Dragon Age: Inqisition — Bioware, Why Did You Do This?

I’ve talked about Dragon Age: Inquisition before, but not here. In fact, I don’t think any of those articles still exist anywhere, but that’s just as well because now, I think three years later, I really have to tear into this game.

I bought Dragon Age: Inquisition the day that it released, only to learn that Bioware’s Minimum Specifications actually meant something this time around, and that the game absolutely would not even launch on a dual-core CPU, even if it was technically capable of running the game. This infuriated me, but I bit the bullet, ordered a new motherboard, a new CPU, and new RAM. About fourteen days later, everything arrived and was installed, and I finally was able to sink my teeth into this game that I had eagerly awaited since the end of the phenomenal Dragon Age 2.

I was so unbelievably disappointed.

Prior to that, Bioware was the last developer that I trusted, the last big name developer from whom I would buy a brand new game at full price. Everyone else had betrayed that trust with non-working titles that routinely crashed, were extremely unoptimized, or bore misleading specs. Dragon Age: Inquisition destroyed my trust in Bioware, not just because of the dual core thing, but because the game itself is an abject trainwreck, and I honestly find it hard to believe that anyone likes it. So what’s wrong with it? Well, get comfortable.

Dragon Age: The Single Player MMO

I hate Quest Systems. I hate them so very, very much. They were designed for use in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games to allow players to fulfill tasks while making no changes to the world beyond character-specific boolean flags and dialogue options. They were necessary, because no MMO can handle fifty different characters running around and doing stuff that actually permanently changes the world state.

For example, in Final Fantasy VI, the player goes to the Floating Continent, and the world is basically destroyed. If this was a multiplayer game, only one player could do that, and every other player would be trapped with the consequences. Obviously, this won’t work. To get around this, two things were done: quests and respawning enemies. It does other players no good if Player A receives a quest to clear a cave of kobolds, does it, and then no one else can ever do that quest, because the world state has changed, and that cave no longer has kobolds. So each player is able to do the quest, and the kobolds respawn indefinitely. The world never changes. Only dialogue options do. A level 100 character can return to the cave and wonder, “Why in the world are there kobolds here? I killed them all when I was level 2.”

This is an acceptable break from reality for MMOs. It’s a clever way of handling an enormous problem. However, it is a bit cheap. Various MMOs have done different things to get around this. Blizzard disastrously attempted “phasing,” which was implemented rather poorly and turned entire zones into basically single-player areas.

But then something even more disastrous happened.

Lazy developers realized that they could take the same system and put it in single-player games, which would allow them to create basic templates that consisted of a few variables, fill in hundreds of possible variables, and simply write dialogue for the variable combinations. Basically, they realized they could take one “Who,” one “What,” one “How many,” and one “Where,” and generate hundreds of different answers for each one, stringing them together with short, boring, generic excuses.

Lord Tyrennius wants ten bears killed in the region of Alcren.

Lady Merian wants one silver necklace.

Game design made easy.

Then all they had to do was create a few dozen generic titles or other statements from NPCs that would give the illusion of an adaptive world. After killing the bears for Tyrennius, there would be a 3% chance for an NPC to say, “Hey, didn’t you kill those bears?” Even though the bears probably respawned, it gave the player the illusion that they had changed the world, that they have achieved something. Again, for MMOs, this is fine, because actually changing the world isn’t an option.

Some games even took this as far as creating an infinite number of quests, like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. There is no greater example of quantity over quality than a game that has an infinite number of generic quests. And oh yes, they are generic. Procedurally generated worlds and quests sounds cool in theory, but the result is something totally non-descript and generic.

