March 22, 2011
This post contains spoilers for both Dragon Age games.
Judging by the reactions I’ve read, I’m in the scant minority of players who not only enjoyed Dragon Age II but preferred it to the original. I thought I would try to explain why.
I wrote this at the end of 2009, after finishing Origins:
In most RPGs, I either fall in love with the narrative elements (the story, the characters, the plot) or the mechanical elements (the classes, the combat, the strategizing). Even in games where the two are particularly well-integrated, the dichotomy still exists in my head and I invariably like one better. I then alter my playing style to maximize my experience with one at the expense of the other.
Dragon Age: Origins fell squarely in the first camp for me. I enjoyed the combat, and eventually even got pretty good at it, but the lengthy dungeons and tactical tweaking took a lot of time and effort. By the fifteen-hour mark I had dropped the difficulty to Easy so I could get through the dungeons faster and spend more time with my favorite part of the game: chatting up my companions.
It would be easy (and true) to say that I preferred Dragon Age II because of it was more of what I liked and less of what I didn’t, but I think that undersells what BioWare has done here. I found Dragon Age II more narratively sophisticated than Origins, and closer to what I think the series ought to aim for.
I argued last year that moral ambiguity lies at the core of the Dragon Age series. When at its best, it asks the player to make decisions where all of the choices seem unacceptable, whether because they will anger friends, betray allies, break laws, or allow some unscrupulous group to go unpunished. Getting anything accomplished requires accepting shades of grey, the consolation being that if you couldn’t do the right thing, you could try to do the least wrong thing.
Origins mostly got this right, but the writers were too sometimes too soft; some tough decisions can be circumvented with a third option that has little or no downside. You can get the Circle of Magi to intercede in Redcliffe and save both Connor and Isolde, for example, or you can break the werewolves’ curse instead of choosing between their genocide and the elves’. These alternatives were satisfying to discover (and I took them when I could because I always play goody two-shoes characters), but they felt like copouts nonetheless.
Dragon Age II, by contrast, is not in the business of providing happy third options. From a metagame perspective, it often refuses to even provide a second option. Anders will destroy the Chantry regardless of Hawke’s assistance; Marethari will submit to the demon whether she is warned of Merrill’s plan or not; Leandra will always die by Quentin’s hand before she can be rescued; and, most surprisingly, Meredith and Orsino must both be slain whether Hawke sides with the templars or the mages. You can “choose” what to do in these situations, but your decision makes no functional difference — they are all unavoidable tragedies.
The lack of meaningful choices when compared to Origins is a sticking point for a lot of fans — not only in the above situations but in (for example) the predetermined race and backstory for your character. Those are fair complaints, but I also think that it made for stronger and more focused writing. In a forum thread where fans were lamenting Leandra’s inevitable death, lead writer David Gaider had this to say:
If you’re of the opinion that every story should have an outcome that the player can directly control—I’m not going to argue with you. Not everyone is going to like that sort of tale, and certainly I think there’s a limited amount of that you can really do inside a game. But this is the sort of thinking that led to the “Save Everyone” option in the Redcliffe Quest, which ultimately became the quest option that everyone thought was the only “real” solution even though it was the least dramatic. I don’t really intend to do that again, and I’m not about to re-write it simply because some people feel uncomfortable about it.
In other words, the ability to always make things turn out okay, or even to turn out how you want, does not fit with the series’ thematic underpinnings (compare Mass Effect 2). Dragon Age II is designed with that in mind. It was a polarizing change, but one I was very happy to see.
Following the same analysis, the best conflicts in the Dragon Age games are driven by characters who are unable or unwilling to see anything but absolutes. This is reflected throughout Origins on a small scale in bit players like Zathrian and Cullen and on a large scale in Loghain. These characters work because they are not mustache-twirling supervillains; they have believable and reasonable motivations — Zathrian’s hatred of the werewolves, Cullen’s fear of mages, Loghain’s devotion to Ferelden — which they refuse to compromise on, and which the player must reconcile with her own.
There is considerably less ambiguity with the Archdemon and the darkspawn, however, who are thoughtlessly hell-bent on destroying the world. (BioWare seems to have realized this, what with Awakening’s attempt to humanize them.) The Archdemon was functionally an antagonist, but narratively it was a structural conceit: at the beginning you vowed to kill it, you spent the bulk of the game preparing to kill it, and at the end you killed it. It was a vague epic backdrop for the more interesting stuff going on with the real characters.
Dragon Age II has no epic backdrop, the idea presumably being that it is all “interesting stuff” now. Instead, the story comes out piecemeal as the Hawkes find their place in Kirkwall and deal with new situations as they arise. This has also been polarizing — the pacing is inconsistent, and the companions’ motivations for palling around are necessarily weaker than in Origins. Despite its flawed execution, though, I thought the change was an improvement. It effectively turned Dragon Age II into a character drama, allowing the writers to foreground the personal interactions which I consider BioWare’s strength.
Dragon Age II has headstrong but misguided characters like Loghain in spades. The Arishok’s unwavering devotion to the Qun makes him harsh and unforgiving, but his disgust with Kirkwall’s depravity is not entirely unjustified. Meredith and Orsino make reasonable arguments about the mage-templar problem, but are so entrenched in their opinions that they are blind to compromise.
Hawke’s companions have their biases too: Anders is so fervently pro-mage that he resorts to terrorism, but still despises blood mages like Merrill; Sebastian is so pro-Chantry that he demands Anders’ execution, but sees Merrill as a target for proselytizing. This makes for more nuanced interpersonal conflicts than Origins, where you can count on Alistair, Wynne and Leliana’s approval (and Morrigan’s disapproval) for doing generic good deeds.
All of this is not to say that the story went off without a hitch. As mentioned earlier, the pacing needs work. Act 2 has the lion’s share of the character development, including the best companion quests, the consummation of the romances, and the most cohesive chunk of the main plot. By comparison Act 1 feels like a plodding extension of the prologue, a bit of filler while Hawke makes enough money for something interesting to happen. Most disappointingly, the endgame in Act 3 goes a bit off the rails; Orisino’s transformation and Meredith’s psychosis undermined what would have been a perfectly legitimate climax.
I can understand why Dragon Age II was polarizing. The changes ran deep, and it’s strange for a sequel to have a largely different set of strengths and weaknesses than its predecessor. For what BioWare is good at, though, I think they compromised in the right areas and ended up with a stronger title.
There’s more to come, including thoughts on the frame narrative and the actual gameplay, but for now I’m going to borrow the conclusion from Kris Ligman’s review at PopMatters and bow out:
I’m making this impassioned plea right now: we need more quality games. We need games like this that court a more cerebral sort of controversy and subtlety in equal doses. Perhaps eventually we’ll work up to “quality” being a general descriptor and not simply refer to the themes of its premium cable cousin, but for now, I’ll take poorer production values as a more than acceptable trade off if I get characters even half as dynamic as Anders or half as quirky as Merrill or Isabela. It’s been too long.