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Dragon Age: Apologies

I have no doubt that the upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition will fix many of the problems with Dragon Age 2.  But I’m also pretty sure that they will focus on all of the wrong problems.

Dragon Age 2 was a wreck of a game, unfinished, unpolished, rushed too quickly into the harsh sun by a greedy and unthinking publisher.  But Dragon Age 2 had all the right ideas.  It understood that what a real choice-driven BioWare RPG needs is not scale but substance, that it’s the personal choices and relationships that sustain these games, not the Grand Overarching Plot, which is almost always silly.  The main plots of both Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins are “there are big scary evil guys just over there and they are going to destroy the world unless the Hero arrives and saves everybody.”  Nobody loves Mass Effect for the Reapers, and nobody loves Dragon Age: Origins for the Darkspawn.  They love those games for Garrus and Alistair and Morrigan and Tali and EDI and Sten and the Landsmeet and Virmire.

It’s why Planescape: Torment is a better game than either Baldur’s Gate, even though its combat is clunkier and it’s kind of too big for its shell, trying to squeeze awkwardly into the Infinity Engine, an adult trying to wear teenagers’ clothes.  Torment has less of everything, not more, which gives it time and space for depth and complexity and a genuinely unique atmosphere.  Baldur’s Gate 2 wants to take you to big cities and small farms and dragon caves and the Underdark and weird underwater kingdoms and Hell Itself and so it doesn’t have time to make any of these places feel lived-in and real.  They’re all just stops on a whirlwind tour, and that’s fine, I love that game, but it lacks grounding.  Torment is almost entirely in one place, Sigil, the City of Doors, and that’s more than enough.

That’s what Dragon Age 2 wanted to do.  It wanted to let you put down roots and see the consequences of your actions, to let your relationships develop over time and give you a sense of belonging.  The scale was smaller: you were never saving the world from some Great Ancient Evil, you were getting your family out of indentured servitude and dealing with local politics.  The characters had their own homes and lives, and built relationships with each other, friendships and romances and rivalries completely without your involvement, and the reduced scale made all of the choices more real, and their consequences more believable.  ”Saving the world” is a boring, overdone, theme, and it tends to blow up the moral questions these games tout so heavily.

Dragon Age 2’s problems stem from liberally reused environments, a sadly shallow combat system, and a clumsily shoehorned ending.  But these problems somehow get conflated with its deliberate choice to reduce its scope, such that now people will say that “being stuck in Kirkwall” was the problem, when in fact it was 2’s best idea.  The problem wasn’t that the game took place only in Kirkwall (nobody seems to complain that all the big sandbox games mostly take place in one city, after all).  The problem was that Kirkwall’s designers apparently only had about three sets of building plans.

So I worry that Inquisition is just going to push itself as far away from 2 as possible, and forget all of the very real progress made, and all of its good ideas.

All the marketing around Inquisition focuses on how Big it is. I understand why this happened.  This marketing is tasked with claiming that this game will not suffer from 2’s very real problems, but by focusing on size and a multitude of options, I fear it’s missed the point.   I worry that in allowing the player to play a human or dwarf or qunari or whatever, it will forget to ground the player-character in a real context, like Hawke was grounded.  I worry that in focusing on a sort of open-world approach, it will lose its sense of pacing.  I worry that it’s going to be more like Skyrim than Torment: all pomp and swagger and many square kilometers of lovingly rendered forests, where you can go places and press A to do the same thing, over and over again, while everyone around you nods approvingly, forever and ever, Amen.

(written by Bill Coberly)

Filed under dragon age dragon age 2 torment dragon age inquisition ontological geek

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