I was trying to describe the Dragon Age series to a friend the other day, and failing miserably. You see, this friend is a huge fan of the Mass Effect series. Should be easy, right? “It’s like a fantasy Mass Effect. It’s even made by the same studio!”
Except that is not really true.
I mean, yeah, it’s made by Bioware. But the longer I look at the Dragon Age series as a whole, the less it looks like a coherent narrative and more a mishmash of one-dimensional fantasy tropes. Dragon Age: Origins was a breath of fresh air with the Mage/Templar relationship, turning Elves into wandering Gypsies, and otherwise subverting a lot of traditional fantasy. Perhaps the genre has evolved in parallel or the novelty has worn off, as these days I’m finding the Dragon Age setting floundering for an identity.
I liked the Grey Warden schtick in the first game, even if it ultimately meant you were fighting dragons and orcs. In Dragon Age 2, you really weren’t doing anything of note; things just happened around you. While there is still time for Inquisition to kick into gear plot-wise (no spoilers, please), I’m at a bit of a loss in mustering up the motivation to care about anyone around me. Don’t get me wrong, party banter is pretty much the reason someone plays Bioware games; I just find it hard to like someone when there’s no real context for their decisions or personality.
For example, I have lost all investment in the Mage vs Templar narrative arc. The concept of anti-mage knights overseeing mage initiation rituals was pretty cool in the first game. It evoked a sort of Wheel of Time “mad dog on a leash” image; I started thinking that perhaps a similar thing should exist in the Star Wars universe vis-a-vis Jedi. It gets the mental gears moving, you know?
But now we are left with insane Mage vs insane Templar generic fantasy 101. My next Inquisition plot point indicates I will need to choose between seeking Mage support or Templar support, with the decision being mutually exclusive. I’m honestly about two seconds away from looking it up on the Wiki and making a decision based on which side gives the better loot. Quite simply, the game hasn’t given me any reason to care about the outcome. Compare that to my utter agony over the Genophage decision in Mass Effect 2. Same sort of binary, morally grey decision, but Mass Effect managed to get me to care. Dragon Age doesn’t even try anymore.
If someone asked you to sum up the Mass Effect series, you could say “scrappy Commander gets ship, builds galactic coalition to defeat Reapers.” As for summing up Dragon Age… uh… hmm. “Series of unrelated scrappy heroes collects NPCs and fights mobs.” Obviously it’s a lot harder to come up with a coherent narrative when you change heroes every game, but I’m not sure how much slack Dragon Age deserves. The Far Cry games have nothing to do with one another, and yet I can feel the thread that binds them. Where is the Dragon Age thread? What is Dragon Age even about?
I think Bioware would have been a lot better off sticking to the Grey Warden angle. Having a new Blight every game would be pretty formulaic (and unsustainable), of course, but I would of loved to have seen a more nuanced exploration of what life is like for the condemned Wardens in the post-Blight period. Sort of like a subverted fantasy plot, wherein your coalition and party members start strong and then fade out, slowly ground to dust via political machinations that find the Warden treaties inconvenient once the world is no longer ending. Perhaps there is a schism that develops amongst Wardens that desire children and security for their families. Maybe the Mage vs Templar rebellion could have started by the Mages deciding to free themselves en masse by joining the Warden cause.
Shit, can you imagine? Do you allow the Mages to essentially subvert the Warden code to emancipate themselves? They get their freedom, but there won’t be enough safeguards amongst the Wardens to keep a check on their power. Plus, what of the nobles who suddenly see the Wardens become a stateless army whose treaties supersede their sovereignty? Do the Wardens become complicit in the subjugation of Mages by rejecting them, especially when the Templars crack down extra hard after the attempted mutiny? Meanwhile, an Archdemon stirs from the all the conflict and bloodshed…
That would be an interesting decision. Not choosing between two NPC leaders that I was introduced to 10 seconds ago.
Who knows, maybe Inquisition will turn out to be super interesting in the final analysis. It isn’t terribly interesting now though, and it will have a hell of a time matching the plot I just invented a minute ago. The game is still fun, but I’d rather be playing Skyrim 2. Since I can’t, Inquisition will have to do.