Lead Them or Fall: Expectations on Dragon Age: Inquisition

The release of Dragon Age: Inquisition is getting closer and closer, and with every bit of additional information released on the subject, my anticipation grows greater. It is the third major installment in a franchise that had a huge impact on role-playing games and also interactive storytelling, and shifted my preferences in fantasy role-playing games.

When Dragon Age: Origins was released back in 2009, I didn’t know what kind of expectations to attach to the title, as I’m sure was the case with a lot of other people as well. It had the BioWare stamp on it, which increased my faith in the content – after all, a game with the same box but a developer whose name didn’t conjure such a trust in their skill in making games, I might have overlooked the title altogether. But after being primed for an at least decent game by the developer’s name, I wasn’t entirely sold until reading the description: “Dark fantasy epic.”

I hadn’t realized it until then, but after being a fan of fantasy themed entertainment such as books and videogames for years, I had grown a bit bored of the generic high fantasy drivel that always seemed to be full of magic and wonder. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but I was immediately hooked on the idea of a world that would take all that and infuse it with strong elements of dread, desperation and undiluted violence.

So at this point, I had developed a set of expectations for this game, and they weren’t low ones. However, as I started up the game and played it for the next couple of months practically non-stop, to my astonishment it exceeded them entirely. Even if the nature of the world and all the darkness and those things eventually faded off the foreground into a shading that covered most of the game, the game produced more and more elements that more than made up for it. I was overwhelmed with the intriguing, somewhat branching storyline, the amazing visuals and the challenging yet endlessly satisfying tactical battles – all of which amounted to the fact that Dragon Age: Origins was the first new game in a long, long time that got me excited about playing it.

So after such a fantastic game, I was obviously thrilled to hear about the sequel, Dragon Age II, which was released in early 2011. I enjoyed the game and was once again sucked into the story, but the further I played, the more I started to notice some drawbacks compared to its predecessor. These drawbacks have been well discussed and documented, such as the lack of the tactical overhead view, recycled environments, and constricted exploration. There were some improvements as well, such as a streamlined combat system (although I personally preferred the more realistic combat visuals of Origins), but it was clear that since there had only been one installment before this game, BioWare was still dabbling in various gameplay features to see which would work best, which is only smart to keep the series from becoming stale right from the bat.

The fact that Dragon Age II was a sequel was kind of a double-edged sword. It gave the game an instant fanbase and ensured it would be recognized, but at the same time it generated some expectations that were probably never meant to be met. For example, the removal of the tactical overhead view in combat was considered a poor choice, but had this been a stand-alone game not related to any other title, I doubt anyone would have considered it a problem. But obviously, that’s the case with all sequels – they will always be compared directly to previous installments.

These so-called drawbacks do not, however, invoke any kind of disappointment or loss of faith towards the developer, since BioWare enjoys a reputation of being able to listen and react to the fans’ preferences. They have already informed us that they will no longer be recycling dungeon environments, exploration will be free-form, and the tactical view will return in the next game. That’s three out of three major issues people had with the second game, and that speaks for itself.

Thedas Unbound

One of the major differences in Dragon Age: Inquisition compared to the previous titles is that it features a much more open style of world design. As far as I’ve understood, it doesn’t mean an entirely seamless, boundless world, but rather larger areas and the ability to visit a larger number of places, and do it as you please. In fact, BioWare has stated that while open-world games such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim provide inspiration for the game, the world will not be “quite that open”.

I don’t think that’s such a bad thing, though. It seems that these days, games are “required” to feature a massive open world, and the expectations for such games are unreasonable. While a lot of games have done this, rarely the result is satisfying both in content and in functionality. Such as the aforementioned Skyrim and its prequels: While the worlds in the last three single-player Elder Scrolls games have been great in size, those games are also notorious for their glitches, crashes and other such cons. Going back further, The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall may have been more stable than its successors, and actually featured a world immensely more massive, but it was bland, repetitive and in many cases, seemed too empty to reach any kind of immersion.

One of the few series that has done a fairly good job with its worlds is Grand Theft Auto. As far as I know, there have been few to no stability issues, and the cities feel vibrant and detailed. However, these games do not exactly encourage exploration – there is very little to do in the cities besides either completing missions or creating free-form chaos and carnage. So in the end, it doesn’t exactly fill the requirements that are generally set for open worlds, either.

So that’s where Dragon Age: Inquisition may be on the right track. BioWare clearly set a goal that they know they can reach, and that will surely please the fans. After all, this isn’t traditionally an open-world series – the first game had a world map with pre-determined locations to visit or discover, and the second game narrowed it down even from that, providing only a few general locations with a couple of interiors or contextual environments to visit. I, for one, am not in the least disappointed by the direction they’re taking with the world design.

