Tuesday 15 March 2011

Dragon Age II - Initial Impressions

Last year I enthused (twice) about Dragon Age: Origins, the computer fantasy role-playing game. In particular I enjoyed the story-telling and role-playing aspects: the game drew me in - much as a really good book does - and engaged me deeply. Late last year/early this year I've been trying to use the associated tools to do my own story-telling, through creating short mods. It's very difficult, but fascinating.

Last weekend Dragon Age II came out. Finally we would find out: a) if Bioware could repeat (or even improve upon) the excellent FRPG experience of DA:O; and b) what happens next. The first episode ends on a mystery: you've saved the world from the evil archdemon, but the witch Morrigan leaves carrying a kind of demon-spawn/dragon-spawn child. One of the add-on packs suggests that she somehow intends this for good, to oppose her mother Flemeth's evil plans, but we won't know until Bioware continue the story.

Having spent several hours playing the early sections of DAII (and having a daughter who has completed it all), I can tell you: a) no, it's not even close; and b) we still don't know, as DAII doesn't include Morrigan or her child.

DAII moves to a new character and a new area, which I think is good: from a Grey Warden roaming the countryside, and a small provincial town, in order to defeat an archdemon and save the world; to a refugee striving to make a new life in the big city. Settings are much bigger and more detailed, with a far wider pallette of scenery, rooms, walls, furniture, etc to play with. This is good at first, except that Bioware seem to use this new scenery repetitively. Because it is more distinctive and more detailed it is also more obvious when you come across the same complicated rock formation, or layout of wooden platforms, or strange tunnel shapes again and again and again. It's a good idea but badly applied.

The new game has new, much more interesting, animations for fighting, walking, etc. Some of the fighting ones are very impressive - such as the staff fighting, or the rogue somersaulting into attack - some of the walking and standing ones are less so - such as the main character's sister whose animations appear to be based on a streetwalker. Again, though, these good things have been applied badly. At the same time as making the fighting animations longer and more complex, they have also made them take less time. So the staff fighting moves completely lack any sense of weight or momentum, and the somersaults just make movement fiddly and unclear. Combat visuals that could and should have been awesome become simply awkward.

The quest structure, at least in the early phases of DAII, is similarly fiddly and uninvolving. In DA:O you basically had one big quest, broken down into six sub-quests, plus an assortment of small side-quests. Side quests associated with your companions might have a certain amount of depth, whilst the others were essentially trivial go-fights. In DAII, at the beginning you just follow the path fighting darkspawn every now and again. Then you get taken to the city of Kirkwall and you have to make a choice of who to work for for a year: mercenaries or thieves/smugglers. This seems like it should be an important choice but then the story skips that year and you are out on your own. There are a few small quests come from your old employers, but it doesn't really seem to make a difference. In part that is because the quests themselves don't seem to matter that much. There are basically three types of quest: those where you find some random object and take it back to its owner (whose location you magically know immediately); those where you fight your way through assorted opponents to a location; and those where you go to a location and several waves of nasties attack you. There are lots of these quests, none of them seeming of any particular importance except as a way to get money, in a quest mechanism which groups them by location rather then theme, making it all seem very artificial. I gather that the quests get better as you go further into the game, though.

Companions and their dialogue were a constant source of interest in DA:O; in DAII it is purely functional. They basically only talk to you if they want you to do something; even then they will only talk in specific places. Otherwise you just get a stock response floating above their head. When you do have conversations then your side of the conversation is dumbed down to (generally) a nice response, a flippant response and an aggressive response. These are carefully indicated by symbols and a two or three word summary, but they don't even tell you what your character will say if you click on one. Your character's lines are actually voiced in DAII, which they weren't in DA:O, but that is less of a benefit than it might be as I find the voice used rather irritating.

In summary then: my initial impression of Dragon Age II is that it looks fairly pretty (although less so than, say, 2006's Oblivion) but it fails to engage me. Whereas Dragon Age: Origins was really good at drawing me in and involving me in the characters and the story, Dragon Age II is more about pushing me away to follow as a disengaged observer. Some people consider character statistics and complex skill trees and the like key to CRPGs; I consider the role-playing aspect (which is the 'RP' in 'CRPG') most important: being drawn into the game through engaging character relations and an involving story, and being immersed in the game environment. DAII, at least in its early stages, specialises in de-immersing.

It's not a bad game, to be fair, just not a very good one: Bioware have simply cut too many corners and made too many compromises in Dragon Age II.

Note: 'FRPG' above abbreviates 'Fantasy Role Playing Game' - ie magic, swords, dragons, etc in a setting roughly based on medieval Northern Europe. 'CRPG' abbreviates 'Computer Role Playing Game'. So I guess you could say Dragon Age: Origins is a CFRPG, whilst Dragon Age II is a CFRPG ;-)

Sunday 13 March 2011


When I was a little boy
They would say to me
Don't go in the world and play
It's bad company
All they had was child and faith
Let him grow and let him wait
Just to find out what it was to be free
Nutsy made a comment on my last post which got me thinking, as Nutsy's comments are wont to do. Given the title of this post, not to mention the lyric extract from Budgie's Parents, it won't be a surprise that what I have been thinking about was parents and parenting.

