[12 February 2010]
Gamers are hoarders, collectors. Games have always encouraged this behavior, both inside and outside the virtual world, tempting us with “the next big gun” and “the next big game”. But sometimes this tradition is eschewed to great effect. When Resident Evil 4 got rid of the magic storage chests that had been a staple of the series, players were forced to think about their inventory in a new way. We had to strategize, we had to choose between ammo, health, grenades, or guns, we had to predict what was coming and therefore what we would need, but we never really knew what was coming. As we left the mysterious Merchant, there was always an uneasy feeling that we were unprepared. Our limited inventory made the unknown more frightening.
More recently, Dragon Age: Origins and Borderlands forced the player to accept a limited inventory, and since their release, developers of both games have caved to public pressure and given players a storage chest through downloadable content. By adding such a chest, these two games lost one of their more unique traits: their portrayal of the player as a traveler.
In Borderlands, we play as one of four mercenaries that have recently arrived on the desert moon Pandora, armed with only a single gun and backpack and searching for a fabled vault. We’re vault hunters, treasure hunters. We are, by definition, outsiders. We don’t live on this moon, we don’t belong here, we’re just passing through on our search for something greater. If we can clean out a few bandits on our way out then so be it, but that’s not why we’re here. We have no personal stake in the well being of Fyrestone or New Haven. They’re not our home. We have no home here. We are travelers.
Having no permanent storage reinforces this idea of us as travelers passing through. We’re not drawn to any one place for rest and respite (any health or ammo vending machine is as good as another, whether it be in a town or the middle of a bandit stronghold). We’re always being pushed forward because there’s nothing holding us back, and since we have no personal attachment to Fyrestone, we don’t think twice about leaving and never returning. However, just because we have no connection to a town doesn’t mean that the wilderness is our friend. As in Resident Evil 4, we must constantly manage our small inventory, and so the unknown ahead of us becomes more intimidating because we might be unprepared. When one wrong turn can drop us into the middle of a skag nest, preparation becomes key to survival.
In Dragon Age: Origins we play as a displaced soldier. The evil darkspawn have killed our king and our mentor, a rogue warrior is using this opportunity to take the throne, and we’re being blamed for the entire debacle. At the urging of an old witch, we set out on a quest to gather an army to fight both the darkspawn and this rogue warrior. We’re constantly moving. From massive dwarven caves to dense elven forests to major human cities, our sole purpose in Dragon Age is to travel and build alliances. The moment that we’ve created that alliance we move on. It’s telling that there are no inns, instead, we always sleep at a camp. We are travelers.
Much of what I said about Borderlands applies to Dragon Age as well. With no permanent storage, there’s no sense of anywhere being a home for us, so we’re encouraged to move forwards. Even if we like the people of a certain town, not being able to leave anything there prevents us from having a personal attachment to the place, which makes it easier to do our duty and move on. We’re not meant to feel “at home” anywhere because no matter what race you are the game begins with you having to leave your home for one reason or another. Dragon Age tells the typical “hero’s journey” story, in which the main character leaves behind what is familiar to embrace the unknown. Only in Dragon Age, we never return home again. We become a Grey Warden, a warrior who exists to fight darkspawn, and we go where the darkspawn go, anywhere in the world. Grey Wardens have no home, and the lack of permanent storage reinforces this trait.
It’s disappointing that both games eventually added permanent storage. These additions do make sense within the context of the downloadable content, though. In Borderlands, the storage space is located in a battle arena, so it’s understandable that someone fighting there often would have his or her own storage space. In Dragon Age, we’re tasked with ridding an old Warden stronghold of demons, which then becomes our new home, complete with space to store our stuff. What should have been an emotional quest (especially with Alistair in the party, since we are giving the displaced Wardens a home after all) is really just a quest for more storage. Even though these additions are fine in context, they lessen the sense of ourselves as travelers and take away an important strategic aspect of these games. They encourage laziness, and the collection of guns, swords, or armor that we think is cool but that we’ll never use, gifts we’ll never give, runes we’ll never equip, grenade mods and class mods that we only keep because “they might be handy someday”. These downloadable packs are fun in their own right, but as I leave Soldier’s Peak and Moxie’s Underdome, I won’t leave anything behind. I don’t know when I’ll be back.