Apologies for the long wait on the follow up, but the holiday season is always a busy one. You can blame Bioware for launching so late in November. Next week will see me returning to a more normal schedule and regular updates. My next article will be about three scenes in Inquisition that suggest the game was originally supposed to be a much better game, but for now, read about all these other problems the game had.
Inquisition Needed a Beginning
The whole pace of Inquisition just didn’t feel right, I think most of that has to do with open world and MMORPG feel of the game’s mechanics, but the pacing is off from the start. The beginning of Inquisition doesn’t feel like a beginning and there’s no buildup to the giant explosion, you enter the game after the inciting incident of the game: the destruction of the Conclave. Now in media res is a common literary technique and works great, but starting the story after the most important invent in the game is such a stupid move. That’s like starting Skyrim during Alduin’s attack and asking us to choose our race and appearance while fires burn in the background or starting Mass Effect after the attack on Eden Prime, the whole pace of the beginning section would be wrecked. There’s in media res and then there’s just starting at a random point in the story because fuck the pacing, amirite?
The inciting incident is a pivotal part of any story, it’s literally what sets the story in motion and propels the characters into the unknown world. The only stories I can think of that successfully start after the inciting incident are the ones occur in reverse order, like Memento or Irreversible. Having such an important part of the story occur off-camera is just a silly, amateurish mistake to make. That’s writing 101 stuff right there. And no, seeing the explosion on the main menu when we press play doesn’t count! Nor does the beginning narration. Dragon Age: Origins didn’t start at the Battle of Ostagar with a narration of why the Ferelden army was meeting there, and Dragon Age: Inquisition shouldn’t have started after the single most important event in the story.
What would have been nice is if we’d arrived a few days before the explosion, and then instead of a 75 word description of our character’s background on the menu screen, we could have been properly introduced. Explain why we’re going to the conclave with some actual dialogue and coherent exposition. Have it start with the Dwarf character meeting with his Carta Boss in the deep roads and receiving orders to contact the Mages or the Paladins about supplying them with lyrium, or the Elf character talking with her Keeper about monitoring the talks at the Conclave to see if the Mage-Templar war will threaten the Clan. Perhaps we even arrived with some companions, so that we could play off of them and add some history and backstory to our characters. We could also have gotten a bit of exposition about the Mage rebellion for those of us who didn’t play Dragon Age 2 and had no idea that war had broken out. Then there could have been a section where the player character starts to realize something is happening, a conspiracy looming in the shadows and tries to unravel it. And fails.
The player obtains the anchor but Corypheus still causes the conclave to explode, killing everyone, including the friends you arrived with. That way Corypheus get’s his moment of victory, albeit robbed of his ultimate goal, and he would have taken something from us (our companions) and giving our character a reason to be pissed off. Sure, this would have meant that the story wouldn’t have been able to do the whole “Elder One” mystery, but frankly Corypheus was such a disappointing reveal that I don’t think that would have been a huge loss.
Dragon Age Inquisition is just… Dumber
Dragon Age Inquisition reminds me of the new Star Trek Movies; it’s a fine game in its own right, but its more of a summer popcorn film than it is like the thought provoking game that came before it. Inquisition is very much like Star Trek Into Darkness, it’s beautiful to look at, has some great characters and wonderful moments, but it has a plot that barely holds together and a stupid ending. They’re both good, but hardly grand, and you probably won’t remember them in a few weeks. So why does Inquisition just feel dumber than Origins? Or any previous game in the Bioware line up?
I think the dumbness of the game is best on display at the Winter Palace when the Inquisitor is attending the ball. About 90% of this quest is absolutely terrific. You spend your time speaking with foreign dignitaries trying to keep your Court Approval rating up, while stealing away for a few minutes at a time to sneak around the palace looking for clues as to who Corypheus’s secret accomplice is. It’s a real Game of Thrones moment, and it keeps you guessing as to where everyone’s loyalties really lie. It was almost about to be my favorite quest in the game…
And then the Grand Duchess Florianne waltz in, announces that she was the traitor the whole time, and then waltz out to let her minions kill you.
