Dragon Age: Inquisition – Two Games in One (includes spoilers)

I finally finished Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I’m not sure I’ve ever played a game before that is so wildly inconsistent in both quality and style. At times, it almost feels like two separate games somehow accidentally wound up in the same .exe file together.

One of those games, fortunately, delivers the sort of content that I look forward to when I play a Bioware game (disclaimer: I’ve only played the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series). While Corypheus himself is just a by-the-numbers villain, Bioware makes up for it with its portrayal of the people who have ended up serving his cause – a Tevinter magister trying to save his son, a previously loyal Templar who feels that he and his colleagues have been treated as pawns, Grey Wardens deceived by a false calling, rebel mages who turned in desperation to the one nation where they’d be allowed their freedom. The Mage/Templar war is a classic example of a conflict in which each faction has legitimate grievances, but events have spiraled out of control as extremists on both sides dig in their heels. Putting the player in the role of leading the Inquisition’s efforts to contain the conflict and prevent ordinary citizens from getting caught in the crossfire is a good choice, allowing us to express viewpoints on the underlying issues through the dialogue scenes and creating a more “down-to-earth” context for our actions as opposed to simply “fight the bad guys” or “keep the world from being destroyed.”

Characterization is generally strong, with most of the potential companions winning our sympathy despite very different backgrounds and points of view, and the return of characters of various prominence from the previous two games – Cassandra, Leliana, Cullen, Varric, Morrigan, and Hawke being the most significant – reinforces the sense of a coherent fictional universe with lots of moving parts and wide-ranging consequences. Perhaps even more importantly, Bioware has used the fantasy setting not just to give us non-human races and magical powers, but a world in which some of the basics of reality work differently than they do in ours. Characters are able to cross into a more spiritual plane of reality at times (i.e. the Fade), but definitive answers to the big metaphysical questions (such as the nature of a deity, or what happens after death) remain out of their reach. Characters like Cole, Mythal, and the apparition of Justinia demonstrate that even a question like “Who are you?” may not have a simple answer in Thedas. Morrigan, meanwhile, has continued to develop a strong intellectual curiosity, with her demonstration of the Eluvians to the Inquisitor and her reactions to the discoveries in the Temple of Mythal serving as further reminder us that Thedas is a very strange and mysterious place and not simply medieval Europe with elves, dwarves, and magicians.

Placing many of the key events within large open-world environments, where the player as is also drawn into smaller or tangential conflicts, seems like a good idea. Corypheus may be the existential threat here, but his allies’ manipulations and the political chaos that could prevent a unified response to his plotting would logically be a major factor as well. The “power/influence” system ties the player’s actions back to the Inquisition’s overall standing, and side missions are the perfect opportunity to develop the complexity and detail of Thedosian society as well as allow the player to explore his or her character further through dialogue and choices. Theoretically, this should be effective.

But somehow, it just isn’t. Instead, the environments and the events that take place in them too often feel like they’re just hanging out there. The dialogue is frequently minimal, and once I got past the “wow!” factor of the visual detail, I couldn’t help but notice that I was basically doing the same few things over and over again: (1) fighting off enemies to capture a certain area (whether to close Fade rifts, set up camps, or help out an NPC); (2) retrieving one or more objects for somebody; and (3) reading notes, books, and other scraps of information scattered around the landscape. If I’d just watched someone playing a few minutes of one of these levels, without being given any context, I’d have guessed that I was watching a generic open-world action game as opposed to a Bioware RPG. When fully exploring a single one of these environments can take well upwards of, say, 4-5 hours, it tends to diminish the narrative momentum that the game builds up in the main quest missions.

What’s especially disappointing is how straightforward most of these side missions tend to be. Rarely is there any sort of unexpected consequence or opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue. For example, I was playing my Inquisitor as noticeably uncomfortable about being called “Herald of Andraste” and only reluctantly exercising his newfound power. Early on, I was informed that an Avvar cult had captured some Inquisition soldiers in an attempt to lure me into a fight, viewing the existence of the “Herald” as a threat to their own religious beliefs. “Now that sounds interesting,” I thought to myself, anticipating that perhaps I’d have a chance to negotiate for the soldiers’ safety, or try to convince the cultists that I wasn’t presuming to invoke divine authority and that their religious practices would face no threat from the Inquisition, or learn from the hostages that something more complicated had been going on in the Avvar compound. But could I actually do any of that? Nope. Turns out the cultists all attack on sight, and there’s nothing to do but fight them off and click on something to let the hostages out.

Part of the reason this is frustrating is that I know Bioware can do better and has done better – repeatedly so, in fact. Consider Jack’s loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2. There’s combat, sure, but the very fact that there’s combat is itself a plot twist, because the mission is initially presented as destroying an abandoned facility. More importantly, along the way, Jack has to come to terms with the fact that she never even fully grasped what was going on during her horrific childhood experience, culminating in her confrontation with Aresh – a man who suffered even worse than she did and is now engaged in a twisted quest to give meaning to all the torture he and other children endured. It’s not an especially long mission (probably 30-40 minutes), but it still manages to tell a compelling story and open the door to a change in Jack’s attitude. Had this mission taken place in Inquisition, I’d half-expect it to take twice as long, only with Aresh dying in a boss fight and the squad finding a piece of paper explaining what he’d been doing instead of actually talking to him about it.

