One of the reasons Bioware is such an interesting developer is that while they made their name with licensed properties like Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic, they wasted no time when it came to investing in the original universes that define the company nowadays. While the Mass Effect universe is a messy-mix of concepts and elements from Star Trek, Star Wars, The Matrix and Battlestar Galactica (to name a few), Dragon Age often feels like a franchise more singular in its inspirations.
While each installment of Mass Effect (so far) has focused on the character of Shephard,
Bioware have often positioned Dragon Age’s fiction as one expansive enough to encompass multiple characters and narratives. Bioware are able to approach storytelling in this fantasy genre through the lense of everything that’s come before – and this is, in part, why each installment of the series feels so radically different.
For Dragon Age: Origins, the game’s idolization of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is front and centre – represented through both the music, visual style and a lot of the plot. The first two of these characteristics feel very much drawn out of Peter Jackson’s films but the latter is directly positioned as a response to Tolkien’s work.
Though Tolkien’s trilogy is arguably the most influential fantasy novel of all time, the echoes of his work throughout Origins go beyond the staples of the genre. There’s a sequence set in the Deep Roads that’s almost identical to the opening of the Black Gate as depicted in Peter Jackson’s adaptations. The big thing that Bioware adds here is a genuine willingness to tackle the moral complexities that many Tolkien-inspired fantasy sagas often omit (such as issues of racism and the addition of more active female characters).
Very much regarded as the middle-child of the franchise, Dragon Age 2 is a more contemporary take on the genre – and one that’s very specifically inspired by Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind. Though Varric’s unreliable framing of the story adds a bit of flair to the storytelling, it’s long-term focus on the life and tragedies of Hawke feels close to Rothfuss work in more ways that coincidence can justify.
While Dragon Age: Origins follows a very typical hero’s journey set in a fantasy world, Dragon Age 2 attempts to address what it means to actually live in that world. It forgoes typical fantasy fare in lieu of exploring the social ecosystems that grounds the stories of their respective fictional universes.
With Dragon Age: Inquisition, this method of analysis gets a little bit muddled – but simultaneous, the game feels like Bioware’s strongest attempt at harnessing and replicating the appeals of the genre.
There’s definitely some George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and Steven Erikson’s Malazan: Book of the Fallen woven throughout the game but for the most part, Inquisition feels like a showcase for it’s own fiction. More specifically, it feels like a showcase for how BIG and sprawling the world of Thedas can be.
In many respects, the defining characteristic of Inquisition are tied to these ideas of size. While this scale does obfuscate it from its influences in a way it’s predecessors were unable to, it also allows the game to achieve that same sort of dense satisfaction that comes along with reading a good fantasy novel. Certainly a departure from the series’ previous efforts but, at the same time, a huge part of what helped it garner critical and public acclaim last year.
While I’d love to see a Dragon Age installment that tackled different modes of storytelling, it seems most likely that future installments will follow in Inquisition’s footsteps and cement the series’ reputation as an interactive fantasy saga. Let’s just hope that Bioware don’t lose track of the series’ penchant for deconstructing the fantasy genre completely.