Dragon Age: Inquisition, In Your Heart

Only a few developers can be said to own an entire style of game. You might have described something as an ‘id shooter’ a couple of years ago, but the association doesn’t quite stick any more after all, the best ‘id shooter’ of the last couple of years was made by MachineGames. You could make a stronger case for ‘Bethesda RPG’ denoting a particular mixture of open-world exploration, lightweight narrative and systems-driven freedom. Along similar lines, chances are you would know what I was talking about if I described something as a ‘BioWare RPG’. Over the last 17 years, culminating in last year’s Dragon Age: Inquisition, the Canadian developer has established a framework for videogame roleplaying that is unlike what any other studio is doing.


Companion characters, complex choices, and stories that maintain their consistency through multiple games via the use of imported save files are part of that framework. As is a philosophical and practical focus on player agency, and a tonal dexterity that allows BioWare to fold thoughtful considerations of personal identity and full-tilt epic fantasy into the same experience. This is how I’d delineate a BioWare RPG from any other type of RPG on a technical basis. There’s another way to think about genre, however, and it’s particularly relevant here: feeling. In the 1990s, id Software defined a  feel  of shooter, all about hair-trigger catharsis. Bethesda took the wanderlust inspired by the line ‘see that mountain? You can go there’ and turned it into a genre. BioWare has achieved something similar, but the territory this developer presses into is emotional rather than physical.
You’re trying to put yourself into various mindsets at the same time
If you know what I’m talking about when I speak of a ‘BioWare RPG’, I suspect you know it as a feeling.

RPGs, above all other types of games, act upon your heart as well as your head in fact, I’d argue that this is among the better ways to redefine ‘RPG’ in a world where everything has a character progression system. BioWare has done more than any other mainstream developer to explore the ‘heart’ part of that equation, and this effort is reflected in the studio’s passionate and diverse fanbase, in the fan art and cosplay it inspires, hell, even in the angry petitioning it sometimes inspires. One way or another, BioWare makes people care.

Over the years that I’ve been a fan of BioWare’s work, I’ve been waiting for another company to imitate the team’s style, their tone, their dedication to character and that hasn’t happened. Only Obsidian and InXile occupy a similar space, and they are bound to early BioWare by a common ancestor Black Isle Studios as well as being generally fluid in their adoption of different RPG styles. Given the opportunity to talk to the  Dragon Age: Inquisition creative team in some depth, the matter of BioWare’s idiosyncrasy is the issue I’m most keen to understand. I suspect that it has less to do with technical constraints and more to do with cultural values so that’s where I start.

“We have to keep in mind player agency,” says  Dragon Age  writer Sheryl Chee, identifying something integral to not only the RPG but BioWare’s creative process. “When you’re talking about agency, you’re talking about how you’re trying to put yourselves in the shoes of various types of players,” adds Patrick Weekes, recently appointed lead writer on the series. “It’s not just gay players or female players it’s also the powergamer, the completionist, the guy that wants to search out the story. You’re trying to put yourself into various mindsets at the same time.”

Former lead writer David Gaider adds: “it’s also about balancing the story we want to tell versus the responsibility we have regarding what we say about our fans. A lot of developers can though not deliberately narrow down who they think their audience is. It’s apparent to the audience if you don’t see yourself reflected in the game.By being inclusive of a larger audience, what we want to do is invite them to play.”

It’s clear from talking to the team that this is a collectively held view and it defines the way they work. Interrogating a situation from multiple points of view is a theme that links the  Dragon Ag e team’s creative process to the kinds of scenarios presented in the game itself. For BioWare, inclusivity and social responsibility are essential to effective fantasy.

“The thing that always gets me is that there are let’s call them ‘fans’ out there that think it’s impossible for us to be inclusive and focus on the epic fantasy moments that we need to have,” Gaider says. “All it means is that, as a team, at some point we sit down and have a conversation about what the story says that we haven’t fully considered. What does it say to a female player, or a gay player, or a straight male player? What interpretations are possible, and are we OK with that? It’s our responsibility to give that some thought.”

The notion that a game designer’s responsibility to create entertainment stretches into the realms of social responsibility is currently, unfortunately, a politically charged one. It needn’t be. It is a practical fact, as much to do with the quality of a game as any other technical consideration. You can see this by looking at where the  Dragon Ag e team variously exceeded and fell short of their own standards:  Inquisition  succeeds enormously in terms of inclusivity, allowing the player to define their Inquisitor to a fine degree alongside companions who represent a diversity of worldviews, political beliefs, and sexualities. The game has, however, presented problems to one of the player-types that Weekes identifies: the completionist.  Inquisition ’s open-world spaces are peppered with numerous, low-impact collection and fetch quests. These are flavour, and should never be considered to constitute the bulk of the experience. But it took PCG news editor Phil Savage and I two months to convince our editor, Samuel, to stop hunting bear claws and leave the Hinterlands.
It’s apparent to the audience if you don’t see yourself reflected in the game
“We underestimated, to some degree, the completionist drive,” says Mike Laidlaw, creative director on the  Dragon Age  series. “It was possible, as a completionist, that you could damage your own pacing. It’s something I look at and go ‘that right there? That’s a lesson.’

