As I went about playing Dragon Age 2, which I finished late last week, I’ve compiled on the order of ten pages worth of notes, thoughts, diatribes, and fan fic (erotic). (I’m lying about one of those items.) Way too much to put into a single post, but all stuff that I think worth discussing about the game, so I’ve been trying to decide on the best way to present it. After a couple days of banging my head on my desk until it suddenly got dark I settled on this Dissecting idea, in which I break up the game into some logical segments and talk in greater detail about them than what a single review or general impressions post would allow. If you all like it enough I’ll look at doing something like this for future games. The goal with this isn’t to lampoon Dragon Age (or any other game) for everything it’s not. The Intertubes are loaded with people ranting and raving over DA2. No, the goal here is to look at where various components of the game succeed and fail. Where did Bioware make interesting choices? Where did those choices fail or not live up to their potential? How could they have been done better?
For this initial post we’ll talk story. I’ve avoided straying into extreme spoiler territory here, but if you absolutely must know nothing about the game, you best skip this post. Some discussion of the story structure and narrative is inevitable. This post also overlaps some with the one I’m writing on dialog in terms of talking about characters and the sense of choice and consequence in the game. With that said, let’s roll…
Amongst all the smaller stories with which you may choose to involve yourself, there are two big sources of plot tension unfolding in and around Kirkwall: the shipwrecked Qunari who have set up shop in a sort of Qunaritown section of Kirkwall and the ongoing struggle between the mages of Kirkwall and the templars tasked with keeping them in check. In the middle of that there’s Hawke (you), a Ferelden refugee just trying to keep his family together and alive. The three act structure of the game breaks down as follows:
Act I – Establish yourself in Kirkwall. You’re poor and with family to feed. Get the money to fund an expedition that will surely bring you fortune and glory, Dr. Jones style.
Act II – Deal with the Qunari conundrum. The Qunari shipwrecked near Kirkwall. Fearful of what they might do, Kirkwall’s Vicount ended up giving them a section of the city as a means to preserve a tentative piece.
Act III – Untangle the mages and templars. Mages are powerful and once oppressively ruled over all the land (Thedas). After being overthrown by a religious movement known as the Chantry, citizens with mage ability are sequestered off to a circle where they can learn to control their gift/curse under the watchful eye of specially trained knights, called templars. In Kirkwall the templars are particularly restrictive towards mages, generating fear, resentment, and anger. Who knew that might lead to the dark side?
Although you’ll be involved in considerably more than all this, for the most part, even the most ancillary side quests deal with getting money to fund the end of Act I expedition or add flavor to the events unfolding in Acts II and III. Later in the game you might ask yourself why the Champion of Kirkwall would bother with doing this or that, but it’s usually a choice and quests do tie back into the overall story in one form or another. Quest themes do get repetitive –here’s another bad mage story, here’s another good mage story– but most are skillfully done throughout the game. What is also skillfully done is that Bioware has set up two sources of conflict that genuinely have no easy answer. Whether you believe the mages are mistreated by the templars or not, you cannot deny an unhinged mage can (and does) wreak havoc for all the little people of Kirkwall. It’s not a phantom threat they represent and you see first hand, multiple times, how people are hurt. Conversely, you also see first hand how good and decent mages are mistreated as well. The fact that either you or your surviving sibling are a mage helps ensure that choosing sides, or trying to find a fair middle, is not easy. This is where Dragon Age 2 is at its absolute best, but it does come with some caveats.
First of all, when push comes to shove you can hardly find a mage in Kirkwall that won’t turn to Blood Magic. (EDIT: Or fall to some other perversion.) By the end of the third act I was starting to wonder if there was a mage left in Kirkwall that wasn’t an Abomination or Blood Mage waiting to happen. Bioware is trying to make a point with this, but it’s overdone. Even the most ardent mage sympathizer can’t look back at what they’ve seen throughout the game and not conclude that even the most pure of heart mage will
turn to Blood Magic be corrupted if backed against the wall. The only thing that makes their plight at all sympathetic is your own personal connection to mages and the fact you can go through two-thirds of the game pointing at this individual or that individual and say, “See, here’s why we shouldn’t oppress mages.” And then they turn and you’re left standing there saying to no one in particular, “For serious? You too? Come on!” There’s one case at the end game that very nearly breaks the game for me because the individual’s turn is so completely out of the blue.
