Dragon Age 2: Companions

(Spoilers for the entire game)
I did a lot of complaining last time, and I’ve got some more to come next time when I talk about the overall narrative of the game, and the structure of Act 3 in particular, but this time I want to talk about an element of the game that I really liked – so much so that it just about outweighs all of the negatives. Companion characters have been a highlight of every Bioware RPG going back to Baldur’s Gate. Dragon Age 2 continues in this fine tradition. In addition to being well-acted and written, the companions of Dragon Age 2 particularly distinguish themselves by being strong personalities. They’re willing to defy Hawke, and take initiative to solve their problems even if Hawke won’t help them. They believe so strongly in their causes that they’re willing to kill for them, and to die for them, or worse. My big complaint in this context is how weak and uncommitted they make Hawke look in comparison. Hawke may be the person every calls when they need something done, but she never takes the initiative herself. She’s perpetually reactive, unwilling to even try to get out ahead of events, to take radical action to further the causes she supports.

After the jump, I go through the companions one by one:

Carver
I was a warrior, not a mage, so he didn’t last long. That’s just as well. He sounds whiny and like a downer, from what I’ve heard. I do have to question why the second sibling exists at all, though. In addition to the incongruity and repetitiveness of having the two companion death scenes so close to each other in the prologue, I think it would have driven an interesting wedge between Aveline and Hawke if the Hawke family had escaped the Blight unscathed, but Aveline had to sacrifice her husband.

Bethany
She’s kind of bland, but inoffensive. Her Act 1 quest is a bit of a mess. It involves breaking into a house unprovoked, killing a number of its inhabitants, and then robbing it. The occupants of the house happen to be slavers, but we only really know that because they’re labelled as slavers when we fight them. They didn’t do anything to us. This is an example of the problems that come from combat being the primary way that Hawke interacts with the world. If it was essential that this quest be in the game, it should have been about sneaking into the house, rather than fighting our way through.

Otherwise, my big problem with Bethany is how completely she drops out of the game after Act 1. She should be our source of information on what’s going on within the Circle. She could tie in to a number of quests, like the ones dealing with mages who have run away from the Circle, or when Templars are abusing their power. The game is badly missing the perspective of someone within the Circle, who experiences the interactions between mages and Templar on a daily basis. Bethany (or Carver, if he’s around) could provide this perspective.

It’s particularly galling that the game doesn’t allow Hawke to visit her sibling after their mother has been murdered by a blood mage. This could be a prime opportunity to push Hawke on her feelings about the mage-Templar situation. If Hawke has been letting mages go free, Bethany could criticize Hawke for letting dangerous people go free. If Hawke has been supporting the Templars, Bethany could point out how incompetent the Templar were, that they didn’t even know about this serial murdering mage who has been operating under their nose for years. Anyways, this is an opportunity for an emotional, character-building conversation that the game lets pass.

Or course, I suspect the reason the game lets this opportunity slip is that there were just too many permutations leading up to it. It could be Bethany or Carver. They could be in the mages or Templar or Grey Wardens or dead. But it was the designers’ decision to have all these forks to begin with. It’s a disappointing cop-out that the game doesn’t follow through on these forks in any sort of satisfying manner.

Aveline
She also comes off a little bland, which is a shame since she’s the only NPC tank available. She does well as the relatively reasonable voice of calm and moderation amongst the radicals. Giving her such a prominent role in the city guard was an unusual choice, but, I think, one that paid off. There were only a handful of occasions where I would have expected her to involve herself that she didn’t. Her being around gave me a reason to care about the security and stability of the city, as well as insight into the institutions of the city. Again, I wish the game provided the same sort of insights into the Circle and Templars that it does for the Guards.

Her Act 2 quest, where she tries to initiate a romance with a fellow guardsman, was cute, and generally well-written, though I was disappointed that even here the designers felt the need to shoehorn in a bunch of fighting and killing. There was an unexpected moment in another one of her quests, if Hawke tries to give Aveline a shield, where she comments on how Hawke sold her late husband’s shield out of practicality. It’s another cute moment, but it does call attention to the artificiality of the game’s item system, where Hawke and company keep finding dramatically better equipment time after time.

