Feature Article

Balancing Freedom and Story in Dragon Age: Inquisition

This truly is the age of dragons.

There are certain things we've come to expect from BioWare games. Things like an emphasis on fleshed-out characters and on structured narratives that you can impact to some degree with the choices you make. With Dragon Age: Inquisition, BioWare is aiming to maintain these design hallmarks while also placing you in a vast open world and giving you control of a much larger force than you've ever helmed before in a BioWare game. I recently spoke to executive producer Mark Darrah about how Inquisition will set itself apart from earlier Dragon Age games while still giving us the things we associate with BioWare.

Speaking of the player's role as the inquisitor, Darrah told me, "The burden of leadership is one of the themes of the game. This is the first time we've really put you in a leadership position. We've put you in, kind of, command positions in the past, but not really in a place where you're actually in control of an organization that has to go out and do things."

I was trying to visualize what it would mean in gameplay terms to lead the inquisition, and asked him if being in control meant that you could choose to tackle a quest yourself or instead send a group of agents to take care of it for you.

"You're still the tip of the spear," he said. "You're the one doing the dangerous things. It's more about using the power of the inquisition to do things that are beyond the capability of a single person. So, for example, you might find a place where a bridge is broken and then you can actually use the inquisition to do an operation to repair that bridge. Or, for the critical path, you need to have a meeting with the Templars. They don't want to talk to you, so you're gonna use your agents to gather up the support of local nobility to essentially increase the weight of your presence, because now it's not just you, a ragtag party of guys. It's you and powerful nobles. It becomes much more difficult to ignore you. So that's really what you use your inquisition for more. It's about that next level of ability. You're still the one going and doing most of the fighting. You're using them more as the force that comes in behind you to hold the territory, to clean up, and give you that extra bit of oomph when you need it."

I asked how the relationship between the inquisitor and the agents manifests itself in combat--if you control the inquisitor solely or if there are party mechanics similar to what we've seen in earlier Dragon Age games.

Inquisition's vast open world sets it apart from the typical BioWare game.

"You do have a four-person party, same as in previous Dragon Age games. We're bringing the tactical camera back that we had in Dragon Age: Origins but didn't have in Dragon Age 2. That will be available on all the platforms including the consoles, which we didn't actually have before. You can take control of someone, give them an order to move behind cover--so it's really just bringing a lot of that thinking into combat. Every combat of note is designed to be a little puzzle, a little thing that you have to figure out how you're gonna approach it. And there's lots of ways to approach it. We want you to have to think about what you're doing, consider what actions you can take, and then have the power and the control necessary to be able to take that action."

Given that BioWare games place such a strong emphasis on character, I was curious if the inquisition was something that would grow as you recruited developed characters, or if it functioned more as a faceless army of sorts.

"It's a little bit of both," Darrah said. "You will meet characters of note who will join your inquisition. Maybe you pick up the lord of horse from Redcliff Village as an example, and then he gives you access to horses. But also, the inquisitor himself has the ability to close these [portals] that are opening across the world. You're the only one who has the ability to do that. As you do that, you're essentially stopping demons from spreading around. That's increasing the renown of the inquisition. And doing that is drawing people and resources to the inquisition. So that's strengthening your inquisition in a more meta way."

"Followers and characters that have strong personalities are one of BioWare's strongest suits. We want to keep that."

Often, role-playing games can either provide a narrative structure and successfully focus on story, as BioWare games have tended to do, or focus on player freedom, in which case narrative typically becomes a secondary concern. Darrah told me that BioWare didn't want to sacrifice narrative and character in return for the large open world of Inquisition, saying, "Followers and characters that have strong personalities are one of BioWare's strongest suits. We want to keep that. Nine followers and romances will definitely be there." I asked how the designers are going to be able to maintain a strong narrative structure while also giving players an unprecedented amount of freedom for a BioWare game.

Here thar be dragons.

"This is where the inquisition is a great device for us to use," he said. "When you're in the more open-world parts of the game, you're increasing the renown of the inquisition. You're gathering agents. You're encountering small quests that are more traditional to what we do, but your freedom's really high. When you're reaching the point where your inquisition is strong enough to unlock--essentially what you're doing is then the inquisition itself is able to bring you towards the next part of the critical path. The reason why I think this is so powerful is it allows us to have a strong narrative spine in the core of the game. You can explore, you can gather materials and do crafting, and explore the regions and find this lore, but when you're prepared to progress on the critical path, that critical path is there, provided your inquisition is strong enough to progress. So this is where things like, you're using your inquisition to break down the door of a castle so you can storm in and advance the critical path. And that's where you'll see--in those sections, the game will feel much more like a traditional Dragon Age or BioWare type of game. In the open-world sections, storytelling is still there, but it does take a backseat to the exploration, to the wonder, to the freedom that we give to the player."

