The story of Dragon Age: Inquisition wasn't finished when BioWare released its role-playing game to critical acclaim in November 2014.
Inquisition had a proper ending, to be sure, but the complete story wouldn't be told for nearly a year. In September 2015, BioWare Edmonton released Trespasser, the downloadable content that brought the multifaceted story of dragons and magic to its definitive conclusion.
And according to lead writer Patrick Weekes and narrative presentation lead John Epler — effectively the screenwriter and director, who spoke about Trespasser at GDC 2016 — it couldn't have happened without thematic visions inspired by Indiana Jones and Captain America.
As with nearly everything at the annual Game Developers Conference, the talk was aimed at fellow game makers. Weekes and Epler had advice to give: Setting thematic visions early and referring to them often can help the final product in innumerable ways.
Those visions should be well known, they said. They should be easily recognizable. They should be intuitive, so that everyone involved can easily understand how it relates to the project.
Setting a shared vision took on perhaps extra importance, given the scope of Trespasser's mandate.
The story of Dragon Age: Inquisition was about the player character's journey — their rise to power. Trespasser effectively undoes that. It concludes the story of a an institution — the titular Inquisition. Those two halves made a whole. It was their job, in short, to end Dragon Age: Inquisition.
The pair used a unifying vision that grounded the developers in something beyond the story they were writing and directing.
THE ARCHEOLOGIST AND THE SOLDIER
Trespasser's story first had to reveal the truth behind some of the mythology found in Inquisition, particularly that surrounding the character Solas, who appears in the campaign and plays a large role in Tresspasser. For inspiration, the development team looked to Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The 1981 movie introduces Dr. Henry Jones Jr., an archaeologist whose research frequently becomes a daring adventure. At the movie's beginning, Jones is a skeptic. When government agents visit his university to enlist his help finding the Ark of the Covenant, Jones discusses its spirituality in nearly dismissive terms.
But In the final act of Raiders, there's no room for doubt about the Ark's true nature (or whether Nazi faces can melt). The skeptic becomes the believer, and that saves his life.
Raiders' narrative arc, according to the BioWare team, is about trying to find the truth behind mythology. Trespasser had the same goal.
Steve Rogers's second Marvel Cinematic Universe adventure became the DLC's second signpost because of its plot, too. In Captan America: The Winter Soldier, we learn that S.H.I.E.L.D., the global organization dedicated to earth's defense against unimaginably powerful forces, has been infiltrated by HYDRA, its chief opposing force. Once again, Trespasser had a similar goal.
Both movies were well-known and accessible enough to the development team to serve as examples of the goals they wanted to espouse. When trouble arose — and it sometimes did — they looked to their inspirations for help.
VISION, CRITIQUE, REVISION, REPEAT AS DESIRED
Raiders of the Lost Ark and Captain America: The Winter Soldier define what Weekes and Epler called Trespasser's vision, and it was the first in a three- (or four-, depending on how you count) step process for achieving their desired result.
Once they defined the vision, they began to critique it. If there were problems, they revised it. And if there were still problems, they looped back to the beginning of the process and started again with first principles.
But none of the latter steps would have been possible, they said, without setting a clear vision early. That vision sets the team in a specific, unified direction. It also defined the terms or boundaries in which discussions took place. It funneled critiques away from personal attacks, for example. Instead, it focused them on the failures of the plans — and not the people who failed.
Throughout, Weekes said, the overriding goal was to stay true to the core vision. When they failed, that's what they returned to.
GOOD WORDS GONE BAD
Weekes and Epler said that these principles got them close to their goals rather quickly. But it wasn't a foolproof plan for a perfect first draft. As an example, Weekes spoke of a scene that didn't work.
At the end of The Winter Soldier, Weekes explained, there's a scene were Black Widow faces down several U.S. senators. In Trespasser, there's an analogue in the Exalted Council, with the player's role mimicking that of the Black Widow's.
It was the culmination of untold hours with the game and its DLC that the decision the player made carried grave consequences. Weekes wrote it with gravitas.
Players drifted through with indifference.
Where he saw the opportunity for players to answer tough questions, play testers saw a lackluster, binary choice that funneled them away from satisfaction.
BioWare's solution was to return to the process they refused to violate. After a team rewrite focused on the core principles, the revised scene offered a sense of ownership and, as they put it, "the feels" that keeping or disbanding the Inquisition should engender.
That's proof to both developers that the process works. No matter what exciting ideas one might dream up in the meantime, Weekes said, the must all serve the core vision.
"It's never worth undercutting core vision of your project," he said.