A more detailed entry today, rather than a broad ramble. I wanted to take the time to focus on a smaller detail in Dragon Age 2 that feels indicative of the overall lack of polish within the game. The quest-log, the world map, and the area maps are the primary tools that the designers of Dragon Age 2 have chosen to employ in order to guide the player through the game. They’re how she decides where to go next, and what to do when he gets there. As presented, these tools are fine for navigating the main quest-line. But they have a lot of gaps and inconsistencies that a player who is trying to explore secondary content, content that’s there to provide depth to the world and context to the main story.
First and most obviously, area maps will lie. There will be exits to the area that aren’t marked, even after the player has passed by, or even used, them. There will be passages within an area that are marked on the map, but are inaccessible – blocked by sealed doors or debris. Likewise, there will be marked but unusable exits. All these issues seem to stem from the decision to reuse areas, both across acts, and, in the case of dungeons, to use differently configured instances of areas as different physical spaces, each represented by the same area map. So the area maps become harder to trust, and, in my experience, it means I have to spend more time worrying about whether or not I’ve actually thoroughly searched an area. This not only wastes my time, it also increases the risk that I lose the thread of a quest in the process, forgetting why I’m in the area I’m in, or what I wanted to do next.
Then there’s the quest log. I’ve already mentioned my biggest gripe with it in a past entry, but it bears repeating: the log only tells the player about the next step in a quest, not anything about what’s come before, or what the motivations are to for his character to complete the quest. The goal with the quest log seems to just be to expedite the player through the game, rather than actually reminding her about any of the context behind what she’s doing. Especially given the volume of quests that can get accumulated, this lead, in my case, to instances where I’d go into a dungeon because it was marked as having a quest, kill a bunch of enemies (often intelligent creatures) for reasons I didn’t recall, and then only recall something of why I was there during the conversation at the end of the dungeon, just before the boss fight. (As I mentioned in the last entry, all quests essentially have this structure.) There are also cases where quests will complete, but there are further conversations about the ramifications of the quest that just aren’t marked anywhere. For example, quests involving the Qunari will sometimes have follow-up conversation with the Arishok that help fill out the world and make sense of the story that the game is trying to tell. In the most blatant of these cases, characters will recommend in the conversation at the conclusion of a quest that the player should follow-up on something. But there’s no good way to remember that these conversations exist, or which ones the player has done. For example, in Act 2, after Anders’ personal quest, he can suggest talking to someone in the Chantry. But this never shows up in the quest-log, so if, say, the player puts the game down for a couple of days, he has no way to remind himself to follow through with this, and thus may lose out on a piece of character insight. Likewise, there are also (generally minor) quests that involve a lot of encounters in a lot of areas, (one involving stopping a number of assassins all across the city comes to mind) but the quest log won’t record any information on which areas have been completed, let alone which are left to do.
There is a notable oddity in the world map: the listing of which quests are available in an area accommodates three quests, plus a set of ellipses which should indicate that there are more quests than those three. Except, even if there are exactly three quests available in an area, those three will be listed along with the ellipses. Another quirk about the area map is that it just shows names of quests in a flat list – it doesn’t prioritize at all between main and secondary quests, even though the quest log takes pains to differentiate between four different priorities of quests. (Of course, the quest log cannot be accessed from the world map).
This leads to the issue of the interaction between the quest log, the world map and the area maps. Quests to talk to companions at their homes will show up in the quest log, but not on the world, and (for Anders and Aveline, whose homes are in larger areas) not on the area map unless the companion isn’t in the player’s party. Any time a quest branches, and the player can go to different areas to continue it, only one area will be marked as relevant to the quest.
And then there’s the convenience factor. Some players probably dislike how the area map will (usually, with the exceptions noted above) show the locations of quest-markers, both for unacquired and already-in-progress quests, even if that part of the are map hasn’t been revealed yet, or the player hasn’t had any interaction with the quest-giver before. I don’t mind this at all in the case of quest-givers. I find it a little distracting and redundant in dungeons, which are all basically linear anyways. What bothers me is that this convenience feature on the area maps isn’t extended to the world map. Even if a quest has been alluded to, until it’s formally in the quest log, it won’t be on the world map. I had a quest chain (with the mine) that I didn’t complete in Act 2, because I didn’t know there was more to it because I completed the first part, and then just never went to the area where the second part would be given out, because I had no reason to. I nearly skipped the docks entirely in Act 1, and so took a long time to realize about the Qunari there, but if I had known there was a quest to be activated there, I would have probably gone there much earlier. There’s an argument to be made for making the player work and hunt for everything in the game that isn’t on the critical path, but if the developers want the player to have the best experience possible, I truly think it behooves them in this sort of game to help the player to discover as much content as possible. I can understand hiding items, and easter eggs and other small things, but obscuring quest lines like this strikes me as not just silly, but harmful to the overall player-experience.
My proposed solution, by the way, would just be to mark an area on the world map with a symbol if it has a new quest available in it. The symbol already exists: reuse the one the stylized exclamation mark that symbolizes a new quest on the area map. They wouldn’t need to include the name of the quest, or how many quests are available for the area. Just marking the existence of a new quest should be enough. Alternatively, if this is deemed too contrived-feeling, (and this would require some higher-level design work) it should just be the case that every quest that isn’t available the first time a player enters an area within an act should have a breadcrumb either from a previous quest, or as a letter received the player character’s house that doesn’t merely allude to the existence of the new quest, but actually adds it to the quest log, and thus also the world map.
My point in all this is that these tools are there to help the player discover and navigate the content of the game. So when they’re misleading, or uninformative, they degrade the overall experience of playing the game. The player wastes time backtracking because she fears he skipped past a section of a dungeon. He misses out on content because he wasn’t adequately guided towards it. This is what happens when designers cut corners, the elements of polish that don’t get called out much, and that don’t break games, but that contribute to the overall impression of a game, and that separate great experiences from merely decent ones.