Dragon Age II – A Positive Retrospective

(Spoilers for Dragon Age 2 ahead. But it’s a five year old game that nobody likes, so who cares?)

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Nobody likes Dragon Age 2. The poor game was the sequel to Bioware’s much beloved entry into the classic Tolkein-fantasy subgenre, and was coming hot off the heels of the company’s crowning smash hit, Mass Effect 2, which arguably still represents Bioware’s popularity high point. And instead of making a bigger, better Dragon Age with the same classic RPG staples and sprawling adventure structure, or going the ME2 route of streamlining  and shifting toward laser-character focus, Bioware decided to make DA2… something different.

The result wasn’t pretty. The critics gave it a score between 79 and 82 on all platforms on Metacritic, which for a major Bioware RPG is pretty bad, despite being undoubtedly buoyed by the usual soft journalism/promotion/inflated praise heaped upon nearly all AAA games by the mainstream game critics. A more representative appraisal of DA2 at the time and onward can be found in the game’s Metacritic user scores which hover between 4.2 and 4.5. Despite the differences in official review scores, the critical and popular tone towards the game was in agreement. DA2 was weird and disappointing. It was oddly structured, had a restrictive scale, boring RPG elements, repetitive combat, and was just generally half baked, with too many repeating environments and a serious lack of grand plot cohesion.

DA2 was, and typically still is, viewed as an unusual misstep in Bioware’s overwhelmingly successful history prior to Mass Effect 3. And yet… I kind of love DA2. Or at least I have a soft spot for the poor game. Critics said Bioware was lazy with DA2, but I really do think it was just misunderstood. DA2 could have just been another well-done RPG with the same orcs, elves, evil omnipotent forces, and dickish humans that we’ve all seen a million times, but instead Bioware tried to do something different with the game. I’ll certainly admit that they weren’t entirely successful with every novel approach, but DA2 is worthy of serious critical examination and I really hope the game eventually gets the respect it deserves in video game history.

I’m not going to give a breakdown of the entire game, it’s way too big for that and there are plenty of reviews out there which cover the basics. Instead, I’m going to zoom in on DA2’s most interesting aspects; the parts of the game which were novel, even innovative, but for one reason or another, didn’t garner much praise when the game was released in 2011.

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Remember how the original Dragon Age was built out of the most well-tread tropes in the fantasy genre, but had a bunch of really cool, dark twists to make the lore interesting, like the mage-Templar struggles and elf slavery? That was a deliberate choice on Bioware’s part to ease the player into more novel story concepts by keeping the game’s overall framework in very familiar territory. Behind the cool characters and fascinating subplots, Dragon Age is still about a grand battle in a generic medieval fantasy world between the eternal forces of good and evil for the fate of the known world.

In contrast, Dragon Age 2’s story structure is kind of weird. The game is about Hawke, the new patriarch of a family who flees the land and events of the previous game to live as a refugee in the free city of Kirkwall. There is no over-arching plot or goal. Instead, the story is broken up into three episodic acts which follow Hawke’s attempts to start a life in the city and eventually climb its internal power structure. But again, there is no grand design or pattern here. In the first act Hawke is basically a mercenary trying to raise money for a treasure hunting expedition, then in the second act he becomes embroiled in a conflict between the city’s natives and Qunari refugees, and finally, in the third act, Hawke becomes an agent in a civil war between mages and Templars (anti-magic police) which sparks within Kirkwall and spreads throughout the game’s world. There are also occasional cuts to an interrogation occurring after the main events of the game which hint at a much larger conflict brewing, but of course this plot is purely a set up for Dragon Age 3.

DA2’s plot is vastly smaller in terms of scope and scale than its prequel and sequel. With the exception of the opening scene, the entire game takes place in a single city. The stakes concern Kirkwall’s survival in a tumultuous political era and the prosperity of Hawke’s uprooted family, rather than the fate of every being in the world. I can see how critics would view Hawke’s adventures as being petty compared to the earth shattering relevance of the other games in the series, but not only is there nothing wrong with DA2’s approach, but it even offers something which the other games, and very few fantasy games in general, ever fail to attain: a sense of intimacy.

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I know I traveled through a million cities, towns, ruins, etc. throughout the other Dragon Ages, but I barely remember any of them. On the other hand, I sure as hell remember Kirkwall. I remember the central castle, Hawke’s house, Hightown, the docks, the Qunari refugee camp, the various markets, the caves surrounding the city, etc. I remember many characters across the racial, ideological, and socioeconomic spectrum throughout the city, and how they painted a picture of Kirkwall’s social structure. The three acts aren’t entirely self-contained plots, but stories which naturally arise from trends which organically grow in the background of Hawke’s immediate concerns. The Qunari are refugees just like Hawke but don’t interact with the Kirkwall natives like other races do in the first act, the mages and Templars are always in conflicts which steadily escalate throughout the game, and Hawke’s roll in the city naturally rises from random mercenary to champion of the people as each element of the story falls into place.

