games, of course.

How did you get started making these plushes?
My husband is a huge fan of the Strider video game series. I wanted to get him something related to the series for his birthday a few years ago, but finding something Strider-related that he doesn’t already have is getting increasingly difficult. So I got it in my head to make him a plushie. Mind you I had never attempted anything even remotely like that, but hey, I’m all about panic-learning! After making a few simple ones for myself I managed to plushie-fy Hiryu and then it was all over. I was hooked.

What did you make before that first plush?
Before Hiryu? A poison rice ball from Tenchu, a small Weighted Companion Cube, and my first human plushie was Faith from Mirror’s Edge.

Do you have a favorite plush that you’ve made?
Oh that’s tough…probably Aphmau from Final Fantasy XI, I was really happy with how all the details turned out.

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Love Game

Oh god, not the Lady Gaga song.

I stumbled upon the Digital Romance Lab this morning via this week’s Sunday Papers over at Rock Paper Shotgun. As Rossignol suggests, it’s a beautiful post so I wholeheartedly suggest you read it. More than that, it provides some context for this post.

There’s one bit in that post that intrigued me, a bit that is obvious but has interesting implications if taken at face value.

“Games create meaning through the gap between its rule-based procedures, and the player’s subjective response. This is what Ian Bogost calls the simulation gap. Therefore, in playing video games, we are able to critically reflect; to learn something about not just the game’s creator, but about ourselves.

Videogames are, then, excellent tools by which we can explore what it means to be human; to help us to explore, and unravel our subjective selves.”

Earlier the post stipulates that reading Pride and Prejudice allows the reader to learn something about Jane Austen, how she saw the world and, more specifically, how she saw romance. Objects like books are ”expressions of the way we see the world; or, at least, of how we want to represent it.” However, unlike books games are structured, easily quantifiable objective based systems. Romance often follows suit in that regard. Games tend to enumerate or somehow represent exactly where you stand with a possible romance.

This is where one might be inclined to criticize such a dehumanizing, inaccurate representation of romance. How can a game like Dragon Age Origins, for example, give you a special achievement for sleeping with specific characters? What does that say about how Bioware sees romance? Further, what does that say about what they think we want out of a romance?

It’s here that my mind recalls a recent conversation with a friend regarding relationships. He made a crack about how girls tend to look at the title ‘girlfriend’ as an objective that rewarded them with a type of ‘ascension’, a type of elevation in both status and treatment.  Romance unlocked!+5 kisses, +10 cuddles, etc. This came to me as a shock, initially. I’m not much for titles myself, I’m not sure I ever see myself getting married. What does a title or piece of paper prove, after all? Neither is necessary to have an understanding of monogamy if such is your thing. Thus I can’t help but wonder if its function is primarily a social one, like achievements (evidence of your skill and accomplishments to your peers) And yet for me the title had a facade; an expectation that came with it. An implied level of intimacy–we’re not talking purely physical here–which was exclusive to the title.

The expectation is somewhat furthered when I play games. Most of the time, I obsess over the romance aspect of games. At first this worried me–am I some maladjusted socially inept person or something? Perhaps! But I also realized it wasn’t just me, it’s the way some of the relationships are structured. If I wanted to get to know someone better, if I wanted to experience intimacy, romancing them was inevitable. A requirement, even. In Persona 3, getting to know any girl meant you were making them your girlfriend. There is no other choice. In Mass Effect, being cordial to someone is the same as romancing them. Romance unlocked! +5 deep conversation. Congrats. Often times, even when I’m not shoehorned into a relationship I still seek it out anyway: I can’t help but feel like writers only allow you to know characters the best if you pursue their love. A level of intimacy which is exclusive to the romance.

I can’t help but think about the seemingly rat-raceish nature of it all. Finding ‘the one.’ Settling down and getting married by age 30ish, have a kid, what have you. Do it and you’re playing the game right, you’re winning. Love becomes a marker of a successful maturity into adulthood, as the NYT puts it, ”Sociologists traditionally define the “transition to adulthood” as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child.” Of course, what that article ends up conceding is that such milestones and the way we go about achieving them is currently being redefined. Some might acknowledge this as an inevitability given how archaic and arbitrary they are as markers of…anything. Will we start seeing this cultural shift reflected in games?

By no means am I implying this is a standard parsing of the human experience. Not everyone treats life as a series of achievements. Nonetheless it’s interesting to look at that approach when thinking about the way games position love–can we truly say it’s a completely off-base representation, speaking structurally? Or is it actually representative of the ‘real’ underbelly of love? Let us not forget that romance doesn’t have to be be structured as just another game mechanic.

