A few weeks ago I took my final steps from the soaring stone city of Kirkwall. From the towering heights of the Gallows and Chantry, adorned with giant bronze figures and fluttering banners, to the dingiest depths and recesses of Darktown, where the thieves and cut-throats hid amidst the filth and refuse.
I’d spent a long time there; either 60 hours, or 6 years, depending how you looked at it. In that time it had become my home, a noose around my neck, a place of bitter sadness and even a few scant moments of jolly fun.
In short, I had completed the much maligned game that is Dragon Age 2. An experience that I enjoyed far more than I did the first game, and one that it seems the average Joe & Jane gamers disliked intently. On that account, I’d like to redress the balance a little by putting forth a few thoughts on why Dragon Age 2 is well worth your time, and in fact might actually be the best game idea that Bioware have ever conceived.
The World of Dragon Age
For the uninitiated, a few words of background: The Dragon’s Age universe looks at first glance your standard Tolkien-mould D&D style fantasy universe, replete with weird monsters, Magic, Knights, Dwarves, Elves and no shortage of evil calamity about to bring the world into darkness at a moment’s notice. However this is only a surface reading, what makes DA work better than many High Fantasy universes in film, book or game, is that it’s far less concerned with painting these bastions of the genre as distinct than it is telling a very real human story through them. As anyone who has played the arguably more popular Mass Effect series can testify, Bioware are great at creating analogues between their fictional races of beings, with various strange ideologies, and real life clashes of culture and belief.
The world is a strange and complex one, with a powerful religious order called The Chantry standing as the dominant power. (think of Vatican Rome in Crusader times) Magic users are shunned and feared, those choosing to work within the “rules” joining The Circle, and falling under the purview of a zealous order of Templar knights acting as both their protectors and police-force. Meanwhile Mages who refuse to join, are either labelled Apostates, or semi-lobotomised to make them “Tranquil” a horrifying placid & emotionless, but also magic-free existence.
Tossed into the mix are the Grey Wardens, who are something like superhero soldiers crossed with the Watch from Game of Thrones. Tireless warriors who exist to fight of the Darkspawn, a race of semi-undead who hide from the light and are constantly trying to take over the world. Usual stuff really.
There are also the Elves, who come in various flavours, the dwarves who don’t always have beards, and the Qunari, who can be best described as a giant grey-skinned cross between Vulcans and Isis. There’s also the land of Tevinter… but even I’m lost when it comes to that and this is getting too complicated already… you get the idea.
A Wee Bit of Dragon Age History
In case you never played Dragon Age Origins (the first game) there’s a tiny bit of back story that’s fairly pertinent.
The Evil Darkspawn™ had sprung from the depths and their great Dragon leader was waging war upon the living, when the King was betrayed and almost all the Grey Wardens wiped out in one fell swoop. This led to the land of Ferelden being ravaged by the undead, and its people killed, or scattered across the lands. A solitary Grey Warden did however survive, and eventually amassed enough support to defeat the darkspawn and put a new ruler on the throne. Still, the country was left racked with poverty, disease and generally in a terrible way…. that’s it, actually. That’s all you really need to know.
Dragon Age 2, is the story of Hawke, “the Champion of Kirkwall” told in flashback through an interesting “interrogation” artifice, as one of your ingame companions tells the sweeping story of your life to a fervant Chantry inquisitor.
Hawke and his family are Human Ferelden refugees, fleeing the Darkspawn during the height of the war with the undead. They arrive at the ancient once slaver-city of Kirkwall, and only by pledging themselves to a band of local hoodlums for a year’s servitude are allowed entry. It’s there the game takes its first unusual step…
But before going much deeper, it’s probably best to talk about the game and address the complaints that usually crop up from dissatisfied players of Dragon’s Age 2.
That Good Ol’ Save The World Story
Bioware are masters of their craft. They make games that sell millions of copies and tell interesting stories. It’s pretty rare to meet a gamer who isn’t a Mass Effect or Dragon Age fan; or if a little older, one who loved Knights of The Old Republic (arguably one of the best Star Wars properties ever licensed)
But here’s the problem with those games. They’re all the same game. Now, before you begin to argue, hear me out. All three Mass Effect games, KOTOR, Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age: Inquisition (from what I’ve heard) are built from the same master-plan.
