Apr 4 2011 4:06pm
No One Thinks About Well Thought Out Worlds: Playing Dragon Age 2

Dragon Age: Origins was a fantastic game and first entry in this series, telling the story of a persecuted survivor attempting to hold back a literal horde of evil while uniting a country. The plot revolved around an epic war with a backstory of betrayal and intrigue, and though there were a few flaws, the story was exciting and well told.

The sophomore entry in the series is on a scale both grander and smaller: this time you play as a refugee from one of the first towns destroyed in Origins who flees with his or her family to the city-state of Kirkwall. The game takes place only in Kirkwall and the surrounding area over the course of a decade. City politics and intrigue are the backdrop here, and in many ways, Dragon Age 2 is a great success, but it can be incredibly frustrating at times, too, as your realize that many of your choices have very little effect on anything, and many of the characters aren’t so much people are they are ideas.

But first the good: this is a good story. It’s at times truly disturbing and at times really emotional, and it always feels like it’s moving forward, even in the beginning when your basic goal is just to gather money by doing a lot of little quests. The time jumps work fine thanks to a clever framing mechanism—a conversation between an old traveling companion of yours and someone looking for you—and the dialogue is insightful and funny, especially the dialogue among your companions when they’re following you around.

One particularly human, brutal conversation is between your brother and the city guard Aveline, when when the former asks why he wasn’t accepted into the guards. Aveline tells him he seems a little lost, like he’s not sure what he wants to do, and that can be dangerous for a guardsman. She sounds sad when she’s saying it, but she clearly believes it. The conversation ends when your brother says to her “you told them not to take me, didn’t you?” and Aveline says simply “yes.” It’s a beautiful, sad moment that really expresses a lot about both the characters.

And your character—called simply by his/her last name, Hawke, or sometimes called The Champion—can be different from game to game based on how you choose to respond to things. There are something like twenty types of responses in conversation. But normally you only have to choose from three options; tactful, joking, or blunt. The funny lines are often funny, too, which is nice to see. Depending on how you make your choices, your character starts behaving that way even when you don’t select. Early on, when you encounter a dwarf named Worthy who crafts runes, your character will respond in one of three ways even without your input. If you’re generally tactful, your character will step forward and eagerly shake Worthy’s hand, calling him an old friend. If you’re playing as the funny-man, you say “Worthy, the dwarf with the funny name,” and if you’re more the blunt type, when Worthy says it’s been too long, you say “not long enough.” Details like this really help you feel like you’re building your character and controlling the world.

Unfortunately, you don’t always feel this way. As mentioned, many of the characters can come across as ideas more than people. Your sibling (whether you have a brother or sister depends on your class) is fully drawn out, and fascinating. Play as a mage, and your brother is a warrior who resents you for always forcing the family to flee the Templars. (Mages are raised in The Circle, guarded by Templars, so that they don’t succumb to demons or blood magic. Unfortunately, Templars can become more prison guards than bodyguards.) If you’re a rogue or warrior, your mage sister appreciates you for always protecting her from the Templars. These relationships are the most real and dynamic, especially as choices you make (although not choices about how to treat your sibling) change your sibling’s fate.

Varrik the dwarvish rogue who tells your story in the plot frame, is always amusing, and feels like a genuine friend. After them, though, your various companion characters start to get a little shallow. Aveline, the guard, doesn’t like it when you break the law, even if it’s sometimes for the right reasons, but she’s one of the more well-painted characters and her sidequest takes a hysterical trip into the romantic comedy genre that had me laughing aloud at how unexpected and well done it was.

Then we get to Anders, who is a mage, and doesn’t like the Templars for treating the mages like slaves. Fair enough, but Anders can’t be reasoned with. Meet a nice Templar and he’ll still hate them all. On the flip side is Fenris, a former slave of the corrupt wizards of Tevinter. He hates all mages, despite the obvious irony apparent when the mages are locked up and treated like the slave he once was. Fenris’s lack of depth really bothered me in this regard—he seemed to be just the idea of “mages are bad” without conceding to any of the complexities of the world which is so lovingly and brilliantly drawn. Merrill the Dalish wizard is convinced that it’s okay to use blood magic as long as it’s for her people. Mind you, her people don’t agree, but argue with her all you like, she’s not going to give in or change at all until the end of her plotline.

And that’s the overall problem with the companion characters—none of them change. They’re static. I understand that in many cases, being able to successfully argue them down would change the overarching plot and require a different third act, and would be much more complicated to make happen, but they just feel so out of place and simplistic in such a multifaceted, well-thought out and -wrought world. It’s a real pity that the characters are so fanatical as to be unable to acknowledge the complexities of the world they inhabit. And yes, you can change at least one of them a little (although it requires having sex with her, I believe, which is…a little weird. My character’s lady or gentleman parts should not have the power to realign someone’s moral compass), but one isn’t enough, especially when the ones you can’t argue with go to some pretty intense extremes.

Overall, it’s a great game, a fantastic world, beautifully rendered in history and tone. But sometimes, it felt as though I was just banging my head on the wall, trying to get the crazy people I was traveling with to just budge a little on their views. True, sane people don’t make for as easy drama, and even in real life, there are fanatics you can’t reason with. It just seems a real loss in a game like this, where it feels like you can change so much, that you really can’t change anything important.

