Side Quests: Making Interesting “Fetch Quests”

Warning: Spoilers ahead for Dragon Age: Inquisition (specifically the Hinterlands).

 

The week before last I analyzed side quests and how you could make them more compelling than the generic fetch quests one might see in a grind-like MMORPG.  At the heart of the matter, I illustrated three ways one could make them interesting, namely: having side quests add to the story, having side quests with worthwhile loot, or having side quests with an enormous gameplay challenge.  In regards to story, I discussed certain aspects in Dragon Age II and how some of its side quests vastly change outcome of the story.  However, today I would like to expound on this point some more, and also tackle fetch quests which I didn’t talk about fully in that post.

Before we begin, let’s first discuss what will and will not be included when I say fetch quests.  For those unfamiliar, fetch quests are a specific type of quest that basically involves you getting an item to give an NPC.  An NPC may say they lost an object and need you to find and return it.  Some NPC may request you clear an area of spiders and bring their fangs as proof (i.e. kill a certain number of this creature).  A different NPC may ask you to collect so much of a specific herb that spawns in an area.  These are the sorts of quests will be discussed in this article, but I am also including similarly simple quests that don’t necessarily involve lots of fighting.  For instance, if you find an ancient scroll that tells you to go to a cave to find loot or fight a monster, those are close enough in simplicity that they will be included in my analysis.

With that established, one must wonder how such simple tasks could be interesting.  After all, in the last post even I acknowledged the criticism that these are what make MMORPGs a grind sometimes.  Certainly, my purpose here is not to say fetch quests are the most interesting of all, and I stand by my post that there are ways to make more interesting side quests.  That being said, fetch quests still have their place, if not for the sake of giving players an easy way to kill some time, take a breather, and still earn EXP and money.  Since they are most likely going to stay in gaming for a quite a while, it doesn’t hurt to try and make them more compelling.  This is where story and world-building comes in, which even fetch quests can tap into and enhance.  Even if they cannot change the story, there are two things fetch quests can do very well, very easily: enhance the tone and atmosphere of the story and add to the world lore.

To illustrate this, I am going to discuss Dragon Age: Inquisition, so spoilers ahead for those not familiar with the Dragon Age series.

Dragon_Age_Inquisition_Concept_Art_MR12_Confrontation

One manner in which fetch quests can aid a game’s story is by reinforcing the tone or the atmosphere.  One of the primary background problems in Dragon Age: Inquisition is, of course, the mage rebellion.  The fight with mages has progressed so badly that even the Templars have gone rogue and hunt mages at their leisure.  Unfortunately, innocent people have gotten caught in between the fights, and there are a lot of refugees as a result.  This background setup primarily comes into play in the Hinterlands, where the player experiences first-hand how devastating the mage rebellion has been.

This being the case, many of the fetch quests in this area help reinforce this sad devastation.  For instance, some of the starting quests involve you getting supplies for the refugees, specifically food and blankets which the refugees have none of.  Through the dialogue of the quests, the suffering of the refugees is emphasized, as how they have no food or warmth is discussed by people at length.  Though a subtle insert, it helps drive home how devastating and far spread the war is.  Another example quest is obtained by entering a house that is fairly in the middle of nowhere.  Upon entering, you can speak with a woman who asks you to retrieve a ring that Templars took after killing her husband, who they suspected was an Apostate (a rogue mage).  Though, again, the dialogue is simple, it revolves around the thoughtlessness of the Templars and mages at the devastation that is being wrought upon the civilians.

Though I could name many like this, what should be clear is these specific fetch quests help emphasis the tone of war in the area.  The quests often revolve around the setting of the mage rebellion, involving issues with helping the refugees and trying to repair the area from the rampant destruction.  This being the case, the player is immersed further into the setting, as these quests aren’t random happenstance.  Rather, they are used to reflect a cause and effect in the world, which allows it to feel more real.  The flavor text also showcases the expected emotions in such a case, such as sadness, desperation, and hopelessness.  Everything about these fetch quests has an overtone of the setting, so though simple, they allow the player to remain immersed in the world, rather than be reminded they are playing a game.

The other manner in which fetch quests can be interesting is via their ability to add to the lore.  At least for fantasy and sci-fi set RPGs, the general rule of thumb is the better developed the world, the more immersive a setting you give the player to get into.  However, one never wants to dump too much lore at once, so adding and increasing the world lore must be done in small chunks.  This is something fetch quests can be very good at in the right hands, since they are short, simple quests that the player can have a low key commitment to do.

