y biggest regret during my 100+ hours playing Dragon Age: Inquisition was sentencing a man to a life in prison. Because of my decision, he goes through interrogation (maybe some light torture). He was a power-hungry mage and he had it coming, though; he had allied himself with an evil demigod and helped bring years of misery to millions. When it came time to sentence him—a cool story feature in DA:I is where you act as judge and jury, on a customizable throne of course—I dropped the (level 39 war) hammer.
However, there had been a few other options; I could have tried rehabilitating the man by putting him to work teaching other mages his skills, and another choice was to sentence him to death. In the moment, I felt a lifetime in jail to sit and think about what he’d done was suitable. But later on, a companion of mine I greatly respected comments that it was “such a waste” to jail him for life. Looking back at that moment I felt like he was perhaps right.
The beauty of Bioware games is the shades of grey they weave into character motivations and subplots. On the surface, the rogue mage was a monster, but Bioware delights in pulling back the layers, and giving the player a tough decision by revealing another side to the story. The crimes the mage committed were out of desperation, a grab at unholy power in an attempt to save the life of his son. Now, as I review the full picture, I feel the guilt crawl in where righteous anger once sat. This is Bioware storytelling at its best.
Video games are so often guilty of painting character motivations in broad strokes; you know an evil wizard is evil because it’s literally in his character description. He is evil because he is evil.
In the larger narrative, Bioware does this to some extent; an evil supernatural being wants to destroy all life and speaks in long condescending monologues while wearing tattered black cloaks, etc., and a benevolent all-powerful Maker compels heroes to rise up and stop him.
But it’s in the smaller stories set within this grand and somewhat cliched narrative that Bioware shines, in the stories of people caught up in a cosmic battle of good versus evil. Like any of us, these characters suffer the same anxieties we face in this world; dealing with people who act out of mixed motives, doing bad things for good reasons, suffering under imperfect governmental systems, overcoming and being subjected to prejudice. In all, Bioware tells the story of average people trying to make sense of their own place in the grand narrative.
In one DA:I scene, Cassandra, a co-founder of the Inquisition (a type of religious, military movement to restore order to a chaotic world under siege by evil creatures), wonders how history will remember us, as tyrants or saviours. When I try to reassure her we are making a better world, she rightly reminds me that many others have brought misery and death under the same intentions.
Cassandra wonders if the blood you spill is truly a sacrifice, or if it nullifies your good intentions.
This is where DA:I excels, in lending realism and good storytelling using smaller stories.
Even when your enemies are demons, the lore makes room for shades of grey. Spirit entities you encounter may mean you harm, or not. As one character points out, you cannot fully trust that they have your best interests at heart, just as you can’t with any human companion or servant.
In an act of desperation, an order of warriors likewise ally themselves with dark rituals to grant themselves the power to stop the enemy, only it is revealed they have become pawns of the same foe in the process.
It’s this tension between our ideals and the results and consequences of our actions that colours all the stories Dragon Age tells, that makes them feel honest, real. Like many, I play games to role-play, to explore a character I am not, yet perhaps I can’t help but see myself in the saviour of Dragon Age, a man trying to do the right thing, make the right choices in real life. So here I sit, on my custom throne, wondering if I’ve made the right decision. ♦