The View From Thedas: On Preferring Kirkwall

Okay, so I’ve been replaying Dragon Age 2, and I’ve played Inquisition through a couple of times, and I need to get something off my chest: Dragon Age 2 was more fun than Inquisition.

By most gaming standards, Inquisition is a better game. Its fights are more strategically interesting and its battle system is at least original by Western RPG standards, its world is huge and ambitious, and its characters are quite pretty. Your Keep, Skyhold, is marginally customizable, huge, and changes over time in a way that reflects the story’s progress. Etc, etc– there’s been enormous amounts of e-ink spilled on Inquisition already, and I don’t think I need to beat that dead horse.

Dragon Age 2, on the other hand, repeatedly uses the same dungeon layouts. The manor layouts are so repetitive that one assumes the Dwarven Merchant’s Guild must own Kirkwall’s equivalent of KB Homes. The whole game rarely leaves Kirkwall and the Greater Kirkwall Metropolitan Area, and you could probably fit all of its settings within any of Inquisition’s 10 or so explorable areas 4 or 5 times over.

Dragon Age 2, though, for all of its flaws, told a story that dealt with topics I’m deeply interested in and did it well. Everyone in DA2 had an established relationship with everyone else, and that story was told through cutscenes and banter both. It was likely that a visit to Isabella would show her talking with another party member; they all seemed to drop in on each other fairly regularly. More than that, they all seemed to hang around Hawke for little reason other than friendship after the first act, and because of the 3-year gaps between Acts 1 and 2 and again between 2 and 3, they all have between 6 and 7 years to get to know each other.

In Inquisition, though, most of the conversations between party members seems to just be them feeling each other out, figuring out how to get to know each other. Part of this is because the banter system isn’t very good and doesn’t fire often enough, so players don’t always get all the banter that the game actually provides. But the cutscene part that you get in Dragon Age 2 just isn’t there. Sure, there are a few times where you walk in and the advisers are talking to each other, and there’s that time Dorian plays chess with Cullen, but it’s clear that their relationship is mostly one of coworkers.

I think the most telling place where the differences between the characterization, storytelling and interpersonal relationships in DA2 and Inquisition is shown is with Varric. In DA2, we have Varric as the somewhat unreliable narrator of the whole game, and no matter who you romance, his relationship with the protagonist, Hawke, is the beating heart of the narrative. Varric’s exaggerations, his jokes, and his affection and love for Hawke shows through every time the game breaks away from the main narrative to show him telling the story.

His relationship to the Inquisitor is never really that well-defined, nor is his relationship to the rest of the Inquisition. The main person we see him interacting much with is Cassandra, and generally they just fight; the only relationship that his personality really shows through in is with the human-formed spirit Cole, who he sort of adopts.

The moments we get to see in Inquisition are spaced far apart, because the game is paced so slowly compared to Dragon Age 2, and though many of them are fun, they don’t have the richness that the interpersonal relationships in the previous two games had.

It almost seems like the scope of Inquisition means that there’s less room in it for what really made the Dragon Age series feel, well, like a Bioware game. Maybe there is as much of the interpersonal writing in it as there is in other games, but if there is, it’s stretched thin. A lot of the game content is in the kind of boring sidequests that I expect more of an Elder Scrolls game, and while some of those have the kind of interesting worldbuilding reveals that nerds like me adore, few of them were all that interesting ways to get to know the NPCs better. Even many of the quests done for the party members and advisers were just fetch quests.

I think one of the major problems with Inquisition is that it’s trying to be too many things at once. It adds in a totally new fighting system, horseback riding (and a full mount system that includes a few dozen different critters you can ride), the entire War Table mechanic, the entire system for customizing the base, and a really ambitious set of places to explore. It really feels like it’s trying to be a regular RPG that gets sold to people who like to play regular RPGs and not just the kind of weird character-loving romance-drooling-over fan-nerds who are so into the first two games, and I think maybe they’re trying so hard to figure out how to do all of this new stuff that they’re letting themselves slide on what makes their games so much fun.

