Thursday, December 18, 2014

Stop Draggin' My Heart Around

Guys! Guys!

Inquisition is so good.

It is beautiful, and wonderful, and engaging. It challenges me, and makes me play at the edge of my seat, leaning forward and frowning in concentration as I ponder the fate of the world and just how far I'm willing to go to save it.

Like a lot of other nerds who play video games, my ur-concept of the ultimate game comes from Ender's Game. Not "the gate is down" combat game: the immersive, virtual reality, procedural RPG/adventure game. You know, the one with the giant and the two drinks and the eyeballs. I encountered that story at a young, impressionable age, and it has stuck with me as the ultimate potential of the form of the video game: a unique experience for every player which responds to their actions, adapting itself to match their evolving capabilities, but also challenging them morally, forcing them to confront their fears and break through their own personal mental blocks. I have my doubts that this game (like the similar game in The Diamond Age) can ever be achieved, but artifacts like Dragon Age Inquisition show how close we can get.

Man... there's way too much stuff to possibly write about here. I did the requisite album which has some moment-by-moment commentary (though eliding nearly every cut-scene). Here are a bunch of random things I want to talk about!

Mini Spoilers

Let's talk about Sera! Sera is awesome. I appear to be in the minority on this - in both conversations with my brother and surveys of the online fandom, she appears to annoy many people - but she's hands-down my favorite companion, as well as my love interest in this playthrough.

Unsurprisingly for a Dragon Age character, she is so interesting, and the more you get to know her the harder she becomes to describe. And it isn't because she, like, has an alternate identity or Secret Past or anything major like that. She's just a fascinating, deeply peculiar person.

One of the most defining aspects of Sera's personality is her self-reliance. She's always felt like she's on her own, and always been capable of getting through life without help. Not necessarily getting through life well, but she's happier figuring things out on her own and ending up with a weird outcome than getting someone else to do it well for her.

When you first meet her, she's introduced as (one of the) Red Jenny(s). Really, though, that ends up being one of the least important things about her. When I try to pin her down, I keep coming back to the question of her intelligence. On the surface, she seems shockingly ignorant at times, and her accent makes it clear that she's never been properly educated. However, she's able to burst out with some remarkably perceptive observations. Often, she will say something, and people will go, "What the hell are you talking about?" And then she'll explain herself, and I'll go, ".... I never would have thought of it that way, but that actually makes a lot of sense."

By the end of the game, I decided that the best way to describe her is an autodidactic polymath. She's coming from a way-outsider point of view, without any of the preconceptions that we've built up over the previous three games, which can make her seem dumb or nutty at times. But, she's incredibly determined, and much smarter than she seems at first. One fantastic example of this is her relationship with books. Reading her journal, you can see that she seeks out books on topics that interest her; sometimes she discards them as boring or long, but she maintains that drive for knowledge, and comes up with some great gems.

Speaking of her journal, I absolutely adore it. Actually, Sera's writing in general was one of my favorite things in this game. It's such a unique voice, again pointing to the idea that Sera never went to school, and taught herself how to read or write: she's very understandable, and never misspells words, but also puts things in a different way from how anyone else would write them. Plus she doodles and draws filthy sketches in the margins, which is fantastic, and expresses her perpetually juvenile attitude towards life. In Skyhold, her journal keeps on changing over the course of the game as my relationship with her grew, and I loved the peek into her thoughts it gave: her desire to know more about Andraste after I embraced my role as herald; her failed experiments with crafts; her researching of dwarf culture; all sorts of great random stuff. Likewise, all of her War Table missions were fantastic. The Bees one was the best, but I treasured every snippet of text from Sera I encountered over the whole game.

You can easily, and accurately, compare Sera to a magpie. She has a wonderful little room in the Skyhold tavern, filled with all sorts of bright, interesting little trinkets. She isn't a hoarder, she just enjoys collecting lots of little things that capture her attention. I think her mind works the same way. She doesn't have a large overarching system or philosophy by which she organizes her life in the same way most other characters do. But neither is she incapable of learning things. She just finds certain specific things interesting, and learns what she can about them, and doesn't waste her time on things that bore or scare her.

Besides her textual writing, Sera has (what I think was) the best banter and dialogue in the game. Pretty much every time she opened her mouth I cracked up. I love the way she talks, and the way she can't pronounce Corypheus's name. "Coryphanus? Shite." (Which, now that I write this down, I see is even funnier printed than it is spoken.) Some randoms things that stick in my mind include:

"Because tits."

"I bet the wolves are in the cave. Because wolves are shit and caves are shit."

Sera: (Apropos of nothing): I once saw the empress' arse.
Blackwall: (Resigned): Of course you did.
Sera: Well. Actually, I made a drawing of her arse. But people said it was a very fine likeness.
Sera: This has been a story about trust.

