There’s a lot of hate for Dragon Age 2. Some claim it’s a step backward from the first game, with less variation in endings, fewer character choices, “lazy” level design – and some of that is true. But none of it is enough to make the game bad, by any stretch, and there’s a lot that can be learned from it about what it takes to make a game good and a story engaging. For some of us those reasons are enough to make it our favorite game in the series. With the upcoming release of Inquisition, it feels like a good time to examine them.
Here are a few of mine…
3. Dragon Age 2 is a Story Driven by Characters who Feel Real.
Merrill will do anything to restore her people’s heritage. Fenris burns with a hatred for the people who enslaved him. Anders seeks justice for countless mages who have been imprisoned, killed, or worse. Varric is looking to make some coin and keep his friends out of trouble. Knight Commander Meredith will push the Templars to extremes to root out the threat of blood magic. The rebel mages turn to dark powers out of desperation. Murderers and slavers stalk the alleys seeking fresh prey. A mother wants her son to live free of fear.
Everyone has their prejudices and predispositions, and you have a role in their character development. Sometimes that role is large, sometimes small, but on the whole it feels real.
These characters drive the story. Their goals and wants and needs are the ones that push everything forward. In many ways, this is what BioWare does best, and it’s something every world-builder could stand to learn from.
See, real worlds don’t hinge on the actions of just one person very often. As much as we all love the trope, the ‘fate of the world rests in your hands’ – that’s like, once in a lifetime crap. Mostly people react to outside forces. Mostly, those forces are dictated by other people’s choices. And so on.
Many tabletop games incorporate this idea to an extent. But it is worth noting that 1. The party is not one person, usually, and is likely to be made up of a number of people with varied predispositions and goals, and 2. The party is also not the only group with goals and decisions to make. If you’re a GM, you’ve got a LOT of potentially conflicting choices to juggle … of course you also have the option of rolling the dice to see who comes out ahead.
2. Dragon Age 2 is about the Dangers of Extremes.
Everywhere you look in Kirkwall, there are zealots. Templars breaking the laws of their own order to clamp down on the city’s mages; wicked (and less wicked) mages pushing the boundaries of magic seeking unnatural powers to defend themselves against the Templars; Qunari following the rigid dictates of their own social structure. And somewhere in the middle, the player is caught, trying to make sense of it all and carve out a place for themselves.
Magic exists to serve man, and never to rule over him.
Foul and corrupt are they
Who have taken His gift
And turned it against His children.
They shall be named Maleficar, accursed ones.
They shall find no rest in this world
Extremism can turn the most innocuous idea into a source of potential antagonists and dangers. Even a paladin could be bent to evil by clinging too rigidly to a code of conduct at the expense of the virtues that inspired it.
1. Dragon Age 2 is a Game of Inevitability.
Much of what happens in the game is building up to something outside your control. For once, this really works for it. Some players might disdainfully call this ‘railroading’ but in all honestly, it makes the situation feel much more … I want to say real. The other characters in the game act according to their own goals and beliefs, and not every person is going to be willing to give those up because some dork from Fereldan said so.
The endgame is inevitable. Many of your losses are inevitable. DA2 is about how you carry yourself in the face of inevitability, what you do when things are at their worst. What values do you cling to? Do you give them up when your idealism doesn’t get you the results you’d hoped? When you’re surrounded by this many zealots, how can you be expected to survive? When the world comes crashing down, what do you reach for? How do you react when your closest friends are the ones who brought it down? Do you believe in them? Do you put justice ahead of everything? What does justice mean in these circumstances? What injustice takes priority?
There aren’t any easy answers to these questions (not unlike Skyrim’s question of Stormcloaks or Imperials), but damn do the fights over them get entertaining after awhile.