Why I’m not enamored with Dragon Age

Dragon Age screenshot

It rarely looks this exciting

Initially Dragon Age got its hooks in me proper deep. I mean, a new fantasy land to discover – not entirely too familiar, but still familiar enough to get into without a lifetime to burn – tactical (hard!) fighting, a party to assemble and get to know, Bioware characters. It’s all good, right? That kept me going for perhaps 20 hours.

There were some things that rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning. The art is not inspired. The world is not interesting visually. The characters look unappealing. There are lots of minor issues with the user interface and game design. The problem is that these initially minor problems have become more pronounced as the game has progressed – it hasn’t risen above them, quite the contrary.

There is too much copy-pasted content – I almost stopped playing in the tower of the mages with its endless, cramped corridors and mobs of uninteresting enemies waiting behind closed doors. There are longs bits of just bad content (the dream world – I can’t believe how ill-judged that was), forgivable if it was a fraction of its size. There is lots of boring talk which could’ve been condensed or skipped altogether.

It all feels to me like the studio would’ve needed a dedicated editor, mercilessly cutting content until only the good bits remain, in their proper place.

But that’s not all. Dragon Age is a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate. If you think back to Baldur’s Gate and especially its sequel, those were expansive, beautiful games. I had a hard time putting my finger on it beyond “it’s not beautiful”, but this exchange of letters about revisiting Final Fantasy VII nails it. Dragon Age’s problem is that the world is uninteresting, devoid of detail that would bring it to life, lacking all of those small things I ate up in its 2D predecessors. Icewind Dale was all dungeons and fighting, but man, they were beautiful dungeons and I couldn’t stop playing. This 3D fantasy rendition is all scale and no character. That even goes for the actual characters, unfortunately. Give me fewer and better instead of more.

Interestingly, the Flash version of the same game world, Dragon Age Legends, feeds my imagination and thus interest much better than the “full” version does, leaving more for interpretation. Is it a pointless task to try and depict a fantasy world in glorious 3D with endless detail? I’m not sure and we’ll see how Skyrim fares, but this was precisely Oblivion’s problem, which Morrowind didn’t have, in part because it was graphically more abstracted, but also much more imaginative in general. Fallout 3 suffered from this, as well, as it was difficult to find unique, interesting places or encounters in the expansive atomic wastes, whereas the 2D predecessor was full of character and colour, in spite of its drab colour palette.

Perhaps it does come back to the fact that I would be scared of a Final Fantasy VII remake. The game worked in very large part thanks to the generous abstraction going on. If you take that away by rendering everything in pain-stakingly detailed 3D, you take away my imagination. How can anything measure up to imagination? I am not saying we should go back to PS1-era graphics, but maybe it’s high time that world builders start thinking about game worlds as more than just collections of assets. As an example of this done right, look at Bioshock or GTA IV. It’s the storytelling going on beyond the graphical assets that brings these worlds to life, and fuel my imagination.

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