I have been a devoted fan of Bioware through their development of the Dragon Age franchise, though I’ll confess, I never actually played Tresspasser. I was more or less done with Dragon Age: Inquisition at that point, and had more important things to do than chase Solas through what seemed to me to be a tacked on extension, ala Witch Hunt. Maybe they should have called it “Solas Hunt.” Maybe they still might.
Now that I’ve drawn the ire of some of you who may be fans of the Morrigan DLC to Origins, I’d like to turn to one particular element that gets very little love throughout the entire franchise: Time. Maybe we can all agree that Origins had the best lore and the most authentically painful character decisions in it; perhaps we might allow that Dragon Age 2 had a truly buttery smooth combat system; and we might even give Inquisition it’s due for sheer amount of things to do and explore in the actual game world.
But out of all three major entries, only one tries to incorporate time in any meaningful sense: Dragon Age 2; and none of them do it very well.
A point of note: To be fair to Bioware, there are few traditional RPG’s that do build an element of time into their game systems and mechanics–it simply hasn’t been an expectation among gamers who play RPG’s that the world actually acknowledges time as a factor in any meaningful way that changes or impacts the world. Take any traditional RPG you know and you’ll be hard-pressed to find–short of cataclysmic events that change everything at once– even one that has time as an ongoing factor to be considered. And even in those games that do factor it in, there are even fewer, if any, where it is effectively incorporated into the game design.
On top of this, given the assumption that time won’t be a major factor in RPG’s, and in the Dragon Age games in particular, there is reason to believe many gamers would be turned off by its sudden inclusion with attendant and significant impacts on their gameplay. They might feel pressured, or upset even, that they simply can’t wander in and out of areas without attendant consequences and effects on their world state. For those gamers, I say that it could always be added as a mode of gameplay; we could call it “Static World” mode and “Dynamic World” mode, with an accompanying brief paragraph warning players that pick the latter that the order and time with which they take to do quests and visit areas will have an impact on their world and quests available, as well as outcomes. That way, those players who want a static world that is more traditional to RPGs can have it, while those who crave a more realistic experience where time is a factor they must take into account, can have that experience as well. With that out of the way, we return you to your regularly scheduled article.
A Practically Static World
Nothing changes in any of the Dragon Age games as you play through them. Stay with me as I explain. In Origins, you complete certain areas of the map that are then resolved, more or less after you proceed through the quests. The mage’s tower is still standing, regardless of whether you sided with the Templars or not; which begs the question: What the hell are they still doing there? Oh, right, they’re waiting for the Annulment to actually be enacted. For the rest of the game.
Those Dalish… they’re always there, wagons and whatnot, just waiting for you to come back and spend some time sitting by the campfire.
And Orzammar isn’t going anywhere. One could hardly blame them; the Bhelan/Harrowmont thing is really just a Tuesday for the dwarves when it comes to their politics.
And Redcliffe… oh Redcliffe. You survived the undead, a demonically possessed prince, and your lord being in a magic coma, and whatshername at the tavern is still… giving away free drinks.
The same could really be said for almost any of the areas in Inquisition, so I won’t go down the list for you here. The only entry that even incorporates and acknowledges time as a part of the story at least is DA2. And that’s where one of the major criticisms against the second entry in the franchise really arises: reused settings.
Time and Dragon Age 2
Unlike the more spatial division of the world found in Origins and Inquisition, Dragon Age 2 actually trades a spatial scope for a temporal scope; it is a game focused on the city of Kirkwall, nearly exclusively. Some have suggested it might even be better titled, Dragon Age: Kirkwall.
This struck critics and players as limiting, but in reality, it’s no more limiting than breadth vs. depth; you go wide, or you go deep, but either way, you’re still expanding your horizons. Where Bioware fumbled the ball on this chronological depth is that Kirkwall never changes, either. The Wounded Coast is still the Wounded Coast with that chest and this chest still sitting there, its paths still looking the exact same as when you first walked them. The Bone Pit, oh nothing ever changes about the Bone Pit. Sundermount, same deal. The same goes for every single location in Kirkwall that you visit.
Over the course of ten years.
One might, in a moment of compassion, forgive Origins and Inquisition for not changing their locations much, with the understanding that everything happens in the “present” — loosely speaking. But this same forgiveness cannot be shown to a game that trades space for time, and then doesn’t acknowledge what we see all around us every day: the ravages and changes that Time hath wrought, not only upon ourselves, but upon our family, friends, people and places we once knew at another time.
