“Find a way forward.”

How Dragon Age: Inquisition uses subversion of player expectations to create a visceral storytelling experience


The following article has spoilers for the ending of the quest “In Your Heart Shall Burn”, which ends the first act of Dragon Age: Inquisition.

I’ve been thinking a lot for a while about how the gaming medium can do things that other formats can’t, and one of the major ones is by making things in-game react differently than you expect them to. This is something we see in a big way in Depression Quest, which does a good job of using the UI that we’re used to seeing in games and other programs, to choose what is and isn’t clickable; when the protagonist doesn’t have the mental energy to do some of the things that depressed people are told that they “should” do, those options still show up, but you’re taunted by your inability to actually do them. It’s a really smart way of showing something using gameplay that you wouldn’t be able to just explain.

I’ve been thinking a lot about running in games for several years, because when I was growing up and I played games on the living room TV, my mom always commented on the fact that the game protagonists always ran everywhere. I usually showed her that I could walk, but except in rare games such as Morrowind where the protagonist gets “tired” in a way that makes them less able to cast spells or attack, there isn’t much reason to walk instead of run.

Dragon Age: Inquisition does a good job of using this always-running expectation, plus the way you get used to running animations, to effect your sense of story.

For those who haven’t played it, Dragon Age: Inquisition starts out with the protagonist and their friends/colleagues working out of the poorly fortified mountain village of Haven. The first part of the game ends dramatically with an assault on the village and the council of advisers leading the village’s inhabitants and what is left of the military forces that the protagonist has spent most of the game gathering out of Haven through a series of secret hidden tunnels. Meanwhile, the protagonist and three friends use the one trebuchet that has not been (dramatically) destroyed to collapse the mountain on the invading army, which destroys the village in the process.

Since there wouldn’t be much of a game otherwise, the protagonist miraculously survives by falling into some of Haven’s tunnels, but this is where the game designers made some interesting choices.

For one, you aren’t able to run at first. You’re injured and tired, and so the protagonist sort of stumbles along and is only able to get up to a light jog as their top speed. There are several stretches of tunnel that you run through doing this, and then you’re thrown outside, where it is obvious that the wind is keeping you from even walking very quickly. The animations change several more times, and the protagonist has to shield their eyes from the wind and snow. There are several scenes of struggling through the snow, and except when you stop to inspect a campsite, you never actually say anything, but there are audible gasps and struggling noises as you attempt to make your way through it.

In games, you’re used to your onscreen character responding in certain ways, and there’s a very visceral component to that. It’s the reason a lot of us end up leaning in the direction we want our character to go in addition to the standard “edge of your seat” type reactions many people experience while watching movies; even though we don’t expect our characters to respond to our movements, we still make them, often without thinking.

That visceral sympathy ends up being why we react badly to characters behaving in ways we don’t expect, particularly in the case of bugs and glitches. But there are ways to subvert our expectations of how our onscreen avatar would respond to certain things, and it’s hard not to feel a little bit of how the protagonist feels when they’re struggling through that snowstorm, since you are used to commanding your character to move forward and having them do so at a run with the same running animations you’ve seen for the past 15–20 hours of gameplay. Of course, the whiteout of the blizzard, the occasional completely black screens accompanied by the barely audible struggle-sounds of the voice actor that you’ve grown used to being your voice are part of it. But it’s almost all in the deliberate slowness of the movement and the walking/jogging animation changes.

The part of the game that comes right after this is basically a series of dramatic cutscenes, and though they’re absolutely beautiful — the cinematography of DA:I is probably the best I’ve seen in any game I’ve ever played — they didn’t give me anywhere near the connection to my character that I got from watching the mighty Herald of Andraste struggle to walk through a blizzard.

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