Inquisition Offers an Evolution of the “Difficult Choice”

A screenshot of Warden Alistair in the Fade in DAI.

Warden Alistair in DAI via

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.

Should Mage Hawke have not gotten a pass?

Back in February, Mattie wrote about Anders, and how Hawke is in a position of privilege in the game, the same way most players are in a position of privilege with regard to the LGBT community. It is a great piece that really got me thinking. There was an idea I saw popping up all over the place back when Dragon Age 2 first came out that said that DA2 missed a huge opportunity with Mage!Hawke, that playing as a mage should have been significantly different from Warrior or Rogue in that the mage should have had to go through what all the other mages in Kirkwall go through. The whole abducted from your family, imprisoned in the Gallows, under the constant scrutiny of the Templars, who will make you Tranquil if you step one toe out of line, or even for no reason at all. I actually think that, for the purposes of DA2 specifically, the team at BioWare did exactly the right thing by giving Hawke the Thedas equivalent of “passing privilege” as a mage, first via bribery and later via her wealth and finally her title of Champion.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that games do have a very strong ability to put players temporarily inside the experience of another person. A while ago, I wrote about a hypothetical game that would allow a male player to allegorically experience–and therefore better understand–rape culture. Games are essentially systems, and oppression is a system, so it’s completely possible to create a game that communicates what it’s like to experience oppression. The problem is, while both games and oppression have rules, the rules of oppression are rigged so that the “player” can never win. This means it’s not very fun at all (to put it mildly). A game where a player is put in the shoes of a marginalized person–such as a mage in Thedas–isn’t going to be any fun. Who wants to play being stuck in a tower, or even confined to one small room, for weeks or months on end? Who wants to play a game where your character can be lobotomized randomly and without reason?

Well, I do. But this game will never, ever be made by a company that’s in the business of entertainment, that wants to make money.

So, what if the player just got a taste of it? What if they had to disguise themselves, tiptoe around Templars, make sure they don’t use magic in battle inside the city, at least in the first two acts, before Hawke becomes Champion?

I believe this strategy would backfire. The player gets a taste of what mages like Anders experience and most would think, this isn’t so bad! It’s annoying, but not worth blowing up a building over! It’s like when games or shows depict sexism as being the domain of openly-hateful old men who just need their butt kicked by and/or a sassy remark from the spunky heroine. At least when Hawke gets a pass that other mages don’t, the player is aware that they have it better than other mages. There’s no way to get most players to truly experience and understand what mages are going through without completely breaking the game (and even then, players would still have the option to turn the game off and walk away, which is not an option real oppressed people have), so it’s actually better that BioWare went in the opposite direction and gave Hawke a privileged position among mages. This way, when Anders does his thing, Hawke and the player are more or less on the same page. In a way, it forces the player to roleplay by making sure Hawke, as a character, and the player themselves have the same reaction: how could you? If Hawke was actually meant to be oppressed, herself, but the game never had the player experience what that actually meant, then for the vast majority of players who don’t experience violent oppression themselves in the real world, there would be a huge disconnect between Hawke’s perspective and the player’s.

I desperately want to see a game that puts the player in Anders’s shoes and forces the player to not only do something so extreme, but to feel as if it’s their only course of action. But while that game could be interesting and meaningful, it certainly won’t be fun, and so we will never see if from any huge studio like BioWare.

Transparent excuse to talk about Dragon Age 3

Wired has an article up today headlined “BioWare: Next Dragon Age Will Draw From Skyrim.” I have… mixed feelings! I love Skyrim. It’s fun as shit and exploring is genuinely fun; it’s always exciting when that chord plays and “MARKARTH DISCOVERED” or whatever pops up on the screen. But ultimately I don’t find it very interesting; I’m not going to write five (or even one?) posts about it when I’m finished playing it. It’s just a good time burning undead and looting dungeons and killing dragons.

I expect more from Dragon Age, especially after DA2. I expect deep characters and actual politics and not a little bit of tragedy. I expect playing a Dragon Age game to be like reading a good medieval fantasy novel, not a Lord of the Rings knockoff or someone’s D&D novelization.

