Emptiness and melancholy in Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher: Wild Hunt - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
22Jan/160

Emptiness and melancholy in Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher: Wild Hunt

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Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, click here.

We're finally homeI've written about video games for several months now and, aside from one foray into an experimental RPG, have avoided writing about RPGs in general.There are many reasons why - they tend to be longer than the average game, can contain battle systems either oversimplified or so complex you'd need a Rosetta Stone, and have a sort of operatic theatricality at their best which may induce laughs in some. One of my personal issues with RPGs of recent years is how the Bethesda model (Morrowind, Skyrim) of many choices but little consequence has become so prevalent.

In the last two years I've played through two separate RPGs with open world models that eschew the Bethesda system for more story and event-based gameplay. In 2014 into 2015 the first was Dragon Age: Inquisition, and from late 2015 into 2016 it was The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. My experiences with the two were as different as my history with each series. I played through and loved Dragon Age: Origins and tolerated Dragon Age 2 whereas The Witcher series I avoided due to what looked like janky game play. I received both as gifts, played through them with almost all my spare time, and ended each with a feeling of emptiness.

As part of the series I've wanted to explore the emotional connection we form with our avatars and, despite my custom molded role as leader of an army, Inquisition made me feel hollow. I was dissatisfied with my experience in what seemed like an empty world. But with Wild Hunt we're in a landscape which is at a low point in its history with everyone despairing, yet I felt a sort of compelling melancholy which helped me identify with Geralt - who I could only customize so far - versus my Qunari avatar in Inquisition.

To explore these contrasted feelings of emptiness and how the aesthetics and game play affect each I reached out to a fellow writer and good friend. So, Quintus, before we get started why don't you tell us a bit about what makes you you and answer the question - why video games?Fly you foolsWhat makes me me is a pretty hefty frightening thing to contemplate, so I'll go at the second question first.

Why video games? Because I am completely enthralled by skillful artifice. I became a poet because I loved the idea that enjambment can carry emotional weight (how cool is it that the first line of the second stanza of Slim Greer in Hell can embody the song-like rhythm of the piece just by using some white space?), and I love video games from the moment I realized that when Mario took damage, I'd shout "Ouch!" like I was actually injured. Video games settle in this nice little space between overt mechanical restrictions and direct player agency, and the best games are able to use those systems to trick us into thinking we're the authors of a book that's already been written. Very cool "man behind the curtain" stuff. And who doesn't love trudging through dark, dank corridors to rob terrible beasts?

I'm a poet, and in doing work for music albums or just putting together a set of work to have published, I love the concept of leveraging semantic systems for emotional reactions or the work our brains do in crafting rhythm out of what is really nothing more than lights on a screen or ink leavings on a piece of paper. Even languages work that way, so it's always fun to see what makes things tick and what makes things break. I guess that's what makes me me; I like to build and I like to smash, and I like to write really pretty things about really severe issues.

I'm sort of the opposite of you regarding Dragon Age and The Witcher in a few ways. I first played The Witcher (as in the very first game in the series), which I found fabulously fun in a fairly punishing way, and have always been excitedly on the lookout for the next game in the series. However, I couldn't really identify with Geralt. I liked his story, I liked his world, I liked cutting down swathes of bad guys after getting high on crazy concoctions, but I found Geralt a little too...amazing, for lack of a better term, to enjoy.

I was immediately able to enjoy the protagonists from the Dragon Age series, probably because I was able to create them, but I hated Origins with a passion. The game feels like a thematic hodge podge pulling from Game of Thrones and Wheel of Time off the top of my head. Dragon Age 2 was actually the high point for me, because I adored Hawke, his family, his story, and my agency and freedom in interacting with the world and the people around me. I also thought the game played like a dream on console and fell in love with Kirkwall.

