PAX East Day 2: or, on being a fan

PAX East is always awesome; from the demos to the panels, and everything else, it’s just awesome to be a fan of gaming surrounded by thousands of other similarly-minded individuals.  Day 2 of this year’s PAX, however, truly drove home how awesome it is to be a fan who is deeply passionate about something.

First off, today was the day of the BioWare costume contest, so Bard and I donned our matching Jowan and Lily (from the mage origin in Dragon Age Origins) cosplays:

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We wanted to head over to see PopCap as well; they’d just released the mobile Solitaire Blitz app, and it was the one year “splashy-versary” of the game, so we wanted to show off our Otis the worm plushie.

I was initially going to go to a panel about showing off your love of gaming in real life.  But… I already do that.  A lot.  So instead I headed down to the show floor to meet up with MLHawke, who was in line with our friend Amanda for Assassin’s Creed 4. I wasn’t too interested in seeing it, but the booth did have a free photo stage.  Chantry sister plus coffee plus pirate gun equals a little crazy!  Next I was going to hit a panel about geeks and crafting, but since I do a lot of that anyway, I decided I’d go to the BioWare panel about The World of Thedas.

It was a good talk, and makes me even more excited to get the book; Dragon Age has such a deep, richly detailed world that something like this was a long time coming.  I’ve done my share of scouring lore and codex entries and writing my own analytical pieces about it, so having a definitive work from the developers themselves will be an excellent resource.  And it’s only volume 1!  When the panel was over I hung out a little talking with some other fans, and got to meet and speak with Sheila of the cosplay duo Aicosu. Her tutorials on makeup and wigs were extremely helpful, particularly with Day 1’s Serana costume.  She was extremely nice, and after viewing and admiring her cosplays it was awesome to stop and say hello.  Plus, her Dishonored cosplays were incredible.

Bard and I had time to kill, so we headed back to the show floor with Otis.  The PopCap carnival booth was in full swing, but we found a marketing person who loved Otis and actually called out the Solitaire Blitz community manager!  Tara came out to see Otis and absolutely LOVED him!  We explained how we loved how cute he is in all his little outfits, and how we were hoping to have a chance to show him off.  And yes, we’d downloaded the app the previous day!  She took pictures of him to show at the office, then handed us Solitaire Blitz card decks and Energy Eel energy shots.  Later on we found out she’d told people it was the highlight of her weekend.  That made me so happy to hear, because I’d really enjoyed making Otis back in the summer, and being able to bring him by the PopCap station was a lot of fun.

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We headed back to the hotel for some light costume repair, then it was over to the BioWare base for the Dragon Age signings and costume contest! We weren’t too far back in line, but as we were waiting, Chris Priestly, a community manager, spied our DA costumes and invited us to jump the line and go in early.  I love how much BioWare understands its fanbase, and appreciates things like cosplays.  We hung out for a bit; I was able to get a signed postcard from Raphael Sbarge, who voiced Kaiden Alenko in Mass Effect.

When the DA developers came back, I got in line to get my DA2 game signed (got DA:O ultimate edition signed last year) and scored a hard copy of “Asunder”, last year’s DA novel.  They commented on my Chantry outfit, and I was able to explain how, because of DA, Bard and I met.  (Long story short, I played DA, got obsessed, joined a Facebook community, met MLHawke, who then introduced me to Bard).  It was nice to be able to share with them what the game meant, not just as a game, but as something that helped as a catalyst for the most important thing in my life.

The costume contest started a short while later.  Let me tell you, there are some VERY talented people out there!  What they are able to accomplish, and how they are able to bring the game to life, is amazing.  I was and still am impressed by how many people make the Shepard N7 armor from Mass Effect; it’s a difficult costume to pull off, requires a lot of material, and is multipart.  And that’s just the armor; never mind if you want to add on weapons, which most do for accuracy.  LOTS of amazing Shepards were there, as were quite a few Asari!  I’m also an admirer of Asari cosplayers, because not only do you have the armor issue (if you’re going that route) but then you have the headpieces and makeup.