It’s almost a reverse situation for the templars, whose order comes off as much less sympathetic right up until a McGuffin-driven revelation in the finale leads to some semblance of sanity on their part. In between, it’s just two sides that are a little too eager to kill each other (and you) and there’s ultimately not a whole lot you can do about it.
I suppose you could look at that as a commentary on how powerless you actually are in the face of events well outside your control, but mostly Bioware just has a story it wants to tell with this game and dag-nabit it’s going to make sure you don’t muck it up with your pesky choices. There are smaller choices to be made, most of them having to do with your NPC party members, but it doesn’t seem like there are nearly as many variables in play when the end game comes as there were in Origins. What the Qunari are going to do the Qunari are going to do. And, yes, the mages and templars are going to come to blows no matter what you do or whose side you take.
For me, this is not a scathing rebuke of the game so much as it is a disappointment with the overall thrust of the choice versus consequence system in Dragon Age 2. You make a lot of choices, many of them difficult, and yet it rarely feels like there’s much in the way of consequences for them in the game. This story is going to go where this story is going to go and it will drag you along kicking and screaming if it must, only occasionally making the game play out easier or more difficult depending on your past actions. It seems to me that telling a smaller, more focused story should allow more room for a strong sense of choice and consequence on the part of the player and I don’t really feel that here.
There’s also some really noticeable gaps in the logic of this world. There’s this huge conflict betwen mages and templars and you see all these stories about apostates being tracked down and imprisoned, but you run around with apostate mages in your party all the time, flinging spells every which way as you put down every thug in the city. (Seriously, this place makes Gotham look like Candyland.) You yourself could be a mage (because I didn’t play as a mage I’m not sure how the game might change to reflect this), but aside from a throw-away line here or there, there’s never a real explanation as to why the templars aren’t breathing down your neck… except when they are, but then you’ll kill a full squad or two of their order and everything goes back to normal. Huh?
In another example, you can try to side (or at least sympathize) with the Qunari at every juncture through Acts I and II, if you so choose. They’re not the Darkspawn. They’re not inherently evil and there are plenty of reasons to be supportive of their overall viewpoint, pending the type of character you’re playing. You can even earn a grudging respect from them. And yet, when the moment of truth comes, it will be the same outcome no matter what you’ve done or what choices you’ve made. Their past behavior towards you and Kirkwall become irrelevant. The story needs them to do something to proceed, so they do it. The game treats these situations as ignorable inconveniences; as a player you must do the same.
What really makes up for those areas where the overall story falters a bit are the NPCs who join you for this adventure. Aveline, Anders, Varric, Merrill, Isabella, Fenris… god help me I loved them all. As much as I liked the cast of Mass Effect 2 the DA2 quests you take on on behalf of your buddies tie into the overarching story so much better than in that game. Thematically, Bioware does some really interesting work here playing around with the ideas of trust and betrayal. I won’t get into the actions of any particular character here, but there was a moment leading into the end game that I fell into hook, line, and sinker.
A character I had with me throughout the game, a character I trusted implicitly did something I found so revolting, so horrifying, I wanted to be mad at the game for making it happen. But unlike some other characters who turn on a dime just because the story demands it, the seeds of this character’s betrayal are planted. I knew something bad could happen. I even expected something bad might happen. But I didn’t expect what I got. I never imagined my trust would be abused quite the way it was. It’s one of the better twists I’ve seen from a game like this. Kudos to Bioware for that. (Although I am curious what would have happened had I not gone along with some things. Would it have been any different at all? I suspect not, and if that’s the case, it’s another example of your choices really not mattering all that much.)
How good or bad all this is really depends on your willingness to suspend disbelief and very likely that will depend on just how much you’ve enjoyed the rest of the experience up to that point. If you enjoy most of what a game brings to the table you’ll always cut it more slack when it cuts a corner. And make no mistake, every CRPG story has to cut corners somewhere. There are limits to what it can let the player get away with in terms of effecting the story and that requires some degree of willfull ignorance on the part of the player to accept certain boundaries. Personally, I liked Dragon Age 2 enough to live with its boundaries, but not enough to give Bioware a total pass. They chose to make a smaller game this time around and, in doing so, needed to do a better job of making sure the player’s actions in the game don’t feel so ineffectual. I’m not paying $60 to worry about the set up for Dragon Age 3; I want the best possible experience from Dragon Age 2.