I know kids who are spoiled brats, but whose parents are convinced they are 'firm but fair'. I also know kids who are downright neglected, one way or another, whose parents claim to dote on them, reckoning they would 'do anything' for their children. Presumably so long as there's not something they'd rather be doing for themselves. I've got teenage kids so I've lived through all the hassles, sacrifices and compromises that have to be made to survive parenthood. So I wonder what I'm kidding myself about?

I was fortunate in my parents: they were loving and caring, giving time and energy to raise my brother and myself as best they were able. Nevertheless I carry scars from my upbringing, and I know I'm not the only one. I am fortunate at that, many adults seem to bear open wounds, long after childhood is past.

Long ago, at prenatal classes, we were told not to worry about parenting: it comes naturally and we will find that actually we'll do it perfectly well when it comes to it. That might have been the case back in the prehistoric African savannah; here in 20th/21st Century Britain things work differently.

My take nowadays is that, as parents, we are bound to make mistakes: bound to screw up somewhere along the way. The challenge is to raise kids who are secure enough and sensible enough to grow into well-rounded adults able to make the best of the world in which they grow, in spite of - maybe even because of - those mistakes. Parents who sell the idea of themselves as perfect, never making mistakes, set their kids up to feel like they are failing in their lives, as well as their own parenting.

To raise children that way is a community effort - churches can be wonderful for that, but there are other communities - and an extended family probably helps, but in the end you need parents who are willing to accept that having children is a whole new way of life, which has to be enjoyed for itself, but requires eternal vigilance. The way you treat kids when they are young has a major impact on how they behave as they get older.

Which is one reason why I have tremendous admiration for those who adopt, or long term foster, older children. Someone else has sown the wind, they are called to lovingly reap the whirlwind!

Another group I admire are single parents. Parenting is a team game - sometimes together, sometimes in turn (like tag-wrestling) - so to have to do it alone is a tremendous challenge. Yet I know single parents who have done just that, and done it well. Maybe it helps that when you're on your own you know it's going to be difficult, you know you are going to have to make sacrifices. Sometimes, it seems, couples just don't get that.
Wrap me up and keep me warm
Hide myself far from the storm
Sleep and love will keep
my mind at rest.
Only now I realise why my
parents had to try.
Love you all and keep you all my life.

Saturday 5 March 2011

Fostering, Faith & Fear

According to the BBC, last Monday, the High Court upheld Derby City Council's right to refuse to allow a couple, Mr & Mrs Johns, to foster children "because of their traditional religious views":-

A Christian couple opposed to homosexuality have lost a battle over their right to become foster carers. Eunice and Owen Johns, 62 and 65, from Derby, said the city council did not want them to look after children because of their traditional views. The pair, who are Pentecostal Christians, say they were "doomed not to be approved". The High Court ruled that laws protecting people from sexual discrimination should take precedence.
Irritatingly, the BBC reports did not contain a link to the text of the High Court judgement itself; in my view sloppy reporting.

On his blog, Gavin Drake - who says of himself "I’m not a lawyer, but I have sat through many court cases in the Magistrates, Crown, County and High Courts" - says the media take on this is nonsense:-

A Christian couple have lost their High Court bid to overturn Derby City Council’s ban on them fostering children because of their orthodox Judaeo-Christian views on homosexuality.
It’s a story you’ll be hearing a lot about.  But it didn’t happen.  That is not what happened in the High Court today.
For a start, the couple had not been banned from adopting or fostering – the City Council’s social services and children’s panel hadn’t made a decision about whether or not Eunice and Owen Johns would make suitable foster parents.  But, after social workers asked questions about how their Christian views would affect their response to a child who said they were gay; the couple and the council decided to make a joint application to the High Court for guidance.
 He continues:-
So, what did the court decide?  Well, it decided not to make any declaration and there is no order ... It isn’t a landmark judgement.  It will have a serious impact for nobody – not least for Owen or Eunice Johns who could still be allowed to foster by Derby City Council if they proceed with their application ... That’s the decision of the High Court today – to not make a decision on what appears to be a badly thought out, badly argued, badly presented case.
 Meanwhile, the Christian Legal Centre had this to say, in a press release:-
In a landmark judgment, which will have a serious impact on the future of fostering and adoption in the UK, the High Court has suggested that Christians with traditional views on sexual ethics are unsuitable as foster carers, and that homosexual ‘rights’ trump freedom of conscience in the UK. The Judges stated that Christian beliefs on sexual ethics may be ‘inimical’ to children, and they implicitly upheld an Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) submission that children risk being ‘infected’ by Christian moral beliefs.
The Christian Legal Centre is a pressure group, who have brought several of these "Christians persecuted for their beliefs" cases. Their report does have a link which allows you to download the text of the High Court judgement, for some reason in Microsoft Word format. Gavin Drake's blog entry gives an easier to use link direct to the case summary on the BAILII (British And Irish Legal Information Institute) website, http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2011/375.html.