The romance with Sera was great. BioWare is sometimes accused of recycling plots, and there's some truth to that, but the really remarkable thing is that every single one of their romances (and, really, companions in general) have been fully distinct. Ahead of time, I had kind of assumed that it would play out like the Isabela romance in DA2, since both are free spirits unbound by tradition.

Instead, it ends up being this surprisingly sweet, very mutual pairing. With Isabela, the relationship was pretty much entirely physical (at least at first): you both desire one another, and act on those desires; even if it transitioned into a romance, it's explicitly founded on the premise "we'll only keep doing this for as long as it feels good." With Sera, there's a strong mutual affection at play. Sera likes you because you're fun and sweet, not because she lusts after your body. Trust is actually really important in this relationship. You have to spend time with her, travel with her, share experiences together, and eventually the romance starts to blossom.

There's always an arc to these plots, of course. As you grow closer to Sera and get to know her better, you can begin to see the fear that lurks behind many of her decisions. She's afraid of losing you, and afraid of nothingness, afraid of absence. You don't need to change her to progress in the relationship. You need to understand where she's coming from, and what she needs, and reassure her that you will be present for her. It's not the flashiest, most dramatic romance arc BioWare has done, but one of the most fulfilling.

Yikes... I definitely don't have time to chime in on all of the companions. Suffice to say that they're all fantastic, each in their own distinct way. Early on, I'd heard a lot of positive stuff about Dorian's personal quest, and I can understand why: it feels very authentic, and gets at something that's a big deal in both the real world and the fantasy world, without ever coming off as preachy or a Very Special Episode.

In retrospect, it was also slightly amusing just in the way it highlighted my own total aversion to conflict. I was very up-front with Dorian throughout the whole quest, keeping him in the loop about what was going on and letting him make the decision to take the meeting. There's a very dramatic scene when Dorian confronts his father, and Things Are Said, and I totally backed up Dorian. Then there's a choice where his father tries to give his side of the story, and I instantly picked the option that was like, "Nope! C'mon, Dorian, let's get out of here."

Which... in the moment, I felt absolutely sure was the "right" thing to do. His father had been duplicitous, and Dorian clearly felt distressed being in that situation, and I just wanted to get him out of there ASAP and back into an environment where he would be unconditionally accepted. The more I think about it, though, I wonder if it would have been "better" to dig into it a bit more and extend the conversation. It absolutely would have been painful and awkward in the short term, hence my knee-jerk instinct to flee. But my actions ensured that the underlying dynamic wouldn't change. Who knows what might have happened if I had encouraged a dialogue? Could we have changed some minds? I don't know. But I'm not the sort of person who confronts issues head-on in real life, and it was amusing to see those same instincts kick in while playing a pure fantasy video game.

I'm kind of tempted to make another post which is just a list of all the things I love about Inquisition. There are way too many to reference here. However, I did want to call out one particular improvement over DA:O and DA2, which is the way in which gameplay mechanics are now integrated with the narrative. There's a long-running joke among fans about how, based on everything we know in the lore, blood magic is incredibly dangerous and evil. Every time you encounter a blood mage in any game, things go horribly wrong and demons are released and people get possessed and all turns to ashes. However, you're able to become a blood mage yourself, and your companions appear 100% fine with this. It's amusing to see your character slit their own hand, pour their pure blood upon the rocks, draw upon the forces of demonic might to blast their enemies... and Alistair and Aveline are all like, "La da dah, nothing to see here, gee I love being one of the good guys!" And yet, because blood mage has been a really powerful specialization, there hasn't been a reason to not get it: you get all of the benefits and none of the well-established downsides.

That's all changed this time around. For starters, specializations aren't something that you just select or unlock. There are entire quests built around them. The Inquisition contacts some top-end training specialists, who each set you to various tasks to prove your talent and commitment. They impress on you the significance of your choice, not just as a set of new abilities to learn, but as a way of life. In my case, I had three very stark choices. Reaver: "Your life will be short and bloody, but you will die filled with a lust for death!" Templar: "You will face crippling addiction and gradually lose all joy in your life, replaced with a solemn devotion to a thankless duty." Champion: "Everyone will love you and you'll gain fame, fortune, and power!"

Guess which one I chose?

I expected it to end there, but it didn't! I was surprised and delighted to see my companions noticing the new direction I was steering towards, which opened up some completely new dialogues. Iron Bull asked me what made me decide to "turtle up." (I explained that my offense was already doing just fine, thank you.) Sera was a bit bemused by the whole thing, as champions typically imply chevaliers, not exactly her favorite people, so we had a little chat about how these skills would help me better protect the group. Furthermore, all of your trainers then stick around in Skyhold afterwards, and will share little nuggets of wisdom. I love it when games manage to unify their gameplay and their lore, and Inquisition completely nails this one.