This part intrigues me:

The story of Dragon Age II took place across a decade-long span in the city of Kirkwall, allowing players to see how the city and characters evolved over the years. Muzyka hinted that the next Dragon Age game could take that narrative structure and apply it to a variety of areas, rather than a single city.

I ~LOVE~ the idea of a game taking place over the course of a decade. I was excited when Assassin’s Creed 2 did it, but that game didn’t do much with it. In DA2, it suffered from poor/rushed implementation. No, the guy saying “I’ve been waiting here all day!” for six years is not clever commentary on bureaucracy. But the idea itself is brilliant. If we could concretely see how the world changes based on the events the protagonist is involved in, that would be just fantastic. I just worry that by making a huge world map, larger than DA:O and DA2 combined, it will be impossible to implement the kind of detail that this would require.

Not to mention, I hope characterization doesn’t suffer–it’s what I play DA for. Overall, I just think that sacrificing depth for breadth (face it, it’s impossible to do both; there has to be a balance) is a bad way to go, or at least the way that most other games go. Seeing a game go the Majora’s Mask route and make a small but deep world is something I would love to see more games try, even if it doesn’t completely succeed on the first try.

Also on my wishlist: a canon female protagonist. Both games and all three books have canon male protagonists and it would be really nice if there were some important female heroes in Thedas. (And a rainbow unicorn I can ride to work, while we’re making outrageous requests of Santa Claus.)

What do you want to see in DA3? Where do you want to go?

Tallis Amigurumi Doll

I made a Tallis amigurumi doll for the Dragon Age Mark of the Assassin Fanart Contest. Amigurumi is a type of crochet that is used to create plushie animals and dolls. I’ve never tried amigurumi before so I’m really excited about how this came out!

Lots of photos behind the cut. Just in case embedding doesn’t work, here is a public link to the Facebook album.

MANY more photos after the cut!

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Supporting Your Cosplayers

So, BioWare is having a fanart contest for Dragon Age 2: Mark of the Assassin, and to help out, they released reference shots and textures of Tallis, and linked to the costume designer’s blog where he describes in detail the whole process of making the costume. Considering cosplaying still gets shat on by a pretty wide swath of gamers, it’s pretty awesome to me that they are actually reaching out to cosplayers, which I don’t think any other game company has done in any sort of public, widespread way. Sucker Punch sent my partner some concept art when he wrote to them about cosplaying a Reaper, and I’m pretty sure Final Fantasy X-2 was deliberately made to be cosplayer candy, but that’s about it as far as I know.

But what’s interesting about BioWare, the Dragon Age team in particular, is that they aren’t just providing references and having contests, they’re keeping cosplayers in mind when it comes to the actual design of the game. Here’s Mike Laidlaw on Twitter:

The key is to strike a power chord between followers looking great and cosplay-able and player agency. Plans: I has them.

Glad to hear it! I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

A fate that we deserve: Choice, Triumph, and All That Remains

“When he read to me–stupid things, dragons and heroes–he wouldn’t turn a page until I reached over and took his hand. That big man made every step of the story my choice. I loved that.” — Aveline, regarding her father

(Dragon Age 2 spoilers)

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And I'm through believing

Fantasy religions in games aren’t typically very nuanced. Whether they are stereotyped as righteous and pure crusaders of good or corrupt and evil cults, they are often depicted as being literally true–gods speak directly their followers, if not make actual appearances. Praying at an altar or shrine often confers some sort of real bonus or blessing, suggesting an actual source of power. At the very least, there generally isn’t much that outright contradicts what a given fantasy religion has to say about a world, sometimes because the fantasy religion is being used as a conduit to info-dump at the player. In the Dragon Age series, the Chantry starts out as a way to explain parts of the world of Thedas to the player, but the player is quickly and increasingly encouraged to challenge the Chantry’s teachings.

(Spoilers for DA:O, Awakening, DA2, and the Legacy DLC to follow.)

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