“Evil Bad” threatens all good things and must be stopped, so gang of misfit heroes must travel all over to find info, make allies, and generally prepare for the big showdown at the end. It’s the “we need to save the world! Let’s do a whistle-stop tour of everyone we know to prepare!” story, which seems doubly odd when you consider how much time most players spend doing minor fetch quests for every random passer-by, romancing side characters, and hanging out in bars.
But here’s where Dragon Age 2 differs from all the rest of the series. While mechanically, it shares that same general game progression (although heavily disguised) it’s not about that at all. Dragon Age 2 is a tale of a single city.
In focusing the story and locale to in and around the city of Kirkwall it creates both its greatest achievement and – apparently from a player-base point of view – its greatest flaw. As many people I’ve spoken to will churn out the same complaints about it: “You don’t have much character choice” “it only has a handful of locations”, “you don’t visit enough interesting places”, “there are too many enemies and they just drop from the ceiling mid-battle” (I can’t really say I disagree with the last one there, actually)
There are plenty of valid complaints to level at Dragon Age 2, but for me, one of the mistakes people who dismissed and gave up on the game early have made is in hating the game for what it was not, rather than what it was. Bioware took a gamble with Dragon Age 2, and in trying to tell a very different sort of story from their usual fare, garnered critical success and sales, and then something of a backlash from the fan base.
Why It Feels Wrong
Now, don’t misunderstand me, I get why you didn’t like DA2. I had those early moments when I realised that that the game seemed only centred in Kirkwall, and the Deep Road Expedition seemed a far away dream, only to be a short vacation before a lamenting and bitter return to the grim streets and courtyards of the city.
Origins allows us to traipse all across the land of Thedas, to go from towering cliff, to swamp to forest, with the odd sojourn into a village, castle or city breaking up the questing and exploration of this vast fantasy realm. It’s a freedom that allows the player to create a travelogue of a narrative, “My Grey Warden visited the Dwarves LAST!” – shouted no-one in particular. Which goes further to solidifying that personal imbuing of self onto the player avatar. What’s more, that avatar could be customised not only by facial features, hair, skin colour, and gender, but by character class skill-set and race (that’s race in terms of Elf, Dwarf or Human) All of which lets you pour your heart into the character even more!
In DA2… you were human, you HAVE to be human. You could be a Rogue, a Warrior, or a Mage, but you were still either a male or female human being. While this didn’t seem to bother folks one iota in the Galaxy-spanning Mass Effect games, in a Tolkienian fantasy this was seen by some as constricting and horrible. “How dare they take away my chance to be a super-cute Daelish Elf?” – cried a passing straw-man.
Why it Works
While this infuriated some, the practical effect of making you a human refugee from Ferelden meant that your view of the world was that of an outsider wherever you went. One where your alliances needs must be built through actions and sometimes inactions. Overcoming the prejudices of some while tolerating and accepting those of others. The central location of Kirkwall also meant that as you quest on, it becomes clear that the city is the only place Hawke is welcome. The Dwarves in the city are sympathetic enough but only when you’re being successful and the Daelish Elves are a bitter cliquey band of wandering crusties, steeped in their own lore and self importance while eyeing everyone else with distrust.
This makes the humans a natural ally, one that should by rights be a comfortable one, but DA2 won’t even grant that level of comfort to the player. As mentioned earlier the city is a powder-keg of emotion, fear and distrust. At first it’s because of the appearance of the Qunari, who begin by converting people to their cause, while acting in an arrogant and inscrutable manner, before breaking into an all out revolt in an attempt to radicalise the city under their doctrine by force.
But the followers of the Qun are only a milestone on the way to the inevitable explosion of the brimming problems between the Templars and the Circle of Magi. It’s a nightmare that regardless of what good work you do throughout, or which side you favour, will reach detonation point.