There weren’t many Dragon Age cosplayers; maybe only four of us or so.  There was me and Bard of course, but then two Wardens in the blue armor uniform introduced in DA2.  One was my friend Gabby, whose armor is amazing!  The scale work, hand riveting on the shrug, and overall attention to details is great (even down to a leather belt case for her iPhone!) And she even had the rose from Alistair.   She looked like she could have just stepped right out of the game.

When it got to us we got to tell the judges (and a room full of people) that we’d met through a friend I’d only met because of DA, and that we were getting married in four months.  And yes, we’d turn out better than Jowan and Lily did!  We got lots of applause and commentary on our costumes (including a note on the paisley fabric I’d found for Jowan’s sleeves) and then went on our way to see the rest of the cosplay.  We scored N7 jackets from Mass Effect for our participation!  THAT was awesome.  Then came the judging.

In a room full of such excellent, well-crafted costumes made by so many talented people (and I will tell you that most all of them make these things themselves) I didn’t expect to win anything, which was fine.  Being in the contest and having the new jacket was awesome enough.  But BioWare took it a step further.  Before announcing the winners they called up the “Dragon Age couple”.  They gave us the two hardcover comics, a deck of Dragon Age cards, and a Flemeth dragon statue as “an early wedding present from BioWare”!  I was floored!  We went to show our appreciation for their games, and then they turned it around for us.  We got pictures with Chris Priestly at the photobooth, who then tweeted them immediately; when I tweeted a thank you for making our day so special he replied!  They truly know how to treat fans and make us feel appreciated; there are so many things they don’t have to do, but do anyway, so thank you BioWare again for making our day beyond special; Amanda later said that it was “transcendent”.  And to top it all off, there was a four-way tie for the contest, but Gabby’s Warden armor took the grand prize!

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Then it was back to the hotel to get changed; after two days in costume it felt good to kick back in jeans and a t-shirt, and my new jacket of course! Bard was in the Tetris Attack tournament, defending his gold medal from last year.  It was a smaller group, and missing some of the guys from last year, but Ted was there attacking away.  The first few rounds went as expected, but toward the end things got intense.  Ted wound up losing to someone, and Bard lost two matches because his opponent psyched him out.  He got back on track though, and won his match, then went up against Ted’s defeater.  It was intensive, but in the end Bard pulled off another victory and got another gold medal to clank against the one he got last year.

When all was said and done, it was almost a dreamlike day at PAX East.  If a day could be perfect, day 2 may have been it.  It was extremely validating as a crafter, cosplayer, and all around fan.  PopCap and BioWare made my weekend, and I was glad I got to share it with Bard, MLHawke, and Amanda (for whom it was a first PAX experience).  Up next, Day 3, or how everything I know about doing my job is about to change!

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30 Days of Video Games: Day 29, a game I ended up loving

Okay, so I know May is over, but I started this 30 days thing and by golly, I’m going to finish it.  Especially with only two days left to go.  So here goes: this asks for a game I didn’t think I would like, but ended up loving.  Now, I’ve had games that I thought I would love and wound up finding just mediocre, or outright disliking.  But I think for this one I’ll go with Mass Effect.

My cousin had Mass Effect and said it was really good.  My best friend’s husband kept telling me to play Mass Effect.  I kept insisting I didn’t care for RPGs, and I wasn’t huge on space or sci-fi games.  But I was looking for a new game to play, so when my cousin offered to let me borrow and play his copy of ME, I said, why not.  After all, if I didn’t like it, which I thought I probably wouldn’t, at least I didn’t spend any money on it, right?

I started in on it, attempting to put my skepticism aside.  The first thing I noted was that, while it was an RPG, it had many elements of a 3rd person shooter.  I could handle that, having played Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare.  I picked up on the controls pretty easily, and while some of them were a little clunky, it was manageable.  I got through the first mission on Eden Prime and picked up Kaiden and Ashley and spoke with them.

