Dragon Age II

I’ve played Dragon Age II once all the way through, and I’m nearly done with my second run.

The game has some serious—some would say (and have) fatal—flaws.

1)      The recycled environments are disappointing at first, and gradually move on to being completely distracting. I understand that taking the time to develop fresh environments for some of these quests would have lengthened development time, and the cost-to-benefit ratio was probably deemed too marginal to do so. Still, when every mansion and cave looks exactly the same, it really yanks a fella out of the story.

2)      The new inventory system is for the birds. For me, micro-managing my companions’ armor and weapons was a big draw in the first game, and here the process has been simplified to the point where it feels utterly arbitrary.

3)      Why do potions now require a cool down period? WHY??

4)      The in-game trigger to access doors and chests and obtain loot from fallen enemies is ridiculously touchy, so much so that finding the icon that signifies you can access these things involves making your character do the hokey-pokey for a minute or two before you see the icon letting you know that, yes, you can now get your shit.

5)      The Friend/Rival system seemed really arbitrary in some cases, making appealing to any given companion character’s interests in those situations a guessing game. I had this problem with Mass Effect II’s Paragon/Renegade system as well, for what it’s worth. Sometimes you say something you think will give you some brownie points with Companion X only to see a nice little +5 Rivalry.

6)      There’s a disconcerting disconnect between your character’s appearance and actions versus the reactions you get from NPCs. As an example, my mage saved a Templar from a particularly nasty Abomination using all the wicked magic at my disposal, only to have the Templar turn and remark that we need to keep an eye on mages because “they aren’t like you and me.”

7)      Some of the mini-quests involving collecting items from dead baddies and turning those objects into random folks for cash reward is pretty pointless and ultimately a waste of time.

8)      The final moments of the game do not provide an entirely satisfactory resolution to your time spent as Hawke. After nearly thirty hours questing and killing in Hawke’s boots, I wanted a bit more from the closing coda.

Having said all that…I loved this game. Not as much as I loved Dragon Age: Origins, perhaps, but that game has a really special place in my heart; not since Final Fantasy VII have I had so much invested in a game as I did in Origins. Still, while Dragon Age II is a definite departure in several critical ways, I found it a rich and satisfying experience. The more arcade-style combat was a hoot (particularly if you play as a mage), and while the gameplay is distinctly more like a JRPG (oddly, it reminded me a great deal of Final Fantasy VIII and X) and far less open-world than Origins, the story and world were compelling enough that I never felt it was an inferior beast to its predecessor.

Now, if you want a *really* SPOILER-filled look at the things I enjoyed most about Dragon Age II, feel free to proceed. Be warned: 1) if you have any intention of playing any of the Dragon Age series but have yet to do so, don’t read any further; and 2) this is more of a reaaally long essay than a review, so if you really couldn’t care less about those sorts of things, feel free to be on your way.

Still here? Then damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

“Anders, what have you done?”

In a game with its fair share of jaw dropping moments, those words lead into the single most shattering event in the Dragon Age series to date. Over the course of three games (and, yes, I include Awakening in there because it really does feel more like a legitimate sequel to Dragon Age: Origins than a normal expansion pack), there have been some truly shocking twists. None, however, come anywhere close to Anders’ actions in the “third act” of Dragon Age II, in my opinion.

As first introduced in Dragon Age: Origins-Awakening (or, as I like to call it, “Dragon Age: Loot Party”), Anders was written as a guy just looking for any ol’ reason to launch into a full-blown diatribe about the oppression of mages and the tyranny of the templars who watch over them at the behest of the Chantry.

In Awakening, behind his bad one-liners and creepy, lifeless eyes (…black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes…), there’s always that part of Anders that seethes with resentment at being trapped in a world he never made. When we first meet the character, he proclaims his innocence for the murders of the templars whose bodies litter the floor behind him (“I didn’t do it,” are the first words out of his mouth), but then he giggles mischievously on recounting how one of them made the funniest gurgling sound when they died at the hands of the Darkspawn.

Still, in Awakening, Anders was more than happy to avoid confrontation with the templars. He was content to hide out and keep his distance as much as possible. So what happened between Awakening and Dragon Age II to turn him into such a sour-puss and a “revolutionary”?

Justice.

The Fade spirit identifying itself as Justice is portrayed in Awakening as a pure soul with a driving interest in seeing wrongs righted and vengeance meted out to those who deserve it. Yet, he’s far from an angry or volatile creature. He seems open to reason and genuinely compassionate. Witness, for example, how sensitive he is to the plight of Kristoff’s widow when he realizes his occupation of her dead husband’s body has caused her pain.

Yet, there’s a curious and fascinating preview of things to come in a side-conversation between Anders and Justice in Awakening. Justice asks Anders why, for all his complaining about the oppression of mages by templars and Chantry, the runaway sorcerer hasn’t done more to help his people and strike a blow against his oppressors. Anders replies that it would be “hard” and he likes doing things the easy way.

Yet, in Dragon Age II, we find Anders radically transformed by his union with Justice, and, as Anders points out, the merging has infected Justice as well. The two beings now share not simply one body, but a mind and philosophy that combine the views and emotions of both. Anders is imbued with Justice’s unwavering dedication to doing what is right, whatever the personal cost, and Anders has contaminated Justice with a lifetime of frustration and suppressed rage.

The result is a man driven by both an uncompromising moral code and a self-righteous fury.  As he himself says, “I can no longer tell the difference between justice…and vengeance.”

For some insight, let’s hear from Anders himself, shall we?

“To stay in the mortal realm, he (Justice) needs a host, a body to inhabit for a lifetime, not a corpse which will rot out from beneath him. If I gave him that, he would give me all he had, all he was. Together, we could remake Thedas into a world where justice rules, not fear…a world with no Circle. No templars. A world where every mage can learn to use their gifts and still return home at night. Where no mother ever need hide her child… or lose him to the fear of his neighbors. Where magic is recognized as a gift of the Maker, not the curse it has become.

It’s almost too much to imagine. The Circle, the templars, they’ve shaped my life. I was no more than twelve when they came for me. My mother wept when they fixed the chains to my wrists, but my father was glad to see me gone. He had been afraid, ever since the fire in the barn. Not just afraid of what I could do, but afraid of me, afraid my magic was punishment for whatever petty sins he imagined the Maker sat in judgment upon.