Take Minecraft for example. If you’ve seen one Minecraft world, you’ve seen them all. Sure, you can create billions upon billions of worlds that are different from one another to varying degrees, but after just one of these, players have seen everything there is to offer. The same is true of Skyrim‘s quests–once the player has done one of them, they’ve seen everything the game has to offer, and after that it’s just a matter of how many times they can repeat it until they get sick of it. This is why I have never completed Skyrim, and probably never will. Invariably, I get tired of doing the same freaking quests over and over, with only slight differences. Oh, I’m clearing this cave for the Companions instead of the Blades. Oh, yeah, that totally makes it different…

To be fair, Dragon Age 2 also utilized a quest system, but there are a few things to note. First, every quest was hand-crafted by the developers, and it shows. Every bit of dialogue in that game is expertly done, and expertly acted. Beyond that, though, even with areas being repeated ad nauseum throughout the game, the story changes enacted by the quests (which are far more sweeping than people will realize until a second or third playthrough) are large in scope. Beyond that, the quest system was built directly into the overall plot. Hawke needs 50 gold to pay for the excursion into the Deep Roads. It’s an excuse plot, but it’s better than just “Oh, there’s a quest, I need to it, because it’s a quest.”

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

It should be alarming to people that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning actually began development as an MMO, and was converted into a single-player game when the developers began running out of money, and yet its gameplay is identical to the gameplay of Skryim and Dragon Age: Inqusition. You go from one area to the next doing quests, and only dialogue changes. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning at least had the self-awareness to lampshade this by weaving a repetitious cycle of fate into the plot. With Skryim and DAI, it’s just there. It’s just lazy.

Skryim maintains its excellent because it does have a lot of possibilities for players to get into totally unscripted things–emergent gameplay, it is called. Like when I accidentally wandered into a keep of bandits and got my horse and Lydia killed, whereupon I turned into a werewolf, killed everyone, and ate them. I didn’t have a quest for that. I didn’t need one. The game itself created the circumstances and motivated me to do it by giving me attachment to Lydia and my horse. The game didn’t have to tell me with some generic ass quest, “Go eliminate the bandits in this keep.”

Something almost similar happened when I was playing Dragon Age: Inquisition not long after its release. I came upon some templars who trapped mages inside a house, and then set the house on fire, killing the mages inside. Furious, I pounded the templars into the ground and killed them all. And that was it. That was the end of the encounter. I couldn’t bury the mages, I couldn’t seek out and punish templars (because they’re randomly spawning). I couldn’t interact with the encounter in any way except by killing those four or five templars, and then it was over. It was so limited that I think it was probably a randomly generated event, to be honest.

That’s freaking bad game design. You can’t put me firmly on one group’s side–and after the events of DA2 (we’ll get to this in a moment), I’m absolutely with the mages–and then hand me a freaking tragedy like that, and then shrug and continue on, because there’s no quest for it. It’s like Egoraptor said in his Ocarina of Time video. I don’t need you to give me some asinine story reason why my character wants to go up Death Mountain. I want to go up Death Mountain. It’s what I want to do. That’s why I’m playing the game, because I want to go on an adventure and explore stuff. But no, Ocarina of Time had to grind to a freaking halt until Link had the right motivation to want to go up there. My motivations don’t matter.

Isn’t Dragon Age: Inquistion supposed to be a role-playing game? If that’s the case, you would expect that my desires, as the player, would be my character’s desires. But no. That’s not the case. My character needs quests, plot reasons. My character can’t find and decimate the templar stronghold because they burned some mages alive because I’m outraged by it and trying to role-play the game as my character. Instead, my character has to wait until someone gives her a freaking quest that makes her want to do it. And if no such quests exist, then my wants go unfulfilled.

Give us dynamic worlds. Give us the chance to role-play in role-playing games. Stop spending obscene amounts of money on graphics, and stop adding in hundreds upon hundreds of generic, basically identical quests. Instead, spend that money on creating a living, breathing world that I can actually impact. Not one where I trigger the next cutscene by doing the right Story Mission. Screw that. Don’t take me on a fucking tour; let me play the game.

Plot

But my biggest problem with Dragon Age: Inquisition is the plot. Oh, man, what went wrong here?

