Playing the Part: Choice and Meaning in Dragon Age: Inquisition

Games Features
Playing the Part: Choice and Meaning in <em>Dragon Age: Inquisition</em>

It’s been two months since the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition, which means that we’re firmly in the middle of the traditional Big Game Backlash. I can’t back that up with data, I guess, but I can say that lots of smart folks who I respect a bunch have been hammering Inquisition with tweets and articles for the last few weeks now. This critique is broad and interesting: You can just as easily find a take-down of the game’s combat as you can of its representational politics. It’s great. But there is a line of critique that doesn’t sit well with me that keeps showing up. Again and again, I see the complaint that in Dragon Age: Inquisition the player rarely makes any “real choices” and I’m just not sure that’s true.

Don’t worry: I don’t aim to turn this piece into a message board list of “Cool Choices I Made In Dragon Age: Inquisition.” More than anything, I’m trying to work out why this complaint makes me uneasy and to pin down what people mean when they talk about “real” or “meaningful” choices in the context of a Bioware game.

In a recent piece for Unwinnable, Rowan Kaiser identifies the start of the “modern Bioware phenomena” at the memorable moment on Virmire, a planet in the first Mass Effect game. Faced with catastrophe, the player must decide which of two party members has to make a heroic, final sacrifice. I think that this is the sort of choice people have in mind when they say that, comparatively, “choices in Dragon Age: Inquisition don’t matter.” Two qualities separate this choice on Virmire from many of the decisions a player makes in Inquisition: clarity of stakes and impact of results.

Choices like these are cinematic, not only in terms of visual aesthetic but also in terms of the clarity of stakes. There is a conflict. You are offered a set of possible actions to resolve said conflict. That resolution produces a set of scripted results—A to B to C.

In the Platonic Ideal Bioware Choice that set of results includes a clear, immediate repercussion (a party member is removed from the game), further effects hours later (an exclusive heart-to-heart cut-scene with the living party member), and even unique content multiple games later (a letter referencing the sacrifice.) These effects are both fictional and mechanical. Maybe you gain a new set of powers or you lose a previously utilized resource. Your choice might close off areas of the game world, or it could introduce new sorts of combat challenges. Whatever you chose, it’s obvious that what you did mattered.

There are, of course, choices of this sort in Inquisition. But there is a second, slightly more nuanced, version of the “no real choices” complaint nested inside this first one that is harder to dismiss with a few good counter examples. The stakes that do exist, say these critics, don’t really matter. Who cares about a short cut-scene with some whimpering noble you’ll never see again? How much do a couple extra points of “Power,” the mechanical representation of your Inquisition’s reach, really matter? This critique is basic: What payoff there is just doesn’t leave a strong impression.

Part of the problem here is the tied into the larger structure of Inquisition. Thedas, the world of Dragon Age, is just so big and so packed with quests and NPCs and conversations that little of what you do ever feels monumental. All these little choices—which political ally you favor, how you settle some personal grudge, whether or not you save a man’s cow—feel like they exist in a vacuum. And the rewards are paltry: A sword I’ll sell immediately; an empty notification that my computer friend was happy with my decision; a new name at the bottom of my fantasy Org Chart. It’s rare that a reward feels special, and even rarer that it’s tactically important. These choices pile up in your wake, easily forgotten.

Nowhere is this truer, it strikes me, than at the War Table. Hidden away in a back room of the Inquisition’s secret hideout, you are presented with maps of the two nations central to the game’s story. Little metal baubles mark locations where your attention is needed. Well, not your attention, really. Because when you click on the marker and a text field explains some distant problem, the question is “who do I want to take care of this mess?”

dragon age inquisition war table.jpg

Maybe you’ve found out that some provincial noble has stumbled into hosting a party for a demonic cult. You could have Josephine, your clever politico, send word to the noble to let him know how badly he’s screwed up. Or you could have Leliana, ex-nun and current spymaster, send one of her agents to eliminate the noble (and, by extension, the diabolical dinner party). Or you could send soldier boy Cullen’s knights to kick in the front door and execute the lot of them. (I don’t think this is a real War Table quest, but it should be. Hey Bioware, hire me).