For instance, let’s take a look at the landmark quests in Dragon Age: Inquisition.  As the player travels throughout the various areas in the game, they can claim landmarks.  This is a simple matter that literally involves traveling to the area and pressing a key/button in the right spot.  However, when the player claims the landmarks, they receive a codex entry (a small collection of world information).  The player can, of course, choose to ignore it, which is perfectly fine.  Yet, if one chooses to read the codex entry, they find out interesting world information that is tied to the landmark.  Though it’s a small addition, the world can grow via these landmarks and they cease to be just polygons on a screen.  Rather, they begin to live up their titular title of landmarks.  As a whole, though, they help increase the lore of the story, but also keep it optional for the players who don’t care about lore.

 

While I could ramble on and on about other sorts of quests in Dragon Age: Inquisition, let alone some other games, these are a few examples of ways one can make fetch quests more interesting.  Though, of course, I still wouldn’t say they hold a candle to more in-depth quests, they can be handled in a manner that continues to immerse players.  For game development, at least for story heavy games, the last thing you want is for a player to be reminded they’re playing a game.  This is, sadly, where a lot of MMORPGs fail with their quest design, since they add so little the player is hyper aware they are playing a game.  In Dragon Age: Inquisition’s case, though, the quests are generally always designed with heavy world overtones.  So, even if they can be a grind sometimes, the story additions make it worthwhile to still complete them.

Regardless of what you’re designing your quests for, the key is to always give them purpose beyond EXP and virtual money.  Compel the player to complete the quest, even if their additions are optional flavor text that just add a smidgen of lore or atmosphere.  You ultimately shape the experience for the players, so even if it’s fetch quests, use them to bring out the very best of your game.

 

Dragon Age: Inquisition is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Dragon Age Inquisition concept art from Concept Art World.

Side Quests: Interesting vs. Boring

Warning: Spoilers ahead for Dragon Age II and Kingdom Hearts.

 

Anyone who has played any sort of mission/quest based game is familiar with side quests.  They’re those pesky optional quests that the player can choose to complete or not.  Some are simple, such as delivering a package to the NPC in the next town.  Some are challenging, like cave diving for a treasure.  Then there’s also the invariably hard and cruel ones that have you defeat some optional boss that takes every ounce of your being to defeat.  In either case, side quests come in a variety of flavors and vastly help to buffer the gameplay time.

However, not all side quests were created equal.  In fact, some can be outright snore fests.  Take, for instance, pretty much any optional quest in an MMORPG.  In general, these fall into one of a few categories: kill a certain number of creatures, collect certain ingredients/items, or deliver something to an NPC.  MMORPGs are very formulaic when it comes to this matter.  While these side quests do earn you experience points (exp) and virtual money, they have little else to offer the player.  They are, essentially, what makes a lot of MMORPGs grind-fests as it were.  Single player games can often be guilty of the same thing, especially for the RPG genre in general.

That being said, it is quite possible to make interesting side quests.  There are a variety of routes to go with this, but let’s examine three types of side quests that can actually be interesting.  These are namely side quests that add to the story, side quests that offer worthwhile loot, and side quests that offer an enormous challenge to test the player’s skill.  As a last note before we begin, for the purposes of this article we are defining side quests as any sort of optional task or fight that can be completed.

In regards to the first one, and personally my favorite, are the side quests that add to the story.  To example this, let us examine Dragon Age II.  Quests in this game are divided into several categories, namely “Main Plot,” “Secondary,” “Side Quests,” and “Companion.”  Despite the titles, the latter three can all be considered side quests for our purposes, since no quest in them absolutely needs to be done.  “Side Quests” in Dragon Age II offer the generic set of fetch quests, though they are useful for gold in Act 1 of the game.  However, “Secondary” and “Companion” quests are more than that; rather, they are sequences that add to the story.  For example, each party character has a personal story arc, such as Isabela’s attempts to find a relic she lost at the beginning of the game.  At the end of Act 2 when tensions are hitting their climax, the player receives the option to do a personal quest for her to retrieve the relic.  During this quest, the player learns that this so-called relic is the sacred Tome of Koslun, the entire cause for why the Qunari are in Kirkwall causing trouble.  Whether or not the player does this quest largely influences the main quest.  If the player chose to help Isabela and has a strong relationship with her, she will return with the tome, giving the player a different way to solve the main questline.  If not, the player is stuck with only two real options, both which involve a difficult fight.

