Why “Trespasser” is not my favorite Dragon Age DLC

Despite having bought all the Dragon Age: Inquisition DLC as it came out, and having put hundreds of hours into the main game when it was first released, I only recently got around to digging my characters back out and playing through the DLC. As much fun as they were (I particularly really enjoyed Descent), the final DLC, “Trespasser”, left me with a nagging feeling of unease. I liked the reveal about (and from) Solas, I enjoyed revisiting the party characters, I thought the combat was fun, and I loved my inquisitor finally tying the knot with Cullen (and getting a dog). But, I found the story of the Inquisition’s overreach and the resulting Exalted Council off-putting.

Recently, I saw a talk from GDC 2016 about the BioWare’s story process, and the story for that DLC was constructed in particular. It’s a really interesting talk. But in the process of watching it, I think I figured out where Trespasser lost me. It’s funny, because when they started talking about vision, I had a sudden thought about how I thought the Exalted Council story in Trespasser ought to have worked — and then, they gave the exact same inspiration for how they thought it should have worked! So let’s start with the recent Marvel extravaganza:

Nick Fury: The Winter Soldier

For those of you who haven’t seen it, NF:TWS tells the story of how Nick Fury learned that S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization to which he’d dedicated his life, had abandoned its ideals and been corrupted from the inside. In the end, he realizes that S.H.I.E.L.D. has outgrown both its purpose and its creators, and kills his own creation.

Except, of course, while The Winter Soldier is in many ways a story about Nick Fury, it’s told from Steve Rogers’ point of view. This doesn’t just give the audience a hero who punches things. It also creates separation between the hero and S.H.I.E.L.D.: Cap’s principles can be different from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s, and he can rebel even before discovering that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been corrupted from the inside. While the audience can understand and empathize with Fury’s choices (and really, who wouldn’t want a fleet of flying aircraft carriers), we’d rather be Cap than Nick.

Bad At Your Job Simulator 2015

Let me try to loop back to Dragon Age. One of the interesting aspects of Dragon Age: Inquisition was that, through the war table missions in particular, the Inquisition itself becomes an aspect of the player character. While it’s certainly true that some war table missions had “right” choices — letting my Dalish clan be slaughtered because I couldn’t be bothered to send soldiers isn’t particularly justifiable — many of the missions are more about putting your stamp on the Inquisition. Do you prefer diplomatic or military solutions? Do you support established or upstart factions? &c. To me, this realized the idea of the inquisitor being the leader of the Inquisition, rather than just one of its agents. And it’s why, unlike some players, I didn’t find the final fight particularly disappointing. The whole game has been building up a force that could oppose Corypheus: dropping a mountain on his army of Templars, foiling his assassins, and, in the explorable zones, disrupting his attempts to secure resources and soldiers. Corypheus is “just a guy” at the end because the player’s actions in the rest of the game have reduced him to one.

Fast forward to the Exalted Council. A central message of Trespasser is that the Inquisition has overreached: it’s gotten too big, too complicated, and as a result, too corrupt. The obvious question is: why? Why didn’t anyone realize that half their agents were working for someone else? Why didn’t Josephine address the Ferelden concerns about the Inquisition before it came to the Exalted Council? How did the Qunari know so much more about the Inquisition than Leliana (who was supposed to be good at her job)? Most of all, what has the inquisitor done in the past two years that she didn’t notice things getting out of hand? At the end of Mass Effect, the Council’s predicament is a result of their failure to believe Shepard, not any direct failure of hers, justifying (potentially) the choice not to sacrifice the Fifth Fleet to defend the Destiny Ascension. In contrast, the Inquisition’s failure in Trespasser is the inquisitor’s.

Agency and Expectation

One of the things that I find interesting about BioWare’s storytelling is the way that they address ideas beyond conventional power fantasies, like loss, betrayal, and sacrifice, within the confines of the cRPG. Why shouldn’t failure be added to that list? How is the inquisitor’s failure in Trespasser any less compelling a story moment than Kaidan Alenko dying on Virmire, or Kai Lang taking the Prothian AI from Shepard on Thessia?