Inquisition is vast in size, but rather than focusing solely on next-gen console hardware, it's going to be released on older platforms as well. I asked Darrah if building Inquisition as a game that could work on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 resulted in any compromises in the design.

"We have an overarching story arc. We are going somewhere with the storytelling. But this game isn't a conclusion."

"No," he said. "I would say we're definitely making this game to take advantage of the hardware that we have. I don't think we've had to make any compromises. Because this is ultimately about you controlling a party. The combats are designed to be controlled in size, and that's really meant that scaling for the lesser platforms has been a manageable exercise. I don't think we're making any gameplay compromises. Graphically, yeah, I think you're gonna see some compromises on the last-gen stuff, but in gameplay, I think we should be able to keep parity."

Finally, I asked if Inquisition was intended to serve as the epic conclusion of a trilogy of games, or to just be another story set in the same world as the earlier Dragon Age games.

"Dragon Age was never intended to be a trilogy. We've always really looked at Dragon Age as the story of a world as opposed to the story of a character. That's one of the reasons why we change characters between games. So, no, this isn't the wrap-up of a trilogy. We have an overarching story arc. We are going somewhere with the storytelling. But this game isn't a conclusion."

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Discussion

160 comments
_Roo_
_Roo_

DA Origin was great.  DA2 boring, shallow, and repetitive (the last time I ever pre-ordered a game.) 

Unfortunately all of the previews for DA Inquisition make it look like the button masher DA2 was so meh...

Gooeykat
Gooeykat

I just don't trust Bioware or Mike Laidlaw to make a good RPG anymore.  Mass Effect was good as an action game, the RPG parts sucked though.

NoahRoalson
NoahRoalson

Are you guys implying that story and freedom are contradictions of one another? If so, there shouldn't have to be a balance between the two. Story does not mean it has to be restrictive, there are plenty of examples of that. This is why gaming has taken a turn for the worst. Just because the game isn't holding your hand doesn't mean it can't have a meaningful story, just blend it in with the environment, let the player explore the story, not just shove it in their face.

downloadthefile
downloadthefile

I wish the release date was a bit different, shadow of mordor is coming out the same day.

retsmot
retsmot

hope this game isn't the mess that dragon age 2 was. seriously. 


thanks to that they not getting my preorder money. i'll wait for reviews this time.


Bodom_child
Bodom_child

I loved the 1st game but didn't played DA2 should i just buy it in anticipation for this or spare me the trouble??

PoofMaester
PoofMaester

This game looks amazing. And it just may be BioWares saving grace (despite EA)

ThePowerOfHAT
ThePowerOfHAT

Building up the inquisition reminds me a lot of putting together your party in Mass Effect 2, and how that was kind of the driving force behind the narrative, with new major parts of the story opening up as your party grew.  I really liked the way that worked.  Here's hoping it's handled similarly here.

loudangryjerk
loudangryjerk

if it has new game plus I will play this thing till my computer explodes


taxman25
taxman25

This is one of the games that I'm really looking forward to this year. I loved the first one. Liked the second. And this one looks like its going to be really good.

jimrhurst
jimrhurst

Agreed with previous posters, a very good quality, informative interview.  Thanks to Carolyn and to Mark.

Granatar
Granatar

I like what they are saying.  That it is a story of a world and not about one person.  We can connect to that person and in that we can connect to the world and then connect to the story.  


I am fascinated on what will happen next in the world and I cannot wait to see the inquisition.  

picho86
picho86

I get the feeling that all of those new elements are a result of a market research done by some suits who don't understand a single thing about video games. They've heard that people like leading and longer games, so they cram those elements in. 


Maybe it'll go well and it will be a good game, but my faith in EA is somewhere in the vicinity of 0.

Even if it would be a good game, I'm still not going to give EA a cent, not while they're such a blight (pun intended) on the video game industry, and especially while there are some amazing RPGs in the works like Wasteland 2, Torment: Tides of Numenera, and Pillars of Eternity.

placksheep
placksheep

Dragon Age II used up Bioware's well of trust. I'm going to have to wait and see what the reviews say on this one. Sounds like they're saying all the right things. I'm cautiously optimistic.

toffifee
toffifee

I just saw "tactical camera" and that's all I needed.