As you can see in this example, the side quest can vastly affect the outcome in the story.  That being the case, the side quest becomes worthwhile, whether you do it or not in this case.  Particularly for story heavy RPGs, any quest that can tie into the story, even it’s just about developing the player’s relationship with a character, can increase their emotional involvement in the story.  This makes the game far more compelling to play, even to the point that sometimes you can overlook poorly implemented mechanics to continue the story.  Thus, the quest is interesting, because it can have tangible effects and doesn’t just fade into memory.

Another sort of interesting side quest is one that has worthwhile loot.  In this case, we will look again at Dragon Age II.  During Act 3, the player has the option to slay a High Dragon.  Though I wouldn’t personally say it’s the most difficult fight in the game, it is one that is a challenge and requires quite a bit of micro-managing to succeed.  However, what makes this fight worthwhile to do is that the dragon drops one of the main components for the “Mantle of the Champion” armor set.  Not only is this set extremely good as far as stats, but it’s also probably the most badass looking armor in the game.  Frankly, I could not imagine completing the end game without wearing that armor.  It would just feel too odd and make the end game even more difficult.

Regardless, it is the loot in this example that offers the interesting facet.  In more boring side quests, though the player may get money or loot, it is generally not anything game changing.  In this example, however, the game adds value to the player’s time spent doing the quest.  The rewards, despite the pains in doing the battle, are worthwhile and give the player a greater edge during the last parts of the game.  In that case, then, though the quest itself is straight-forward, the reward creates a side quest that is compelling for the player to complete.

HighDragonDAII

Lastly, let us discuss the final type: side quests that offer the player a challenge for their skills.  In this case, I’m going to switch series and look at something more classic.  Namely, we’re going to examine the optional boss fight with Sephiroth in Kingdom Hearts.  For those not familiar with this fight, let me start off by saying the following: Sephiroth can one-shot you right at the start of the battle.  This fact alone should give you a hint at how hard this boss fight is.  Not only are Sephiroth’s attacks powerful, but his long sword gives him an immense range.  Even if you spend the hours it takes to create the best Keyblade, the fight is still extremely difficult.  One must have honed their skills and strategy in the game for several hours to even dream of taking Sephiroth on, and even then the fight would still be a challenge.

However, that is what makes that “quest” interesting.  The difficulty of the battle is like nothing else offered in the game.  It taxes the player’s time, skills, and reflexes and may even require training to complete.  The consequence, though, is that being able to defeat Sephiroth offers a sense of pride that other fights do not.  The player knows that it is because of their skill that they were able to beat this boss, so they can take satisfaction in that.  In a sense, what makes this type of side quest compelling is the potential bragging rights.  By doing this quest, you join a special club of people (metaphorically) who were actually able to complete it.  All in all, it is these factors that make the optional quest captivating to complete, despite the huge spike in difficulty.

In summary, there are a variety of ways you can make a side quest interesting.  Whether it’s by story, loot, or challenge, each of the mentioned examples above adds value to the player’s time.  In a sense, these quests feel like they have purpose in the game, more than just making the player feel like the game is longer than it is.  They offer compelling experiences that serve to immerse players more, rather than remind them that they are playing a game.  Though fetch quests and other similar low maintenance side quests have their place, one must not forget these should not be the sole form of optional quests.  Players are devoting their time to the game, so one should respect that time given.  Though no simple task design wise to be sure, it is something I hope aspiring developers will consider when developing their games.

 

Dragon Age II is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Kingdom Hearts is © Square Enix, Disney Interactive Studios, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Dragon Age II screenshot of the High Dragon.  Obtained from the Dragon Age Wiki.

Another Argument for Mechanic Transparency: Dragon Age II Edition

Warning: Semi spoilers ahead for Dragon Age II.

 

Enemy waves are no new concept to video games.  They have been around for years and will probably remain for as long as they offer value to players.  While from my experience their existence can be a bit polarizing, it’s hard to discount them completely given the numerous amounts of players that like the challenge.  That being said, there are cases in which its execution is flawed at best.  One such instance that I wish to discuss today appears in Dragon Age II, where a lack of transparency makes the experience somewhat infuriating.

