Set It Up/Pay It Off

Back on my analysis of what made Inquisition such a terrific and satisfying game, and also using it as a way present writing tools that are useful to any story teller be it for games, TV and movies or books.

In my replay I’ve recruited Blackwell, and this time I’m taking him along a lot more often as well as Vivienne since they both got rather short shrift last time.  I found Vivienne to be an unrepentant bitch and Blackwell to be dull until I discovered otherwise to my shock and delight.  As before the spoiler caveat applies.

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So for those of you who have completed Inquisition, and for those of you who, like me, don’t mind spoilers, here’s the skinny.  Blackwell isn’t really a Grey Warden.  He was a recruit.  He was on his way to the joining when his mentor got killed.  Blackwell assumed his identity to escape his past as a betrayer and a murder for money.  All of this is discovered when you have a cryptic conversation with Blackwell and learn he has gone to prevent the execution of a man who was part of the massacre.  It’s a lovely Jean val Jean moment from Le Miserable.  It’s also terrific that if you mishandle that conversation if you go glib or cynical Blackwell simply vanishes and you have no idea why or what happened to him.  That is very cool and great game design.  Actions have consequences.  Just like with Liliana.

Anyway, if you learn the sad truth about your companion suddenly all your earlier interactions with him, and his remarks to his companions take on a stunning new meaning.  What was even better handled by the designers was the foreshadowing.  None of this comes out of left field (cough, cough Mass Effect 3).  Clearly the writers on Dragon Age had witnessed the disaster that was first the ending and then the reaction to Mass Effect 3 and they took careful note.

Here is what they did so well.  They laid in all the clues from your very first meeting with Blackwell.  They “set it up”.  When you first meet him he is training “recruits” but then after a battle with bandits he sends them all home to their farms.  If you’ve played Dragon Age: Origins you think, “hmm, interesting, why isn’t he taking them off for the joining?” but you let it go because of the hole in the sky.

Then there is his defensiveness about criminals becoming Grey Wardens.  My reaction was — okay the guy has a past.  That’s interesting, but will it be relevant.  There is a conversation about The Joining in which Blackwell is appropriately vague.  Once again you think it’s because it’s shrouded in mystery, but after it’s revealed that Blackwell doesn’t have a single clue about the joining it all takes on a new meaning.  A lot of the credit goes to the terrific voice work by Alastair Parker who shaded each exchange perfectly.  A broader reading would have given it away far too soon.  I admit I was expecting something because I’m a writer and this looked like foreshadowing and I was so pleased to see I was right.

The point is that you feel satisfied when the revelation drops and you get that little giggle/thrill when all the earlier dialogue suddenly has new meaning.  If you can give that moment of “How Cool!” to a reader, viewer, player, then you’ve done your job.

One Response to Set It Up/Pay It Off

  • Melinda Snodgrass says:

    I want to amplify a bit of this by going back to Mass Effect. Way back in game one my writer’s nose began to twitch when I got the mission to “scan the Keepers”. Then there are a couple of cryptic emails from Chorban about the Keepers. And then it’s dropped. Terrible, terribly writing. Same thing with the Dark Energy in game two. Major nose twitches and — nothing.

    Instead they rang in the star kid without any foreshadowing or preparation. They didn’t set it up. I know some people have strained at gnats to find some justification for the sudden eleventh hour appearance of this character, but the arguments just aren’t credible. They are desperate back filling.

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