Isabella and the Arishok

(Spoilers through Act 2)
I’m still trying to unpack the concluding events of Act 2, so I’m going to be more descriptive rather than proscriptive. The sequence of events left me feeling unsatisfied, but I’m not sure if that’s because the game successfully subverted my expectations, or because there’s an actual flaw in the design.

Anyways, the sequence of events is as so: Isabella is a party member I met and recruited rather late in Act 1. (As I’ve mentioned before, Act 1 has a lot of quests, and hers doesn’t appear right away, and takes place in an area – Hightown at night – that doesn’t have many other quests associated with it. As a side note, it involves killing numerous people both in the streets of a good part of town and in the main church, making it extra unappealing given that it comes at a time when I’m trying to establish a good reputation in the city.) I didn’t spend a lot of time with her then, both because she didn’t strike me as particularly appealing as a character, and because I already had another rogue I was using regularly: Varric, who seems like a nice guy, is the only recruitable dwarf, is the one telling the story in the framing device, and, most importantly, is set up to be a mandatory companion for the climactic quest of Act 1, meaning there’s a built-in incentive to get to know him before that.

The result of this is that I didn’t have much approval or disapproval from Isabella coming out of Act 1. In Act 2, I brought her along for some more quests that she wasn’t involved in directly, and I think I gave her a gift, and there was one conversation-based quest at the very start of the act touching base with her (which is the worst time to tell me something important, since right at the start of the act is exactly when the game is throwing the most information and quests at me all at once). She has at least one more quest that I didn’t receive, involving a conversation and the opportunity to improve the relationship with her that never triggered for me. The result of all this is that I was still neutral, trending towards positive, in my relationship with her at the end of Act 2.

Isabella’s schtick is that she’s a pirate, but she’s stranded here looking for some relic (she says she doesn’t know what it is) and some guy we never meet is apparently going to kill her if she doesn’t find it (though other than her introductory quest in Act 1, I received no indication that any attempts on her life had been made in the over three years that pass from Act 1 to the end of Act 2).

Also in the background of Act 1 are the Qunari. They’re stranded in Kirkwall, they say, initially because their ship home isn’t showing up, but eventually in Act 2 it comes out that they’re also searching for a relic, and won’t leave until they find it. (At this point, it will likely be obvious to the reader that Isabella’s and the Qunari’s artifacts are one and the same, but I didn’t make that connection at the time, perhaps because I didn’t get enough reminders of Isabella’s situation, or perhaps because the storytelling, both on Isabella’s and the Qunari’s side of things, is muddled, or perhaps because the game was actually being subtle.) The Qunari have this martial, strictly regimented, collectivist religious culture, as well as technological advantages and an extreme distrust of mages.

I was frustrated by the Qunari quests in Act 1. Neither of them seem like good ideas and, beyond money that I didn’t need, I had no motivation to undertake them, except that the game forced me to. The first I’ve already talked about, [LINK] involving trying to smuggle a Qunari mage out of the city. The second involves helping a dwarven merchant in his scheme to acquire the Qunari’s formula for gunpowder. There was a third, better one which involved the Viscount’s son – he was apparently kidnapped by a Qunari, and there’s a bounty for his return. Two unfortunate aspects of the quest: it’s combat, against wave after wave of rival bounty hunters seems silly, and I didn’t realize that the Viscount is the civic authority of Kirkwall at the time. I just thought he was another random nobleman. Another case either of the game doing a poor job conveying information, or my not paying enough attention. Anyways, it turns out the Viscount’s son wasn’t kidnapped, he has actually befriended the Qunari, and while I was forced to return him to his father, at least there were a couple of good conversations that went aways towards making the Qunari seem less alien and more sympathetic.

The Act 2 quests involving the Qunari are better motivated, but still a bit unsatisfying. With my prominence in the city growing, the Viscount charged me with liasing with the Qunari over the course of a number of quests. Two missing Qunari are tortured and killed before we can intervene. The Viscount’s son wants to convert to the Qunari religion, but he’s murdered too, before we can even talk to him. I never felt like the game was giving me a chance to affect events, only witness them, and then do some inconsequential damage control after the fact. This pattern of disempowerment will be repeated at the climax of Act 2.

