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It’s time we talk about Dragon Age: Inquisition’s one severe problem

by on January 7, 2015
 

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Dragon Age: Inquisition has been met with near-universal acclaim and several Game of The Year awards. For good reasons; the game does a lot of things really well. But the latest BioWare RPG also has a lot of problems, annoyances that have put some people off, like the game starting in the big, boring Hinterlands, or the largely uneventful item management and crafting.

Many of those problems can be wrapped up into one severe mistake that Dragon Age: Inquisition makes. This mistake is one that games are not alone in struggling with, film and books and music do too. It sounds simple to avoid, but could easily be one of those things where it’s hard to notice after working on a game for so much of your life. Once the game is out to the public, though, it’s the kind of mistake that everyone, whether or not you recognize it, probably runs into.

I’m talking about mistaking form for function.

Specifically, mistaking RPG form for function.

Dragon Age: Inquisition has everything you’d expect from a modern RPG. You can level up. You can do sidequests. You can kill enemies and earn increasingly powerful items. And you can explore a big, mostly-open world. The problem with all these things is that they don’t often serve a purpose in the game, they don’t exist for a reason that serves what the game is trying to do.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is a game about telling a fantasy epic story that deals with religion, politics, and personal relationships. It’s a game about fighting through all of the world’s complications to neutralize an apocalyptic threat. It, like many BioWare games, begins with an explosive action and mystery and sends you out on a quest to gather information and face the problem with the power you’ve gained and the people you’ve learned to trust. There are stories on the side, like loyalty missions that you do for your team mates or the tasks you do for important people, but it’s all in service of getting ready for the final confrontation. The best stuff, the stuff you remember, has narrative function. It propels you through the conflict of the story.

The level up system, many of the sidequests, the loot, and unfortunately, a lot of the exploration, does not serve a narrative function. They exist because that’s what RPGs have historically included. And that’s the problem. That’s mistaking RPG form for function. That’s including something in a game because it’s what you think games should have, but not including them to serve a function.

People have already been calling Dragon Age: Inquisition out for not respecting their time and having a lot of bloated content that feels like fluff compared to the meatier, story missions. These are symptoms of the from/function problem. You get bored shuffling through items for upgrades because they don’t affect how the story plays out. You groan when a character asks you to save their livestock because it doesn’t affect how the story plays out. You start ignoring sidequests and plants in the beautiful and big environments because the exploration doesn’t affect how the story plays out.

There are exceptions. There are times when you stumble onto ancient ruins or have a unique moment when you’re finishing a quest and run into a massive dragon. Or when you get a sick sword from killing a really hard opponent. Those are great moments, but ones that only rarely affect the larger narrative. These moments are usually only viscerally satisfying, or there to get a rise out of you but dissipate over a short period of time because they don’t hold any deeper meaning. They’re the equivalent of explosions in a Call of Duty game. They’re exciting and tense, but they’re not often important. Dragon Age: Inquisition does this a lot and thinks it’s a replacement for things that do hold value for the story the game is trying to tell. It’s why the game’s conversations often are the best parts, because they do have immense value on your impact on the story.

This is not to say that doing all those RPG things like leveling up and getting loot are bad. I’m saying that in the context of Dragon Age: Inqusition, they make little sense. Other games give these concepts power. Dark Souls makes loot about the player experimenting and finding what equipment and weapons work for them. You can go through the whole game with a weapon you get at the beginning as long as you’re comfortable with it. This gives the items weight and function within the game’s goals of letting you tackle difficult situations however you want. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, you just feel obligated to keep up with the enemies and equip better stuff because that’s what RPGs have taught you.

This is a problem that more games need to start dealing with, especially in the blockbuster space. There’s too many games out there that do things we’re familiar with simply because that’s what sells well or makes it authentic. That’s not trusting players to see through the bombast and genre conventions to find a game that’s not ultimately satisfying. That’s making a game that doesn’t say something of worth, that doesn’t connect on an emotional level to the player. That’s mistaking the power of a fascinating medium like games. That’s forgetting that the best games, the ones that stick with you for years, are not checklists of expectations, but works with purpose.

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  • stephen andreini
    January 7, 2015 at 2:57 PM

    I have not played Dragon Age (any of them), and rarely leave comments after reading articles. But I constantly read video game articles posted on N4G, Joystiq, Gamesradar, and IGN. This is one of the better articles I have read. You eloquently made a very compelling and fair argument based on valid examples, and I really enjoyed reading it. Kick ass, brother!

