93 Hours – Thoughts on Dragon Age: Inquisition

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When I first started dating my now-wife, she forced me to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer under the bold claim that it was the “best television series, ever.” Season 1 is sometimes cringe-worthy with the monster-of-the-week plots, but stick with it. Angel is a drag. Riley is a doofus. Don’t get me started on the Initiative. Will that season with Dawn ever end? I miss the old Willow. More like Worst Evil, amirite? So, did I like Buffy? Are you kidding? My wife was right. You have to watch it.

I put 93 hours into Dragon Age: Inquisition, almost exactly how many hours it takes to watch all of Buffy. Was it worth it?

Power Play

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The two juiciest additions to Dragon Age were, hands down, the throne and the war table. Characters tell you that you carry a lot of responsibility, these two mechanics make you feel it. Those moments on the throne were so satisfying on delivering the power fantasy, I wish Bioware had taken it further. I want to choose my posture. Do I feel at home on this pedestal or is it a burden? The symbolism is so strong, and for fans of Game of Thrones (and what Dragon Age player isn’t?) the evocation of Daenerys or Joffrey laying judgement compounds the appeal. The throne makes power intimate. The war table, conversely, helps sell the fantasy that the Inquisition isn’t just a local power—it literally has its fingers in every corner of thedas. Do I wish these systems went further? Absolutely. The war table missions quickly go from feeling like where the war for Thedas is fought to a page taken from free-to-play’s timesink playbook. Wielding Cullen’s might or Leliana’s cunning plays out no differently whether confronting rogue forces or gathering herbs for the umpteenth time. And for all the posturing on the throne, there was really only one time when I and my companions—the ones I care about—had skin in the game.

Great Responsibility

Dragon Age: Origins casts the player in the role of a Chosen One who must lead a small team against an evil blight. The second Dragon Age abandons the good versus evil cliche and gives the player power and authority at the local level in a city rife with conflicts that have no easy answers. Dragon Age: Inquisition amps up the responsibility by making the player unite an entire continent who commands the respect of thieves and Empresses alike. It makes for a great wish-fulfilment fantasy, but does it make for good drama? The player’s power is literally deus ex machina. The bounty of Thedas is your eminent domain, yours to claim without resistance. No task is too small for the most influential figure in the land. Happy-go-lucky is the head that wears the crown. Save the quagmire and the consequences for DLC. Throw urgency to the wind—the big bad evil dude can wait. For all the epic trappings, the driving force of the game is running on fumes. So why can’t I put the game down?

Friendship Is Magic

No developer knows how to assemble a likeable cast like Bioware and the latest Dragon Age is no exception. From familiar players like Varric with that voice like butter to stay-at-home companions like Josephine with as much personality as your travelling buddies, DA3 is a game that makes you feel like a part of a family. It reminds me of why I have such affection for Star Trek: The Next Generation — here is a diverse crew that perform well under pressure but still enjoy each others’ company in their free time. That said, in all of my 93 hours, only once do the core characters come together in an ensemble moment of levity. That card game cut scene isn’t just a charming diversion — it is a glimpse of the Dragon Age that could be. More than a romance option, I was was wishing there was a way to have a slumber party where everyone could just hang out together and gossip about Cullen. I will remember these characters for years and when I am inevitably reunited with at least some of these characters when the inevitable sequel arrives, my heart will skip a beat. That is the magic of Dragon Age.

Changing the Frequency

Dragon Age: Origins probably had more coverage in the mainstream media than any game released last year thanks to a choice clip from the opening of one of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games’ most damning episodes. Sarkeesian was right to call out the first Dragon Age for its problematic elements; for as inclusive as the game was with its primary characters, the salacious elements in the periphery were totally unnecessary as proven by their absence in the sequels. DA3 is the most progressive outing from Bioware yet with a story chock full of powerful and complex women,  homosexuality as both a romance option and pivotal to a character’s arc, more diversity in skin color and culture, a transgender fighter, and faith (and lack thereof) explored in ways that demand empathy if not agreement.  Of all the fantasy worlds presented in Media, this is the world I would want to live in.

When it came to tough choices, Bioware pulled their punches.

Cassandra Will Remember This?