Before I delve into the brief discussion, let’s first define what I mean by waves of enemies.  In this case, I am talking about games that have their enemies appear in large groups or “waves.”  Regardless of whether the initial wave is visible at the start, enemies will continue to show up in a group at specified intervals.  These intervals can be dependent on time, amount of enemies left, or other factors, as long as a clear, identifiable separator between groups can be determined with observation.  The size of the groups is also irrelevant for the sake of this discussion; all that matters is the game’s enemy mechanics are based on several groups/waves of enemies showing up before full completion of a combat sequence (whether for a temporary sequence or the entire game).

da2promoimage

With that established, let us turn to Dragon Age II.  Unlike its predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins, where most of the combat has all enemies on the screen, Dragon Age II relies on waves of enemies to save on processing power amongst other things.  The various waves show up usually dependent on health and amount of enemies left on screen.  While in some cases the player can escape and get out of the combat sequence (though generally this requires a lot of stubbornness to achieve), in most cases the player is stuck in the combat sequence until all waves are defeated.

Of course, this sounds fairly standard for a “waves of enemies” mechanic, so at what point do I think the game went astray?  As I stated, this has a lot to do with a lack of transparency.  In a lot of games, when it implements waves of enemies, it will have information on the screen for the player.  Generally, this is information such as number of waves that the player will have to face, number of enemies the player has to defeat, or a combination of both.  In either case, these sorts of games make it clear to the player how long they will be fighting.  As such, the player can strategize appropriately.  Especially in games where inventory may be limited, this allows players to choose appropriate moments to use items, or to know when their best opportunity to prepare a trap is.  There are numerous instances where such information can be handy, and for players it makes the experience more satisfying.  Additionally, if a player fails, they know better at what point, and can appropriately adjust their strategy for the next try.  In the end, this results in a more fulfilling experience, since the game is delivering enough information to allow the players to apply their skills appropriately.

Unfortunately, Dragon Age II does not feature this simple information.  Rather, the player is left in a void of uncertainty on how many waves they will face.  While some can be guessed because of certain questlines having consistency, more often than not the player will have to have played the game before to know.  This makes good strategizing near impossible, sadly.  You could be struggling to save a mana potion, only to find out you were on the last wave and could’ve ended the fight quicker if you had taken it.  Another scenario: you went through most of your health potions, used the last one thinking you’re at the end, only to discover there are two more waves.  Numerous situations like this come about, all because the game chooses not to inform the player more clearly about what situations they will be facing.  While some would argue that this makes it so players have to be prepared, there is a point where preparation and strategy must work in conjunction.  Unfortunately, Dragon Age II’s transparency issue makes it so the preparation and strategy are not able to work together.

This lack of transparency results in one simple thing: the combat becomes tedious and somewhat unenjoyable.  The end goal is fairly undefined outside of kill everyone and don’t die.  By consequence, once the player wins there is almost of a sense of anti-climax, since there was no way to identify that would be the end point.  In similar fashion, when the player fails, they feel less like it was their fault; the game feels like it is unfairly throwing enemy after enemy at you, so it was more the fault of a badly designed game than the skill of the player.  Whether that is true or not, players who come away from combat feeling that will not be inspired to continue playing the game.  In the end, a lot of fun is ruined in Dragon Age II, simply from choosing not to be transparent about its game mechanics.

While I do like Dragon Age II just fine, I can identify its combat has this fairly noticeable flaw.  Though many others would point out the terrible, over-used level designs, I think the very nature of its combat exasperates that problem as well.  Had the developers chosen to be clearer about the enemies faced, whether it be by wave number, enemy number, or something else, the game may have had a more robust feeling combat that was skill based.  As it stands, though, the experience can be frustrating.

Overall, I hope this analysis serves as a cautionary tale to indie developers.  Even if the information seems minuscule, sometimes it is better to mention than not mention a piece of information, lest you wind up damaging the player’s experience by leaving out too much.

 

Dragon Age II is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Dragon Age II promotional game screen.  Obtained from PC Gamer.

Why I Find Dragon Age: Origins Quests Tedious

Warning: Spoilers ahead for Dragon Age: Origins.  Also, this is a very game specific opinion piece.  If you aren’t familiar with the game, you may not understand this post very well.

