Dragon Age: Inquisition Evokes Interactive Storytelling

There is no agreement among designers on the best way for video games to tell stories. Some games have branching plotlines and characters who live or die based on the player's decisions. Others are tightly constrained and offer no choices that alter the narrative. Some use text to deliver information, while others use sound or moving images. Most mix all of those qualities.

If size matters, Dragon Age: Inquisition is the most ambitious story-based game of 2014. I'm about 60 hours into it - the game conveniently, if embarrassingly, records how long you've been playing - and suspect that it will take me 100 hours to finish.

Although I'm not sure 'finish' is the right word. Playing Dragon Age: Inquisition is as much like taking a vacation to a foreign country as it is like reading a novel or watching a long TV series. You're not going to cover every inch of space, nor is that the point.

The appeal of Dragon: Age Inquisition - which was released last week for Xboxes, PlayStations and PCs and is the third in a series of fantasy role-playing games from the Canadian developer BioWare - is not that you're being told a story, but that you're participating in one.

For decades, the promise of interactive narrative has tantalized video game players. 'The computer looks more each day like the movie camera of the 1890s: a truly revolutionary invention humankind is just on the verge of putting to use as a spellbinding storyteller,' Janet H. Murray wrote in 'Hamlet on the Holodeck,' a 1997 book with a very 1997 subtitle, 'The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.'

The best accounts of the arcade age, too, are besotted with the notion that video games, even in their infancy, represented a rapidly evolving narrative form. 'Yes, oh dear me yes, the video game tells a story,' Martin Amis wrote in 'Invasion of the Space Invaders' (1982).

More than 30 years later, sophisticated storytelling in video games has become commonplace, even as it remains the most experimental and contentious aspect of the medium. Some of the more interesting games I've played this year are attempts to tell interactive stories. And not all of them take two and a half work weeks to get through.

The iPhone and iPad game 80 Days, from the English studio Inkle, is a loose adaptation of Jules Verne's 'Around the World in 80 Days' that casts the player as Jean Passepartout, the valet of Phileas Fogg. You can play it in an afternoon. Most of the story is told in words, although there are animations of the world map and the transportation - trains, boats, balloons, airships - that Passepartout and Fogg use.

My Passepartout got Fogg back to London in 78 days, but only after being drugged in China, joining the circus and getting dumped in Honolulu after leading a failed mutiny on a ship crossing the Pacific. Your journey might be completely different.

Rollers of the Realm, for PlayStation and PC, layers a story on top of virtual pinball. Each ball is a character, and each level is a setting. When your main character summons a second ball, she's not just scoring more points, she's also siccing her dog on her enemies. There's not much to the minimal plot and characterization, but that it works at all is proof of the power of narrative to add meaning to play.

The second season of The Walking Dead, the zombie apocalypse video game from Telltale Games, is not as strong as the first, but the design decision to give the player a time limit to choose each dialogue option still works its magic. The interactive dialogue feels more like a genuine conversation and less like the leisurely ordering of food from a menu (which can sometimes be the case in Dragon Age).

The Sailor's Dream is a sad story for iPhones and iPads from the Swedish two-person studio Simogo. The finger-swiping exploration of text and images is lovely, but I was most struck by the game's inventive use of time and physical space. It's not too much of a spoiler to say that a series of songs in the game can be heard only if you open one of seven bottles in the ocean on each of the seven days of the week. (Your phone, after all, knows what day it is.) And after reading some text in the game, there's a print icon: If you press it, a pencil-like sketch emerges from your printer, assuming it can connect with your mobile device.

Codename Cygnus is an interactive audio drama for Apple and Android devices that I listened to in my car on the way to pick up my children from preschool. It's a pulpy spy story that lets you utter your choices aloud. If podcasts feel like old-fashioned radio storytelling, delivered on demand, the primitive Codename Cygnus is a bold stab at truly interactive radio.

Of all these games, 80 Days is the most fully realized. Sailor's Dream is the most evocative. And Dragon Age: Inquisition is, well, the only one that let me play as a promiscuously pansexual mage.

Dragon Age alternates between action scenes and dialogue scenes in which you select from an array of choices, which lead to more choices still. Somehow, the talking is the best part, even though the writing is weak. ('Templars killed my husband,' one character told my Inquisitor, who responded, 'You're saying the templars killed your husband?') Characters sometimes talk to my female Inquisitor the way Marcie speaks to Peppermint Patty in 'Peanuts,' finishing their sentences with 'sir.'

But the sheer size of the world and the breadth of choices are impressive. I can't stop playing, even as I'm not certain I would recommend the game to others.

Some smart designers think that video games shouldn't bother telling stories that resemble those we encounter in books, movies and plays. The player-driven story is what matters, they argue.

Yet the scale of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the focus of 80 Days and the heartbreak of The Sailor's Dream all demonstrate that interactive storytelling is not a wasted pursuit. We've been dreaming about this future for decades. Guess what? It's here.


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