I wasn’t sure I wanted to write about this game. I struggled with the dilemma for several days. The conflict revolves around the strange kind of guilt I often feel about the time I waste (or invest in) playing games. The choice of words, “waste” against “invest” is important. When I play a very good, worthy game, it’s clearly an investment and I don’t feel bad about spending such and such hours with it. When I start playing a bad game, I usually just give it up before the issue of wasting time comes up at all. But then there are games such as Dragon Age II, that simply make me feel guilty for enjoying them.
Dragon Age is a fantasy setting made by BioWare. They have a long history of making RPGs, and among their creations are some excellent games that are not only counted among the best of the genre, they helped define the genre. During the past decade, however, their games started following a trend of growing simplification in terms of game systems and non-combat gameplay, marked at the same time by a promotion of cinematic sequences as the leading storytelling medium. With their latest creations, this trend is seemingly coming close to culmination, and these newest games are more and more like interactive movies, where the role of the player is to watch and occasionally steer, but certainly not to solve problems. Oh, unless the problem is how to eviscerate as many enemies in as short a time as possible, with as much blood and exploding body parts as still passes as “mature” instead of “illegal”. Or how to extract the maximal approval from a single conversation with a companion. Or avoid being hit on by them.
The typical fan of the genre hates this trend, loathing both the decline in traditional RPG elements and the focus on cinematic storytelling, as both serve to essentially take the genre away from the domain of geekdom and make it accessible to ever growing casual audiences.
I am not the typical fan of the genre. While I too despise how the new titles strive to “cater to the lowest common denominator”, I see the development of cinematic storytelling as a good thing. It has to do with the way I personally value games: where some people would say that a game is exactly as good as it is fun, for me the “fun” part just doesn’t cut it. If a game is to be an investment, and not a waste of time, it has to have strong artistic aspects. There’s no room here to go into what I think about art in games; suffice it to say, there can never be too much of it, and with the talent and effort that goes into the cinematics of triple-A games, it can only add to their value, never detract from it.
Well, Dragon Age II gave these standards of mine a big shake. It’s a game of unbelievable extremes. The simplification of traditional RPG elements has reached what I hope to be the ultimate climax, where nothing else remains to be done to a game short of stripping it of all gameplay and calling it a cartoon. On the other side, the storytelling hit a number of sweetspots, and I can’t in all fairness judge it as anything but excellent. How does one give an answer to the simple question, “Do you like it?” in the midst of such opposite impressions?
Let’s try to sort it out.
Dragon Age II follows the life of a man (or a woman) named Hawke, and tells of his “Rise to Power” – which is the actual subtitle of the game. Hawke fled from Ferelden during the Blight and brought his family to Kirkwall. In three acts spanning seven years, Hawke works his way up from a hired thug to a wealthy landowner and wins the title of the “Champion of Kirkwall” for his many heroic deeds. Each act has a different focus, but there’s a common thread connecting them: an escalating conflict between the local Circle of Mages and the Templars of the Chantry. This conflict culminates in Act III and ends in utter disaster, with the epilogue showing how the consequences of the event will shake the very foundation of the setting.
Magic in the setting of DA has an interesting twist to it: it all comes from the dreamworld called the Fade, where spirits and demons roam among the sleepers, always looking for weak minds that might serve them as a foothold in the physical reality. Unlike an ordinary man, a mage can retain his consciousness in the Fade, and is the prime target for demons who may attempt to threaten or seduce him into allowing them to posses him. A possessed mage is transformed mentally and physically into an abomination, a monster with tremendous powers, lacking reason or humanity. This danger, this temptation, is why all the mages are kept in Circles, closely guarded and watched by the Tempars: an order of warriors specifically trained to fight and suppress magic, and the military arm of the Chantry, which in effect has complete control over magic.
In Dragon Age: Origins, we are shown through a multitude of examples how this situation is essentially unfair to mages. A child found to have magical talent will be taken away from her parents by force and made to live a life of seclusion in the local Circle, with no hope to ever be free, find love and have a family. We are given the example of Wynne, a mage who lives on energy borrowed from a Fade spirit, making her a kind of an abomination, but one that’s never done anything other than help and heal. In a key conversation, she can be led to conclude that a mage who retains her sense of self, her humanity and her reason, is not an abomination, even if she is, in fact, possessed. In the Awakening, we are presented with Justice, a Fade spirit trapped in the dead body of some poor Gray Warden; Justice explains that the demons are simply those spirits who give into their hungers and desires, and not all spirits are evil just because they are creatures of the Fade. So when in Dragon Age II Anders tells you that, just as demons are manifestations of human sin and weakness (or is it the other way around?), there are spirits who represent human strengths and virtues, you have no reason to disbelieve it.
The inevitable conclusion is that magic is not as tempting and dangerous as the Chantry makes it seem, and that it certainly isn’t true that every mage will turn into an abomination if let loose. Then the treatment by the Chantry and the Templars must be a kind of tyranny, right? Especially in Kirkwall, where the Templars have more power than is usual, and abuse it more than what’s normally tolerated.
