There’s been a nice discussion on game crit Twitter this week about that perennial topic, choices and consequences in Dragon Age, spurred on by two great articles: one by Rowan Kaiser at Unwinnable, and the second by Austin Walker at Paste Games. Rowan’s piece is about how most players won’t see Dragon Age Inquisition‘s toughest choice, and that the game overall pulls its punches when forcing the player to make difficult, emotional choices.
The choice Rowan is referring to is during the “Here Lies the Abyss” mission, where depending on the player’s world state, the player may have to choose between sacrificing Hawke or Alistair. His argument is that DAI should have had more choices like this, but where all the players experienced the same emotional investment. I agree with Rowan that the situation is bullshit, but I completely disagree with why.
It is indeed unfair that the choice is only difficult for a certain minority of players. It happened in my first playthrough of the game, and it made me very angry. Bioware has stated in the past that most players make Alistair king; in fact, the most likely reason for Alistair to remain a Warden is if a female PC romanced him in Origins. Basically, this story step disproportionately affects female fans, targeting us for emotional turmoil in a way that most other players would not experience (it’s particularly bad if your Warden is still alive and looking for a cure for the taint).
But the solution isn’t to make the choice equally wrenching for all players: the solution is to do away with these sorts of “Choose who lives and who dies” situations completely. That narrative design was groundbreaking in 2007, when the first Mass Effect came out, and players were forced to choose between saving Ashley or Kaiden. That kind of decision had not happened in AAA prior to then. But in 2014, players are swimming in games with “gotcha” choices, choices purposely designed to cause the gnashing of teeth, some better-executed than others (all of which can be found in Telltale’s recent games, for example, particularly The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us).
Austin’s column breaks down what people mean when they talk about “meaningful” choices in games. It’s a great piece that tackles a long-running peeve of mine when the topic comes up, and talks about issues larger than just DAI. But the part that struck me was the ending: “The point is to answer the question. What do you value?” This gets to the heart of what makes choices in games meaningful. It’s another reason the Hawke/Whoever choice at the end of “Here Lies the Abyss” is crap: to the Inquisitor, both characters are two people she has just met no matter who they are. The choice doesn’t give the player the opportunity to express something about their character’s values or what kind of leader she is; it’s only about being mean to the player.
The question “What do you value?” also sums up why the choices in DAI are so interesting and often difficult to me in a way I had not been able to pin down. DAI is largely about leadership and faith. It lets the player make choices about what kind of leader your character is and what she believes and express those values; those moments are the most difficult, interesting, and meaningful choices in the game, whether they result in world state changes or not, and many of them are found in the companion quests.
In the Iron Bull’s companion quest, a situation arises where the Inquisitor has to choose between sacrificing Bull’s team, the Chargers, or sacrificing an entire dreadnaught of Qunari troops. What makes the situation complicated is that saving the dreadnaught means securing a powerful alliance with the Qunari for the Inquisition (for the purpose of saving the world from Corypheus); saving the Chargers destroys any chance of an alliance with the Qunari and would make Bull Tal-Vashoth–basically, an outcast from the Qun (a concept Bull has a lot of complicated feelings about). Is the Inquisitor willing to sacrifice a few people for the greater good? What kind of leader is she? What does she value?
Cole’s big companion quest involves dealing with his past trauma and his essential nature. The Inquisitor can push him either to become more like a spirit or more like a human. Solas and Varric argue for each choice, respectively. It raises a lot of questions to the player. What are spirits, really, and is being a human inherently better than being a spirit? Would making Cole more of a spirit make him less of a person? Is it only humans who have humanity? What does the Inquisitor value?
One of the most difficult choices in the game, for me, happened in the Solas romance storyline, which is only available to female elf Inquisitors and therefore a minority of players. Near the end, Solas reveals the true meaning behind the Dalish elf’s face tattoos: they were originally slave markings, from when elves enslaved other elves. The Inquisitor can let Solas remove hers, or she can keep them. Does the knowledge of their origin taint them? Or are they a part of her and important to her, no matter what their original meaning? What does she believe?
Those are just a few examples. The player gets many chances to express disbelief, indifference, or buy into the Maker and the story of being Andraste’s Herald. And there are also the dozen-or-so judgments, where the Inquisitor is put in charge of sentencing prisoners who have committed wrongs of varying degrees. What’s a just punishment for a man who tortured and destroyed people for Corypheus: execution, imprisonment, exile, Tranquility? How about a woman who did monstrous things because she thought she was saving the world? Or the man throwing goats at the castle walls? What do these decisions say about the Inquisitor as a leader and the Inquisition as an institution?
Complicating all of this are the beliefs and values of the companions, who can approve or disapprove of any actions that you take. As relationships form between the player/Inquisitor and the companions, she begins to take into account their points of view. What will Cassandra think of me if I choose to disband the templars? Am I giving enough consideration to the regular people, as Sera constantly reminds me?
The best part is, some of these decisions aren’t actually going to be difficult for some players. Some players will feel so strongly one way or the other that it doesn’t seem like a real choice. I have read posts from players saying they would never, ever sacrifice the Chargers, or make Cole become a spirit. That doesn’t diminish what makes these choices meaningful, either for those particular players or for the game as a piece of art–it shows that the game is truly engaging with players’ beliefs and values, or at least those that they bestow upon their Inquisitors.
The Bioware writers pit has earned the nickname “emotional hooligans,” and they are known for messing with players’ emotions and throwing gut-punches. It’s true that DAI had fewer of those than past Dragon Age games (I jokingly reviewed the game on twitter as, “Not completely emotionally destroyed, 8/10, try harder next time”), but the solution isn’t to add cheap shots at the player like choosing which character to sacrifice. Overall, DAI moved choices in games forward by taking a less manipulative and more interesting approach, and I’m interested to see where the team goes from here.