Every time I step back into Kirkwall and am greeted by Varric’s sarcasm, Merrill’s wide-eyed amazement and Isabella fighting with Aveline I remember why I love these games: they’re stories about a bunch of dorks who love each other and sometimes help fight evil or whatever. In the end, I’ll take that over customizable castles and dracolisk mounts any day.

The View From Thedas: “Find a way forward.”

The following post has spoilers for the ending of the quest “In Your Heart Shall Burn”, which ends the first act of Dragon Age: Inquisition.

I’ve been thinking a lot for a while about how the gaming medium can do things that other formats can’t, and one of the major ones is by making things in-game react differently than you expect them to. This is something we see in a big way in Depression Quest, which does a good job of using the UI that we’re used to seeing in games and other programs, to choose what is and isn’t clickable; when the protagonist doesn’t have the mental energy to do some of the things that depressed people are told that they “should” do, those options still show up, but you’re taunted by your inability to actually do them. It’s a really smart way of showing something using gameplay that you wouldn’t be able to just explain.

I’ve been thinking a lot about running in games for several years, because when I was growing up and I played games on the living room TV, my mom always commented on the fact that the game protagonists always ran everywhere. I usually showed her that I could walk, but except in rare games such as Morrowind where the protagonist gets “tired” in a way that makes them less able to cast spells or attack, there isn’t much reason to walk instead of run.

Dragon Age: Inquisition does a good job of using this always-running expectation, plus the way you get used to running animations, to effect your sense of story.

For those who haven’t played it, Dragon Age: Inquisition starts out with the protagonist and their friends/colleagues working out of the poorly fortified mountain village of Haven. The first part of the game ends dramatically with an assault on the village and the council of advisers leading the village’s inhabitants and what is left of the military forces that the protagonist has spent most of the game gathering out of Haven through a series of secret hidden tunnels. Meanwhile, the protagonist and three friends use the one trebuchet that has not been (dramatically) destroyed to collapse the mountain on the invading army, which destroys the village in the process.

Since there wouldn’t be much of a game otherwise, the protagonist miraculously survives by falling into some of Haven’s tunnels, but this is where the game designers made some interesting choices.

For one, you aren’t able to run at first. You’re injured and tired, and so the protagonist sort of stumbles along and is only able to get up to a light jog as their top speed. There are several stretches of tunnel that you run through doing this, and then you’re thrown outside, where it is obvious that the wind is keeping you from even walking very quickly. The animations change several more times, and the protagonist has to shield their eyes from the wind and snow. There are several scenes of struggling through the snow, and except when you stop to inspect a campsite, you never actually say anything, but there are audible gasps and struggling noises as you attempt to make your way through it.

the Herald struggles through the snow

In games, you’re used to your onscreen character responding in certain ways, and there’s a very visceral component to that. It’s the reason a lot of us end up leaning in the direction we want our character to go in addition to the standard “edge of your seat” type reactions many people experience while watching movies; even though we don’t expect our characters to respond to our movements, we still make them, often without thinking.

That visceral sympathy ends up being why we react badly to characters behaving in ways we don’t expect, particularly in the case of bugs and glitches. But there are ways to subvert our expectations of how our onscreen avatar would respond to certain things, and it’s hard not to feel a little bit of how the protagonist feels when they’re struggling through that snowstorm, since you are used to commanding your character to move forward and having them do so at a run with the same running animations you’ve seen for the past 15-20 hours of gameplay. Of course, the whiteout of the blizzard, the occasional completely black screens accompanied by the barely audible struggle-sounds of the voice actor that you’ve grown used to being your voice are part of it. But it’s almost all in the deliberate slowness of the movement and the walking/jogging animation changes.

