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‘Dragon Age’: Past, Present, and Future

What's even happening with this series anymore?

Cover art for Tevinter Nights

There’s been so much going on with Dragon Age lately, which is a weird thing to say, considering it’s been nearly a decade since anything noteworthy went on with Dragon Age. I feel like it’s 2014 again and we’re all frothing at the mouth, wondering what on earth Inquisition will throw our way.

Except the fervor isn’t entirely in goodwill. Most people are treating all the hype with intense caution. This isn’t the only game in a series that’s taken forever to come out, due to a plethora of reasons (mostly related to dev hell), but Dragon Age has a unique history that makes its role in the industry a bit … hard to parse. You can fault EA, or Bioware themselves, or hell, you can even fault the Templars. Whoever you choose to blame, it cannot be denied that there’s a lot of complex history here, and it merits an examination in anticipation for the next Dragon Age game.

Because at the heart of it all, we only care so much because this series is special, both in its role in the gaming world, and to us as individuals. So, let’s go piece by piece.

Replay Retrospective

Alistair fighting an ogre

I don’t know why, but at the beginning of this year, I decided I’d replay the Dragon Age series for the first time since I was a teenager. For context, here’s a story: I only got into the series because my mom didn’t know how to read ESRB ratings, and while I was mourning the loss of someone very dear to me, she thought I could use a pick-me-up. She saw Dragon Age: Origins at Best Buy and didn’t register that all the red stuff was blood, nor that the big M in the corner stood for Mature (most likely she figured it was M for Madeline, I don’t know). She just saw it had dragons and was like, Hey Mad used to like dragons, maybe she’ll like this!

I was in sixth grade. So, like, ten years old. My mind. Was. Blown.

Thus began a strong love for a series that would follow me up to now, although while many fans can boast of having replayed the game several times, I just don’t have that kind of stamina. Games are great! But I get tired playing them for too long, and huge RPGs like these ones are usually once-in-a-lifetime affairs for me.

Still, I decided to get back on the dragon-pony, and I’m really glad I did. Replaying the series as an adult is a completely different experience than as a child, and it only makes me appreciate the series more. As well as this, whereas I was once a snotnosed baby gremlin, I’m now a fully-fledged Gremline with a degree, so my critical thinking skills are ever-so-slightly better.

I’ll try to keep my takeaways brief. The short version: if I had to rank the series in quality, it would go in descending order from date of release.

To elaborate: Origins is a self-contained masterpiece and should be considered the de-facto starting point for anyone interested in either the series, or fantasy RPGs as a genre. The roleplaying mechanics are incredibly deep and really make you feel like your actions carry weight, and although the Warden is a silent protagonist, they carry just as much personality as the Fledgling in Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. And that’s saying something, considering that protagonist was a slutty, slutty mess. Where Origins ultimately suffers is in its dated gameplay, but there are mods to help work around this, which I feel are merited considering it’s an older game.

What I think allowed Origins to be so good, however, was that it was intended to be the only game of its kind—a singular entry, not expected to gain traction. But that didn’t happen, it gained all of the traction, and suddenly, as Bioware was bought up by EA, there was all this pressure to make a new game to follow it up with. Originally, the writers and devs of Origins imagined Inquisition to be the next installment, but it was going to require the sort of scope that couldn’t be accomplished in as short a timeframe as their new bosses required.

So, we got Dragon Age 2, one of the most infamous RPG entries to date. Players and fans are fairly polarized on this one. Most dedicated fans consider it to be just as good an entry in the series, if not their favorite, but to average players, it’s a travesty of game design. I see both sides, personally. Upon replaying the game, I realized that the writing was actually a lot better than Origins, since the self-contained nature of DA2‘s setting and plot allowed them to better flesh out their characters and scenarios. This also allowed the game to be shorter and sweeter, which made it a fun romp to get through. Yet the game was made in one year, and one year is not nearly enough time to polish much of anything.

The gameplay was way too easy, and not nearly as engaging as Origins—especially since combat scenarios were nonstop, gratuitously so, and the maps were reused constantly. There were also way too many holes in the writing, which you could attribute to the companion Varric making things up for his book. But it’s disappointing to see where an easy fix could have been made, if the devs had more time to work on them.

For instance, Anders: people either love him or hate him. I think he’s one of the biggest victims of the writing crunch, because oh my god, why on earth would a freedom-fighting rebel advocate for giving an escaped slave back to his master? Because he doesn’t like him? Well, they had seven years to hang out, why didn’t they make any common ground in that time? It’s just one of many things that felt glossed over.

