Many have leveled complaints against Dragon Age: Inquisition for not being “dark” enough. Dragon Age: Inquisition certainly doesn’t approach Game of Thrones-level grimdark, but there are very reasonable opinions on both sides.
1. Bioware (Reasonably) Wanted to Distance Itself from Dragon Age 2
Where Dragon Age: Origins was certainly a dark fantasy, Dragon Age 2 simply went above and beyond the call of darkness. Offhand, we have institutionalized rape, psychotic serial killers, mob torture and terrorists — and this is all in a 30 hour game. Dragon Age 2 came under intense criticism for being way, way too dark, so it’s understandable that Bioware would want to go in the other direction for its sequel.
2. Dragon Age: Inquisition is Only One Installment
A tonal shift wasn’t just required for meta reasons, as noted above, but also may be required thematically. Dragon Age is expected to be a series of at least five games; it would make sense that each game would have a unique “feel.” In some ways, Dragon Age: Inquisition may very well be the rising action before a very momentous fall. It’s impossible to understand Dragon Age: Inquisition’s place in the series structure as a whole until the next game comes out.
3. Dragon Age: Inquisition is Totally Dark… Just Optionally Dark
Consider Cole’s back story: he has taken the form of a young apostate who was left to starve to death in a prison cell. As a confused spirit, Cole wandered around murdering mages who had been tormented so much by the templars that death was their only release. That is just as dark as practically anything in Dragon Age: Origins or Dragon Age 2, so why doesn’t it feel as dark?
In many ways, Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2 made a point of putting the darkness front and center. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, however, much of the darkness is subtle and — often — entirely optional. Unless the player continues to ask questions, they may never understand Cole’s back story (or even get the quest). Another example: a particular companion subquest — Bull’s — has incredibly dark dialog… but in banter, and it can be missed.
4. “Dark” Doesn’t Have to Mean “Rape” — But People Think It Does
Many people seem to assume that a game needs rape to be dark; in fact, for whatever reason, many fan complaints specifically (and erroneously) point out that a rape was taken out of the game (which it wasn’t). For some reason dark fantasy has always had a fascination with rape — but that doesn’t mean that a fantasy without rape isn’t dark. In “In Hushed Whispers” a major main character is tortured to the point of disfigurement, yet the game is still called “less dark” because there’s no rape involved in that particular quest — that seems questionable in itself.
Dragon Age: Origins has a chilling poem about, basically, rape and beatings, that everyone holds up as the high point of “darkness” in the original game, but let’s not forget that poem also involves people being ripped apart and eaten alive. Why is it rape specifically that people fixate on? It’s likely because rape is something that people can, at least, comprehend, whereas being ripped apart and eaten alive is probably too abstract.
5. Dragon Age: Inquisition Has a Specific Theme
The theme of DAI is faith. The Inquisition is intended to be a holy power bent on bringing salvation to the people. With that in mind, it makes sense that the tone of the game is not as dark as it could be; the entire point of the game is that the Inquisition is giving people hope. Could the poor state of the world have been better depicted prior to the Inquisition’s involvement? Probably — but at a certain point, it becomes more depressing than valuable. Dragon Age: Inquisition was all about inspiring.
6. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a Little Too Real
This one’s a little reaching, but: a significant amount of “darkness” occurs off screen, in the form of codex entries and random asides — and some of this may be due to the game engine. In Dragon Age: Origins, everything was rather abstract — including gore. Even in Dragon Age 2, Varric looks like a clay plastic model compared to Dragon Age: Inquisition. There is a difference between seeing someone brutally mutilated in vague, polygonal graphics and someone brutally mutilated in a very realistic way, and there is likely a reason why things like “torture” occur as much off screen as possible.
7. Dragon Age: Inquisition Suffers From Desensitization
In some ways, it may not be that DAI is not “as dark” as Dragon Age: Origins but instead that we expect it to be more dark than Dragon Age: Origins. In truth, DA:O wasn’t that dark compared to most dark fantasies. In fact, the city elf origin, with all its rapeyness, is pretty much as dark as the game gets. Dragon Age 2 was way darker, and because of that, probably set the bar a bit higher than it would have otherwise been.
So is Dragon Age: Inquisition “not dark enough”? Well, that’s purely subjective; but it can be argued that Dragon Age: Inquisition is exactly as dark as it intended to be. There is a significant amount of darkness in the game itself, and it’s not significantly less dark in subject matter than the initial installment. It may be less dark than Dragon Age 2 — but what isn’t? And there’s this belief that storytelling needs to be dark to be realistic or to be worthwhile, and that just isn’t necessarily true; a good story can be told without being disturbing and depressing.
But the real, unspoken question in all this, is often whether Bioware compromised themselves by making the game less dark to avoid anger. Some have questioned David Gaider’s personal motivations, calling him a “Social Justice Warrior,” or saying that he has somehow “caved” to pressure. As Bioware’s writers have shown time and time again, they are most certainly not above upsetting people if they believe they are in the right… sometimes even to a fault. Bioware is by no means a perfect company and they’ve made mistakes, but they haven’t historically shown a pattern of selling out or pandering.