Today, I’d like to continue my discussion about Dragon Age, focusing on the second installment: Dragon Age 2 (DA2). This was a game that I was very eager to play, as I had such a great experience with its predecessor. I pre-ordered it, and I marked time aside so I could play it with as few interruptions as possible. That first playthrough took about 30 hours, which was normal for a Bioware RPG game for me. Overall, I had a favorable impression on the game, but there were a few things that I diminished my enjoyment. It was subsequent playthroughs that actually helped formulate my final opinion on DA2.
The characters in the game were the first thing that really struck me. Not only was there a voice protagonist similar to that of the Mass Effect series, named Hawke, but there were several other new characters introduced: Bethany/Carver, Merrill, Isabela, Varric, Anders, Fenris, and Sebastian (if you bought the DLC). Individually, they were interesting and intriguing characters. The revamped friendship system to “Friendship/Rivalry” allowed the characters to develop along a more dynamic path depending on your choices. Each path brought its own benefits and consequences to the “growth” of the character in question. There was a plethora of content to explore with each character, and reasons to spend time with them in the part. Better still, each character was flawed. Flaws are such a great device to give depth to characters, and these very flaws were the cornerstones of these characters. You could even see them in the interactions with the other companions. Yet, at the end of the day, I did not find many of the characters likeable. Sure, I found them interesting, developed, and interacting, but I did not find them likeable. I didn’t really care what happened to them, as their flaws that made them so interesting also made them harder to connect with – at least for me.
Now, as for the actual storyline of the game, I found it had some really compelling moments, but it also had issues with the overall flow. The game was broken into three separate acts that span across about 10 years in the city of Kirkwall. As the player moved through the story, the character of Hawke became more entrenched in the comings and goings of the city, and moved forward as “the champion” of the people. The first act did a great job setting the stage and introducing the characters, and it showed Hawke’s motivation to setup a life in the city. The second act blew me away as Hawke not only deals with a personal tragedy, which is by far the best quest series in the game, but also worked against a huge internal conflict within the city involving the Qunari. If the middle act was so powerful and moving, what could be in store for the final act that could top that? And that’s where I found I had problems with the story. The final act felt rushed, unfinished, and upon subsequent playthroughs, forced. Gone was choice, in favor of driving home the actual goal of the game – to start a war over the mage problem. Now, I’ve not really gone into detail regarding the mage problem. I chose to not play a mage until my third playthrough, even though the game is heavily bent toward the player character playing a mage and “connecting” with the message of the plight of the mages. I could write a thesis over the mage issue and my exact thoughts, but suffice to say, that where I can understand the issue – I do not agree with how it has begun to be resolved. The final act’s climax began when one of your party – Anders – decided that the mage/Templar issue in Kirkwall, and by proxy all of Thedas, could not be ignored any longer and decided to blow up the Chantry, the church and religious icon of the city.
For me, that one act took a lot of my enjoyment out of the game. I understand that they wanted to create moment of no return for the game, and the players. I get that the character of Anders, possessed by a spirit of Justice, felt that this was the only way, and that Anders was the type of character that a person either loves or hates. But, as a person, I had great issues with seeing what I can only describe as an act of terrorism be the only way that a reformation for the mage problem could be achieved. At that one moment in the game, I got taken out of playing a character, and I was there sitting in the chair. I wanted to make the decision posed to me at that point, the one I would choose, not the one the character I played would choose. (And I will take a moment to state that I can and do separate what I choose from the characters I play. As a writer, I can write and create characters that will do horrific things, but that does not mean I would or could do those myself. So, in a game, it is no different to me.) I love immersion in my games, and to have such a jolt back to reality was a huge detriment to my overall enjoyment of the game.
Lastly, I love to replay Bioware games, to explore different options that the first character I created might not have taken. As such, I played through DA2 a second time rather soon after I completed my first game, and that’s when the game took a huge hit in my opinion. It lacked real versatility in replay. Sure, I could make different choices as the game progressed, but at the end, when I had made those final decisions in the game, and Varric (who is also the storyteller of the game as he recalls the events to another) discussed what happened after I no longer had control, there was no real difference. Things ended up at the exact same point, no matter what side of the mage/Templar conflict I chose. No matter who I made my friends, and who I didn’t. At the end of the day, there was no actual difference, and based on how the final act played out, it made me extremely hesitant about the future of the series.
The illusion of choice for me had been shattered. All along, yes, I as a player am playing in the story of another person. There is invariably a script and ultimate destination, but Bioware has always dangled the freedom of choice as the reason to choose their RPGs. Yet, now, in the Dragon Age series, I find that choice doesn’t matter. Their end goal supersedes the choice, and so the characters are nothing more than puppets. The actual story in the games is interesting, and I want to see where it ultimately goes, but the dynamic portion of the game, for me, is gone. I can make as many Hawkes as I want, but at the end, there is no change as to what happens to them; which, I think is the root of the problem I have with this upcoming installment, Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Now, I know nothing about the third installment. I avoid spoilers as much as possible, and apart from what I’ve read in Asunder, I have no idea what else has happened in Thedas after DA2 and its DLCs. I don’t want to know until I play the game, one day. I doubt that it will be a game I buy on day one of its release. The wonderment that I had from playing Origins is gone, replaced by the supposition that the illusion of choice will amount to the same as DA2. There will ultimately be none.
I hope they prove me wrong.