Investment and the Keep

Notes on Dragon Age: Inquisition #1 — What the hell was it that I did again?

I started my letters on the last Dragon Age game with a strange digression into the unexpected issues that pop up when you try to abbreviate the, shall we say, non-standard nomenclature of the Dragon Age games, so I promise not to do the same thing for Dragon Age: Inquisition. Really.

I’ll just note one thing, super quickly. I’m really happy to have decided to abbreviate Dragon Age II as DA2 rather than DAII. Because otherwise we would have had a reverse Roman ordinal in Dragon Age: Inquisition (DAI) following Dragon Age II (DAII).

And that could be a bit confusing. So just to be clear, and to maintain consistency with my Dragon Age: Origins abbreviation (DA:O), Inquisition will be DA:I.

All set? All set.

So let’s start then at the real beginning: The Keep.

I had worried when figuring out whether to pick up the PS3 or PS4 editions of Inquisition how exactly importing my previous Dragon Age saves would work. It seemed sort of silly to buy the PS3 version if I could play the PS4 edition, but being able to import was a deal-breaker. That’s three-quarters of the reason why we play BioWare games, right? I mean, I changed my Shepard’s hair color slightly when I started Mass Effect 3 and I went back and restarted because it just didn’t feel right.

This often gets talked about in terms of player “choice,” but I tend to think about it more in terms of player investment in the game world. I could shave Shepard’s head and it wouldn’t affect the game’s story at all, but a Shepard with even a slightly different hair color somehow just wasn’t my Shepard, the mostly diplomatic, romantically fickle, sniper rifle-loving Commander with whom I’d traveled to the center of the galaxy and back. (On later playthroughs, I’ve even made entirely different romantic choices, staying faithful to one character from the first game to the last, but Shepard kept the sensible blonde bob just as faithfully.)

The Dragon Age series, on the other hand, is much less attached to a single player character. The Warden from Dragon Age: Origins appears in DA2 only as rumor or legend, and indications are that Hawke will be much the same, regardless of whether the player finished the game as Viscount or fugitive. The player’s investment has to be to the world rather than to any individual character, and even if DA2’s Varric and DA:O’s Leliana seem to play substantial roles in the early stages of DA:I, they’re not quite entirely accessible in the way that a player character is.

So the task is to import a world rather than a character, and for many players from an old platform to a new one. And BioWare’s answer to this challenge was the Keep.

You don’t actually have to have Dragon Age: Inquisition to visit the Keep (you do have to have or create an EA account, however), but I wouldn’t recommend it if you want to avoid spoiling all of the previous two games major and a surprising number of apparently minor choices stripped entirely of their storytelling context. (The artwork is pretty cool, though.)

Even having played both of the previous Dragon Age games, as well as most of the DLC, and fairly recently at that, the Keep is nothing less than overwhelming. I found myself resorting to the Dragon Age Wiki frequently, not to game my choices, but just to remind myself what the various scenarios and side quests were, and to try as best I could to figure out what I did.

As much work as it was, I kind of hope that the world state impacts DA:I more than it seemed to for DA2. I’m all for standalone games, and I’ve gone on record in the past arguing that continuity is overrated. But I spent a lot of time recreating my world state in the Keep. I’m invested.

And I’m ready to see a return on that investment.

In a sense, the Keep is almost more interesting as a design document than for my own specific world state. It’s a record of which player choices “matter” — or at least which ones the game bothers to flag and which ones it doesn’t. For example, I’m still not sure exactly what I did with Jowan after helping him escape from the Circle in my Warden’s prologue, freeing him from the Arl of Redcliffe’s dungeon, and then deferring a decision on his fate until the Arl recovered. It seems like a pretty big choice, and I spent a lot of energy worrying about Jowan across most of my time playing DA:O.

But the Keep doesn’t care. There’s nothing in the Tapestry to allow the player to note whether Jowan is alive or dead, free or subjected to the Rite of Tranquility. It doesn’t matter, apparently, and I don’t expect that we’ll see Jowan again.

Even if, for me, it would be nearly as meaningful as seeing Leliana or Merrill. Jowan’s an old friend. I’d like to know if he’s still in the world. Especially now that my Warden unambiguously is not. (Alive or dead were my only choices. There was no space for “Died, but inexplicably returned to serve as Warden Commander in Vigil’s Keep and weirded out Morrigan when they met again in the Dragonbone Wastes.”)

TOMORROW: On religion, maybe? Too soon? I’m really just getting started after all.

Originally published on TinyLetter, re-posted 1/19/17 on Medium