Dragon Age 2: Conclusions

(Spoilers for the whole game)
Like I said last time, Dragon Age 2 presents strong companions who are, at times, fanatically committed to their various causes. My greatest complaint about the game is how weak Hawke seems in comparison. Sure, she’s constantly helping out her friends, and doing plenty of dirty work for important people in Kirkwall, but the game never allows her to show any initiative, or take a strong stand for something she believes in, or really have much of an effect on the world at all. (Here’s a fun exercise: how would the story have played out differently if Hawke died in the process of saving the city from the Qunari? How about if Hawke never made it to Kirkwall at all?) It’s reasonable not to ask the question, “What does the Warden, or Commander Sheppard, want out of life?” They’re too busy saving the world, after all. To be on their side, all we, as players, need to do is to want to save the world too. But Hawke spends seven years in Kirkwall over the course of the game. Six of these years are spent at leisure, as she becomes increasingly powerful and influential, in a city that is facing increasingly troubled times. And Hawke takes no initiative in all this time. She doesn’t once try to further a cause because it’s important to her, unless someone asks for her help first.

We being with a quick summary of my thoughts on the early game, before jumping into a discussion of the end-game.

I wish we could have spent more time with the Hawke family in Lothering before the Blight. It would have both me and the game have some time early on to define what sort of person Hawke is, and her feelings about Ferelden and Kirkwall and her family. It also could have made Carver’s death more meaningful, if he was someone we knew for more than five minutes.

Bioware deserves credit for the art that accompanies the act-breaks. Even if, technically, it’s little more than a motion comic, it’s still some of the best, most interesting and stylish art that’s in the game. But I don’t like how these gaps fit into the structure of the game. I really dislike the one year gap between the Prologue and Act 1. I do like the art style of the inter-act pieces, though.) This should be when we learn about Kirkwall, along with Hawke. Instead, by the time we visit Hawke again, she already has friends and a place within the city. The game never makes having to discard her life and rebuild a new one in a strange place seem as traumatic as it should.

Anyways, even in retrospect, Act 1 seems unfocused. It’s a lot of poorly motivated odd-jobs, and a lot of killing, some of it in pretty public places, that no one seems to have any problem with. The game really needed a quest early on that took Hawke to the Qunari compound. As it was, I didn’t really understand the Qunari situation until very late in the Act, which is a problem given their prominence in Act 2.

The Hawke family should feel desperately impoverished in Act 1. At the least, Bethany should be under a more active feeling threat from the Templars. The game plays lip-service to her fear of the Templars as motivation for getting on the Deep Roads expedition right at the start of the Act, but it never feels like a serious concern. (Likewise, once she’s in captured by the Templar and forced into the Circle, she doesn’t really seem to suffer for it.) If Hawke is more desperate, it would make it easier for the game to force Hawke into quests that the player may not want to undertake, like the Sister Petrice quest.

The time-jump after Act 1 is not as objectionable as the one after the prologue (or the one after Act 2), but it still has some problems. At this point in the game, Hawke has clearly seen the plight of numerous disadvantaged groups in the city, but when she makes her fortune on the Deep Roads expedition, she spends almost all her money on this huge mansion which has way more space than she and her mother need. I suppose the reason is that she’s just that devoted to her mother, but the game gives up a chance to have Hawke support a cause that’s important to her – help Ferelden refugees, or fund the underground mage resistance, or support the victims of Apostates, depending on her leanings – and so gives up on a chance to let the player define who Hawke is.

I started to get concerned in Act 2 when the game started pathologically refusing to let Hawke see anything of the inner workings of either the Circle or the Templars. She never visits Bethany, even after their mother is murdered. Anders’s quest is again, laughable. We’re supposed to be sneaking into either the Templar or mage compound, I forget which, looking for evidence of a Templar plot to lobotomize all the mages. (This is where the game pulls out an explicit Nazi analogy, calling the plan “The Tranquil Solution”. I cannot express how disappointed I was that the game felt the need to stoop to that.) If the quest was designed differently, it could have involved persuading a reluctant Bethany to help spy for Hawke. It could have had Hawke making contacts within the Circle that could have come into play later. It could have been our introduction to the First Mage. Instead, we go through a dungeon, and at the end, there’s the Templar who’s implementing the plain, preparing to lobotomize a mage right there. So much for subtlety.

