Thoughts on Busywork in Dragon Age: Inquisition

Criticism

My fiancée and I have been playing Dragon Age: Inquisition. There’s a lot of material to cover there, but one thing I wanted specifically to write about is the superfluity of busy work. The game is overflowing with drab little sidequests, as has been pointed out by many people. It’s unusual, because it is so at odds with what the game sets out to do, and what it excels at. Bioware is at its best when writing interactive character-driven scenes with looping dialogue webs. This is where these games shine. No one is playing these for the combat, which is typically mediocre but serviceable, or the overall storytelling and plot, which leans towards the cliché. So it is a little baffling that Dragon Age: Inquisition places such an emphasis on a more Assassin’s Creed approach to open-worldbuilding by filling the world with progress bar heavy sidequests.

I was thinking about this when I saw Mike Laidlaw, the Bioware Creative Director, speak at recent NYU Game Center event. While the discussion was wide ranging, he did speak to this issue, albeit indirectly. While talking about some of the design goals they had, he stated the pacing they had in mind was something like the following (paraphrasing from my recollection): For the plot-advancing main missions, there is a gate of “power” required to unlock them before the player can proceed. How do you generate power then? Well, by however you want to play! You can unlock power by doing really combat-y sidequests and killing stuff, if that’s your fancy. Or by exploring regions and claiming things. Or by gathering crafting materials and fulfilling requisitions. Or by completing your companions’ quests and deepening relationships. And so forth. The goal was to allow the player to have the freedom to advance the story with the gameplay they most enjoy.

If that was truly the purpose behind the way the game is structured, then the implementation of it is almost laughably naïve. Because the game does not structure “Power” as a gating mechanic, but as a currency. The message to the player is not “You want to do this cool mission, but you need to make your army stronger, so go gather 20 power, however you want to!” Rather, it’s more akin to: “You gather power by doing all of these things. Spend power to unlock missions!” That inversion critically changes the dynamic for the player. It means power is something to be hoarded, and is spent to unlock content. So, players aren’t encouraged to just do enough side activities to unlock the next mission, but rather, to go and do all the side missions. This is what the reviewers are complaining about, the compulsion to fetch every item, deliver every widget, kill every ram, and so on. By rewarding the player for doing so many different things, it is implicitly telling the player to do all of these things. It runs too contrary to experience otherwise- why would a game give us 100 things to do, if it didn’t expect us to do them all? If it didn’t think doing them all was fun?

Now, I’m aware I have certain biases in that I have decades of play experience that inform my expectations about a game. So maybe this “you’re only meant to do some of the busywork” approach is really meant for more casual gamers and new audience members Bioware is hoping to attract. Besides the inherent condescension in that line of thinking, I have a hard time believing the game is trying to court new players, since it seems actively hostile to non experts. It throws gameplay concepts at the player very rapidly, and makes only the most cursory efforts to explain how its systems work. It has no tutorials. No hardcopy manual, or even one in-game: instead, it’s on a website somewhere. Tool-tips are available only on the loadscreens. There is simply no way this game could seriously be intended to cater to people unfamiliar with the genre or series.

So, if not naïvety, and not for casual players, then another explanation is that the piling on of inane activity is simply intentional. Perhaps Bioware is merely aping what it believes is a successful element from other open worlds. They have explicitly cited Skyrim as an influence. But if so, then in cargo-cult fashion they’ve copied the form but not the reason. Skyrim had mountains of inane quests too, but they were mainly given by NPCs, and felt grounded in the world. That contrasts sharply with Dragon Age: Inquisition, where the vast majority of these quests are given by disembodied pieces of paper. Only a few come from “characters”, which is ironic given the game’s focus on people otherwise.

It seems like a solution in search of a problem- if you feel the need to force the player to do other things before continuing the main game, maybe those other things aren’t substantial enough? Ironically, you could remove the power mechanic altogether, and most people would still do all the extraneous quests. So, I’m not sure whether the design goal was really to create a plot-gating mechanic that could support any playstyle, though it does explain what is otherwise a surprising miss for the game. Ultimately it doesn’t matter too much though. I should be clear that we’ve been really loving the game, and there’s a reason we’ve clocked something like 70 hours in it and aren’t even close to finished. But when we look back on it in the future, we’re going to remember key moments and decisions we made. We’ll remember seeing the hero of the last game come by for a cameo, we’ll remember Sera’s jokes, Dorian confronting his father, and the judgements we passed on the defeated. We won’t remember all the inane padding the developers felt was necessary, or one hopes, were forced to implement at the behest of some misguided executive.

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