I always knew I wouldn’t submit. I could never be what they wanted from me — compliant, obedient, guilty. But before Justice, I was alone. I never thought beyond my own escape: Where would I hide? How long before they found me?

Now, even that thought repulses me. Why should so many others live with what I will not? Why must the Circle of Magi stand? Just because it always has, just because those who read Andraste’s words twisted them to mean that mages must be prisoners? Why has there never been a revolution?” – Anders’ Short Story

In Awakening, one of Ander’s defining characteristics is to shrug off even the slightest whiff of a suggestion that the Chantry’s fears about the domination of mages by evil spirits from the Fade may be justified. He won’t even entertain the idea that maybe, just maybe, the Chantry and the templars have a point, and mages are a force to be feared. Rather, he looks to the Tevinter Imperium with some admiration, despite the fact that it’s well established that the Imperium trades in slavery and uses magic to bend men to their rule.

This presents an interesting blindspot in Ander’s morality – it’s a crime against humanity to “enslave” mages because they are, ultimately, just men and women who deserve the same rights as every other citizen of Thedas, and yet he dares to hold up the Tevinter Imperium, a governance that rewards only power and enslaves the powerless, as a preferable alternative.

Interestingly, Fenris, Dragon Age II’s resident warrior elf, was a slave of an Imperium magister and represents Ander’s polar opposite—someone so beaten down and abused by mages that he bristles at the merest hint that you are sympathetic to their plight. This gives us two characters who have escaped oppression and are left broken and bitter from their experiences. The difference between them is that Fenris views the entire situation in terms of self, while Anders has become more socially motivated. Sebastian, our oh-so-tight-assed noble companion, warns us to watch out for Anders because he will always put his own needs first.  Fenris is content to take revenge against the man who enslaved him, while Anders seeks vengeance on the entire system itself, regardless of the price he will pay.

Ander’s destruction of the Chantry and the murder of everyone within it are intended to be the shot heard around the world, the straw that breaks the camel’s back and forces the silent war into the open. “There can be no compromise,” he announces. Someone will win, and someone will lose.

At least, in his mind.

The truth is, of course, that everyone loses in the world he has just created. For all his rather-insipid proclamations that it will be worth the conflict if, a hundred years down the road, a mage and human can love one another without fear of templars or the Chantry, the sad reality is there had already been a war between mages and ‘normal’ humans, and it ended in the very compromised system that Anders is trying to destroy. No matter what his motives, Anders actions are the work of an idealist with no true sense of the consequences of his actions, so real sense of the world beyond his own experience of it.

Regardless of whether his motives were understandable, his methods are undeniably abhorrent. The game casts it in an even harsher light by making the player the unwitting accomplice in Anders’ act of mass murder. First, we’re sent off to get the ingredients for Anders’ mystical bomb (under the delusion that Anders is, in fact, creating a magical ritual that will rid him of his mystical possession by the Fade spirit, Justice), and then we get tasked with distracting the Grand Cleric in the Chantry while Anders plants his bomb. Granted, you can refuse Anders in both these tasks, but without the foreknowledge of what he plans to do, why would you? Only the second task reeks of anything suspicious, but by then the die is cast.

In my case, and I’m sure in the minds of many other players, I still held out hope that if Justice could be removed or rendered inert, the smart-ass (and benign) mage I met in Awakenings would find his way back to the surface. This hope sure as hell blinded me to the obvious. It’s a devastating act of betrayal in the game, particularly if you’ve taken Anders’ side and been supportive of his views. If you’ve made a friend of Anders over the course of the game, his actions are both a stab in the back and in the heart.

Is Anders a hero? Particularly when viewed against Fenris, who is content to simply free himself of his burden and let thousands of other slaves rot away under the Imperium’s rule? What about Merrill, the young elf who turns to blood magic in her effort to restore the ancient mirror that she feels will provide her people with a bridge to their lost culture? Anders calls her selfish when the team learns that the Keeper has willingly taken the mirror’s demonic presence into herself to keep Merrill safe, and he’s not wrong—in the end, Merrill’s obsession results in the death of not just the Keeper but the entire clan. Surely her motives were noble, though, were they not? Far more noble than Fenris’.

In the world of Dragon Age, we see time and time again that the road to ruin is often paved with such noble intentions. This goes all the way back to the beginning of Origins, with Loghain’s betrayal of King Cailan in the deluded belief that Cailan would ultimately lead Ferelden back into Orleasean occupation. Loghain believes Cailan will destroy the land Loghain swore to protect at any cost. Ultimately, Loghain’s actions cost Ferelden not only its King but thousands of lives due to civil war and the Blight. And, of course, in Origins, we are given the chance to take Loghain’s motives into consideration when passing judgment on him at the Landsmeet.

Funny thing? If you play the Return to Ostagar expansion pack, you find out that Loghain’s paranoia wasn’t entirely unfounded—Cailan was, in fact, up to some behind the scenes dealing with the Orleaseans. In fact, it appears that Cailan had every intention of leaving his wife, Loghain’s daughter, and marrying an Orleasean noble to help solidify the peace between their nations. For a guy who watched the Orleaseans plunder and crush his country under foot for a hundred years, its understandably a bitter pill to swallow.

The key difference in that situation is that, up until that point, Loghain has been the undisputed villain of the game—the man who betrayed the Throne and framed the Grey Wardens for the deed. Even if we do understand his motives, it’s easy to sentence Loghain to death because his crime was one against not just the country but against us, personally. Now, contrast this with Anders’ journey.

The game’s creators have become a bit more savvy in the years between developing Origins’ story and the story in Dragon Age II. This time, they essentially had us running around and working side-by-side with one of the villains. They made him a companion and, if we so choose, a trusted ally and maybe even a lover. I can’t speak for anyone else, of course, but when the moment came to execute Anders, I found myself taking every conversation and battle I had with him by my side into account…and I spared him.

And it also didn’t help matters much, from a meta-gaming perspective, that I had Anders as my party’s healer either, although there are potions that would have quickly let me reassign points to Merrill for that role.

