Opinion: The Identity Crisis of Dragon Age

Our mistakes make us who we are

Dragon Age, in its relatively short history, has worn many different faces.

As a more formal reveal of the fourth game is just around the corner, I have found myself pondering the series, it’s place among the RPG pantheon and what its identity ultimately is. In order for us to gain a more complete understanding of the franchise’s varying distinctiveness, we must look at the roads it has taken so far.

The pathway Dragon Age has taken up to this point has been occupied with fundamental changes from each game to the next. As with every property in gaming, progression is nearly a requirement to remain viable and profitable throughout its lifetime. In this particular case, we see a series which hasn’t necessarily stagnated, but has seen a regression in some form for every positive step forward it has taken.

The stage is set for Dragon Age IV. If BioWare has been smart enough in using the world they have built, we should see the most synergistic title so far. But the question remains—why has it taken so many years and several games to gain a semblance of self? Even at that, there is no guarantee that the developers won’t re-write the core experience from the ground up once more,

Here are the many roles Dragon Age has played.

There and back again

Not content with riding the coattails of recaptured glory with Mass Effect, BioWare created a new IP in the form of the Dragon Age series, starting with Dragon Age: Origins in 2009.

Wearing their premiere RPG developer wisdom on their sleeve, Origins was designed as a spiritual successor to the critically-acclaimed Baldur’s Gate—without the shackles of a pre-existing gameplay system to adapt. This entry point was universally well-received and heralded a modern update to the classic CRPG formula.

All the contemporary bells and whistles you would expect from such a title were there—in-depth character customisation, tactical gameplay and a beefy runtime. It was all really well put together, and that BioWare heart was present with the companions you recruited and the choices you made.

But something about it just came across as a bit uninspired.

The high fantasy, Tolkien-esque world was well-realised and the Dungeons & Dragons influence was unabashed, but it didn’t feel like there was a common thread of unique identity to be found. Personally, I found it hard to fully engage with the experience because of this.

Regardless, Dragon Age: Origins proved to be a hit and it made sense that this was the inception of a franchise, rather than a self-contained release. BioWare were staking their claim once again as the eminent RPG development house on the planet.

A sequel had to carry forward this momentum and amplify it.

The problem child

Dragon Age II launched in 2011 and it proved to be a critical step on BioWare’s path to the casualisation of their RPG principles.

Rather than further developing the foundational experience the team created in Origins, the outline was largely torn up in favour of a more action-heavy approach. This proved to be repetitive, watered down and mostly unchallenging. It was greeted with a reasonably warm reception from critics, however fan reaction was far more negative, all things considered.

In place of the The Warden protagonist from the original, the player adopts the role of Hawke—a human character whose story picks up many years after the events of Origins. Right from the start, you’re forced into the role of a human character without any racial customisation options like its predecessor. This would set the precedent for the contents of the game as a whole.

The combat is noticeably less involved and you could find success by mashing the same few buttons. Environments were reused constantly, making for an uninspiring visual element to the game. It was more streamlined, much to the chagrin of more purist fans.

It wasn’t all negative. There were some legitimately interesting characters, such as the magic-wielding Anders and Hawke’s siblings, Bethany and Carver. The main narrative was also really intriguing at times. It was rife with political threads and focused heavily on the conflict between the Templar Order and the Circle of Magi—two diametrically opposed organisations.

While Dragon Age II sold well, the fandom the series earned was divided. Some loved the new, casual approach whereas some other gamers derided this more limited sequel. In a way, this second entry felt like a more action-orientated spin off than a milestone release.

It’s worth noting that there was tremendous pressure from EA at the time to deliver this project within 16 months:

BioWare had between 14 and 16 months to build Dragon Age 2, from concept to the game appearing on shop shelves. This was a game with half a million words of dialogue. "It's impossible," Laidlaw says. "I tell other people that and they kind of get all blanched and go, oh my god, are you okay?"” - Mike Laidlaw

Publisher interference is nothing new unfortunately, and on this occasion is proved to be a major contributing factor to the condition of the end product. To combat the time constraints, BioWare entered a period of crunch and was forced to recycle assets.

The second Dragon Age game didn’t set the world on fire, but it sold well. Naturally enough, a sequel was greenlit by EA.

With a lore-filled world that had yet to be definitively represented, what were BioWare to do?

