Dungeon Siege III should be in an idiom’s dictionary under the phrase “middle of the road.” Everything about it is bland and weightless. Despite all that, it kept me playing long enough to beat it and inspired me to write this article about why it bothered me so much.
Dungeon Siege III tries to craft a compelling look at race in a fantasy universe, but then completely fails to develop and capitalize on its ideas.
Part of this failure comes from the way the game is built. According to this great article about RPG design by Jordane Thiboust, the Dungeon Siege series of games is primarily a dungeon crawler, a subgenre where”[t]he main thing driving the player here is, by far, character progression (through statistics, new abilities, or loot).” Dungeon Siege III tries to marry its “hack ‘n slash” roots with a compelling narrative like in Thiboust’s “Narrative RPG” classification.
Thiboust also says that most narrative elements in a dungeon crawler “are just a loss of time [...]; they [players] want to kill, bash, loot, level up — not make complex morality choices or define their character’s personality.” While that statement might not apply to everybody, it certainly fit for me when describing my experiences with Dungeon Siege III.
For my first (and probably only) playthrough, I chose the swordsman, Lucas Montbarron, as my character. He’s the last surviving heir of the last Grandmaster of the 10th Legion. All of this was exposition backstory mumbo jumbo that meant nothing to me as a newcomer to the series, so let’s just say he’s white, from a noble family, and has a little bit of a Hidden Backup Prince thing going on.
One of the other characters you can choose at the start of the game is Katarina—the illegitimate daughter of Lucas’s father and a “Lescanzi witch.” Starting the game, the ethnicity Lescanzi means nothing to me. Maybe it’s a term familiar to people who have played the previous two games. Maybe it’s something that would influence their character selection choice either in favor or against Katarina. The only thing that influenced my choice is that she’s a ranged character. I wanted a melee fighter.
The term Lescanzi comes up a lot during the opening chapters, and its where that pesky thing called “narrative” started to invade the game. Your character is summoned to a 10th Legion Chapterhouse only to find it burning and all the people inside slaughtered by “Lescanzi mercenaries.” The game tells you the history of the Lescanzi, but only if you bother reading the lore.
The game tells you all these things about them, but their character models looked to be cut from the same cloth as my Lucas Montbarron character. I only expected them to look “Other” because of the way the game clearly describes them within the framework of the “Self/Other” binary.
Lucas is a Legionnaire–which the game almost treats as an ethnicity in and of itself. The Lescanzi are wanderers. They worship different gods. They fight for money. They’re “mongrels” that prey on attractive men for their bloodlines. They’re mercenaries (typically a profession in fantasy that signifies a person without honor). According to the world of the game, they are very much “Other” to your character’s “Self.” Except the game never actually shows this to you. You’re only told that. And you can forget actually playing a scene that lets you experience firsthand how the Lescanzi are supposedly different from your character.
After playing through the opening chapter, my character ran into Katarina. This sent me into a dialogue tree where I was able to ask questions about her motives and about the Lescanzi mercenaries who had attacked my compatriots (all of whom are already dead before the game even starts).
Katarina makes a comment along the lines of, “I’m impressed that you trusted me, especially because of my Lescanzi blood.” That statement made me put down the controller because there was just so much there to unpack.
I’m a fairly trusting sort when it comes to roleplaying games. The genre’s conventions have taught me to talk to everyone, go through as many dialogue choices as possible, and say you’ll help because that’s how you get quests. So the fact that the game interpreted my conditioned behavior as a player and interpreted it as my character being noble and overlooking Katarina’s “troubled” heritage, really caught me off guard.
On the one hand, there’s the game telling me that she is different from my character. She’s an unknown mysterious Other. But contrast what the game tells me with what it shows me. It shows a character that looks essentially the same as mine. The only thing different about her (besides her gender) is her voice has a quasi-French accent. That’s it. Yes, she might play differently due to combat skills and gameplay mechanics, but you would only find that out if you chose her as your character. And then I’m sure the game would go out of its way to tell me how different she was from Lucas and the other NPCs.
So there’s that dichotomy going on. Then you have this whole idea of her character being surprised that I trusted her so readily. Here’s where the aesthetic distance between the game and me turns into a deep chasm. The game assumes because characters in the game don’t trust Lescanzi that I, the player, shouldn’t trust them either. Wow. Why does the game assume character’s in-universe prejudices are going to be shared by the player? Especially when the game has done nothing to show me any evidence of these prejudices. It just made me shrug and say to myself, “Well, is my character supposed to be racist or something?”
The funny thing is after all this buildup about the Lescanzi, the prejudices against them, their lore, and the mercenaries—none of it goes anywhere. You fight some more generic cannon fodder enemies, and then you move on to different plot points and the Lescanzi thing is never brought up again.
I can’t help but compare what Dungeon Siege III was trying to do with what Dragon Age: Origins does. In that game if you choose the City Elf origin story, you get to witness firsthand examples of racism, prejudice, and injustice. Rather than just telling you, “Hey, in this universe, elves are treated kinda badly,” the game not only shows you, but it also gives you agency during those scenes.
Giving the player agency makes these kinds of sections infinitely more powerful—when they’re done well, that is. However, burying pertinent info in the “Lore” section of the menus and then just telling me that certain fictional ethnic groups in the game are mistreated violates the aesthetic distance between game and player. It’s a missed opportunity for storytelling and player agency to really come together.