Just in general, I loved all the ways in which dialogue subtly referenced and reflected the choices I'd made: choices in building my character, plot decisions I made throughout the game, and decisions I'd imported from the previous games. This rarely led to entire new quest arcs, but was just sort of naturally reflected in ongoing conversations. For example, it became clear pretty early on that Sera thinks dwarves are adorable. She always approves when you flirt with Scout Harding, and there are a bunch of lines in which she remarks on how you're just "the cutest little thing", along with some cruder references to your anatomical matches. (Weirdly enough, Varric has almost nothing to say about your dwarf background, other than a few references to your experiences with the Carta.)

Besides dialogue, these sorts of things are also reflected well in the war table missions. I became more and more impressed by the war table as I gradually realized the role it serves. In a way, it harkens back to the days of text-based adventure games, the same things that started me off in programming as a wee lad. Arguably the best thing about these missions is that they are ridiculously cheap to make. In modern AAA video games, for a long time now, every new quest has required new level design, 3D character modeling, voice-over acting, and possibly cinematics and combat design. This has led to a paradoxical evolution, where games have gotten shorter and smaller as technology has improved. The War Table inverts that whole expectation. You don't need to see what's going on, just issue your orders and then read the reports. And so, BioWare can go nuts, writing tons of missions for pure comedy, or to provide closure to older plot threads, or let you encounter parts of Thedas that we otherwise wouldn't see.

I'm reminded of Jordan Weissmann describing his decision to use text-based dialogue for Shadowrun Returns: "The first of these powerful weapons is what I call 'The Infinite Resolution Rendering Engine' an incredible piece of biotechnology developed over millions of years, capable of presenting the audience such vivid imagery so real they can smell and even taste it. Yes you guessed it, it’s the gray stuff between your ears and the imagination it is capable of. We can’t afford to put everything in our imaginations onto the screen, so instead we decided to put it into your imagination via 'theater of the mind'. By combining beautiful environments and characters with cleverly-integrated text, we hope to inspire you to 'see' and 'hear' things that we could never afford to put on your screen or out of your speakers." Now, Jordan was speaking in the context of an indie developer, but that wisdom really holds true at any level: even for the AAA developers who can afford to create polished, movie-like experiences, they can get way more bang for their buck by writing evocative textual stories. In some cases, the way you imagine these playing out can seem even more impressive than the explosive cinematics that we do see. Inquisition feels like the best of all possible worlds: it firmly establishes a sense of style and place, and convinces you of the depth it possesses; and then it uses all the tools at its disposal to translate that depth to breadth, tying in your immediate struggle with a far vaster canvas that spreads across decades and over an entire continent.

I don't want to overstate this too much. Despite the presence of choices, this isn't really a CYOA-style branching narrative; I believe there are a few branches, but for the most part the mechanics of the results only vary in how long the missions take and which rewards you receive. Still, I got pretty invested in the non-mechanical aspects, thinking carefully about what sort of organization I was trying to build. Early on I would instinctively always send the adviser who could complete a job most quickly; as time went on, though, I gradually found myself more and more focusing on Josephine's diplomatic approach, closely followed by Leliana's subtly practicality, and largely sidelined Cullen's brash military aggression. I also came to enjoy the writing more and more as I got more used to the missions. Part of me wonders if the BioWare writers might have taken a page or two of notes from Failbetter Games, who have made an art out of telling a complete, compelling story in a single sentence.

I'm repeating myself a bit here, but the war table lets it feel like your in-game, main-plot decisions have far-reaching consequences, without needing to create enormous branches in the gameplay. I've only played the game once so far, so I may be making some incorrect assumptions, but after making a particularly difficult decision, I found myself in a strong alliance with the Qunari. This was awesome, though the sacrifice I had made to get there left a knot in my stomach. As a slight salve to that, I was able to pursue a surprisingly long and detailed "quest line" with none other than Tallis, my would-be love interest from Mark of the Assassin. It felt so good to "hear" from her again, and picture her in action as we teamed up in a rollicking, long-ranging adventure. Now, as much as I would have loved to actually literally hear from Felicia Day and have her join my party, I understand that there's no way they could justify doing the cost for something that only a subset of players will encounter. But, thanks to the war table, I got much more narrative charge out of this crisis point, and also a fantastic continuation of a character I really enjoyed.

I could keep on going... I'm pretty sure that war table missions are much quicker and easier to implement than almost any other content, which might help explain why there was so much about Serault in there, despite The Last Court only wrapping up very shortly before Inquisition's release. And they also do a fantastic job of connecting with and wrapping up stories from the wider Dragon Age universe. Some of my favorite characters from the novels, like Rhys and Evangeline, show up through the war table, and you can, in a sense, create your own endings to these stories through the decisions you make. It's a fantastic synthesis: taking novels that were born from the games, flower on their own, bear fruit in the form of new characters and plot, and then re-pollinate the next game. These missions still have value to people who never read the books, but for those of us who have, they mean even more.