I have a similar but greatly reduced affection for Inquisition. I still like my protagonist, but he's much more bland now compared to Hawke. I like heading an organization, but there's no strategy or thought to it, so the mechanic is basically working against what the story seems to be trying to get me to believe, that I'm heading up a major organization working against or around other organizations. While I didn't find the world empty, I did feel like everything was there for me in a way that's much less transparent as Inquisition is definitely more of a theme park compared to Wild Hunt.Geralt and roachCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayI appreciate you taking the time to talk with me as I've appreciated your insights and thoughts into video games before. That's already paid dividends in the outset of our conversation because I want to zero in on the comparison you made between Inquisition and a theme park. Theme parks, by their nature, are set up as an artificial reality. I think of how Jean Baudrillard helped define hyperreality for many by bringing up how Disneyland is the most magical place on earth when it's really just another set of concrete, gears, and acting to create the illusion.

It might be because Inquisition is broken up into different chunks for exploration, or rides, that I felt so dissatisfied playing it. I often felt someone would pay $60 for a ticket so they could stand in line and wait for hours on end. The many zones are broken up and we can't just stroll from one border into the other, then when you finally have access to many of these zones there's a lot of empty space between the travel markers. For a world that's supposed to be at war with an army of demons versus your own this seemed an odd design choice given how packed the worlds of the previous two games were. Even if there was a distance to travel it was either short or there was plenty to do in Origins or Dragon Age 2, here you're spending an awful lot of time traveling with few markers of advancement.

To bring it around on your theme park example, it felt like a few scattering respectful troops were around to reinforce the illusion of being in charge of an army but the world hardly evolved to fit that. Now, Wild Hunt has a similarly empty world, but even though I'm playing a loner the content is so densely packed that any travel time feels negligible. Despite the vast size of Skellige Islands, Velen, Novigrad and so on you're never more than a minute of travel to another objective. There are some game play elements which enhance this I'll get to in a moment, but to me if Inquisition is a theme park then Wild Hunt is like a bed and breakfast with a morning poetry reading. You may not have as much to do, and it's still an illusion in some way, but it's one designed to make you feel at ease even though you know you're not home.

CSTVIcon_QuintusHavisYour point about the segregation of Inquisition's world is a good one. Fast Travel is ubiquitous, but traveling itself is rarely interesting. Much like wading through a crowd of kids to get to the roller coaster, I loved the scale of fighting dragons but despised walking over to find them. It also makes the world feel much more gamey, I think. I can instantly travel to the closest point to get to the fun stuff then mutter about having to walk over to find it.

Wild Hunt's fast travel system felt more rewarding because it made me engage with the world. And along the way, I could count on encountering something slightly interesting or watch the sun rise and set or something. There was a degree of life and the minor hamstringing of fast travel by linking it to those signs out in the world really helped me feel that life. Wild Hunt's world works so well because of so many little things. Inquisition tells us, but never shows us; Wild Hunt doesn't say a damn thing, and just lets the world be, and is better for it, and the fast traveling works as a mechanism to make us see what the world is.

The themes of Wild Hunt suits its world well. Each game in the series has contributed to Geralt's development, but Wild Hunt helped drive home the loneliness of Geralt's work and life and how there's degrees of separation from even his closest friends. It's played in your typical macho hetero male power fantasy kind of way with him being the best swordsman in the land and having sex with supermodel sorceresses of tremendous power and influence, but even as great as he is, he only really makes major impacts on the world by interacting with the major players, not by being one. It's a bit of a crapsack kind of world and Geralt really embodies its blend of fatalism and optimism.

Inquisition, however, wants me to buy into the fantasy of being the head of a major force that is making political and militaristic headway into the world, and it's just not really there. Sometimes, I see an Inquisition banner, and there's the Suikoden-esque recruitment of agents who show up at the stronghold, but those benefits are almost all nothing more than statistical benefits that happen behind the scenes and the agents' appearing at Skyhold feels more like an Easter egg or a thrown bone than something meaningful. I persuaded a smuggling nun to work for me as a smuggler! I was really excited until I realized that I won't even get to send her on War Table missions to smuggle stuff; she just represented a 5% bonus for certain mission types to complete a bit faster.