Review: Dragon Age 2

Dragon Age 2 is the oddest bird I have played in ages. It’s what you get when people who really don’t want to be making role playing games make one anyway. It tries to follow the Mass Effect blueprint, by tearing out all the negatives reviewers pointed out in the previous game, distilling the game down to an unadulturated positive experience.

Of course, there is a major difference. Mass Effect was a game with simple, obvious flaws: the combat was a little off, there was too much generic exploration, and the story, while good, featured a lot of characters who were not especially memorable. We can pretty much all agree why Mass Effect wasn’t perfect. On the other hand, if you put ten fans of Dragon Age: Origins in the same room, you would have ten completely different sets of complaints. Some people felt the combat was boring, some felt it was confusing, and others felt it was the best in an RPG in ages. Some people loved the story, the “generic” quest to defeat a horrible evil race, and some people loved the silent protagonist and the complicated dialog system. Others didn’t like those things. Some people liked the scope of the game, others felt the characters were bland and unlikeable.

A lot of the problems with Dragon Age 2 can be traced to the fact that it is a game built to mechanically correct the flaws of its predecessor. As it is, however, I want to go at it in as pure a way as possible, and not compare it to Origins in the slightest. Well, that’s not true. I plan to spend a second or two on it at the end. But it’s very much it’s own beast, and deserves to be tackled as such.

Unfortunately, as such, Dragon Age 2 is a mediocre game that is soulless and forgettable fun.
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My Game of (last) Year: Dragon Age Origins

[I realize this came out last year, but this is the game that dominated my gaming experience in 2010]

Awarding something ‘Game of the Year’ can be done under a number of different criteria, but one that works for me is this: “what game really drew me in, and had me spending hour after hour with it?” That game, despite some very real flaws, was BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins.

For me, what really sold the game was the character Morrighan. From an artistic perspective, BioWare did a good job of developing a character with some sex appeal that wasn’t overtly sexy. Courting her meant being judicious about helping that defenseless villager, but she is not a character I would describe as evil–let alone a ‘bad’ girl.

In fact, despite all her idiosyncrasies, her behavior is actually quite logical based on her upbringing. Learning the truth about her ‘mother’ Flemeth, exacting revenge, and earning her final amorous approval is something I enjoyed quite a bit. I’m not sure how I would have reacted to the ‘God baby’ endgame without having courted her first, but that’s a twist I certainly didn’t see coming.

Add this defining character into a world that feels lived in. Sure, Orlais and Ferelden bear more than a passing resemblance (with fates reversed) to England and France post-Hundred Years’ War. The prophet Andraste is clearly modeled after Joan of Arc. But look what designers did with high-fantasy regulars: dwarves and elves. The political system of the former and the political status of the latter was something I found incredibly refreshing. Elves as once-immortal beings now typically found enslaved or in refugee camps. . . that lends a darkness to the fantasy setting a thousand Drows could not.

Origins has been let down by its mediocre and poorly balanced DLC packages as well as the largely forgettable Awakening expansion but the core game that shipped in November 2009 got more love from me in 2010 than any other title in my library.

Honorable Mention:

My runner-up is a game that actually came out in 2010, and sucked my time away more than anything that didn’t have Morrighan  in it. This was my first experience with a DICE game and the franchises represented in it (both Battlefield and the Bad Company sub-brand), and I’ve been totally blown away by the experience.

Multi-player in BC2 is an addictive, well-balanced affair that brings tactical gameplay to the fast-paced environment of the console in a way that Call of Duty probably never will. Though the game’s success owes much to the Frostbite engine, especially the way destructible environments make each match feel like an organic battle, the real key is something more subtle. The two dominant multi-player modes (Rush and Conquest) hybridize objective and deathmatch play in a way that no other FPS does: objectives are given–and are key to each mode–but unlike other objective games, kills and kill/death ration still matters for the team. For those who care to read more, I wrote about this on Gamasutra a while back.

The reason Bad Company 2 doesn’t get the nod from me, despite being my favorite game actually released in 2010, is that the campaign is pretty forgettable. In fact, the final level has been so maddening to me I still haven’t finished it.

Disappointment of the Year

Perhaps I came into Halo: Reach with excessively high expectations. It’s a good game, but I expected greatness. On the single-player front, gameplay is solid, but two key enemies are drastically over-powered to the degree they are simply not fun to fight, despite the challenge: Zealot elites, and especially Hunters. Even worse, the story–its characters in particular–fall flat in a way that leaves ODST as the most engaging Halo story to date.

