One of the more recent episodes of the ‘Shut up and Sit Down’ podcast presented an interesting idea; when you finish something or see something (a book, a game, a play etc) take a little bit of time to write 1000 words about it. Not for any specific purpose, not to publish, but to challenge yourself to a critical thinking task.
Too often I’ll walk out of the cinema or theatre and be asked what I thought; “It was good,” the inevitable response. I watched Arrival, The Book of Mormon, read the Earthsea Quartet and each time my analysis was weak. So, to challenge myself and to promote critical thinking I’m going to spend a little bit of time to talk about the things I have seen, or played or read. Starting with Shadowrun: Dragonfall.
Dragonfall is the second entry in a trilogy of Shadowrun games and, per critical consensus, the strongest. The game is set in Berlin; with your central hub known as the Kreuzbaser. The dilapidation and grime are coolly offset by harsh neon lighting and the hum of advanced technology; a juxtaposition that is prevalent throughout Dragonfall’s 15 or so hours.
The game’s relatively small cast compared to others in the genre is a great strength; there are no archetypes here, only complex individuals. Eiger, a female troll veteran of Germany’s finest special forces unit, is the game standout character. Fierce and loyal, complex and easy to misunderstand. Your interactions with her fly in the face of traditional RPGs; rewarding careful consideration of her, her history and her values rather than basic, transactional conversations.
The thing that impressed me most in my time in Dragonfall, though, was the way in which choices are handled. Again, in a lot of RPGs we see a clearly defined morality; this is the good choice and this is the bad choice. Slowly we’re seeing more grey areas emerge, but Dragonfall does away with white, black and grey, instead offering you unmitigated chaos. The morality choices you face are even more intriguing than most; not just because of the options and their potential outcomes, but because the motivations of those offering them are never clear. You’ve been told to murder a scientist who is working on a harmful drug, whose goal is to eliminate non-humans from Berlin. But the person who told you that works for a rival pharmaceutical company, so employs Private Military Companies for “protection”. What do you do? Who do you trust?
It’s those kinds of questions that fuel Dragonfall. The last few hours of the game, deep beneath the Harefield Manor, are perhaps among my favourite in any RPG in recent times. The story crescendos, of course, but the sheer pace of this climax create a panic in you. There’s no real-time action here, just a series of conversations – in all of which you need to make crucial decisions. What’s fascinating is the unrelenting pace that’s created; the sheer volume of choices leave you gasping for breath as you can’t fully stop and analyse the potential outcomes of your decisions; you just close your eyes, click the mouse and cross your fingers.
It's perhaps fitting that a game so deliberate and intricately crafted ends with subtlety. Away from the scene of Feuerschwinge screaming into the night sky (or at least in my chaotic finale) you find yourself back in the Kreuzbaser – face to face with your team. Some choose to stay with you, others not. What’s clear is that your actions, both in those frantic few minutes and the hours before, have influenced the people and place around you. One final call on your PDA sets up a meeting on the U Bahn, Berlins metro system. You stand alone in a quiet, rickety carriage before a well-dressed gentleman sits alongside you. He presents you with choices, choices that paint the picture of a world that exists far beyond the reach of your team, the Kreuzbaser and even Berlin. You talk. You make your choice. The screen darkens.
The game ends with a wall of text. Perhaps an odd choice, but it’s another way in which Dragonfall subverts tropes. This is a news report about global events. There’s no mention of the Shadowrunners, no mention of your team or anyone you’ve met throughout Dragonfall. The player is under no illusion of their involvement, but there’s also no pretence about the importance of your actions. You were a small cog in a grand machine.