    Reply

  • Alterego
    January 7, 2015 at 3:56 PM

    This article sums up my thoughts on this third installment. I played through DAO and DA2 multiple times, but couldent get my self through this one. I lack incentive to do anything in the world of Theadas, cause the character i play have no story or depth.

    Reply

  • Joshua Rizk
    January 7, 2015 at 7:32 PM

    I see what you’re saying and i guess people might feel that way

    but i disagree. i thought the fact that increasing your influence and power by doing these missions, was serving a function. you’re constantly trying to get support to battle corypheus. so that was always at the back of my mind. whether it’s clearing out rifts, help clear outposts, find supplies and stocks… whatever it was to build support for the inquisition going forward.

    Also in terms of how interesting side-quests are. DA doesn’t have the best and most interesting ones, but they certainly are more better than anything else released in 2014. think about it; sunset overdrive, infamous, shadow of mordor, AC: Unity, destiny and others all had open worlds with side missions. but they sucked. they seemd more like form over function to me. the side missions were very repetitive and dull and i had no idea why i was doing them.

    Arno can accept paris story side-quests but i keep asking myself “why am i helping these people.” in sunset overdrive and infamous, their side-missions don’t even have a story. they’re more like challenges. same with shadow of mordor. Destiny are just bounties.

    So I think despite the fact DA:I might suffer that problem. it’s FAAAR from the worst that’s ever been done.

    that’s what i think anyway

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  • January 8, 2015 at 10:39 AM

    I play this game as much as I can and each time I’m reminded why I stay away from EA games. But… Stupid ps4 game drought made me buy it!!!!!

    Reply

  • Court
    January 9, 2015 at 6:18 PM

    I’ve been a follower of the DA series since Origin. It’ll always be a hard thing for them to top the original game but that’s how it usually always goes. This article has some very valid points when it comes to Dragon Age: Inquisition but in the bigger scale of things all the side quests do have a part in the main story. Without gaining power via doing these quests you can’t move on in the story, these quests are needed to continue on in the world and advance so you can reach the endgame point.

    Not only that but let’s take into account all the things you gain by doing the side quests that are offered. You get new agents to fight for your cause, you build your army, you are able to find better gear and equipment as well as craft better things by finding recipes you wouldn’t get had you not done that ‘meaningless’ side quest. Almost all RPG’s employ this because if you take out all the side quests, take out the need for gear upgrades and level grinding you are left with a glorified story, you just paid 60 dollars for, all so you can take three steps, kill a boss and spend about 3 hours of your life watching what could only be close to a Titanic size movie that leaves you feeling like you did absolutely nothing to get there. Let’s face it, strip away everything people tend to find as a problem in a game and you’ll be left with a character creation process that takes longer then the actual gameplay.

    Many people have issues with EA games, I get that. They release some pretty big poopers and go for all kinds of money grabs. They are probably the worst company out there but every now and then they do manage to slap their name on a jewel. The Sims franchise for example, love it or hate it, the damn thing keeps growing and has one heck of a following. Dragon Age is yet another example of one of the most prominent ones they have and while I will admit there are some issues in this game I’d still take this one over the absolutely mess that Dragon Age 2 was. You want a real turd of a game you can actually claim has major problems that would be the one you’re most likely to get a lot of people agreeing on right there. Dragon Age: Inquisition on the other hand… out of the game releases of 2014 it probably was one of the best games to grace the market aside from Warlords of Draenor.

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  • TSA85
    January 10, 2015 at 1:02 PM

    I have around 30 hours into the game so far, I feel that one of the biggest problems with the game is the feeling of disconnect from the environment. All of the NPC’s just kind of stand in one place, they have a few animations but other then that they don’t really move or interact with much of anything. In one of the quests one of the Templars told me to follow them in the cinematic. when it was time for me to do what I was told, he was just standing on the opposite side of the map waiting for me. Not very immersive.
    It’s actually a problem with a lot of games not just Dragon Age. The AI is pretty watered down and unbelievable, I think the developers are trying to ram as much content as possible into the game instead of taking time on important things. I could do without the quest where I need to escort the buffalo back to it’s pen if it meant more focus on the AI. The AI should also interact with the players more, like randomly making attacks on you while your questing, setting you up for ambushes or NPC’s just walking up to you and interacting in different ways.

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