Which brings me to the next really interesting thing about the game—the narrative structure. The biggest complaint I’ve seen so far, with the exception of the admittedly damning use of recycled environments, is that the way the story unfolds doesn’t work. Some folks think Act One is too long and that the quests and missions are disjointed, and, as a result, Act Three suffers from a lack of emotional investment in what happens.

Of course, I disagree.

I think the brilliance of the story this time around is that Act One throws a heap of seemingly random events your way to build both background and understanding. It’s a cumulative effect—imagine 100 sheets of thin, almost clear film, with each containing only 1% of red pigmentation. Alone, the color is barely noticeable to the naked eye, but stack these sheets one on top of the other and by the time the final sheet is laid out, you have something that appears entirely red when seen from above.

Nearly every major quest deals in some way or another with the plight of people in Kirkwall as they deal with the central themes of the piece (I’m talking *story* quests, not the little goofy loot grabs where you pick up a pair of pants and deliver them to the guy who lost ‘em). Every story element has to do with authority and oppression. Heck, the city of Kirkwall used to be a former slave port and it’s nicknamed The City of Chains, for cryin’ out loud! The only way you can gain entrance into Kirkwall at the beginning of the game is to sell yourself into indentured servitude. The Fereldens labor in the mines where, that’s right, SLAVES used to work.

The game goes even further with the notion of how authority can be used and abused with the big bad in the game. Meredith, the Knight Commander of the templars, is the unquestioned true authority in Kirkwall, and in the end she is corrupted by not just her obsession that mages are a threat but by a giant slab of lyrium—the very source of the templars’ power over mages and the source of the Chantry’s control over the templars.

It’s all so very symbolic, when you get down to it—being literally and figuratively a case of absolute power corrupting absolutely. She has gone unchecked and her corruption has been allowed to flourish…just like what happened with the mage lords of the Tevinter Imperium…hmm.

Still, it’s easy to miss how many subplots and story beats deal with oppression and freedom because sometimes these ideas come in the guise of a willing submission to a faith or belief, or rebellion against same. Consider:

1)      The Qunari represent a willing submission to the authority of the faith, and conversely a peace found in accepting their role in life, even if that role is as a rebel. Conversely, the Arishok ultimately stages an uprising and intends to kill anyone who doesn’t accept the Qun.

2)      The Dalish covet their culture, and reject the authority of man, but Merrill is made a pariah for wishing to pursue forbidden aspects of that culture.

3)      Some mages find comfort in their lives in the Circle. They are protected from the demons that would exploit them. Some templars want to see the mages treated more justly, and help them escape from the Circle.  Both groups are constrained by convention and struggle to find peace within it, or else rebel against it.

4)      Fereldens escape the Blight only to find themselves at the mercy of a city that doesn’t want them and merchants who will exploit their desperation. These “dog lords” are treated as a “blight” of their own on the city of Kirkwall.

Which brings me to the biggest draw in terms of the story, and that’s the illusion of freedom versus the reality of tyranny.

Now, some folks be complainin’ that this new game doesn’t afford the freedom to choose your own destiny in quite the same fashion as the first game, or rather that it limits our ability to create a character that’s uniquely ours. This is, of course, utter balderdash. Even taking into consideration how much freedom Origins gave you to create your own Grey Warden, the choices were still finite, and the responses you got from NPCs were still predetermined. The illusion of player control was just subtler.

Some of that is lost in Dragon Age II, but in exchange we’re presented a story that deals head on with choice versus destiny. Flemeth even states as much explicitly at the start of the game when she says she can never decide if something is chance or destiny.

Every single character in the game affects someone else’s “destiny” and the story concerns how each character responds to that control. Some seek to exploit a situation not of their making and other seek to seize the moment and create their own personal fortunes (Isabella and Varric is a perfect examples). Some seek to maintain control, or even gain more control, over the lives of others. Some decisions are made for the greater good, despite the cost to human life and liberty in the short-term.

Ultimately, the player’s decisions affect not just their own path but the lives of everyone around them. Hawke becomes a central figure in the story because through many seemingly small decisions throughout the game, the character shapes how much control or influence other people have on their own destinies and those of the people around them. Again, it’s cumulative.

Game developers BioWare are known for making games that force the player to make some incredibly difficult moral decisions (Mass Effect II’s big question about whether or not to cure the genophage springs to mind—yikes!). You can follow your gut, and try to do the right thing, but sometimes this doesn’t reward you with a beneficial outcome. The stakes are much higher in Dragon Age II for some of the decisions you make, and those decisions are made all the more challenging by the fact that the writers of the game have provided some legitimacy to every view point.

I’ve read some critiques that the game makes it difficult to side with the mages in the conflict between them and the templars, based on the evidence that at some point or another every mage turns out to be involved in something shady or resort to Blood Magic, the series’ own form of black magic. I believe the balance is there, nonetheless.

It’s true that most of the mages you encounter do rebel against authority or attempt to seize power for themselves. It’s also true, however, that mages are victims of a conspiracy to lobotomize them from their dreams and emotions, and are confined to a frickin’ former prison if they want to live; mages who attempt to free themselves of the circle are branded malificar and are hunted down and killed—regardless of the mages motives for leaving.

We do encounter some templars sympathetic to their plight, and this stems from the fact that the mages *deserve* some sympathy. They did not choose to pursue magic, or to be particularly susceptible to demonic influence because of their nature. These are people born into a condition that makes them extremely powerful, and they must live their entire lives either confined or hunted because of it. A few times, mages are referred to in impersonal terms as “weapons,” but they are people first—victims of their own nature. I’d suggest that if you don’t get a chill down your spine when you see the army of templars under Meredith’s command brutally hacking their way through mages in the Keep, you are made of colder stuff than I, McDuff.

I’d argue that making so many mages in the game dangerous only balances things a little better and makes the players’ decisions more difficult. In Origins, siding with the mages is more or less presented as the right thing to do. Dragon Age makes the decision much more difficult, and therefore more interesting. We learn in Origins, for example, that mages can be possessed by demons from the Fade and that makes them dangerous, but it isn’t until Dragon Age II that we learn such possessions don’t usually come from conscious deals made with the demons so much as an inherent vulnerability in mages because of their connection to the Fade. In dreams, mages are open to influence and even a noble mage can be taken over in a moment of weakness if they let their guard down. This makes the templars’ and Chantry’s fears far more understandable. They have good reason to fear what would happen if mages went unchecked and unwatched.

