Neil Thompson gives us an insight into the world of Dragon Age
At this year’s Eurogamer Expo at Earls Court in London, I got a chance to sit down with Dragon Age Inquisition‘s Director of Art & Animation, Neil Thompson. Neil had just come away from his stage presentation surrounding the artwork and art style of BioWare’s latest entry into its fantasy RPG, so I thought it only natural to sit down and fire some questions at him around the art and themes that inspired the first next-gen release of the series.
So, Dragon Age started out with Origins and – at the time – its art style reflected that of Neverwinter Nights or Baulder’s Gate. With Dragon Age 2 we saw a far more stylised approach, and the gameplay reflected that. So with Dragon Age Inquisition we see that things have shifted again, how hard has it been to make sure it still feels like a Dragon Age title?
Neil Thompson: I think we’re very sympathetic that we’re responsible for a franchise that’s been in existence for a while now and those characters and locations, people identify with them and love them. We take that responsibility very seriously, we set about thinking about the art direction for inquisition. The Dragon Age as a franchise is really about the world of Thedas. It’s not a single person’s adventure through that [world], there are many stories to be told in it, so primarily what we wanted to produce was a very rich and very diverse world. Since we adopted the Frostbite  Engine, as an engine, it’s one that excels at doing exactly that.
I talked in the [Eurogamer Speaker] Session earlier about taking inspiration from the North Renaissance, and the idea of very vibrant colours and accurate surface response. This gave us great lighting and really allowed us to inform our creative process. The game is huge, rich, and has a sumptuous world – it’s really brought colour back into the franchise. It’s really enabled us to expand the world of Thedas to what we imagine it to be.
As you say, it’s a bright and colourful world compared to other RPGs – which tend to be muddy browns and stony greys. Was that a concious decision from the beginning, or just something that came out from the storyline and world development?
NT: No, very much from the beginning – that’s something the art director, Matt Goldman, really wanted to do. All the architectural cues from the outset have been about accentuating it and really making it part of the experience.
Has the Frostbite 3 Engine helped you realise the original vision you’ve always had for the series?
NT: I think so, it’s easy to put it that this is the game that the Dragon Age team are working on; the best Dragon Age we can work on at the time. It’s the game we really wanted to make, we think it’s the one that people will have the most satisfying experience with.
Having worked on two other games in the series, has that helped with shaping the style this time around?
NT: Well, I think you learn, working in any creative medium, that there’s always progression and evolution of the style and what you believe you can achieve. And, if you put that into context of working in the games industry – where change is the order of the day, every five or six years the hardware changes and the very paradigm of how you work fundamentally has to undergo a change.
I think style has evolved and inspirations have remained fairly constant throughout. What’s great to see is that the art of the individual factions is evolving as well. This means we’re able to embrace multiple different styles within the game, in terms of faction design and their own art in the world. It’s all cohesive and sits well within Dragon Age.
How hard has it been crafting an entire open world in this way? It has to feel like there’s spontaneity in there, but surely it also has to be meticulously detailed.
NT: Yeah, there’s no point in having a world so vast it becomes meaningless. There’s no point in heading off in one direction and just going forever, there’s no value there. What we want is a world that’s vast enough for people to go and get lost in if they wish, but also to give them reasons for being.
You can play the game by following the critical narrative path, and that’s absolutely fine. But we also want people to wonder around because these landscapes are incredibly rich and beautiful, and there’s stuff to do. There are sidequests, if you’re into the crafting side of things you can go looting for material, and the world itself is threatening thanks to wildlife there that’s happy to have a go at you. It’s an evolving world that goes beyond just the narrative path and you can choose to go into it if you want, but you don’t have to.
I mean, we spent all this time crafting this world so we’d obviously like you to, but it’s ultimately up to you.
As you were saying in the session earlier, the idea of intrigue is a way to show areas of interest to the player. But surely there’s a conflict between guiding players by the hand and letting them explore?
NT: I think so, yeah. Some players will religiously stick to the path in which they’re being pushed so we try to do that as little as possible. There won’t always be a road, because then that encourages you to always stick to that. The idea of Dragon Age is that you can play the game as you want to play it, and what’s core to the idea of the epic fantasy world is that you can go and see epic and aspirational worlds without feeling like you’re forced through a tube.
A part of this engagement comes from NPCs, but a lot of RPGs suffer soulless populations. In your speaker session you talked about how BioWare are bringing character to their appearances to tell stories. This certainly sounds easy enough on paper, but was it?
