Firstly, I must be very clear on one thing. Dragon Age: Inquisition is not a bad game. There are a surfeit of reasons why this is so, and many reasons to be clear that this is so, not least of which is the need to be clear that Internet-era entitlements are not welcome in engaged criticism. I will however pick two reasons the game is not a “bad game” specifically for my own purposes: one, the game is clearly a well made game, the product of millions of hours of labour and love; two, I have not yet played enough of the game to offer a clear judgement on whether it is “good” or “bad” or, to be more interesting, where the game lies between those two vague poles. Why write about it all, then? Well, I’ve played enough of the game to be very disappointed. Not as disappointed as I was by Mass Effect 3,[ref]I need to write about that game at some point. In short, I have little to no issue with the ending of the game, if only because I had long since accepted the reality of my disappointment. I knew Mass Effect 3 wasn’t for me about thirty minutes in, it just took several more hours of playing to realize it.[/ref] but disappointed nonetheless.
This disappointment is of course personal and unique to my own experience. The game has landed on many “Best of” lists in the last few days and from what I can gather it deserves to be on those lists. Many, many people adore the game. I don’t, and though I hold out a healthy dose of hope that this will change I find it doubtful I will come around to love the game in the manner that so many clearly do. I wanted to write this post not to complain about a game, as that is entirely boring and mostly unproductive, but to talk about why such a universally loved video game could be so opaque and off-putting for me. I’m not writing a post to complain about the game, or whine that it’s overrated or even to state that it’s “bad.” Similarly, at the risk of repeating myself, I hold out considerable hope that the game’s storylines will get very, very good. At this point early on however, I’ve played enough to write about the trend in the overall Dragon Age series as I see it and why it goes directly against what I first loved about the original game.
Dragon Age: Origins made me a PC gamer. I had started to play games on my rugged dissertation-friendly laptop but I was still primarily a console guy and had been since I had first fallen in love with Halo 2, a moment that wrenched me away from a bit of Civilization here and a dose of Football Manager there and doused me in the larger world of video games in the twenty-first century. Origins was a different type of game for me. I played it and I played it, sometimes when I should have been spending more time researching my primary documents and oftentimes when I probably should have been sleeping. I “finished” the game and then I played it again. And again. I played around with the game’s mod tools, didn’t get up to much but had a lot of fun, and then I played the game again. This was actually my last playthrough, which I never quite finished, as an irritable and altogether overly solipsist human mage. It was a great game. I played the game almost entirely from above using the strategic view and I clicked and I paused and I clicked my way through the whole thing. It was wonderful. It was very much a light adoption of various design models consistent in PC games for years previous, but I loved it.
Dragon Age 2 was awful.
The usual caveats apply: a lot of talented people worked on it, it was technically impressive, there were some lovely design choices and so on and so on. However, it completely failed to hang together as a game, at least any kind of a game written in the same universe as origins. Where Origins was expansive, Dragon Age 2 was artificially and frustratingly limited, where Origins allowed the player to explore his or her own game Dragon Age 2 insisted that you stick to the script. The script in question was rather dreadful. You are the hero, you save the world, or at least the one city you’ll spend all your time in, and that will be that. Narratively, the game had a nice wrapper in the form of Varric the well written and appealing Dwarf, rogueish in personality and in profession. Otherwise it didn’t go very far at all.
The game has its apologists, which is fine. The game does indeed seem “not that bad” now, especially removed from the expectations generated by its forbear but I’m not sure there’s much benefit in taking it out of that context. In any case, taken out of the broader context it is still a very well made fantasy RPG that doesn’t really go very far in any meaningful direction. The most infuriating thing about Dragon Age 2, by far, is that they eschewed the gimmick that gave Origins such a strong start. Whereas in Origins you had a number of opening prologues to choose from to effectively develop a character before entering the main storyline, Dragon Age 2 presented you with a character with a huge range from “heroic figure with English accent” to “heroic figure with English accent.” Bizarrely, you couldn’t even change his name, although it was admittedly a pretty sweet name that evoked all kinds of Rutger Hauer-imbued mayhem: Hawke.
Dragon Age: Inquisition quite aggressively rejects the idea that Dragon Age 2 was a misstep, giving the admittedly wonderful Varric a prominent role in the game and even orchestrating a rather cringe-inducing “I’m back!” moment for Hawke, who has apparently become more boring in the years between the events of the second and third games. I don’t blame Bioware for standing by their man and by extension their game, but it is indicative of the overall progress of the Dragon Age games away from the very things that I loved about them early on. You see, I fell in love with the quirky computer-friendly aspects of Origins but it was created very much as a bridge between PC and console. That bridge has become ever more elaborate across the two sequels, but whereas I traveled the bridge in one direction towards the PC the structure was clearly designed for a surplus of traffic travelling in the other direction. This is particularly notable when playing Inquisition. I found the controls unbearable until I realized the game had been designed with a gamepad in mind. I crossed over and instantly had a better time of it. Strategic view is a joke, as is any semblance of strategy. You just run your people into a fight, press some buttons, drink some health potions and wait to see if you were levelled high enough to take them on in the first place.
The entire game is horrifically overwrought in its design. Although I appreciate the game clearly identifying my quest objectives, the whole thing is borderline automated at this stage with very little in the way of actual exploration going on. Of course, while you’re out there ticking the boxes on the right side of the screen, be sure to pick up some plants and do a little mining on the side. I actually like a lot of these things, God help me, in my games. I’m definitely not the biggest fan of the “just go and figure it out” approach to which some video game fans subscribe. My time with Inquisition, however, increasingly approaches the experience of a Call of Duty game, moving avatars from one place to another to let a mostly scripted sequence take place. In Inquisition, at least, such sequences are part of a more random and alive game world, but it all feels so perfunctory. I find myself wondering yet again why they didn’t bring back the prologue vignette gimmick, though I am thankful I have been given actual leeway over the game’s content this time.
Still, it’s hard to create a character that moves through the game essentially making fun of his own supposed heroism. You can be flippant in Inquisition but there’s something missing there. Bioware have preserved the option to play an unrepentant jerk, for which they must be applauded. If this game turns me around, as I would love it to do, I’m coming back as an enormous, horned, enormously horned antisocial hammer-wielding lunatic. I created my current avatar, an Elf rogue with an oddly baritone accent, in an attempt to have some fun with the story but I’m mostly role-playing an overly serious version of Art Alexakis in a fantasy setting.[ref]That’s the lead singer of 1990s band Everclear, kids.[/ref] The game has been designed so that I can do anything and everything but it all feels so limited. That makes me sad, but that is what this game is and it’s disappointing. It could well be a shift in the way that I enjoy games and it is certainly indicative of how I now value my time spent when playing games. Perhaps I’m being left behind by the advances of video game design. I don’t think so, though; Inquisition feels like a game made for the widest console audience possible at a time when so many games push against audience expectations of what games and game narratives can do. Now when I log in the game harangues me over my lack of involvement in multi-player, as if any sane person would buy a Dragon Age game for its multiplayer component.[ref]The multiplayer, admittedly, comes in the form of a co-op dungeon crawl and not deathmatch or something similar.[/ref] I’m offered untold riches of virtual chests full of virtual money and virtual weapons. This game, a landmark achievement for video game design at the highest levels incorporating massive amounts of talent and enormous financial investment, has chosen to adopt the same business model as the array of crap littering various mobile device software online warehouses, albeit with commendable restraint and a determination to keep it separate from the main experience. I will play on and salvage what I can but I cannot help but think of what could have been.