By then I started getting into the characters and story, and the more story I learned the more I began to like the game.  It was a case of the story and characters transcending the genre.  I try not to always base my likes and opinions on genre, whether it be music, movies, or games, but most times it can’t be helped.  However, sometimes some things transcend their genres, and found that ME was one such game.

While I didn’t do EVERYthing I could in the game, I really enjoyed it and went on to ME2 (which my cousin gave me for my birthday).  And once things settle down a bit I’ll get to playing ME3 as well.  While there are other games I like more than ME, I definitely think Mass Effect is one game I didn’t think I’d like, but ended up loving.

30 Days of Video Games: Day 28, Favorite Game Developer

Anyone who’s been following this for any amount of time will see that I am clearly a Dragon Age fangirl.  I also love Mass Effect.  What do both have in common?  They’re developed by BioWare.

I never played Jade Empire, Neverwinter Nights, or and of the Old Republic Star Wars games.  My introduction to, and experiences with, BioWare have been entirely with ME and DA.  But regardless of that, I love the work they put into their games.  There is such depth of story, character, and setting in every game.  Well-crafted writing immerses us into new and interesting worlds.  Good character development leads us to care about the protagonist (which we’ve usually created ourselves) and his or her party members.

Back in April when I attended PAX East, I had the opportunity to meet several people from BioWare.  I was privileged to meet David Gaider, lead writer for Dragon Age, as well as the artistic director, producer, community manager, and many others.  BioWare had a base in the convention center where it was all BioWare all weekend long.  They were kind to their fans, interested in our feedback and questions, and gracious about our criticisms.

I couldn’t stay for the talk about Mass Effect because I had to go check into the hotel, but everything about the Dragon Age panel was wonderful.  They let fans in costume come in early; talked with us one on one, gave us opportunities to ask questions before the general Q&A during the panel.  We got swag.  Most of all I got the feeling that BioWare was glad we were there with them.

As Dragon Age 3 becomes more of a reality and less than a hypothetical possibility, the more interested I am in BioWare and the more curious I am about what they will do with the story.  I know they’ve come under fire because of DA2’s rushed feeling, and ME’s ending, but they’ll be the first to admit where they’ve made mistakes.  They’ve seen the best of all worlds in their games, and seem to work toward doing more and more to combine the best in their games to make the next game they develop even better.

Therefore, BioWare holds the place of favorite game developer.

30 Days of Video Games: Day 25, a game I plan on playing

As a teacher who games, I often get students who speak with me about what games are coming up and what looks good, what my gaming plans are, and the like.  Often it’s common to hear, “JayRain, you should play this!” and a lot of times I just sort of nod and say I’ll get to it.  Between a full-time job, choir and voice lessons and my time spent with Bard, sometimes gaming has to take a backseat to life.  More blasphemy, I know.  The gaming gods are about to strike me down tonight if I dare go for a third time!

I think the one game I plan on playing is one I’ve beenplanning to play for over two months now.  That would be Mass Effect 3.

I played through ME  and ME2 and loved them.  The music, the depiction of a futuristic society, the fact that humansaren’t the dominant species, and moreover, have to fight for a modicum of respect: all factors really drew me into the games.  So when the Arrival DLC came out last summer I played it on release day and loved the story and how it set us up for ME3.  When the demo went live for ME3 I played it on release day and was super excited to pick up my copy on March 6th.

Well, March 6th came, and that was a month away from PAX East.  I was heavily engaged with work on my costume, plus choir and voice lessons.  I had work to do for my job.  I thought I’d play it that weekend.  No big deal.  Well, that weekend came, and I found myself spending time with friends and family and working on my costume.  Then the following week Bard and I solidified our joint nerdery, and I added spending all spare time that was not costume, voice, or work-related on him.  Even my blog didn’t have any March entries, because I was working my way up to PAX East.

PAX East came and went and I resumed my blogging and thought just maybe I’d have time to start playing ME3, but April was full of other things that precluded my gaming.  Still ME3 sat on my shelf, shrink-wrapped and patiently waiting for me to play it.  I listened to the complaints about the ending, and not much else.  Seems that’s all people really had to say about it, so luckily the rest of the game has remained relatively unspoiled for me.