Lev Rosen’s first novel, All Men of Genius, will be released in September. In the meantime, he plays video games when he should be editing.

Pam K
1. PamK
So, in my game, Fenris seemed to change a lot. No, he never became pro-magic, but IMO it would have been unrealistic for him to have done so. However, he did evolve from a traumatized dude who hated everybody and everything (and especially mages) to a guy who valued his relationships with his friends more than he did his hatred of magic. (And he even admitted that Bethany was a positive example of what mages should be.) To me, that less-extreme development felt more significant than a full-fledged conversion would have. It was a development that took a LOT of effort and nurturing on my part, since I was playing a mage sympthiser.

As for Anders, well, he also changed over the course of the game, but you're right that he didn't change in a way that could be affected by the player.

All in all, I liked that the NPCs were less tractable than in other Bioware games. It always bothered me that Sten--who spends so much of his dialog time going on about how evil and dangerous magic is--was BFFs with my necromancer blood mage Warden, who never exited a combat without the ambulatory corpse of one of his enemies trailing behind him...
Marcus W
2. toryx
When I first heard that a sequel was being made I was really excited. But most of the things I've heard had led me to decide not to buy it. It seems that a lot of the changes made to the game removed the things I liked most about it.

I may still have to buy it someday (when it's discounted) for the story.
Lev Rosen
3. LevACRosen
That is excellent to know. I wrote this after my first full playthrough and some fooling around with other types of characters, but during my second full playthrough, I got Fenris to really like me - in the naked way - but I never heard him say anything positive about mages. He just kept in with 'well, I don't agree with you, but I love you,' which was sweet, certainly, but he didn't seem really changed. But if you did it, it must be doable. Maybe I just have to bring him on the right quests (second playthrough I didn't bring him when I knew I'd be helping mages) or play with the right balance.
Christopher Byler
4. Christopher Byler
Then we get to Anders, who is a mage, and doesn’t like the Templars for treating the mages like slaves. Fair enough, but Anders can’t be reasoned with. Meet a nice Templar and he’ll still hate them all.

I don't know which is more unlikely: that Alistair shows up in the sequel, or that there is a second nice Templar in Ferelden. (And technically, Alistair is an ex-Templar.)

Hostility to all mages based on the actions of some mages is bigotry. That's how bigotry works, defining people based on their membership in a class rather than by their individual actions. That's why a nice Templar is about as likely as a nice Klansman.

A Templar who's nice to nonmages, though, that's easy.

And yes, you can change at least one of them a little (although it requires having sex with her, I believe, which is…a little weird. My character’s lady or gentleman parts should not have the power to realign someone’s moral compass)

Relationships change people in real life, too. Although a sufficiently strong emotional connection would usually have a similar effect without the actual sex.
Sacha G
5. Fortune_Prick_Me
I'm having a hard time rating this game on the BioWare scale of Planescape:Torment (great) - NWN:Shadows of Undrentide (yawn). I think that BW did a good job of CYA by having the story related by an biased observer, that way they can cover any fallacies, exagerated NPC personalities or eventual retconned events by saying, "Varric got it wrong". Similar to Robert Jordan using the concept of taveren to hand wave any unlikely events... If Anders never gets any character depth, that's because Varric is telling a story, with hindsight, colored by his perception of that character.

Personally, when playing, I don't buy my own explanation though. I can't reconcile my blood magic-using Hawke being fast friends with the Captain of the Guard, let alone Fenris, just because I helped them resolve some personal issues. I completely agree with the characters being more ideas than anything else. This is one of the rare games that made me hesitate when choosing a reply to an NPC (e.g. execute or bring to trial a serial killer), since it's not always good/evil. I think the character archetypes give us more guidance as to who do we, as the player, identify with more. We've got individual freedom at all cost vs civil rule (which seems to be the underlying epic quest) and separate poles within that struggle that pit mages vs templars with many examples of both being odious. I had to think about some choices I made and it made me question my stance on some views.

So kudos to BW for making me think, but I do wish that I could have seen some of my party acknowledge that my decisions changed their minds.
Pam K
6. PamK

Well, again, he never actually became pro-magic; he just got to a point where he was willing to admit that (a) some rare mages--such as Bethany--may have the strength of character to resist temptation into evil, and (b) the Kirkwall Templars' treatment of the mages was indeed analogous to slavery, and therefore not 100% morally defensable. IIRC the Bethany comment came up in inter-party dialog, so a lot of conditions would have had to have been met in order to trigger it (e.g having made certain plot decisions, having the right characters in the party at the right time, having the right relationship polarity). I am not even sure what conditions you need to trigger the conversation about slavery--I didn't see it during my game, but I heard about it from several friends. I think it might require you to have him in your party during a particular quest, and/or choose a particular dialog option.

So, it is certainly arguable that the game doesn't offer sufficient evidence of character development! That is frequently a difficulty with RPGs, that one's perception of events can depend a lot on unknown conditions that may or may not be met.

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