One thing that I took away from Game Developer’s Conference this year, and was highlighted in several panels, is the idea that a game’s story should be fully integrated into its mechanics, and vice versa. This was central to BioWare’s “Worlds Collide: Combining Story and Systems in Dragon Age: Inquisition” panel, hosted by Mark Williams (Lead Technical Designer) and Kaelin Lavallee (Lead Narrative Designer). BioWare is definitely an appropriate studio to be leading this discussion, given that all of their games overflow with lore connecting the smallest of discoveries to the biggest themes.
//Spoilers from here on//
One example Mark and Kaelin gave of using story to support mechanics was the Oculara—if you’re not familiar with the game, they’re skulls in each area of the world that are used to spot collectable “shards,” which can be used at another location to upgrade your character’s resistance stats. The Oculara are meant to allow the player to manipulate the camera for a good view of the beautiful world locations, and thereby “discover the Dragon Age” (one of the game’s main design tenets), with the ability to spot shards supporting that. I can vouch that as a system, it works: there’s an island area off the Storm Coast that I never discovered until I finally managed to spot the shard located there in the distance, almost at the end of my 100-hour playthrough. It’s a cool area, and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it, but I had absolutely no idea it was there for the longest time.
There are plenty of discoveries to be made through the Oculara, but BioWare wanted to make sure that there was a real story-based reason for these things to exist. And that’s how the Oculara became the modified skulls of tranquil mages, used by the Venatori in their hunt for power. Not only does that make the Oculara spooky and cool, it also ties them into the main plot. And BioWare really makes them seem integrated, rather than a throwaway, too—discussion on their origin is had by party members, but there are also hints throughout the mage storyline that Tevinters don’t much care for tranquil mages, and that many of them had disappeared during the rebellion. In this way, the player has at least a small reason to investigate them: if not out of curiosity, out of the need to thwart the Venatori whenever possible.
The shards also get a hook to grab the player’s attention, albeit one not as narrative based. Investigating them takes the player to an desert oasis (incidentally, one of my favorite locales in the game), where they can be used to open a mysterious door. Behind which are…more mysterious doors. If nothing else, the player has the motivation of “what on earth is in there!?” to compel them to bother with shard-gathering. Inside the various doors are large coffins at the intriguingly decorated rooms filled with presumably burial-related treasure, so even if a player doesn’t want to get every single shard for the primary reward of elemental resistances, they are still rewarded by the scene before their eyes and what it inspires in the imagination. While this may seem to be not part of the story at all, that’s not strictly true; as was pointed out at the panel, even carefully placing a skeleton at the bottom of a waterfall implies a story, even if it’s up to the player to tell it in full.
This is just one very small example of how Inquisition ties story to systems, but it really caught my attention because of how many games these days use collectables to increase their content hours, so I wanted to introduce it first before expanding on the idea of collectables, and possibly on some other Dragon Age-specific systems mentioned in the panel in future posts. It also supports a mindset mentioned at the end of the panel that I feel is often overlooked or even ignored to games’ detriment: “Story is everyone’s responsibility.”
If you’re interested in the full notes I took on the panel, let me know and I’d be happy to send them to you!