Dragon Age: Inquisition interview - on fan feedback, romance, returning characters and the open world

Chris Thursten


The Dragon Age series has evolved in a tumultuous fashion since Origins. The switch from the world-threatening crisis of the first game to the personal stories of Dragon Age 2 proved too great a shift for some fans. Inquisition will again take the series to a grander stage. An open world with dynamic keep battles will bolster the central story, which sees inquisition—led by you—recruiting aid aid to postpone an imminent apocalypse.

How else will Inquisition differ from its predecessors? What have Bioware learned from fans of the series? How will they correct the awkward savegame bugs that could bring characters back to life, and how have they chosen your companions for the new adventure? Chris spoke to executive producer, Mark Darrah, to find out.

PC Gamer: What has creating this new protagonist, the inquisitor, given you the opportunity to do or change that you couldn't have with the warden, or with Hawke, or with a previous Dragon Age lead?

Mark Darrah: One of the reasons that we've decided to do that in the Dragon Age series is that it lets us explore a lot more themes. Hawke's story, it's not done, but the most important event of his life is essentially what's happening in Dragon Age 2. With the warden from Dragon Age: Origins he carries a lot of very divergent baggage. Anything from he could be dead to maybe there's a kid in the picture, maybe he's actually ruling Ferelden with Anora.

He's a very difficult character to proceed with because the universe is in very different places based on the events of the Dragon Age: Origins. Just reflecting those changes in the future games is a big challenge. To actually have him as a playable character is just—it would tie our hands too much. It would require us to make a story that was too constrained.

When we started this franchise, what we really wanted to always be doing was telling the story of the world, as opposed to the story of a single character. When we have a character, these events are big and world-shaking. We basically are trying to tell the story in the best way possible, rather than trying to have an arc for a single character.

PC Gamer: What is different about the inquisitor? In each case, the player puts a tremendous stamp on who they are. Hawke is not necessarily the warden. They have specific ways in which they have their own identity.

Mark Darrah: Because we're going back to full races there's going to be a significant difference in background between the different potential inquisitors. In Dragon Age: Origins you are a member of the wardens, but in a lot of ways you are the last surviving warden or at least the last surviving warden on the ground when he's needed. I mean Alistair is there.

PC Gamer: Yes, apart from Alistair.

Mark Darrah: Apart from Alistair, who doesn't want to pick up the mantle for his own reasons.

PC Gamer: Sure, of course.

Mark Darrah: In Dragon Age 2 Hawke is really a leaf in the wind. The story is very much about him reacting to the world pushing on him. In this case it's much more about putting the inquisitor at the head of an organization that you're reestablishing. This isn't about being a Jedi, this is about founding the Jedi order.

You're definitely much more of an actor. You're the tip of the spear. You aren't waiting for the world to act upon you. You are acting upon it, both because you have an organization at your back. This gives you greater reach. You're not walking into a camp and begging for help. You're pounding down the gates of a castle and demanding that they come onto your side.

Also, surviving this calamity has actually given you powers that other people don't have. You have a remnant of this explosion in your hand that actually allows you to close these fade rifts that are around the world. This gives you additional influence on the world and additional ability to demand respect, demand that people listen to you, because you can do something no one else can. You can actually put a stop to this.

PC Gamer: It's a new direction for the narrative, but it sounds like there are a lot of echoes of who the warden is. You're still a part of an organization that's almost neutral, a third party to a lot of the conflicts in the world. Also, having something about yourself that allows you to interact with evil in a particular way.

Mark Darrah: Yes, that's a very good observation. In a lot of ways the inquisition is similar to the wardens in that way. Something stands apart or above the politics. It does what needs to be done to fix the world essentially. One of the overarching things of Dragon Age has always been that people do bad things, but for good reasons and that it takes someone outside of the situation to do good things in that situation.

Loghain in Dragon Age: Origins is someone who is doing something bad, but he's doing it because from his perspective it's the right thing to do. To him, Orlais is ultimately a bigger threat than the blight. He can't allow the Orlesians to come in to help. As the warden in Dragon Age: Origins, you're standing apart.

This is that taken to the next level. This is you. Everything is just too chaotic. There's a civil war mixing up Orlais. Someone needs to come in to do what needs to be done. In this case, more than in Dragon Age: Origins, there's the hints and the scent that there's a public master behind this. There's someone that's tugging on the string and maybe pushing the chaos a bit farther.

PC Gamer: Was the reasoning behind coming up with a new faction then so the players could maybe put their own spin on it and determine more about it? For example if you tried to tell this story starring a warden commander then you would be bound to that previous amount of the fiction that's already been established.

Mark Darrah: Yes, very much so. The wardens are—as we'll go into Inquisition to some degree—they have one purpose: to fight blights, To fight darkspawn, to fight blights to a fanatical degree. To this is their purpose, they will do nearly anything in order to do that.

We've established a lot of this and there's a certain amount of expectation set up from Dragon Age: Origins. We're not done with the wardens, but yes, they have limitations from how they can be used.

