[Dragon Age 2] My story and review (with SPOILERS) and some thoughts

da2_hawkeact2 Hawke’s finery (which she wears around the manor in Acts 2 and 3) reminds me of a school uniform.

Dragon Age 2 is, I think, going to be a game that provokes strong reactions. In my last post I briefly mentioned some of the shortcomings of the game (the repetitive areas, repetitive fights with waves of mooks teleporting/ rapelling in – funny how we don’t complain about repetitive fights in MMOs really…). I’ve also mentioned briefly how DA2 incorporates more and more elements from good tabletop RPG games – the idea that your character and their companions have families, backgrounds, stories that will impinge into the main narrative and give your character (and companions) extra goals and motivations, and how I felt more of an emotional connection when playing this game.

I thought they did make good use of Hawke’s family and family ties in the plot. Your sister/ brother and mother are intended to be emotional ties and plot elements (OK, there is a whiff of the disposable NPC here). I know that when I decided to support the mages in the end, it was largely because of my in game sister. I enjoyed this in DAO also, with my dwarf warden deciding the new ruler of Orzammar based on the fact he was nailing my sister (it always comes down to sisters with me ;) ), but with this game they’ve taken it further and brought it more front and centre to the plot.

The companions are some of the absolute high points of the gameplay, storytelling, and writing, even against Bioware’s reasonably high standard. I think every one of them is a winner. From reading other people’s thoughts (there is a thread on rpg.net about favourite companions) it looks as though every one of them expands into an interesting three dimensional character if you spend more time getting to know them. What I liked about the thread I linked to here is how passionately people defend their favourites. I still think Merill was an idiot, but it’s cool that some people want to argue that she was a genius.

I enjoyed the idea of a game set in a single city. These single city campaigns have always been popular in tabletop RPGs (I’ll always remember The City of Seven Hills from our old and beloved D&D game) and have been touched on in RPGs before. Balder’s Gate was largely set in a city, as was Planescape. But setting the game in three acts over several years gives some geniune chances to see how the place and the characters change and grow. Seeing Aveline go from being a new recruit to captain of the guard was a good example, and well deserved.

I did think Varric was awesome and loved how his unreliable narrative tied into the game play and the framing story. The quest where he confronts his brother and you get a section where he single handedly takes out waves and waves of trash mobs was hilarious.

I also enjoyed the pacing of the story. Act 1 did feel slow with all of the side quests, but at the same time you really did get to know your way around the city and get introduced to some of the main characters who you would see in later acts. Act 2 was great and I loved the storyline with the Qunari, it was interesting, well played out, and Hawke did get to be a genuine champion. And then Act 3 was very pacey indeed but that worked for me since by that point I was quite keen to get to the end and not get distracted by side quests.

I also think DA2 marks a change in how Bioware write their lead characters. Although there is still the power fantasy element – you are the hero, it’s never been easier to romance the love interest of choice – Hawke in this game is equally pulled and pushed by other plot elements in the background. And to my mind, the game is all the better for it. It’s about you, but not entirely about you. Sometimes you get swept along by forces larger than yourself.

In particular, the love interests are not really under your control. Anders and Merill in particular have their own agendas, and however close you get to them in a relationship, you may not be able to change them … enough. I think it’s a very grown up piece of writing to ask a player how they would respond if a character they were emotionally close to went off the deep end. (And if the player isn’t interested, there are more ‘stable’ love interests who will be more predictable.)

I’m not sure I envy Bioware trying to design love interests that will appeal to any player, it’s pretty much an impossible task. I did generally like the LIs better in this game than in DAO, but fans of Alistair will probably be disappointed in Anders and Fenris. Having said that, it was nice to see a few familiar faces making a brief reappearance towards the end of the game.

And here’s a fun thread from the Bioware forums in which people discuss which they think the best line in the game was.

What I Did

My Hawke was a female 2 handed warrior. The 2 handed trees are super for smashing through waves of bandits et al really quickly. I think if I did it again I’d pay more attention to abilities that improve stamina regen though. I’m not sure how I feel about her voice, she was a bit of a posh girl and to me she always sounded awkward when she was being sarcastic/ witty.

I played my Hawke as being fairly feisty/ sarcastic in the first two acts and more assertive in Act 3. I suspect that the conversational choices are both more subtle and more key to how people respond than is immediately obvious.