A few more random notes before jumping into spoilers:

I didn't do that much crafting in the game, although it was still much more than in either of the first two games. From a mechanical perspective, crafting will sometimes, but not always, result in better equipment than you can find. In the endgame, I started to get more interested in crafting for purely aesthetic reasons: I was about to save the world, and wanted to look good doing it.

I crafted a set of Tier 3 battlemaster mail for Aztar, my PC Champion tank. I didn't care quite as much about appearance here, and so just used the most plentiful/powerful metals I had, resulting in a greenish suit with notes of gold. You can (and should) name every item you craft; this suit became known as "It's So Easy Being Green." And, true enough, that was the most powerful set of heavy armor I ever acquired. Conversely, though, the best unique sword and shield I found were much better than the best items I could craft. It's still possible that there might be better out there - I spent a lot of money on Tier 3 schematics, but might have missed a few, particularly in the weapon category - but it didn't seem at all worth the effort to track them down, particularly for a tank.

On the other hand, I was fairly happy to spend an inordinate amount of time coming up with an ultimate suit of armor for Sera; she was the one constant in all of my parties, so it seemed like a worthwhile investment. I really like her asymmetric look, and had dug many of her early outfits, but by the endgame the best rogue armor that I found while questing was generic leather-duster gear. I dropped way too much gold picking up a couple of Tier 3 medium armor schematics, thanks to a shop hidden in the Hissing Wastes, and then set to work. It was really tough deciding between the Dalish Scout armor and the prowler armor; both of them looked great, but I eventually decided to go with the prowler for a base.

When crafting, I tend to just focus on my highest available tier materials, then scan for the most useful stat benefit; if there's a tie, I'll go with the color I like best. I lucked out with Sera, since the metal I ended up using (perhaps Nevarrite?) resulted in this really pretty blue color. I paired that with a purple accent cloth color for a striking, but not particularly loud, outfit.

In general, I really dig what they've done with crafting, although it gets so close to being perfect that I'm left feeling a little exasperated by some tiny things that aren't completely perfect. A lot of this comes down to a balancing act between form, function, and rarity. It would be boring if every schematic of the same tier had the same stats, and so they mix it up, with different ones requiring different amounts of resources; schematics that require more materials take more effort to craft, but since they have more inputs, they result in higher-quality results. It would also be boring if every schematic had the same visual appearance, and so they have a really nice variety available. Particularly when it comes to companion armors, some of the schematics will give them good stats and an altered appearance of their iconic outfit, while others will replace their outfit altogether. (Most famously, if you're sick of looking at Varric's chest hair, you can cover that mass up.)

One of my favorite things that they've done is allow you to "cross the streams" between entire armor sets. For example, after Halamshiral you acquire a schematic for your dress uniform. This is classified as light armor, and so ordinarily only mages can wear it. However, if you use rare materials in crafting it, you can make it available for any class. Conversely, if you want Solas to don a great big hulking set of plate armor, you can find a ton of Silverite and then smith it.

So, you have a lot of freedom in how you craft, but as far as I can tell there are some streams that can't be crossed. Most noticeably, there are some armors which are just flat-out the best available. When it comes to medium armor, the Dalish Scout Armor seems to be the best around: you can fit in a whopping 28 defense units, which is pretty much ultimate. I preferred the look of the Prowler Armor, but it only has a mere 14 utility units. I really wish there was some way to mix and match power with appearance: even if it required the use of extra Masterwork materials or something, it would make me feel better if I could craft an Ultimate Piece of Armor and not feel like I was being forced to make some compromise between aesthetics and usefulness.

Gosh, I can't believe I wrote that much about crafting and, like, nothing about Cole or Cassandra. Hrm. One final note: I still didn't make any consumable items in this play-through, but I get the impression they'll be essential for my upcoming Insanity playthrough. In the previous games I've always resisted "wasting" my resources on single-use items; but, since crafting items respawn in Inquisition, it seems much more practical to make use of them. I finished up the game with a stupid amount of herbs, so I already know they're intended to be used.

Final observation before mega-spoilers: Banter has always been a high point in BioWare games, and the banters in Inquisition were some of my favorites yet. Most particularly, I was really happy with the tone of the banters in Inquisition compared to the ones in DA2. In DA2, I got genuinely distressed at how mean Fenris and Anders were towards Merrill. It just felt vicious, and I wanted to yell at them to stop but there wasn't an option to do it. So, I left those jerky men at home and ended up killing both of them.

In comparison, in Inquisition there are still some pretty intense personality clashes and rivalries, but they are catty and fun rather than barbed and awful. I got particular pleasure from bringing Sera and Vivienne along: those two are just so different, and really go at each other, and it's just so enjoyable to hear them one-up each other through pranks and insults.

