Too much of a good thing.
With the arrival of Dragon Age: Inquisition, now is a good time to look back at the Dragon Age series. I could ruminate over the amazing world or deep combat systems, but I’d rather talking about the aspect of the first game, Dragon Age: Origins, that nearly killed the whole thing for me: pacing. I don’t see this talked about much, but DA:O’s pacing was some of the worst of any game I’ve seen and certainly the worst to ever come out of the venerable Bioware studio. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s first start with what pacing is.
Which, unfortunately, starts with a discussion of design elements. Design elements are a nebulous division of the various parts of a game that makes up the whole. From music, to art, to gameplay, and beyond, games are comprised of these various elements. They can be defined broadly as shown above or in smaller chunks such as by song or an individual level. The level of design element that is appropriate is determined by issue that is currently being addressed. The borders of design elements are often fuzzy as many parts of a game bleed over into others. For example, a discussion of story might also include elements of art, dialogue, and gameplay and even be compared against another design element drawing on those same parts. Really, this is just a way to conceive of games that allows for comparison and a general understand of which part of a game is being talked about.
Pacing is the speed at which a game switches between design elements. Pacing works on a broad level, such as the rate of switching between story and gameplay, or at a more granular level, such as changes in music or art styles. Slow pacing switches through design elements at a low rate whereas fast pacing is constantly changing design elements. For example, many games grant access to weaponry over time. Slow pacing in weaponry would spread the introduction of new weapons over hours of content whereas a faster pace might give them to the player up front. It’s also worth noting that speed, being a relative measure, is largely left up to the user to define. What may be fast for one user is slow for another. Tutorial missions for a new player may go too fast whereas an experienced player may get bored from hearing what they already know. Like so much in games, there is no universal evaluation of the speed of pacing.
Dragon Age: Origins is an example of slow pacing. The player starts off in a town where they gather quests, talk to villagers, and generally flesh out the story and world. Once the player has talked to everyone and acquired all the quests, they head off into a dungeon to explore and fight. This combination of story and combat isn’t unique to DA:O, but the poor implementation is. When the player is investigating the story, that’s largely all they’re doing. There are a few fights, but mostly its dialogue and books. This wouldn’t be a problem except that it goes on for hours. Only after a substantial investment of time does the player then move on to the dungeons….which also take hours. The two design elements, story and combat, aren’t intertwined in any way with the result of overloading the player with one element at a given time.
There are three major results: familiarity, loss, and frustration. With familiarity, the player engages on a design element so much that the element is robbed of its ability to surprise and shock. The player has dealt with an element so often that they have a preprogrammed response that is designed to get to the next element and not explore content. No doubt many players have skipped through dialogue just to get the quests and start dungeon crawling. The second result is the loss of what little intertwining of design elements that does occur. I can recall fighting my way through the dungeon called Deep Roads and reading little scraps of paper relating to quests I had picked up a couple hours earlier. DA:O, having not addressed those quests between when I grabbed them and that moment, expected me to recall the backstory. Not happening. It’s hard to support a detailed story when I’m playing a section so focused on combat that it can’t be bothered to drop hints and reminders until the quest’s resolution. Finally, frustration is a very real result of DA:O’s poor pacing. When I was talking, I wanted to be fighting. When I fought, I wanted to be talking. By focusing so heavily on one design element at a time, the game prevented me from deciding my own pacing and letting me determine if I wanted to fight or read. I was continually forced to play the content I was tired of rather than the content I wanted.
Dragon Age: Origins is not a bad game. There’s a great deal to recommend it, but it screwed up the pacing. I’ve tried going back to the game, but I can’t get past the feeling that I am playing two separate games that aren’t good enough on their own. That’s a shame, because DA:O does just about everything else right.