Dragon Age: Inquisition — A Writer’s Perspective
[Note: some spoilers below. Mostly light. Comment section may be a spoilfest.]
As you may have noticed before, I like to take the stories I have in some way consumed with my grasping psychic tendrils and then I like to rip them apart like warm bread to see what seedy, grainy bits lurk within. The purpose of this is just to think a little bit about stories, their power, their mechanics — and since story is somewhat universal across all media and formats, I’ll do this with whatever crosses my path (example? My post on Prometheus: In Which The Gods Of Plot Punish The Characters For Their Precious Agency).
And so we come to Dragon Age: Inquisition.
For those who haven’t played a current era Bioware game like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, it’s important to realize that the thing you think is the game (level up! get weapons! punch dragons!) isn’t really the game. The game is the story. By which I mean, Bioware has done a very cool thing where the actual characters and plot are moveable. Throughout your gameplay you have choices that actually modify the course of the story — something that is a little bit putting together a narrative puzzle and Choose Your Own Adventure. Mass Effect in particular ensures that the changes you make in early games actually cascade to later ones (DA does this a little less successfully, I think, but it’s still there). Which means both game and story are neatly, if sometimes inelegantly, merged. It’s a wonderful effect and you don’t see a lot of it in gaming.
So, what lessons do we learn from DA: Inquisition?
You have actual agency in the story. This isn’t on rails. As defined in my post on character agency:
Character agency is, to me, a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.
Very few games actually give you something approaching genuine agency. Bioware gets as close as you can get, at present. It’s imperfect, of course — unless someone designs a video game that has as much narrative flexibility as a pen-and-paper RPG, you won’t see true agency represented. But this is pretty damn good.
And further, the other characters in the story have agency, too. They don’t just stand around and fiddle with their buttholes all day long — they want things and have agendas and secrets, etc.
Speaking of them…
The game understands that supporting characters are meaningful. Not just in the “they stand around waiting to support the hero” way. These are characters of agency and consequence. They are not always the heroes of their own tales, but they are fully-fledged and -fleshed characters in their own rights. They are characters who have already changed the world and will go on to do it again. You have (slight spoiler warnings here) characters who include: a world-renown novelist, two characters who might compete to be the head of one of the game’s largest groups, one character who may or may not be some kind of fallen god, one character who has a mother who may or may not be some kind of fallen god, and so on. These are the side characters. They support you. But they’re not just like, no-name no-fuck who-gives-a-shit characters. They are epic in their own right. But intimate, too! Sometimes you just have scenes or quests that are about who the characters are rather than based on some half-ass fantasy trope. If the game and in fact all the Bioware games get one thing right: it’s the cabinet of characters who travel with you.
The Game Plays Like A Novel Reads
It’s a well-paced, well-plotted story. It escalates well and it’s almost worth studying how it escalates — it even does the best that it can in terms of mitigating your own rise to power because, of course, there’s still the game side of things, where you level up and get bigger weapons. It’s a tricky balance, but it pulls it off. And it also measures out the sub-plotting and support character interaction throughout, so it’s not just a single plot shot straight to the end — it’s this mixed-up woven-in tale with lots of narrative braiding.
The Big Plot Fails Because Of All Of The Above
Ennnh. So. Yeah. Here’s the problem — the big plot is kind of a big ol’ poop noise. It’s not bad, exactly, but where the previous games felt a little nuanced in who you initially thought were good and bad guys, this is a pretty straight shot to, LOOK HERE IS A BIG EVIL MONSTER-MAN AND HE’S GOING TO DO BIG EVIL MONSTER-MAN THINGS SO HEY GO PUNCH HIM. And then the ending — again light spoiler warning — is pretty much HEY NOW’S YOUR CHANCE TO PUNCH HIM OH YAY YOU DID IT NOW THE GAME IS OVER. The game does such a good job telling the stories of the characters and institutions within the game that when it comes to the epic plotline, it feels completely dull. All the bad guys act like bad guys because bad guys.
Bonus Points: Diversity
This world felt a little less white and a lot less straight. The games have done well with diversity in the past, but here I feel like they’re making a bigger effort. That being said, I also found the in-world diversity somewhat lacking — like, no look at the abuses elves took in their alienages, no deeper glimpse at dwarven culture? But it does feature the first trans character I’ve encountered in a video game, and two straight-up gay characters (wait, can a gay character be straight-up? I SAY YES). Characters who are addressed as such and who are complete and compelling characters with, again, their own agency in the world.
Oh You’re Damn Right I Can Complain
I have a laundry list of complaints, many not even all that story-related, and I will put them here because I am a jerky-faced poo-head who likes to grouse about stuff sometime as is my right as a denizen of the Internet.