After doing all the mainline quests, Isabella and Aveline, the captain of the guard, come to me at the same time, each with a problem. Isabella thinks she’s finally found her artifact – it’s being sold by a former associate of hers to a group of foreign mages. Aveline wants help persuading the Arishok, the Qunari leader, to turn two Elven converts who are wanted for murder over to the city’s justice system. After consulting a wiki (which I’ve tended to avoid, but this time I didn’t feel like the game was giving me good information to make the choice) I help Isabella first. This is when it explicitly comes out that the relic she’s searching for is the Qunari one. I insist that she return it once we get it (given that there’s an increasing risk of war in the streets if the Qunari don’t leave soon). She is unhappy about this, since she’s still, after three years, convinced that she’ll be killed if she doesn’t get the relic to her former employer. (Again, I have a hard time gauging whether her paranoia is supposed to seem irrational, or if it should seem justified and the game did a poor job communicating it. Or if it’s trying to thread the needle of seeming justified if one is sufficiently friendly with her, and irrational otherwise.) Regardless, we go to where the transaction is going to take place. We fight a bunch of Qunari outside, and then go inside. (Note: we can’t decide to stay outside and not fight them, or talk to them and convince them that we’re on their side, or turn Isabella over to them then and their for her part in the theft of the relic. Also note that the leader of the Qunari platoon we fight is named Sten, which the game neglects to remind us is actually a title not a name, and thus is not the same Sten who was a companion in Dragon Age: Origins.)

Inside, we get one of the more frustrating cutscenes. As we interrupt the transaction, more Qunari come in from another entrance and start fighting the mages trying to buy the relic. The seller runs out the door we are standing right by, with the relic. Isabella runs out after him. We don’t get any chance to run after the buyer with Isabella, or stop him at the door. Instead, the rest of us are forced to fight the Qunari and the mages, and by the time we get back outside, we find Isabella has had time to kill the seller, acquire the relic, and leave us a note letting us know she’s run off and isn’t coming back. I know sometimes things have to happen in cut-scenes, interaction that can’t happen in normal gameplay, that propel the story forwards. But the way the game forces the separation between us and Isabella just feels lazy and constraining. Since the relic isn’t there, we have no motivation to spend time staying and fighting the mages and Qunari while Isabella runs off. Even more frustrating is the way the seller forces his way past us on his run to the door. There’s just no reason why we wouldn’t block his path, and we have every motivation to do so.

Anyways, there’s nothing we can do but go and try to resolve Aveline’s problem. But once again, there’s actually nothing we can do here either. Even if we’re sympathetic to the plight of the elves, and even if we’ve been dealing fairly with the Qunari, even if we’ve been supportive of them, even if we volunteer to hunt down Isabella, the Qunari are fed up and attack the city. (Note: there’s no option to even try to join with the Qunari that I’ve seen. It would clearly be impractical to have the player successfully change sides, but it feels constrained to not to even present the possibility, especially compared with the range of avenues open in major quests in Origins.)

So we fight through the streets, into the palace, where the Arishok has gathered a group of hostages, and killed the Viscount. Other than a choice about whether to have the leader of the Circle of Mages distract some Qunari at the palace entrance (why wouldn’t we?) there are no options about how to approach the situation. There’s no option, for example, to prioritize getting to the palace quickly to try to save as many noblemen people as possible over protecting the streets of the city to save commoners. No option to sneak into the palace to try not to scare the Qunari into killing hostages. No option to, say, enlist aid from the city’s underground factions, like its thieves’ guilds or renegade mages.