The plot of DA2 was incredible. Bioware took me on the Hero’s Journey, where Hawke had the role of hero thrust upon her mostly without her intention. A series of events lead to another series of events that lead to another series of events, and it culminated in one of the greatest and most underrated role-playing games of all time. Never before have I been so firmly in a character’s shoes. Never before have I loved a character so much. And the plot, how it built so slowly, and then exploded in this extraordinary climax…! Damn. I was on the edge of my seat through all of Act 3. I flew through Act 3 in a single night, anxious, nervous, itching to see how the rest of it played out. And I was not disappointed.

The Mages Circles were dissolved. Ferelden fell into chaos. Mages rebelled. The Chantry fell apart and created Seekers. It was full-blown war, and it was easy to see, once the name “Inquisition” was announced, what was going to happen in the next game.

The game would fix almost entirely on the Mage/Templar war, and the Chantry would be undertaking an inquisition to round up and kill all of the mages. The player would probably select one of the sides throughout the game, and fight slowly to restore order, either culminating in the freedom of the mages or the return of the Mages’ Circles. It was going to be epic, filled with religious symbolism and making callbacks to the Spanish Inquisition, with people being drowned to see if they were mages…

And then Corypheus happened. The entire plot of Dragon Age 2 wrapped up in a single quest in Dragon Age: Inquisition while the game was instead shifted into yet another “You’re the Chosen One–Jesus and Mohammad rolled into one. Now go and save the world from yet Another Big Bad with questionable motives who wants to destroy the world.”

It’s so heavy-handed that I have to wonder if Bioware, angry at the fans for their reaction to Dragon Age 2, trollingly said, “Oh, you guys want to be yet another chosen hero, saving yet another fantasy world from yet another big bad who wants to destroy it? Fine. You’re literally the Chosen One in this game. The freaking Herald of Andraste. You want that? Then we’re going to give it to you, dipshits.”

Because that’s what Dragon Age: Inquisition is. It is almost immediately derailed by the player literally being the Chosen One. They call her “The Chosen One” in the game. I’m almost positive I remember being called “The Savior” a few times. “The Herald of Andraste,” certainly. Several times.

There’s no way to identify with such a character. It’s not possible. I don’t have a glowing thing in my hand that makes me special out of everyone on the planet. I’m not literally the one person who can do something. See, Hawke wasn’t either. Hawke wasn’t special. She was the one who did the things, but that was just circumstance. She wasn’t destined to do those things. She wasn’t the Chosen One. She was just some person who happened to be there when it happened and who did whatever she thought was best. She was just trying to survive and lift herself up. We can all relate to that.

None of us can relate to honest-to-God Chosen One.

Instead of being what anyone expected of “an inquisition,” the entire game devolves into being about the Chosen One using her Chosen Ability that literally no one else has to be the Chosen One and save the world from a Big Bad who has some godlike aspirations. The Inquisition isn’t about the Mage/Templar war that was interesting, relatable, and unique for a fantasy setting. It’s about putting together an army to close these Magical Rifts that the Big Bad created.

It could have been so much more. Instead, it’s a series of generic quests through regions that are identical to any MMOs–in fact, you’ll notice that the starting areas have a huge concentration of quests (just like MMOs), while later areas have far fewer quests. This is entirely typical of MMOs, as well, because more players will play the starting areas more often. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they originally planned for DAI to be an MMO, because it’s identical to Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning in every conceivable way. And the plot, instead of being this awesome, relatable thing with a newly relatable character, was another generic Save the World from another Big Bad.

So how could anyone like this crap? It represents everything that is wrong in modern role-playing games. It sacrifices role-playing in the name of the Quest System. It sacrifices a dynamic world for lots of generic, boring quests through non-descript and uninteresting locations. It cast aside the masterful and amazing setting that it had crafted through the previous game and instead became identical to the plots we’ve been seeing since Dragon Quest on NES. It sucks.

Score?

1 Dragon Quest out of 10 Dragon Age 2s.

Advertisements