When Anders sparks the war between mages and templars and puts the Chantry in the middle, he does so because he thinks this system is broken and it leads to abuses on both sides. He believes that more mages turn to Blood Magic and become Abominations because of their oppression then they would if they were given the same freedoms as everyone else. Of course, this belief has some evidence that denies its validity, namely the Teventer Imperium.

At some point, the series will take us to the Imperium and we will see their crimes first hand. We will also see, I have no doubt, some evidence that gives some weight to their own positions regarding magic and authority. That’s the most rewarding aspect of the entire series, after all—it forces us to take sides when both sides have some legitimacy to their views. It leaves you second-guessing, and sometimes feeling a little dirty.

Even if Anders had good intentions, his actions are horrific. Depending on how you play the game, the player may find themselves in the same boat, forced to take actions that are deplorable and cruel in the interim in the hope that some greater good will come of it. Or you can simply look out for yourself, and let the chips fall where they may. Either path takes you head-first into the maelstrom, where Hawke must confront a new world where war has erupted and lives can be ruined in the blink of an eye.

Of course, beyond even this, there is…something brewing. For all the chaos unleashed in Dragon Age II, what really may be the most important story point is that while Thedas is now at war with itself, something else waits in the wings to exploit the situation. Something very old…and very dangerous.

So, yeah, there’s a lot to love in Dragon Age II. It’s gorgeous to look at (although not quite the kaleidoscope of Technicolor grotesqueries that Awakening was), the action can be super awesome, and there are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments in the dialogue (“Did he…arl your eamon?”). Mix all that together, and you have an experience that transcends the game’s shortcomings to become something really special.

21 responses to “Dragon Age II

  1. Pingback: Hey kid, have you played Dragon Age II yet? « The Human Torch Was Denied A Bank Loan

  2. Wow, fantastic write-up! By the time it ends, it’s amazing how, as you mentioned, the cumulative effect works. Seeing repercussions of things you did and choices you made years prior is fantastic.

    On successive playthroughs, it becomes difficult not to meta-game, especially when it comes to Anders. I hated discovering that he’d completely used me and exploited our friendship on my first play- it makes it more difficult to even bother doing his quests, since I know the end result. I don’t want any hand in his actions…but then, my *character* wouldn’t know what he’s actually up to…

    I would like to do a playthrough siding with the Templars ALL the time, not just at the end- not letting the Starkhaven mages escape, etc. It’ll be tough because my sympathies are definitely with the mages, no matter what some of them have done to my Hawke personally, even (MOM!).

    I love that the game is so GREY. I despise what Anders did, but I get it. I get Meredith (up until CRAZY, that is). I think Merrill doesn’t fully understand the risks in what she’s doing, but I help her anyway. It’s all wonderfully depressing. :D

    • Thank you so much – I’m almost ashamed to admit it took me so long to get this out of my system, and it could probably use a good pruning.
      Anyway, on my mage play-through I’m romancing Anders and when he says that bit about the ritual that will get rid of Justice I literally yelled at my TV, “Oh, you dirty LIAR!” LOL. I think my broken heart would lead me to do him in this time around. :)
      It would be very interesting to play totally Templar sympathetic throughout the game and see how things change. Obviously, Bethany would have a very hard time with just about everything you do, I imagine. And Merrill? Forget it. But how does someone like Varric take to a totally pro-Templar playthrough?
      I flipped through the official strategy guide and was delighted to see how many little quests and encounters I haven’t had yet!

  3. Pingback: Junkpile – 4.10.11 « The Human Torch Was Denied A Bank Loan

  4. Thank you for such an excellent, thoughtful writeup! In the end, one of the things that I really loved about DA2 was the moral grey areas – I prefer storytelling that doesn’t wrap everything up with nice happy bows, and Bioware certainly delivered in that regard. I romanced Anders in my first runthrough and (probably thanks to the sleep dep from playing till all hours of the night) didn’t see the huge hammer of foreshadowing coming, and wow, was his big Chantry moment jaw-dropping. Whatever else can be argued about Anders, I don’t think a game has ever stunned me quite so thoroughly.

    • Thanks for the comment! You’re absolutely right – the grey areas make this series so much more interesting. In Origins, they essentially have you spend 50 hrs walking in your character’s shoes before dropping the bomb on you that the only way you (and Alistair) can survive the game is if you take Morrigan up on her offer; it essentially forces you to make a selfish choice versus an altruistic one, because I don’t think any sane person would believe it’s a good idea to give Morrigan an Elder God baby to raise as she sees fit. :)
      DAII makes it even more complicated because now the entire story is about choosing sides in a conflict that really has no obvious *right* and *wrong* position – just extremists who represent the worst of both sides. It’s utterly fascinating.

  5. Great write-up! I’ve been meaning to put together one of my own (outside of the incoherent notes I took during my playthroughs, that is), but I have a few close friends who haven’t made it to the end yet and I’d die if I spoiled it for them. :)

    A few comments:

    “2) The new inventory system is for the birds. For me, micro-managing my companions’ armor and weapons was a big draw in the first game, and here the process has been simplified to the point where it feels utterly arbitrary.”

    I also found myself reacting quite negatively to the restricted inventory system, as I take great pleasure in providing my party members with better gear throughout games like these. My initial reaction was that it removed a method of bonding with them—in games that enable the player to micro-manage party inventories, I invariably spend my time on the lookout for new, cool things I can give to them. In a sense I’m providing for them, and it feels good when, as result of my efforts, they are better at combat, better healers, or just die less. It is a tangible manifestation of one’s effort’s, no?

    I believe one of the load-screen tooltips mentions that your party members are of their own minds and will wear what they choose. As a conceptual justification of this gameplay mechanic, I found my interest piqued: indeed, all of my party members had strong personalities and even stronger beliefs. But I feel like the designers just didn’t commit to the concept. I could still (for the most part … lookin’ at you, Varric) micro-manage my party members’ weapons and accessories, leading me to believe that this decision was possibly made first on purely aesthetic reasons and later justified with a flimsy, half-supported concept. Nothing was more frustrating than trying to buy into the whole “they wear what they want” concept when their armor ratings were so tremendously below mine, all because I hadn’t found their armor upgrades. Of their own minds, indeed.

