A recent addict of the role-playing game Dragon Age: Inquisition, the latest edition to BioWare’s Dragon Age series, I was pleasantly surprised. 20 hours into a game that can take another 130, or more, I realised something rather rare; I cared about the non-playable characters (NPCs) that accompanied my main character throughout the game.
In the Dragon Age series your playable character has the opportunity to choose how they respond to NPCs in both cut-scenes and the semi-open world, similar to previous BioWare titles. You can even affect the outcome of their individual stories. Encouraging one of your advisors to kill a traitor, spare him or simply not intervene can have a lasting impact on that character. Each character has their own story thread, like the abovementioned, which ties into the main story of Inquisition. Some of them, if the right actions are taken, can even end up in a romantic relationship with your character, or, as I found out to my amusement, each other. Depending on your actions, and how the story evolves over the course of the game, NPCs can even end up befriending, loathing or being indifferent towards you. Not everyone will like you; each character has their own personality and will either agree or disagree with your actions… and they will remember them too! By the end of my first play through my main character had made a best friend, two enemies (one of which promptly left the game due to anger) and romanced the commander of her forces.
The characters in Inquisition certainly feel real. It was as if they had their own lives beyond that which I saw on screen and it made me think: why does this seem so unique? Surely this should be a normal feature of the immersive experience, right?
Not necessarily. Prior to my discovery of Inquisition I had been playing Monolith Productions’ Shadow of Mordor and whilst I enjoyed the Nemesis system, whereby enemies will remember how, if at all, you offended them and react accordingly, the story and character development was lacking. The premise behind why the main playable character, Talion, takes to killing Orcs is to seek revenge for the murder of his family and himself. Upon his resurrection Talion finds he has merged with the spirit of a dead elf who hopes to uncover the truth about his identity. The two set off to achieve their respective motives so they can both rest in peace.
Albeit not original, the premise has the potential to flesh out the game as a believable and immersive experience. My experience, however, leads to me to believe the narrative and character development were an afterthought. Talion’s family are not developed beyond the initial tutorial phase of the game, making them seem mere tools for the player to learn how the controls work. Thus, when they died in what is supposed to be a traumatic experience for the playable character, sparking his murderous rampage for revenge, I could not have cared less. What’s more, I found myself not particularly caring about the dead elf, Celebrimbor, and his story either. Both main characters felt undeveloped. The main story missions were uninteresting and dull, compelling me to avoid them. Instead I spent my play-through wandering around aimlessly and seeing how many Orc commanders I could take out.
Both Dragon Age: Inquisition and Shadow of Mordor have brilliant gameplay, but one has far superior narrative and character development. Perhaps that is why Dragon Age: Inquisition championed Game of the Year at Game Awards 2014. It shows just how important good writing is to video games and the overall player experience. However a well-written game is also dependant on having equally good gameplay. A good story does not redeem a mediocre game, as recently released Order 1886 proves by feeling little more than a relatively interactive movie. The relationship between a game’s writing and its gameplay is a symbiotic one and should be treated as such by developers, rather than sacrificing one at the expense of the other.