In this sense, Wild Hunt hides itself in plain sight. You don't really get to alter the world from moment to moment in any game that I can think of, and Wild Hunt's sheer size and theme really helps drive home the idea that Geralt, no matter how skilled, is just a man. Inquisition sets its sights higher, and wasn't able to trick me into feeling that it was true.

Inquisition's world was also kind of "liberal by committee," if you know what I mean. The cast had something for everyone; Iron Bull was bisexual and into BDSM. Dorian was a gay man of color grappling with his patriotism and familial issues about his sexuality. Krem was trans. I say "by committee" because three of the four major players at the War Table (if you count Cassandra), were still white. Every major political player was white (I think the case could be made that I'm dismissing Vivienne, but she doesn't figure into the political part of the game really). Still, I appreciate the effort, and the game has taken steps to fight against the delusional fantasy trope that all brown-skinned people are from X continent, all white people are from Y country.

Wild Hunt, on the other hand, boggles my mind. In a game so huge, with a story so vast, there are no people of color to be found. This is one area that made the game difficult for me to enjoy on a few levels. First, given the magnitude of events surrounding Ciri and the magical abilities that we know exist, it's outrageous that the game world implicitly tells me "Nope, no black wizards are interested in this." The second way this got to me is that it felt forbidding. Even though Inquisition's attempt at diversity felt like it was designed by a painfully racially homogenous committee, they tried and did somewhat decently. Wild Hunt failed in this respect and it constantly drew me out of what was otherwise an engrossing world.ROmanceCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayThat's an interesting point about diversity in both games. Geralt is an extremely straight swordsman who beds women so easily you have to work not to get twisty in the sheets. Inquisition may have those options but it's like deciding to throw on a different screen saver or, keeping with the theme park idea, like the characters are just different television screens you can look at while waiting for the ride. I think that's why I get the complete lack of diversity in Wild Hunt may cause a disconnect in another way. Given that CD Projekt is a Polish game developer and Poland is almost 100% white it's something that might play better in the European Union but in America, where we're already grappling with centuries of abuse, it's borderline unacceptable.

Moving onto one of your other points though is how the fast travel system in Wild Hunt is linked by points of interest and conflict. Riding Roach on an empty road with the gentle soundtrack humming is already a gateway for melancholy - and on a separate note is there any game which has a more melancholy soundtrack than Wild Hunt? I can't think of one.

But even when you have the opportunity to make a difference it comes by temporarily slowing the advance of monsters or bandits. Like you said, Wild Hunt doesn't make a point of explaining that your actions are only temporary. Sure, some of the loading screens tell you the fates of entire communities depend on your choices, but they sure aren't ready to include you in their community even if you save them. I love the way the developers chose to express this as when you liberate an area for the populace to return Geralt just stares at them wistfully with a slight smile before moving on. He can't stay and settle down, even if they're grateful we know in-world he wouldn't mix for long, and the population itself starts rebuilding. There's the dual air of sadness in the victory in how Geralt won't have a place to accept him, but once he's gone the liberated area may fall again.

That's what why the permanence of those choices in Inquisition make me feel more empty than melancholic. Instead of areas to be liberated they're forts to be captured or held, and once that's done your army moves in and sets up camp like they've always been there. There's not even a rash of "Golly gee thanks inquisitor!" remarks to greet you in the captured areas. It reminds me of the Bethesda model in the worst way, where your actions have the feeling of a switch being turned on / off only they'd be populated / unpopulated. If you can do anything, but there's no built in reaction to your avatar, then what does it matter that you do anything? There are some key differences in the game play itself that I'd like to address which add to these feelings, but I wonder what you think of the split between the two here.

CSTVIcon_QuintusHavisI actually hadn't remembered that you can liberate areas to be repopulated in Wild Hunt, but you're absolutely on point. A lot of the contracts are similar, with employers begrudging Geralt's existence even as you haggle with them about dealing with some unspeakable, man-eating beast. Their prejudice almost precludes their survival instinct.