PC Gamer: Sure. I was going to ask, just to broaden the range a little bit, you guys have had a big presence at PAX. I wasn't there, but it was interesting to observe. Obviously, really substantial and a big substantial fan response to it as well. I guess two sides to that. One, why is that important to you and two, has it been useful now that you're going into the rest of development?

Mark Darrah: Yes, we did have a really big presence at PAX. We have a continuous presence. We have a base where we have a very much, a very personal connection to the fans. Then PAX Prime, last year we did a huge stage presence. It's been very helpful. It's very important from my perspective to keep in touch with our fans, to listen to their concerns, to stay in contact with them, to give them an opportunity to provide us with feedback.

The other thing that I think that this venue does is it gives them an opportunity to see us as people as well. We only have an opportunity to communicate electronically. It's very easy to see Bioware or any company as a single monolithic entity, that there are no people in there.

Trade shows, especially things like PAX which are very fan-focused, are very good for making that connection, directly, one on one with our fans. It's very important. We do take it back. It's very energizing for the developers with a huge presence at PAX PRIME, I think there was 30 people there from Bioware. It's just very good to see the response. I think to some degree it's very important for the devs to see the gamers as people as well and not the faceless masses on the forums.

PC Gamer: I was going to ask, how much you guys feel like you have to react to your fans, to what they want, and how much freedom you have to lead them in almost any regard, from the small decisions you're making to scoping out the future of the series and everything else?

Mark Darrah: It's a little bit of both. From a small feature perspective things like control schemes and the way that the narrative or the way that the conversation works and stuff like that, that's where we take a lot of feedback. That's where we're very much, I think people have a clear understanding of what they want and what they don't like.

The danger is most people, myself included, aren't perfectly objective when they're playing a game at the higher level. Henry Ford has a famous quote. If we asked people what they wanted they'd ask for a faster horse. There's a certain amount of truth to that.

Part of our job is to go out into the wilderness to go farther beyond what the players have seen, what they've played and essentially light a torch so they can see what could be and then hopefully they'll want what we're presenting. That can be uncomfortable. That can result in concern because obviously what they're comfortable with, what they've played before isn't completely what we're delivering.

In the case of Dragon Age: Inquisition I think there is a core there. I think there is a core Dragon Age game at its center. I think that comfort still remains, but we will be pushing you, we're challenging you with some new things.

PC Gamer: It's interesting, from an outsider's perspective, it always seems like Dragon Age undergoes quite a radical transformation game to game. That wasn't the case in Mass Effect, even though obviously things were improved and changed. The scope of the game maybe didn't change so dramatically. Why has that been the case do you think?

Mark Darrah: In a lot of ways Inquisition has been the game that we've really wanted to make from the beginning. From a systemic perspective Dragon Age 2 is actually very similar to Dragon Age: Origins. Its bones are the same, but we've put a very different outfit on top of it, for a lack of a better term.

Dragon Age 2, we decided we want to try something, to try to do very different storytelling, something much more personal, something much more tightly constrained. No chosen one, no clear overarching threat. I don't think it was a perfect success, but that was intentional.

A lot of the other changes that are perceived, the overall scope of the game or the perception of the combat getting a lot simpler or waves and things like that—not intended, exactly. That was supposed to be more evolutionary. I think we just overreached. We pushed too hard.

Because of Dragon Age 2, Dragon Age: Inquisition is having to be a lot more ambitious, to address those concerns and really try to get back much more to the roots of the franchise. Much more about tactical combat and a higher level of deliberate difficulty. More clear overall story, with the moral choices still in there, but much more in vein of Dragon Age: Origins style storytelling. You're right to ask. The goal wasn't to revolutionize the series every single time, but Dragon Age 2 forced our hand to a certain degree.

PC Gamer: I was going to ask about the structure of the campaign. I've read as much as I could about how you have some choice about where you go and the order you complete tasks and how you go about doing things. How does that specifically differ to the traditional Bioware RPG of a couple of years ago where you have four things to do in the world, and you do four of them in whatever order you like. How is that different in this game?

Mark Darrah: In Dragon Age: Inquisition there's essentially two axes of what's happening. There's the steps you need to take to deal with the breach in the sky, to uncover who's behind it and ultimately to stop them. The steps to do that are relatively clear. You can do them in different orders, but they're relatively clear.

The second axis is that in order to do some of those things you need your inquisition to be strong enough to demand attention. If you're going to go and try to get the Templars on your side, for example, they're not listening. You need the inquisition to be strong enough to force that meeting.

That's where that broader sense, that broader exploration sense comes in because the way you empower your inquisition is through doing the things that only you can do. Through spreading your presence throughout the world, through closing fade rifts around the world, through going and dealing with the problems in the larger exploration areas and really just digging in and doing what needs to be done.

Then, when you've done that you can go and engage with the parts of the story that are going to directly attack the problems, the overarching problems. You've got two things to do. You've got your critical path and then you've got a secondary need to strengthen up your inquisition in order to proceed on the critical path.

