I recently vented at length about my apathy for finishing video games and specifically bemoaned the big budget "style," in which a small, interesting idea is hidden inside a two-ton container of filler. What I didn't say then is that while I don't finish many games, there's an entire genre I rarely even start: the role-playing game. And so I'm surprised to find myself not just 20 hours into Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third part of a series I've ignored, but with enough enthusiasm and curiosity to possibly reach its conclusion another 60 hours away.
For the first time, an enormous fantasy role-playing game, steeped in sticky mythos, feels accessible. For a game about elves, demons, dragons, and a tear in the fabric of reality, it all feels human. Smart dialogue, likable characters, and a beautiful setting, which often looks like Hollywood matte paintings, help this fantasy world feel earthly.
My character and her choices, or should I say her right to make those choices, is what I find most affecting. I return to the game day after day because I care about her, which is really saying I care about myself.
I rarely start role-playing games
Role-playing games have long received praise for their inclusivity, particularly those made by BioWare, the studio behind Inquisition. Its games allow you to choose your race, gender, and often your sexuality and romantic partners. You have the choice to play with the frameworks of good, evil, and the moral gray space of dark fantasy and science fiction. But I never really related to the heroes of my journey, who always felt more puckish or sarcastic or brave than I'd like. And what they spoke about always felt too small and personal, as if conversations and choices in the micro level were standing in for larger problems outside my control on the macro level.
Dragon Age: Inquisition has rightfully received praise for its scope, its collection of open worlds that individually feel like complete, standalone games that taken together feel impenetrable and exhausting. But what I haven't seen discussed as thoroughly is what that scope allows for, which is a staggering amount of complex politicking. From the intro screen, the game establishes two core feuding factions, and as the game progresses those factions further divide themselves by leaders and collectives with their own wants and needs, allies and enemies. The game uses its sprawling geography to literalize these groups, and where you choose to spend your time, who you choose to help, and how you do as much establishes your personal politics inside the game world.
The game is so big, so daunting, and so full of unique people and places that you know your decisions will help some but hurt others. In a period of terror, you must prioritize who you work with and how you work with them. Is exerting brute strength and partnering with mercenaries and vigilantes justifiable so long as you protect the world from cataclysm? Or would you rather put the world at risk, knowing you strove to save it justly? These are big questions, and they play out both on that micro level from before, in intimate conversations with dozens, if not hundreds of characters, as well as that macro level I craved, as you sway entire armies and send scouts to survey new land.
What I'm saying is, for the first time playing a role-playing game, I don't feel like I have to establish my identity purely through predetermined dialogue trees. I establish myself through the actions I take and the value I place on the many people and lands of a fictional world.
I don't have to establish my identity through predetermined dialogue trees
I'm sure much of what I like is a sleight of hand, the developer creating the illusion of control. Which is fine because it's the best trick in town and I have no idea how it works.
Right now, I am playing a fantasy role-playing video game because it feels like a safe place to test my beliefs, a laboratory where my personal belief system can be tested by a constant stream of grand moral questions. My hero, a female rogue elf, approaches everyone with love and tolerance, but that can get her in a pickle. She's also reluctant to identify as the savior (in the literal godly sense) that so many of the people she meets want her, even need her, to be. She's nice but skeptical — helpful but easily duped. She won't partner with people she mistrusts, which sometimes leaves her shorthanded in a battle.
She's not making the game easy for me. I'm not making the game easy for myself. And that's what I want. I'm being tested. That's what makes the game so accessible. On its deepest level, Dragon Age: Inquisition is about the person playing it.