Dragon Age: Origins was a revelation in how social simulation could be integrated into a traditional AAA game. The characters weren’t just well written, they were designed to have clashing world views that made pleasing everyone near impossible. DA3 includes a great many choices that result in messages of approval or disapproval from companions, but at the end of the day, did any of it add up to anything? It doesn’t feel like it. Sure, Bioware gave me the option to reject many of the companions before they join the inquisition, but that isn’t that a false choice when a chief appeal of a Bioware is to get to know your team? When it came to tough choices, Bioware pulled their punches. Varric and Solas might have clashing opinions about what’s best for Cole, but once a decision is made, there’s no repercussion. Sera and Vivienne couldn’t agree about what color the sky is, but the game never pushed me to choose friendship for one over respect from the other. You really can please everybody all of the time, at least in the ways that matter. In the years since Dragon Age: Origins debuted, Telltale totally changed the landscape with Walking Dead and the games the followed. By comparison, the choices of DA3 are safe.

Faux-Hawke

If forced to choose between giving the Grey Wardens a second chance and saving MY Hawke, I might have chosen differently. But that imposter? He had to die.

Kindness Amongst the Killing

He might have been a Faux-Hawke to me, but poor, poor Varric. In a year where “Press X to Pay Respects/Kiss Your Wife” caught a lot of flack, DA3 has several beautiful moments of love and compassion. From cookie theft to death with dignity, this game really tugs on your heartstrings.

Tyranny of the Minimap

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I love maps. Thror’s map in The Hobbit is a big part of why I got into fantasy in the first place. Treasure maps made pirates cool. Maps make history fun. Maps are foreshadowing, their shortcomings an invitation to explore. When was it that maps—and minimaps in particular—went from being a tool to make games more exciting and convenient, to becoming a burden? The minimap in DA3 is an always-on walkthrough, full of spoilers. Combined with the L3 sonar, whose pings become the background noise of every expedition, it is hard to get immersed in this world. If you’re the type of player who just wants to get to the end as quickly as possible, in this epic world, the map system is a gift. But if you’re like me, and every gamer I know, a game like Dragon Age is meant to be savored, and every dungeon scoured. I wouldn’t mind the map if the game rewarded you for questioning it, exploring outside the lines, but that’s not the case here. If there’s a landmark, it’ll be me marked. And never not be pinging L3.

Why We Fight

The Dragon Age franchise started with  decidedly tactical aesthetic which it traded for a more action-heavy flavor in the sequel. DA3 splits the difference by letting you stay in action mode while freezing the game for a tactical view at will. In addition to letting players have it both ways, players can also toggle difficulty at any time from Dark Souls punishing to spectator mode. Combat challenge is entirely opt in. In theory, I like combat that makes me think about how best to use each party member in any given situation. Make sure my tanks have agro, archers have the high ground, rogues using stealth and mages taking advantage of elemental weaknesses where possible. Opting into DA3 combat difficulty has three strikes against it. First, feedback is poor. Whether it’s judging enemy difficulty, identifying buffs and debuffs, tracking orientation, the designers opted to obfuscate information in order to keep the visuals exciting. Second, action combat is fuzzy. Between the chaotic motion of allies and foes and a fair number of abilities with a twitch component, it is hard to plan ahead so its safest to fall back on the same default patterns in any given battle. Finally, there’s just so damn much of it against a pool of enemies spread too thin. It didn’t take long for me to abandon tactical mode and turn difficulty from hard to normal. Putting in the extra time wasn’t worth it. Which isn’t to say this neutered version wasn’t fun in its own way. Like Match 3 games or a jigsaw puzzle, we go through the motions because it’s pleasant enough and we can feel clever without thinking very hard.

On the Ball

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The Winter Palace sequence promised to be exactly what I had always hoped for in a Dragon Age game. Combat took the backseat to diplomacy, companions had a chance to shine out of their element, and everyone got to wear fancy cocktail attire. Only, that’s not quite how it played out. Opportunities to win over the aristocracy were too few, eavesdropping mini-map mingame, and while I loved seeing Bull in a suit, the companions were so static after their entrance, and guests unresponsive, the whole affair felt like a missed opportunity. Why didn’t Sera get up to mischief and risk getting us evicted? Why wasn’t Bull mackin’ on those redheads he speaks of with such vigor back at Skyhold? Why wasn’t Vivienne making herself the star of the evening? Isn’t feteing in Orlais her thing? Why not use a costume ball as an opportunity to make the player use observation skills to figure out a mystery? This sequence could have been Dragon Age’s “Hush” episode. Bioware, if you’re listening, more like this please, but next time don’t drop the ball.