Unfortunately, I can’t really comment on Aveline’s Act 3 quest. As I complained previously, it goes through the Gallows area, and by the time I was following it, I’d already progressed the main quest to the point where entering the Gallows immediately triggered the endgame. It’s especially unfortunate since it dealt with the conflict between the Templars and Kirkwall’s civil authorities. It’s an issue that’s central to the Meredith-Orsino debate that kicks off Act 3, but other than this quest, it’s not really followed through on. In fact, I think it could have been an interesting choice to have Aveline come into conflict with the Templars earlier, like back in Act 2. It would have both given us insight into the sort of problems the Viscount was dealing with, and why Kirkwall suffers in Act 3 once he’s gone. It also could have given Aveline something more interesting issues to contend with, and tested her lawful good, paladin-ish attitude, which went pretty much unchallenged in my play-through. She was never really in a position where she had to sacrifice anything for her principles.

Varric
A strong, likable character, which is important given the framing device. He makes a lot of jokes, but he’s reliable, and cool under pressure. Even if I wasn’t sold on him already, the way he jumped in and killed the mage who had just betrayed us, and was trying to sell us out to the man who had just murdered Hawke’s mother endeared him to me forever. The game talks him up as a storyteller, but other than the framing device itself, I don’t recall him telling us many stories. There’s a risk of overdoing it, but there’s so much in Kirkwall that’s under-explained that I would have liked some more.

I think he should have befriended Hawke earlier in the game, perhaps in the course of some quest or other, and then have been the one who came to Hawke with the Deep Roads opportunity. It would simultaneously better explain why Varric is so keen on getting Hawke on to the expedition and why Hawke is fixated on the expedition in particular as her get-rich quick scheme. As it plays out, both of these come out of nowhere right at the start of Act 1.

I liked both his Act 2 and Act 3 quests. The haunted house of Act 3 was even a little creepy, which is remarkable both given that the house was a re-used asset, and that few of the other dungeons in the game were interesting, let alone imposing, to walk through. His turn on a dime in Act 2, as his fury at his brother fizzles, was touching. And I liked that in both quests, Hawke actually gets to have some meaningful input, and, for a change, save a friend from his worst impulses.

In fact, I like Varric so much that my Hawke would have had a relationship with him if the game had let me. I seem to recall having one opportunity to flirt with him, but I don’t recall if I took it. Either way, I don’t recall Varric turning down Hawke in-game. It would have been particularly awesome if Hawke could cite the Warden and Alistair as a prior example of dwarf-human relations, I acknowledge that that’s such an unusual edge case that it’s hard to fault the game for not including it. Of course, the real reason the romance isn’t included isn’t an aversion to inter-species romance, it’s the framing device, which would have had to have been altered to accommodate such a relationship. There are not a lot of concrete examples of the framing device hurting the game (as opposed to my vague sense of unease about the device) but this is one.

Merrill
Another introduction that didn’t quite work for me. I didn’t understand why she was leaving the Dalish, which is such a core aspect of her character, until Act 2. I find her a bit too aggressively cute, but I can understand her appeal. Still, it was nice to see that there was more to her – that she is willing to risk a fate worse than death to pursue her goals.

I often didn’t feel like I had the conversation options that I would have liked with her. In her Act 2 quest, I wish Hawke could say something like, “I’ll help you because I’m your friend, but what you’re doing is really dangerous” but the options I had were along the lines of “No, I won’t help you, what you’re doing is wrong and you’re a bad person” and “Of course I’ll help. Everyone else is dumb for doubting you. It’s perfectly safe. Now let’s go play with demons!” And again in Act 3, after the Keeper dies, the only options were essentially “I told you so. This is all your fault.” and “The Keeper was dumb for trying to stop you. This is all her fault.” There wasn’t any consoling middle-ground, something like “This was a tragedy and I’m deeply sorry that this is how things played out.”

In retrospect, I wish I’d tried pushing her into rivalry more, rather than the moderate friendship I ended up settling into. It seems like this pushes things in a more interesting direction, especially in combination with a romance. I was still in Origins appeasement mode, and was concerned that I’d lose access to her quests altogether if I became antagonistic towards her. As it turns out, her Act 2 quest doesn’t even disappear if you directly turn it down, and her Act 3 quest still happens even if you choose not give her the resources she wants to continue her research in her Act 2 quest.

That said, even in appeasement mode, her story still has a pleasing, tragic feel to it. It’s one of the most personal experiences Hawke has with the dangers of blood magic, outside of the serial killer. Of course, it’s also a little incongruous that Merrill’s casual use of blood magic and willingness to consort with demons never puts her at the risk of demonic possession outside of her quest-line given the propensity of other mages in the game to get possessed the second they dabble in powerful blood magic.

It’s also kind of odd that the game hardly even brings up the potential for the Templars to go after Merrill. Varric as a conversation with another companion where he mentions that he uses his influence to protect Merrill and Anders from local gangs, and Hawke has a conversation with Knight-Commander Meredith where it’s implied that Hawke’s influence as Champion protects her companions, but regardless of these rationalizations, it would have been interesting to see Merrill forced from her tunnel-minded research by outside threats. It also would have given her a more direct tie into the main Act 3 story-line. After coming out of her research-stupor, she could start working with Anders on the mage-underground, for example.

Lastly, it’s a bit of a dirty choice to have her quests revolve around the Eluvian, since it gives off the impression that if Hawke helps her, it’s possible that Morrigan could show up. The game never follows through on this, and it never even explicitly brings up the possibility, but it’s certainly implied. I’m generally wary about a story and character focused game of this sort manipulating its players, and driving a wedge between player and character motivations like this. (I’m trying to role-play as Hawke, who has no idea what the Eluvian does or who Morrigan is, but at the same time, as a player, I’d like to see Morrigan again.) I’ll let the game off the hook this time, since it works out in a sort of cool way: while my motivations diverged from Hawke’s, they become analogous to Merrill’s. We both desire hidden knowledge and a connection with a past that has been lost.

Fenris
He’s another strong personality, though he’s a little one-note. He has an interesting, unusual back-story. The story of his escape from slavery is especially well done. He fills in the same sort of role Sten does in Origins, someone who challenges the player’s character with a radically different morality system that he argues forcefully for.

His quests could be more diverse, in that they all eventually end up with him pursuing and killing someone who he blames for his enslavement. Even the last one that initially seems like it’s about something else ends with Fenris finally killing his former master. In fact, if I was writing it, I would be tempted to not have his former master appear at all or have him escape, and just leave that thread hanging, so Fenris is forced move on (or not). As it is, it’s too tidy of a revenge, and it smacks of fantasy-fulfillment.

That said, the stuff with Fenris’s sister is pretty great, especially her reveal about how Fenris actually wanted the lyrium markings he now loathes. Her betrayal after he set her and their mother free, and the way it confirms his worst fears and biases about magic are a good twist. Usually the arc for these sorts of things is like Merrill’s, where the companion’s biases are challenged, so it’s nice to have one go the other way. I also loved that they made Varric chime in when Fenris is trying to decide whether to kill his sister or not. It’s nice to see the game tying character arcs together like that.

Isabella
I don’t have anything to say about her that I haven’t already said, since she wasn’t around for my Act 3.

Anders
He’s very much tied into the main plot-line, so I’ll talk about his actions more in the next entry. But I appreciate the choice to give such a prominent role in the game to so scared and obsessive a character. He was the most likable character in Awakenings, even if he did feel a bit too much like Alistair, and bringing out a darker side of his personality this time around was risky, but it paid off. From the player’s perspective, if not from Hawke’s, he acts as friendly and familiar and trusted advocate for what turns out to be an extreme and uncompromising position. I also like how often he’s useful in conversations, providing magical healing, information on the Fade and demons, or just a sarcastic jibe about Templar.

Next time: I will finally tackle Act 3, and my problems with the narrative of the main quest-line as a whole.

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