 

As I continue to traverse in my little free-time through Dragon Age: Origins yet again, I am reminded of a consistent fact: I hate the Fade.  For those who need a refresher, lore wise the Fade, or the Beyond to Dalish elves, is a world of spirits, demons, and dreams.  Gameplay wise, the Fade is a major component during the “Broken Circle” quest line, as at a certain point you get transported to this nightmare-scape by a demon.  It is, in my opinion, a nightmare to play through as it involves numerous loading screens, numerous fights that are overly difficult if you are a rogue or warrior, and a bunch of other small annoyances.  However, as I examined my dislike for this sequence, it occurred to me that many of the main storyline quests in Dragon Age: Origins are equally tedious to me.  Why would that be though?

Then it hit me: three of the four major storyline quests have false endings and terrible boss pacing.

Now before I begin with the specifics, do not get me wrong.  I love Dragon Age: Origins.  If that was not the case, I would not be on my fifth or sixth playthrough of it.  Nevertheless, I can recognize flaws within the game, and this happens to be one of them.

So, what exactly do I mean by false endings and terrible boss pacing?  Let’s first take a look at the “Broken Circle” quest line.  After traversing three or four floors of the Circle’s tower, the player is sent to the Fade, which is a rather long sequence that requires about the same amount of time as the tower itself to complete (at least if you’re thorough about some of the extras).  At the end of the Fade, you fight Sloth, the demon who put you there in the first place.  It is not an easy battle by any means and requires killing Sloth several times in different forms.  There is a sense of finality to the battle, yet, that is not the end.  Rather, you must fight Uldred, the real boss, who is almost literally right after the battle with Sloth.  In this case, there is no breathing room between these separate boss battles, making the fight feel long and tedious with little time to resupply and prepare between them.  The Fade sequence does feel like it should be the end of the questline as well, so to have another boss battle right after it feels somewhat anti-climatic as far as story-telling goes.

What about the other quests though?  In “The Arl of Redcliffe” questline, there are various paths to completing the quest, namely saving or abandoning Redcliffe and saving or killing Connor (the possessed mage child responsible for the problems in Redcliffe).  Once dealing with Connor however, it turns out this was not the end of the quest line.  Now, the player must go on a whole separate questline (“The Urn of Sacred Ashes”) to heal the Arl; unfortunately, this second questline has no real boss battle as a finality (the High Dragon is optional afterall).  The numerous amount of back and forth in this quest line vastly ruin the pacing and make it hard to feel there’s a proper climax.  Additionally, no battle within it feels like a true boss battle and it becomes a mix of easy enemies and hard enemies.  Thus, this questline, to me at least, has never felt like it had a final moment of feeling like I earned something.

Then, of course, we have the “A Paragon of Her Kind” questline.  Before even heading into the Deep Roads, the player must get the support of Bhelen or Harrowmont through various quests.  One of these support quests involves killing the carta boss Jarvia, which is a decent mini boss.  Alas, she is but one of three mini bosses before the player even gets to the final point.  While in the Deep Roads, the player must pass through four thaigs in order to get to the Anvil of the Void; however, all these thaigs are long enough to feel like two main storyline quest worth of material.  This is not to mention the fact you must also fight two mini-bosses before getting to the final fight against whichever Paragon you did not support.  In the end, the pacing on this quest was just overly drawn out.  One keeps wondering when they’ll finally hit the end, and every boss fight seems like false hope to reaching that sense of finality.

To summarize, these three quests are just terribly paced.  While I can appreciate trying to have variance in the composition of the questlines, the pacing feels off because of the segmentation of each quest.  They are not interconnected well to feel like parts of the same quest (even though completing them moves the main story-line along), so drawing them out as in “A Paragon of Her Kind” does not work well.  The timing of bosses was also ill conceived in some cases, since they felt either like they should have been the real boss or were simply of no concern as a climax at all.  In the end, a lot of these quests just feel tedious, since they do not properly convey a sense of achievement when they are completed.

Now you may have noticed I left out the “Nature of the Beast” questline.  This is because this is the questline I think is well-designed.  The quest has a few stages that are decent in gameplay length, and give the player opportunities to breathe and resupply.  Mini boss wise, the player can fight The Grand Oak or the Mad Hermit, but this is smack dab in the middle of the quest stage and is completely optional depending on choices.  There is also a dragon to fight within the ruins, but it is equally in the middle of the ruins sequence.  At the end, the player is given a clear idea that fighting the Lady of the Forest or Zathrian will be the end of the quest and accomplish the end goal.  As such, this is a pleasant quest, for me at least, to play through.  The story feels properly climatic where it should, and I never feel like the quest is dragging on too long.  The bosses are also well-paced to get the blood-pumping, but never catch the player unaware by putting them too close together.  In the end, this is the easiest one to play through and feel like something has been accomplished without feeling overwhelmed.