Kirkwall doesn’t feel like another random medieval fantasy RPG city filled to the brim with anonymous peasants and quest dispensers. It feels like a living, breathing organism, with its own patterns that shift over time with the game’s many evolving plots. I won’t claim that Kirkwall is the absolute greatest video game city ever created or anything, but I also can’t think of any other RPGs which had the discipline to so thoroughly develop a single location.

It’s not that such a laser focus is necessarily the best way to design a grand RPG like Dragon Age, but it is a viable option with its own trade-offs. The DA2 model creates more of a sense of “place” and better connects the player with the typically distant common people who the protagonist is ostensibly supposed to be saving from whatever evil threatens the world. But in return the DA2 model loses its sense of importance in the series as a whole, and can feel like somewhat of a sideshow as more impactful events happen off-screen.

For what it’s worth, I like how DA2 structured its plot and I hope other RPGs experiment along similar lines. It brought an interesting perspective to such well-tread territory and other games can benefit from its model.

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One of the many advantages of a refined story focus is an ability to explore minor characters more thoroughly. In fantasy games, such individuals all too often get swept along in the main, grand plot and lose a sense of personal characterization. Since DA2 isn’t concerned with a big bad guy in the distance threatening the entire world, the game offers players a rare look into the subtler aspects of character development, not just in the form of self-contained story arcs, but also in the way the player can interact with, and alter a character’s fate in the story.

The protagonist in any given Bioware game will have between six and a dozen squad mates, any two or three of whom can accompany the player on a mission or be interacted with in the non-mission hub. They all have their own backstories, personalities, relationships, and personal stakes in the plot at hand. Most games would be fine with leaving the companions as self-contained entities which experience their own character growth regardless of player input, but Bioware always aspires for something more. They want Hawke, Shepard, the Grey Warden, or whomever to feel like a powerful force in the world they inhabit, and that means effecting the lives of those closest to the protagonist.

While Bioware’s intentions are noble, the company has always struggled with how to make the player’s interactions with his companions meaningful, especially when the interactions between companions are taken into account. There is an issue of mounting choice complexity at play. Too little complexity makes the interactions seem overly-mechanical and flaccid, while too much complexity is impossible to maintain, especially when the companions aren’t supposed to eclipse the game’s central plot. Mass Effect 2 is the best example of the former problem. The game is filled to the brim with great companion characters, but all the player can do with them is trudge through dialogue options until a “loyalty mission” is triggered, the completion of which almost automatically ensures the survival of the character during the game’s climaxes. The only other relevant choices outside of that are whether or not to romance a character, which feels equally dull and lifeless as the player merely continuously selects the friendly/seductive/romantic options on the dialogue wheel.

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In the wake of ME2, Bioware created what I still maintain to be the best companion system in any of its games, or possibly any RPG ever, in Dragon Age 2. Here’s how it works:

The player can interact with nine potential companions (one of whom is DLC). Each companion has a stat spectrum bookended by “rival” and “friendship” which represents their view of Hawke. As the player progresses through the game and makes both major plot decisions and minor dialogue choices (for which the particular companion is present), Hawke’s position on the spectrum shifts. The cause and size of each shift is determined by the character’s natural predilections. For instance, Fenris is an escaped elf slave of the Tevinter Imperium, a formally powerful nation of mages who use their abilities to subjugate others, and therefore Fenris typically disapproves when the player chooses to be lenient towards mages, and approves of the opposite choices.

In the third act, the civil war between the mages and Templars erupts, with Hawke, by then a hero of the city for his actions in the second act, put in the middle of the conflict. With both sides asking for Hawke’s assistance, the player must choose to side with the mages or Templars. While most games would simply treat the companions as luggage to be brought along with Hawke at this point, DA2 wisely gives the characters their own agency as they choose their own side in the conflict. Hawke’s choice certainly factors into their decision, but so does each character’s particular relationship with Hawke and their unique backgrounds.

Given Fenris’s intense hatred of magic, he is inclined to side with the Templars, and will only assist the mages if Hawke does as well and he has a sufficiently high friendship level with Hawke. Meanwhile, Merill’s proclivity towards elicit magic will incline her towards supporting the mages, but given a sufficiently positive relationship with Hawke, she can be convinced that the mage rebellion is dangerous and be persuaded to side with the Templars. On the other hand, Varric’s mercenary tendencies (and his importance to the plot down the line) allow him to follow Hawke to either side regardless of their personal relationship.

Those who side with Hawke act as normal companions during the last few missions of the game. Those who side against him become mini-bosses down the line. I don’t know of any game with a system which makes so many choices meaningful in the long run. Most modern games would suffice to base each companion’s final choice on a single mission, or line of dialogue, rather than on cumulative narrative choices made by the player. It’s a complicated, but elegant system which provides the player with a real sense of efficacy throughout his adventures.

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I certainly won’t go as far as to call Dragon Age 2 a masterpiece, or even one of the best RPGs of the last five years, but I do think it has crucially underrated aspects and was not treated fairly by critics in its time or in retrospect. Hopefully I can convince some people to go back and give the game another shot by approaching DA2 as a curiosity rather than saddling it with the sky high expectations of a game produced by one of the most famous RPG developers in video game history.

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