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BioWare writers offer tips on building to an emotional theme

At GDC, BioWare lead writer Patrick Weekes and narrative presentation lead John Epler explained how they worked narrative magic on the Dragon Age Inquisition: Trespasser DLC.

The Trespasser DLC of BioWare’s Dragon Age: Inquisition represented the conclusion of the saga-length game. This brilliantly narrated epilogue to DAI:I was weighted down with more combat than I prefer, but  it all added up to a climax that served as a new summit for the entire series; a moment that felt like the culmination of all the adventures Dragon Age spawned since late 2009.

On Monday afternoon at GDC, BioWare lead writer Patrick Weekes and narrative presentation lead John Epler gave a tag-team presentation about their work as writers on this critical DLC, explaining how they worked narrative magic.

The talk was meant to teach devs and aspiring devs about their tripartite process at BioWare for producing narrative content: Setting a vision, accepting critique, and engaging in revision, repeating as necessary. This is hardly news to any writer, whether in gaming or not; this process is just baked into the work we do, even if we sometimes struggle with that second bit. But it was the way they defined these boilerplate concepts that was both unique and entertaining.

“Vision,” in their view, is a cynosure for the entire team that keeps them focused on a single goal; in the case of Bioware’s narrative design team, it was the idea that Trespasser should do two things, 1) effectively end the Inquisitor’s story and resolve the issue with the glowing mark on their hand, 2) tie off the loose end of Solas’ story, and tell a tale where this erstwhile friend (and, perhaps, lover) had become an antagonist. In this, so far as I’m concerned, they were singularly effective; they provided a throughline for the DLC that kept me going over the course of its hours-long adventure.

The amusing bit of their “vision” talk was that, for them, vision is in part about accepting and using influences from pop culture to set a particular tone. As they put it, your inspiration/pop-culture reference doesn’t need to be ‘good’ or from “high culture,” the Mass Effect: Citadel DLC’s inspiration was “Air Force One Meets Face-Off,” which guided a DLC where the action was about Commander Shepard fighting a clone of themselves that tried to steal the Normandy.

For its part, Trespasser was about both uncovering the truth behind the Ancient Elves, and dealing with the corruption of the Inquisition your character helped to build. To this end, according to Patrick Weekes, the DLC was envisioned as “Indiana Jones meets Captain America: Winter Soldier,” the latter of which dealt with the complicated realities of S.H.I.E.L.D and its corruption from within.

As Epler put it, the very climax of the game, which saw you finally catch up with the wayward Solas and learn the terrifying truth about who he is, was “Indiana Jones opening an ark full of feelings.”

If that was their goal, they certainly succeeded.

***

Explaining the “Critique” and “Revision” points demonstrated how plot and narrative had to be woven into the structure of the game itself. Arl Teagan, a diplomatic representative, is among those in the DLC pushing for the Inquisition to be disbanded; initially he came off as entirely unreasonable and a cardboard-cutout who wanted to tear apart the Inquisition for no apparent reason. According to playtesters he simply seemed like a “jerk.” 

Making Teagan’s concerns more justified altered the shape of the narrative and put him in at key beats of the DLC, in scenes between different sections of combat. Crucially, this was not just about giving him more screentime, however. The moments of his intervention were used as a vehicle to demonstrate the Inquisition’s growing corruption. For example he provides commentary on a scene where one of your soldiers acts abusive. It gives him a reason to be aggressive in his demands to disband the Inquisition.

The talk lasted only a half hour, but it was a useful meditation about the art of lacing narrative into the gameplay. Another course correction they made involved the Deep Roads dungeon which takes place about a third of the way into the DLC. Testers thought the gameplay was fantastic, but they didn’t know why they were there. They were fighting Qunari who were down there mysteriously mining lyrium; the idea was that this would be enough of a hook to players. It wasn’t and felt pointless if fun. 

According to both Weekes and Epler, the narrative had to be layered through what worked: the gameplay. Why were the Qunari mining lyrium in the first place? This is where the using lyrium to enhance the Qunari mages, Saarebas, and turn them into superweapons came into being. While this can seem a bit cheesy and simplistic, it was the result of initially trialling a more complex reason for having the Qunari mine lyrium that left players lost amidst an already complicated narrative.

***

For those who enjoy the strategy of heated combat in Dragon Age, this DLC certainly has its perks. But for those who found the combat tedious, Trespasser could be a slog at times. What made it worth it was the story. What became clear to me after listening to this panel was that the story was something that was grafted onto the bedrock of gameplay throughout most of the DLC. It begins with a lot of characterization and story, and ends with it quite strongly, but in the middle the gameplay (i.e. combat) had to take precedence. That shaped a significant part of the story--in this case, the Qunari plot to create Saarebas superweapons. But there were other parts of the DLC where narrative was the gameplay. 

After the emotional climax with Solas, your Inquisitor returns to face a tribunal of powerful world leaders to hear the fate of the organization you helped to build. Patrick Weekes took the lead in writing this section and was clear that this DLC had to end with the Inquisition changing in some significant way, either ceding power to the Chantry or disbanding entirely. “When you ask the player to give up power, you have to make it feel like a win,” Weekes averred, and said his initial version of this denouement failed to meet that standard. 

His response to this was to use more of the interleaving techniques we’ve already seen thus far, but instead of imbricating story with a bedrock of gameplay, it was about weaving emotions and gaming inputs together. Your Inquisitor gets to choose whether to disband the Inquisition or give up power to Chantry; the initial version of this had your player make a choice and then comment on it later, but this felt antiseptic to many testers. Instead, he combined the emotional inflection of each choice *with* the choice itself, furnishing the player with mini-epic speeches that were either proud, sad, or angry, and expressed the player’s choice with the emotion they had selected. This more organic feeling, that added emotional resonance to each choice and gave your Inquisitor a personal epilogue on the work you’d put into this game, worked much better for players.

The stark insight into the construction of Trespasser gave me a new appreciation for it, even if I remain skeptical of letting combat determine story as a matter of course, what was clear was that a vision for Trespasser’s role in the wider story was powerfully realized by a talented team. This postscript was a privilege to watch.

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