However, as the story progresses, you are put in more and more situations where, as a rule, the mage, when cornered and desperate, willingly turns to forbidden arts in order to save their life, the lives of others, or to escape, or overthrow the rule of the Chantry, or simply because they crave power. At times this is quite heavy-handed, but it’s no less effective for it. By the end of the game, you are forced to make the opposite conclusion: that the temptation is indeed too great, and the mages, like all other men, ultimately too weak to resist it. You watch your friend Merril ruin her tribe due to the naïve idea that she knows what she’s dealing with when practicing forbidden magic; and then you watch your other friend, Anders, as he slowly loses himself to his dreams of vengeance, going as far as to plan and execute an act of terrorism. In the end, even the eldest, wisest mage in the Kirkwall Circle succumbs and summons an army of demons to punish his tormentors.
It is in this way that “choosing the side” in the end is made morally gray. I’m not sure if there are alternative endings depending on your choices, but in my experience/playthrough Hawke was seduced into supporting the mages, and he regretted it bitterly after the fact. A strong experience, and built on deep foundations that draw both from lore and history of the setting, from witnessing the good and the bad of it, and last but certainly not least, from the emotional investment in relationships with other characters.
The gradual build-up of the main conflict – from the low-profile adventures in Act I, through the progression from poor to wealthy to famous in Act II, to the catastrophic resolution of Act III – doesn’t make a compact narrative of the kind delivered by Origins, but still tells a powerful, dramatic, and even tragic story.
I confess I played on the Easy difficulty, because I certainly felt no desire to make the fights any longer than absolutely necessary. There is no need, and no room for thinking up and executing even the most rudimentary tactics. I rarely even used the pause button. Perhaps on higher levels of difficulty the enemies are tough enough so that issuing specific orders to individual party members becomes necessary, but I heard that “Nightmare” doesn’t only mean stronger enemies, it means more enemies, and even worse, more waves.
Waves are the second worst travesty of Dragon Age II (the first is the environments; I’ll get to that later). Say you see enemies up ahead and defeat them; but then “another wave” appears from thin air surrounding your party from all sides, and you have to go through it once again. Usually there are three to four waves, sometimes more, rarely less. I’d say that during the course of a typical street fight you get to kill between thirty and fifty opponents. Just try to imagine a little street in a suburb of a medieval city, and like, fifty bandits waiting in cellars and on the rooftops to ambush you. When it comes to, say, darkspawn or zombies, things that rise from the ground, or to demons, who are supposedly summoned by someone or something, the idea of waves is sort of digestible, although still awkward. But seeing thugs and their dogs falling on you from the sky was just so bizarre that it took me out during every single encounter. I’d pause the game to curse at my monitor and wonder how the hell the same guys who made Origins managed to create something so stupid and ugly and actually market it as one of the favorite new features. Unacceptable.
Combat was only tolerable because it was very easy. But I swear I’ve never seen a system so devoid of virtue. I lack the words to describe my lasting mortification; it only fades in comparison to the…
There’s the city, divided into four areas. These maps are fine, with some weak points but also with many strong ones. The architecture is pretty, unusually realistic, with massive, towering buildings, tall stairs and terraces in the wealthy neighborhoods, and with the narrow, filthy passages, smoke and ashes and suspicious corners in the poor neighborhoods. But that’s just the visuals; once you’ve taken it all in, you quickly realize these areas are essentially empty, lacking anything of interest, anything interactive. Of course, there are the doors and the NPCs related to the current quests, and by night, there are the aforementioned armies of bandits who hide behind every corner, but that’s it. The “merchants” are now reduced to chests that charge and pay coins, while their token owners don’t even have the most basic dialog and stand there just for show. In summary, the city looks nice, but it’s rather dead. However, since this qualification is readily applicable to Denerim and other urban or semi-urban areas from Origins as well, and as there aren’t many games out there in general that do this significantly better, I can’t in all honesty say I take much issue with it.
Outside the city there are two or three large “wilderness” maps, which are rather nondescript, totally corridorised, and mostly just host battles and the shifty doors that randomly appear and disappear depending on the requirements of the current quest… and lead into dungeons.
Now, dungeons are what I do take issue with. I already said it, but it won’t hurt to say it again: the level design of the dungeons is the worst travesty I’ve ever witnessed in a game. It’s a heresy, it’s a ridicule. You see, there are at least fifty quests that take you to “different” dungeons; and only four actual dungeons: the “basement”, the “cave”, the “evil cave” and the “estate”. “Variety” is then accomplished by rearranging doors to make some passages open and others closed, and by letting the containers generate random loot. So if you haven’t played the game, but have heard of the “copy-pasted” areas, like I had before playing, let me tell you straight up: those rumors have not been exaggerated.
It’s unbelievable, laughable, but also dangerous. What will the people at Bethesda and Blizzard think if Dragon Age II sells as well as BioWare expects? Why would they invest thousands of developer hours into making unique, hand-arranged dungeons and areas, when there’s obviously a whole world of customers out there who don’t seem to mind if all the dungeons are exactly the same?