Oh, wait! I lied, one more quick thing before mega-spoilers. I was initially pretty bummed when BioWare announced the party breakdown, and particularly the division between male and female characters. I've become increasingly convinced of the importance of representation in video games; and in the past BioWare has really stood out among major developers for giving equal prominence to men and women in its games. Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2, Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Star Wars: The Old Republic... for about a decade, BioWare has been remarkably consistent in having an equivalent roster of men and women available as companions in their games. I was surprised and a little bewildered that they would abruptly shift gears in Inquisition, with twice as many male as female companions.

I've heard some defenses of this, including the prominence of female characters in non-companion roles and the idea that a 6-3 division is almost the same as a 5-4 division so what's the big deal, nerds? My math mind immediately seizes on this: if someone wants to roll with an all-dude party, they can make a dude inquisitor, and will have 20 different options for assembling the remaining slots in their party:
  1. Blackwall, Cole, and Dorian
  2. Iron Bull, Cole, and Dorian
  3. Blackwall, Varric, and Dorian
  4. Iron Bull, Varric, and Dorian
  5. Blackwall, Iron Bull, and Dorian
  6. Varric, Cole, and Dorian
  7. Blackwall, Cole, and Solas
  8. Iron Bull, Cole, and Solas
  9. Blackwall, Varric, and Solas
  10. Iron Bull, Varric, and Solas
  11. Blackwall, Iron Bull, and Solas
  12. Varric, Cole, and Solas
  13. Blackwall, Dorian, and Solas
  14. Iron Bull, Dorian, and Solas
  15. Varric, Dorian, and Solas
  16. Cole, Dorian, and Solas
  17. Blackwall, Iron Bull, and Cole
  18. Blackwall, Iron Bull, and Varric
  19. Blackwall, Cole, and Varric
  20. Iron Bull, Cole, and Varric 
 In contrast, if someone want to roll with a ladies-only party, they can make a lady inquisitor, and have a whole whopping one option to fill the party slots:
  1. Cassandra, Sera, and Vivienne
Of course, in the vast majority of games people will happily combine the genders and come up with a mixed party, and I'm almost certainly over-analyzing this. Still, it feels like it's far easier to sideline the women in this game than the men: based on numbers alone, it's very unlikely that at any given time most peoples' parties won't include at least some men, while it's conversely very easy for a party to completely omit women.

Anyways, this was all mildly controversial a couple of months ago - okay, very controversial, within the hot-house community that is the Dragon Age fandom - but, personally, my objections completely dropped away several months later after BioWare revealed the romance options. Much like the companions, I had just assumed that BioWare would continue in the tradition it's been following for the last decade and provide an equal number of romance choices for men and women. Nope! It turns out that the romances followed the same breakdown as the party skew, ending up with five romanceable men and only three romanceable women. Furthermore, the game eschewed the "everyone is into everyone" vibe from DA2, locking many of the romances to only particular genders and, in some cases, even races.

At this point, it became pretty clear that BioWare is catering to the Straight Female Gamer, and I couldn't be happier. Women are famously and consistently underserved by the video game industry, despite being some of the most devoted fans around, and it feels very overdue for "them" to experience what it's like to have their whims catered to. Granted, I look forward to the day when every player has equal options; but given the unbalanced history, I think "they" deserve a game or two of their own. I like thinking of Inquisition's romance options as an apology for Anomen.

Okay, for real now, let's do some

Mega Spoilers

For me, Dragon Age has primarily been defined by its "big decisions". Those times when the dialog options pop up, and I stare at the screen, and stare, and stare. Then get up, and brew myself a cup of tea, and start pacing, muttering to myself, weighing the pros and cons, trying to decide what will lead to the better outcome, and whether I'll be able to live with myself after making that choice. 

There are big choices, and there are big choices. Sometimes these are huge world-shaping decisions that feel awesome to make because they are so impactful, but while I'm often happy to make these decisions, they're also often ones which are fairly clear to me: I might hate making the choice, but I don't waver. Far more challenging are the ones where I just can't decide which is the right way to go, and spend the rest of my game (or, possibly, my life) worrying about it.

Two points in this game stood out to me. First, as background: as in the earlier Dragon Age games, I gradually built up a concept of my character, starting out with a kernel of an idea before character creation, testing it out in some early conversations, stretching to see what directions the game would let me take it, and gradually developing those instincts into an overall philosophy; I then used that philosophy in turn as a tool by which to evaluate most of the decisions I encountered, which actually feels pretty reassuring: I can believe that I'm expressing a coherent moral view of the world instead of agonizing over every little choice.

As I alluded to in my earlier post, in this game I decided that Aztar Cadash is primarily concerned with reshaping the world into a better place. She strongly believes in the acquisition of power for its own sake, since she views herself as someone who can be trusted to wield it to good ends. She does enjoy her friendships and emotional connections, but these are utterly subordinated to what she views as her higher calling.

Speaking of higher calling: from the beginning, Aztar confidently embraced her role as Andraste's Chosen. It's something that she chose to believe, but she pursued this belief with pure conviction. There's a moment later in the game when you learn the truth: the woman others thought was Andraste was, in fact, a spirit, possibly of Divine Justinia. So, in a real sense, my entire movement was founded on a lie.

