The Stories that Never Were: Dragon Age Inquisition


So it’s just really not been a good time for blog posts. The last few weeks have been busy with freelance work and with doing newsletters for the amazing theater show I’m a part of. My Dragon Age Inquisition article has been incredibly popular however, and the number of hits I’ve been getting keeps going up, no doubt because more and more people are finishing the 150 hour and realizing nothing they did mattered. I’d love to start posting more frequently,  but to do that I’d need to be making enough money to start turning down some of my freelance writing work. So with that in mind…

I’ve Created a Patreon Page

It’s straight forward and easy to use. I was originally going to have it be per article, but then I thought I wanted to post more often, so I didn’t want people getting constantly charged. Unfortunately I don’t have any cool prizes to give away, so you’ll basically be supporting me just because you like me. Of course my stuff will still be appearing on here for free, the success of the Patreon will simply indicate how much time I’ll have to dedicate to writing blog articles. Just for reference, if everyone who read my article on Dragon Age: Inquisition donated one dollar, I’d have enough to live on for a year. Just sayin’.

I’d also like to send a thank you out to @XUfan2012 for pointing out Telltale Games has a job opening as a Episodic Game Writer.

If anyone sees any similar jobs, please let me know. Also, it wouldn’t hurt if people tweeted at Telltale telling them what an amazing writer I am…

But now, onto the article.

The Stories that Never Were:

Dragon Age: Inquisition

DAI_Judgement

I’m going to skip the usual “Story We Got” section since I think I’ve covered that pretty well.

There were several sections of the game that I thought were foreshadowing a richer and potentially much more interesting story. As I wrote in the first review, there was a lot of different ways this story could have gone, and any one of them would have been far more fulfilling than the Corypheus The Angsty Ghost storyline we ended up with. So what kind of stories?

1. The Price of Power

One of my favorite scenes from the game is when the Envy Demon invades your mind and begins showing you visions of a possible Inquisition in the future. I liked this scene not because of the mechanics, seriously fuck those invincible demons and the pointless retracing of your steps, but because it hinted at a very interesting story: the effect power has on people and the difficulty in restraining your power. Power corrupts isn’t exactly breaking new ground storywise, but after naming the game Inquisition, I kind of assumed this is where the game’s theme would be heading. The demon shows you people are jailed without cause, even your closest advisers like Leliana and Josephine are locked in cells demanding to speak to the Inquisitor, while countless others beg for their lives. Meanwhile you hear your soldiers talk about you like I imagine soldiers talked about Caesar or Napoleon, with a kind of fanatical devotion that would lead them to follow any order you gave no matter how horrific.

At first I thought this was some clever foreshadowing. Obviously I didn’t think it would let us go to this extreme, because as much as I would love to play a megalomaniacal dictator bent on world domination, I think the game would be pretty boring if you locked up all of your companions. (Though perhaps as one of the endings that could happen, that would be pretty cool.) Nevertheless I thought this was foreshadowing the dark, thought provoking choices you were going to be forced to make throughout the game. Boy was I wrong.

Yes I'm talking to you and your bullshit ground AoE attack!
You’re breaking my heart, Envy Demon!

The demon’s name is very apt, because I really do envy the game that he showed me, the one where I had power over life and death. To arrest and condemn without evidence, to destroy lives in my hunt for Corypheus and his agents. I mean the game even gives you a Dungeon but never actually does anything with it, every time I had a judgement waiting to be carried out I would head down to the dungeon (which was stupidly down a flight of like 1000 stairs by the way) only for the jailer to tell me “no prisoners, mi’lord!” Well if there’s no prisoners what the hell am I paying you for!

Whenever you capture someone in the game your only option is to judge them. Why? Shouldn’t we be getting as much info as possible out of them first? Give us the option of torturing the suspects. I know game companies don’t shy away from torture scenes, hell there’s one in Grand Theft Auto 5 and it doesn’t even serve a narrative purpose (that’s what I’ve read anyway, not played it yet and won’t be able to until PC port is out), it’s just there for shock value. This scene could actually be about stuff, they could have made the video game equivalent of Captain Picard’s torture scene in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Remind us what an awful thing it is because apparently, judging by recent events, we seriously need a reminder.

