Kirkwall and a Single, Changing Setting

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Dragon Age II released to considerable criticism from the hardcore BioWare fanbase thanks to several controversial changes from the previous game, including reusing environments and a rushed third act. One of the lesser complaints was setting almost the entirety of DA2 within the city-state of Kirkwall and neighboring areas. Players went from exploring the country of Ferelden to being caged in a single city, but I see this more as a missed opportunity.

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The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, specifically, originally released on the Nintendo 64 in 2000, and more recently re-released last year on Nintendo 3DS as Majora’s Mask 3D. The objective of Majora’s Mask is to stop the moon from crashing into and destroying Clock Town, thereby saving the citizens of Termina from this apocalyptic event. Unlike most Zelda games, helping the NPCs with their problems is a big part of the game as doing so rewards Link with wearable masks.

The wrinkle in this task is that Link, and the player, has only three in-game days before the moon hits the surface and kills everyone, forcing the player to use the Ocarina of Time to travel back to the start of the first day. Jumping back undoes whatever progress is made with the NPC quests, forcing the player to begin the quests anew until the entirety is finished and Link gains that quest’s mask.

One of the longest quests involves reuniting Anju and Kafei, lovers who were to be married until the latter vanished. We learn that Kafei was suddenly cursed to appear as a child, so he fled. Bringing these characters back together spans all three days, but succeeding rewards players with a brief focus on Anju and Kafei’s wedding during the game’s credits. We don’t see every character we helped after saving Termina, but we see this wedding, which tells us that we made an impact.

We don’t know what happens next, of course. Link leaves Termina and heads back to Hyrule.

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Similarly, Dragon Age II plays with the passage of time. Unlike Majora’s Mask, we’re not restricted to a handful of days. Instead, DA2 spans a decade, including two 3-year jumps. How the story uses this is not unlike the 3-act structure popular with books, movies, and almost every form of storytelling. The first act introduces characters and plot points, the second furthers them, and the third act leads to their conclusion. This isn’t pulled off perfectly, leaving plenty of room for BioWare to improve if they return to the idea.

(Unfortunately, the game industry hasn’t quite grasped the 3-act structure, helping explain why most stories in games are trash.)

Naturally, most quests in DA2 follow this 3-act structure, yet little changes. Clearing the Bone Pit Mines of dragons for the merchant Hubert in the first act just unlocks the follow-up quest in Act 2, but otherwise nothing happens. In the years between helping him in act one and helping again in Act 2, poor Hubert hasn’t been successful enough to move somewhere with four walls and a roof instead of his sticking in his ratty ol’ tent.

With most games, it wouldn’t matter since the passage of time means nothing. I can spend the in-game equivalent of a decade running around the Capital Wasteland without the antagonist going through with his nefarious plan to… do whatever. (I can’t recall Fallout 3’s story for the life of me.) Time doesn’t matter in Fallout 3 or Final Fantasy or Shin Megami Tensei (although Persona — or Persona 4, at least — is a rare exception where time does matter).

Dragon Age II can’t tell me a handful of time has passed, and yet everyone is standing in the exact same spot as they were three years ago. They’re wearing the same clothes, with the same objects on the same shelves. Yes, we’re talking about a game, so only so much can be done, but couldn’t BioWare have made a token effort to make Act 1’s Kirkwall look at least slightly different from Act 2 and Act 3’s Kirkwall?

The game sidesteps potentially fun events with the jumps forward in time. Helping companion Aveline ask her fellow guardsman Donnic on a date (a real quest) results in them marrying during the second 3-year jump. How much more entertaining would it be to play the best man or bridesmaid at Aveline’s wedding than to hear a scant few details (at best) after the fact? What if clearing the streets of criminals (another real quest) resulted in more citizens out walking?

What if your actions had an appreciable impact on the world?

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Kirkwall never changes. The destructive Qunari attack that ends the second act, leaving much of the city in ruins, is immediately fixed by jumping ahead three years in the story. When the third and final act starts, Kirkwall appears just as it did throughout the first and second acts, save a statue of Hawke (the player’s character) erected in honor of stopping the Qunari and saving the city. It’s a disappointing realization that, within the span of almost ten years, Kirkwall hasn’t changed. The leadership has, as did Hawke’s prominence in society, but not the city.

Kirkwall is depicted as a city chained to its history, unable to change. The island that is Kirkwall’s Circle of Magi is a former prison to slaves, and in an obvious case of history repeating itself, the mages are effectively slaves within the Circle. Kirkwall can’t change, the story is seemingly telling us, helping fuel the drastic actions of the mages throughout the game.

Yet this feels like a missed opportunity. RPGs have a distinct advantage over most other genres by allowing players to interact with the world that goes beyond shooting a gun. Conversing with a trader, for example, and accomplishing the task put upon the player is capable of making an impact on the trader, better or worse. Consider The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. The Clock Town features a bunch of characters who Link can interact with, leaving them in a better place as the credits roll. Remember those two lovers Link reunited? 

Majora’s Mask takes place over the course of three days, repeated over and over until Link saves the land of Termina, so there isn’t much time to see the long-term impact. Dragon Age II spans a decade, but as I wrote, Kirkwall never changes. Why?

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Trespasser, the last story DLC released for Dragon Age: Inquisition, spends a considerable amount of time within the Winter Palace, where the fate of the player’s titular organization is in question. At the start, the Inquisition only holds a small force at the Winter Palace, but as events unfold, Inquisition forces slowly take control under the claim of protection and security. This is done to force players to question whether such a massive organization throwing its weight around is the best course, but it’s also the case of a single location being physically altered by the story.

Going from Inquisition forces taking over the Winter Palace to players having an appreciable physical impact on the city-state of Kirkwall (or, of course, wherever the fourth Dragon Age will be set) is a big jump, but I can’t help from dreaming.

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