    But how interesting it might be to have a system wherein your party members actively seek armor and weapon upgrades as you do, or even finding ways to improve their more sentimental pieces of equipment. Or to even have narrative that supports the idea that a companion may be seeking new equipment because they know they get spanked in battle a lot. The impression that I got was that Bioware was attempting to strengthen the personality of each NPC, but the expression of that through the inventory system was perhaps never fully realized. Okay, now that I’ve got my gears turning on that …

    “Regardless of whether his motives were understandable, his methods are undeniably abhorrent. The game casts it in an even harsher light by making the player the unwitting accomplice in Anders’ act of mass murder.”

    This was such a significant moment for me. I, too, was completely blinded by my hope that Anders was … well, still Anders. When he said that he had a lead on separating himself from Justice, I truly believed him. And similarly, at the point he asks that you distract the Grand Cleric, admittedly my heart began to sink, but I was still ultimately blinded by the hope that this man, who I had come to respect and whose viewpoints I had taken as my own, would ultimately do the right thing.

    But instead I was lied to and betrayed. I can’t remember the last time I was blatantly lied to in a game, at least in this fashion. Interestingly, it was the fact that collecting the ingredients was a legitimate quest that solidified my faith in Anders at that point. As a player, I could see the objective plainly in my journal. How on earth could that be a lie? I found this to be an incredible example of gameplay, theme, and story all working together to reinforce an experience.

    Playing it a second time was even more interesting. Anders may omit information, but essentially he does not lie. When asked about the process, he says, “I just need to mix the ingredients together and … boom. Justice and I will be free. Then we can take our place with the free mages.” This reinforced for me just how blinded I had been during my first playthrough. Like you, even after all he’d done, I could not kill him.

    I was surprised to not read about the confrontation with the Arishok in this essay. What were your thoughts on it? How did it play out for you? For me, it ended up being one of the most significant moments of my second playthrough.
    Okay, seriously, I could talk about this forever. If you ever want to wax philosophical, hit me up. ;)

    • Hey Ali – thanks for the great reply!
      I didn’t write about the business with the Arishok more out of a desire on my part to play it through a second time to get a better appreciation of that part – my first time around, I didn’t get Isabelle on my team! I know, crazy right? I just didn’t go to the Hanged Man at the right time and so I lost out on that entire aspect of the game. I agree, though, it does deserve a write up on its own, because the Qunari religion/philosophy is really important in the game.

      I couldn’t agree more with any of the other parts of your post, really. I loved micromanaging my party in Origins – in fact, who hasn’t had fun having the team stand around the fire in the underwear? Or is that just me? :) And you’re right – it does serve to bond you to your team. I don’t know why that is, but it certainly makes you feel more responsible for them – like you aren’t just responsible for your PC but all these other characters as well. You get more invested in their futures because you spend 50 hrs dressing them and giving them gifts and pulling stories from them.

      It wouldn’t be so bad if their appearance changed with the few upgrades you can buy them, but I couldn’t see any difference myself. How my party (and my character) look is a big draw for me, as silly as it sounds. For example, one of my favorite parts of playing as a female mage in DAII was the awesome robes you get to wear. I would have loved to been able to get Anders in something different, for example.

      As for Anders, I had the exact same reaction you did. On my mage play-through, I saw some of the dialog stuff you pulled out and, like you, it really hit me that he hints at what he’s going to do *alot*. There’s just no way to see some of that as foreshadowing until you see how it all plays out though.

      • Do you plan on doing a separate write-up on the Qunari? I’m sure it’d be a great read, and I’d love to compare notes. :)

        The point you raise about having your party stand around in their underwear is an excellent example about why the DA2 designers probably went the route they did with clothing (and no, you certainly weren’t the only one. How could anyone resist?). :) In a game that is so character-driven, what does it serve the story and character development to give the player the ability to strip down their party and have them awkwardly stand around a fire? It’s great for some laughs, sure, but it breaks emersion. Conversely, and perhaps unexpectedly, it also breaks emersion to take away that bond we previously had with our characters by removing the mechanic. And strangely, it doesn’t seem help at all to have a hybrid of the two (e.g. taking away the ability to change out armor but keeping weapons/accessories) because it conflicts with the rationale that your party members control what they wear. Moral of the story: something is amiss!

        Undoubtedly, the DA2 designers wanted to control the tone in the game, as it was imperative to the successful delivery of the story. Anders clearly couldn’t thump his staff at Orsino and Meredith and speak of no-compromise with any sort of effectiveness in his undies, could he? But in any situation where you take away control a player once had (or indeed, control at all), you risk disruptive results. Tightening control over gameplay might increase the likelihood of successfully delivering the experience you’re trying to convey to a player, but it does not guarantee it.

        I didn’t notice any changes really at all with the armor upgrades, which I also found to be a bummer. Perhaps that could have helped to quench our thirsts for seeing the product of our companion-related efforts in locating the stupid upgrades, eh? Costumes and the like always astound me, because they seem so superfluous, but are truthfully quite significant. Like you said before, they allow us to invest in our characters. That character has because /we/ gave it to them, and thus is representative of our effect on their lives. Not being able to see that in Anders, for example, was a missed opportunity on the part of the DA2 designers.

        Thanks for your time, Sean. :)