The part of the game that comes right after this is basically a series of dramatic cutscenes, and though they’re absolutely beautiful– the cinematography of DA:I is probably the best I’ve seen in any game I’ve ever played– they didn’t give me anywhere near the connection to my character that I got from watching the mighty Herald of Andraste struggle to walk through a blizzard.

Monday Recs

I have decided to try to do a thing where every Monday I recommend a handful of things to you, my readers. What kinds of things? WHO KNOWS! Maybe it’ll be STUFF! Maybe BOOKS! Maybe LINKS!

  1. This Logitech Trackball Mouse: You button with your fingers and scroll with your thumb and I am so spoiled because I have used this for a few years and it’s really nice. I like it a lot for gaming in particular, but I find it a lot more pleasant and less painful on my hands, especially since I can just put it up and use it anywhere without worrying about it being a good surface for mousing on. It goes through batteries really slow, too, which I am amazed by.
  2. Cheat Engine for Dragon Age: Inquisition: If you’re playing DA:I, this gives you a button that triggers banter and a button that lets you wear your armor in Skyhold so you aren’t wearing those hideous beige pajamas in half the game’s dramatic cutscenes. Thank Andraste.
  3. Seraphina and Shadow Scale: I’ve talked a bit about these here before, but I really, really love these books. They’re really well-written, funny, and sweet, with great characters, good social justice themes, some major gay characters and one minor trans character, and incredibly rich worldbuilding. I really like the non-action-hero protagonist and general lack of violence as a default-problem-solving-mechanic, because I’m pretty bored with that in SFF, so it’s a nice change.
  4. poop.bike: it’s a website called poop.bike, what can I say about that really

The View From Thedas: the Relative Unimportance of the Warden

“The View from Thedas” is a series of shorter posts about Bioware’s series of Dragon Age video games; the rest of my Dragon Age posts can be found here. This post contains spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II and some small ones about Inquisition.

My favorite detail about the Dragon Age universe right now is that by the time Inquisition rolls around, the hero of the first game (the Warden/Hero of Ferelden) is pretty unimportant.

Almost every mainstream RPG makes it feel like the protagonist’s actions will save the world and without them everyone is doomed. It certainly feels, in Dragon Age: Origins, like your actions matter. But I really enjoy how small-time the Warden seems by the time you get to the end of the series. Being the Hero of Ferelden is a big deal in Ferelden itself, but once you’re seeing the world through the eyes of Inquisition’s Herald, it feels a bit like the protagonist of Origins is the hero of some backwater. It’s like being the Hero of Southeast Iowa or something, except it has a global reputation for being dirty and smelling like wet dog.

I love this. I love that the character you spent hours in the shoes of is, several games later, a historical side note; they’re likely just well-connected footnotes in the stories of Leliana and Flemeth.

It’s an interesting comparison to Hawke, who ends up being a lot more notable because they end up basically failing to stop all of the disasters that happen throughout Dragon Age II; they’re important because they’re Varric’s companion and he’s the one writing everything down, because they were there when Anders managed to set off the mage rebellion that sets the events of Inquisition in motion, and because they end up being improbably well-connected, which is sort of a side effect of the narrative style in which you have to do a lot of worldbuilding and narrative setup through the eyes of a single first-person protagonist. Hawke is, arguably, more historically important to Thedas because they failed to stop all of these problems, so their story gets to continue.

The Warden managed to stop the Blight before it managed to get out of the borders of the dog-smelling country people don’t really care a lot about internationally. That’s a lot less historically relevant than the combination of failing to stop a rebellion, letting the chaos-causing red lyrium out of the Deep Roads to fuck everything up on the surface, befriending Prince Sebastian before he got all weird about conquering Kirkwall*, and everything else that Hawke accidentally set in motion or was present for. It’s also been really fun putting together everything that was happening during Origins, since you see some of that in DA2 but they really have to flesh out what was happening in the rest of the world during that time.

*apparently this is different depending on what you did to Anders in DAII, but I can’t bring myself to kill him