Monday, February 20, 2012

Choosing your fate and the non-consequences of Amalur

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a game all about fate. Having died once and being the first person resurrected by a device known as the Well of Souls, you fulfilled your destiny and are no longer bound to it. This means you can change the fate of the world and those around you, except you don’t.

Reckoning takes its design from a combination of Ken Rolston, who served as lead designer for both The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, artist Todd McFarlane, creator of the Spawn comic book series, and New York Times bestselling author R.A. Salvatore. Besides the flawed inventory menu design, the game excels, especially during combat. Its responsiveness and fluidity is reminiscent of fighting games, allowing you to change your style of combat with no downtime to create dynamic combos with any assortment of weapons and magic.

The world of Amalur, however, is static. Despite having the ability to change the fate of others, things play out as intended, even when the pieces are moved around. In the first village of the game, you meet a character named Sister Zelda who is trying to join the Order of Mitharu, but the order doesn’t allow women into its ranks. She asks you to steal an ancient tome that proves women can join the order. After stealing the tome and returning it to her, the only noticeable change is Sister Zelda now tends to the Reliquary’s gardens instead of shouting outside of its courtyard. Even after 70 hours of quests, saving Mel Senshir, defeating Gadflow, and resealing Tirnoch back into Amethyn (those aren’t the only ridiculous proper nouns in Reckoning), she is still tending to the garden and has the same dialogue options she had near the beginning of the game.

The best way I can see to add liveliness to characters and the world of Amalur would be through a morality system. Many claim that morality systems can hinder narrative more than it helps, but Reckoning is a good example of a game that feels empty without it. About 40 hours in, you can take on a faction quest for the Warsworn to stop the summoning of Niskaru Lord Khamazandu. Before you finish the quest, you have the option to side with Khamazandu and spread his terror across Amalur. Sadly, all this effectively does is make every Warsworn character in the game hostile. It’s not mentioned or hinted at with any other character in any location in the game besides where the quest takes place. With a morality system, this choice could have had widespread consequences that played into the rest of the game. Without a morality system, it’s a throw away choice that results in either buff A or buff B.

It’s unfortunate because Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning directly feeds the belief that your choices can make a difference in the story. Through the various twists of fate, which come at the end of significant questlines, the game creates the illusion that the fate of the world is changing depending on your choice. In reality, the only thing that changes is your skills, abilities, and destiny.

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