My jaw literally dropped.
She wasn’t even on my list of suspects. But that’s not why my jaw dropped. It dropped because I couldn’t believe how stupid that whole thing scene was. Not only did she give herself away when she wasn’t even on the list of suspects, but then she acts like fucking Megatron and leaves to let her lesser minions to kill the hero? How cliched can we possibly get here? I half expected the next scene to be her cussing out Starscream for fucking up again.
For the first and only time in the game I was really feeling like an inquisitor, investigating to see who among the Orlesian nobles were traitors, relying on wits instead of swords. I had to sift through lies, half-truths and planted evidence to somehow arrive at the truth; and right up until that unmasking I felt like there was a real possibility I might get it wrong. There was a good chance I might fail and arrest the wrong person, and that’s what made it such a tense mission: the possibility of failure.
It was great, it could have continued to be great. Then for reasons I still can’t fathom, Bioware just chucks the whole thing out the window and makes the villain wear a neon sign around her neck.
That is why this game is dumber… because it assumes you’re dumb. It’s as if someone looked at this mission and thought it would be too much effort for players to figure out who the bad guy was, we better just let the villain unmask herself like a Scooby-Doo villain. No, I take that back. At least the Scooby gang got to unmask the villains themselves, we didn’t even get that much.
The bigger reason I think this game is dumber than Origins is that…it’s really not about anything. As a commenter pointed out in my last article, there’s no theme, no central idea behind the game. The Mass Effect Games were all about fate and self-determination, the definition of life, the importance of cooperation and trust. Things that people can relate to. Origins explored the idea of pragmatism, and what you would be willing to sacrifice in order to save the world. Even the new JJ Abrams Star Treks have themes, simple things like self-confidence versus arrogance and the importance of family, but at least they’re there.
Inquisition feels more like The Expendables…it’s just there. It’s exists simply to exist.
There was a great quote from Varric in the game, and while I can’t remember it verbatim, it went like this:
“People write stories to figure out why things are the way they are.”
It’s absolutely true, most of the time. The only time this doesn’t ring true is when the story is being told specifically to turn a profit. No writer worth his salt writes his story based on what will sell well, we write what we love and know. What we’re passionate about. Of course we all hope that our stories make us rich and famous, we all want that Pulitzer Prize, but we don’t sit down and figure out what kind of story will sell the best, we simply start writing what’s in our hearts and hope someone finds that interesting enough to buy. The only stories that are written and designed for the sole purpose of profit are those you find at the grocery store. In the gaming world, these are the Call of Duty titles [Note: I haven’t played the newest one which I’ve heard has an okay story], and the increasingly convoluted Assassin’s Creed. Dragon Age: Inquisition is another one. If there was a grander story or greater theme hidden somewhere in this story, it was obviously left on the cutting room floor because I sure as hell can’t find it.
They didn’t make this game to tell a story, they made the game and hastily slapped a story on top of it. Which is how most games are made unfortunately, but most games don’t market themselves as amazing storytelling adventures with choices that affect the story.
It’s an Open World MMORPG
Without the MM
Or the RP
Or the Open World
I’ve never gotten into MMORPGS, or online gaming in general for that matter. It might be because I’m a heartless, hopeless misanthrope that hates interacting with other humans even over the internet. But more likely it’s because MMORPGS and multiplayer-only games don’t have stories, or if they do, they’re god awful. I tried playing Final Fantasy 11, World of Warcraft, Age of Conan and a half-dozen other titles but each time I couldn’t be bothered to do the endless grinding required to move on. Within a month I usually quit.
Interestingly the only MMO I ever enjoyed playing was Bioware’s The Old Republic, because it had such a heavy story focus. But even then some of the character storylines start to wear a bit thin, if only because they’re forced to stretch them out over 60 levels of content.
