What I did during lockdown by Jane Fletcher

This last year should have afforded plenty of time to pump out a number of books. I did, in fact, manage one novel, but other things absorbed much of my time. Of course, there was the standard stuff: I decorated the lounge, study and dining room; removed nine cubic metres of gravel from the garden and added a small waterfall; zoomed with friends and relatives. I also spent hours playing games on the computer. And with PC games, as in writing and reading, my favourite genre is fantasy. Luckily for me, some of the best games are in this genre.

Maybe it was a reaction to being stuck at home, but I was drawn to the big, open-world, role playing, games, where I could run freely through mountains, forests, and farmlands, killing dragons and other monsters on the way. I completed three classics in the genre – Skyrim, Dragon Age Inquisition, and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

From a writer’s viewpoint, they all suffer from the same formulaic plot line – save the world from total destruction at the hands of a megalomaniac nut-job. Are developers aware that the fantasy genre has other plots? (Quick break here while I give my ancient copy of Planescape Torment a big hug.)

Numerous reviews online compare and contrast the three games, along with polls where players vote for their favourite. Each has points in its favour, although The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt usually wins easily – and I’m not going to argue. However, the main lesson I take away from playing these three games is the importance of a likable protagonist.

Skyrim is the most open of open-world games. The main story line can be ignored. Your character can go anywhere, acting with few constraints. There are towns and villages full of people you can meet. Yet, the protagonist is a non-entity, without personality or back-story. Every conversation becomes no more than an exchange of information. There was nobody and nothing I cared about – not even the woman my female character eventually married. I found it a disappointingly empty experience.

Dragon Age Inquisition is more constrained by the main plot line, although with a large degree of freedom in the order and number of side-quests you undertake. Unlike Skyrim, the protagonist has both back-story and voice acting. Unfortunately, the resulting personality can only be described as dull and unexciting. This situation is partially salvaged by the computer controlled characters, who have much better developed personalities, stories, and attitudes. I was far more engaged by the game, even though, unfortunately, neither of the women available for a lesbian romance floated my boat.

(As an aside, with regard to scripting the protagonist, this is a huge step back from the previous game in the series. If you ever play Dragon Age 2, go purple female Hawke all the way – trust me, you won’t regret it.)

Compared to the bland or non-existent protagonists of the other games, the The Witcher 3:Wild Hunt is in a different league. While there’s no option other than playing as a heterosexual man, he is a highly likable heterosexual man. Interactions are complex and always in character. I ended up feeling I knew the people, and cared about what happened to them, which made the game so much more engrossing.

So, as a confirmed plotter, I’m left with the knowledge of just how much character matters. Pushing your protagonists along a planed route is not going to grab your readers. No matter how original and exciting the story, or what’s at stake, you have to make the readers care if you want them along for the ride.

However, there was one area in which Dragon Age Inquisition won out for me. In all three games you have to pick sides and make choices that will impact on the world. In Skyrim, I never cared about the world enough to worry. In The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt the choices were either too simple to require any thought (I’m never going to support anyone who wants to set fire to my girlfriend) or lacking the background necessary to make an informed decision, so I was effectively tossing a coin. Sometimes it went well, sometimes it didn’t.

Dragon Age Inquisition does a far better job of presenting the player with moral dilemmas, with no simple answers – balancing fairness against safety, justice against necessity, the life of a friend against a dozen unknown. After the title credits roll, it’s the game my thoughts return to.

Although here again, it’s a big step back from Dragon Age 2 – and if I were to compare it to Planescape Torment it’s…um…lacking.

Please excuse me, I need to go give my copy another hug.

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