Publisher: Dark Horse
From Dark Horse Comics and Bioware, the accompanying book to the video game release of the same name, The Art of Dragon Age Inquisition is a rich and thorough collection of art and developmental work released to allow the user and gaming enthusiasts in general a look inside the world of Thedas and the journey of the Inquisitor from survivor to leader and the many challenges and threats faced along the way. I’ve long championed the worlds and lore of the Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchise from Bioware, indeed going further back to the Forgotten Realms titles Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale and the various releases and iterations available ever since. As a studio, they were one of the first I personally experienced that allowed you to explore the playground of their imaginations, the city of Amn a memorable gaming adventure in my youth and to date.
Thedas, like its predecessor is a rich and varied world to explore and encounter, enemies and friends influenced from the works of Tolkien to various degrees but always showing an originality in their creativity and development from inception to final realisation. In gaming parlance, one of the easiest ways to break immersion within a digital open world is encountering a concept or imagery that challenges your conceptions and understanding of the mechanics of society and how things work. One of the greatest delights of these book reviews, especially those from Dark Horse and Bioware is the level of depth they go into exposing the developmental approach and often provided with explanatory text detailing why certain choices were made over another, why this armour design, why that stylistic choice.
Having ventured out into the digital realms of Thedas across the generational divide, even my experience on the seventh generation of consoles was one of wonderment and indeed astonishment at the level of design and detail enshrined upon the characters from the lowliest soldier to the high lords and ladies encountered within the Winter Palace. Curiosity behind the methodology prompted me to explore the concept art and worlds of Thedas to a greater detail, to explore how and why the armour maintained a relative consistency in appearance across the game in contrast to the more varied appearances during Dragon Age 2. How the environments were influenced and shaped by the arrival of the Inquisition into their immediate areas. I
Indeed a small concept to understand and accept but one that becomes somewhat notable in other open world games where a captured camp or compound might perhaps raise a flag or show a vehicle with a different logo but ultimately have no real change. One of the great delights with Dragon Age Inquisition was the very real impact of change as a result of your presence, as a Baldur’s Gate veteran, certainly I was aware and hoped this concept might return, I was delighted when it did. Exploring the art book one of the great finds was the environmental design and player impact studies. From character models to equipment, horses, dragons, enemies and allies, loading screens, furniture, indeed any element of game design, the book contains a wealth and abundance of imagery as we shall discover.
One of the great joys of reading and appreciating supportive art books of any genre or type based on the classical fantasy methodology are the various interpretations of accepted historical apparatus and location, certainly there is room for overt familiarity on occasion, common lands and areas becoming little more than nominal tropes, the elemental levels, the castle, the palace, their name alone inspiring a certain perception to permeate within your imagination. Arguably, weak story telling perhaps but a title such as this will always gain my respect when it takes steps to pull back the curtain and reveal the world beneath, the design and approach as to why a certain style was used over another. The environment and locations within Dragon Age tend to be based on certain typical fantasy tropes, indeed within the game alone you have the traditional ice and sand levels, city, castle and palace stages, caverns and dungeons, all very familiar to fans of the genre, my hope was met with the art book to show the detailed design approach to the buildings and influence of society upon the natural world.
The design work alternates between the classical, macabre and Gothic with strong lines and designs in the creation of the castles and palaces reminiscent of the style of the baroque era of architecture, perhaps further back than that but certainly prominent influences and allusions to classical European design for example. Unsurprising given a great many of the locations and cultures encountered within the game have some genesis in history and society, the city and denizens of Orlais influenced by French culture, the Winter Palace encounter feeling like an entire sequence lifted from a Victor Hugo novel to various degrees. As with any enclosed environment, the attention to detail, the aesthetic quality of the design can be analysed and broken down to the smallest minutia, whether in real life or through digital exploration, what captures my attention the detail of the world around me. To that extent I was impressed with the attention paid to the world around me based on qualities and factors beyond the level I would consider understandable, for instance the furniture and books of Leliana, your spymaster within Skyhold being influenced in their appearance by both her profession and the religious connotations of her belief.
I’ll readily admit to granting no special attention to her book shelf or associatory imagery around her, however in other instances where book covers have been obviously replicated en masse in other titles, that breaks the sensation of being lost within a ‘real’ environment. To be able to witness and explore the personal spaces of my companions and friends in the game, to study the influence behind their appearance and the small spaces they carved out in the stronghold was a fascinating exploration to undertake. The natural world is a concept everyone is familiar with regardless of any other factors or participation in gaming in general so presents an alternate challenge in creating both a believable and yet unique world unseen or encountered in other similar type games whilst also detailing the impact of your society upon the landscape. As mentioned before, there does seem to be some reliance on traditional fantasy locations and tropes, and indeed use of European and Asian architecture and design most prominent in the castle architecture and ruins throughout the world.
