One question is: what do I wish the game was? Given the importance of relationships and romances in the game, “a dating sim” is a not outlandish answer. I don’t think it’s my answer, though: while I like the romances, I like the non-romantic relationships, and I like watching the relationships between other characters, and the words “dating sim” don’t convey that to me. Having said that, it’s a genre that I’m not very familiar with, so I could be totally off on that one; probably I should give that genre a try?
But I’m also partly resistant to that answer: in particular, I like the situated nature of the Dragon Age games. I’m not thrilled with the way Dragon Age: Inquisition uses environments as a whole, but its repeated use of environments (Skyhold in particular) and of cultural forces has real power, in this game as it did in Dragon Age II. (But perhaps less so in Dragon Age: Origins?) Again with the same caveat that, for all I know, dating sims are similarly situated; and, actually, both the relationship aspect and the situated aspect remind me a lot of Persona 3.
Writing the above makes me think that I’d like to see a whole slew of Dragon Age games, experimenting with these ideas in different contexts at different scales. They’d all have relationships, they’d all take place in Thedas and be centered around a home, but otherwise, they could do whatever. A Fire Emblem-ish tactics game; a game where you’re managing a tavern; a game where you’re mayor of a city; a game where you’re a private investigator; a game where you’re with a traveling minstrel troupe. But I digress…
Another question that I had when playing the game: given my dislike for busywork in Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s environments, do I just want Dragon Age to be Mass Effect? That game has the relationships, it has the home base (two of them, in fact), it has the story missions (both main plot and companions), and it has a lot less of the wandering around. And, honestly, I probably do like Mass Effect more than Dragon Age as a series, though I’m not sure what all plays into that.
But I do think Dragon Age brings something good and different, even setting aside issues of fantasy versus science fiction or how the worlds are built. Mass Effect is perhaps a little too focused on plot missions that you can only see once, at the expense of terrain that you can explore? I don’t want to say that that’s bad, just that being able to repeatedly poke your nose around areas has its virtues as well.
Last month, I talked about games in the context of Systems of Survival. And Dragon Age: Inquisition fits squarely within that framework’s Guardian Moral Syndrome. There are, of course, problems that come with using that syndrome: you get to decide the fate of the world, who lives, who dies, who has power. But Dragon Age (both this game and the series as a whole) is relatively thoughtful about those issues: there’s constant doubt about what the right path is, constant surfacing of the political conflict underlying moral choices, of the inside and outside views of group membership. You see this in how the mage / templar conflict is treated, how the different races are treated, how even within a single race you have different groups that disagree in their core values, in the foregrounding of both the rich and the downtrodden. The games do a great job of, on the one hand, making you choose an in-group in order to set up Guardian Moral Syndrome behavior while, on the other hand, making you aware of the other possible choices and the other possible in-groups.
But really, I think the analytical framework that is most likely to help me tease out what I’m unsure about in the game is The Nature of Order. So, yet again, let’s go through the properties:
Levels of Scale
Tons of this, obviously. There’s the whole Dragon Age universe, there’s the three games, there’s this game, there’s the Haven part of the game versus the Skyhold part of the game, there are the story missions, there are the companion missions, there are the major environments, there are the sections of those environments, there are the missions within those environments, there are buildings, there are levels of dungeons, there are individual battles, there are sections within those battles (e.g. rift interactions in a rift battle, fights with monsters), there are conversations, there’s picking yet another goddamn elfroot, etc.
So, if you want scale, you’ve got scale. Dragon Age as a whole does particularly well at this because of how well elaborated the setting is and because the companion interactions give you an extra dimension. And, compared to other games in the series Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s regional environments provide an extra level of scale.
Again: so much, where do we start? On a physical level: pick a map (and there are a few different levels of maps!), pick a symbol on that map, and it’s probably a center. And it’s not just symbols on the map, it’s regions, it’s the hills you walk past, ponds you walk around, and so forth.
Actually, that example of hills raises a couple of questions. For example, what do I feel about jumping? On the one hand, the whole sliding down hills thing was sort of silly. But, on the other hand, seeing a hill, wanting to get to the top of it, and having to figure out the correct way up does, in its own way strengthen the hill as a center. So I guess, on the balance, I like the jumping: it forces you to pay attention to the environment? The other question is the way certain features are marked as places where you can plant your flag. I like the idea there, how it attempts to expand those locations beyond a geographic context, and into a historical context. But the thing is: labeling something as a strong center doesn’t make it one! (There’s a similar problem with locations invoked in fetch quests and with locations shown in the drawings that you find.)
To look at this another way: I’ve been exploring the same Minecraft world once a month with the VGHVI folks once a month for four years. That world is randomly generated, yet it still contains strong centers that immediately draw me in as I’m wandering around. Dragon Age: Inquisition has crafted environments instead of random ones; those environments also contain strong centers, but I wish the game would follow Minecraft‘s lead and not nudge me so strongly to notice them.