How did Aztar respond? By doubling down on her belief. She continued to express her faith that Andraste had chosen her for this task; even if Justinia had saved her, Justinia was fulfilling Andraste's will.

And, Aztar went even further. After returning from her physical sojourn in the Fade, she was asked what message to share with the people. Aztar lied and declared that Andraste had told her that she (Aztar) spoke for the Maker, and all should follow her commands.

That's... a pretty despicable move, actually. And it seems like a textbook emulation of how a cult leader would behave when confronted with proof that their cult is false. But I really liked this whole evolution since it was all perfectly internally consistent. Aztar's main lodestar had never been her religious faith: it was her desire for power. Faith was merely a very significant means towards achieving that end. This crisis point forced Aztar to confront the ambiguity behind her words, and made clear where her true objectives lay.

Which is not at all to say that I see Aztar as a villain - she is trying to save the world, after all. She's just completely comfortable with dispose of lesser niceties in pursuit of what she sees as a greater outcome.

This actually segues nicely into one of the hardest decisions I made, the fate of Bull's Chargers. While you don't spend a ton of time with them, I'd grown very fond of them. They're a motley, chaotic, talented and funny bunch, each member vividly and distinctly drawn. (My favorite might be Dalish, an elf mage who keeps ludicrously insisting that she's an archer.) They were a big part of what I liked about Bull: he's such a laid-back, fun-loving yet inspiring leader, who has seen the untapped potential in this group and brought them together to accomplish great things, earning their pure loyalty in the process.

I also was a huge fan of Bull's relaxed honesty, and loved his initial conversation with you, which basically goes, "Just so you know, I'm going to be spying on you for the Ben-Hassrath, but I'll show you my reports before they go out and won't share anything too damaging. Oh, and I'll let you know what my employers are up to. Sound good?" His attitude is unlike that of any other Qunari we've met yet, and I also really appreciated him as a link to the Qunari. From an in-game perspective, the prospect of an alliance with the Qunari was incredibly tempting. They're almost certainly the single most powerful nation in Thedas, and have refrained from conquering the land only because of their religious faith.

And so, when Bull presented an opportunity to cooperate with the Qunari in taking down the Venatori, I leaped at the chance. I (both as a player and as my character) have issues with the Qun, but this was a purely military operation, of significant benefit to both parties. We led Bull's Chargers and then divided our forces, taking out some Venatori encampments to ensure safe travel for a Qunari dreadnaught.

And then... things went south. Reinforcements arrived, preparing to surround. I had to make a decision: should I instruct them to fall back, abandoning the overlook and dooming the ship? Or order them to hold their ground, upholding our agreement with the Qunari and issuing a death sentence to Bull's most faithful followers?

I felt so bad, but I gave the order. Bull's Chargers made a last determined stand, knowing that they were all going to die. The dreadnaught escaped, the alliance was sealed, I was heartbroken. This entire group of wonderful, distinct, talented fighters was gone. By Aztar's cold moral calculus, though, I had made the right decision. It's a cruel thing to say, but the truth is that I already have many other fighters, many other mages; in the grand scheme of things, as much as I personally liked the Chargers, they would not make a significant impact in the major war to come. On the other hand, the Qunari offered me things I could not find elsewhere. A navy. Gunpowder. A northern front. My head was utterly convinced that I had made the right choice, even as my heart was convinced that I had failed.

Of course, Iron Bull himself was a casualty in this outcome. He noticeably changes afterwards: he's still the same person, so doesn't become completely withdrawn, but he comes to view his time with the Chargers as an aberration, and prepares to rejoin a stricter lifestyle under the Qun. Once again, on a personal level I was fairly devastated by this - I'm appalled by the lack of freedom of the Qun, and missed the anarchic spirit of the old Bull. But, again, on a practical level it seemed like a worthwhile trade to make. Bull was still a fantastic fighter, still contributed fully to my party; his happiness was diminished, but one man's happiness can't be weighed against a military alliance that could win a war.

As an epilogue, I was very happy to see the alliance with the Qunari blossom, leading into my favorite non-Sera-related series of war table missions: an epic, long-running quest line with Tallis from Mark of the Assassin. In my next play-through I'll save the Chargers and see how it affects the story, but I imagine that you won't have access to the same Ben-Hassrath agents in that case. I loved seeing that mission played out, even though it also served as a constant, painful reminder of the actions I'd taken to bring it about.

The other choice that actually wrecked me was the result of Leliana's personal quest. Once the question of succession to the Divine came up, I whole-heartedly backed Leliana's claim, gently discouraging Cassandra from the Sunburst Throne and encouraging Leliana to pursue it. As part of this quest line, other surviving clerics have started maneuvering to elevate one of their own, and I enthusiastically supported us taking action against them.