      • No, thank you! Those are some really great points about the give-and-take the designers considered (or didn’t consider) in making the story more, if not restrictive, then certainly more focused. I mentioned this in my essay, but it does reflect a certain Japanese-style game approach to narrative, where the game isn’t meant to be an open-ended free-world play, but more an opportunity for a player to assume a role in someone else’s story – like becoming a character in a story being told to you rather than creating the story yourself. It’s a subtle distinction, mainly because it really does boil down to how much effort the designers want to go into to create the illusion of control for the player, i.e., whether or not they want the player to fee that they are creating the story themselves, as was obviously the case in Origins. It’s all a hat-trick, of course – everything is scripted and plotted and programed, which is why I laugh when people say that they could create their own destiny in Origins. The only thing you could control is which of the twelve-or-so of the game’s outcomes you ended up with. For DAII, the designers obviously felt it was far more important to spend their limited time and energy creating a compelling (at least for some of us) narrative rather than scripting out more variations on the game’s ending. I think, as you say, the downside is that you *do* lose the sense of…well, possession that players get in Origins. That illusion of control creates a powerful sense of the game ‘belonging’ to each player – that’s ‘their’ warden, ‘their’ Alistair, etc. Which is why, I think, so many Origins fans have really rebelled against DAII, because it doesn’t feel like the player ever gets to make the game ‘theirs.’
        You say it perfectly : “Tightening control over gameplay might increase the likelihood of successfully delivering the experience you’re trying to convey to a player, but it does not guarantee it.” In an effort to manage the player experience to better convey the nuances of the story’s themes and issues, the game’s makers run the risk of losing that vital connection to the game that Origins players had by virtue of it’s more liberal and forgiving game play.
        What’s the solution? How do you create that perfect sense of immersion while still controlling the narrative enough to get across the more subtle aspects of the story? I think Mass Effect II has some of the same issues – really terrific game, but as a player, it feels like I’m being led through the story rather than creating my own way through it. I think DAII has that same quality to it. At that point, it really does live or die on how compelling and interesting the story you’re being guided through is, because you don’t even have the customization of the world and your party to fall back on for diversion/enjoyment, if that makes sense.

  6. Doh, some of my text got mistaken for a tag. :)

    That character has (insert outfit or accessory here) because /we/ gave it to them, and thus is representative of our effect on their lives.

    There we go. ;)

  7. I think the outfit deal bothered me the most from act to act. Okay, if we’re going with the conceit of the companions living their own lives and dressing themselves, I can dig that. They do go off on their own when they’re not with me, and they clearly interact with each other when I’m not around. But…they don’t change outfits over the course of a decade??

    The passage of time is odd in the game, especially since so many years pass between acts- it certainly doesn’t feel like it. You read the codex and find out a bit more about what every one is doing, but the characters themselves don’t feel that changed by the years. A change of clothes and maybe minor appearance tweaks- hair, or something- would help drive the point home, I think.

    Both Merrill and Isabela change outfits after you sleep with them, but it just *happens* without comment. Merrill’s outfit is markedly different (and really nice, too), while Isabela gets a black corset and some other changes (it’s bugged, though, so you have to have her use a Maker’s Sigh and re-do all her stats if you want to see it).

    I’m on a play through right now and I’m noticing how difficult it is NOT to meta-game. The first time I played I brought Bethany to the Deep Roads- I’d brought her *EVERYWHERE*- and she died and I was gutted. Now that I know about other options, what do I do? Do I, as a player, take Anders as well or leave her behind? Or do I take her knowing she’ll die? Stuff like that, or Anders’s quests. It’s tough to forget everything you know and sort of try to have a pure playthrough for that specific Hawke.

    It does help that they change your dialogue according to some algorithm or some such, depending on what style of answers you choose early on. If the majority of your choices are the jokey/charming (purple) responses, that will flavor ALL of Hawke’s dialogue, including lines you don’t have control over. At least it helps make each Hawke feel a bit different.

    Still haven’t managed one where I’ve sided with the Templars ALL the way through for the Achievement, though. It never feels right! :D

    • I *just* started a play-through last night as a lady, custom Hawke warrior with the intent of being a complete hard-ass through the whole game (and selling out Isabelle and maybe – maybe – even siding with the Templars[!]). Biggest problem so far is that even the decision to be as stern as possible is subject to metagaming through certain interactions because the hardline is out of character with other, previous responses. Example: Hardline response to the wounded templar guy is “Just so you know, I stand with my sister.” – later, after talking to Bartrand, hardline response to Bethany is something along the lines of blaming her for the Templars being on their tail. True, my lady warrior may be just feeling grumpy that day, but it still *feels* out of character to stand by Bethany one moment and then turn on her “the next.”
      In other words, the game makes it impossible to always be stern or aggressive, because the actual content of those choices can conflict with a more cohesive characterization, if that makes any sense.
      Luckily, as you point out, the software gives even your softer responses a harder edge after a short amount of time.

      I definitely metagamed my second run after losing Bethany in the Deep Roads my first time around. Second play-though was my female mage and I kept Carver home (no big loss either way, really). What’s odd is that there’s no way to save your mom. I mean, you can save Carver/Bethany depending on what decisions you make, but her fate is sealed.

      As for the clothing thing, it never really bugged me how their outfits don’t change over seven years but now that you mention it, it’s really goofy. Hell, I changed clothes on my female mage depending on what part of frickin’ town I was wandering around in. LOL.

  8. Ten years is a LONG time in someone’s life, but it never feels much like it in the game- I think the outfits would be an easy way to help that. Act to act, I just have to *get* that three more years have passed because Varric says so. If the characters aged a bit, or, say, Merrill’s hair grows out some by Act III or Aveline changes her headband or something… :D It would help the immersion, especially since the surroundings don’t change. I like that they acknowledge it in the brothel, though- in some Act III (I think) ambient dialogue, someone comments how they’re thinking of getting a haircut and someone else responds, essentially, “You should- you’ve had the same hairstyle for seven years!”

    I mean, as a mage the outfits allow for arm visibility and I noticed that by Act III, Hawke has a tattoo. I don’t need to see the trip to the tat parlor, but what’s the tattoo? What does it mean? What if I wanted a heart that says MOM instead?? :D

  9. Okay, that made me laugh. I’d put an “In Memory of Carver” sticker on the back of my Ford F-150 (next to the sticker for Dale Earnhardt), except that I HATE CARVER. I mean, I *get* the attitude, but…euggh. When it comes to him, it’s when I love meta-gaming. He’s always left to rot in the Deep Roads. :D

    “Bit of a tit, your brother.”

    • Oh, Carver’s the WORST, and I *love* how every companion tells him how insufferable he is. Thats the only thing that makes his presence bearable.

      Thing is, I’m getting tired of how shallow Bethany is too – I mean, have you actually listened to that girl? It’s always “family fortune” this and “family estate” that. I mean, how did the Hawkes raise these damn children?