I actually had really high hopes for the Inquisition forts and so on. I think where Inquisition failed here is that, as you say, it's pretty meaningless in most terms. Had there been a tactical map or 4X-style strategy involved, it would have been had a little more impact and added to the feel and illusion of being a commander. The artifice is ruptured by the meaninglessness of these supposedly major moves. I never even felt like I was opposing a major force. The enemies were just there for me to slay, the holds were there for me to take. It was gluttonous point collection more than narratively meaningful.

Wild Hunt doesn't make Geralt out to be a major player. In fact, he's generally more of a tool than an actor. He's used by Roche, Emhyr, Radovid, on and on. In the narrative, he is generally dealt with in terms of usefulness. The melancholy there is familiar and works and plays into the actual mechanisms at play in the game. Inquisition promises us, though, that we will be using others, and it just never plays out that way.

I think it might be a question of relatability. It's easy to relate to Geralt navigating what feels like a combination of prejudice and capitalist urges to treat him as a resource and not a person. Inquisition wanted to give us the epic fantasy, which was kind of one part Jesus story and one part epic fantasy bildungsroman, but the static world that works in Wild Hunt's favor fails here. It's cool to see my soldiers repairing a bridge and then seeing it done, but all it feels like is hitting a button and then waiting 7 hours because when I visit that bridge, there's no change or progression; my fantasy of a huge organization working under me is immediately banished. This is an issue of limitations, I think, more than Inquisition specifically, but it still harms the fantasy and makes the game feel more hollow. Thematically, Geralt's role as the despised yet necessary ends up feeling more organic.

How did you feel about the characters in the game worlds? I found Inquisition's characters often felt like...I'm not sure what a good way to put it is. I would describe their side-quests as feeling like the episodes in a TV series that focus on a beloved minor character. The protagonist's general lifelessness was really relieved by listening to them just chatter away about events and relationships and interactions with people at Skyhold, but the characters felt so specific that I couldn't imagine them doing anything other than what they're doing if that makes sense; even Varric, who was much better in Dragon Age 2.  In contrast, it's easy to imagine Yen leading her own life and doing her own things. Each of the characters in Wild Hunt felt more independent, for lack of a better term. This might be because of the more gamey feeling that Inquisition gives me, but the only character that I really, really felt played a strong role and helped the world and events feel alive was Cassandra. In comparison, almost every character I met with a speaking role in Wild Hunt seemed to lend the game more authenticity. Even the NPC chatter in the background supported the world building.Battle of Kaer MorhenCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayThat's a good transition because I can tie how I feel about the characters in both along with the game play elements they introduce. On the relationship-building level I loved the uncertainty of Wild Hunt's companion system. No matter who you get to help you they'll always be temporary, you can't control them, and even when the world-shattering power of Ciri culminates in a grand battle the people who are willing to help you are available based on your previous actions. One character outright tells you to sod off because in my play through I lied to him, and one of the sorceresses joined because I was kind to her but afterward said she never would have come if she knew the battle would be that bad.

With Inquisition all of the characters seemed to operate on a binary. Their acquisition is almost always a "Do you want me to come with? Please answer yes / no." They had no independent lives outside of the Inquisition, and even the side quests designed to flesh out their experiences in the world bore little to no relevance to what happened in the game. Compare that to who you can / can't enlist in the battle of Wild Hunt and the plethora of fighting options each brings to the table. Even the relationship system in Inquisition fell flat, because while the game kept telling me this person felt closer to me or this person felt further away damned if I could tell how that affected the in-game stuff at all.