Make it skippable for people who would find it uncomfortable (although the whole point of it should be to make people uncomfortable). Have it so we can Leliana to go in and torture the information out of someone, or allow Josephine to use gentler methods. This would have given us a choice that actually meant something: how much of our humanity are we willing to sacrifice to find Corypheus. Remind the player of why the Spanish Inquisition is a black stain on the history of mankind. Give us a game that shows us just how easy it is for good intentions to wreak unimaginable evil. Give us a story that’s actually about something.

You know maybe if you shut up once in a while, you could actually do something right for a change.
Instead of a story of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

2. Investigation and Espionage

The really baffling thing about this game is that the Inquisition in Dragon Age acts nothing like the inquisitions in our world.  It’s name is just wholly inappropriate, it just doesn’t make any sense in the context of the story we got. The Spanish Inquisition, which nobody expects, wasn’t a military organization. It didn’t go around fighting armies. If it had, the kingdoms of either Spain or France would likely have crushed it immediately, because you don’t let an army not under your control just wander around your lands willy nilly. The Inquisitor General was appointed by the Spanish Monarch himself. In other countries the Inquisition used the political influence of the Church to get their way. My point is that the Inquisition was something that very much worked behind the scenes, it was politics and espionage, not open warfare. And the same is true of similar institutions, like McCarthy’s House Committee on Unamerican Activities was an inquisition, although thankfully it died off before getting to the burning witches stage. Inquisition, by its very definition, implies investigation.

Dragon Age’s Inquisition, by contrast, is just a standard medieval kingdom. Dragon Age’s Inquisition is looking for the cause of the Rift and later Corypheus’s agents. Yet they do very little investigating (and no I’m not counting the War Table missions, because they don’t ever give you information, they just deliver trinkets back to you). Instead their whole strategy seems to be occupying territory in the backwaters of Ferelden and Orlais that no one cares about. Meanwhile the Inquisitor is running around collecting Ram Meat for Orphans or whatever instead of trying to find the cause of the world ending cataclysm and his investigative technique is limited to hitting stuff with his axe (because there are no swords for the inquisitor) until it falls over.

Otherwise known as the Iron Bull technique.

What I would have enjoyed instead is a game that fostered a sense of paranoia, that was constantly making me question who was loyal and who wasn’t. The whole idea of the Inquisition, once you discover Corypheus is behind the Rifts, is to find his supporters that are drumming up fear and confusion all across Thedas. Unfortunately in the game this all just plays out on the War Table, which would have been fine if the War Table had any actual impact on the story, but it doesn’t. All of your attempts to stabilize the political situation and root out Corypheus’s spies has absolutely no impact on anything, all you get for your trouble is a variety of loot and money. I wanted a game that would force me to seriously consider if one of my companions might be on Corypheus’s side, where I could start seeing betrayal all around me.

I’ve been watching some Dragon Age 2 videos so I can get some background on it for a follow up article I’m working on, but the one thing I kind of like about its story is that it uses an unreliable narrator: Varric. The whole game is just Varric weaving a tale for Cassandra, and watching these scenes makes me wish there’d been some kind of interrogation mechanic in Inquisition that worked exactly like this. Where you have to interrogate a suspect and then decide whether he’s telling the truth or not. In fact I think Dragon Age: Inquisition should have played off less like World War II and more like the Cold War. And if you think about it, the game mechanics lend themselves to a story of intrigue and politicking than it does to waging war.

Think about all the time you were wasting in all those zones that ultimately amounted to nothing. In the context of the story we got, wasting all those troops and resources on holding positions scattered across Thedas makes absolutely no sense. Why would you waste hundreds of troops garrisoning backwater territories? But what if, instead of confronting Corypheus with a massive army at every turn, we fought each other like the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War? Through spies, assassins, propaganda and misinformation. After all Corypheus is supposed to be an ancient Tevinter Magister, who were famous as much for their scheming and their plots as much as their mastery of magic.

Suddenly all those pointless expeditions into far away lands makes much more sense, because you’re no longer working under the pretense of stopping Corypheus’s army by wandering around in a desert. Instead you’re rooting out his agents and supporters rather than battling for territory. The War Table features a lot of espionage, but the mistake it makes is that none of it ends up affecting the game or the story. What they should have done is add a Chaos meter or something similar, because Corypheus’s goal is to destabilize Ferelden and Orlais so that the Tevinter Imperium can rise again. Chaos measures just how successful he is, which is based on if you succeed or rail the War Board missions and certain quests. Of course if they added that they’d also need to add the ability to fail the tasks on the War Board.