Third time’s a charm

BioWare were afforded some more time to craft a worthy sequel, and in 2014 they released Dragon Age: Inquisition—arguably the best game to date in the Dragon Age lineage.

Combining elements of the first two games, Inquisition boasted a versatile style of combat. Whether you’re more action-focused or tactical-minded, both styles of gameplay can be accommodated. When I played it a few years ago, I found myself experimenting with both aforementioned approaches to great effect. It injected life into the core gameplay. This diversity is represented in other aspects of the game too, with the threequel featuring the most varied environments and characters to date in the series.

So far, so good.

The narrative here, while not groundbreaking, was empowering at times. In the role of the Inquisitor, your mission is to defeat the enemies from the Fade—a realm of demons, whose occupants are bleeding through into our world. It's a standard “chosen one” arc, but it’s done well. You feel important and your choices make a difference to the world around you and it’s inhabitants.

Without delving into spoiler territory, there are some excellent character-related twists too. These are genuinely surprising highlights of the game and the franchise as a whole.

Most key aspects are improved dramatically here, with some notable exceptions.

Firstly, the side quests can be bland and uninteresting. That is not to say all of them are like this, but on the whole they’re not overly engrossing. Secondly—and most importantly—the “true” ending of the game is locked behind one of the downloadable content expansions. This, for obvious reasons, is not consumer friendly and I sincerely hope we don’t see more of this practice.

Dragon Age: Inquisition was something of a low-key redemption for BioWare, who at this point in their history had been subject to overwhelming criticism stemming from their handling of the Mass Effect 3 ending.

The blueprint has been drafted with Inquisition but the question remains—are we going to see yet another departure in Dragon Age IV, or will BioWare double down on what has been proven to work for them?

Pillars of integrity

One of the main contributing factors for Dragon Age being perceived as an IP with an identity crisis is the lack of overarching, cohesive story.

With each entry, we have seen a different protagonist. There is no continuing story. This works well for the likes of Final Fantasy, where we know to expect new worlds, but not so much for Dragon Age. The setting so far has been the same world—the continent of Thedas—and to that end it makes sense for it to be more connected. There are some exceptions, with Varric and Flemeth featuring as mainstay characters among others, but this isn’t quite comprehensive enough.

The soon-to-be-revealed fourth game needs to continue the story. With the ending of Inquisition, this is the only logical next move. Starting afresh, again, would arguably lose a portion of the fanbase.

This is the closest BioWare has come to attaining a workable formula for series. There is however reason to be sceptical.

Reportedly the project was rebooted in 2018. After being devised originally as something smaller scale, with more of a character and narrative-driven plot, the powers that be decided this isn’t what they wanted. There supposedly wasn’t enough scope for a “live service” element to be included, leading to the original Dragon Age IV being cancelled and restarted in favour of something that could support “live” content.

“Nope.” - Myself and many other gamers

This is disconcerting to say the least. We have seen the disaster that was Anthem, whose code is reportedly being used as a foundation for Dragon Age IV. The departure of key staff from BioWare goes lengths to shake player faith as well.

Live service games are not necessarily bad, but in 2020, there are overwhelming negative connotations associated with the term.

Should all of this come to pass, there is a very real chance it could be dead on arrival.

No real god need prove himself

Until the release of Inquisition, this long-serving RPG series has been synonymous with the ebb and flow that comes with change. For every significant step forward, there is often a regressive step taken.

This is a watershed moment for BioWare, whose reputation has been in a state of disrepair for some time. Dragon Age IV could make or break the entire franchise, and possibly damage their standing in the gaming community even more.

The wisest move possible here is to stick to what they do well—creating compelling adventures, supported by an enticing environment and gripping characters. A progression of Inquisition’s paradigm is the only logical move to make. More of the same, with a continued story and all of the modern conventions that RPG games need in a post-Witcher gaming industry should form the basis of game number 4.

It wouldn’t be fair to prospect over how extensive the live service elements could be, so all I will say is that I hope they’re minimal. BioWare find themselves in a precarious position right now, and I hope they can pull themselves back from the edge.

Their time to craft a Dragon Age game with an unshakeable sense of self is either now or never.

All images taken from the following press kits:

Dragon Age: Origins

Dragon Age II

Dragon Age: Inquisition

Dragon Age IV

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