The aspects of both games tie into their respective fighting systems and add to the melancholy and emptiness - respectively. Geralt is always one man versus the world even when the stakes are gigantic. Yes, you have allies in the Battle of Kaer Morhen, but they're trying to keep themselves alive. Instead Geralt has to swerve and slash with his balletic grace, keeping a careful inventory of his potions and available weapons as he struggles. In Inquisition you can switch between each of your characters and pause the game to both issue orders and control time as you see fit. Considering how indifferently the rest of the world treats the inquisitor this was something of a final straw for me in that controlling your creation was little different from a character with a similar build.

Even the pause mechanics of both affected my emotional investment. When you switch signs as Geralt or access your quickbar the world doesn't stop - it just slows down. Game play-wise it keeps the pressure up, but it fits into what we've both been saying as the world will continue on whether Geralt is ready for it or not. Since you're able to pause the game world entirely in Inquisition and the character you're giving orders to may already play like your inquisitor it lessens your avatar's connection to the battlefield. The world of Wild Hunt is largely indifferent to Geralt's suffering but the suffering is uniquely his. In Inquisition it might as well be anyone else in your shoes.

CSTVIcon_QuintusHavisThat's a perfect way to articulate what I wanted to get at, and it's another reason why Dragon Age 2 and Wild Hunt both have more life for me than Inquisition. In Dragon Age 2, respect can be earned, whether or not you're actually liked, and it gives me the freedom to act. Because Inquisition is bound to a state of binary like/dislike, I actually wound up feeling more like a spineless yes-man than the savior of Thedas. It works against it's own mystique.

Because of how Wild Hunt is designed, my allies feel like they have their own agendas and I can fit into them or not. It did give me a certain sense of alienation or lack of control, but I think that's the artifice of the writing at work. Of course I'm in control as the player, but the actors in the game feel like they have more agency and I need to react and navigate their lives and desires. When I play Wild Hunt, I ask myself what would benefit Geralt or Ciri, but when I play Inquisition, I often feel like I'm worming my way into confidences. Inquisition is a story ultimately about power, and the relationship system just doesn't jive with that well.

Your point about the battle system hits on the gaminess of Inquisition that I mentioned earlier. I loved the battle system and think it worked well but it reduces the characters at play to pieces on a board to be moved. I normally play Warriors (although in Inquisition I mostly play Mage because the Knight-Enchanter is the most fun melee class), so there was a strong degree of immediacy since I was mashing my melee ability button which helped with my sense of connection, but nothing really makes the characters unique in action. Varric is precisely the same as Sara with the exception of a single ability tree. There's nothing unique to the fact that he's using what is essentially a high-fantasy assault rifle or his fantastic wealth, whereas in contrast, Geralt really does feel like the baddest man in the land when you parry an attack and cut a man in half. There's a degree of freakishness to it, even, which I loved to see at play with the sort of heavy emptiness of the road and Geralt's interactions.

I also don't think the power creep in Wild Hunt is as dramatic as it is in Inquisition. In my current Inquisition play through, I've made my team, and particularly my main character, so powerful that I don't even generally bother with positioning or team play. The battles are effectively pointless, and I feel that really reinforces the weird smallness of the game. Nothing in Thedas can put my Knight-Enchanter down, and knowing that makes the game seem smaller than it is.

Wild Hunt's monsters are fearsome, though. I've read griping about how it's ridiculous that Nekkers can still be a threat at higher levels, but a sense of danger helps ground the protagonist in the world. Geralt, for all his power and skill, is still a man who can be slain, and slain really easily if you approach a werewolf or a fiend the wrong way. That danger helps stave off a sense of placid staleness. In Inquisition, my previously rather nameless nobody somehow goes on to become a person that duels dragons to the death with impunity. In Wild Hunt, I screwed up and nearly got killed by a gang of bandits hanging out near the beach. As you say, the reminders of smallness in Wild Hunt go on to make the world feel large.

You even see this play out in the narrative. Geralt is constantly one step behind, but in Inquisition, the hero never fails. The one loss is the destruction of Haven, which turns out to be a blessing since it gets us to Skyhold. There just isn't any fear in the world that Inquisition built.War MapCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayThose thoughts help give me an excellent basis to close on why Inquisition makes me feel empty and Wild Hunt melancholic. I love to play chess but only against someone of similar or slightly better skill than myself. When you've basically created a team of all Queens in Inquisition the competition is an afterthought, and since the rest of the game world seems indifferent to your success I might as well put the board away.