Nor, unlike Bad Company 2, does the multi-player redeem the campaign’s flaws. True, I had some pretty glowing things to say about it back in October, but the more I play the more I get tired of the Halo formula. It’s subjective, I know, but I have to bring it up. Objectively, the game is impeccably balanced, but the majority of levels fail to impress–and they’re certainly not memorable. Not in the long run.

The Noble Map Pack is well-done, and I’ll stick come back from time to time, but Reach is not addictive in the way Halo 3 was and has not superseded Bad Company 2 as my “go to” multi-player game of choice.

Moment of the Year

The last hours of Red Dead Redemption. Especially what happens after the credits roll. . . wow. I left the game there, because that’s the ending I wanted to remember.

The game as a whole is pretty flawed, but it will be interesting to see what Rockstar does with the Wild West setting down the road.

Honorable Mention: the debut of space combat in Reach at E3. I only wonder what would have happened, though, if Bungie and Microsoft had kept that under wraps and let gamers be blown away as they played the game. That surprise alone might have been enough to sway my opinion of the game.

Rampant Dragon Age Skepticism

Someone could call me a Dragon Age 2 skeptic. I was a pretty big fan of the first Dragon Age (though nothing compared to either of my fellow DA:O fanatics, Patricia and Graham), but I’m not a massive Bioware devotee. I like good games, not Bioware specifically. I’m worried about Dragon Age 2 because trusted folk on the internet have said, “We’ve played it, and this game is a bad console action-rpg with morality attached.” Bioware has released almost no official gameplay footage. All word out of Camp Bioware has been worrisome.

Well, here’s this dev diary, to assuage our fears. And by assuage our fears, I mean confirm all of them. Basically, if you liked Dragon Age for the deep, tactical combat and for the ability to have shades of gray discussions with people, you were playing it wrong. The deep, tactical “chess” like combat is apparently a negative. Well, no, not a negative, they say, but something “people didn’t like”, which is most definitely a negative. They’ve made a new experience, which people who wear armor to conventions like. Why shouldn’t you?

Deep down, my concern for DA2 was never the story. Even with a voiced protagonist, I’m pretty sure Bioware know what they’re doing on that front. I mean, even Jade Empire, forgotten Bioware game of myth and legend, did some neat story based stuff. No, where I was skeptical was the gameplay. Both Mass Effects succeeded in spite of their gunplay. Knights of the Old Republic, even, ran pretty shit. Origins represented the first time they got combat right, a mix of tactical ideas and visceralness. But then they ran into the problem. The problem that everything has to be more physical and more real, because if not, then console players won’t be happy.

Basically, I watch this video and I hear, “PC gamers? You’ll buy this anyway, because you are good, loyal consumers. What we want is the person who plays Gears of War exclusively!” which, while I good business strategy, makes me question your desire to make good games and not just make scads of money.

My mild skepticism is turning into rampant disgust at Bioware tearing the heart and soul out of a great game, and I don’t know if anything they say can fix that. Because I think that’s what they’re doing.

Dragon Age 2’s “Rise to Power” Trailer

Things to note: there is actual gameplay showcased here (despite the lack of HUD). That being the case, I think we can all agree that Dragon Age 2 has gotten a visual rehaul of sorts.

The narrator is a dwarf named Varric, he is telling this story to an inquisitor trying to figure out how it is that the world is on the brink of war. We also get to see what we can probably assume to be a love interest for Hawke. She’s a gypsy pirate. Lastly, yes, the Qunari invasion that Sten mused about in Origins? It’s what is happening in DA2–here we see more snippets of this invasion, though the backdrop is most evident on the Destiny trailer, where we see Hawke battling a horned Qunari.

Morrigan Returns: Dragon Age Witch Hunt DLC Review

Oh yes, Morrigan returns. But you have to hunt her down first.

After playing the DLC over twice and starting it for a third time, it’s time to write a bit on the thing. I’m a huge, huge, Dragon Age fan. It is my favourite game by far. So know this: the overview before you comes from a genuine Dragon Age lover to you, the reader.

Morrigan concept from

The first thing to get out of the way is that the DLC is short. Just like Leliana’s Song, or Golems of Amgarrak, this is not a large DLC like Awakenings. Just like the other short DLCs, Witch Hunt is similar in length (2 hours at most), structure, and that there are no real “decisions” to make that will seriously affect your character or other playthroughs….or so we think.