My go-to party was Aveline, Varric and Anders, although I did spend more of Act 2 with Isabella in group than Varric because I liked her dialogues with Aveline.

Bethany did not come on the deep roads expedition with me (I was persuaded by my in game mother’s pleas) and ended up being taken to the Circle. From subsequent letters, she seemed to quite enjoy it there but was around to fight by my side at the end. Hurrah!

Astoundingly, all of the companions except for Sebastian ended up fighting by my side for the last fight. Fenris left when I sided with the mages, but came back when I asked him to. This surprised me because I hadn’t really spent much time with him. Maybe I was more charming than I thought.

In Act 2, Isabella left but returned in the nick of time with her artefact when I was talking to the Qunari. I duelled and beat the Arishok in single combat, and that was a tough fight even on easy mode.

I had Anders as my love interest. I do think he was a cool character, I liked how he was introduced at his clinic (you got the sense that he did have a genuine interest in helping people) and he did a great job of stopping blood mages from killing me and helping to identify people who were possessed in the first couple of acts. I also have a soft spot for blondes :P Yes, he went off the rails towards the end, and I was sucked in to hoping I could try to keep him (and everyone else) safe. I kept him in my party though, partly because by that time I just wanted to protect him from himself and partly because I needed him to help deal with the current crisis. I don’t think the relationship would have really lasted so I was amused when Varric said in the narrative that everyone left Hawke except for Isabella at the end. It may have been a bug (probably the love interest was supposed to stay) but I thought it was very plausible since she was pretty much my best friend.

Incidentally I’m pretty sure Anders didn’t use magic to blow up the chantry but alchemy instead. Let’s face it, if he’d had access to that sort of magic, templars would have been blown up a lot sooner than that.

When we went into the fade to sort out Feynriel, I took Varric, Isabella and Fenris, the latter two being corrupted by desire and pride demons respectively. I had no intention of ever taking Anders into the fade :)

As far as the Circle and Templars go, I tend to entirely blame the first enchanter for all the blood mages in Kirkwall. It was his job to train his mages better than that. If everything hadn’t completely gone to hell, I would have tried to get in a decent mage to head up the circle, but the templar/ circle relationship wasn’t really a good solution anyway. I still sided with the mages though since Meredith was clearly someone who had to go.

Dragon Age: Your Ending, and My Summary

White_DAO_Logo

After an epic 45 hour punctuated session of gaming, my journey in Dragon Age has come to an end … for now. It was a bitter-sweet ending — the Archdemon was slain (this surely can’t be a spoiler if you were paying any attention at all), life goes on, my fellowship of NPC companions split up and everyone went their separate ways. I think I did right by them, mostly, but at the end it was just me and my faithful dog, Bitey, and the long open road.

Was my character still the same self-centred but basically well-meaning casteless Carta bruiser that was introduced in the dwarf commoner origin? I think so, but she’d changed. She’d seen the world above, faced horrors underground, faced her inner demons on a religious pilgrimage, and locked horns with some hard bitten political mavens in the Landsmeet. And killed lots of darkspawn, too. A story where the characters have room to change and grow is a good story. My Dragon Age story could easily have been told from the perspective of any one of the companions too, because they also changed and grew and faced their own inner demons.

I enjoyed reading how other peoples’ stories ended in an rpg.net thread setup for the purpose (link is full of spoilers, you’ve been warned). Because rpg.net was originally a community of pen and paper roleplayers, you’ll see a lot of people describe how they RPed their characters, why they made decisions IC, and where that led.

And although there are good endings and less good endings (depending on your point of view), I don’t get the feeling that this is a game that you win or lose. Either way, you have your own story.  I’ve also felt strongly while playing Dragon Age that I wanted to talk to people about how their stories were going, what choices they made, and to compare experiences. Even though it’s a single player game, it was an experience I very much wanted to share.