• Why, for the sake of Andraste’s Sacred Nipples, am I picking weeds and rocks? I guess I get it in the beginning, but eventually I’m the Inquisitor. Which is like — like what? Warrior-Pope? Fantasy President? I dunno. Point is, it’s like imagining Obama having to hunt and kill his own chickens, or expecting the head of Al Qaeda to go and make his own shoelaces.
• Also, how exactly am I harvesting actual ore and metals from rocks with my bare-hands? In Minecraft I at least need a pick-axe. This I just stoop like I’m gonna pass a stool, and then delicately pick an entire lump of iron from the mountainside. And then I put it where, I dunno. Up my ass, I guess. Inventory in games is always kinda silly because somehow between my four characters I can carry like, 40 swords if I want to. And infinite amounts of goddamn Spindleweed.
• For some reason, during cutscenes, my Inquisitor — a woman — walks like she’s got a load in her pants, or a secret tail. Kinda bow-legged, with tons of weird digital thigh-gap. Do I have hemorrhoids? Is being Fantasy President really stressful?
• Ugh so many laundry list quests. FIND 72,000 SHARDS. DISCOVER 40 LETTERS. KILL SEVEN RACCOONS, ALL OF WHOM MAY ALSO BE VENATORI WIZARDS. The world-and-local maps are loaded for bear with questing symbols by the thousand, and so many of them are impersonal, dumb, hunt-and-fetch quests. Sure, you’ve got a game that’s 100+ hours, but at least 47 of those hours I’m running around like a goon looking for a hundred-and-fifty magical goat turds to unlock the magical goat turd depository where I’ll have to kill seven revenants and — ugh. I’d much rather fewer quests with more impactful narrative.
• I am a fan of the epic game, and this one feels like an epic fantasy novel, but there’s this weird line that you cross, too, where I start to want the game to just be over already. And because the game is so variable in its story, it’s a game I want to replay. But I literally do not have another 100 hours to commit to this game, so it will go entirely unreplayed. Idea: keep making your A++ Dragon Age and Mass Effect games, but also introduce some interstitial story-only adventure games that operate similar to how The Walking Dead works. Bonus: have the story decisions there play out and cascade to the larger releases. Honestly, so many of the people I know who play these do so just to find out more about the characters (translate: discover how many of them they can sex up). Give us some story-based character games in between huge releases. Double bonus: let me write them because I said so. *gesticulates with grabby hands*
• I often out-leveled areas. While auto-leveling sometimes feels forced, here I’d stomp into a new region of Orlais thinking I was going to have a challenge only to discover that the bad guys possessed the toughness of rat farts. I’d clear through them the way a lightsaber bisects butter.
• And yet, some fights were seriously fucking hard, too. Dragon Age is puzzling in the challenge, because when I keep it on normal, things will seem fine but then I’ll suddenly get owned by like, a fantasy antelope or something. And boss fights are impossible on normal, so eventually I just jam the lever on EASY and coast through trying to get from one story point to another.
• No, I still don’t like reading on TV screens. I don’t care how compelling a read it is, I hate to read digital books inside a video game on a TV screen. That shit is onerous.
• This one was a lot better at inventory and making sure I wasn’t opening every barrel just to find a pair of torn pants that I could sell for a tuppence. But even so, dang. There’s only so much dumb armor and weapons and little treasures you can pick up before it becomes rote and dull. Just give me gold. Always give me gold. Because that’s its end game — I’m going to sell all this trash for gold. Don’t make me do that. Stop putting things in games that are not fun. You know what’s not fun? Trudging to a merchant to sell 52 spider rectums so I can afford a new staff for my mage.
• I still don’t understand half of what I was supposed to be doing with potions, tonics, grenades.
• I didn’t feel like this one had as many jaw-dropping choices as earlier games — these felt fairly down-the-middle, like the choices were mostly obvious. I’m a fan of when you get those choices that you have sit and stare at for five minutes because you literally cannot predict the outcome of either. This had some, but not enough, maybe.
• No game-breaking glitches, but lots of little ones.
• All told, my complaints seem major — but hey, I played. I finished. I have no time and no patience for mediocrity and yet, I persevered here and feel rewarded for it. The characters are amazing, the worlds fully realized (and in some cases, beautiful as anything I have ever seen in a video game), and for the most part the writing is heads and shoulders above what you get in other games. Worth it, with caveats.
What did you think of the game?
Who was your character?
Who did you romance / sex up?
Bonus: show off your character!
Double bonus: rank your favorite supporting characters from DA (this game or all of them!) from best to worst. Do this now or I will lock you in a room with Sera the elf so she can snark at you.