Navardo95
Navardo95

"In the open-world sections, storytelling is still there, but it does take a backseat to the exploration, to the wonder, to the freedom that we give to the player."

That sounds really worrisome in one way...

ZeoV9
ZeoV9

looks really good ...... i want a vast world which feels alive, hope this one will be good

Boogy32
Boogy32

"...that critical path is there, provided your inquisition is strong enough to progress."
I'm not sure I like that. I remember when I played Freelancer, a long time ago. Before you could continue with the story, you had to complete loads of smaller freelancing missions. Not that they were bad, they just weren't as engaging, as the main story. I hated doing them.

Citizen_King
Citizen_King

Fantastic article.

This game has potential to be incredible.  My only fear is the 'complete quests until you move to the next area' won't be too much like an MMO style.  I want a mini-skyrim followed by a mass effect mission.

Kyrylo
Kyrylo

Vast openworld = death of narrative and story 

Stiler
Stiler

I REALLY REALLY hope with Morrigan being in this game that they finally give the fans the story of her child and  a conclusion with the Warden from the first game, at least give us something.


It's just such a big gaping hole that so many fans want to know "what happened" and we haven't really got any answers.


Even though they have said she isn't a party member I hope her story isn't linear in this game (IE where she's a "bad guy" or something), would completely destroy the first game because of how different you could make the story with her.

SpigyX
SpigyX

chances of main character vanishing at the end? :)

suppaphly42
suppaphly42

oh baby i just finished a new board, chip and ram upgrade so i can play this and a few other games as good as they can be. so stoked i don't know what to say other then this was a well written article  and i can't wait for bioware to make up for the me3 ending and da2 just being rushed it could have been so much better

Llama345
Llama345

It is great to have these types of feature pieces. It beats the hell out of a Phil Fish, Ken Levine, or Peter molyneux junk article. 

reddevilofhell
reddevilofhell

Someone give this writer a cookie. Great job done.

Indeed a great article. Wanted to know more about this game, and most of it got answered clearly in this. And quite a change from all those console wars and PC race articles.


People forget its about the game experience, not if who can push in a few more frames in a second. If a game is good it will be good in all resolutions. If its bad, those extra frames aint gonna change ur gameplay.


Thanks a lot Carolyn for this wonderful article. Following u from now on. Please try to get more articles like these.


TruthSerum808
TruthSerum808

DA: Inquisition and Destiny are the two games that will finally get me to make the jump to next gen. 

cratecruncher
cratecruncher

Player character must close portals that continually open spreading of demons.  Hmmm, that sounds familiar.

diego_corleone
diego_corleone

This game looks so awesome, will be way better than The Witcher 3.

ggsimmonds
ggsimmonds

After reading this my excitement actually decreased. I don't like the "your inquisition is not strong enough to continue the story" thing they have going on. It is not freedom and exploration if the game forces you to wander around and do random crap. It may sound odd but that removes some of the fun.

TehUndeadHorror
TehUndeadHorror

@Bodom_child  DA2 plays really, really average on PC, but it's quite fun on console. The characters are great, though I can't remember the story. I mean, playing through it once, I didn't mind the repeat dungeons, but I could not stomach doing that again.

Tzardok
Tzardok

@Bodom_child  Wow, this a hard one to talk about it due to its popular hate (DA2). In my opinion they did some good things in DA2 that I preferred over Origins.


Again, this is my opinion and you should seek out some of the haters arguments to get a more "complete picture".


DA2 was bold and contradicted expectations, such as the artistic choice, the looks, it felt strange to me and it took some getting used to, but at least it improved those horrible blood stains effect from Origins which made characters look somewhat silly rather than dangerous or violent. Don't expect miracles either.


Warrior combat was more fun in DA2 than Origins to me, it gave me a sense of faster action than the first one which would seem to drag a little sometimes, but not a complete overhaul. I play warriors and not so much mages, I usually avoid magic user characters as much as possible (I find them cool and all, but not my play style). Consider asking someone about specific classes as I did warriors mostly).


I liked the story in DA2, there didn't seem to be a lot of issues with it, but its not really as epic as Origins where you are restoring the Grey Wardens Order or directly/constantly fearful of the blight. 