Anyways, I’ve written a lot about the main thread of Act 2 in another entry. I liked it overall. Dealing with the Qunari is generally interesting. The game does a good job of selling their culture and Kirkwall’s as fundamentally irreconcilable, and the Arishok makes a great nemesis, one who isn’t stupid or insane or comically evil. I do wish Hawke had been able to be more proactive in the conflict. From the poison gas incident early on, right through to the Viscount’s head rolling at the end, she seems always to arrive just in time to clean up the mess. I also wish the events of Act 2 had more impact on the story and the city. The Qunari is gone, and the Viscount is dead (which is the big story reason for Act 2 to be there at all) but there’s no other impact. The city is rebuilt and shows no scars from the incident, despite the game making a big deal earlier about the Qunari possessing explosives and other chemical-based weaponry.

The transition from Act 2 to 3 is where things really start going off the rails. It begins with one of the most egregious examples of a game telling instead of showing (or, even better, letting us interact with and experience): Varric narrating at us about how tensions have escalated to a boiling point between the Circle Mages and the Templars. But the game has been telling us that things are bad between the two groups from the start. What’s worse now? There’s this abstract notion that without a Viscount, Meredith is no longer constrained in her treatment of the Circle, but I never really got the impression that the Viscount had much influence on Meredith to begin with, when mages were involved. Regardless, I shouldn’t have to guess and speculate over something like this. If this is such a civil breakdown, it behooves the game to show it clearly.

The second big problem with the Act 2 to 3 transition concerns Hawke. She’s been declared to be the Champion. The game informs us that she’s now the second most powerful and influential person in the city. So what does she do with all this power and influence, for three years, while the city is apparently falling apart around her, from a problem that she’s had experience dealing with, and that her sister and friends are caught in the middle of? Apparently nothing. For three years. Nothing. And there are a lot of things she could be doing. She could be helping rebuild the city after it gets wrecked by the Qunari (perhaps she feels guilty about Isabella’s role in causing the Qunari crisis). She could be making friends with the nobility, organizing them to put pressure on Meredith to name a new Viscount. She could be publicly advocating for (or against) more liberty for mages. She could, given what happened to her mother, be devoting herself to helping victims of apostates. None of these options would necessarily have to affect the ultimate outcomes of the game, but it would have helped me feel immersed if the game could have acknowledged that Hawke has a life that goes on in between acts, and it would have helped me feel involved if I could shape this life to some degree.

Instead, Hawke finally makes herself heard at the public debate between Meredith and Orsino that kicks off Act 3. My Hawke sided with the mages, first on the grounds that Meredith had exceeded her authority in preventing the appointment of a new Viscount, and also because it seemed like Meredith herself was one of the main sources of tension between Templars and the Circle. So what does the game decide is the first thing Hawke will do now that she’s finally found her voice and spoken out for her cause? That’s right, she’s going to be Meredith’s little helper. She’s going to hunt down some escaped mages on behalf of Knight-Commander. This is a mess that has been caused by Templar incompetence, and it’s clearly within Templar jurisdiction to clean it up. But instead of publicly shaming Meredith over it, or even just telling her to shove off, Hawke decides for some reason to help Meredith out.

The next main quest is, if anything, even worse. It starts out promisingly, with Orsino asking Hawke to investigate some ominous-seeming extracurricular meetings some of his mages are having in Hightown, fearing that they’re a cabal of blood mages. Hawke apparently can’t think of any better way to gather information than marching in on this meeting in full battle-gear (instead of say, observing from the shadows, or from the house of one of her Hightown friends that has a view of the meeting). This is a particularly boneheaded since, even from a distance it’s clear that this is a meeting between a group of Circle Mages and a group of Templar. It takes only seconds to figure out that this isn’t a cabal of blood mages, it’s a conspiracy to oust Meredith.