Last week, May 17th, I finally did manage to open it.  Bard wasn’t over, my housework was done, my blog entries completed, so I decided to just bite the bullet and get going.  I’ve played 1:59 of the game so far, about half of which is in the demo, so it’s not like I’ve seen much of anything new and/or different from what I already knew of the game.  And between then and now I haven’t had much of an opportunity to play it.  Heck, I was three entries behind on my blog because of some craziness at the end of this week!  Today’s the first full day of a long weekend, and I’ve had some time to game, but after all I’ve been writing about Skyrim, I busted that out after a long hiatus.

So I honestly do plan on playing Mass Effect 3, but it may not be for awhile yet.  My next four weekends are pretty filled up.  My weeknights are full, though a bit better since I no longer have choir rehearsals until we start back up in September.  We’ll see.  But I do plan to play and finish it!

Lessons Learned

Who says video games and sci-fi/fantasy are a waste of time?  Who says you can’t learn anything from them?  For those that do, I present 10 lessons learned from my gaming and sci-fi/fantasy career:

1. Try not.  Do, or do not.  There is no try.  – Yoda

This is one maxim that is used quite frequently, but it’s true.  There are many things in life that you can’t try to do; you simply have to just do them.  While Nike has the market on the “Just do it” slogan, Yoda one-ups it with the idea that there is no try.  Some things just must be done; trying  is weakness.  Things must be done, or remain undone.  Think of it in terms of laundry (which is what got me thinking about this).  You can’t try to do your laundry; you do it or you don’t.  When it’s done you feel accomplished, when it’s not it’s a pile of clothes threatening to eat you every time you walk by it.  Trying is tantamount to not doing.  So do, or do not.  Don’t try.

2. Keep your head down and your mouth shut and everything will be fine.  – Delvin Mallory, Skyrim

This has been on my mind a lot lately.  The problem I’m having is it’s good advice in that it keeps you out of drama and away from other peoples’ business.  But it also keeps you from getting involved in things and speaking up when you need to.  Delvin is a member of the Riften Thieves’ Guild, so his advice is pretty sound when it comes to Thieves’ Guild activity.  It’s all illegal; so keeping your head down and your mouth shut helps you avoid notice, and therefore trouble.  But what about when you’re trying to do the right thing?  Keeping your head down and your mouth shut keeps you from getting on the bad side of things, but you also have to be able to look yourself in the eye every time you look in a mirror.  It’s good advice at times, but definitely something to ponder.

3. Funny how the Blight brings people together.  – Alistair, Dragon Age: Origins

Well, not always a Blight.  But a disaster brings people together in ways that peace does not.  I remember back to September 11th 2001.  I was a senior in college, just north of Boston when everything happened.  I still remember the fear, the disbelief, the uncertainty.  But what I remember most of all is how for the next few days, everyone, everywhere, was just a bit nicer.  We all shared the experience on some level, and knew we were in it together, so we were all a bit nicer and more willing to help one another. 

On another level, it’s amazing and funny how the smallest, strangest things can bring people together as well.  Dragon Age stands as a great example.  Without Dragon Age I would not have met the most awesome group of friends, ever.  Without fanfiction I would not have met my best friend.  Bottom line?  We never know what will bring us together, so it’s important to be on the lookout for those opportunities.

4. We make our own luck. – Master Chief, Halo

Luck is described in many ways: blind, dumb, a lady… luck is fickle and changeable.  We can’t always rely on it, and must do our part to help ourselves along.  What some people would call luck, others would call the result of training, hard work, and perseverance.  In the Halo universe Master Chief is known for his luck, but if you look deeper into his backstory you’ll also see that in spite of the fact that he was considered lucky, he still worked his arse off.  He knew what he needed to do to win, and didn’t rely on his ‘luck’, preferring instead to make his own luck.  In short, his actions paid off because he was willing to work for it; when the moment of truth came he had what it took to follow through.