That being said, I’m sure others will have different opinions.  I can only give my opinion here on this blog.  However, I hope that someone will take these insights to heart when designing a questline, as pacing is very important to making a pleasing experience that doesn’t trap the player in an anti-climatic tedium.  This goes for story too, of course, but gameplay and story can be very intertwined.

My last thought on the matter is simply this: next time you’re playing a game and don’t understand why you dislike a certain sequence, maybe take a look at the pacing, as that may explain quite a lot.

 

Dragon Age: Origins is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Dragon Age: Origins Cover.  Obtained from Wikipedia.

When Game Mechanics Break Lore Pt. 2

Warning: Spoilers ahead for the Dragon Age series.

 

Welcome to Part 2 of this discussion about game mechanics breaking lore.  Yesterday, I talked about how the Blood Mage and Spirit Healer specializations were heavily tied in via the lore and story of Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II.  However, as I hinted at the end, things began to go downhill when Dragon Age: Inquisition joined the franchise.

Like its predecessors, Dragon Age: Inquisition utilizes class specializations for character builds.  As technology and know-how has come quite a long ways since the first of the series, companion characters within Dragon Age: Inquisition will actually comment upon your choice of specialization.  Like when Dragon Age II entered the franchise though, mechanics were changed in an attempt to improve the game’s entertainment value.  For mages, the specializations available in Dragon Age: Inquisition are Knight-Enchanter, Necromancer, and Rift Mage.

I’m sure as you can notice at first glance these are not at all specializations that were present in the first games.

Now whether the specializations are well-developed is a discussion for another day.  What is relevant to today’s discussion is that lore wise and description wise, these specializations are not anything that has previously been established within the game’s world.  I am certainly not opposed to new elements that may enhance the lore or change specializations for the better.  In fact, anyone who knows me can tell you I love necromancy mage classes.  Yet, none of these specializations match up to the previous games as far as lore goes.  In essence, these make the game’s world feel entirely different than what it has felt like before, and in this case, not in a good way.

What exactly happened, you ask?  Anyone familiar with the franchise will know about the lack of healing controversy for Dragon Age: Inquisition.  For those who don’t, in an effort to make the game “harder” the developers took out healing and instead replaced it with flasks, barriers, and other compensating mechanics.  It basically changed from healing yourself in the game to preparing yourself to just never get hit or take damage. Unfortunately, this lack of ability to heal or be a Spirit Healer feels completely out of place in the world.  It has been shown since the beginning to be part of the world, and for characters like Anders, it is somewhat integral to their presence.  Yet, we are faced with a game whose mechanics do not let us reflect that mages in this world can heal.  Thus, rather than being the world where we met Anders or any of the characters who had a role by healing someone with magic, this feels like a different world.  The consequence is that the lore feels broken; those invested into the lore are hit with that reminder I mentioned yesterday about the world being fictional.  Hence, it becomes much harder to immerse yourself due to the foreign tone that is suddenly present.

Of course, there is also the lack of Blood Mage to address.  The argument has been made that for this particular game, Blood Mage would not be a suitable specialization for the Inquisitor.  While there can be validity in this argument, previous games have never had issue.  Even in Dragon Age II you could have a Blood Mage Hawke but never get villainized the same way due to a myriad of circumstances.  So, in light of that, it seems to be a very thin argument to make.  However, even if your Inquisitor cannot be a Blood Mage, the concept of blood magic is well-established into the world’s lore.  Sadly, through most of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the concept is barely ever mentioned.  This is great oddity considering the war between mages and Templars is still ongoing during the game’s events.  In the end, between both the lack of the mechanic and the bare mention of such an important lore piece, the world once again feels completely different from the one players experienced in the previous games.

dai_apostates

As shown, these game mechanics were, originally, tied very well into the lore.  They suited known elements of the franchise, such as blood magic, and were utilized in a way that always immersed one better into the world they were playing through.  It achieved what these sorts of games should; each character was its own character in a world, rather than just some generic medium for player’s to experience the story.  Yet, when the mechanics were thrown out for the “sake of improvement,” fans of the franchise were suddenly left in a foreign world.  Mechanics wise, very little for the mage specializations reflected over, and this changed the entire tone and way in which the player engaged the world.  The changes made were just far too drastic and ruined some of the mystique and continuity of the world.  This is especially insulting considering the Warrior class maintained well-established specializations in all three games.  Why was mage treated to such a lore breaking change (and rogue for that matter)?