In discussing the problem of the ‘Hinterlands prisoner’, Laidlaw makes a connection to an earlier problem: the player who bored themselves in earlier BioWare RPGs by feeling that they had to click on every single dialogue option before they could progress. “One of the most intriguing places this happened was when we moved to the conversation wheel,” he says. “There were two reactions one group of players were upset that it seemed like the game had been reduced. You had other players, though, who looked at the ‘investigate’ option and thought ‘oh, so it’s OK to miss those!’”

BioWare games often split responsibility for the pacing of the game with the player, and in this case the issue is one of proportion: the game gives the player too little clear instruction about what she is expected to do next, and so she sticks with what she knows. The solution comes from clearer presentation. But the player needs to be free to spoil their experience if the agency they’re given is to have any meaning. The team’s job is to negotiate the right balance rather than force an ‘ideal’ result. “Having ‘investigate’ options can really ruin the pacing of a story,” Gaider says, “so you have to walk the line and try to find the places where it’s appropriate.”

For Inquisition, the Dragon Age team implemented new conversation mechanics for delivering the types of information normally buried in ‘investigate’ trees. Being able to pop up the conversation wheel in the open world allows the player to seek out more information if they want it, or walk away from conversations entirely. It’s up to them, and if it alters the tone of the narrative then the player owns that decision. This, I think, is the flipside of BioWare’s commitment to its social responsibilities: its willingness to ask the player to ‘perform’ the story they’d like to receive, and the thought that goes into building better tools to let them do so.

 This notion is expanded in Inquisition  with the introduction of a new set of emotional response options that occur after key events: no longer restricted to being simply happy, angry or sad, the range available to the player includes stoic, puzzled, upset, and so on. “You always want to give the player a chance to react, in game, to whatever has happened,” Gaider says. “To let the player acknowledge it, and to have that be acknowledged by the game.”

 “In past games we’ve forced a reaction or shied away from it,” Weekes adds. “Having the reaction wheel allows us to have someone be angry, be sad, or if they’re the player that doesn’t care they can be like ‘THAT SUCKS. MOVING ON.’”

 Gaider continues. “We ask the player do you have any feel... feelings about this? And the player can turn it to ‘sad’.”

“Way to not say ‘feels’,” adds Weekes. These responses don’t alter much about the narrative beyond the conversation in which they occur, but that’s not the point the point is to allow the player to feel like they’ve expressed themselves, even if they don’t have any power to change what has happened. It’s an intelligent, realistic way of incorporating an emotional performance as part of a game, delineating ‘the power to change something’ from ‘the power to feel ways about stuff’ in a manner that was less clear in, say, the  Mass Effect series.
 That felt like something terrible, but I’d never start a petition to save Hawke’s mom
To my mind, the complaining and petition-signing that followed the downbeat initial ending of  Mass Effect represents a failure of a portion of the game’s player base to uphold their part of the bargain. Instead of acknowledging BioWare’s power to have bad things happen to good people if it suited the story, many fans claimed the ‘right’ to a happier outcome. I ask the  Dragon Age  team if they felt that they had the freedom to confront the player with outright tragedy in the same way. Player mages and elves, for example, are all but exempt from the prejudices that follow both of those groups around the world of Thedas.

 “Personally, and I can’t speak for the rest of the writers on this, I have got negative feedback on anything I have shipped where I exclude player choice based on the player’s race or background,” Weekes says. “Where I have got a more positive reaction is if I allow a player of any race or background to access  bonus  content. Unless we were making a game that really wanted to explore what it felt like to be discriminated against, we wanted to avoid creating a situation where most players can do something, but elves can’t. That would be realistic in the world, but we don’t think it’s what players want.”

 “We do it sometimes,” Gaider interjects. “Non-humans couldn’t marry Alistair.” “I see the baseline there as being the big choice you make at the end of Origins,” Weekes says. “The bonus is being Alistair’s queen.”

 “There’s a difference between restricting player choice and having the world reflect your decisions,” Gaider says. Nonetheless, there are certainly instances where the Dragon Age team have restricted the player in order to deliver a greater dramatic blow.

