There’s a lot I could talk about in Dragon Age: Inquisition, from its wealth of quests to its enjoyable combat and lovely visuals. But most of all I want to talk about its dragons, and my second encounter with one of those monstrous beasts which occurred after nearly 40-hours of game time. And through its dragons I want to talk about Inquisition’s personalities, and what they mean, and the power of death.
Here’s the difference; in something like Skyrim dragons have some of their majesty stripped away because they are surprisingly common. Moreover, when one appears you don’t hesitate to tackle it, usually by leaping off a cliff while screaming bloody murder. At first they pose a threat, but it doesn’t take long for you to realise that they aren’t so tough, and thus you begin to muck around in the name of fun, finding more and more ways to deal with them. I can’t tell you how many dragons I’ve slain in Skyrim, and while each battle was fun, I don’t remember the vast majority of them. Inquisition’s dragons, though, are different; there are ten of these hulking death-dealers and each of them is a bare-knuckle fight for survival, a challenge that rewards you with nice loot and experience.
Much like life in general, however, it’s the people who make the fight worthwhile. My first encounter with a dragon didn’t end all that well: the Iron Bull was entirely up for tackling it, and so was I, but after numerous restarts it became apparent that the dragon far surpassed what my small troupe of capable of delivering and a retreat was called. But my second encounter was far better.
At my side was once again the Iron Bull, a powerful warrior who could deal absurd levels of damage, yet often seemed overly fragile in the heat of combat. No matter, because I appreciated his attitude toward life, his exuberance in combat. Joining him was Sera on this particular journey, Varric has been a close friend throughout the game, and it helps that I know him well from Dragon Age 2 as well, but the banter between Sera and the Bull is outstanding. Listening to them devise idiotic yet somehow brilliant combat strategies is a highlight of any foray into the wilds. Rounding off the group is Blackwall, a man who I love for his often quiet nature that hides a wicked sense of humour, one that shines through when Sera is around.
There’s a key moment as we’re running across some largely open ground on some probably ultimately pointless quest, the kind that Dragon Age is a little too full of for its own good. Sera was twittering away with one of her oddball stories that for the life of me I cannot remember as I was slightly daydreaming, enjoying the scenery and perhaps considering where I’d spend my next ability point. The details of her story don’t matter, though. What matters is that at the end of it Blackwall laughs and casually mentions that he loves Sera. It’s not a romantic gesture, after all such things are kept purely to the domain of the player character, but a confirmation of another type of love, of a strong bond forged through many, many hard battles and trying times. It’s a little moment, unimportant to the overall story, but of utmost importance to me. This is my group, my faithful comrades who have been through hell, and will go through hell many more times, not least the fiery hell of a dragon’s flame. They aren’t friends, they’re a family.
It’s this group of people that make fighting the dragon special. It’s not just me the player battling to prove my mastery of the game’s own mechanics, it’s a group of tight-knit warriors tackling a creature of legend in an epic fight. It’s not a game, it’s a story in the making, an heroic tale. It’s not a game, it is an event in life that must be remembered and cherished. It’s why I love games, because amidst all the stupid shooting and pointless carnage and insane fun they are capable of making memories worth having.
That takes serious skill. Bioware have again and again managed to invest players in their character, lore and game, something which most other developers still can’t do. Through such investment in the characters ad story a game becomes more than just a game, it becomes something more. When the Bull falls under the onslaught of the dragon I don’t rush to revive him because I need him to win the fight, I rush because it’s a character I care about. Sure, the ultimate goal is to save the known world and all that, but right in the middle of a battle I’m not fighting for that, I’m fighting to save a cornered Varric, or to lend the Bull aid. I’m fighting to save them.
Of course it’s an illusion that requires me to willingly play a role. The one thing the game lacks is a real sense of danger. The Bull may have fallen in combat, but provided the enemy is defeated he’ll get back to his feet and carry on as if nothing ever happened. There’s no risk of losing my beloved comrades, no chance that they’ll die fighting some epic last stand. Blackwall has fought against huge odds many times, his impressive defensive capability letting him survive against hordes of enemies in dramatic last stands. But if he succumbs he’ll be fine soon enough, once that last enemy has been burnt to a crisp. I can’t help wonder what a Bioware game with permanent death would be like, one where when the Iron Bull falls…he never gets up again. Where the death of Varric isn’t just a temporary thing, it’s something to live with throughout the rest of the game. It’s probably an impossible dream as scripted a character and story driven game where the main cast can die at any time would be a nightmare to create, especially for a studio who are all about telling stories. Death isn’t a tragedy, it’s merely a tactical set back in combat, and thus needs me to force my own imagination into creating a sense of urgency that doesn’t truly exist.
Bioware have done an impending sense of danger before, though, namely in the suicide mission of the incredible Mass Effect 2. Throughout that game you upgraded the abilities of the Normandy and completed loyalty missions for your crew in order to ensure their survival in the final fight. Early in Inquisition it feels like the game is building toward something similar with the player being able to fulfill requisitions and even upgrade the Skyhold to a small degree, but ultimately none of it actually does anything, leaving me to wonder why I even bothered. There’s no threat of losing your friends through combat or because of a vast, final conflict that takes into account your upgrades. Nor, does it seem, you’re ever in danger of losing your friends through your moral decisions. My pals may disagree with me, but they never seemed inclined to simply leave.
This lack of tension doesn’t in any way diminish how much I love the characters in Inquisition or the game itself, but perhaps to truly care and help push a character past the point of simply being an NPC and into being a person we need that possibility of loss. My most powerful Mass Effect memories aren’t the ending or the beginning or the middle or some moment of dialogue, it’s of those who made it, and those who were lost along the way. It’s Mordin dying, Kaiden being sacrificed and relief that Talia and Garrus made it through. They might be characters in a game, but they stay with me, in some strange little way. They’ve become a part of me. Inquisition lacks that same capacity.
As daft as it sounds XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a good comparison. When a soldier is lost on the field of battle he or she is gone forever, and you feel that loss of life keenly. Much of that is because XCOM is a game of incredibly stringent resources and a single good soldier can represent vast amounts of investment of those limited resources, the demise of your trooper acting as a potentially huge blow to your operation. But resources aside there’s an emotional attachment that grows between you and those under your command. They don’t really have personalities, but your brain will somehow manage to give them one anyway, and form a connection to them. That connection is amplified by the knowledge that they can die. Suddenly your smart tactics seem less appealing when you realise that they are also risky. Perhaps you don’t enact that clever plan for fear of losing someone. It makes every move and moment much more intense.
As cold, harsh and upsetting as the actual event is, loss is one of the most powerful and important things humans go through. If we were all immortal and indestructible we’d still be able to love and care about each other, but it’s the fact that we know those we love can be taken away that allows us to have such pure passion. That ability to lose is what made my connection with my crew in Mass Effect 2 so powerful, and why I cared about my XCOM squads.
No matter. I still love them. To my deep regret I never got to play Dragon Age: Inquisition when it first came out and thus missed out on being able to place it atop the list of my favorite games from 2014, a place I know it would have claimed without a shadow of a doubt. I’ve not even finished the game yet, as I’ve been savouring every free moment I get between reviewing new releases, squeezing out all that I can from it before the credits finally roll.
And when those credits do roll, I’ll experience loss. The loss that comes with knowing that while I can go back, it’ll never be the same as the first time.
Categories: Opinion Piece