Religion vs. Freedom. vs. Safety vs. Fear vs. Paranoia vs. MAKING YOU CHOOSE!
As the game approaches the climax, the player finally meets The Knight Commander of the Templar order, Meredith. A bitterly stoic fundamentalist believer, wresting with the need to protect the citizenry from Bloodmages and witchcraft, but also keeping order in accordance with the Templar edicts and the Chantry doctrine. She’s a frosty and largely unlikeable character, but one whose actions are mostly predictable and, although draconian, not entirely without reason.
The game also introduces the First Enchanter of the Mage Circle, Orsino. A far more reasonable seeming chap, who loosely holds sway over the Mages under his command, but seems to be fighting a losing battle against desertion and the seductive sway of Blood Magic that threatens to turn more and more magic users to “the dark side” as it were. He’s a bit of a limp character, nearing the end of his tether, and barely strong enough to hold his own against the will of Meredith and his own dissenters.
Between the two, stand the Chantry, and their Pope-like figure Grand Cleric Elthina. She holds the peace by a thread and it’s in the midst of this tangle that the player finds themselves. By the later stages of the game, Hawke’s many feats of bravery has earned him/her the title of Champion of the city with an accordant level of political sway. So when it comes down to the final whisper… yep you guessed it. It’s up to Hawke, by virtue of the player to choose which side to protect and which to, essentially slaughter, as there is little or no chance of compromise or calm on any side. The decision isn’t easy, in fact the game goes to great lengths to ensure that you are faced with good and bad people on either side, some who are reasonable and some so utterly twisted and evil that putting them down is a mercy to themselves and their bedsheets! It’s a difficult part of a game to play, made worse because the narrative is specifically designed to lead to the stage that you will all but certainly split your hard won team of friends ideologically over it.
We Happy Few
The super-happy crew, or Hawke’s Band, or whatever silly name you choose to call the stalwart companions who’ve had your back, MUST by necessity split. There are too many ideological differences for them to hold when it falls to that final moment. No matter what you choose, between the Pirate captain, the Captain of the City Guard, the secret Mage, the Magic-hating Tevinter ex-slave, or the Daelish Elf wizard; unless you’ve done feats of placatory gymnastics then some or all of them will leave your side to join the other when you make that final decision. And if they leave, you inevitably have to face them, to put your beloved friends down or die at their hands in a battle born of vying political ideologies.
Moreover, one of them will be directly involved in the situation through acts so heinous that it genuinely surprised even me while playing it. A party who may as well as a friend, be a lover, doubling down on the emotional cost of the situation and leaving you with the further difficult choice of what to do with an ally who has acted in a manner utterly against the morality you’ve (likely) been playing the game espousing.
Home is where you lay the heads you’ve taken in battle
The beauty of the this storyline is that you can feel it creeping up as the game plays out, deep in your guts you’ve long had an awful feeling that things are escalating out of control, and as a resident of Kirkwall, this matters to you. If this was simply a storyline in one of 20 different locations you visited over a continent, it would mean little, however by the end of the game Kirkwall isn’t nothing.
After 50-60 hours of playing the game, Kirkwall is your home and refuge; you’ve fought and bled for this city and lost people you loved in the process. If you played your cards and emotions right, you found love, or at least had a few dalliances while you were there, and at the end you’re going through hell and high water to hold the difficult peace. A peace that means more than it would in most games because the sense of place has grown so slowly and surely.
The city of Kirkwall is that grotty flat you lived in because you couldn’t get anything better, because you’d lost a job, or had a bad break-up and had to live somewhere that over time became important to you because of what it represented rather than what it actually was. The house you struggled to fix-up and put up with the damp or the creaky hall floor, and every time you went away, you returned with a slightly fed-up sigh but under it all, grudgingly you had started to care about because eventually it got into your marrow and your heart through sheer attrition.
Very few games manage to make the player feel anything for a location, but Dragon Age 2 works hard to make you feel like you are a part of Kirkwall, and for a large part succeeds.
The bad with the good
Of course, the game is far from perfect. