Brook Jensen is a writer and programmer trying to take everything from the games he loves and make his own with a lot less bullshit. His work ranges from interactive fiction to visual novels and he is currently working on a breakup simulation game called “… It’s You: A Breakup Story.”
Let me sell you on my favourite game: Dragon Age: Inquisition.
It’s filled with beautifully rendered landscapes, an engaging but not too intricate combat system, a cast of diverse and well-written characters, and hundreds of fully voiced choices that just do not matter—not even a little.
Well, it really depends on who you ask.
“Matter” is such a nebulous word—so lofty, loaded, and vague. Put it beside the word “choices” and both start to feel awfully important. “Choices that matter.” That’s one of those phrases they like to put on the back of the box. If you want to sell it, though, you need a metric. “How many endings?” is a favourite. “How many branches?” is another. What all these definitions share is a focus on content. “How many permutations of the text are there?” is what they’re all really asking. Moreso, much like our choices in real life, there’s a yearning for decisions that last.
By this definition of choices that “matter”, Dragon Age: Inquisition comes up pretty short. In fact, most of the choices do not “matter”. You’d think they could all be thrown away and have the game little worse for it. I disagree. To me, for this game, almost every choice matters. So focused on content, this implied definition fails to account for the long-lasting and dynamic effect these choices have on the player’s subjective experience. Dragon Age: Inquisition, uniquely amongst similar AAA titles, leverages this power by doing nothing more or less than asking how you feel. Using my most recent playthrough as a Dalish elf, I’ll illustrate that through a series of “meaningless” choices DA:I allows for a player created story about their unique relationship to faith, doubt, and heroism that is as encoded and validated by the game as the sequence of spells you choose to take down an Ogre.
Choose Your Race
Normally, your choice of race is not considered a “story” choice, but it’s one of the first ones you’re asked to make in the game. Each race sits at a different rung on the socio-economic ladder, and without regurgitating the entire compendium, elves are kind of the lowest. As former slaves, they now live predominantly in the ghettos of human cities. Some, known as the Dalish, have opted instead to become nomads. They live in isolation and do what they can to re-live a culture destroyed by their oppressors.
Peppered throughout the game are unique lines and choices for each race. In other terms, the choice “matters”. I want to focus on the intro where it doesn’t.
After proving you were not responsible for the explosion at the Conclave and helping the newly founded Inquisition seal The Breach, people start to believe you’re chosen. You’re the lone survivor of a devastating explosion, and people claim Andraste (Joan of Arc + Jesus) herself saved you. Soldiers, merchants, and staff kneel everywhere you go, revering you as a saviour long before you feel deserving of anything. “Herald of Andraste” is what they whisper, and it’s terribly othering and uncomfortable.
This segment (Imposter’s Syndrome Simulator 2014) has the same text regardless of race, but playing as an elf changed my experience. Andraste is not only a figure of human reverence, but the name invoked during the genocide of elven culture. This “meaningless” choice mattered here; it played with the way I feel.
So Tell Me: How Do You Feel?
And that’s the first choice you’re given after all of this is: How do you feel?
How do I feel? I feel awful, confused, and to be honest, a little angry. I am not the “Herald of Andraste” and I am not a hero to these people. I’m just an elf; a random Dalish elf who just so happened to be at the Conclave when it exploded. I’m terrified by what is happening and I just want to go home. My clan, I understand. This is something else.
That’s not what my character said out loud, of course. There was no dialogue option written for my unique blend of feelings, but that’s what it felt like I said. In reality, I picked the ‘Confused’ option and my character said something to the effect of “I don’t understand what’s happening.” It was dialogue vague enough to assume the meaning I needed, but specific enough in emotion that I felt I had answered earnestly. This is the sleight of hand that Dragon Age manages to do every incessant time they ask you: How do you feel?
And they ask a lot. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game before that asks this sort of question so frequently. The Witcher rarely does, reserving choices (like most games) for action, not expression. Pillars did not. Divinity did not. None of the Elder Scrolls games do. It must seem to most franchises a waste, as so rarely do these choices affect the outcome of the game.
But they do affect something. Firstly, they make your feelings a part of the story. People react to them, and thus through feedback validate them. By validate, I don’t mean they necessarily agree with or support how you feel, but the game recognizes that you felt something and by placing a choice, and by choosing your feelings become part of the game.
Secondly, like any piece of media, games have a “frame”. Decisions were made of what to include and what to omit. You never see your character go to the washroom, because the designers decided that it wasn’t important. Every time a choice is included, regardless of its effect, it signposts that what is being asked is important. By deciding what choices are available, the game is telling you what sorts of answers it considers “interesting”. Humans have feelings like we breathe; millions go by unconsidered and this discomfort could have been another, but I was forced to consider and reflect. And so Dragon Age becomes a story about the sequence of feelings you have, but under a constraint: it’s a story about the feelings for which the writers chose to ask.
Are You Chosen?
And that brings us to the most important, meaningless question posed in this game: Are you chosen? This question is asked countless times by different characters, in different places, and for different reasons. At the root of this question is another: Do you believe?
Given my character’s Dalish background, when the Inquisition War Council tells you people believe you are touched, I told them I wasn’t. Simple, cathartic role play.
Then the question was asked again. This time, though, in a private one-on-one setting by a party member (Cassandra) whose faith in both the Maker and her cause are very important to her. I still said I didn’t believe, but I didn’t feel the same anger as before. I felt uncomfortable. I almost didn’t want to pick it, just because of how she felt, but I wanted to be honest and I felt my character’s heritage was too sacred to her to feel comfortable with a lie. The exact same question, with the exact same choices, and the exact same choice chosen, but a different experience.
Then, during the Hinterlands, I saw refugees suffering, trapped in a chaotic war as members of the Inquisition and Chantry try desperately to save them. They ask: Are you really the saviour?
Once again, same question, different context. I wasn’t confiding but instead speaking on behalf of an organization to a despondent people. So I said yes, I am the Herald. There was no lie option, to be clear, just the usual yes/maybe/no. The game doesn’t ask if you’re lying, or demand a reason for your answer to have changed (if it was even keeping track), but I knew what it was. Allowing for different answers, but never asking why, allowed for a story where I didn’t believe, but one where I pretended to for the good of others. I could choose who and when to confide, and when to put up walls. This is not a special branch I went down, or something the designers had to make sure was written into the game. “Meaningless” questions allowed for it. In fact, another player could make all the same choices but interpret otherwise. They could write a whole essay on their reasons. The choices are just symbols which develop a meaning to me and I can now arrange to write my story.
Growing And Scared
What’s beautiful about this setup is that it allows for organic character growth without the need for branches or new dialogue.
After the attack on Haven, the player barely survives their first confrontation with Corypheus, the game’s principal antagonist. He is a man who, a millennium ago, breached the literal heavens with magic and found the throne of the gods empty. In this scene, he elucidates in chilling detail the vacuity of your faith as the home of your Inquisition burns. By chance, you escape, and must trek through the snowy mountains alone without any idea where the rest of your forces are. Even when you, barely still alive, find them, the outlook is bleak.
Recovering, you speak with Mother Giselle about hope, fear, and survival. As always, you’re given the choice: Do you believe that the Maker was by your side? For the first time, I’m torn. I want to believe. On the one hand, I should have died out there. To my followers, I’ve returned from the dead. With Biblical allusions abound it feels like I’m supposed to believe, that someone or something must be looking out for me, but I can’t. It doesn’t feel right. If I really was chosen by Andraste, would we be here now? It hardly feels like anyone’s faith is being rewarded, unless you consider “barely alive” a gift. Maybe some people do.
So I say no and walk away. It’s the same answer I’ve always given, and the question was no different, but there’s a gravity to it now that wasn’t there before. It’s sort of terrifying now. Like, if I believe what I’m saying, what chance do we have now? Can I go on believing I’m alone? The same three choices—a life-changing experience. I’m crying and the writers are just hitting copy & paste.
Then, you’re gifted with a beautiful cutscene. Mother Giselle unites the entire camp in song, rousing people from their dejected ruminations and rallying them to your side. Your followers kneel, just as they did in the game’s intro, and in a whisper, Giselle reminds you that faith is more powerful than you think.
Minutes later, I lead the pilgrims to Skyhold, and know that I am chosen. Barely a line or two of text changed.
The Codex is My Climax
I felt very sensitive to the game’s choices from that point on. Every new one asked about my chosenness was novel and confusing. I never knew what to say. I didn’t really “believe” in the Maker per se. I mean, I still felt like I was connected to the Elven Gods. Andraste, too, was a strange symbol. I did feel a connection to her but… what kind of divine figure was she, really? Did I believe in the version of her that humans wrote of, or was she something else? Blackwall asked me on the battlements if I truly am chosen. I said yes, and didn’t want to keep having to justify it to him. I didn’t want to keep justifying it to me, either.
My next destination was the Emerald Graves. It’s a beautiful, solemn place where thousands of elves killed by human hands rest. A giant statue of a lion, a symbol of the human Empire of Orlais, stands near the beginning. I approach, and press A.
We have brought Andraste’s light to the Dales. None can deny her truth. In time, all will open their hearts to the Maker.
This is not a cutscene. This is not the destination of a quest. This is just a landmark with a subtle highlight that could just as easily have been ignored or missed in the grander scheme of my mission. No designer imagined that here, reading this two line codex, I would have my epiphany. No one said, “This is a core moment in the Inquisitor’s story design.” No. But boy, did it make me mad.
And not like, “Okay I’m roleplaying mad” mad, but like I was in real life mad—not at the humans who committed this genocide against my character’s people, but at myself for experiencing even a modicum of reverence for the figure in whose name it was done. I couldn’t believe I had told people Andraste sent me, and worse that for a short time I had roleplayed believing it. I hated Andraste, I hated the Maker, and I hated me.
This was the most memorable moment in the game for me, and you’d be hard pressed proving it was in any way scripted or planned. But whether it was this moment or another, the game had primed my sensitivities for this. This was the payoff of dozens of choices about my beliefs that don’t “matter”, that have little effect on the game’s save state and whose unique sequence was recorded nowhere but inside my own head. This was a climax of my character’s core beliefs that occurred only because the game had asked me what they were through the use of one question, three answers, and the silly idea to have it pasted over and over again.
Self-Hate and a Successful but Hollow End
That anger radiated from every subsequent choice the game asked me to make. I let the Empress of Orlais be assassinated because, in all honesty, I couldn’t care for her Empire’s well-being. I made every mage who crossed me Tranquil; I let Hawke sacrifice himself and die; I killed a lot of Wardens before forcing the entire order to disband; and I deployed my spies to murder every political annoyances that stood in my way. None of these choices are connected in the overall narrative structure, each just disjoint quests, but they were unified by this new definition of who I was.
There was more: discomfort in scenes meant to be cute, solace in romance I yearned for and discarded, and an ending that felt successful but mostly empty. All along the otherwise linear path, the same questions: How do you feel, why are you chosen; both constant reminders that my feelings were always important, despite the fact I didn’t like what they were. If the game had never asked, I probably never would have questioned any of this. I’d be the hero, save the day, and probably feel pride or something. But the questions made it uncomfortable, made me deliberate why, and didn’t let me hide away until I tried in their limited vocabulary to explain it. There are a dozens of choices whose outcomes are summarized in the game’s ending slideshow. To the game, those were my fate. To me, it was all the others that mattered.
Special thanks to my brother, Grant Jensen, for all those hours as kids we spent pacing around the kitchen island talking about games and our feelings, and all the hours we still spend doing that today.