And now, I’m already planning on playing through it again:

  • I want to try playing on a harder mode now that I understand the mechanics more fully.
  • I want to play through as different origins and races.
  • I want to  learn more about the lore by playing through the game differently. How does Orzammar treat non-dwarves? Does the Landsmeet treat you differently if you are a human noble?
  • I want to tinker around with the storyline by trying different options and seeing what happens.
  • I want to get to know different companions. I only had time to strike up in depth relationships with a handful of them.
  • My dwarf girl was not the romantic type. (I laughed at Zevran and told him to get lost when he called me a sex goddess.) I’d like to play a more romantic type and see how some of those play out.
  • I’d like to do more of the sidequests and dragon slaying. In my play through, I decided that stopping the Blight was my first priority so I didn’t want to waste too much time or take too many risks outside hat.
  • I want to try some of the DLC content – I could do that on my main character but it might be more storywise to run through it on a second one.

So there’s plenty of incentive to keep playing the game, although I think I’ll take a break first. One thing I do note though – I have this notion of ‘playing around with the story’. I’ll be able to go back in and try out some ‘what if’s. There’s no other media than games in which you can approach a story in that way. To rewind and try different choices or different approaches and then see what happens. You can’t do that with a book (barring game books) or a film.

The experience players have with the Dragon Age story isn’t just of going through cut scenes and railroaded platform or combat sequences. You engage with the actual story as a gamer. Your choices drive it, your roleplaying decisions guide it,  and although you control the direction, you can’t always predict how the story will go because it drives you too. The story is the keystone of the game, and its emotional heart.

Is it limited? Yes, it’s only a computer game, and what you end up with are variations on a theme rather than radically, utterly different stories. But I think they are different enough and interesting enough to compel me to want to play with the possibilities given.

I dismiss  the complaints about lack of originality. The best parts of the game are the less original sections, and all fantasy relies on using existing mythical threads to weave a story that appeals to people on a very instinctive level.

For example, the section where you search for the Ashes of Andraste is very clearly based on the Arthurian grail quest. There are monsters to fight, hardships, moral dilemmas, puzzles, revelations and a strong sense of religious pilgrimage. But even a story so well known as the quest for the grail feels fresh and different when you are experiencing it alongside your character. If the emotional core of the story is present and is appealing and FUN, it really doesn’t matter if it is original or not.

(Conversely, it’s easy to tell an unusual story in a way that’s confusing or fails to grab people.)

Issues and Pacing

I love Dragon Age but the game isn’t perfect. There are ways in which it could be streamlined and better presented, although I think the game does succeed totally in many ways.

It is a long game. Sections like the Mage Tower and the Deep Roads can drag, especially if you try to play them through in a single session. But it also simulates a long and difficult journey very well. The sense of ‘oh no, not another set of darkspawn’ is part of the story being told.

From a gameplay point of view, it’s open to discussion whether some segments are too drawn out. (It would be slicker to have decided what the optimal length of game session was and to design the sub-quests around that baseline.) But that decision is an artistic storytelling decision on pacing, not a gameplay one on ‘how many mobs should be in that pack to challenge the player?’

I enjoyed the sense of the long and drawn out journeys in my quests so I don’t have an issue with the pacing there. But as I say, that’s a subjective opinion, others may differ or might have wanted an option to let the game know that you wanted things sped up.

The end game doesn’t allow enough time to tie up loose ends emotionally with the rest of the NPC companions. If you’ve gotten very close to any of them, it would have been nice to have some extended conversation options on the night before the last battle, it would have given a better sense of closure. Tamarind discusses his story here (spoilers behind the link) and explains why he really needed to have words with Alistair … if the game had allowed it.

The DLC is handled awkwardly at the end. The problem here with the storytelling is that this game definitely has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The DLC should logistically happen in the middle while your character is out adventuring and before the final battle. But clearly players are going to finish the story and Bioware still wants to sell DLC to them.  So after the final set of cut scenes and ‘this is what happened to your companions afterwards’, you’re left back in camp and told that for the purpose of ‘continuing your adventures’ you can assume you’re back in the midgame.

I don’t have the heart to really complain about this. I’m glad I had my neat ending and wouldn’t have wanted to skip that just to leave my character in a convenient spot storywise for DLC. A story that was designed at the start to have up to two years of optional but available DLC wouldn’t be able to have that neat ending, it would be more MMO like. Maybe in future games, they’ll have better ideas for how to make this gel more neatly.

Anyway, I’m back to Lothering with my new mage-in-search-of-a-husband. Instead of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it’ll be like Pride and Prejudice with Darkspawn.

And thank you Bioware, for restoring my faith in storytelling in computer games.