Making History

A strong element in both the Dragon Age series and BioWare’s other behemoth franchise, Mass Effect, is the social dimension. This includes both the story in all its branches and twists, and the dialogue system that has come a fairly long way since the first entries of both franchises. Dragon Age: Origins featured dialogues with a list of options, which resembled Baldur’s Gate as well as a number of other older role-playing games. While the game had a faint sense of control over the events, the dialogue mostly consisted of asking for additional information, and a couple of choices that would mostly have the same general outcome but would affect the approval of party members in different ways. While the dialogues rarely had any major impact on anything, the fact that your character’s imagined personality resonates differently with different party members was uncommon in games, and made it feel very immersive, and forced the player to give some thought to what they’re saying if they wished to have a decent relationship with any of the other characters.

The first game featured a few situations where there was a clear two-directional choice, prompting you to take the side of one of two conflicting characters or factions, thus aligning yourself against the other. While these situations feel rather mechanical and after the first one you can pretty much anticipate the future ones, it was nice to at least have some effect on how the game would play out, even if it’s mostly superficial.

Dragon Age II had some of these situations as well, most notably towards the end where you’re supposed to side with either the mages or the Chantry. While the endgame itself was intense and epic, the choice never felt natural to me, and the fact that you have to fight end bosses from both factions anyway even further deteriorates the appeal of said choice. In a case like this, it would be best if the game didn’t actually lead you in either direction or in any way steer you through suggestion, but Dragon Age II basically makes the other option seem outrageous: Why would Hawke choose to oppose the mages, seeing as at least their father and sister were mages? Of course the choice is supposed to stem from bitterness towards having been forced to run from oppressors all their life, but the choice of opposing the mages would only suit Hawke if he/she is played as a total jerk. So there’s not much application there.

BioWare has revealed that the third game would involve much more influence by player choices in terms of the world and the story progression. While this is good news, I’ve noticed a lot of people expect that to mean that the player can mold the story to progress in one of several entirely different directions. Not only would this cause a game to take an unreasonable amount of time and effort for anyone to make, but it would also mean that most of the content in said game would be locked off from the player on any single playthrough. There are upsides to that too, and I personally would love a game where you wouldn’t even get to see most of the game in one run, and where your choices would cause you to lose access to some things within the game, but I don’t see that as something the Dragon Age series should strive for.

Recently, there has been a number of games that feature affecting or seemingly affecting the story via dialogue options and player actions. Most of these games have received some negative feedback on the fact that these choices do not have enough weight in the outcome. Take Telltale Games‘s The Walking Dead, for example: The game is practically built on the concept of having to make difficult choices and thus forging the story from what follows. Here, some choices have consequences that have an effect way down the road, while others have practically no impact further than the current scene itself. And of course, the ending is always more or less the same.

But what many fail to realize is that while you can’t change what happens in the end, the choices, however insignificant, get the player invested in the story and allow them to project the main character as they perceive them; whether they’re selfish or altruistic, ruthless or sympathetic, et cetera. And for myself at least, that worked like a charm – I was so caught up in the game I couldn’t stop playing it, and I was genuinely heartbroken at the end, and couldn’t stop thinking about it for days.

I’ll use Mass Effect as another, more relevant example. Here, the most prominent effect of your choices is Shepard behaving differently towards others immediately in the scene. While this system has more emphasis in character development and creating the Shepard you want beyond just his/her appearance, the downfall is that it only gives you two archetypes to model the character after – either the “loose cannon” or the “goody two-shoes”.

As for the story, I have to admit I don’t personally know the extent of story branching and alteration, since I’ve only played through the entire trilogy once. But I’ve understood that some major things throughout the trilogy can happen very differently depending on the player’s choices, even if they are just small parts here and there. This would nonetheless make each story different, and place each supporting character in a different position in the overall story.

Dragon Age II shifted the fantasy franchise a bit closer to its sister series, implementing a “conversation wheel” and an archetype-oriented selection of contextual responses. It improved on the two basic archetypes of Mass Effect by adding a third, “charming/humorous” response type to the “ruthless” and “benevolent” ones. So far, this has been the best system in terms of creating depth for the character, but there is still much room for improvement. But as for the story progression, there was less in the way of influencing the grand scheme of things than Dragon Age: Origins, which was disappointing.

Seeing that Dragon Age: Inquisition has assumed a direction towards being an open-world game, it is much more likely that it will at least partially live up to the promises of more control over how the story unfolds. While I’m excited about the prospect, I just hope BioWare isn’t trying to achieve too much – gradual improvements towards something perfect is enough for me.

As the release date draws closer and closer but information on the game is still inconclusive, it provokes much speculation on the game’s features as well as excitement and expectations. From what I’ve heard, BioWare has already promised practically all of the things that I wanted to see in the next game, gameplay-wise: an emphasis on tactical playing, distancing it from Hack n’ Slash -type games; no recycled environments, to keep the game from becoming tedious like the second game did; a fun, strategic gameplay with new ways to play both in an out of combat; and of course, a continuation to the already-epic story that just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

It is not only the previous games and their fantastic qualities that get my hopes so high with this game. It is also my faith in BioWare, because I’ve seen what they can do, and I know they know how to improve on something that was already good. They know how to listen to fans, and they know how to break new ground and think outside the box. They’re not perfect, and all their decisions may not prove to be good ones, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be if you’re expecting games to get better and more innovative, instead of grinding in their tracks.

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