I’m replaying Dragon Age: Inquisition for what is sure to be the first of many, many times, so this is likely the first of many, many posts on the subject. This contains some spoilers for the first hour or so of the game.
So, you, the Herald, have been mentally acquitted by Cassandra, Solas, and Varric of being the one who murdered everybody, which is apparently good enough, and the party heads off to the now-exploded Temple of Sacred Ashes to poke at the rift with mysterious hand-powers. Now, you have the option to comment on how horrible the destruction at the Conclave was before this, but, for most of us I think, it doesn’t really sink in until arriving at the still-burning ruins.
You walk into the once-Temple, now lacking most of its structure, and there are just corpses everywhere. But not normal corpses: no, petrified corpses resembling something out of post-excavation Pompeii. There are a lot of them. Some of them are still on fire. All of them seem to have had just enough time to recognize the horror about to be visited upon them before turning to statues of ash, judging by the twisted expressions on their faces. You look, really look, at these people, struck by the contorted faces and the burning and the sheer number of them and oh, what it must have been like in that moment. And that’s the brilliance of it: this is something you discover, without outside forces framing it. It’s on you to look at it, to consider it, to really take it in before moving on.
A lot of games would introduce this kind of thing as a cutscene (and the toasty dudes do appear in a cutscene right after this, in case the player speeds on by the in-field version, but they’re there as part of the background). There’s nothing really wrong with that—it gives the advantage of perfectly polished graphics and dramatic music to the presentation of the Impressive Scene. Still, doing that completely ignores the strengths of the videogame medium. It’s important that the player discovers things for herself in this medium, because that is precisely what allows her to have a closer connection to the story than a movie or book can provide. As a player, the actual playing part is what makes the character you.
Not all games are designed with need for story immersion, of course, particularly ones that are more action- than story-focused. But to me, these are the moments the medium truly shines. When, at the end of Bioshock, you realize that obeying every command like games have taught you to do was driving the plot the whole time. When, in Silent Hill 3, you feel pure horror when asked, “They look like monsters to you?”
I’m impressed by such a seemingly small thing because that seemingly small thing—one moment in a game that is easily 100 hours—managed to impact me, even the second time around. Because it was carefully crafted, but not presented. It is these small moments that allow videogames to be something greater and more profoundly connected to the audience than traditional media, and I hope that this potential won’t be lost under a varnish of cutscenes before we’ve really explored it.