NT: It is challenging, I mean, we’re fortunate with Dragon Age that we have the heritage of previous games, films, novels, and comic books to inform our decisions and how we go. What’s great is that when you have such strongly written and designed factions like we have, it really allows an extra level of personality to already be there, because you already know that from the start. You know how certain NPCs are going to respond before you’ve spoken to them.
In that case would you say it’s easier to create characters over environments?
NT: [Pauses, then laughs with hesitation] That’s… a terrifically simple question, with a… uh, terrifyingly difficult answer. I think they both have unique challenges. But I don’t think I’d like to say one over the other!
With Dragon Age Inquisition there’s also a lot of smaller aesthetic aspects that build the world up – such as tarot cards, multiplayer art, and stained glass windows. These are, typically, things that most people playing wouldn’t even think about, but do you ever get player feedback about this sort of stuff?
NT: Um, I think from time to time, yeah. But we do it because it makes a more immersive world and experience. Maybe one aspect that sets the world of Dragon Age apart from other fantasy worlds is that there are these recognisable factions, recognisable architecture and art style. I think they just provide a canvas for a more in-depth experience.
Would you say the community has a hand in shaping aesthetic decisions?
NT: Well, we always listen. If an idea is a good idea, then it’s a good idea! We don’t really care where it comes from! If it’s there then we’ll adapt it into something we think is appropriate, but we’ll always see.
Does that mean you’ve had a lot of ideas come through before and just had to leave them on the cutting room floor?
NT: Game development is a constant process of iteration, seeing what works and seeing what doesn’t, so that is always going on.
That’s fair enough. You said that Renaissance art really influenced Dragon Age‘s style, but have any other RPGs or games come along and given you ideas for where you may have wanted to go?
NT: I don’t think it’s quite as clear cut as that. We discussed ideas that come from this broad inspirational palette, taking influences from vast panoply of mediums. We’re all keen games players and, to some extent, everything you touch and enjoy is going to inform the decisions that you make – it’s a natural process. I don’t think there’s any specifics of someone saying ‘yes, that did that’.
Indeed, but you did say that the framing used for Dragon Age Inquisition during gameplay was inspired by films, why make that choice?
NT: That’s partly because Matt Goldman and I are just massive film buffs. We’re very keen on that side of things, and what we respond to in cinema is more traditional. It’s the likes of [Akira] Kurosawa, Stanley Kubrick, where it’s a physical rig and a physical camera, and the shots are based upon strong composition. That’s what we love, and that’s what we think is more fitting for a fantasy game. It just steeps you in some sort of historical setting, even though it’s only like fifteen years old… But it kind of feels like it has that less contemporary edge. To me, it doesn’t feel right that it should be shot in any other way.
But what about the tactical camera, which pulls away from the character so they can see all the action. How easy was that to balance against the framed view you worked hard to produce?
NT: It’s entirely down to player choice. You can play the entire game in third-person if you wish. Or, you can play in the tactical camera all the way through. It’s entirely up to you.
I think the best way to play is a blend of styles. When combat becomes challenging you can go into auto-play and distribute your party more strategically. An awful lot of work was put into the camera and the systems behind that to allow some level of consistency between the two so it doesn’t feel like you’re playing a different game. It’s just an allowance for the player to play [Dragon Age Inquisition] the way they want to.
Was this more tactical mode influenced by the likes of earlier BioWare games like KotOR or Jade Empire?
NT: Absolutely, it’s things right back to Baulder’s Gate and others like it.
So, with all this experience building into Dragon Age Inquisition, what’s your favourite element, artistic or otherwise, about it – that thing you love the most about what’s been done?
NT: Um, it’s difficult to pinpoint any one thing. What I’m really most satisfied with in terms of the final game, is that it’s a cohesive vision from start to finish and there’s nothing that really jars. In terms of what we set out to do, its artistic vision and what’s been achieved over the course of three and a half years, we’ve achieved a level of consistency that I think is incredible – and it’s a better game for it.
But is there any game catching your eye at the moment in terms of aesthetics?
NT: I thought The Last of Us was great. Um, I’m trying to think what’s stood out for me… Destiny was also very visually impressive and well realised. I mean there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s good, but for our own inspirations we want to look beyond [games]. We want to see what’s out there.
So is it a case of preferring realism over highly-stylised releases?
NT: Not necessarily realism, I just don’t want to narrow our perspectives down to what we do, right?