I wish these amazing characters had appeared in a story worth the telling.
And of course make the War Table actually affect something other than just the War Table.

Now Bioware games have never had the option to totally fail, unless you count the refuse ending of Mass Effect 3, but there’s always been the possibility of failure. In the original Mass Effect, unless you had put enough points into persuasion or otherwise built a rapport with Wrex, you were forced to gun him down. That was a failure. In Mass Effect 2, you could fail your companion’s loyalty missions and in doing so fail to keep them alive through the suicide mission. In Dragon Age: Origins, you could fail to convince Allistair to marry Anora, and in doing so condemn one of them to either exile or death. So while there was never any Archdemon/Reaper wins ending in any previous games, there were plenty of opportunities to fail.

The Winter Palace was one of my favorite missions because it was the only mission where I felt like being wrong would have serious consequences. If I accidentally accused the wrong person I might end up destroying any chance for peace in Orlais. That was what I enjoyed so much, that looming possibility of failing. It made the stakes of the story feel real for the very first time. That is something completely lacking from most of Dragon Age Inquisition, once you reach the ending and realize nothing you do affects the story, you also come to understand that there was never a time that you could have failed at anything. Aside from straight up dying in combat, there was no point at which failure was even a possibility.

That’s ultimately what kills the replay value of the game, the terrible ending is just a consequence of the larger problem: failure doesn’t exist in this game. You can’t make a wrong choice, you can’t fail to notice a critical clue and condemn the wrong man to death, and you can’t make a decision that results in one of your companions dying.

Failure here IS an option
Without the possibility of failure, victory has no meaning.

Again the Winter Palace is the only one I can think of offhand that had failure as an option, with the Court Approval rating, but given I spent a lot of time screwing around looking for clues and still didn’t manage to get thrown out, I suspect you’d have to try pretty damn hard to get approval down to zero. The only other example occurs on the War Table. Apparently, this is just an account of what I read somewhere else, if you fail to choose the correct agent to send on the Elven missions (if you chose an elf for your character) you can end up getting a message that says humans ended up slaughtering your entire clan. That’s awesome, that’s exactly the kind of failure the game needs to raise the stakes. Unfortunately it’s completely undermined by the fact that, once again, this story is completely isolated from the rest of the game.

The post I read was complaining that this mission was a total kick in the balls, because his character didn’t have any outlet to actually experience the grief this would cause someone. His elf character didn’t get to voice his grief to his romance companion, or any companions whatsoever. This horrific incident doesn’t even come up in any of the dialogues you get with other elves. All you get is a message saying everyone your character loves and cares about has been brutally murdered, and some generic loot. So either you’re so invested in your character that this just seems like an awful, and pointless, event you can’t do anything about or you don’t even care because it’s not like we were introduced to any of his clan anyway.

 3. Ancient Magics Reawakening

This is the story I thought would really be interesting, and why the stinger at the end of the credits pissed me off. Why were you wasting my time with Corypheus, Bioware, if you had this much more interesting story going on in the background?

FlemethInquisition
A story about one of the most mysterious people in the lore? Nah, we’ll stick you with an old wrinkled up tevinter mage instead.

Dragon Age: Origins has always had an undercurrent of mystery and that’s part of the reason so many people were drawn into the game’s world. There were the obvious questions, like what are the darkspawn? Are they really the result of men desecrating heaven or is there perhaps a more rational explanation for their existence? What about the Archdemon, is it really an ancient god? And why is it compelled to destroy the world?

And then of course there was the mystery of the Maker and his disappearance: did he ever really exist and if he did, why would a couple of men walking around his palace piss him off? He’s God right? Couldn’t he just like smite them or something? Why cast them back as Darkspawn and screw over the entire planet for the acts of a handful of mages? Talk about a punishment disproportionate to the crime.

There are many mysteries surrounding the history of Thedas, and any number of rich, compelling stories could be told about those mysteries. Flemeth proved to be quite a deep character when I met her again in the Fade with Morrigan and her son. After the events of Dragon Age: Origins I always thought Flemeth was evil, not as evil as the Archdemon obviously, but still evil. She seemed to be biding her time, waiting for some opportunity to finally make her move. It also struck me that she had been waiting for a long time. All of this may still be true, perhaps Flemeth is evil, but her actions in the fade revealed a humanity that I thought had long left that old husk of a body.