In contrast Wild Hunt humbled me. With each piece of design, be it the solitude of the road or the fickle whims of the NPCs, it was one where my actions reminded me of how small Geralt is but how his actions matter. Wade into a small army of wolves which you can dispatch easily one-by-one and suddenly you're stun-locked, your health bar is gone, and the world will move on without tiny bastions of hope. Wild Hunt is almost like an anti-existentialism simulator, reminding you of your inconsequential life but at the same time showing you evolving results thanks to your existence.

With this I understand more why the Bethesda model and Inquisition's design make me feel empty. Melancholy, while an inherently sad emotional state, doesn't exclude the possibility of hope. In Wild Hunt I'm curious about the next marker over the hill even if I may be too late to help. As the Inquisitor if I don't do it someone else probably will. As a player, and someone with a growing knowledge of how video games can be compelling pieces of interactive fiction, the former will always take precedence over the latter for me.

CSTVIcon_QuintusHavisThat chess analogy is a great one. I love for a game to feel gamey, but it has a very different impact and resonance for me than one that doesn't. I have played through Inquisition over 10 times, and while I do enjoy the game, it is a hollow experience in a lot of ways. I have reached the end of Wild Hunt one time, and it was a weighty experience.

Both games, from a mechanical standpoint, have mechanics waiting to be exploited. The difference is, narratively, when I do this in Inquisition, it is yet another victory in a string of victories. There's no contrast of suffering to help me savor the wins. Like a theme park, the entire game world, even the villain, is there for me to enjoy, and the narrative structure makes that transparent.

With Wild Hunt, the narrative regularly reminds you that there are people with skills and talents outside of Geralt's kin, forces working against him or even just indifferently alongside him that will happily make use of him or seek to crush him if he's in the way. Even with figuring out how to make the most out of the character building system, the world of the game helps me savor the contrasting flavor of victory and defeat. And more importantly, the stakes are emotional; I wanted to save Ciri because she was my kid, not because she was the McGuffin, and I have rewarding parental interactions with her throughout the game to help me feel that. I may have an advantage here in that I'm familiar with the books, but the greatest thing at stake in Wild Hunt is Geralt's relationships, not merely cutting down an enemy. I suppose this is further evidence of "the Daddening" of games, but I think it's meaningful to tell a story about the greatest swordsman in the land trying to solve a problem that doesn't involve a duel or a stabbing primarily.

Inquisition's design seeks to feed the power fantasy to excess, and with no contrast, the victories just aren't sweet. In Wild Hunt, every win, mechanically and narratively, is satisfying because, despite the game being a very macho power fantasy, it has an emotional core balanced by the stress of disaster with haunted characters who worry, manage to fail, and be stymied. If fighting games have taught me anything, it's that losing and failing makes the eventual win that much greater, and Wild Hunt's world building understands that thoroughly.

What We're Gaming This Week

CSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayI've written repeatedly about my Bloodborne progress and last night I made a startling revelation.  The reason I've been so frustrated is the chalice dungeons are both optional and at later depths are harder than the endgame.  After realizing this I went to Amygdala and made extremely short work of the demonic walnut.  Now flush with victory (and ignoring the optional dungeons for a bit) I will likely be finishing my first play through of Bloodborne today.

 

CSTVIcon_QuintusHavisMy ever-beloved Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen on PC for the umpteenth time, Blade & Soul for my kung-fu action/MMO fix, Pillars of Eternity, and BlazblueChrono Phantasma and the Street Fighter V beta if I figure out what to unload from my PS4 to download that again. And an Etrian Odyssey game, but I'm never not playing one of those.

I'm a multitasker, you see.

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Posted by Andrew

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