5. I fight so all the fighting I’ve already done hasn’t been for nothing. – Ulfric Stormcloak, Skyrim

I started out my Skyrim game wanting to join the Imperial Legion.  But the more I played and saw of them, and the more I heard and saw of Ulfric Stormcloak, the more I lean toward the Stormcloak rebellion.  And this line is one of the reasons.  There are many reasons to fight, and to keep fighting.  Maybe it’s your convictions, maybe it’s survival, maybe it’s to move ahead.  To stop fighting, and essentially give in, is to nullify all the fighting you’ve done to get where you are.  This hit me hard when it came to last week’s disappointment with the writing contest.  I had a few moments where I was ready to give up because I didn’t know why I should bother anymore.  But then I realized that allowing that one thing to stop my writing would make a mockery of all the work I’ve done to get where I am as a writer.  To keep fighting, even when it seems hopeless, shows conviction and strength of character.  Maybe Ulfric is a jerk about some things, but he has conviction, and in this at least he gives sound advice.

6. Artists use lies to tell the truth; I created a lie and because you believed it, you discovered something true about yourself. -V, V for Vendetta

This always sticks with me, especially as a reader, writer, and lover of fantasy.  Most people criticize fantasy as being too escapist, and think people read it to get away from reality.  This is true sometimes, but what many critics don’t realize is that fantasy doesn’t nullify reality.  In his On Fairy Stories essay, Tolkien posits that fantasy actually can enhance reality and bring it to a higher level.  As such we discover truths about humanity and about life through the lens of a fictional reality.  In The Neverending Story Bastian’s first reaction to Mr. Coreander is that “it’s just a story.”  Coreander says that it’s more than that, and if we allow stories to cast the spell over us, we may be swept away but we also learn something true about ourselves.

7. I’m not locked in here with you.  You’re locked in here with me. – Rorschach, Watchmen

Life is all about perspective, and Rorschack is all about challenging our perspectives.  He never compromises; he has strong convictions and sticks with them.  Though this makes him a bit of a vigilante and definitely morally ambiguous, he certainly challenges and changes our perceptions of things.  Sometimes when the numbers seem like they’re not in our favor we have to look at the situation and decide if we’re going to accept the status quo or view it differently.  Rorschach was in prison, surrounded by inmates; most of whom were in there because of him.  Theoretically he doesn’t stand a chance; but he chooses to see things from a different perspective and as a result comes out on top.  I don’t advocate coming out on top the way he does; violence of that caliber isn’t a good thing.  But the idea of changing the way you look at things is.

8. You can’t predict how people will act… But you can control how you’ll respond. In the end, that’s what really matters. – Commander Shepard, Mass Effect

Life is full of things we can’t control or predict.  The uncertainties can make life fun, but also terrifying.  There are so many things that worrying can’t change, and the actions of others are part of that.  When we try to change people and control their actions we set ourselves up for disappointment and failure.  But we can control our own reactions and responses.  We can decide what we will do in a given situation, or say to a particular person.  That choice is ours to make, and it is definitely something we can control.  In the end we have to be able to look at ourselves and say “Yes, I can live with what I said/did.”  That’s what matters most, because that’s what you have to live with.

9. We stand upon the precipice of change. The world fears the inevitable plummet into the abyss. Watch for that moment… and when it comes, do not hesitate to leap. It is only when you fall that you learn whether you can fly.  – Flemeth, Dragon Age 2

While it’s nice to do things right and feel like you have them under control, the true test of abilities is how you react when you’re out of control.  When you’re in freefall will you feel out of control and fear crashing into the ground?  Or will you realize you have wings to spread and learn to fly?  It’s a scary thing, making that leap, especially when you don’t know what to expect.  Again, you can’t always predict things, but you can predict your reactions and choices.  So will you keep falling, giving into forces beyond your control, or will you choose to fly?  Flemeth is a great example of this because she has such a long history.  On my Dragon Age forum on ff.net we were talking about her and how in her long history she had to have gone through a lot of trial and error to become who and what she is.  It would be easy to give up, but just when she was falling, she discovered she could fly.