People on BioWare forums say this happened because there wasn’t enough time. I don’t buy it. I fear it was an experiment, to see how far they can push. Origins wasn’t brilliantly designed in this respect either, but at least every level was unique, and some were actually quite good. There were occasional puzzles, and locked doors you needed to go around, and carefully planned ambushes, little local quests with nice little rewards, interesting boss encounters and so on. It’s all gone. And it’s unforgivable.
Characters is what BioWare does best. There are very few games I can think of (Torment, Bloodlines), that have more believable, lovable or hateful characters, characters that can make you angry and sad and anxious just as well or even better than their counterparts in movies and literature.
It’s one of my big dilemmas concerning game-art, but also art in general: is it a mark of good art, or of cheap art, when it evokes strong emotions? The soap operas do it, so is it bad? But Austen does it too, so then it’s good? I felt guilty when Origins did it to me, and I feel even more guilty now.
The main difference between the characters in Origins and characters in Dragon Age II is that, in Origins, they were all more or less ordinary people. In Dragon Age II, they are all fanatics. I suppose that’s another way of saying that they are mostly one-dimensional: each has one outstanding goal, or a belief, or a behavior, that defines them. Secondary characteristics are present, but only barely, and I only perceive them because I’m such a fangirl. In Origins, Alistair was just another Templar, and being a Gray Warden was his only special trait until endgame. Wynne was just another mage, admittedly possessed by a spirit, but that wasn’t her defining quality, it was just a thing to know and think about. Leliana was just another sly Orlesian and Oghren is just another drunk dwarf. Like your character is just another Gray Warden, the special status arising from the fact that you’re, more or less, the last Gray Warden, not from some divine inspiration and/or intervention (and what a relief that was).
Now let’s see the cast of DA II: we have Bethany and I guess she is, in fact, just another apostate. But then there’s Isabela, who’s all about sex, selfishness and independence; and Merril, who’s all about learning at any price; Fenris is entirely shaped by his life as a slave, and Aveline by her sense of duty and lawfulness. Varric is probably the most successful character, as I can’t seem to find a category to place him in, other than comic relief.
And then there’s Anders, the most fanatical of them all. The zealot. The terrorist. Yet, you’re made to love him.
The characters of Dragon Age II are more extreme and at the same time more shallow than those of Origins. However, they are stronger and more compelling; more controversial; and in the end, more tragic. Both the good and the bad have to do with the presentation, which is ultimately done through dialog and cinematics.
Dialog is as good as in Origins. The voice acting is impeccable, and the cinematic sequences eerily lifelike. The only problem is that there’s simply less of it. No more dialogs in any place and at any time: you only get to speak to your followers at designated moments that have been promoted to quests, so that you get a journal entry each time a companion has something new to say or ask of you. The other characters are strictly related to the quests and only have “ambient”, non-interactive dialog outside them.
There’s a redeeming feature in DA II, however, though I wasn’t brave enough to properly test it my first time around: the friendship – rivalry axis. Whenever a specific follower is in the party, all the things Hawke says and does can change his “standing” with that follower, depending on how well the action is aligned to the follower’s particular issues. For example, if Anders is present in the party and, in the course of some quest that doesn’t have to be related to him directly, you express an opinion or make a decision that doesn’t enthusiastically support the freedom of mages, you will lose some of his approval.
A similar system of approval was present in Origins too, but it was nowhere near as interesting as its evolved counterpart in DA II. Most importantly, your standing with a follower can develop into full friendship or full rivalry, which allow access to an entire skill-tree for that follower, full of useful end-game level abilities. Of course, you get a different tree for friendship and for rivalry. This bridges character development and gameplay in a unique and effective way.
Your standing also affects how the follower will address you, the availability of your own dialog choices with them and outcomes of important quests that involve them. This is especially interesting in the case of Anders. After finishing the game once, I played it twice more: once maximizing Anders’ friendship, and once his rivalry, to see how this plays out in terms of the main story. Unfortunately, no matter what you do, you can’t prevent the tragic ending.
Manipulating your standing on the friendship-rivalry axis of different followers is a game of its own. You can do this by making a party of followers who do or don’t get along and taking specific followers on specific quests. It’s a wonderful device that adds a layer of nuance and characterization not only to the followers but also to your Hawke, and shapes the story on the level of fine details.
To wrap it up, I enjoyed Dragon Age II and played it several times despite the constant annoyance with the lazy and stupid design decisions regarding combat and environments. It tells a complex and morally ambiguous story that draws its strength from an excellent cast of characters. Their friendship or rivalry informs your decisions, influences their fates and subtly shapes the atmosphere. The story tackles the sensitive real-world themes of minority oppression, homosexuality, abuse of legal power and terrorism. Even though this is sometimes done with a heavy hand, there is no condescension or lecturing to it. Your inability to affect the events at the end of the game, while it could be seen as an irritating lack of player agency, also serves to put you in your place. You’re no god, and no god’s chosen one. You’re just a human trying to do your best in a fundamentally fucked-up world where very little is really under your control.