Several aspects of Dragon Age: Inquisition have put players at odds with each other, but there are few topics more divisive than the way the game uses its space. Depending on who you ask, Inquisition’s slice of Thedas is plodding or breakneck, dull or fascinating, packed from corner to corner—with absolutely nothing. There’s a grain of truth to each interpretation. Areas of roiling chaos exist alongside vast expanses of seeming nothingness, both of which grow ever more peaceful—more barren—as you progress. You cross each at the same measured pace, and mounts carry you only marginally faster than your own feet. To some, this represents tremendous design flaws. To me, they’re part of why the world of Dragon Age: Inquisition is one of the most tangible I’ve experienced.
Case in point: The Hissing Wastes.
When you first arrive in the Hissing Wastes, Scout Harding is there to greet you. Hers is always the first face you see in any new location, and her windburned cheeks and button nose are a reassuringly familiar sight set against so many shifting backdrops. “This space has nothing but space,” she reports, and there’s a very good chance that her statement will not resonate with you. Not at first. “There’s nothing here” is just something that NPCs say when there is definitely something there.
While the Wastes aren’t entirely empty, what’s there is spread out across an ocean of undisturbed sand extending out under the moonlight. You can cross them mounted and riding at an easy pace in about fifteen minutes and, if you’ve already cleared the area, you’ll be lucky to find a single enemy. Coming from the Forbidden Oasis, a place that coils in on itself like a knotted Ouroboros, the Hissing Wastes feel like an alien planet. And that makes sense. An oasis ought to be a hub of activity while the desert around it ought to be, you know, deserted.
Even so the Hissing Wastes took me entirely by surprise, and I loved it there. Harding hadn’t been exaggerating, and the more time I spent on the dunes and promontories the more I wondered about what it meant that I’d dismissed her words so easily when I arrived. I had taken them to be more of a figurative description than a literal one. I had assumed that “nothing” meant “as much as every other location but please just play along”. Simply put, that’s what other games had taught me to expect.
But what does “nothing” really mean? There is something everywhere in a game. There has to be, because someone somewhere spent hours building the form and rules to sustain five seconds of “nothing”. In reality, the Hissing Wastes are full of things to stumble upon, but there is no flag to plant by a statue half-lost to the creeping sands. There’s no quest marker for watching the silhouette of a fox cresting a ridge in front of the imposing milk-white disk of the moon. When you do finally arrive at a “something” on the map, it’s made that much sweeter by how isolated and elusive it is. You’re knee-deep in the snow, searching for warm embers again. These places, these moments, these experiences are evidently “nothing” because they’re unmarked.
And that’s the heart of what we often expect “something” to mean in our games. If it doesn’t flicker or blink or ping desperately for your attention, it doesn’t count.
I recently dipped my toes into The Crew, a game I’d been looking forward to for the better part of 2014. Almost as soon as I was let out into the world, I was inundated with symbols I’d never seen before for activities I’d never been introduced to. Dozens upon dozens of indicators glared out from the map and the road and the periphery of my vision. Young children often have trouble grasping the concept of “too much”, and this is never clearer than when they’re doing crafts. There’s no such thing as too much glitter, too much glue, too much paint, too many pipe cleaners—and if one pom-pom is good, then 100 pom-poms must be better. Lately this is all I see when I look at the objective-saturated open-worlds that Ubisoft’s widely recognized for producing across various games. If one optional objective adds valuable content, then 100 optional objectives must add even more valuable content, right?
They don’t, though. The proof is in the punchline that this approach to content has become over the past few years. If these endless icons, markers and beacons represented actual value to the player, they wouldn’t be the low-hanging fruit of gaming humor. We would respect them.
Instead, these objectives mean nothing. They add nothing to the game experience, beyond having one more thing to do. At best they have the comparative value of a tick mark in a box; at worst, they’re clutter. There’s something very insecure about this kind of content saturation. Something desperate—begging me never to stay in one place too long, nor to look too closely at the world I’m inhabiting. It’s the rambling, nervous chatter of someone who can feel an awkward silence coming and will do absolutely anything to delay it.
But the silence is only awkward when you don’t have anything else to say, or when you don’t realize that sitting in silence with a friend is a pleasurable experience in and of itself. Perhaps that’s why the “silence” in Dragon Age: Inquisition has yet to feel awkward to me. The relative emptiness always serves its purpose.
Dragon Age: Inquisition doesn’t undermine its own lore by shoehorning as much as possible into every corner of the map. Mechanically, it reflects the scale of the world far better than previous games in the series ever did. Even though it takes advantage of similarly styled pockets and vignettes on the map rather than providing a truly open world, none of them feel as small and cloistered as they have in the past. And the spreading peace communicates exactly how diligent you are in your world-saving duties. The Templars may have kept you busy, but when they clear out the refugee families build their campfires in safety. They can eat again because of you.
RPGs often set you as a hero in a vast world crossing vast spaces, and at some point you should certainly face that vastness. You should wonder, “How much longer can these dunes possibly go on for?” You should sit astride your Orlesian Courser as its hooves beat into the sand for fifteen minutes straight and say to yourself, “I owe Harding a drink.”
Janine Hawkins is a games writer based in sunny Canada. You can find her written and video work on HealerArcherMage.com or follow her on Twitter @bleatingheart.