Which helps Inquisition make a lot more sense, in the long run. I really want to like Inquisition. And I do, I think. I do like it. But my god, it feels so bloated. When I think of how to describe this game, that’s the one word that comes to mind: bloated. It feels like the dev’s attempt to make things “right,” when they probably would have better off doing things more naturally. Inquisition has way too much going on, at all times. The focus is simply not there. You’re supposed to be closing the breach, but you’re also supposed to be ending a war—but then the breach closes and you have a new enemy, and it’s like, well okay I guess, but then you have another war to end, and you also have an uprising to shut down, and there’s like ancient elves and uhh Hawke is back and hey if you have time you can go to like ten different places on the map that have all these problems that need solving and—

I like Inquisition, but I also hate it. Bioware seemed to feel the need to compensate for its mistakes, and in doing so made the video-game equivalent of the frog balloons from Shrek. And it’s such a shame, because the main story quests are incredible: they manage to tie up loose ends from previous games while adding more for us to gnaw on, and all with a cinematic flair that does the series well. But everything else suffers so much from the bloat, creating a sense of detachment from what you’re doing in between main quests. It doesn’t help that there are more companions than before, which means connections don’t feel as genuine, nor as binding, as in previous games. If anything, playing Inquisition reminded me more of Elder Scrolls Online than prior Dragon Age titles. And hey, it’s not a bad game by any stretch–it’s just that its highs soar way on high, while its lows may as well have PVP zones.

If you’ve read all of that, thank you and my condolences. If you haven’t, TL;DR: Origins was the best because it was allowed to be what it was, and nothing more. DA2 had the best writing, and could have been so much more, if the devs were allowed to take their time. And Inquisition, while fun in doses, might have flown a little too close to the sun in its ambition.

Present Troubles

Promo image for a DA short story on Bioware's website

Recently, QA devs working on DA4 started unionizing, citing bad pay and COVID safety protocols as their main reasons. And to that I say, good on ya! More studios need to unionize, because video games are a pain in the ass to make, and their workers—no matter the level—deserve adequate protection.

Hearing this, though, I can’t help but side-eye Bioware, because I’m worried that the staff are going through yet another series of directives that they went through with DA2 and Inquisition. A lot is riding on this game, and I hate to say it, but it’s true. Dragon Age has become a staple in the RPG world, so a lot of people have their eyes trained on this next installment—now more than ever, since they’ve been drip-feeding us hints and tentative release dates.

Honestly, every studio should unionize, for whatever reason they see fit. Unions are essential to surviving the modern workforce. But to do so now, and specifically within the development of DA4, only speaks negatively to what’s going on behind the scenes. What on earth are they brewing up back there? What kind of nonsense are they putting on the quality-assurance team? Are the bugs that meddlesome that you have to deny them a livable work environment? Lots of long-term staff members have already left, so …

What kind of game is this going to be, exactly?

The Future of Dragon Age

Concept art for Dragon Age 4 companions, as done by Matt Rhodes.

If it wasn’t clear by the ridiculous size of this article, I’m pretty damn excited about this game. I don’t like what I’ve heard about its development, and I’m concerned that the series’ trajectory is only pointing towards more bloat. But I can’t help but be excited. They’ve built up this incredible, incomparable world, with all these mysteries still left unsolved, and I want to be right in the middle of it all again.

All these books and hints have come out since Inquisition, and I want to see what they do with them. I want to meet new characters and go to new places. We’re set up to go to Tevinter next, and with that, we’ll be right in the middle of a Qunari invasion, on top of dealing with Solas’ plans for magical genocide. The companions seem incredibly diverse and interesting, too: we finally get to interact with a lady Qunari, I’m always a sucker for a tall elf, we got a gun boy, and another Grey Warden, and I think we’re finally getting an Asian girl, too.

Finally, as an elf fan since the first game (in fact, Dragon Age made me a fan of all elves in general—I used to think elves were lame as hell before), I really, really want to see the emphasis on elven lore in this next game. I want to see the elven gods released and in action. I want to see the elves finally given their due. I want to play as an elf who can stand up for her people and for herself.

I want a lot of things, as do many players. But I want the game to be given the time it needs, and I want the devs to be given the time and care they need. This doesn’t need to be a bloated mess like Inquisition, and it doesn’t need to be an incomplete rush-job like DA2. Let it be a callback to Origins: a self-contained product of love, only needing what it needs, and nothing more.

And if that means the end of the series as a whole, then so be it. As the demands of modern gaming grow even larger, perhaps it’s time to let go of old standards in favor of new ideas. Maybe this will ease the burden on developers and pave the way for new talent. Maybe the series deserves a fantastic capstone (for now, at least).

To conclude, series’ icon Morrigan said it herself: “Change is what sets us free.”

(Featured Image: EA)

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Madeline (she/her) is a writer, dog mom, and casual insomniac. Her prior experiences with media have taken her down many different roads, from local history podcasts to music coverage & production. Niche interests include folk music, elves/wizards, and why horses are cool actually.