Dragon Age: Inquisition is enormous. In addition to a great main story, it has a lot of filler-y side quests that slurp up time like it's drowning in delicious alfredo sauce. Patricia's not super into them, and Patrick went so far as to say the game disrespected his time. Me, though? I love the side quests.
That's not to say I disagree with the main premise of what Patricia and Patrick were saying: Dragon Age is definitely loaded with content that — if you were to toss a pebble at its glittering armour — would ring pretty hollow. A lot of games these days are. I especially dislike it when a quest gives me some awesome setup — tales of love and loss, people putting flowers on graves, political tensions between mages and templars, some crazy Fade vision from Solas — and then resolves it with a limp one-note battle or collect-a-thon. "That could've been soooooo good," I think to myself, pouring out a small trickle of sweetened tea for all the wasted potential. And that, friends, is why I have an ant problem.
But then a funny thing happens: I realise that I'm having fun anyway. A different kind of fun. In Patrick's piece, he argued against bloated games for this reason:
"As I've gotten older and personal responsibilities mount up, I have less time to spend with my favourite hobby. It means I've come to value shorter, efficient experiences."
And again, I agree, but I've also adapted to age and mounting responsibilities by taking a different tact with longer games — one I've really come to enjoy. I don't really marathon games anymore, unless I'm reviewing them. These days I tend to play all games over pretty long spans of time, chipping away at them bit by bit. This can last weeks, sometimes months.
It's really fun for me, treating games like I do good novels or long-running TV shows I'm Netflixing. They go from being weekend time-sinks — bleary eyed midnight blurs that I hardly remember months later — to entrenched parts of my life. When the real world gets too stressful or dumb or overwhelming, I've got this consistent, reliable place to escape into, to displace emotion into, to learn from. Games like Dragon Age start to feel like home. Colourful, interesting characters greet me, and they chatter away as we collect stupid rocks and slay magical fantasy elk together. They're my friends. The game is my friend.
Maybe it all sounds a little sad, and maybe you're thinking, "Nathan, why don't you just play an MMO, if that's what you want?" Certainly, games like Destiny fill that hole for me from time-to-time, but in games like Dragon Age there's something to be said for how little is actually out of my control. I know exactly what to expect, whereas in an MMO or MOBA or what have you, an obnoxious player might ruin my fun, or lag might have me calling out strategies through gritted, grinding teeth.
Games like Dragon Age let me shut down — disarm all my natural defenses against a hostile, unpredictable world — and immerse myself in a place. And as I said, I can do this 30 minutes or an hour at a time for months. Playing becomes a series of mini-vacations, breaths of fresh air from an adulthood polluted by payments and debt and social obligations and health problems and fears about my own mortality and the fact that I still don't own a dog and have to live vicariously through random people in parks instead.
Dragon Age's so-called busywork is especially conducive to this style of play because there's just enough going on that it does feel like each play session is organic, new, and interesting. In Patrick's piece, he made the following complaint:
"Despite all my time in Thedas, it seems like I barely got to know my companions. Their quests were over in the blink of an eye, and few were as revealing as, say, the truth of Dorian's past. It seems so odd to have invested so much and come away knowing so little, but it accurately reflects the game's prioritization of content as king. Not all content is made equal, however."
I don't entirely agree. Reason being, I feel like "filler" quests have in some cases helped me get to know my companions even better than elaborate character-specific missions. Again, it goes back to all the background chatter — little exchanges between folks like Dorian and Sera and Iron Bull, some of which I can even participate in — that reveal layers upon layers to their personalities. I like hearing Cassandra and Solas find a strange sort of common ground despite their opposing backgrounds. I like hearing people ask Varric about his goofy, overwrought novels. I like pretty much everything that Sera says, even when I adamantly disagree. Sometimes because I disagree.
These moments just sort of happen while I'm adventuring around, killing nobodies and collecting hunks of sweet, sweet nothing. Sometimes they correspond really well to what's happening on screen, other times they kinda come out of nowhere. But it's nice. It's like a good book that doesn't end until I want it to. These characters aren't gonna suddenly go away forever because I flipped all the pages, and they will keep revealing little pieces of themselves at a pace that fits my play experience pretty well.
The progression feels more natural a series of stilted character missions, too. Or rather, it supplements them in a really organic way. It's not just, "Hey, we barely know each other, hey you did that thing for me that one time, hey now we're having awkward, adorable sex." We've been through so much, seen so many things, shared so many secrets.
A quick aside: I don't like codexes quite as much, but good ones serve as literal mini-novels to accompany my novel-like way of digesting the game, so I can't say I loathe them as much as some people (HINT: IT IS STEPHEN) do.
To be honest, I do think that, in a lot of cases, Dragon Age doesn't really respect players' time, but I still enjoy that component of the game. I like mindless side questing, collecting, and codex perusing, even though I wish a fair number of interesting side quest characters and prompts weren't just treated as throwaways. Could Dragon Age offer a better balance on that front? Yeah, I think so.
But as is, low-impact, commitment-free adventures can be nice from time-to-time, especially when you've got a great cast of characters along for the ride. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go do a thing for some guy. I don't really care about the particulars right now. I'm just happy I'll get to see my friends.