I Know What You Did Last Sataareth

I had written you off as a jock and a pretty boy back when you were starring in movies I had no interest in seeing (unless forced to endure as the only way to see the Episode 1 trailer), but now I know better. Freddie, if you ever want to get a drink some time, you got it, boss.

Curiosity Rover

In Skyrim, as soon as you escape Helgin, you are confronted with a sweeping vista of snow-covered mountains. You have a goal and a compass to get you there, but the immediate absence of a road invites you to find your own path.  A distant peak becomes a player-appointed goal. This is largely thanks to the first-person perspective which requires the player look ahead. The Dragon Age games, being inherently third person and, at-times, tactical, require that we spend a great deal of time regarding our characters from on high. Combined with all the loot hoovering, this results in the player spending a lot of time looking down at her place in the dirt. This can make for a terrible play experience if trees and terrain obscure the player’s path, which results in roads, ridges, corridors and valleys being the primary way we experience the world. Pathfinding is anticipated long before the player visits Thedas. Instead of “I wonder if I can get over to that place?” the dominant question for the curious explorer is, “should I take this detour now, or come back to it later?” Which isn’t really curiosity at all, but a question of endurance. In blowing up the world of Thedas, Bioware does offer some gorgeous vistas when the player has the high ground, but the biggest impact on what the player does is more detours, more demands on endurance. Maybe pathfinding isn’t a good fit for rewarding curiosity in DA, despite epic first impressions, so how else could Bioware make it rewarding for explorers to think for themselves?

That One Time the Game Made Me Think Like a Team

It was an dungeon of Elvish providence, beneath the Exalted Plains. Finding a way through hinged on using a series of levers and pressure plates to spin a stone archer and shoot faerie fire at four targets. Funny thing was, the Inquisitor could not pull all the necessary levers on her own. Companions had to be deployed and told to hold their position. As puzzles go, this one was pretty pedestrian. But at this late point in the game, it did something all too uncommon in DA3 — it made me solve a problem. And the tools were ones I’d had with me all along. I couldn’t help but wonder why I was never challenged to use them in meaningful ways outside of combat before or again.

Binge Game

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My initial response to completing DA3 (after looking up Dread Wolf online) was a feeling of relief. It’s a Martin Chuzzlewit of a game, a massive thing that commands respect for its wordcount if nothing else. I started weighing the virtues against the flaws and filler. Wouldn’t this be a stronger game if it was leaner, half as long with less shards and rifts and potion upgrades that were never used? Perhaps. But it would also be less remarkable. DA3 is content to be binged, not savored. You can’t justify each hour poured into completing it; there are much better hours of gameplay to be had this year, better stories to be savored in other mediums. The virtue of DA3 is its length. The cast of characters is strong, but I think I came to love them more because of how long I spent with them. The inevitable goodbyes kept me dragging out the end a little longer. A 40 hour playthrough would be akin to drinking a wine before it’s had time to fully mature. Now that I’ve had a few days to process the game in its entirety, I am very glad to have played it, but I’m also glad to have closed this book.

In the After

As much story was crammed into DA3, the most interesting threads are those that the game left open-ended. What will become of the Inquisition now? Does the Inquisitor relinquish all this power and responsibility and let old powers return to their pre-Inquisition roles? Or perhaps she feels she knows better than those squabbling kingdoms who let Thedas descend into chaos in the first place. What will become of the long-forgotten elven culture and their “gods”? What of Tevintir and the Qunari? I don’t know what Bioware has in store for DLC and what we must wait years for in a sequel, but I can’t wait to come back.


JakeJake Forbes is a writer and game designer. He is the author of Return to Labyrinth, the official sequel to the Jim Henson film, and editor of over 50 manga series including Fullmetal Alchemist, Fruits Basket, and Chobits. Most recently he worked on the Versu interactive fiction platform. One of these days he’ll get back to blogging again, but for now he’s excited to join Marie’s crew.

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