Feature Article

Balancing Freedom and Story in Dragon Age: Inquisition

This truly is the age of dragons.

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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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