So I guess it’s really no surprise that I ended up hating Dragon Age: Inquisition since everything from the collectible mounts and thrones to the endless fetch quests (Get 10 ram meat!) just screams MMORPG. And even comparing it to other MMORPGS, like the Old Republic, it’s still not a very good MMORPG either. I can take more than 8 abilities in The Old Republic, and I don’t have stupid respawning health bottles that run out at critical moments in the game either. The combat is more fluid in The Old Republic, the enemies more diverse, the challenges more interesting, the bosses more cunning. A boss in any typical MMO will summon minions to his aid, spawn protective shields, sometimes he’ll even have powers that affect the room you’re standing in, things that force you to change and adapt to the shifting conditions of the battle. The closest we get to boss fights in DA:I is the Envy Demon and the High Dragons, who repeat the same 3 tactics in an infinite loop. The Envy Demon attacks, burrows and erupts like a standard Nightmare. The Dragons will do [insert element here] breath, tail swipe and then take off to do a little aerial show for you before landing again and repeating it. A few of them will cover themselves with armor, like that fucking dragon in the Hissing Wastes, but all that really does is make the fight last twice as long as it should.
MMORPGs are a pyschological experiment that would have given Pavlov a science boner. They’ve tapped into the reward center of the human brain so well that people will literally pay money so they can work a second job in a fictional universe. I’ve never been able to get into those games though, and all my attempts to do so were motivated by my wanting to play with my online friends. For me, a good story is the reward, and so I was never satisfied. But I can see why endless piles of loot and clearing an epic dungeon with a guild of friends, could be a reward in and of itself. If Dragon Age: Inquisition was attempting to replicate those triumphs though, they failed. Perhaps, since I don’t like MMORPGs, I’m not someone who can make such a claim credibly, but again comparing this game to others in the genre it seems to fall pitifully short.
You know what I wanted most in the whole wide world while playing DA:I? A fucking sword. That’s all, just a sword that looked good on my sword/shield warrior, you’d think in a high fantasy setting I’d be tripping over swords left and right. Instead all I found were axes and maces and about a billion unique daggers despite fact that the dual-wield rogue is the worst class in game. The highest sword I found was like 130 DPS, and it didn’t even look good. You want armor? Great, but all the epic unique armor you’re going to find is going to be inferior to the crafted stuff…and it won’t even look different aside from a pallette swap. As for leveling? Making my way down the skill tree in every other RPG is a pleasure, figuring out which abilities I want and seeing my character become more powerful is a great feeling. Making my way down Dragon Age: Inquisition’s skill tree is more like a skill twig, tiny and completely unexciting. I had already started unlocking two branches of skills before even getting to the specialty unlock quest.
Of course none of that really undermined the story, but it didn’t exactly help hide the flaws in the story either. The more I think about this game, the more baffling its Game of the Year award becomes. I know this year’s games have all been pretty blah, but surely there was something worthier of the title?
The bigger issue with Dragon Age: Inquisition was that it secretly wanted to by Skyrim. All the promises of an open world and exploration that were delivered before release were clearly aimed at the huge amount of people who buried Bethesda in money in exchange for Dragon Genocide Simulator Skyrim.
Now I love Skyrim, I have hundreds of hours logged in that game and it was single-handedly responsible for ruining one of my National Novel Writing Month runs by coming out in November. That said, Skyrim’s story is dull and uninteresting at best. A big evil Dragon has come to eat the world, you have to stop him by shouting at him real loud, the end. And you know I can’t say I blame them, writing a story that can run independent to the player character’s actions during the story must be incredibly difficult. You can leave the smoking ruins of Alduin’s rampage and never touch the story again if you so choose, which again, is terrific but it’s a game type that doesn’t exactly lend itself to powerful epic stories that draw you in. I think Rockstar’s games are an excellent example of why the very nature of an Open World is such a difficult medium for good storytelling.
