Infinite subdivision and narrative investment

Notes on Dragon Age: Origins #6 — When looking for the exit turns into “oh, just one more thing!”

Depending on how much DLC I play, I still may have a long way to go in Dragon Age: Origins — seriously, there is a LOT of DLC, including one or two that I’m supposed to play before I start the main game? Is that right? That’s a bit weird. I mean, maybe it’s a good way to encourage a second playthrough, or maybe it’s not unreasonable for BioWare to just assume a second playthrough, but I want my bonuses NOW. But anyway — but I think I’ve finally reached the point where it doesn’t feel anymore like I’m just getting started.

No matter how good a game is, at the beginning I almost always find myself looking for save points, implicitly asking how long I have to play before I can turn the game off again. If I’m annoyed by super long opening non-interactive cinematic cutscenes, it’s not so much because it’s so long before I can get started playing, but because it’s so long before I can stop.

This feels like a strange admission to make — I hate starting games — but I’m the same way with a lot of media, especially books. In the early going, I will physically put the book down after every chapter. The books that work aren’t the ones that keep me from doing this. They’re the ones that keep running around in my head so that I pick up the book again as quickly as possible.

BioWare, like many developers, fills their games with little tasks much more than big ones. Even the main story is subdivided into a infinity of individual steps, not so much “Save the Arl” as “walk into town,” “talk to the mayor,” “get the blacksmith back on track,” “persuade the dwarven mercenary to maybe fight,” “find out what the knights want,” “figure out what’s up with the local priest,” “go talk to the knights again about their metaphysical insecurities,” and “fight the rampaging undead to save (most) of the town (sorry, mayor).”

And all of this is before you can figure out a way to sneak into the castle to find out what’s wrong with the Arl. Saving him is an entirely different quest. (I still haven’t gotten to it.)


As the game gives me little tasks and side tasks, I’m finding myself looking to finish “just one more thing” again and again, delaying my exits rather than looking for them. (Although, strangely enough[?], I still have exit points in mind — “I’ll unlock the next floor, and then be done for the night, oh but let me just make sure I’ve found all the codex entries in this room, oh but I found a gift for a party member, oh my inventory is full AGAIN let me just get that sorted out. . .”)

For a game player who spends a lot of time thinking about story, it’s a rather mechanical way to think about how to know a game really has me invested, but it is still a sign that I’ve started to build a narrative presence in the game world — the multitude of mini-tasks have become additions to my experience rather than obstacles.

Or you know, I may still be figuring out how to talk about the Mage’s Tower. Next time!

Originally published 4/13/15 on Medium