To me, the key distinction is that of player agency, and the player’s expectation of agency. Moments are satisfying when they are the result of the player’s choices — whether through figuring out a difficult boss fight or finding a particular route through a series of dialogs. Moments are unsatisfying, I claim, when the player has less agency than they expect. This is, I suspect, part of why boss fights with regenerating health are frequently frustrating, while multi-stage boss fights are not: players learn to expect multi-stage boss fights, but do not learn when to expect health regeneration, and so they feel like the game is “arbitrarily” negating their progress.

Now consider the situation on Thessia. The planet is under attack by unstoppable space monsters, the locals are abandoning ship, and Cerberus is effectively unconstrained. The player doesn’t have any reason to expect that the Normandy crew would have known about Cerberus’s presence or been able to prevent Kai Lang’s attack. When it happens it feels unfortunate, but not arbitrary. Inquisition is different. Ideas of overreach or infiltration play no role in the story up to Trespasser. Leliana doesn’t take the inquisitor aside at some point to suggest that she can’t vet all their recruits, and Josephine doesn’t warn the player than the strength and position of the Inquisition army will upset Ferelden. When it introduces these as not just side concerns, but the defining concerns that shape the future of the Inquisition, Trespasser feels like it’s changing the rules.

Interactivity and the Verfremdungseffekt

In the end, of course, Dragon Age is a story told by BioWare. Even if overreach wasn’t the point of Inquisition, or even a point of Inquisition, why should it be unsatisfying if BioWare chooses to tell a story about overreach in Trespasser? With more pomposity, what is the contract between the storytellers (BioWare) and their audience (players)?

I believe that a key part of the relationship is that player is asked to be emotionally invested in the inquisitor’s story. That’s what gives much of the game itself weight — the player is invested in the inquisitor’s love interest, or the outcomes of the war table missions, or whether a farmer in the Hinterlands gets his druffalo back, because those reveal aspects of the inquisitor, not because they award small amounts of XP or occasional loot items. But this emotional investment needs to be treated consistently — the player can’t be expected to have an emotional investment in the inquisitor’s love interest, but then to have a purely, or even primarily, intellectual interest in the future success of the Inquisition.

Of course, many forms of art invite emotional investment from their audiences. One of the core ideas of Brecht’s epic theater is that audiences’ sympathies for characters impedes their ability to evaluate the characters and their actions. To create an intellectual theater, Brecht believed, required creating distance between the audience and the characters — that is, the audience should not (immediately) identify with the characters. This isn’t impossible in games, of course; I think that Spec Ops: The Line successfully distances the player from the main character. But it does seem incompatible with the investment in the inquisitor demanded by Dragon Age.

Failures that Matter

This isn’t to say that games can’t talk about failures, or even that BioWare-style cRPGs can’t talk about failure. I want to conclude with an example that I think demonstrates failure done right: Wrex on Virmire. Shepard and Wrex disagree about how to use the genophage cure on Virmire, and if Shepard is particularly angry, or perhaps particularly xenophobic, this can lead to Wrex dying. I think it’s fair to argue that, especially in the context of Mass Effect 1, this is a failure on Shepard’s part. She could have talked Wrex down, and in doing so would have secured an ally for the fight against Sovereign. Fast forward to Mass Effect 3, tho, and you can only convince Mordin Solus not to sacrifice himself for the genophage cure if Wrex hasn’t survived. For me, this made both the encounter on Virmire and the genophage cure on Tuchanka more meaningful. For Virmire, it meant that the apparently “obvious” choice wasn’t as obvious as it could have been. For Tuchanka, it meant that Mordin’s sacrifice wasn’t simply a plot necessity, but (indirectly) a result of Shepard’s choices.

Was there a similar, better choice for Trespasser? I don’t know. I don’t claim to be a game designer, and I don’t know what other constraints there were on the stories of Inquisition and Trespasser. I think it’s a sign of how good the story of Dragon Age: Inquisition is that I felt the need to spend 1600 words talking about just one aspect of its final DLC, and I’m looking forward to more in the future.