10. All we can decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.  – Gandalf, Lord of the Rings

Again, we can’t control time; we can’t control what befalls us.  But we can decide what to do with what time we are given.  Will we settle into a rut dreaming of if-onlies and what-ifs?  What happens isn’t for us to decide.  The decision we have, and can control, is what to do with what happens.  How will we as individuals react?  Will we do, will we fly?  Will we change our perspective, or just keep our heads down and our mouths shut and hope to avoid trouble, even if it nullifies all the fighting we’ve done up to this point?  It doesn’t matter what we decide.  What matters is that we decide.

Adventures of a Crossclasser

I begin by openly admitting that there are extensive gaps in my RPG gaming repertoire.  Growing up I preferred platformers to turn-based RPGs.  As such I’ve never played a single Final Fantasy game; in fact, my biggest issue with Final Fantasy is why there are well over a dozen games when it was supposed to be the final fantasy.  But that leaves me in danger of digressing.  I haven’t played… well… name an RPG and I probably haven’t played it, because I’m having issues coming up with titles.

My first RPG, aside from Dragon Warrior for the NES when I was twelve or so, was Mass Effect on the xbox 360.  Prior to ME I had mostly shooters: Bioshock, Halo, Borderlands, Gears of War… that sort of thing.  My gaming library is far from extensive in terms of most anything.  So when I picked up ME I was skeptical about it being an “RPG” because my limited experience left me thinking RPGs were clunky, turn-based, and too drawn out.

But ME managed to combine the best aspects of an RPG, as far as story and character, with the aspects of a good shooter.  I found myself getting into the character development, and forging a relationship with Kaiden Alenko.  I loved the story and the exploration, and once I got the hang of the game I was in love.  My cousin got my ME2 for my birthday last year, and I played through that to the exclusion of some of my work (not my proudest moment, but it makes for a good teachable thing).  One element of the Mass Effect franchise was, however, that you need to choose a class based on how you fight.  ME has some basics, and then makes combinations of them.  It’s been awhile so I don’t recall what I am, but I think I chose one of the combo classes because I felt it afforded me the most options.

Mass Effect was my gateway to Dragon Age.  In Origins, the first of the series, you can choose your character’s backstory and a basic class: warrior, rogue, or mage.  You get to specialize between those, but in general, DA doesn’t really allow for a lot of cross-classing.  My first rogue fought mostly with sword and shield, and it was passable, but when I started using her rogue skills and and using lighter weapons, she throve.  Mages can specialize as Arcane Warriors, who channel magic through their bodies and into weapons, but they’re still mages at their core.  It’s very similar in DA2.  You’re one or the other, and very rarely can you be both.

Now, this worked for me.  I chose a class and went with it, and found ways to specialize within my class to be the best rogue or mage or warrior I could be.  I was comfortable with this system.  I generally play rogues because they’re versatile, though my mage Hawke in DA2 is quite enjoyable to play.  I specialized her as a Force Mage, which means she basically picks people up and slams them down… with her mind.  It’s a lot of fun.

Enter Skyrim.

I’ve also never played an Elder Scrolls game before this one, so please don’t chastise me about how I should have realized this, and the like.  I created my character: went through designing him, choosing his background, that sort of thing.  And when I saved, the game started up again.  “But I haven’t chosen a class yet!” I said to myself, and probably one of the cats who was sitting nearby.  I played through the opening escape from Helgen and as I followed a fellow escapee out of the sacked town I still hadn’t chosen a class.

As the game began in earnest I found myself just going with it.  I named my male Nord Cailan, after the king in Dragon Age: Origins, and thought to class him as a two-handed warrior, like his ill-fated namesake.  I started out using various axes and greatswords.  And then I hit one particularly difficult quest where no matter how much I blocked or healed or shouted I couldn’t do it.  While talking to MLHawke, she mentioned that she had a good one-handed sword and was working on strengthening her destructive spells.