 “Sheryl can speak to this,” Weekes says. “She killed Hawke’s mom. That felt like something terrible but I’d never start a petition to save Hawke’s mom.” “We don’t shy away when it feels appropriate,” Chee says.

 “It’s a case of walking a fine line between having drama in your story and punching the player just because you can,” Gaider adds. “I don’t know that we always walk that line successfully, but that’s part of the story you gotta deliver bad news.”

 I’m fascinated by the amount of respect and consideration that goes into managing the power dynamic between BioWare and the players of BioWare games. One area where their approach shifted, in this regard, was in the provision of love interests for the player between Dragon Age 2 and Dragon Age: Inquisition. This is another area of contention for fans, something that the most ardent BioWare supporters invest a lot of thought into and something that attracts complaints from a reactionary contingent that believe that the developer is progressive at their expense. In Dragon Age 2, every companion bar Sebastian was available as a potential love interest to both a male and female player character. In Inquisition, companions have more specific sexual preferences and this often ties more closely into their background or outlook on life. The player is more restricted, in some ways, but these restrictions make your relationships more meaningful. I ask Mike Laidlaw about the thought that went into that change.

 “I think of the characters in Dragon Age 2 as bisexual,” he says. “I think there’s a tendency to hide bisexuality it becomes the ‘invisible sexuality’ and I dislike that. When we started out to make Inquisition I looked at reactions to Dragon Age 2 and it felt almost ‘too convenient’, a little unreal. I didn’t want to back away from bisexual or pansexual characters but not everybody is for everybody. That’s not always going to work out.

“The two things that came out of it was a desire to have characters who were straight, who were bi, who were gay,” Laidlaw continues. “We wanted to make sure that the romances were different, were fresh, didn’t just amount to ‘I love you, I love you too, and now kiss.’ The other big thing for me was making it so that they didn’t follow a script that was quite as predictable as we have done in the past. That better matches how life works.”

Over time, BioWare RPGs have steadily moved away from ‘simulation’ in the way that it is generally considered to operate in games, but their increased willingness to present complex social situations to the player demonstrates a way of achieving a level of detail that a systems-driven game never could. This commitment to a particular kind of believability exists in tension with not only player expectations (as in the case of the guy who takes to the forums to demand to romance everybody) but also the game’s budget. It costs time and money to render many different possible interactions at this level of detail, and the willingness to invest those resources is something specific, at the moment, to BioWare and its RPGs.
 Inquisition is notable for having fewer, more significant cameos than its predecessor
Whenever a long standing, fan-favourite character returns in a future game, this represents a willingness on the part of the studio to invest heavily into making that happen. Often, a player’s delight at one cameo will lead them to expect more and, ultimately, to be disappointed when they don’t get to see every familiar face in a new game. Inquisition is notable for having fewer, more significant cameos than its predecessor. The role of Varric, Morrigan, Leliana, Hawke, Alistair and Loghain is significant, but many other characters sit this one out. This isn’t down to a lack of time or an unwillingness to please fans: in many cases, it’s a matter of putting the story ahead of fan service.

“We think about this a lot,” Laidlaw says. “Who would come back? Well, who would care. Who would add something, emotionally, to the texture of the game. If it’s a character who shows up simply to show up, it falls flat.”

“If we did bring back everybody it’d be like a parade,” Gaider says. “We’ve got two games in the past, one expansion and some DLC. We can’t have them just come marching back. We’ve done some of that , and I don’t think it works particularly well so we just pick our battles.”

Recurring characters also represent different levels of risk based on how complicated their backdrops have become. Someone like Varric is an example of a low-risk inclusion. “He is a very popular character and he had places to go,” says Chee. Varric had a stake in the stories of both  Dragon Age 2  and  Inquisition  and, crucially, is guaranteed to have survived Dragon Age 2 . Other examples aren’t as simple. I ask the group if there are any choices regarding companions that they’ve regretted presenting to the player.

“Daaaaave?” says Chee. “Er, yes,” Gaider replies. “Sometimes I want to write a letter to past-Dave and say ‘future-Dave does not appreciate your decisions.”

He continues. “It’s not necessarily regret, but there are definitely ‘aw, if only’ situations where a character who turned out to be super cool could die. That creates a ‘Schrödinger’s character’, and as such they become much more risky to include in future titles.”

“We keep half-killing Alistair, for example.” Gaider says. “At this point he’s only 10% alive.”

When a character enters this state, the team refers to it as becoming ‘quantum’. Sometimes, being quantum means not coming back, or coming back in a limited capacity. Other times, more rarely, the team will make a decision to alter that fact entirely as in the case of Leliana, who can ‘die’ in  Origins  but returns in a major role in Inquisition  regardless.