This all was going along more or less as I expected and got more and more engaging as the stakes were raised higher. Near the climax, you travel to a remote chapel to recover a secret message that Justinia had left for Leliana. You encounter a chantry sister, and she and Leliana exchange pleasant chats while you search the chapel. At last you find the cache, and Leliana pulls a knife on the sister. She had deduced what I suspected: she was a spy, sent from a rival cleric, to thwart Leliana. Leliana was ready to kill her. I nodded me approval. Leliana slit the priestess's throat, in the heart of the chantry, and blood poured down over the tiles.

What had I done?

In the moment, it felt so right. Of course I wanted to support Leliana. Of course I wanted to oppose her enemies. Of course it was dangerous to let this spy escape. Of course it would have led to further problems down the line.

But Leliana changed. It became clear that this was a crisis point for her, and she had firmly set foot on a new path. The old Leliana, who was sweet and kind and gentle, was gone. In her place was a new woman: proudly ruthless, heartless, willing to shed blood to achieve her view of the Chantry. A woman, in fact, quite like Aztar herself.

What made this so particularly tragic for me was my long history with Leliana. Across both of my playthroughs of Origins, I always end up romancing her, and have never been able to bring myself to harden her. Even though many players think that the hardened Leliana is superior to the un-hardened one, I just treasure her gentle side too much. I always convince her to spare Marjolaine, even knowing that there are greater benefits to myself if she turns towards the dark side.

And then, after going to such lengths to deliberately keep her on a bright path, I had corrupted her with my latest character. Aztar had undone the work accomplished by Kiriyon, dragging Leliana down into the mire of bloody, heartless machiavellianism. I still liked her, but felt horrified at what she'd become. At what I had done.

As the game progressed towards the end, my doubts continued to multiply. Aztar had acted out of a desire to stabilize her own position, but had she, really? On the one hand, a bloody Leliana is supremely capable at accomplishing her goals, ruthlessly pursuing any objective without concern for collateral damage. But, was I so sure that Leliana was a tool I could actually wield? After all, I had elevated her to the rank of Divine, arguably the only position more powerful than my own. Leliana had her own agenda, her own vision for the role of the Chantry in shaping the future of Thedas. That might align with my own, but it didn't exist merely to further my own aims. It was bad enough that I had created a monster. Had I also created a monster who would destroy me?

I just about lost it a day later. After gaining the support of the surviving Grey Wardens, I embarked on a long-running War Table mission to try and track down the Hero of Ferelden. All along I had been wondering about the relationship between Kiriyon and Leliana; based on her dialogue, it sounds like they are still on good terms, and have parted for a time to allow Leliana to fulfill her duty to Justinia. More recently, though, I had wondered whether they still remain in contact and what, exactly, Kiriyon is doing in the meantime. At the end of this mission, I received a short but heartfelt letter from Kiriyon, encouraging me to continue the work I was doing with the Inquisition. In a postscript, Kiriyon also begged me to look after Leliana, asking that I do all that I could to help her walk in the light. I nearly cried. Called out by my own character, wracked with guilt, I felt like I had betrayed not only my principles and my friends but even my own self.

This is another thing that I want to try differently in future playthroughs, and I'm very curious to see how it affects the epilogue. In my current slides, Leliana becomes a very powerful Divine, and that same ruthlessness which makes me cringe also allows her to reunite the Chantry under her grasp. It would be very much in keeping with BioWare's style for the "good" Leliana to lead to a worse outcome, perhaps with a new schism dividing the southern Chantry or Leliana losing the throne to a rival. Shades of Bhelan and Harrowmont here, I suppose. In any case! This whole plot arc ended up being surprisingly, deliciously traumatic for me, and I'm impressed by how much it ended up affecting me.

In contrast to these deeply troubling choices, others were relatively easy to make, even though the act of making them provided me with angst. The game positions the question of who you leave behind in the Fade to be a very difficult one: Hawke, or <insert surviving Grey Warden here>? In my game, Alistair continues serving as a Grey Warden while Anora rules Ferelden alone. I didn't really even hesitate before selecting Hawke to survive. It isn't that I dislike Alistair: he's charming, loyal, can be quite humorous, and is someone I've enjoyed traveling with. But, at the end of the day, he isn't me in the same way that Hawke is. It might have been a tougher choice if my Alistair had still been King of Ferelden: then he would have been a powerful political figure, and I would have needed to match the sentimentality of saving my Hawke against the expediency of rescuing a significant ally. As it was, though, Alistair was just a lone man, a man who will die sooner than most due to the Calling, who has embraced the principle of noble sacrifice for his entire life. I was happy to give him his wish. Well, "happy" may be too strong, but I didn't second-guess myself once after leaving the Fade.