So we finally get to the throne room and confront the Arishok. Again, events fall out in something of an unfortunate, predetermined-feeling way. I had no choice but to fight the Arishok and all his guards, from a pretty rough tactical position. Apparently there are two other ways this can play out, but both have quirks that make them somewhat unlikely to be available. If I’d earned the Arishok’s respect (which I think I missed out on solely because I wasn’t informed by the game when there was a post-quest conversation with him – see my previous complaint) or if I’d had Fenris in the party, I could have dueled with the Arishok one-on-one. This second case is extra-unlikely, since the player will probably bring along Aveline (she may actually be mandatory, but either way, as the Captain of the Guard, she’s an easy pick) and if the player wants to duel, he’s probably a warrior himself (a rogue or mage player character is potentially too squishy for a one-on-one fight). But then Fenris would be a third warrior, and is thus unlikely to be taken along. I’m not clear on what happens to the rest of the Qunari after the duel, but it’s at least theoretically good that a player who is maximally sympathetic towards the Qunari is given a slightly less violent approach to the situation (as in, they don’t have to kill every single last Qunari in the city).

The other case, the one with the least violent resolution, is where Isabella comes in. If I had gotten a sufficiently high friendship with her, she would have returned at a critical moment, with the artifact, and turned it over to the Qunari, and presumably they would have left. (Although why the remaining city authorities would let them go after they sacked the city and beheaded the Viscount is unclear. I guess maybe they just don’t have the strength.) This, I suppose, is satisfying when it happens, but it didn’t happen for me, and so I’m going to continue to try to unpack my feelings about it.

First, it’s an unusual choice to make the resolution of a main quest dependent upon the player’s relationship with a character who, until very late, seemed to be uninvolved in this quest-line. Second, the player who is most likely to desire a peaceful resolution with the Qunari is the one who will insist on Isabella returning the relic, which has a detrimental effect on the player’s friendship with Isabella, and thus is less likely to actual have access to the peaceful resolution. This is not unreasonable – Isabella seems like exactly the sort of contrary character who might do the right thing, but doesn’t like to be told to do the right thing – but it place this curious restriction on the set of players who will both have access to option and desire to follow through on it.

Anyways, the result of all this is that I can’t help but feel that I wasn’t given a fair opportunity to find a better resolution to the Qunari situation. There wasn’t any opportunity to meaningfully influence things most of the way through. And then at the very end, the possibility of an alternate resolution depended on this outside factor that seemed unconnected throughout the time that it was in my power to affect it. And it’s not clear that yet whether, besides the loss of Isabella, these choices will have any lasting effects in Act 3. Which gives this whole quest-line the feel of filler – something that’s there to chew up time in Act 2 while increasing the player character’s prominence in the city. It postpones the Templar and mage conflict that has been brewing, and will presumably be the focus of Act 3. But it also served as a distraction from this conflict, and not in a good way. There was barely a nod towards Templars and mages putting thier difference aside to defend the city from the Qunari. Otherwise, these were just two unrelated, parallel conflicts. It weakens the game’s narrative arc to not have a strong narrative through-line between acts. It was excusable in Act 1, where, again, the climactic quest has nothing to do with the ongoing conflicts in the city, neither with the Templars nor Qunari, since it was still early on. But now, two-thirds of the way in, it really feels like major events should be building upon each other, rather than having half of the narrative threads resolved and dropped independently of the others.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the game isn’t actually about these conflicts. It’s occurred to me that the story the game is telling isn’t primarily about Templars or mages or Qunari at all. That it’s actually about my character’s journey through the city, her rise from refugee to hero to wherever Act 3 goes. This makes Act 2 look better, but it makes Act 1 look worse, since it did such a poor job of making me feel my character’s motivations and introducing me to the city. This would be a really unusual choice for the genre, and makes the narrative it’s telling different from not only Origins, but every previous Bioware RPG. If it is first and foremost my character’s story, then it feels really weird that I’ve gotten to make so few meaningful choices, especially when it comes to who my companions are, and the faction within the city I ally with. It makes it feel much more a Rockstar game. Grand Theft Auto 4 also happens to tell the story of an immigrant’s rise, and while you’re expected to relate to Niko, you’re generally trapped by the decisions he makes and the path the game has chosen for you.

But I suppose I should actually get around to playing the rest of the game, rather than all this writing, before passing final judgement on the overall narrative arc.

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