Weapons+Magic?  Huh.  I’d never thought to learn to be a mage.  I was going to be a warrior!… who’d already picked a few dozen locks and upped his sneaking (also appropriate for Cailan, for any of you who know my Dragon Age fic about him).  Well, I was already on my way toward cross-classing two ways; why not go three, since I could?

Cross-classing has made a huge difference in how I enjoy the game.  I feel like I can experience a huge variety of things and do many more that I wasn’t previously able to as a single-class character.  Now, I don’t use magic as often as I would if I were going for a full mage; but the fact that I can use it as I wish, and most importantly am not limited to only using it, is what makes it enjoyable.  I fight primarily with the Nightingale Blade, though I’ve done my fair share of archery as well.  I’m good at sneaking, and have a high lock-picking rate.  And while I’m on my way to leading the Thieves’ Guild, I’m also a pretty good assassin for the Dark Brotherhood and take down dragons like no one’s business.

In short, by combining classes and skills I’m getting a fuller experience and developing what I feel is a more well-rounded character.  And I think that’s not only the key to moving forward with the game, but in life as well.  Yes, there are people who specialize in life; there are people who decide on one career path and follow it without deviation.  But then there are people who branch out and try new things.  They’re unpredictable, but it keeps things exciting.  These are the cross-classers of life.  The people who are not just professionals, but professionals who maybe game or sing or play an instrument on the side.  The ones who play sports as well as music, or do art in addition to games.  Basically, having a wide range of interests and abilities enriches the self, and enriches the world.

So maybe I haven’t really played many RPGs, and maybe I’m completely off.  But my experiences in life are translating into my Skyrim play, and my Skyrim playing is making me think more about life.  In the end, isn’t that all we ask of media?  That it makes us think, or helps us reflect on our world in a new way?  Even though my RPG experience may be limited, the experiences I have gained from the ones I have played have definitely given me pause.  Though classifying oneself into one class may be comfortable, and overall easier, cross-classing and being a little bit of everything opens one’s eyes to a whole new way of seeing and experiencing the world, both in the game and in real life.

The Dragonborn Comes… and he’s kind of a jerk.

I was on Christmas vacation for this past week, and spent a good part of it sick: with Skyrim Fever.  While the game was released on November 11th, putting me six weeks behind most other rabid gamers, receiving it for Christmas was perfect timing.  And I’ve realized that even if I had gotten it on the release day, it wouldn’t have made any difference.  The game is so vast that there’s not much more of a dent I could have put into it than I did this week.

So far my Nord, Cailan, is a level 10 specializing in dual-haded weapons, but he’s also good with a lockpick and sneaking about.  Nothing like a little cross-class work there.  He’s also Dovahkiin, “Dragonborn”, and basically the equivalent of Skyrim’s “chosen one”.  Many other Nords believe that the Dovahkiin will help quell the rebellion that has rocked their country and help restore peace to Skyrim.  As a fan of fantasy, and a person who gets paid to analyze conventions and cliches of fantasy, none of this surprises me.  But what is surprising me is how seriously I’m taking the moral ramifications of the game.

This isn’t a new concept for me, personally.  Around this time last year I picked up BioWare’s Mass Effect.  As Commander Shepard, you are tasked with saving the galaxy from a rogue operative named Saren.  You are the first human SPECTRE ever, a high-level operative that represents the best humanity can offer to the alien races of the universe.  Mass Effect employs a morality system that defines some choices as “Paragon”, or inherently good and noble; or “Renegade”, which is usually equated with bad.  Throughout my game I began to realize that many of my choices were based on my own personal morals.  In general, I like to make everyone happy.  I try to be a people pleaser and do the right thing, and not cause much of a ruckus.  So I found my Shepard doing that.  When it came time to make the agonizing choice of which character to leave behind on the planet Virmire, I had to decide between my romance and someone else.  Now, the other character, Ashley Williams, was a good character.  But it was her or Kaiden Alenko, with whom I was in a romance, so I left Ashley.  I felt awful, as if the choice my character had made in the game said something about my own personal morals.  Besides, here’s Shepard, supposed to represent all that is good about humanity… and she’s leaving a comrade behind in favor of continuing the romance.

