Be Careful What You Say: Conversation in the 'Dragon Age' Series

Conversation requires strategy. Conversation requires tactics.

Just like any game, conversation can be a pleasure, but you need to consider a few basic rules, boundaries, and the like in order to effectively achieve goals -- for one, not alienating the other “players”.

Which is one of the things that I like about the Dragon Age series, its ability to integrate having a conversation into the gaming experience itself. While Bioware's other series, like Mass Effect, also create a game-like quality to conversation itself, that other series tends to isolate conversation, favoring developing relationships with characters on a one-on-one basis.

Doing so makes the “game” a fair amount easier. Since most of the relationships in Mass Effect are nurtured between missions by visiting crew members by yourself, you don't have to be all that careful about what you say to people. As long as you know what they want to hear, you can foster relationships of any sort, shifting your own “attitudes” to suit the expectations of who you are speaking to at any given moment. Know this guy is a real sweetheart? Be one yourself. The laconic, bad ass that you were grunting with down the hall a few minutes earlier will never know that you have a fondness for rainbows and unicorns.

The original Dragon Age was a bit of a revelation for me (indeed, I never played much of the first game beyond “playing” in the dialogue screens, having abandoned the game after only a few hours with nary a battle fought but a lot of dialogue trees bravely hewn through) as far as conversation itself went. The idea that you could absolutely alienate a member of your own party because of what you said to another member resulted in playing careful games with organizing discussion itself.

Indeed, Dragon Age puts the “play” in player. Want to seduce a member of your party? Better not do so while another potential paramour might overhear. Future relationships can be made rocky in the game whether you are discussing love or money or politics, depending on who is listening in and how they feel about your pronouncements about such topics.

This sense of being careful about what you say leads to very different decision making than in Mass Effect about what you should say at any given moment and who you hang out with generally. In Mass Effect where dialogue options largely reflect your own moral standing and not so much your relations with your crew, “gaming” the system merely becomes a matter of whether you want to appear to the world as a “Paragon” or “Renegade”. However, crew members that might have their own feelings about whether or not one should follow the rules or violate them are pretty willing to put up with anything you say in front of them on missions. It is only in private that (arbitrarily enough) they tend to shape their own opinions about whether they like or dislike you.

Since Dragon Age focuses less on some sort of essential ethical standard that its protagonist is supposed to represent, the player is largely allowed to rather cynically “play the game”, organizing parties of adventurers, not merely around who is the most effective combatant or who a player tends to like as characters, but, instead, on who will or won't put up with whatever you are doing at the moment and what you say about it.

This leads to a greater desire on my own part to switch up party members in the Dragon Age series than in Mass Effect. In Mass Effect, I tend to find a few characters that I like rather well and have developed as combatants in a particular way and then stick with them largely through the whole of the game (barring missions that require the attendance of a specific character). This is easy to do, since I am well aware that I only really influence characters attitudes between missions.

When playing Dragon Age 2, I am certainly still concerned with combat strategy and the characters that I just prefer more. However, potential conversation has a much greater (and maybe the greatest) impact on party formation. Running missions in Lowtown or Darktown? I'm probably bringing along both Isabela and Varric. Not so much because I love either character (or that having two rogues along on a mission is really that great a combat strategy) but because I realize that both characters are going to be a lot less put off when I say things that may be less than admirable as I deal with the denizens of those parts of Kirkwall. Likewise, I frequently change up my roster when running missions on behalf of the Templars or on behalf of mages because the kinds of verbal commitments that I will need to make will definitely be more acceptable to some party members than others as I make deals, decide on courses of action, and either defend or betray those that I encounter.

Such initial strategizing about social situations gives way to the tactical circumstances of conversation itself. Unlike in Mass Effect, in which I tend to merely favor conversation options if I am playing as a Paragon or Renegade (making “my choices” completely plain, straightforward, and really not choices at all), once I am enmeshed in dialogue in a Dragon Age game, I am pausing more often to consider who is behind me listening in. I don't always choose what I really want to say or think is necessarily the right way for my character to speak. Instead, I think about what is going to impress or disappoint or put put off or attract others that surround me. Sometimes I say something for the sake of one member of the party, knowing another will be disgruntled by my attitude, sometimes I make an effort to please everyone, sometimes I don't care what anyone thinks. These moments are like being conscious of real conversations, knowing that both what you say and how you say it shapes others' attitudes about you. And frankly, we don't always say what we want to, more often than not, we consider what works best for those around us, as those things will shape our social relationships more so in the long term.

This leads to a rather cynical attitude about the world of Dragon Age. Unlike other heroes that I have played, the hero of Kirkwall is one who is more often a people pleaser, a politician rather than a noble paragon and idealist. One moment in a mission during Act 1 was a notable exception to this rule.

In that mission, Hawke has been charged with tracking down a fugitive in the lair of some giant spiders. His contact wants the fugitive, a man charged with the kidnapping (and probable assault) of elven children, brought in alive. When I reached the fugitive, the man had excuses aplenty for me, justifying the kidnappings -- demons made him do it, strangely a probable enough explanation in a high fantasy setting like Dragon Age. I was a little concerned because I had brought along a few party members that just might not be cool with me executing this man that I was convinced was a pedophile. In particular, it seemed to me that the rather kind hearted and innocent Merill may have been swayed by the fugitive's words. But I just didn't care, the man had to go.

That ultimately my choice to voice my desire to have the man executed actually improved my relationship with Merill (probably -- from a “programming” perspective -- due to her own Elven heritage) was satisfying, but I would have played this scenario the same way regardless of whether Merill would have formed a negative attitude towards me as a result of what I said. The “game” of fostering a relationship with her just didn't matter when it came down to what I saw as a fundamental issue of justice needing to be served.

Strangely, while this moment was an outlier as an experience for me in the game, since most of what I say in Dragon Age is calculated to have the greatest positive effect on the people around me at any given moment, it made this moment seem more significant than countless other “moral decisions” that I consistently follow when playing as a Paragon in Mass Effect. The knowledge that most conversation is merely a game and many choices made are largely trivial as a result made the one time that I didn't care about not “playing well” seem more significant and meaningful, making those particular words that were this once devoid of all strategy seem all the more important a pronouncement.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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