I'm not a lawyer either, but this case summary seems to me to be clear and well-written: whilst Gavin Drake overstates his case somewhat, it is obvious that he is essentially correct. This is not a landmark judgement, the judges declined to make any order at all:-

  1. We have stated our misgivings about the exercise of the jurisdiction to consider whether to grant any (and if so what) declaratory relief. The defendant has taken no decision and there is likely to be a broad range of factual contexts for reaching a particular decision, the legality of which will be highly fact-sensitive. Moreover, the parties have: (a) been unable to agree on an appropriately focused question for the court to address, (b) each identified questions that do not raise a question of law that can be answered with anything approaching a simple 'yes' or 'no', and (c) furnished the court with no evidence.
  1. ... 
  1. For the reasons given in [107] we have concluded that we should make no order.
Essentially Mr Paul Diamond, from the Christian Legal Centre, on behalf of the Johns, was criticised by the judges for not bringing a clear statement of issue for resolution, for trying to use legal arguments that had already been rejected in previous judgements, and for "extravagent rhetoric":-
Mr Diamond lays much emphasis upon various arguments, many of them couched in extravagant rhetoric, which, to speak plainly, are for the greater part, in our judgment, simply wrong as to the factual premises on which they are based and at best tendentious in their analysis of the issues.
Which, as legal language goes, is about as damning as you can get.

Much was made in the BBC report of the claim that in general rights over sexual orientation took precedence over rights of religion. Presumably the BBC reporter only skimmed the text of the judgement itself:-
While as between the protected rights concerning religion and sexual orientation there is no hierarchy of rights, there may, as this case shows, be a tension between equality provisions concerning religious discrimination and those concerning sexual orientation. Where this is so, Standard 7 of the National Minimum Standards for Fostering and the Statutory Guidance indicate that it must be taken into account and in this limited sense the equality provisions concerning sexual orientation should take precedence.
In other words, no one right is more important than another, only the legal context (various required standards, etc) determines which takes precedence in law in a particular case.

My reading of the judgement is that the key point in law is about what a person does, and whether that is lawful, not why they do it. Thus, if a couple show evidence that they would not follow the legal framework required for foster carers, then it makes no difference whether the reason for that was simple prejudice or was religious belief. So long as the couple's behaviour can be shown to be unsuitable for fosterers then the reason for that behaviour isn't the point. There is no religious discrimination in law because an atheist or agnostic who behaved the same would be treated the same.

If members of a religious group don't like a particular law then, in the British system of democracy, they are at liberty to campaign for a change in that law. But in the meantime, they cannot expect to be exempted from it.

In their evaluation of the suitability of the Johns, Derby City Council asked about their response to a number of hypothetical (but realistic) situations. For example, would they be able to support a young person who was confused about their sexuality; would they feel able to take a young person from a Muslim background to a mosque; how would they support a young person who was being bullied over their sexuality; how would they deal with one who was bullying others regarding the above; and how they would support someone in their care whose parents were gay (or whose future adoptive parents were gay).

Law or no law, statutory guidelines or no, it seems to me that these are situations where there is a response which is about caring for and supporting people, or there is a response which is about being judgemental. Jesus famously pulled up the Pharisees again and again because they set their rules above the people for whose benefit they had been given.

If a teenager is confused about their own sexuality then hammering them with your views about homosexuality's 'sinfulness' is not going to help anybody. They need to know that they are valued and cared for, and they need the time and space and support to work things through for themselves. They matter, and other people matter, for themselves, not because of their possible sexual orientation. You don't bully other people, and if others bully you then you are entitled to action to have it stopped - that is simple justice.

This is not to say that I don't think Christians, or anyone else for that matter, aren't entitled to opinions on such matters. But the rule in fostering (and, I believe, in raising our own kids) is that the needs of the young person come first. That's what they/we sign up to.

My beliefs about marriage are fairly orthodox, and based around Genesis 2:20-24 (modified by 1 Corinthians 7:25-28). I am all too aware that I fall short myself, so I see no justification for pointing fingers at those who fall short in a different way. My kids are teenagers and I have not, and will not, knowingly compromise their right to make their own choices (and to mess things up in their own ways, not mine). My job, I think, is to help them to know that their parents love them, and that God loves them, for themselves, and to have the sense of worth (and hopefully the closeness to God) which allows them to make thoughtful decisions in their own way and their own time.

Fosterers usually have a lot less time to make a difference than parents, natural or adoptive, so that is all the more reason for them to focus on what is really important: building the young person up to cope with the stress and change of their lives, not running them down.