PC Gamer: It's primarily the influence of the inquisition that divides the story up into acts or whatever.

Mark Darrah: That's right, that's a good way of looking at it.

PC Gamer: In terms of adding these, correct me if this is a wrong interpretation, but it seems like Inquisition is moving towards something more like an open-world game, or even strategy in some ways.

Mark Darrah: I think, definitely, we're trying for something that has a very open-world feel. The one thing that I've experienced in a lot of beautiful role games that I've played has been that when you start to disengage from those open-world systems there's nothing to come back to. Often, your last experience, just as you got bored with the game and wandered away.

In our case we want to make sure that that core, that critical path, is compelling, is strong, it's got a strong magnetism. As you disengage from the open-world you have something to reengage with. You have something drawing you through to see how it ends.

PC Gamer: There are choices in the past. You mentioned one earlier, the state of the warden, who can be dead, and obviously something that has come up with fans quite a bit, in Awakening—the zombie warden scenario. Is that something you've addressed in Inquisition?

Mark Darrah: Yes. There's a couple, the zombie warden was just a stupid decision on our part I'd say. We should have just not let you. We decided, if you want to play awakening we should let you use your warden. Well what if they're dead? We'll let you bring them back to life. We should just not have that.

PC Gamer: I made a new warden.

Mark Darrah: There's a couple of other things though. One of the big reasons for creating the [Dragon Age Keep] is the save games of the previous two games. In Origins in particular are messy and full of bugs. Zevran is a good example where you can kill him in Dragon Age: Origins and then in Dragon Age 2, those flags aren't set properly in the Origins saves, so the game doesn't realize that Zevran's dead and just basically brings him back to life.

That wasn't an intentional retcon on our part. That was actually a bug. This lets us go in and finally get those states in just something that's actually correct.

PC Gamer: In addition to fixing that stuff, do you have freedom to clarify? I suppose in some cases what fans are looking for is not necessarily for this singing or dancing cut-scene resolution to something that's been hanging, but just something to explain how this happened or how that came together?

Mark Darrah: Yes, there will be a little bit of that. Leliana is brought back to life even if she dies at the Temple of Sacred Ashes. I'm not sure that we've provided enough information as to why and what's happening, what went on there, why that's possible. Yes, this is an opportunity for us to give a little bit more context and explain what's actually going on.

PC Gamer: Fair enough. What is your criteria for determining which characters do come back? Actually, not simply from the dead, but I mean from game to game. Why would Varric make the cut and not somebody else?

Mark Darrah: That's a good question. Some of it's based on just what the writers are excited about writing. But also, we look for a certain amount of balance between the character. There's a bunch of things that we're trying to do for balance. You want a certain degree of balance between the classes. You want a certain amount of balance between the genders and then a certain amount of balance between the romance options.

If you've had a character in a previous game that was a romance option typically we won't bring them back because they carry a lot of extra baggage with them. You're not going to have a romance option come back and certainly not have them be a romance option again because there's a lot of baggage that comes with that.

The player might get angry as well. “But they're in love with my previous character forever and ever and ever. How dare you?” I think there's validity to that. You can start to cross off a few characters because of that. We often don't bring back characters, at least not as followers, if they were previously romance options. You might see them. Alistair comes back because we can do cameos and have them have an influence on the story.

But additionally, some characters, Varric's a very good character because one of Varric's primary motivations is he's the guy that's got your back. He's your friend. He's a very good character to have because it's good to have someone in your camp no matter what. That makes him a very attractive character. It makes him an interesting character to have because he offers a nice counterpoint to a lot of other kinds of characters.

The other thing that causes us to bring someone back is someone that we're just simply not done with. That the arc is incomplete. Isabella between Origins and Dragon Age 2 is a good example of that. We introduced her, but there's just a lot more to be done with that. That's actually usually how we choose. Often characters move. We don't reuse followers very often. Obviously, we are reusing Varric. We typically promote secondary characters between games.

PC Gamer: Right, so someone graduates from being a quest-giving NPC to being a companion.

Mark Darrah: Yes.

PC Gamer: I read, recently, I think it was something that came out of PAX about diversifying the types of romantic relationship in the game. I was going to ask if some of that thinking also applies to friendship as well because obviously it's a type of relationship that people have with the companions that's not necessarily binary.

Mark Darrah: Friendship I think is … I think we've become trapped by that, the word romance. I think friendship is … I actually regret that in Dragon Age 2 we didn't have essentially that kind of bromance with Varric. He's not a romance, but he's, you can hang out with him and be your bud and have that same kind of depth. Some of our, what we would traditionally call romances in Dragon Age: Inquisition are falling more  into that camp where they're not … they're more in that friendship area.

PC Gamer: Thank you very much for your time.

About the Author
Chris Thursten

Chris is the editor of PC Gamer Pro. After many years spent turning beautiful trees into magazines, he now oversees our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports. To date he has written more than sixty articles about Dota 2 and does not know how this became his life. Chris will be attending the PC Gamer Weekender in London in March. Click here to find out how to attend!

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