  10. I believe I just had an apostrophe. (/Hook/, anyone?)

    Your point about a more Japanese-style approach is dead-on, and one whose significance hadn’t fully taken root in my brain until now. Indeed, on the surface, the largest difference between DA:O and DA2 is the assumed roll of Hawke, and the fact that, as you say, we are being led through his/her story through witnessing his/her affect on Kirkwall. I’d like to take your points, and our previously discussed items, even further though. Everything is connected! :)

    DA:O and DA2 are equally rigid stories. Regardless of the choices we make throughout the game, we cannot stop certain events from playing out, and this is openly accepted as the “core plot”. The archdemon will be slain just as assuredly as Anders will blow up the chantry. The concept of controlling one’s destiny is just as flimsy in DA2 as it is in DA:O, as you say, because one is just as scripted and designed as the other. But having said that, I am beginning to understand why those who say that they could “create their own destiny” in Dragon Age: Origins where they could not in Dragon Age 2. It’s not choice or control that are really the problems here. It’s not the fact that DA:O had numerous endings where DA2 had (a few flavors of) one. The issue here is delivery: one story chooses to focus on events, and the other on character and setting.

    Let’s look at our avatars as an example.

    The Hero of Ferelden had:
    • no default appearance or gender;
    • no voice;
    • no categorized response options;
    • no predetermined background.

    Hawke had:
    • a Shepard-like default appearance and gender;
    • one of two voices;
    • categorical personality (serious/goofy/angry)
    • a background and family.

    And for the most part, these items are of no consequence in the first game. Ultimately, does it matter whether you were a dwarf noble or a human commoner? Did your dialog options really matter at all? Did you really matter? I don’t think so. Dragon Age: Origins isn’t /about/ the Hero of Ferelden, after all, it’s about the Blight and the defeat of the archdemon. Conversely, Dragon Age 2 is about /Hawke/. I’m reminded of some negative critique I’ve heard about Dragon Age 2’s plot (some of which I think you mention): that it meandered, that the passage of time was jarring, that players couldn’t see a /point/ to the game events leading up to the finale. I think it can be reasoned that if you missed the change of focus in story delivery, then of course you’d miss the significance of the 100 sheets of thin, almost clear (but slightly tinted) film. You weren’t looking for color, after all.

    On the subject of lack of color, Dragon Age: Origins essentially had more negative space, to borrow the art term, whereas Dragon Age 2 painted a much richer, more detailed picture. In DA:O, where there was absence of information, the player can bring themselves into the game and fill in the gaps with their own imaginations. But in Dragon Age 2, we have opportunity for much more /guaranteed/ powerful moments because of how Hawke is established. We can feel what Hawke feels when her mother dies because we know how significant family is to her, and that moment is undeniably powerful. If Anders was romanced, or even befriended in our playthroughs, we can feel our hearts break with Hawke’s as she asks, “Anders, what have you done?” in the game’s finale.

    This is not without consequence. You and I both admitted to being off-put by the new inventory system, because it removed a method that we used to bond with our characters and replaced it with something that, though well-intentioned, was not as satisfying. Stacie also weighed in here: it broke emersion to watch as these characters remain unchanged over so many supposed years. We liked providing for our companions because it felt like a method of caring for them, and a method for expressing ourselves in the game world. Those who valued /their/ Hero of Ferelden and who expected to play Dragon Age 2 as pieces of /themselves/, rather as this entity known as Hawke, were bound for a rude awakening.

    The plot delivery did this phenomenon no favors. Varric, our trusty narrator, already knows the outcome of the game before we start. Everything points to the story as being predestined. Where, indeed, is our choice? :)

    What’s the solution? If we could determine that, I imagine we’d both be doing quite well as game designers. :) It seems to me to be kind of a give-and-take between what can be considered “linear” and “sandbox” gaming. I’ve read write-ups of /remarkable/ game experiences in games like Red Dead Redemption and Fallout: New Vegas, but I can guarantee you that these experiences were more emergent than designed (This one in particular is great: http://alivetinyworld.wordpress.com/2011/03/30/the-new-vegas-diaries-boone/) . They are no less significant, mind you, and in fact can be much more powerful than any experience a designer can offer you. Love Mass Effect 2 though I did, I ultimately felt luke-warm about the game because, like you, I felt I was being led through a story that I couldn’t possibly have an effect on. But that’s a whole Pandora’s Box of issues, and this is getting stupidly long as it is. :)

    Why did Dragon Age 2 work for me more than Mass Effect 2? I’ll have to think on that some. This was fun. Thanks. ;)

    • DA:O and DA2 are equally rigid stories. Regardless of the choices we make throughout the game, we cannot stop certain events from playing out, and this is openly accepted as the “core plot”. The archdemon will be slain just as assuredly as Anders will blow up the chantry. The concept of controlling one’s destiny is just as flimsy in DA2 as it is in DA:O, as you say, because one is just as scripted and designed as the other.

      That articulates what I’ve been trying to say perfectly. In fact, Ali, your entire comment really nails – so – many things I’ve been struggling to articulate about DAII and why I find it so rewarding (and at times perplexing and, yes, frustrating). I’m so glad I wrote my post; the past few days have provided some really terrific conversation!

      Anyway, I find this whole concept of player choice/control utterly intriguing. Take the Sandbox approach of the Sims, for example – or even, if we want to go there, a virtual reality like SecondLife – these have rabid followers who have aren’t traditional gamers. They want to build an alternate reality, an alternate life *they* can control. But even this is limited by programming. The software prohibits them from 100% total freedom. Just like how in real life we can’t just jump up in the sky and fly whenever we want – there *are* rules. The next thing would be something like WoW, I suppose, which is even more limiting, but still full of free-range, come-and-go-as-ya-please play and customization. I have zero experience playing WoW, so I’m going entirely second hand here, but this strikes me as an experience not dissimilar to Grand Theft Auto or Oblivion, albeit in a more communal fashion, am I right? Still, here there are *quests* that have been scripted and specific story-based goals, even if there isn’t an overarching story. It’s a satisfying enough experience for many millions of gamers, some of whom have never played (and have no desire to play) anything else but WoW. The illusion of control here is obviously well maintained, as people feel they have a great investment in the character they have build and the world itself.
      Speaking of Grand Theft Auto, and from what I understand Red Dead Redemption – which I’m dying to play, but waiting to get used – is that there the appeal is not customizing your character but customizing your play experience in terms of having the freedom to go on *quests* when it suits you and having the option to do other things within the world, other NPC interactions, etc. in the meantime. I mean, I never finished bloody San Andreas because 75% of my time on that game I spent running around getting into trouble for a few laughs.
      It seems to me that Origins really tried to combine the GTA experience with WoW customization to create a witch’s brew of seemingly irresistible user-control. You had main quests but you could do ‘em when you wanted, and there were so many other things to do in the meantime, so many ways to interact with the world and make the game unique to your tastes…yet, as you pointed out it’s all still restricted by the parameters of the game’s design! What feels like total freedom is literally thousands of hours of programming from dozens and dozens of people, years of scripting and rescripting, hours of actors coming into the sound booth and recording every permeation of dialog – yet it’s still a finite number I’m talking here. Unlike WoW, Origins has had a few updates but it’s done. Fini. It’s a closed loop experience, no matter how many times you play it.

