I finished my second playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition with pretty much the same reaction I had the first time. As I finished watching the new Daredevil series at about the same time, I found myself thinking that the stories have vaguely similar shapes. The heroes are, at the beginning, very small, facing an unknown villain so vast they can barely grasp his plans, much less figure out how to stop them. They run around putting out fires and thwarting the villain’s allies and minions, trying to get close to the one behind it all. So why does Inquisition’s story feel flat while Daredevil’s feels sharp, tense, even terrifying?
Tumblr user Sage (mind the autoplay music widget) has a pretty good read on how the narrative loses momentum once you get your magical cloud castle, and N.K. Jemisin rakes the plot and characters over the coals for being shallow and underdeveloped. I’m going to focus on the villains, contrasting them with the threats in Daredevil, the previous Dragon Age games, and the Mass Effect trilogy to try to get at why this game’s story leaks tension like the Fade leaks grumpy spirits. Spoilers for all of the above.
Obviously this is going to be subjective. I talked about some of the things I enjoy about Inquisition here. Not everyone likes the same kind of stories I do or prioritizes the same things when playing games. Not everyone likes to see their heroes kicked in the ribs. Repeatedly. With cleats. I hope this might be educational anyway.
The first part of Inquisition is pretty great. Everything’s a mess, demons are erupting all over the place while mages and Templars slaughter each other, and nobody is doing anything about it except you and your scrappy band of heretics and outcasts. To be honest, the Inquisition never really feels like a ragtag bunch of outlaw do-gooders, no matter how often people say it, but you’re so busy roaming around saving refugees and closing rifts that it doesn’t really matter so much. You know someone blew up the Conclave and tore a hole in the sky, but your concerns are more immediate: survival, damage control, gathering elf root. As Cassandra says, “First, we close the breach. Then we find whoever is responsible, and we end them.” Priorities.
Except he finds you first.
Other than a moment of confusion where you wonder if you’re supposed to know who the fuck Samson is, the attack on Haven is dramatic stuff: the Red Templars are horrifying, people die, and it becomes apparent early on that you are severely outmatched. Corypheus controls forces that allow him to tear holes in the world. He easily levels Haven.
And then, I don’t know, he takes a nap I guess, because he does fuckall for the rest of the game.
Look, by all rights, Corypheus should be a Reaper level threat. He’s ripping holes in the world, he aspires to godhood, he’s got allies who alter the flow of time and infect the land itself with blighted lyrium. He can’t be killed. He’s got a goddam high dragon. No matter how many resources you acquire, no matter how many allies you gather, no matter your personal strength, that’s someone who you may not be able to stop. That’s a villain who leads to moments like the one in Mass Effect 3, where someone says “How do you know we’ll win?” and Shepard says “Because we have to.” Because if you don’t, everyone – literally everyone – will die.
Instead, other than corrupting either the mages or the Templars while you were busy plugging the sky hole, Corypheus consistently loses. You roam around gathering resources and allies and foiling evil plots, kicking the shit out of everyone who tries to stop you until even the Empress of Not-France has to yield to your advice/blackmail. Sure, Corypheus destroys Haven and kills a bunch of people, but that would only be a success if that was his goal, and it wasn’t. His goal was to either take back the Mark or, failing that, to kill the Herald. In the process of failing to do either one, he revealed himself to the Inquisition and got half his army buried under a mountain. Later you find out that you got your Mark and kicked off the whole story by foiling his plans entirely by accident.
This is the exact opposite of Daredevil, in which the heroes struggle to even annoy Wilson Fisk for almost 10 episodes. It takes three episodes just to learn his name. Fisk is always a few steps ahead, and every attempt Matt, Karen, Foggy, and Ben make against him only reveals how much larger, corrupt, and unassailable the Kingpin truly is. In the end, the heroes are frustrated and desperate. Daredevil is driven to contemplate murder…and is promptly cut to pieces, beaten to a pulp, and almost shot before he flings himself through solid glass into the relative safety of the sea.
And then things get worse.
That’s what a scrappy band of heroes taking on a vast, immensely powerful adversary looks like. They don’t win a lot. Hell, they struggle just to be noticed. There are literally four of them. They have no money. They have a 30 year old fax machine. Their enemy has coordinated demolition strikes and a police department. And Kingpin just wants a city. Corypheus wants all of creation, and he’s willing to tear the world in half to make it happen.
