essay, Uncategorized, video games

“You weren’t there!”: Ethos Management in Dragon Age: Inquisition

The confrontation between the player and Magister Alexius as part of the In Hushed Whispers quest demonstrates the primary role and presentation ethos plays in the game Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014). In the War Room meeting following the events, Cassandra makes an impassioned speech on how the members of the fledging inquisition should work together starting with the exclamation of “You weren’t there!” to silence those who would second-guess the decision made. Yet, despite this, and as the player knows from the interface moments before, their entire party and all members recruited up to that point, have an opinion of all major and most minor actions including how Magister Alexius was handled: they either approve or disapprove of everything instantaneous, often before information about the decision could reach them.

While by far not the first (or last) game to implement ethos, moral and ethical standing in a more classical sense, in this way, Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) does so in a way that bridges the more traditional models with an increasing, group and individually-focused management of how people in the in-game world feel about the player-character as found in more recent games. Representative of the more tradition model is Alignment in the Fable (2004) series (as borrowed from many previous systems like Dungeons & Dragons) where the actions of the player-character result in direct, observable effects from the ethical standing of the character. Doing actions which are considered ethically “good” to the world results in a positive alignment; for things thought of as “evil,” the same is true in another direction: the player will shift toward a negative alignment. The ethos of the in-game world is easy to understand through a simple rating: do some things to raise it, do others to lower it. Fallout 3 (2008) with its Karma system does a very similar move as well: actions can raise of lower karma according to player events and actions. Giving water bottles to those struggling can, with enough repetition, even shift the karma loss from destroying a town. Karma, like Alignment, can be shifted with enough player determination in Fable (2004) and Fallout 3 (2008).

Within the newer models are those like Fallout: New Vegas (2010) with its combination of the Karma system with group standing. Like with its prequel, actions do raise and lower Karma, but the player also has standing with different groups with their own understandings and internal ethos. To be on friendly terms with them, you have to know what they like, don’t like, and don’t approve of the player doing. There is a management of different ideologies and how they collide in the way the player navigates them. The same, in different ways, occurs in the earlier Dragon Age games: the player can, in Dragon Age II (2011), stand with the mages or the templars while also having standing with different people leading up to the major confrontation. In Dragon Age: Origins (2009), the player must consider how their party members will respond to something, if they will like it or not. Instead of a global rating like that of alignment or karma, the ethical positioning of the player is represented as a reflect of their party members and the approval relationships between the player and their group. Depending on past actions and current experiences, the player must navigate not only the larger implications of their actions, but the feelings and moral standing of those within their party. With too much disapproval, a character may leave the party completely.

Provoking a much more personal relationship to other characters, the earlier Dragon Age games simulate ethos management in the form of multiple single values: each character either approves or disapproves of something, but their colliding matrix of opinions brings some emotional risk to all major events. With characters disapproving of others and their own ideologies, the player can fluidly try different relationships and moral standings, or simply move between them as needed. With the most rhetorical agency, the player-character can know where they stand with others and adjust things according (or simply give gifts if things go very bad). Yet, even as such knowledge does effectively ‘black box’ relationships (reducing them to inputs and expected outputs without regard to the process), such a modeling does bring a greater grounding of the ethical stakes of actions: disapproval from a traveling companion carries a greater emotional resonance than disapproval from some distant god-engine’s calculation of “goodness.”

The moral greying of the complications of emotional connections to party members because, and even in spite of, their differing ideological underpinnings raises what is the same representation in games like Fallout: New Vegas (2010) to new levels of engagement. Along with groups who may respond to different events, the centering of party members as the ethos reflection of the player makes the games more grounded in relational choices, something carried over into Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) with its own set of conflicting (and often in conflict with) party members. With the knowledge of people disapproving or approving of actions, the player can craft or respond to events with an individual approval shift with more attention or later actions toward a character to restore the relationship. However, without the earlier use of gifts in previous games, the player cannot simply buy their way toward greater approval anymore. The investment must come with time spent with and learning information about the character with often direct, one-on-one interactions and dialogue choices.

It is this newer model of direct one-on-one time which games like Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) champion as a better simulation of ethical choices and relationship statuses. It is the same method Fallout 4 (2015), in moving away from the karma system of the earlier games in its own series, uses, too: standing is on a personal, in-the-moment (kairos) sense of a party member seeing something, liking or disliking something, and letting the player know somehow. Yet, despite leading the way forward toward this newer model of ethos as personal and relational, Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) still falls victim to its gameness: it has to let the player know how others party members feel about events, even if they were not there and could not, in the very second of the decision, have known and reacted so fast.

Within the shouting of “You weren’t there!”, Cassandra may have been right in the literal sense of the other character not being there or even, in the construction of the agency of the game, being able to make a decision outside of the player, but in many ways the party members were. In letting the player know of their standing in regards to any action, every party member is always “with” the player despite not being physically present for an event. Knowledge, like with quest completion status in other games, comes with instantaneous travel: quest-givers somehow already know information they can’t otherwise have because the game allows them to for the sake of narrative construction. For however strange this may seem outside of the game, this adds to the presentation and reinforcement of ethos management within Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) at the same time. Because characters always instantly react (instead of getting the information and potentially provoking a confrontation later), the emphasis on relational status is always part of decisions and the stakes of actions. There is no hiding of consequences in Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014). Other characters will always know as soon as a decision is made — and will make their opinion of the player’s action known instantly.