This is exactly the sort of group Hawke would like to support. If it had been just mages in the group, it would seem like a revolt, one that would then demand a retaliatory crackdown, but the fact that there are as many Templars as Mages in the group makes it seem possible to remove Meredith without a catastrophic upheaval. and it would seem like this is also the sort of group that would benefit enormously from having the support of the Champion, someone powerful and reliable and demonstrably moderate, who could come in and smooth the way through whatever transition happened after Meredith was gone.

So how does the encounter play out, this chance encounter between? The group attacks Hawke on sight, and Hawke kills them all without a word, mages and Templars alike, more than a dozen of them in all. It was completely infuriating for the game to dangle this conspiracy in front of me, and then not even give Hawke the option to talk to them, let alone side with them. And then afterwords, Hawke can’t go to Orsino and report back about the conspiracy. She can’t go to Meredith if she’s so inclined. All she can do is continue to hunt down the conspiracy until they’re all dead. It serves to reinforce the feeling that Hawke is a violent, reactive buffoon.

The game tries to sell that one mage with a grudge against Hawke turned the conspiracy against her, and got them to kidnap Bethany as a hostage to keep Hawke from interfering with their plans. This makes no sense, since Hawke, based on her public persona (to the extent that I was able to shape it) is firstly someone who would be inclined to support their cause, and secondly, someone who holds a nasty grudge against anyone who harms her family. In light of this, just how dumb can all these people be? This quest makes a lot more sense if Hawke has been siding with Meredith, and there are ways to shape a similar quest for the mage side, that has a similar outcome. For example, Templars loyal to Meredith could come across the conspiracy, and it could all fall apart into mage on Templar violence (this would also serve as a good display of this Templar-Mage tension that the game has been trying to sell). So I find it absurd that the game doesn’t fork the main quest-line here. And I can’t think of a good reason for not doing so, other than to save money.

Then we come to Anders’s Act 3 quest. I guessed that something was fishy when he revealed that he was lying about why he needed the ingredients and was evasive about what he needed the distraction in the Chantry for. I did not guess that it would tie-in so strongly to the main quest. Anyways, I didn’t help him in the Chantry. But I can imagine a different Hawke, one who was more inclined to support Meredith would be as infuriated with this quest as I was with the one above. It’s easy to imagine a Hawke who would be suspicious enough to want to turn Anders in to the Templar in Act 3, and try to kill Anders herself if he wouldn’t go quietly (which he wouldn’t). Remember, Anders, in addition to being a terrorist and an apostate, is also an abomination. Why wouldn’t the Templars want to take him out? Why wouldn’t a Hawke who’s afraid of the dangers of mages want him gone too? Why wouldn’t such a Hawke, at the very, very least, demand the return of the alchemical ingredients that she gathered for Anders? But it seems like the best such a Hawke can do is report her concerns about a vague, potential threat to a Templar in the Gallows (assuming, of course, that the main quest-line hasn’t been progressed too far yet).

The conversation with Anders in his hideout illustrates, again, the weakness of the dialogue wheel, and the overall restrictive feeling of the conversation system. As I said, Hawke can’t demand Anders return the alchemical agents. Anders will at multiple times avoid telling Hawke what he’s planning on the grounds that he doesn’t want her to be involved in it. As Hawke, what I wanted to do, and what I never could do, is point out what a bullshit excuse this is, that by gathering the ingredients with him, Hawke is already involved, is already culpable, and would be even more culpable if she did what he was asking her to do in the Chantry, and that on those grounds alone she deserves to know what it is he’s involved her in. Again, I’m not saying that this has to be persuasive, that Anders should be able to be swayed. It’s just that this is such an important, emotionally fraught conversation, and I hate how the game forces words into Hawke’s mouth to shape the conversation in ways that I didn’t want or expect. Just choosing the emotion and tone of Hawke’s responses and not having any say over the content is just plain insufficient in some cases.

Anyways, Anders does his thing, and then Hawke killed him for it. Meredith makes this bizarre claim that the people of Kirkwall will demand collective punishment upon mages for what Anders has done, and while this may in fact be true (I don’t think the game has shown us enough about the feelings of Kirkwall’s populace to judge this) no one will even bother to attempt to contradict her. Regardless, apparently this is the breaking point, and the mages and Templar are going to war with each other, and Hawke must choose sides, instead of, say, trying to help the victims of the bomb that just went off. Hawke chooses the mages.