Consider this story blueprint by Chuck Wendig. Every time the heroes think they’ve won, something goes wrong. In Daredevil, even when the tide finally turns against him, the Kingpin goes down fighting. He has confidence that he will win up until the very end, and he has every right to, because he is a fucking BOSS. He makes victory cost something, and that makes it satisfying. By contrast, every victory against Corypheus – and I must emphasize that every confrontation ends in victory – diminishes him, until by the final showdown, even Inquisition foot soldiers so unimportant they all use the same pasty-faced character model are defying him to his face. And then you slap him around and pelt him with jars of bees while he makes empty threats. It’s comical.
Corypheus Final Battle: Actual Footage
To clarify: I’m not asking that every story be a relentless grind of defeat and self-sacrifice until you have shed enough blood and tears to unlock the final boss. That’s a tough path when you’re trying to make something fun. Even in Mass Effect 3, in which Reapers are mass murdering everyone in the galaxy and turning their corpses into horrible abominations to assist in the mass murdering, you enjoy successes, razing Cerberus bases, rescuing allies, marshalling your forces for the final fight. But there is a sense, a real sense, that in the end it may not be enough, and you, and those you care about, could die. Victory doesn’t feel like a sure thing. In fact, at a critical moment, even if you do everything perfectly, you lose and Thessia burns. Dealing with the emotional fallout of that, for Shepard, for Liara, for your whole crew, is an important part of establishing the stakes for that game, and makes everything…matter more.
Of course it’s not just Corypheus failing to really show up to fight. His minions are a parade of missed opportunities. The Red Templars are suitably horrifying, although them yelling “There are more of us than you know” as they crumple under your Dwarven Maul hints at a menace that never seems to materialize. Alexius and Florianne are reasonably interesting, but limited. Livius Erimond spends as much time getting knocked on his ass as he does being extremely confident that this will not happen. And then there’s Nightmare. An archdemon commanding legions of lesser demons. An entity so powerful it can reach inside you and summon forth your darkest fears. It is literally a five-headed dragon a gigantic spider that spawns smaller spiders and can manifest aspects of itself as demons of mortal terror. And it is just…so…unimpressive.
Don’t get me wrong, the chunk of the Fade that Nightmare inhabits is pretty neat. The ephemera scattered throughout, notes and journal entries and impossibly captured memories, are well done, and effectively unsettling. Nightmare taunts you in perfect villain voice (the voice casting in this game is top-notch), but his barbs have no effect on you, as a player, or on your companions in the game. By comparison, Hawke’s previous jaunt in the Fade involved all of their friends turning traitor to acquire their heart’s desire. A dead husband revived. The lost pride of the elves restored. A big boat.
Even Cole and Sera, who both completely flip out on arrival in the Fade, or Blackwall, who is hiding a dark secret, or the Iron Bull, who is terrified specifically of demons, suffer no ill effects from Nightmare’s direct attention. They don’t get dinged by any status effects or weaknesses, they don’t go all wobbly like Hawke and the warden do in the boss fight. But most offensive is that the Nightmare sequence isn’t scary. At all. Unless you actually are afraid of spiders, in which case, I’m very sorry. That must have been terrible.
It’s not like Dragon Age hasn’t done scary before. The Circle of Magi in Origins is pretty messed up and disturbing. The Fade part of that quest, for all everyone hates it, is disorienting and unsettling. Most of all, though, the Warden’s journey in the Deep Roads just gets creepier and creepier until it is whispering a fucked up counting rhyme to you as you learn just what happened to Paragon Branka’s House. What she led them to. What they became.
So why was being pulled into the realm of an immensely powerful fear demon less frightening than wandering the Deep Roads, or even the halls of the Circle Tower? If I’m going to believe that the entire order of the Grey Wardens is going to flip out and start conducting human sacrifices to summon a demon army because some dickhead from Tevinter said it was a good idea, Nightmare needs to be 350% scarier. That whole mission needs to be way more of a freakout. You’re waging war on the Grey Wardens! Killing them should be especially chilling when that dragon is flying around. Is it a tame Archdemon or just a corrupted high dragon? What’s its connection to the Blight? Eventually you find out it’s like a Horcrux or something, but up until then it’s this mystery that nobody seems to think is very important. Sort of like Samson and Calpernia.
