Player Character Dissonance in Dragon Age: Inquisition
Now that I’ve spent some time with Dragon Age: Inquisition, I safely feel like I can say that it’s a solid game. There’s a lot to do and the amount of detail that Bioware has poured into the production is phenomenal. I definitely have been noticing some interesting things about the story and the world and how, on occasion, they can be a little bit heavy-handed with the narrative, specifically in terms of the main character. Most of the companion side-missions are awesome and engaging, they offer insight to the character and based on the choices you make will actually serve to develop how you interact with them as a player. Unfortunately, that doesn’t fully carry over to the player character, who I’m honestly finding just a little bit too blank of a slate for me to enjoy fully. I understand that the purpose of being able to create a character is to lead the story with whatever type of person you want (or are, in some cases), but in Inquisition, I feel like this falls a little short, and taking a look at Bioware’s previous work can tells us exactly why that is.
In the Mass Effect trilogy you are Commander Shepard from the very start of the game. That sounds obvious, but what I’m saying is that you, as a player controlling an avatar, are given a guideline for what sort of role said avatar occupies in the world before game events take place, and those guidelines run parallel with the narrative you discover throughout all three games. Shepard is a soldier with the Alliance, Shepard is in a position of leadership, Shepard is someone who does what needs to be done. Even before you get to make a single choice about what kind of character you want to play you are given these cues to direct and ground your hero within the context of the game’s world and story. When you get to choose your hero’s background, both in Dragon Age and Mass Effect, it serves as flavor and player influence on perceived story rather than a solidly set trait that the character possesses. This is why I think I’ve been having trouble connecting with the hero of Inquisition: I may get to control the hero of the story, but with no context to ground them in the world at the beginning of the tale, they seem just as foreign to Thedas as I am.
I think that this must be a result of the Dragon Age series being more solidly grounded in the roots of western RPG’s as well as pen-and-paper gaming like Dungeons & Dragons. They want the player to be able to craft whatever sort of hero they want and get to have that hero make choices about a complex and changing world, but limitations of the medium make that difficult to achieve. The complexity of branching storylines and player choice offered by imagination-driven role playing games is confined on systems by hardware, software, pacing, and monetary limitations and there has yet to be a game that truly offers the player as full agency (Well… close actually…). However, I do applaud Bioware for their long-running and ambitious attempts to combine all of these elements over the years, even since Baldur’s Gate and the first attempts at combining specific tabletop elements with video games. Even though I think that Inquisition falls just a little bit short of that lofty mark, there have been a few moments in-game that I have felt like all of the narrative elements between character, story, and world lined up beautifully to create a harmonious and balanced choice-based story experience.