“I’ll own it that was my call,” Laidlaw says. “I thought that Leliana had a lot to add to the games and I decided that we were going to bring her back. The writing team has been very graceful in humouring me throughout that.”

“Poor Sheryl’s nightmare was to write those parts of Leliana where there were many different choices from previous games,” says Gaider.
 when a character enters this state, the team refers to it as becoming ‘quantum’
Chee ticks off the options. “She could have died, you could have romanced her, you could have romanced her and then you died, you could have never recruited here, you could have ‘hardened’ her.”

“Leliana interacting with Morrigan is two quantum states coming together,” Gaider says. “We created antimatter.”

Nonetheless, there are moments when the team embraces the complexity they’ve created for themselves in order to get access to the dramatic potential it possesses. A good example of this is the mission ‘Here Lies The Abyss’, which concludes with the dramatic decision to sacrifice either Hawke or one of three different Grey Wardens from prior games all characters that can exist in multiple states. I noted the complexity of that moment to Mike Laidlaw.

“One of the things I had as a goal for the game is that we had at least a few really big moments were you were like ‘oh wow my previous games really did make a difference’. In terms of the combinatorial explosion of having three characters talking to a character who might have three personalities, who might be male or female, who might be one of three different classes it was challenging, but it was the fun kind of challenge. How many times do you get to have a protagonist from a previous game show up? We’d never done it before.”

In this instance, dealing with the complexity was worth it because it capitalised on something that only BioWare can really offer. I asked Laidlaw if they were tempted to take it further to include other well-known Grey Wardens like Hawke’s siblings Carver and Bethany, Anders, or, the real elephant in the room, the player’s own Warden Commander from Dragon Age: Origins.

“We considered all of those,” he says. “The Warden introduces an enormous complication. The thing that I was personally really leery to do was force a voice onto a non-voiced character. A lot of people really wanted the Warden and I understand that. The problem is that this is such a personal attachment that I was not confident we could do it to the point where it would have that universal appeal. I feel like there’s a sort of respect to saying ‘no, your character is too special to appear here’. The disappointment of the Warden not being there is more palatable than the Warden being there and not being right.”

It’s a double bind that encapsulates the effect BioWare has on its most hardcore fans:  Origins  gave the player so many tools to create a character that they imaginatively invested in that said character, despite their supreme importance, has become too important to include in the series.

The team is also motivated by a desire to keep things moving and changing. This is the reason for  Inquisition ’s post-credits twist the moment when the companion Solas is revealed to be the lost elven trickster god Fen’Harel, the Dread Wolf. It’s a left-field reveal, something that will only mean something to people who have been reading a lot of codex entries over the course of three games, and the ‘death’ of Flemeth in that scene functionally closes off a mystery that has been lingering over the series since Origins. Laidlaw calls it their ‘Marvel tease’, and compares it to the glimpse of Thanos at the end of the Avengers movie a gesture forward that is not intended to be entirely understood right away.

“I look at that as more of a forward-looking opportunity that adds a wrinkle to the world,” Laidlaw says. “What it replaces is the ‘what’s up with Flemeth’ mystery, that being a fundamental question that everybody was clamouring for us to resolve. I’ll tell you how that part works, but then I’m going to introduce a new mystery because I don’t want the line to die.

“What it says is ‘more’s to come’ in a slightly less explicit way than ‘007 will return’,” he continues. “It also says ‘hey, are you interested in this? There’s a lot of Dragon Age stuff out there, and there are a lot of people who would be happy to help you out’. In a way, it builds community.”

In that sense, the Solas reveal starts the cycle over. If BioWare’s style is defined by its uncommon willingness to invest serious time and effort into granting the player large amounts of creative agency over the course of multiple games, then there need to be points where new players those who haven’t been playing these games since 2009 have a chance to join as equals. Fan service has a responsibility to create new fans.

Another fundamental part of the equation is that the BioWare team are part of that same community of fans that Laidlaw describes. “The other big goal with that reveal,” he says, “and maybe this is just us having a bit of fun, is that the whole writing and art team spent the entire game knowing that it was coming. We spent the entire time thinking ‘what can we do with this, how can we seed this.’ Solas was written by Patrick who just had the best time putting in all these sneaky little references.” They’re there, too, if you go looking from them from Solas’ mural in Skyhold to the wolf statues found more or less everywhere you go.

The reason nobody else makes BioWare RPGs is, I suspect, because no other studio combines these elements in quite this way a communal investment in each fictional universe that extends to the players who play the game, a sense of collective responsibility for the player’s experience that binds game systems and social issues, a love of character, and a willingness to invest deep in solving complex multiple-path narrative problems just because they can. It’s not one trick; it’s many, and collectively they amount to a ‘feel’ of roleplaying game that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

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