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.