[Otherwise known as Ser and Lady Not-Apearing-in-This-Review]
Why…do these two exist? They seem to be around entirely to provide a kind of sub-boss for Corypheus, with a bit of flavor depending on who you side with in the Mage/Templar war. Cullen recognizes Samson, because he’s a minor character from Dragon Age 2 who I’d completely forgotten about until I just looked him up. Calpernia, on the other hand, is a complete cipher, and inspires a whole quest line to try to figure out what her deal is, and how to exploit it. Aside from finding their names scrawled on some notes here and there, it’s possible to forget they exist until you get to the Tower of Mythal. That’s…not a good thing, villain-wise.
They are actually listed in Dragon Age Keep as the Inquisitor’s Nemesis, which was news to me. I’m pretty sure my nemesis was an Astrarium in Crestwood. In order to be a nemesis, it should have been Samson/Calpernia confronting the Herald at Haven, invoking Corypheus but leaving him a mystery to be solved while you battle the Templars and Venatori. What if Corypheus coming back to life at the Temple of Mythal was the first you saw of him? Then your final confrontation with your nemesis in the Temple of Mythal would have some actual weight, and killing or redeeming them becomes an important moment, not just the last fight before you get to drink the elf water.
Let Corypheus be the monster we come to know gradually. Let Samson be the one who turns up to, I don’t know, murder Cullen at Haven to hamstring the Inquisition’s army while he plots chaos in Orlais and Ferelden. Let Calpernia kill Hawke at Adamant as part of her plan to destroy the Grey Wardens. Or go Bioware Classic (“Yoshimo? The Yoshimo? Slayer of all?”) and subvert the Inquisition from within, having one of the companions or advisors be compromised somehow, because Samson and Calpernia just don’t do enough to be interesting on their own. Killing (or redeeming) a villain because they sneer at you from a hilltop for half a second isn’t as satisfying as defeating a villain who has betrayed you or who has taken something from you. A sibling. A mentor. A planet. I’m not saying your love interest has to be fridged in order for you to care, but a villain should not be boring. A villain should mean something to us. Break our hearts, Bioware. We’re used to it.
Some other changes would have been nice, like the Venatori’s time magic making them dangerously unpredictable in combat, rift variants that alter time or afflict characters with status effects, spreading red lyrium causing you to return to your captured fortresses to find them full of dead bodies, madmen, and lyrium ghosts. Most of all, though, Corypheus needed a win. I’ve said before that I think at one point “Wicked Hearts and Wicked Eyes” and “Here Lies the Abyss” were an “either/or” quest choice with dire consequences whichever way you choose. It would be a way to express how much Corypheus outclasses the fledgling Inquisition, since the lesson from the fall of either Orlais or the Grey Wardens would be “I can’t save everyone”, as well as that stopping one of the Elder One’s schemes has little bearing on the success of his overall ambition. It becomes a race to beat your nemesis to the Arbor Wilds and defeat them, escalating your band of heretics from “minor annoyance” to “obstacle to be removed”, resulting in a full on battle at Skyhold between the alliance lead by the Inquisition and either an army of demons and corrupt Wardens, or the Imperial might of Orlais lead by now-Empress Florianne. Instead, Corypheus just tries to tear open the sky again, in a kind of grand sulk. Kingpin is scarier when you embarrass him on a date.
As with the ending of Mass Effect 3, obviously I know that game designers have a lot more to consider than just “good story”, and as I said above, that may not even be particularly high on their list of priorities. There are technical and budgetary restrictions, deadlines to meet and only so many hours in the day, not to mention balancing “fun” vs. “challenging”, and trying to please as many potential players as possible. Bioware is great at this, and I have loved the stories in their other games. I guess I feel like Inquistion, despite being really appealing on other levels, let me down in terms of story. The story kicks off great, starts to drag, and then it ends, with a little message saying “The story’s over, bro. You can keep playing around though, I guess.” I’ve come to expect better than that from Bioware games.
In conclusion: watch Daredevil, play Mass Effect, Cassandra Pentaghast for Divine, don’t halfass your villains, and read Jemisin’s The Killing Moon to feed your hunger for magical abominations, catastrophes, and heartbreak.