After a lifetime of fearing that her mother would usurp her body, Morrigan is told by Flemeth.

 A soul is not forced upon the unwilling, Morrigan. You were never in any danger from me.

Even the ship is confusing. Is that a starship or a whale?
Unless you’re on Voyager, and then you better get the fuck off before she maroons it in another galaxy.

I gotta admit, that hit me right in the feels. Flemeth may be a monster, I don’t know, but at that moment she was incredibly human.

So yes, there are a ton of interesting ways a story of old Elven Gods awakening could go, it could even tie in with the true nature of the Darkspawn. Perhaps the Maker never lived in the Golden City, perhaps instead that is where the Dread Wolf imprisoned the Old Gods, and when the Magisters opened it they released them. Maybe the Elven Gods had been driven insane by untold millennia in the fade.

Unfortunately I don’t think we’ll ever get a chance to find out, and if we do, I can almost guarantee we’ll regret it. You see, a tale of the Old Magics awakening would be fascinating…if done properly. It’s a story that would require subtlety though. It would be like the story of the Reapers, it would have to be vague and menacing while revealing just enough abut their true nature to keep the player interested but not so much as to ruin the mystery.

But of course we all know what happened with the Reaper’s story.

Just imagine this.
Oh yeah, I went there.

The Bioware of ten years ago I would have trusted to tell me a story about the ancient magics and Elven Gods. Even the Bioware of five years ago, I would have trusted. But with so many of its best people having moved on after Mass Effect 3, and with EA still holding the whip, I have my doubts that they could tell a story like this. Inevitably it would lead to an ending just like Mass Effect 3 and Matrix Reloaded, we would meet some God figure who would give us a longwinded speech laying everything out for us and completely killing the mystery, pacing and sense of awe that made those stories great.

So perhaps, in the end, it’s better they let the Elven Gods rest. I think they’ve done enough damage to the world of Dragon Age as it is.

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16 thoughts on “The Stories that Never Were: Dragon Age Inquisition”

  1. Glad to see another post! Maybe you can do a “content request vote thingy” with patreon. So like, say you have 3 posts in 3 months, 1 could be patreon requested (mostly so I can get you to talk about planescape torment).

    I have some thoughts on this one, but I’ll post most of them later this weekend. But, I think the best example of a game having a satisfying conclusion without spoiling the mystery was the Legend of Zelda Majoras Mask. With that, you do save the world, but the origins of the mask, the happy mask salesman, and the world in the moon are never explained. Instead, the ending shows resolution between link, the salesman, fairies, and the skullkid. Then it shows each person whom you helped in your bombers notebook (if you completed their quest) with their side story resolved. The invisible and lonely soldier can now.be seen, there is a wedding, etc… It focuses on the characters, simple as they were, over exposition.

    1. Well I’m kinda running out of material for Dragon Age: Inquisition. My next post will be on the game’s positive aspects, because it did do some stuff right. My only other topic would be the romances. As for the Patreon request, the $5 dollar reward tier lets people make a request. Though quite honestly, requests make my job easier, so if there’s something you want covered just let me know. (I’ll pick up Planescape Torment from GoG and play through it)

      Unfortunately I never had a nintendo system as a kid, my parents were PC snobs. So never played any of the Zelda games, but I’ve heard lots of good things. I have a couple games in mind that also had satisfying conclusions. I’ll write up that later.

  2. I left a comment on one of your older entries and I shouldn’t have approached your mussings on DA:I so haphazardly. I see you also wanted more about some of the deeper mysteries hinted at through the whole DA series which DA:I used a cliched cliffhanger tease – flemeth being a big one – and now I’m all over exactly what is the dread wolf – is he vilian or champion – did he lock up the elven gods to save the world or did he do it in a bid for power – what is his relationship to flemeth – is Solas the part of him that regrets his action – what are the implications that old gods can be reincarnated into human bodies – and what are the darkspawn.

    I read one interesting interpertation on the internet about the darkspawn possibly being older than the magisters’ sojurn into the golden city (using evidence of the ancient thaig in DA:2 where the red lyrium was first introduced – they argument was the thaig obviously predated the golden city debacle since it predated anything in the shaperate of memories which goes back thousands upon thousands of years in dwarven history) and that the dread wolf locked the elven gods because they had become tainted.