Having said that, Witch Hunt is the DLC that most greatly draws on the decisions you did make in Origins. This is apparent as soon as you start, and plays big when you finally do find Morrigan. This was to my immense joy when I started the DLC, quickly putting my personal feelings about a tiny little game about Morrigan instead of waiting to find how things pan out in Dragon Age 2.

Without revealing too much, the beginning of the game I think I’m at liberty to describe without spoiling much. The DLC starts in front of Flemeth’s Hut, where you are re-united with your trusty mabari, who has forgotten his name (or perhaps you forgot it!). You learn most mabari hounds used in the army has died, and due to your mabari’s exceptional abilities, he has been used to mate with many, many female hounds to produce a new army of super awesome mabaris.

Lucky dog.

Let me give you a taste of what kinds of different decisions play into things at the absolute beginning of the DLC. My first playthrough I used my first-everDA character. Human warrior, whose decisions included a) killing Flemeth the High Dragon, and b) sleeping with Morrigan to make a demon baby. My warrior was drawn to the place of Flemeth’s demise, triggering a somewhat solemn reaction from my character. Entering the hut, you see an empty chest bed, and seemingly eternally lit flame. It is here where you meet an intruder of the hut, a Dalish Elf, and your two-hour adventure truly begins.

These decisions were probably the more obvious ones to make in DA: Origins, but here’s some food for thought. I played through again as my mage who forced Alistair to sleep with Morrigan to make a demon baby, went to Flemeth to get the book (didn’t kill her), then returned to Morrigan and lied to her about Flemeth’s death.

Two totally opposite scenarios, reveal much different experiences, at both beginning and end of the DLC.

Along the way you’ll return to the Circle of Magi, where your decisions there in Origins will play out: Templars might not like you too much. You will also return to the dungeon in which the Dalish Elf origin plays out. There are also a few references to events in the Awakenings DLC. Some of them are quite comedic if you look for them, for example, you might find some textbook vandalism by Anders.

Other things you can expect from the Bioware team, as per usual, great voice acting you actually listen to, great writing, great conversation, and little surprises thrown in for fans that are not tasteless or silly. And again, as seen in Awakenings andAmgarrak, interesting tweaks and twists to battles and bosses, such that the game is not a straightforward hack-and-slash.

Lastly, the game does not sell short of ruining the Morrigan character or saga, as were my worst fears. If anything, the encounter with Morrigan and this DLC, makes you look forward to with excitement for Dragon Age 2. The Witch Hunt DLC is the best short Dragon Age DLC thus far and you will enjoy it, especially if you are a Dragon Age fan.

Check out Dragon Age’s “Witch Hunt” DLC Trailer

Not much to add here, except that as I suggested this DLC marks the end of the Origins storyline: the trailer says this is the Warden’s last quest, not necessarily Morrigan’s. Of course, we may never see her again, I’m just putting this tidbit out there.

We also get to see Ariane, a party member for the DLC, who happens to be a “gifted Dalish warrior” who is “her clan’s best hunter.”

And, lastly, judging by Morrigan’s tone during the narration, it’s almost as if she expects you to come searching for her, she’s not surprised at all. She is, after all, the “temptation” in question.

The DLC is set to release September 7th.

New Dragon Age DLC Follows Morrigan

No matter what you did at the end of Origins, there was no escaping Morrigan’s departure: either you pissed her off and she left, or you had the demon baby and she left. Needless to say, there was no real closure in that setup, and ever since then fans have been obsessing over how Bioware planned to tie that loose end. Just where is Morrigan going and why doesn’t she want us to follow her? What about the demon baby? This has got to be a storyline that continues onto Dragon Age 2, right? Well, it seems as if this new piece of DLC called “Witch Hunt” drops on September 7th for 7 bucks, and it promises to answer some of those questions.

The Bioware website describes the DLC as follows:

“The dreaded Archdemon has been slain and the advance of the darkspawn halted by a lone, heroic Grey Warden. The kingdom rejoices, but at least one question remains: what happened to Morrigan? The sorceress joined the Wardens cause, but it is said her true purpose was not revealed until the eve of the last battle. She vanished into the shadows, and while rumors claimed she crossed over the mountains into Orlais no trace of her path could be found. She was never heard from again… until now. Nearly a year has passed since the Archdemon’s death, and word has reached the Wardens that Morrigan has returned to Ferelden. She has been sighted in the southern wilderness where she was first encountered. Is it truly her? If it is, then why has is she here and what secret does she carry with her? The Warden heads into the forest to find out and tie up this last loose end once and for all.”

