Once upon a time, videogames were really horrible at depicting romance and sex. Plot twist: that time is now. Dragon Age: Origins, however, holds the dubious distinction of having some of the worst sex scenes in gaming, not to mention many relationships that ended in BioWare's patented(ly pernicious) "give gifts until sex falls out" method. On the upside, the developer has been promising much more robust romance options for Dragon Age Inquisition - much more so than in Dragon Age 2, even - but it hasn't offered much in the way of details. I asked producer Cameron Lee, and we took a ride on the loooooove train - by which I mean we mostly talked about Saints Row IV and also animal genocide in Inquisition. Also I saw Inquisition's E3 demo and I... have some concerns.
I think I'm optimistic about Dragon Age: Inquisition? Kinda? I will say this much: from a moment-to-moment gameplay perspective, it makes Dragon Age 2 look puny and toothless, like a muscular street tough picking a fight with a (deceptively intelligent) baby. It is, BioWare confirmed to me, the biggest single-player game it's ever done in terms of landmass. It also has the most potential party members.
It mostly looks fine. The tactical combat stuff? Fine. At E3 I was most impressed when our presenter had to topple a dragon, a process that - unlike many other encounters I saw - actually necessitated more than simple auto-pilot hack and slashery. The tactical pause/plan option was used liberally, bringing the action a halt and allowing the player to move the camera around and issue orders to individual party members. At one point the presenter even used a haste spell to slow down time for everyone except the party, then targeted individual limbs on the dragon in an effort to (literally) hamstring its movement. That was neat. There was a lot of fairly mindless flailing at other enemy types, but the dragon's raw, scaly brawn required at least a little clever brainery to overcome.
So that was fine. And the big, rocky, semi-forested open area I got to see was fine. And the dungeon area was fine (and also slightly more tactical). And the characters were fine, if largely bereft of notable (let alone likable) personality aside from an archer girl who a) rescued herself from being chained up in a dungeon by b) breaking a man's neck with her legs and c) seemed to do some Valiant I'll Hold Them Off final stand sacrifice at the end of the demo. Her personality was "badass," which was good because otherwise she had no personality. It just felt like a Band Of Fantasy Characters. But you can't really judge character from a 45 minute demo session. At least, not in a sprawling RPG, you can't.
What worries me about Dragon Age: Inquisition is that every time I see it, I come away with a dispassionate "yep" instead of a saliva-spewing "yesssssssssssssss." The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt makes me go "yesssssssssssssss." So does realizing I actually had an extra bag of peanut butter pretzel mini-sandwiches the whole time. What worries me even more is that I always end up markedly more interested after chatting with its developers, like all the ingredients are there but somehow they're not swirling together in the pot.
I don't know yet, but after a thoroughly OK showing, producer Cameron Lee and I discussed elements and systems that made me spit out my peanut butter pretzels and go, "Well why didn't you just show that?" Case in point: the World Master system, which the demo offered a tiny taste of with hunting. Basically, if you kill a lot of the same animal in an area - harvesting their skins for armor, their spines for jump ropes - their population will procedurally decrease. But that's only the beginning of a much larger dynamic system that also ties into large-scale factional conflicts. Lee explained:
"We have the World Master system, which flows into everything from creatures to NPCs to bandits. The player has, for example, driven out a particular faction from an area - based on decisions and actions they take - and another faction may move in and take their place."
"There's a whole area in the game - it's one of the highest level areas in the game, we kind of designed it for people to play after they finish the story - that's kind of a pitched battle. So you and your party come through and push the enemy back and back, further througout the whole area. And from that, the village that's nearby changes. Maybe there's more merchants on the roads and stuff like that, which then affects the in-game economy as well. It's quite a complex and dynamic system."
That actually sounds really neat, like someone got a little Mount and Blade in my Dragon Age - and definitely not in a bad way. And on the point of character personality, Lee further soothed me with sweet, sweet words. There's a whole new dialogue system, it turns out, and it is, much like World Master, rather dynamic and reactive.
"Characters are even more fully fledged than they were in Dragon Age 2," he claimed. "They have much stronger goals and personal ambitions and personalities. Characters have stronger interactions now as well. Fans have always loved the interactions between followers now, so we made them much better. Hopefully you chuckled when you saw that little conversation when we were riding through a village, when [Iron] Bull is like, 'I want to throw Sera over the front ranks' and stuff like that. I love that bit."
"At some points you can interject into those moments of follower banter. We've got this new dialogue system. We've still got the original, but now we also have a real-time thing. You can walk past people and they'll start talking to you, and the dialogue wheel pops up, but you're not locked into it. So you can walking away or go into it. When you're running through the wilderness and your followers start talking to each other, the wheel might pop up, and you could say something like, 'You know what? Sera? I want Bull to throw you. See what it looks like, guys.' So you can be more involved with characters and their interactions."
It's not a revolution by any means, but it's a smart step into less rigid territory. Speaking of rigidity, sex. If you think that was the least subtle transition in the history of the written word and bumpy, jiggly bits, think again. Dragon Age's sex - especially in Origins - has been defined by awkwardly doll-like characters and simple, often gift-oriented build ups to, as a Sim would put it, the woo-hoo moment. Rigid. Apparently, however, things will be very, very different this time.
"They're more nuanced," said Lee, "so it's not like Origins where you keep giving gifts to get their approval rating up and then you can snog 'em. It's more about how have you interacted with this character, how have you achieved your goals, and in what way does that affect your relationship with this particular character? So it's far more nuanced."
I brought up the Liara relationship from Mass Effect 3, how it was less of a starry eyed space opera love affair and more of, well, a relationship. As in, with ups and downs and people being kind of passive-aggressive and shitty to each other sometimes. Lee said we should expect to encounter even more variety along those lines in Inquisition. "It'll feel a lot more like that, more involved. But it also depends on who you pick. Each of the different characters will have different preferences in terms of how they behave. They're different characters, right?"
Inquisition's relationships will not, then, be a linear trudge from "how do ya do" to "is it suddenly Game of Thrones in here or is it just me?" Nor, hopefully, will the characters be strangely lifeless mannequin Barbie doll creatures from planet Eeeeeeeugggggghhhh.
"Some games do sex very poorly not just from a visual aspect, but in terms of how they use it and who it's targeted for," Lee admitted, a flash of determination suddenly in his eyes. "We don't want to do that. We definitely don't want to do that."
Encouragingly, he cited Saints Row IV - a game that parodied BioWare's time-honored traditions quite aptly with its central area and ability to insta-romance, er, anybody (robots included) - as a positive influence. But there was something to that, something real. Romance doesn't always have to unfold slowly. Sometimes it's spontaneous, given freely, or entirely meaningless. Just a silly one-off. No single approach is more valid than the other, and BioWare wants to keep that in mind for Inquisition.
"Oh yeah, you could bang anyone," he chuckled. "I did laugh a lot. I really enjoyed Saints Row because it was a fun experience, you could do whatever you wanted. And it had humor. It wasn't afraid to poke fun at itself and everyone else."
"My favorite [romance option in Saints Row] was Kinzie. I was like, 'Damn right, girl. Get 'em!' I think in Inquistion you'll see more variety in that sense. It won't just be long, linear arcs. But it's also still more personal, about the people involved in the story."
Yes, but can we romance the dragons?