Setting the maps aside, there are lots of other examples of strong centers in the game. The world’s social structure, the characters; I love how the game constantly returns to both of those. You get to think about religion, about race, about mages versus templars, about class structures, about the nations in the world: these are not infodump lore entries (you have those as well, they just don’t work as strong centers!), they are instead fleshed out areas of focus. As to your companions, you learn about them by talking with them, by working with them, by watching them from the side as they interact with each other, by hearing snippets of the past. Strong centers indeed: Dragon Age does much better with these sorts of centers than with geographic ones.
Quoting from The Phenomenon of Life (pp. 158–159):
The purpose of the boundary which surrounds a center is two-fold. First, it focuses attention on the center and thus helps to produce the center. It does this by forming the field of force which creates and intensifies the center which is bounded. Second, it unites the center which is being bounded with the world beyond the boundary. For this to happen, the boundary must at the same time be distinct from the center being bounded, must keep this center distinct and separate from the world beyond it, and yet also have the capacity of uniting that center with the world beyond the boundary. Then the boundary both unites and separates. In both ways, the center that is bounded becomes more intense.
Boundaries do the complex work of surrounding, enclosing, separating, and connecting in various different geometric ways, but one vital feature is necessary in order to make the boundary work in any of these ways: the boundary needs to be of the same order of magnitude as the center which is being bounded.
This gets at why Skyhold and Haven are my favorite places in Dragon Age: Inquisition, why the Normandy and the Citadel are my favorite places in Mass Effect. They serve as a boundary space between the major missions / regions to explore (though, unlike Alexander’s physical examples, one or two spaces serve as a boundary to all of the other missions / regions), and they are very thick boundaries indeed. Other games may have a home base, but it’s usually something much smaller: in these games, the boundary space really is the same order of magnitude as the missions / regions it surrounds. (Not necessary the same order of magnitude in physical space, though they’re pretty big, but the same order of magnitude conceptually / temporally: a typical evening play session might have me spending two hours off adventuring and then half an hour kicking around Skyhold dropping by all the locations to talk to people.)
Maybe this even points at why I like Scout Harding: when you first go to a new region, you’re not dropped into the excitement. Instead, you’re in your camp, and you spend a minute chatting with Harding to learn about what you’re going to face, and then a few more minutes wandering around before you really get into the action. Actually, the whole open world aspect of this game makes the boundaries potentially quite large indeed, but that comes more under the quality of Not-Separateness.
All the standard RPG alternating repetitions here (mission, explore, mission, explore; away, home/shop, away, home/shop; fight, move, fight, move; etc.), but with a few extra twists. For one, the thick Boundary that is your home gives a quite different tenor to the home/away repetition than I’m used to. And the companion quests add complexity to the rhythm of missions: rather than the sort of dungeon / town alternation (with travel in between as a boundary) that you see in a lot of RPGs, there’s a dance between major plot missions, major regional missions, and companion missions.
Or maybe I should be linking the aforementioned sources of richness to Positive Space. Quoting again (The Phenomenon of Life, p. 173):
What I call Positive Space occurs when every bit of space swells outward, is substantial in itself, is never the leftover from an adjacent shape. We may see it like ripening corn, each kernel swelling until it meets the others, each one having its own positive shape caused by its growth as a cell from the inside.
This is Thedas’s history being made manifest not as a backdrop, not just in your decisions, but even in simple interactions. This is your companions not just being people to fill out your ability roster when fighting but people whom you grow to care about, and who then grow further to have their interactions with each other approach their interactions with you in importance, even to you! (And who end up muscling out the primary plot in importance as well.)
This property also shows itself in the regions: rather than being corridors for transit or a simple overworld map, they’re more fleshed out physically than even the major mission environments. The crafting system is an attempt at this, too: take the item progression that’s a backdrop to your leveling up and your enemies’ increase in strength (and that’s a sink to moderate resource acquisition), and turn it into something more active. That works less well for me: not enough creativity enabled by the game and shown by the game, either from an aesthetic point of view or from a systems manipulation point of view. But it’s something: if the game had gone all-in on that, then it could have been more powerful.
This one, honestly, I have a hard time thinking much about even for physical / geometric objects; for more conceptual situations, I have no idea where to start.
The mages versus the templars? The binary choices that BioWare likes? The different combat choices that come from class distinctions, specialization within classes? I’m not sure; I feel like there’s something to be seen here, I just can’t quite tease it out.