      DAII, like MEII, makes no pretense of being a Wow or GTA-like experience. Instead, they are story/character-driven games where guests are like chapters in a novel that we are reading. I think for many, the game play in MEII is more appealing because the quests feel more purposeful – you are doing things that feel like they’re contributing to your goal of stopping the reapers, even if it’s simply going to a planet to help one of your companions on their personal quest. It all feels like there’s a point to it all. In DAII, as we’ve both pointed out, the quests don’t necessarily feel like they’re connected to an overarching goal. They feel more like errands you’re running. The fact that they ultimately do matter in adding richness and depth to the story/experience is something I think alot of people miss.

      Anyway, I need to start watching the new episode of GoT before I get to work for my review later. Please feel free to add more. Your insights are really fascinating, and I’m so glad you’ve popped in to chat. :)

      • Thanks for all the great responses, as well! This has been a really fun back-and-forth! I don’t get to do stuff like this often, so the pleasure really has been all mine!

        After reading your post this morning before work, I popped over to Metacritic.com to peek at DA2’s ratings. Currently, they sit in the mid-80’s (critics) and low 4’s (users). After I picked my jaw up from off the floor, I found myself reflecting that I cannot remember a game I last saw with such disparate reviews. What is it about DA2 that is so polarizing?

        I feel like we might be moving towards the meat of the issue with the discussion of “linear” and “sandbox” games, and the concepts of control and choice that you mentioned previously. I let that stew over the course of my work-day, and it occurred to me that there might be a bigger contributing factor here: Ownership. Now, let’s see if I can make sense of this by first using a real-life example:

        I was recently moved far from my friends and family by my employer to work for a year, and was offered housing as part of the gig. I took very few possessions with me, but among the things I did bring were pieces of significant wall art, blankets, and pillows. By no means are these things necessities, but I set a remarkable amount of importance on ensuring that they traveled with me (and actually inconvenienced myself to a certain extent). The housing, which came furnished (and is quite beautiful), was a shell to me until my own pictures adorned the walls and my own blankets and pillows covered the bed. These simple things transformed the barren, generic space into /my/ house, though naturally I have no /material/ ownership of the space. It may not be mine, but part of it now represents who I am. It makes me feel /good/.

        At no point in Dragon Age 2 was there really any opportunity to /own/ Hawke. Despite the fact that she could look or sound different, or even be a “he”, the character Hawke was still her own entity with her own beliefs and her own life. As a player, we jumped in for a time and watched as events unfolded; we helped her build and make decisions and watched as she and her companions forever changed the face of Thedas. As I alluded to previously, our involvement in the story is actually somewhat inconsequential; the story of Hawke and her companions is already being told in the past tense through Varric’s interactions with the Seeker.

        But look at the Hero of Ferelden. Nameless, faceless, voiceless, background-less. The Hero of Ferelden is an empty glass to fill up with whatever we like: whether that’s a silly, ironic name or a deep, meaningful backstory. It doesn’t matter so much /what/ we chose but /that/ we chose, because in doing so we have inserted part of ourselves into the gamespace. That element, whatever it is, exists because of /us/, and it allows us /ownership/ of a piece of the game, no matter how insignificant it really is. This is part of the appeal and success of games like WoW, Minecraft, and even Fallout: New Vegas and Red Dead Redemption to a certain extent.

        You say that Origins appeared to have “a witch’s brew of seemingly irresistible user-control,” but I would argue that fundamentally Origins and DA2 are no different in their offerings of control or choice. You and I have established that the idea of choice and control in a video game like DA is fundamentally nothing but smoke and mirrors, which is natural, given that it is a just a piece of painstakingly designed software. No matter what, a game like Dragon Age (Origins or its sequel) is a nothing but a set of rules and finite outcomes. A closed-loop experience, as you say.

        So, the idea of ownership seems, therefore, key in our discussion, don’t you think?

        I, too, have a hard time playing and beating games like GTA, and maybe that’s significant. Maybe users like you and I don’t need to remodel before we feel comfortable in a new space; maybe we are just fine hanging a few pictures and being surrounded by the familiar smells of home as we sleep. And maybe those little things are exactly what we need to form powerful bonds and have meaningful experiences.

        Geez! This is stupid-long again! And it’s late! Thanks again for giving me so much to chew on. This continues to be a great mental exercise.

      • Oh, I agree 100% that there really isn’t any more control over your destiny in Origins. It just *seems* like there is because they give you all the nifty little “and then *this* happened…” post game stuff. I mean, Alistair says much the same dialog to you whether you are his wife-to-be or his blood brother, with the only nuance being he wants to take his girlfriend to bed as soon as possible.

        I think people were maybe expecting a game that “felt” more like Origins than DAII does, but what exactly that means differs from person to person. Some folks really seem hung up on the changes in the combat system, while other people are pissed that the story is structured the way it is. I think it goes without saying that DAII is a departure, but as you point out, not so much of a departure that it should inspire the sheer volume of vehement detractors it has apparently earned in the gaming community.

        I think the game offers enough customization, but it *would* be neat to have as much as we found in Origins. But as you pointed out, that level of customization simply isn’t possible with the controlled narrative they used in DAII. Well, I should say, it wouldn’t be possible in the time they had to get the game out the door. If they had another two years and how ever many thousands of dollars more, they might have been able to swing both Origins style customization *and* a really tight, thematically charged controlled narrative. But even then, would that investment have been worth the time and money to satisfy a contingent of people who obviously just wanted what would have been a 50 hr Origins expansion pack – same game play, same characters, just new environments and bosses? That’s how I read some of this anyway.

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