Stores vanish, others appear; landscapes are terraformed; and, if you have ever gone to a high school reunion, well… you know what I mean.
Yet, Isabella never ages, Hawke never gets gray, Varric seems infused with an eternal light in his eyes that never develop a single crow’s foot. The places are the same, the people are the same. I mean, at least Flemeth is going her own way and looks younger here than she does in Origins. I wouldn’t put it past her to have some magic makeup.
Upon reflection, that’s what put a crack in my windshield of immersion: the agelessness of it all. It’s like Kirkwall is a dream, a city frozen in the grip of the Fade that never actually ages, even when it seems that time has passed. There’s a fan theory for you to pursue — you’re welcome.
And in a game where the passage of time is so central to the story, it’s just wrong to not see the landscape, buildings, and people change right before your eyes; to see them grow up or grow old; to see those paths change, maybe some falling into the sea; to navigate the Bone Pit remains after it collapses, or to wade through the ruins of a Sundermount eruption. These can be the ‘same’ places and yet, be so different! The marketplace in Hightown, the Alienage in Lowtown, that old Foundry, and the rat warrens of Darktown. It’s the eerie, impeccable sameness of these places and their people, all turning out as they have for years, just as if not one moment of time passed at all, that really ejects me from the world of Kirkwall.
The devs at Bioware could’ve reused all of these elements, if only they had shown the effects of Time upon them, and I daresay, Dragon Age 2 would’ve been just as expansive as the other entries.
We will wait our turn
Turning my attention to the other entries that get more praise than Dragon Age: Kirkwall, I find myself leveling the same criticism: nowhere in Origins and Inquisition is time felt in any significant sense. In fact, the origin for the Champion of Kirkwall is the only thing that actually ends up changing on the map of Origins: the town of Lothering, in that it’s no longer even there to visit. (Say what you will about the Blight, the devs were perfectly willing to let us tramp around Ostagar and pull Cailen’s corpse off the cross if we so desired.)
Putting aside the static nature of these areas, in Origins, there’s no acknowledgment that your actions take time. You’re not in Lothering for long before Alistair and Morrigan get into an argument about where you should go first. That’s all well and good, but another dimension that would make this choice carry more weight would be the changes and consequences for doing each area in a particular order. If you wait to go to the Circle, what will happen? If you wait to go to the Brecilian Forest, will the werewolves claim more Dalish lives? How about Redcliffe? Nightly raids by the undead could indeed leave it nothing but a ghostly husk of a place if you wait too long to deal with the problem there.
You could make the argument that there’s nothing intrinsic about these scenarios that demands they all happen simultaneously, just because they’re available on the map, and I would acknowledge your point. But suppose I go and then leave? And then come back much, much later? “Oh hey, yeah, we still have that undead or demon thing going on. Same as before. Yep, I know, it’s been weeks/months.”
Particularly in a game like Inquisition, the war table could have a further dynamic that only allows you to do a certain amount of quests before the others resolve themselves, or change in what can be done. The Hinterlands definitely has every reason to be different, considering everything that happens there throughout Act 1, and then considering the dragon that takes up residence there later on, as well as other things. And yet… it’s as static a place as any area in Kirkwall in so many ways.
Who the hell even wants to live there anyway, but especially after all of that? The appearance of red lyrium in certain places gives the impression of the spreading malignance of Corypheus’ influence, and yet, the places where it is found are as static in its growth as the wreckage in the Hinterlands. Just like in Origins, there are surprisingly few, if any, consequences for doing things in a particular order, or not doing them at all; much like an amusement park attraction that just sits there and waits for you to ride on it.
We live with the effects of time all the time around us. The days and nights pass, we grow older, game companies like Bioware get swallowed up by publishers like EA, and franchises lose their magic as corporate greed sucks all of the creative vitality from them in an ever ravenous search for more profits with less effort. People change, friendships grow and fade, goals are accomplished, places are left behind and new ones are discovered, and all the while, we are ever aware of the minutes and hours ticking by.
But in Thedas, the whole world waits for you to make your move, and afterwards, some populations change, but nobody ever grows older. Landscapes remain frozen in an eternal moment of background, regardless of the tumultuous, cataclysmic events raging around them, and sometimes, it’s difficult to tell that they — or you — had any real effect on them at all.