The last item I feel obligated to talk about it is that in DA2 your hero talks, this is a huge thing for me (not fond of the dumb-mute approach). Having a silent protagonist is intend to create immersion, perhaps if your imagination is strong you might even picture your great speeches and all, me? I am more literal, I need the character to talk as Shepard does in Mass Effect, if the main just looks dumb and does not say anything its a huge deal breaker to me and creates the exact opposite to me in regards to immersion. I need a talking protagonist, it was the one thing in Origins I really hated, perhaps the only thing.


DA2 is not without flaws however/obviously, as mentioned before the story never quite scales in epicness as Origins does, but is competent for the most part. Lack of armor variety is a problem, I love armor designs and I think they could have done better, didn't like ultimates as much I did in Origins.


DA2 suffers from a very serious lack of diversity in dungeons and settings, most of the adventure happens within a single place. This problem is glaring because you would think and "elite" developer would have seen the arrow coming but they didn't, it never changes and makes the game quite lack luster compared to Origins which had you go all over the place rallying people / races to your cause. 


I also prefer "rise to power" stories or tales which you command or are an influential character, which is needless to say I think Inquisition will deliver upon it as Origins did, DA2 sadly never made me feel a commander.


All in all, if you can find the time to play and want to feel the gap between now and october (inquisition's release) then you could do a lot worse than DA2. It does have the lore if you are into this, but if you are worried of missing out in references made in inquisition, I think those would be few and far apart, especially references from DA2 which are controversial.


Cheers!








bbq_R0ADK1LL
bbq_R0ADK1LL

@Bodom_child  DA2 is OK but not great. There's no drive to the story in the same way as Origins & the weapon/armour customisation is lacking. It's completely class restricted & you don't have many options. Mostly you can buy better gear than you can loot.

I have a feeling that you'll be able to pick up the story pretty easily in Inquisitions if that's what you're worried about. It's not a terrible game though. If you find it cheap, it's worth sinking a few hours into.

blitzinD
blitzinD

@picho86


Yep this game is going to the bottom of a long list for me too and for the same reasons.

Paoksis
Paoksis

@Boogy32  mass effect 3 had the same purpose...you had to gather allies untill you proceed to the main missions or something similar if i remember correctly

amar1234
amar1234

@Boogy32  

yeh like saints row. I hated those kinds of artificial barriers,   i mean if they wanna do that at one or tow points in the game that's fine, but to make us do that regularly will get boring very very fast.

jemoedr
jemoedr

@Kyrylo  They said they focused on both. If there is a company that can pull this off, it's Bioware.

qioden
qioden

@Stiler  im not too sure, i also like to know what happened to Morrigan, the hero, Hawk and Isabela (thats my romance couples) but the story may continue and i really dont think we can get the answers we want, in this game at least, some hints... but fingers crossed

CaveManCobb
CaveManCobb

@SpigyX  My guess is we see him die. I don't imagine him vanishing like The Warden and Hawke did.

Navardo95
Navardo95

@reddevilofhell  Well said but your most probably have hurt those resolution screaming loners...but its great to see another gamer that isn't a sorry cave-dwelling loner that bashes people for the resolution they play their games on.

Boogy32
Boogy32

@diego_corleone 
Please don't get yourself too hyped up already.
I admit I like what I'm reading so far, we've been disappointed so many times. It's best to not have any expectations.
I guess I'm a cynic now... Huh...

suppaphly42
suppaphly42

@diego_corleone i don't think it will be "way"  better the witcher 3 won't be coming out on 360 or ps3
da 3 will be

blitzinD
blitzinD

@jemoedr @Kyrylo  "If there is a company that can pull this off, it's Bioware"


 I'd have given them that credit several years ago... not today.

Navardo95
Navardo95

@qioden @Kyrylo  Thats ambiguous..first of all Witcher 2 is NOT an open-world game although it does have explorable areas that are nice in scale and scope but its not an open-world at all...you can argue its a semi-open world game but there have been other games that have a world-size more or less the same as W2 with a neat storytelling...

As for Witcher 3 we'll have to see as theres almost no proper gameplay footage and trailers don't highlight the story properly.It does however sound revolutionary what the devs are doing and pulling it off will be an extremely huge challenge...and while I hope W3 is a revolutionary success I can also see the risk of it in failing to deliver a great storyline as its predecessors.

blitzinD
blitzinD

@Boogy32  Welcome to the club!!! We've been waiting for you. To celebrate your membership you get absolutely fuck all because that is what all good cynics have come to expect.