The “chosen one” is a convention of fantasy that’s older than the genre itself.  Usually the chosen one is, like Commander Shepard, someone who represents all the hopes of the people.  His or her coming heralds the coming of hope, and is the harbinger of change for the better.  Perhaps that’s why, then, I aimed for Paragon status with my Shepard.  But after Mass Effect came another BioWare title that has since consumed me: Dragon Age.

Once again, regardless of the origin you choose, you are left as one of the last two Grey Wardens: in effect, one of only two people who can end the Blight that is destroying your homeland of Ferelden.  While the system of morality isn’t as clear-cut as Mass Effect, I found my character making choices that were for the general good, and tried to please the other party members.  One time I had an NPC kill her demon-possessed son, only for Alistair, a main character, to yell at me once we got back to camp.  You better believe I reloaded and replayed that scene so things would have a better outcome.  Sometimes I made choices that I thought were in the best interest and for the common good of most people, only for the end result to come back and slap me across the face.  For example, I crowned Pyral Harrowmont during my first play through the dwarven realm of Orzammar, only to find out in the epilogue that he shut off the city and made the dwarves isolationists.  When I did it again and put Bhelen on the throne for the betterment of Orzammar, he immediately had Harrowmont executed.

I shouldn’t let it bother me so much.  It’s just a game, right?  I’ve talked with other gamers about their choices in Dragon Age, and many find it fun galavant around a fantasy world where they can act with abandon, unencumbered by the morals and consequences of our own world.  But to paraphrase J.R.R. Tolkien, fantasy doesn’t nullify reality; if anything, it raises it to a higher level.  If there were no consequences, would we make the same kinds of choices to kill, or believe that the ends justified the means no matter what?  Is it only consequence that defines our morals and forces us to make moral choices?

Or perhaps it is because in these fantasy situations, I am playing as the Chosen One.  The hope of entire nations rests on my shoulders, and because in reality I like to please people and do right by them, when I enter into the fantasy world I feel the need for my characters to live up to those expectations.

Which leads me back to Skyrim.  My character did a contract kill that resulted in a group of elite and mysterious assassins contacting him.  One of my tasks was to kill one of three people.  I wasn’t told which one.  I had to guess, which effectively meant their lives were in my hands.  I made my choice and did the kill.  Afterward I had the conversation option to ask if I’d made the right choice, and found I didn’t want to know.  Because if I’d made the wrong choice I’d have felt terrible.  Yes, it’s just a game, and I know I didn’t kill a real person.  But the world of Skyrim is so huge and involved, that somewhere, somehow down the line in my game I fear that kill coming back to me.

By making that kill, I was invited to join the Dark Brotherhood.  I went to check it out and figured, why not.  My first task was a set of three contract kills.  I killed the first man without talking to him, even though he was a beggar squatting in a shack.  I was chased down and arrested by the guards… and just paid my bounty to go on and do my next contract.  But with that one, I made the mistake of talking to my mark.  I said, “Someone wants you dead.”  And she said, “Yeah, probably my husband.  The feeling is mutual.”  Somehow that made her more human, and it’s a good thing my xbox froze the game because I had a serious moral dilemma that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

In Skyrim, I am Dovahkiin: the Dragonborn, the Chosen One.  My ability to absorb dragons’ souls and hence their power means that the people of Skyrim will look to me to tip the scales for either the Imperials or the Stormcloak rebels.  And I feel I have a duty to them.  I wonder what they’d think if they knew their Dovahkiin killed people for money, or picked locks and snuck into homes and stole coin purses.  Would it matter, so long as the rebellion and/or war ended?  Would it matter so long as the dragons were once again destroyed?  Yes, I am the Dragonborn and I’ve come… and I’m kind of a jerk.

Perhaps it’s just personal biases about the Chosen One convention/cliche.  Or maybe I think about these things too much.  But either way, when it comes to moral dilemmas in RPGs, it’s clear that it’s more than just a game.