At this point, I badly wanted Hawke to be imploring the mages to fight, but not to resort to blood magic. Telling the mages to be better people, rather than become the monsters that the Templar say they are. Instead, she gives a pretty boiler-plate inspirational speech, and then loads of mages, including First Enchanter Orsino, resort to blood magic, and become exactly the monsters that the Templar said they were. Orsino can’t even bother to wait until he’s confronting Meredith. He does it when there are hardly any Templar around, and of course immediately turns on us, and we have to kill him. It’s another encounter that makes sense when Hawke is on the Templars’ side, and could have been made to make sense on the mages’ side, but is frustrating and nonsensical as it plays out.

Fenris is next on the chopping-block. I actually thought the game handled him pretty well, and I liked the feeling of tragic inevitability of the last conversation Hawke has with him. (It may actually be possible to persuade him to rejoin the party, but my Hawke respected him and his beliefs enough not to try.) Even though they were brief, these final confrontations with the various companions were easily the most satisfying part of the climax. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that the companions were the best part of the game up to this point, and felt like the one component of the game that received the care and creativity they needed to shine. It helps that, because of the structure of the game, these are the people Hawke has spent the most time learning about, and hanging out with, and caring about, so there are emotional stakes built-in.

And then we come to Meredith herself. It’s a nice fight, and I appreciate how such a variety of allies come to help in it. I wasn’t thrilled about her being driven insane by the idol. This twist feels like, on one part, a half-hearted attempt to tie the Deep Roads expedition into the finale, and an explanation for why Hawke must still fight Meredith even if she supported the Templars. There’s just so much magically-caused insanity in the game already. There’s a hard, interesting moral question at the core of the story, about how a society should treat a class of citizens which it has determined are inherently predisposed to catastrophic violence if left unsupervised. By making Meredith, who is the strongest and most consistent voice on the side of locking mages up, magically-insane, the game undermines whatever exploration of this issue that it was doing. What made the confrontation with Fenris satisfying was that he and Hawke arrived at incompatible conclusions that were both justified based on their experiences. Making Meredith insane turns her into an unambiguous villain, it removes whatever nuance there was. (I suspect Orsino turning into a monster removes whatever nuance there was when playing from the Templar side, too.)

Anyways, we win, and then we don’t get an epilogue like in Origins and Awakenings about what the effects of Hawke’s choices and fates of her companions were. Apparently we saved some mages, but all I kept seeing in the finale were abominations. Instead, we get the cliff-hanger for Dragon Age 3. I’m not one of those people who will say that a game is automatically cheapened by ending on a cliff-hanger. What I will say, is that the decision to end Dragon Age 2 on this cliff-hanger in particular weakens the game, since it makes it seem like Hawke’s choices were all irrelevant. It also feels like a bit of sleight-of-hand, an excuse for why the game doesn’t tell a satisfying story about Hawke, or about the city of Kirkwall, as if it was saying, “These things, how Hawke changed Kirkwall, and how Kirkwall changed Hawke, they weren’t actually all that important, except as a prologue. The important part if this war that comes next. So stop worrying.”

So ultimately I was unsatisfied with my time with Dragon Age 2. There’s definitely a good game buried under there, one that commits to streamlining secondary game-systems even more. One that devoted more effort to making quests and areas and combats feel more different from each other, and more meaningful in general. One that let the player invest in Hawke and her journey, and let Hawke be as strong and committed a character as her companions, someone who can act on her own behalf, instead of only responding to the demands of others. A Hawke whose decisions could shape the world, or who at least aspired to something. A game that made Kirkwall feel like a place worth trying to save, and that built a more coherent world around it. Instead, Dragon Age 2 feels like a game that was made quickly, and with limited resources, and that probably did the best that it could given these constraints. I guess the best I can say about Dragon Age 2 is how much it makes me appreciate other games, like Origins, and Mass Effect 2, and, even more to the point, The Witcher, which managed choices and quests in such a comparatively deft and thoughtful manner.

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