When I was playing Red Dead Redemption, the game kept trying to sell me Marston as this former bandit remorseful of the things he’d done in life and trying to find redemption by bringing down his former gang. Unfortunately the only reason I’m going to play a western is so I can live out my secret fantasy of being Robert Redford’s Sundance Kid. So I was quickly robbing banks, trains and frightened old ladies whenever the game let me off the leash. At one point I had an entire army of US Rangers chasing me down, whom I quickly led into a canyon and commenced racking up a body count that made The Little Big Horn seem like a dinner party. So while the game was struggling to tell me the story of this bandit with the heart of gold, I kept playing the character as a wanton psychopath waging a one man war against the United States AND Mexico at the same time.
And for that reason I kind of ruined the story for myself. I’ve talked to fans of the game who really loved Red Dead Redemption’s story, some even admit to crying over the finale, but because I played my Marston as the almost polar opposite of the one the game was trying to show me, the ending didn’t work for. Why can’t I shoot these guys that have come after my family? I wiped out enough US Marshals to fill Arlington to capacity three times over, you’re telling me a half dozen guys with pistols are gonna end me?
Marston’s death at the end of the game felt completely arbitrary, because I had turned into a god made flesh during my playthrough. Even going back and trying to play it straight as a good guy, I couldn’t get the image of him as a sociopathic killer out of my mind. I’ve permanently ruined that story for myself. And you know what? That’s fine actually, because Red Dead Redemption is still a lot of fun and I had a ball with it because it actually had an open world. Like any world it had borders, but you could move anywhere within those borders, allowing you to have some really cool encounters that lend themselves to emergent storytelling. I still remember getting ambushed by some Marshals while crossing a river, who shot the horse out from under me and I had to make a suicide charge to try and get to some rocks on the other side.
Dragon Age Inquisition however, is not an open world. It pretends to be, just like the anthology of stories it tells pretends to be part of a seamless tapestry, but it’s not. The closest it gets to being open world is at the Hinterlands, but even then the range of things you can do is limited and quite frankly its still so small that actually using your mount seems pointless (especially since it robs you of the party banter, one of the few bright spots of writing in the game.) I can’t fight a dragon on a rocky cliff side and watch as it flings me over the edge with some great sweep of its tail, like I can in Skyrim. There are no unexpected battles because you can see all the enemies doing their standard MMO patrol from miles away, robbing you of the chance for anything really interesting happening. And once you leave the hinterlands, the open world illusion falls apart completely.
The Fallow Mire? Tiniest map in the game with a single path that branches off in only two places if you want to follow two utterly pointless minor quests. Or take the Empris Du Lion, which is just a couple of narrow trails that cut through impassable obstacles. The Hinterlands is the only thing that comes even close to resembling an open world, and even it is filled with corridors and hallways disguised as forests and cliffs.
Basically Bioware gave us all the negative features of an open world, the screwed up pacing and lack of urgency in the main quest, while giving us none of the positive traits like experiencing battles in unexpected places or the thrill of finding a lost Dwemer ruin. It also gave us the worst parts of MMOs, the endless grinding and a tidal wave of epic loot, while denying us the pleasures of leveling up (what’s the point in all these abilities if I can only use 8?) or wearing the epic gear we find (Who else found the Legion of the Dead armor and were pissed to find out that the only character who is able to wear it is a Dwarf Warrior?)
I can see why a game maker would want to use an Open World MMORPG as a basis for their singleplayer game. The MMORPG brings with it the Pavlovian response of gamers to commit to an endless and ultimately meaningless grind, and the open world gives players an unprecedented amount of freedom. It’s seems like Bioware wanted to take the best parts of World of Warcraft and Skyrim and Frankenstein them together into the best game ever made. Much like Frankenstein’s monster though, the end result was just an abomination that only gave us the worst of both worlds.
Had Bioware focused on giving us a great story instead of an open world, which they failed to deliver, we may have had a great game. Had they gotten rid of the stupid magic healing bottles and given us a proper magic/potion healing system, maybe they could have focused on making the combat more interesting (and avoided frustrating level restarts because they didn’t put enough potion refills in the fucking Templar keep.) And if Bioware would stop making the same mistakes as a student in a highschool creative writing class, I wouldn’t have to keep telling them they’re terrible at their jobs.
But they do.
So I guess I’ll just have to keep telling them.