One aspect notable in the approach taken with The Last of Us was the notion of creating a fully realised world and then effectively, ‘aged’, degraded to various degrees with its final stage shown. Here, there wasn’t that approach, if it was taken not detailed or shown but certainly alternate weather conditions and effects were demonstrated utilising the layered approach to impose the winter and snow effects over a final form castle ruin. Away from the societal structures, the more mystical and magical elements, the rift in the sky, the portals to the dark dimensions are shown in great detail, including the alternate approaches and ways of showing the connections between the two, I found it interesting for instance, the consideration from the design team whether to create a visual objective link between the rift in the sky and the smaller tears around you, opting instead as I learned to just allow the connection to be based on sound and appearance and trusting the audience to draw the connectivity yourself.
Where the appearance of the realised world in Dragon Age Inquisition showed a considerable evolution to its predecessors was the portrayal of its interiors, be they in the buildings, the fade, the palaces or enemy domain. One of the criticisms of its immediate predecessor was the use of assets repeatedly found across the city breaking the immersion factor of the game, fans demanded original buildings, different appearances and finishes, a just request I felt having played the various games in the franchise. Inquisition duly delivered, each location studied in detail reflecting various factors beyond the scope of the book. The fortress of Skyhold by your design and input, required to have a multitude of interchangeable elements, the flags, symbols, stone finish, bed finish even the windows, all reflecting the religion and background and of your central character. In contrast to a purpose built game such as the Sims, lacking perhaps but certainly a great deal of design work for this one location alone to reflect the user preference.
Beyond that, the various levels and locations explored and societies and towns encountered, whether they were more rural or urban based, detail such as ribbons in the streets, ornate stained glass design all entirely superficial and yet, allowing the user to fully immerse themselves within the digital playground of the world around you. When I entered the Fallow Mire swamps, the wooden huts and stone build windmills all individual in contrast to the more study structures of the frost back mountains and separate sand structures and tents in the Forbidden Oasis. Each location meticulously built and designed, the evolution of those designs in great detail, from the intricate such as the use of certain patterns and shape on pillars and doorways to the more general implied emotion and sensation such as the emotive forlorn looking bridge crossing to a compound beyond. The environments and locations of the game are revealed in great detail including the more nightmarish areas such as the Fade.
In previous titles you had experienced the Fade through a dream sequence, here you physically entered through the rift to this magical environment, itself both consistent with the general aesthetic of the world around you but also contrasting to the more traditional shapes and structures. The return of the red lyrium, the substance that pervades the world and corrupts those to whom it makes contact was a nice design decision granting conformity with the earlier titles, its presence in the fade creating a sensation of menace and threat. I enjoyed through game play during this sequence the presence of structures and assets, the grave yard for example haunting and yet designed well to merge and be consistent with the green hues of the magical realm. Outside of that area and in the general world it was interesting to see the digitised painted worlds of Thedas as corrupted and influenced by this substance, the ruins of the temples corrupted by Lyrium visually interesting to see how the shape and angle of the crystal compounds contrasted to the more straight angular finish of the pillars. All these details you see in a flash of the eye as you pass through without taking a moment to stop and appreciate the creative input.
When you actively explore these digital worlds, to maintain the sense of illusion you find yourself in it does rely on an understanding and awareness of certain structures and foundations it the real world, to that extent the interiors of the palaces, certainly living in Europe is both recognisable and consistent with palaces and historical buildings that use the flags, tapestries and windows to various degrees and can be viewed based on preservation and conservation in places such as Hampton Court for example. What’s harder I would postulate is the acceptance of the natural world, specifically the impact on society upon nature and how the world’s merge in natural ways. By this I mean when you see an image of a castle enshrined by grass and moss, its foundations buried into the ground you can accept and believe the imagery. The design work as shown works, here and in other immersive locations because of an understanding when you view a location either here or in the digital environment you don’t expect to see clear lines or breaks, you expect vines to be crawling up walls, grass or growth to be pervasive. I appreciate these considerations were taken into account in the design of this world to such an extent you can marvel at the imagery then carry on your journey and quest accepting entirely the integrity of the imagined environment.
The importance of the dedication to the environment and world around you, in relation to the character design cannot be understated and would break the immersion entirely with clothing and armour unreflective of the designs seen, the symbolism created reflecting the various religious and societal practises for instance. In a similar way to the use of familiar design of buildings and ruins, inspired or influenced by existing and historical structures so the character clothing and general appearances does draw certain inspiration from existing design. I was intrigued to see, despite no great affinity to clothes design why the general appearance of the characters were shown as they were, with the evolution shown from simple stick figures to finally adorned in the finest of garments. As with the varied approach to architectural design, the clothes and attire of the citizens of the Hinterlands was remarkably different to that found in the west in Val Royeaux, as you would expect given the implied climate and general terrain but it was the understanding of designing and dressing these characters in applicable clothing to their area.