In any case, you pick whichever plan you like best, wait around a few minutes (or hours) until it’s done, get a text update on how it went, and a meager reward that you could never have predicted ahead of time. At the War Table, stakes are rarely clear in advance, and the impact, both narratively and mechanically, is almost always minimal.

But the thing is, despite it being the perfect example of how many “meaningless” choices exist in Inquisition, I really like the War Table. I like wasting time at the thing, sliding my cumbersome cursor from problem to problem, and thinking through how my Inquisitor would deploy resources or respond to tricky political problems.

Inquisition is filled with choices like this. Yes, on paper, the difference between building my new armor from “bloodstone” instead of “lazurite” is minimal, but games exist on the screen, and seeing an Inquisitor stride across the battlefield in crimson plate mail matters as much to my experience as a bonus to defense. Choosing Leliana’s clandestine agents instead of Cullen’s stompy warboys helps me understand (and illustrate) who my character is. Sparing a well-meaning, but guilty bureaucrat is a moment in its own right—that NPC shouldn’t need to return as a repentant hero to save the day thirty hours later for that moment to “count” as meaningful. It’s simple multiple choice roleplaying, I know, but I think there’s something worthwhile in offering that experience alongside more intricate game systems.

If this is where my case ended, then, yes, I would be writing a facile and unsatisfying argument about how my play preferences don’t line up with the likes and dislikes of other critics. But there is something else happening here, too. There is something at stake when we quietly determine what counts as “real” or “meaningful.” Something that reflects our understanding of what to expect from games, even if we would never put those expectations into clear words. I am, as always, guilty of this too.

We should be honest about these expectations, and then ask questions about them. Why do we demand that every choice in a Bioware game be systemically reflected throughout, and then gush at length about a scene in Kentucky Route Zero that illustrates the beauty of choosing for purely aesthetic reasons? What trained us to prefer a branching, long-form story over a series of little vignettes? I think if we ask questions like these, we’ll find our definitions of words like “real” and “meaningful” become increasingly complex.

I’m not suggesting we stop talking about game mechanics, nor do I mean this as an attack on those that do. Because, hey, I like talking about game mechanics! Instead, I want to recognize Bioware’s experiments in new sorts of choice as real and meaningful, just in new ways. Unlike many of Bioware’s other games, Inquisition offers me the chance to roleplay my character without thinking about how those choices would affect the damage I do in combat. That sort of play should not cordoned off, the domain of little gamejam submissions and IGF Award Nominees; left to teenaged forum goers and tabletop storytellers. We need that sort of play here, in the digital space too, alongside the branching plotlines and the complex tactical battles.

We have been promised, by some, that our intuitive understanding of games can be a tool to analyze and improve the systems that affect our cultures, economics and politics. On some days, I push aside my skepticism, and see how this could be true. Maybe optimistic, but a useful sort of optimism.

But then I see us demand games be clean, transparent, manageable, and technologically intricate above all else, and I have serious doubts about what sort of world our games are training us for. Because while the world is driven by an incredibly complex networks of interactive systems, it is not a gameable clockwork. It is not often clear what effect our actions have. Progress is often obscured behind new traumas, and we cannot count on being rewarded.

So yes, it might be the case that our games are preparing us to understand how (for instance) systems of taxation could contribute to discrimination across racial lines, or how war spending might affect local policing. But some days I wonder if, instead, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. How disappointed might we be when we find that the world is more complicated than a set of skill trees? I wonder if we’re making it impossible to recognize our successes, since they lack the fanfare or the latent rewards of our games. Worst of all: I wonder how often the perfect rhythm of our games assures us that so long as the gears are turning, everything is okay.

At the end of his piece, Kaiser writes that Dragon Age: Inquisition “is not a game that wants to force players to make hard choices.” He might be right, but that depends on what we mean by “hard choice.”

Within the first fifteen or so hours of Inquisition, there is a chance that your Inquisitor will be asked to rank their loyalties. Who do they love most: The people of Thedas, the Maker who created the world, or the knights who boldly defend it? “There’s no correct answer,” says the knight who escorts you to the challenge. “The ritual simply shows watchers who you are and what you value.” Depending on what you choose, an enemy’s dialog will change and a forgettable NPC may lose their life. But those are wildly beside the point. The point is to answer the question.

What do you value?

Austin Walker is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, writing about games, labor and culture. He writes about games at @austin_walker and at Clockwork Worlds.