Along similar lines, I had a specific objective in mind for the entirety of the Halamshiral quest, and was very pleased to be able to achieve it. This sequence has obvious parallels to the Landsmeet quest of Origins, and has a similarly complex and varied set of outcomes. I came into this game after having read The Masked Empire, and already felt deeply familiar with the three major figures of Celene, Briala, and Gaspard. (Side note: I was super-happy to see Michel appear in a supporting role later on. Not to mention resolution to the Imshael plot!) My sympathies were very much behind Celene and Briala, although as usual BioWare writes very nuanced characters and tends to avoid pure villains. I dislike Gaspard due to his warmongering and the way he would throw away the civic achievements Celene has achieved during her glorious reign; but at the same time, he's the most honorable of the trio, and arguably the most admirable.

Anyways. I gather that mechanically the "optimal" outcome is to convince all three to work together, but I wasn't having any of that: I wanted Celene firmly back on the throne and Gaspard killed or neutered. I was delighted to be able to reunite Celene and Briala. They had broken up for extremely good reasons, but I still had loved the scenes of affection between them in the novel, and it makes me happy to think that they will be able to reclaim their bliss. Based on the ending slide, it's unclear whether that bliss will last; but I think that Celene's accomplishments will, and I feel very pleased by how things ended up.


It seems like every time someone beats Inquisition, they feel compelled to report how long it took them to complete. It feels like that misses the point. I think that BioWare has, at last, created a game that truly is for everyone. If someone just wants to experience a tight, compelling, character-focused drama, they can power through the main missions and wrap up the game in less than 40 hours. If they want to enjoy a sprawling RPG, exploring varied landscapes and tackling a variety of challenging combat encounters, they can play through the major side quests and extend it to 100 hours. If someone wants to pretend that they're playing a Massively Singleplayer Offline RPG, they can go deep into crafting and reputation and mount acquisition, burnishing their own unique character for over a hundred hours. And the truly mad can expand the game until they encompass every square foot of southern Thedas, finding every single last little collectible, exploring every last nook and cranny, over hundreds of hours.

In my own particular case, I beat the game after about 97 hours of play. This included all of the main quests, all companion quests (except for Solas's, which bugged out for me), a few of the collection quests, and all story-oriented side quests except for some in the last few areas. (I did most of Emerald Graves, about half of Emprise du Lion, and only a few in the Hissing Wastes.) I'm very satisfied with the pace of the game. I'll probably return to the save file in the future and finish up some remaining business, most significantly the dragon battles.

In the meantime, now that I have beaten Dragon Age: Inquisition, what's next for me? I'm going to play Dragon Age: Inquisition! I've rolled a new character; this one is a Tal Vashoth Mage.

I'm jumping from Normal to Insanity for this playthrough, because I am a masochist. So far it's hard, but seems vaguely do-able. I'm sure that I'll need to start actually using a bunch of stuff that I had ignored in the Aztar game, like pausing the game, using the tactical camera, using consumable tonics and grenades, and using focus abilities. I feel like my real-time Normal playthrough was great preparation for the unpausable multiplayer game, but I'm looking forward (with some dread) to the more tactical challenge that an Insanity playthrough will require.

And, what lies ahead in the future? Why, more Inquisition! I'm already starting to vaguely think through a hypothetical third, "perfect" playthrough, with a character who shapes the story the way I want it to go. I plan to use my Tal Vashoth to explore some of the alternate, possibly-even-worse outcomes to decisions I made in the first game, giving me a clearer picture of the narrative range available in the game. I'm going to hold off on creating that third character until after the mod community finishes creating some decent hairstyles, though.

What I'm even more excited for, though, is an expansion. It was great that BioWare broke from a longstanding tradition and did not include any Day One DLC for this game: it let me just enjoy playing the game without feeling any buyer's remorse one way or the other. But the game seems clearly designed for expansion, particularly because the world is so vast, because the game continues after the "end", and because the higher-level areas are more challenging than the actual last mission. There's great potential here for an expansion along the lines of "Tales of the Sword Coast" back in in the Baldur's Gate 1 days, which added several story-rich arcs that could be enjoyed either before or after beating the main game. My time with Inquisition has been so much fun that, as soon as it becomes available, I'll immediately grab whatever new content becomes available for it. Even after spending so much time in this game, I can't wait to return to Thedas and enjoy it even more.


  1. That moment, when you start reading a random guy's blog at 2am and completely get off track... I don't know who you are, who you write these for, if you will ever read this - but it has been so interesting indulging in your philosophical musings that seem to mirror my own in a lot of ways. And brought out by reviews of game playthroughs to boot! From Life is Strange to The Diamond Age... You, Sir, seem to be my new taste guru and I just wanted to ameliorate the stunning lack of feedback this blog receives and say that. Be blessed!

    1. Aw, that's very kind of you! Thanks for the note, and I congratulate you on wading through my ridiculously long posts. Happy to hear from another Neal Stephenson fan, too, I was just recently thinking about Nell and the Source. Blessings rebound upon you!