And, while yes, you’ll get to earn special items that you can import into Origins or Awakenings, here’s the kicker: at the end, this DLC is described as the “dramatic conclusion” to the Origins storyline. So, what better way to sing your swan song than to tie up the biggest loose end? Here’s hoping that this still isn’t the last we see or hear from our Witch of the Wilds, though–if we’re seeing Flemeth in DA2, we better damn well see Morrigan, too!

Dragon Age 2 SUPERRoundup: Dialogue, Framed Narrative, Graphical Update, More

It’s that time once again boys and girls: the time where Dragon Age 2 information is taking up way too many tabs on Firefox, so I have no choice but to relay the smaller details which you may have missed. You may have missed them because you’re not insane like me, and you don’t take to combing the recesses of the internet for any and all details surrounding the game. But, enough about my insanity…let’s talk about Dragon Age 2! And let’s talk about it at great length.

  • Dialogue choices you make may be enveloped under Mass Effect’s conversation wheel, but there’s actually an underlying mechanism that makes the conversation wheel unique from ME’s. You see, dialogue choices influence what dialogue is made available to you later, too. So, being the knight in shining armor will make more “good” options appear, but if you choose to take things lightly and joke around a lot, one-liners may be in your future. While interesting in theory, I’m unsure if I, personally, will enjoy this dialogue change: I tend to play very erratically in terms of personality and actions. Playing a certain way may shoehorn me into being able to ONLY play in that way. This also means that the paragon/renegade system may still be taking over DA2 in spirit, because you’ll have to play an extreme character in one way or the other to be able to take more of those options, if not take the more “advanced” good/bad options (the equivalent of which would be the red/blue options in Mass Effect).
  • As you know, combat is getting a rehaul–the whole, ‘Think like a general, fight like a spartan’ bit. Mike Laidlaw expands on this, citing that they wanted to get rid of “shuffle and lag.” Those who have played the Dragon Age 2 demo have made comparisons to God of War and Fable (spartan), only you have the ability to pause and give out orders (general). Moreover, Laidlaw says that “You have every ability you had in Origins in terms of being able to attack, move and position guys. But it’s faster, way more fluid, way more comprehensible. You may have to pause a little bit more to pull off the ‘grand strategy,’ but you can still pause the game, move between all of your characters… All those things are still there.” On the more tactical side of things, this new “responsive” system makes for faster orders. “”What I never felt was that my orders were being followed in that they weren’t orders so much as suggestions. Alistair would kind of move up, get in position, then attack, and I was like, ‘Dude, get up their with your sword and hit the guy,” Laidlaw says. And, sure enough, previews cite the ability to cast instant orders…which come at the expense of longer recharge times.
  • Origins players may expect many a nod and rewards. Not only will our overall choices affect the world in Dragon Age 2, Laidlaw also teases that Origins players will note many references and “secrets” which other players will not recognize. The experience will be “fulfilling” for Origins players, says Laidlaw…I’m hoping this means we’ll get something better than what Mass Effect 2 did with its email system, because that was pretty lame. Bioware says these events will depend on the gravity of the choice. “Depends on the decision and its relevance to DA2 – some choices in Origins (or Awakening) are more integral to what is happening in DA2, others are mere rumours of things that may be happening far away in ferelden – and are reflected in that way.” And, for those players who are upset over our inability to keep playing as the Warden? Laidlaw cryptically says that “We want the warden to certainly be in there.” It’s unclear if he means that the Warden will make an appearance, or if he’s simply talking about the Warden’s choices. It would be amusing to have Hawke meet the Warden, though, no?
  • Details on the graphical update: “We’ve enhanced our graphics engine to support a bunch of new technical features such as self shadowing, enhanced terrain generation and smoother lip synch and more face customization. It’s not a complete overhaul, but the end result looks better and runs smoother” says Laidlaw. “The redesign of the visual style has an added benefit of running much smoother on our engine. We can get a lot more creatures on screen, with better framerates,” he adds.
  • The social network will continue to be supported in DA2, and we can expect to be able to “upload” our Hawke to it. More specific details on how this functionality will differ or diverge from what Origins offered are not yet available says Bioware.
  • Those of us that fear the Shepard-ing of DA, fear not. Bioware has no intention of creating a Hawke myth ala Shepard, but rather creating a larger gameworld. Hawke himself isn’t the point, inasmuch as the details surrounding how the game world got to be on the brink of war–Hawke just happened to influence this. “While hawke may have a continuing role in the series, I have always viewed Dragon Age as a series of games about the world, rather than about individual characters. Not to say Hawke isn’t important, he is, but the world is really our focus.”

And, that’s about it for today’s uber roundup.