During the past week or so, I've spent some time with Dragon Age: Inquisition. Like many of the game's reviewers, I am deeply impressed with the game, its world, its story and its characters.
Dragon Age: Inquisition isn't merely about exploring a beautiful and vast world, or fighting through combat challenges, or managing power portfolios of character rigs and skills. It's about hanging out with the game's party members, the dozen or so men and women (human or otherwise) with whom you will be spending an awful lot of time.
In this game, BioWare has delivered characters who feel real. They feel real because the writing team, headed up by David Gaider, managed to write them that way. Writing is something BioWare has always done well, but here, the team has excelled, filling an expansive world with stories, ideas, words and people who, together, create an immense fictional entertainment.
Put it this way: If you're going to spend a hundred hours with a bunch of people, you'd better enjoy their personalities. You'd better appreciate their differences and quirks, their failings and the arc of their own internal struggles. One of the best things about Inquisition is the creation of characters who have personalities that are attractive and intriguing, without being annoying or overly repetitive.
Video games, let's face it, have long struggled with creating believable, rich characters, and certainly not in the numbers that we see in this game. Dragon Age: Inquisition is part of a shift in game design, through which dialog and character development isn't something to be suffered by the player, but something to be admired.
Now, there's no reason to get carried away here. The writing in video games is not to be compared with great literature or even the best TV fiction. Writing in games has to serve a function, which is to propel the player through the environment and its obstacles. In a way, that's what makes it so challenging, this marriage of art and function.
Part of the magic of Inquisition is that the different characters play off the central protagonist's individuality. The personality you choose has an impact on the reactions of players around you. They are not just blathering into the void, they are speaking to you and reacting to the choices you have made, choices that may reflect your personality. Books and movies do not have to do this. It's a difficult trick to accomplish.
When I make a decision in the game, it is with the full knowledge that it may or may not meet with the approval of key team members. And this is more than window dressing, more than some crappy gameplay arithmetic, invisibly triggering locks and catches made of code. I actually care what my AI team-mates think. I care, not merely because I don't want to incur a penalty for pissing them off, I care because I think of them as my friends.
Certainly, they are archetypes and they fall a vast distance short of being, in any sense, real. But the point is that they are convincing and layered archetypes.
Different characters feel as though they were raised in cultures that you may or may not find agreeable. They bring alternative perspectives to the broader story. We have seen this many times in linear fiction (think Star Trek's approach to intergalactic moral quandaries) but BioWare is leading the way with video games, crafting worlds that are revealed through the moral problems they produce, and the solutions rival inhabitants reach for in moments of crisis.
This, for me, is just as valuable as the gorgeous visual details of soaring mountains or swaying trees or burning cottages. I love that, while I'm going about my busy quest, I can enjoy the drawn-out resolution of two characters who ought to hate one another, exploring potential areas of commonality. I love that characters defined by their beliefs at the beginning of he story, become defined by their ability to question their beliefs. I love that romance is a drawn out process of simpatico and compatibility, build upon words and actions, not gimmicks like gift-giving.
It helps that the issues at stake in this world are interesting in and of themselves. They may be presented in fantasy gobbledygook about chantries and elixirs and the end of the world, but they are really about belief and belonging, self-doubt and individuality. The developers have chosen not to simply leave this soup on the boil, until it is reduced to a bland liberal jus of tidy RPG resolutions. There is a feast of different ideas and perspectives, demanding that you consider their merits and shortcomings.
Partly, Dragon Age Inquisition is a product of BioWare getting really good at the things the company has been doing for a very long time. If you think about party-based RPGs, character development and dialog, this is the developer you will turn to.
Advancing technological platforms also help, of course, allowing the developers so much more space to explore the potential of relationships than ever before. At its crudest level, characters have more wiggle room to say for themselves, and about one another.
But this only tells part of the story. BioWare has made games in the past that lack the emotional wallop of Inquisition. Technological potential is only rarely realized in game design, most particularly in the area of creating convincing narrative worlds. No, this game's chief triumph is its writing. The fact that the writing stays good, right through this massive game, is an achievement in itself.
The party members only have so many lines that they can deliver, and many of them can only be delivered once certain story and gameplay triggers have been sprung.
Each line costs money, and each must serve its function in moving the story forward and in creating a bond between the player and the character. Each must also be unique to that character, not merely in terms of the words being spoken, or even the way they are spoken. They must be unique in such a way that a player with only a moderate level of investment could read a line and know which character said which line.
Just as crucially, the writing manages to make me feel like I am exploring a world with a bunch of different personalities. They react to circumstances and action triggers in ways that feel authentic. I do not feel as if I am moving through a world, dragging these constructs around with me, just because I am going to need them to cast spells or deliver melee damage. Frankly, I'd happily have the best of them tag along, just for the ride.
In the early days of games, when dialog was sparse and functional, players could overlay their own imaginations and aspirations onto the story. Later, game developers attempted to create memorable fictional characters with limited success, partly due to the tools at their disposal and partly because few of them could write with any level of skill.
Inquisition's writing is not faultless. Some of the quest givers, for example, feel like out-of-the-box fantasy stereotypes. But even as I make this slightly critical observation, I recollect many minor characters, with only a few lines of dialog, whose plight I will remember for a long time. The voice actors, of course, must take some credit for this too.
Dragon Age: Inquisition's writing proves that game characters can be deep and complicated, that they don't need to serve as limp puppetry, badly mimicking the favored archetypes of well-meaning programmers. Writing is emerging as a key component of the great gaming experience, certainly in those games where characters are required to speak and to have personalities. Such characters go a long way towards creating a narrative that presses itself into the shape of the gaming experience, rather than floating uselessly above.