My hope for this analysis is that other potential game creators realize that game mechanics and lore can be tied together in a very important way.  For story games, the best ones are those that make their mechanics fit the world’s lore.  It immerses players into the world, since every aspect of them playing feels part of it.  However, breaking the game mechanics too far away from the established lore and precedence can backfire for your longtime fans, making the world feel too utterly foreign to be immediately enjoyable.  Though improvements and changes should be made to increase a franchise’s longevity, one should always keep in mind previously established canon.

Though I still enjoyed Dragon Age: Inquisition and appreciate other elements it added to the lore, part of me will always remember this particular lore break with bitterness.  It is a dark spot for me on the franchise, and I can only hope the next addition goes back to its origins a bit more.

 

Dragon Age is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Concept Art- Apostates in Dragon Age: Inquisition.  Obtained from the Dragon Age Wiki.

Those Small Game Details Pt. 1

In the recent days, I started a new character in Dragon Age: Origins.  For those unfamiliar with the game, it’s a Western RPG that is focused on your choices altering the epic story that is present.  Its particular highlight is its origin stories, where you can play through one background story depending on the race and class you pick.  This is probably going to be the 5th or 6th time I’ve played through the game, so this certainly isn’t my virgin experience with it.  My first play-through back in 2009 was a Human Mage, which I chose because, frankly, mages are my favorite class.  That being said, I did want to experience the other origins/character background stories, so subsequent characters had to be warriors or rogues to fulfill that end.

This time, for my new character, I was struck with the desire to create an Elven Mage.  As mentioned, this is not my first ride, so going through the game I know what to expect generally speaking.  Once I got to the sequence where you must climb the Tower of Ishal, however, I was struck by a sudden and surprising detail.  Once you arrive at the tower, the game provides you with two NPCs so you have a full, four person party to deal with the combat.  With my warriors and rogues, these NPCs have always been one mage and one warrior/rogue.  With this play-through, I was taken aback by the fact both NPCs were warriors/rogues.  Yet, it makes perfect sense!  The mage NPC is there to balance out the team more.  Since I am the one who is a mage this play-through, there isn’t a need to throw one my way for the balance.  It was a small detail, but one that really left me in awe since I did not know it was a possible permutation.

This anecdote of mine leads me to my topic at last: small game details and how they enhance games.  Usually when people are talking about choices that affect gameplay and/or story, they are speaking on a macro level.  Did you choose a class that is going to have a huge disadvantage in a later fight but receives better rewards?  Did you kill some character who would’ve become a powerful boss fight later on?  These are easy to recognize cause and effects that can, of course, make the experience of multiple playthroughs worthwhile.  Nevertheless, for me personally, it is the smaller details that leave me astounded.  Did the game recognize I made a certain dialogue choice that, while inconsequential, seemed relevant enough to be mentioned later?  Does the story reflect that my character is a bit of a jerk by giving them a tone that matches?  I feel these small details are often ignored.  Yet, I think they play a large role in enhancing the experience of a game, particularly when speaking of immersion.

So, with the inevitable eyebrow raises that must be present, let me explain my logic.

ice_screenshot_20170201-013846

Visiting my above anecdote again, this change in NPC, while seemingly minor in the larger scheme of things, definitely did affect my experience.  For one thing, as I mentioned, the point of making sure a mage in the party is for the sake of balance.  Having two mages, while perfect for some, may not be ideal for the Tower of Ishal sequence, given how it is designed with one mage in mind.  That being the case, this minor change that reflects your character’s status as a mage makes sure the player is optimized for the sequence.  On a story level, I felt this change actually made the game more immersive.  Rather than just feeling like one of my old characters, this character suddenly felt like their own person; the game made sure I had this little personal touch that reflected some of my base choices.  In so doing, the story, while not changed on a larger scale, felt nuanced in a way that was different from my old characters.  Dragon Age: Origins generally does a good job in doing this with smaller details, which allows each character to have their own story.  Even if the plot points are the same and you make similar choices, the varying differences in dialogue concerning your race and class can give nuances to each character.  Thus, it gives each playthrough its own hint of originality.

 

Please tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of this three part analysis.  In the next segment, I will analyze details of a game in a different genre.

 

Dragon Age: Origins is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Screenshot- From the Dragon Age Keep with a screen head-shot of my Elven Mage.