Story Is Everyone’s Responsibility, Part 1: How the Oculara in Dragon Age Inquisition Make Collecting Junk Worthwhile

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 Ocularaif 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!


One thought on “Story Is Everyone’s Responsibility, Part 1: How the Oculara in Dragon Age Inquisition Make Collecting Junk Worthwhile

  1. Oh, that’s an interesting panel! I have not seen it!

    I recall watching another panel by the DAI art designers. It is amazing much attention they put into designing the flow the camera placement, the environments, etc.

    Oculara is an interesting system. The key in this and any other system in a game is coherence. Does it belong in the world? Why it is there? What type of interactions it may induce? How it affects the story dynamics?

    Story is everyone’s responsibility… That is a great point! If you play FFXIV, you may notice that Eorzea is not a very dynamic word, compared to say GW2. However, even though it might be easier to RP in a more dynamic work because things are changing constantly, and you have more things to react to, nothing prevents you from weaving fun stories in a more static world, especially given the wonderful systems FFXIV has in place (I used to play on Balmung).

    Also, speaking of FFXIV, they implemented the best crafting system ever! The beauty if the system is that you change your “builds” as you level up. It is so much fun to continuously optimize your crafting methods as you level! Then, once you level enough professions, you can just auto-craft things with 100% chance, so it is less exciting. This also relates to another panel from that conference – Diablo 3. I never played Diablo before, but started playing it recently, and although I thought that I would never enjoy such a game, I actually kind of like it. One of the reasons for it is, again, this continuous optimization, continuous challenge of adjusting your build and gear as you level and progress. What they talked about on that panel was the discrepancy between what the developers thought players wanted and what players actually did. It is amazing how they were able to improve the game substantially with the Reaper of Souls.

    Another thought on coherence comes from Heroes of the Storm. I watched some of their panels and was amazed by how much care they put into designing the heroes. They are very careful about designing skills and look of the heroes such that it is consistent with their lore yet fun to play. Blizzard takes a long time to design their games, but they tend to turn out very well.

    Anyway, that’s a lot of somewhat tangential thoughts! haha

    Thank you for writing such posts! I look forward to your followups on DAI design! 🙂


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