I will always praise these small details as it can just as easily break the immersion coming across a redundant non playable character wearing clothes unaccustomed to their position. Of equal importance to the attire of the civilian population, the armour of the various forces, from the Inquisition soldiers to the Templar’s, the city guards, all wearing armour suitable to their position. Whether the assets or soldiers themselves were repeated to any degree wasn’t instantly noticeable within the game, aided perhaps by well designed costumes that hinted at individualism, a clean new garment repeated en masse will draw attention to the figure within. Just as within life, what implies normalcy and therefore acceptance are the individuals around you perhaps dressing in a similar style, similar colours and patterns but not identically to each other. Though interaction creates a challenge through restricted dialogue or vocal range, certainly design can allow the developers and designers to create a believable world to explore on a whim, in my opinion achieved with great renown.
The creatures and beasts encountered within the game are as equally impressive as any featured during the franchise and series that has gone before, the dragons always an implied menace and threat despite relatively brief interactions in other titles are a pervasive challenge during your exploration, indeed as you reach the highest levels of ability and growth you are granted the option to encounter and slay these beasts. I enjoyed the various design work that went into personifying each creature although certainly the light effects did assist in telling them apart. Whilst there is a certain repetitiveness in their overall form, enough small changes to their shape to make them appear as an individual threat. I did appreciate the impact and presence of the dragons in the culture, specifically the iconography and design that permeated the world around you certainly in higher society that you might come to assume understood the significance and impact of these creatures on your general exploration. The shadow and black and white drawings included are fantastic to view, each well detailed that resemble the creatures themselves as they appear in nature. It creates that sense of resonance between symbolism and the objective target, the sketch of the dragon by society and how it appears before you. Those small details for me demonstrate an awareness and understanding of how symbolism can be used in society effectively depending on circumstance and wealth.
My only real objective criticism in character design would be from the over familiarity of the lyrium infected creatures, certainly as they grow to become a greater menace as you push forward through the title with the highlighted figure in the development sketches a returning and recurring threat that does grow tedious as you encounter the same threat over and over. Certainly , there is only so much personification you can grant to a crystallized infected soldier or creature from the ground, I felt here the game and design didn’t quite manage to capture the same level of immersion as found with other areas of design in the title. The scope and variety of the creatures and enemies encountered are notable, from the larger threats, the dragons themselves to the smaller more personable figures you meet on your quest. In terms of content that would come down more to a development process I imagine, purely studying the design of the creatures visually they are engaging and interesting to see how they were created, unfortunately, your impression and appreciation is tainted somewhat with a memory of encountering the same threats across a variety of areas and locations to the point your approach to defeating them swiftly overtakes any impulse to study the creature in great detail.
Dragon Age has followed a similar trajectory in terms of its approach to mysticism and magic as other media such as Game of Thrones, downplaying the more grand aspects and presenting or attempting to present a more grounded reality. Whilst you do indeed have elves and dwarfs around you, the prevailing threat during the course of the title is the menace of society around you, your interactions with familiar behavioural patterns for instance of crystal infected rock creatures. It was a similar issue I felt with the latest Gears of War which almost entirely downplayed the Locust Threat, themselves a curious design in favour of robots. It’s an approach that has been commercially viable but having developed titles in the forgotten realms setting that has a myriad of species of creatures I was hoping for a little more, magic in the characters and designs and felt it was perhaps too great a reflection of actual society. A subjective impression I’ll accept, but just an honest appreciation of the work in front of me and where I would be excited to see a future game pursue as opposed to an approximation of Parisian society. This book is a wealth of treasures, an abundance of design and most importantly a detailed and thorough rationale on why certain designs and patterns were pursued over others and why.
I did enjoyed the storyboarding elements including at various stages, during the title the numerous video and dialogue scenes were an integral story telling mechanism and it was interesting to see how they were designed and shaped, and equally how those cinematic sequences gave way to areas to explore. The Winter Palace arrival and dance sequence giving context to your actions but equally then allowing the user to explore the same area and marvel at the spectacle, all meticulously planned out and designed as shown by the games designers. Even the smaller details such as designing and mapping your created figures to various poses and positions to highlight a range of articulation and movement you wouldn’t perhaps notice or pay attention to but certainly when you are within the gaming world itself would break the immersion if they followed a cyclical range of movements that became noticeable upon inspection. I enjoy the chapters of the book are linked to areas or missions encountered in the game and each new chapter has an explanatory quote or description from the design team, again a small feature but one that does suggest and create resonance between myself as someone who has played the game and wanted to delve further into the mystical world.
The layout is perhaps somewhat jumbled which was a little surprising, attempting to follow I presume a chronological approach with content appearing as and when they appeared in the game was one perspective to take however in contrast, I would have preferred a more cleaner perspective breaking it down into subject matter, chapters on environment, character, objects, development for instance that allows you to understand follow what is before you. For instance, when I was looking at the design of the clothes and armour I would have appreciated seeing all the character design, it came across disorderly going to another chapter, looking at the environments and then studying again character design. I’ll accept this is a subjective take and as an approach the book does work but it does require arguably an in-depth memory of the game to understand and appreciate this appreciate, to the casual gamer or gaming enthusiast they may question the order of the book. That said, the wealth of material featured is substantial, covering character and environment design in detail and brings to life the world of Thedas adding real depth to the players experience, all you can ask for in a art book of this type.
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