    But like you – I am not sure the full potential that I see in the dragon age universe can be realized so long as EA is steering the helm of bioware.

    1. No worries, unfortunately due to the limitations of WordPress.com templates, I can’t organize my posts the way I like and make it easier for people to read them in order. Hopefully I’ll be migrating to my own server and setting up a custom wordpress site where I’ll be able to do that.

      What are the darkspawn is truly the most interesting question in the game and no doubt ties into the Maker, Black City and Red Lyrium storylines. But whatever writer came up with all of it back in DA 1 and 2 is probably long gone, so we’ll never really know where it could have gone. 😦

  3. Thanks for writing these. You captured why I was disappointed in Dragon Age: Inquisition really well. It drives me bonkers that so many places are giving it their Game of the Year awards. I posted my own thoughts on my facebook and linked your article.

    To add to examples of choice not mattering in the game, did you know it even invalidates choices you made in the previous games? If you killed Leliana in DA: Origins, she is still in this game. She explains (paraphrasing), “I died, then I woke up, and I was fine. The Maker saved me.” There’s a similar thing with Dagna, she’s still your enchanter/blacksmith whether you encouraged her to pursue magic in DA: Origins or not.

    The poor story goes beyond a lack of meaningful choices and no coherent theme, IMO. Huge chunks of the story (and dialogue) is told in these broad sweeping generalizations that fall apart, even without scrutiny. Why were Cassandra and Leliana considered rebels, even by themselves? Why did Samson sell out the Templars? (He says something along the lines of “they we doomed anyway, I gave them a chance to be the best for awhile”, which is incredibly lacking as a reason.)

    I replayed the first part of the game, and it is so incredibly contrived. You can see them trying really hard to rush you into becoming the leader of the Inquisition and it doesn’t feel earned. Especially because so many people join “your” team without you having anything to do with it (all the Advisors and many of the companions).

    1. Glad you enjoy the article, and thanks for sharing it!

      Yup, a lot of the game’s narrative just dissolves like wet tissue paper under the slightest bit of scrutiny. Honestly I think the gaming industry has just reached a point where a mediocre at best game like Inquisition is the creme of the crop. I mean I looked at some of the other contenders for Game of the Year, and wasn’t impressed by them either. Though to be fair I did miss a few of them (Divinity ORginal Sin, Child of Light and transistor are still on my list of to-play games). But its other competition was games like AC Unity, which was a broken mess and Shadow of Mordor which had a really awesome nemesis system but was otherwise unremarkable.

      And yeah, the first act is completely contrived. It’s pacing was totally off and like you said, becoming the leader of the inquisition didn’t feel earned. Oh and that stupid sword. If you play an Elf or Dwarf that scene is completely ridiculous because its like 3-4 times your height. Plus you never see that sword again, so its like what was the point of that?

    2. Regarding the “Ressurected Leliana”: if you played the “Trespasser” expansion the mystery of her coming back is a bit explained (or at least left unexplained in bit more plausible way): She lives on borrowed time and when the fate of the inquisition is sealed, she simply dissolves in thin air – she was a ghost, constructed from Fade all the time!

  4. Another great post! One thing I will say Bioware does well most of the time is its voice acting. Sadly it looks like Kate Mulgrew–the best of the bunch IMHO–will not be coming back. 😦 I would have loved for more of Flemeth’s backstory. But you are right; it is difficult to balance maintaining mystery with giving enough away to move the story forward and keep the player interested.

    1. No captain janeway for the DLCsequel? Well that’s a shame. I just kind of assume she’d be back, it’s not as if we haven’t seen Flemeth die before. Hope she finds future work as a voice actress, really thought she pulled Flemeth off perfectly.

  5. Regarding the “possibility to fail” – there is a bit of failure you can experience, if you’ve played the “Trespasser” DLC: first of all the fate of the Inquisition is set there and one of the outcome is its dissolution. C’mon, that’s simply cruel! I’ve been building the power for so long, I’ve saved the world from Corypheus and now some lords and ladies want me to cease and desist because we are “too unpredictable and without control”?

    Second, on more personal level is the fate or Iron Bull: if you’ve let him sacrifice his Chargers (which was politically a good decision, since you’ll receive support from Qunari in return), he will support the Ben-Hassrath and betray you, forcing you to kill him.

    So while I generally agree with you, those few points improve the overall value of the game 🙂

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