Deep Interlock and Ambiguity
This is a big part of what I like about Dragon Age Inquisition‘s large regions: they blend countryside with city, they blend missions with exploration such that you’re not always sure which you’re doing at any given time. Not that you have to choose: you can do both at the same time! (Though sometimes that not having to choose weakens the corresponding centers, a bit: if you’re wandering around in a fog, not really paying attention to your surroundings but vaguely looking for the next cookie, then that ambiguity turns into blandness.)
Heck, the whole Inquisition itself is an example of this. Are you focused on healing the sky? Are you the next evolution of the Chantry? Are you a government in formation?
RPG plots have a habit of being rather black and white: that’s contrast, though a form of contrast that I don’t enjoy so much. For me, maybe the most interesting examples of this property in the Dragon Age games are the companions: Cassandra and Varric; Sera and, well, almost anybody; Isabela and Aveline. Having said that, I’m not sure that the companions are great examples of what Alexander has in mind: he says that “the most important contrasts do not merely show variety of form (high-low, soft-hard, rough-smooth, and so on) but represent true opposites, which essentially annihilate each other when they are superimposed” (p. 200), and Cassandra and Varric are most interesting because they don’t annihilate each other, because of the way their tension evolves. I dunno; Alexander then says “The difference between opposites gives birth to something“, and that part fits, at least.
There are the various difficulty progressions (e.g. of monsters), though that doesn’t really come out in my experience much in practice outside of the extremes (giants and dragons). Maybe the various sizes of missions are a better example? I’m not sure.
At first I was going to say: this is a AAA game, hence there isn’t enough roughness. But the ruined nature of Skyhold is at least standing up for roughness, and it isn’t the only such space.
I wonder if the way important parts of the world’s history and context are only hinted at (e.g. in the very end of the game!) are part of this? That sort of seed of bigger ideas seems like an important part of a living structure, and this property seems like a plausible one to attach to that based on the name, but Alexander’s discussion doesn’t really fit with that (and actually it doesn’t even really fit with my Skyhold example, either): his examples are more about stuff that is hand-drawn with warts rather than built with a machined precision and repetition. So maybe a better example is the layouts of, say, large building environments: each one is generally coherent and roughly symmetric but not at all exactly so? Or the way companion quests are differently sized to tell the story that they want to tell?
At first I thought this was the BioWare thing of having people refer to past events in the game. But, reading Alexander, he has something different in mind: centers of comparable strength that refer to each other. So another example might be the protagonists from the three games in the series, but even that’s not right: his echoes are parts that make up a coherent whole, so I should look for examples that are more closely tied. The companions? I’m not sure.
It’s there in The Hissing Wastes. And sadly lacking in so many other places in the game. Dragon Age is a AAA game, so I wouldn’t expect anything else, but still: can I please have more real down time, even contemplation?
Simplicity and Inner Calm
Similar. Though, actually, I think more of the landscapes manage this: a lot of them are built on a structure of hills, valleys, fields, bodies of water that provide a coherent and solid underpinning.
Maybe this is a better example of the strengths of the regional environments than Deep Interlock and Ambiguity: at their best, the buildings in those environments just feel like they fit right into the environment. Though there are also plenty of examples where you come across a building that’s too big to fit into the surrounding scenery and that isn’t linked to other buildings to explain it. At any rate, all things considered I think the game does a pretty good job of this one in its environments; and on a more conceptual level, the personal interactions fit into this as well, with people’s lives interweaving with each other, with the tasks at hand, with the Inquisition as a whole.
Adding It Up
That’s all the properties: having gone through them, here’s where I come down. There are an usual number of unusually Strong Centers in Dragon Age: Inquisition: as per Positive Space, centers are allowed to expand to an unusual extent, making themselves known in unexpected places. Furthermore, we have Boundaries, we have Deep Interlock and Ambiguity: that framing to allow us to appreciate those centers, giving space to drink them in and see them from different angles.
But there are a lot of centers, period. Which is a good thing, see Levels of Scale, but it’s less good if the centers aren’t strong. The herbs, the fetch quests, the item crafting: the are not strong centers, but they act like they want to be. I wish the game had made different choices there: take the time to strengthen them, or shrink them down further until they’re appropriate in size to their lack of strength, or get rid of them entirely. (See Mass Effect 2‘s take on inventory, for example.)
And certainly some shrinking of centers would be welcome. Even setting aside my pet peeve about games that want to save the world, the game is too busy. If pacing suggests space, then embrace that space, embrace The Void.
As to the Mass Effect versus Dragon Age comparison: the most interesting difference is Dragon Age‘s being physically situated. And Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s regions increase the power of that difference, which is all to the game’s credit; it also increases the possibilities of Deep Interlock and Ambiguity and of Not-Separateness.
I’ll be curious to see how spaces play out in future games in the series, especially if paired with restraint.
This post has not been revised since publication.