Investment, uncertainty, and withdrawal

Notes on Dragon Age: Inquisition #6 — On the difficulties in reading contingent narrative

What do you even do when you’ve finished playing a game like Dragon Age?

I typed that question yesterday and I’ve had it running through my head for the last 24 hours. One of the difficulties in trying to write seriously about video games (and, in all honesty, I hesitate to even place myself in that category — there are limits to seriousness, and there are limits to my abilities and ambition, and there are examples of people who take on problems in videogames and in broader contexts, and I don’t think what I do resembles those things terribly closely) is that videogames do not always reward serious attention, at least not using the models we use for other forms of media.

I don’t think there has to be an incompatibility between making observations and seeking to give pleasure in media. I usually consider it unproductive to discount works of media as primarily commercial objects. I’m even skeptical of critical dismissals of “genre” media as works of escapism rather than being worth of critical focus.

But — and is this hypocrisy? — what does one do with a massive, sprawling, and, most challengingly, deeply contingent interactive fantasy environment where the endgame frequently seems more concerned with setting up the possibility of further media objects in the fictional world than with resolving the tensions and conflicts already set in play? I’m reminded at the end of Inquisition of the denouement of DA2, in which no matter which loyalties and sympathies the player has established, it is necessary to fight and kill the leaders of both the Circle of Mages and the Templars.

To Inquisition’s credit, when I fought Samson, the lyrium addict who has become Corypheus’s lieutenant in charge of the Red Templars, I had a hard time imagining a mage standing in his place had I chosen differently earlier in the game and acted to save the Templars from Corypheus’s influence rather than the remnants of the Circle of Mages. But, even without digging into the wiki, I know that such a scenario exists, programmed with as many side quests and as much detail as the tasks I completed in my own particular playthrough.

Because that’s the trade-off in contingent narrative design. Even beyond the language of “authorship” or authorial intent, the’s no way to talk about what the game does in a singular fashion, except that the creation of coequal contingent narrative pathways — an either/or in which the same roles are simply filled by different faces — is a structural statement that the appearance of agency is possible but that effective agency is an illusion.

And this is a grand and troublesome critical assertion, mitigated in part by the resource-imposed limitations on contingent narrative design (the expense involved in creating digital environments and scripting, recording, and staging narrative events, as well as the fact that even Blu-ray or digital downloads cannot make game infinitely large) and by the recognition that player/reader/viewer agency is always constrained, even in interactive digital environments.

There is no such thing as perfect liberty, as unconstrained choice.

There is a middle ground that games like Dragon Age occupy between what I will call closely-authored digital narrative (think games like Portal, in which the narrative path is absolutely determined, with the possible exception of some background lore which can be discovered or not discovered by the player) and emergent narrative games (think Dwarf Fortress or Minecraft, which design themselves as mechanical systems and where player experiences coalesce into story, should the player be so inclined and so desire), and it is a middle ground I find experientially engaging.

I tend to describe this in terms of investment — I’ve put a great deal of time now into playing Dragon Age, and it’s rewarding to see the particular enduring outcomes of actions I have taken. There’s something in my head that pings when my companions talk amongst themselves about the impact choices I’ve made concerning Hawke in Inquisition will have on Merrill, the companion I romanced in DA2. It’s a small thing — in fact, frustratingly small at times — but it’s a recognition that there’s a me playing the game, and even if I’m a different character now in a different set of circumstances dealing with a necessarily different set of narrative priorities, there are thing about which I will continue to care.

That is, the gestures toward continuity between the narrative environments are effectively focused on the construction of a player that carries over from game to game rather than what we would normally consider a contiguous story. One of the difficulties in talking about what Dragon Age is doing as a narrative stems from the fact that Dragon Age is in the end more concerned with constructing the sense of an identity the player can inhabit rather than telling any particular story.

This is, I think, one of the reasons I have such difficulty completing alternate playthroughs in BioWare stories. A Shepard who is a jerk instead of a conciliator isn’t me, or at least isn’t my Shepard. A Warden/Champion/Inquisitor who treats mages as unworthy of self-determination because of an inherent danger within their nature goes against everything I’ve spent dozens of hours fighting for in the narrative world.

But, and this is the fact I’ve been trying to deal with both critically and emotionally, there is little if any payoff to that sort of investment outside the game world. There’s no grand statement to take away, because it could have been entirely different. Liberty is worth the cost, and those who seek to exert power over the very being of those they consider different are not just corruptible but inherently already guilty of terrible violence? Sure, you can take that away from my playthrough. But had I chosen differently, it would have been the mages who almost destroyed the world, and the Templars who were narratively in the right. In fact, Tevinter, and the history of the elven mages that Inquisition reveals to the player to one extent or another can make it feel like the game tends to side against my set of choices, although it’s unfair to assert that conclusively without an alternate playthrough.

A playthrough, as I’ve stated, I’m rather unlikely to ever complete.

So what does one do? I’m used, as a critic, to answering that question by working to engage the conversation initiated by a piece of media into additional contexts, or by looking to examine the way that elements of the work support or undermine the things it seems to be trying to say.

But at the moment, I think I’m suffering almost from a sense of withdrawal. Inquisition is a big game to complete, and while this feels like an unsatisfactory place to end, even to me, my ability to say more about the game may hinge on whether it is able to draw me back in at some point to inhabit my Inquisitor again. It’s possible, but for now, I think I’ve earned my rest.

Originally published on TinyLetter, re-posted 1/30/17 on Medium