I’m aware that Dragon Age 2 apparently caught a lot of heat for recycling environments and limiting most of the action to Kirkwall, so I suppose if Bioware wanted to prove that they could make a mega-super-duper-huge game world with absolutely no recycling of environments ever, well, okay, mission accomplished. But a game doesn’t have to take a hundred hours to finish to be “epic,” and when you have a game that does, in its better moments, still offer some meaningful choices, I’d argue that it probably *shouldn’t* take that long simply because it makes it harder to find time for multiple playthroughs. (And for what it’s worth, I actually found DA2 somewhat underrated, with my main gripe being that it seemed to end because Cassandra told Varric he could stop telling the story rather than because everything was actually resolved.) I’m tempted to do another playthrough in which I simply skip most of the side content, focusing entirely on the “Inquisitor’s Path” main quest and the companion quests, partly to see if the narrative feels a little more coherent that way. But the game does enough to steer you towards the side content (with various warnings of one crisis or another) that I suspect this might prove somewhat immersion-breaking as well.

I suppose it’s to Bioware’s credit that, despite all this, I’d still rate the game a solid 7 or 8 out of 10. But if there’s one lesson that I hope they take away for the next Dragon Age game, it’s that more and bigger do not always equal better.

The Walking Dead Season 2 and Shaping a Character in Video Games

[Spoilers ahead for Telltale’s The Walking Dead game series]

One reason I will defend video games as worthy of consideration alongside other more “serious” forms of storytelling is the extent to which their interactivity can allow players the chance to shape the characters we are playing. The Mass Effect trilogy, the Fallout games (though I can only speak for Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas), The Witcher and its sequel – all of these certainly have traditional narratives with goals that must be accomplished along the way, but they are also concerned with the personality of the main character and the values and ideas reflected in the choices that the character makes at the player’s direction.

That’s not to say that they’ve quite reached the level of interactivity that I’d like. I’d wager that almost any Mass Effect fan has “my Shepard wouldn’t say/do that” or “but I don’t agree with any of these choices” moments, for example. But there’s enough variety available that a playthrough with one Shepard, or Lone Wanderer, or Courier, or Geralt of Rivia, doesn’t necessarily feel exactly like another.

Which brings me to Telltale’s much-praised The Walking Dead. Like most gamers, I was thoroughly impressed with Season 1, in no small part for how it required players to make difficult, spur-of-the-moment decisions and explored the consequences that followed. Because the narrative centers around a not-always-harmonious group of survivors, it’s impossible to please everyone, and the consequences of the player’s choices have less impact on the plot per se than on the relationships between the characters and which of them survive various turning points in the narrative. Shaping Lee Everett and his efforts to protect Clementine and teach her to survive ranked up there as one of the more compelling interactive experiences that I’ve had since getting back into gaming several years ago.

When I heard that we would be playing as Clementine in Season 2, however, I was less than enthused. Playing as an adult trying to help a child through the world (as in Season 1) was one thing, but actually trying to put myself in the mindset of a young girl? I was a little less sure that I could do that, and so far the game hasn’t entirely assuaged my concerns. Early on, for example, Clementine is with Christa and Omid, the expecting couple who survived Season 1, and they are having a discussion over what to name their baby. When Clementine is prompted for input, I instinctively selected a choice along the lines of “You two should decide.” That’s likely how I would respond in real life, i.e. it’s their relationship, their baby, and their decision, and I should stay out of it. But is that really how a 10-year-old would respond, or would she simply give her opinion? I ended up replaying that scene for other reasons and went with “What if it’s a girl?” instead. But I didn’t have to second-guess myself this much when playing Lee.

One other sticking point: at one point, there is a “sixteen months later” jump forward in which Christa’s baby has apparently been born but is now absent for some unstated reason. What is the point of keeping us, the players, in the dark about what happened to the baby? The problem I have with this is that Clementine almost certainly *does* know what happened, and that would undoubtedly shape her perspective and attitude, and yet we’re supposed to role-play her perspective and attitude without knowing this. (In fact, S1 kind of did this too – at the very beginning I’m supposed to role-play Lee responding to questions about whether he was really guilty of murder, and I thought to myself, “How the hell should I know whether he’s guilty or not?” and chose a fairly neutral response to be safe. I later came to see him as wrongly convicted, but at the time I just didn’t know.) If they’re going to withhold this sort of crucial information from us, then we should be playing from the perspective of a character who also doesn’t have the information.

I don’t mean to sound down on The Walking Dead here – I’ll be looking forward to Chapter 2 – but one thing that game developers do need to consider when giving us the option to shape our characters is whether or not the characters have a perspective we can understand. So far, it’s unclear whether we’ll quite get there with Clementine.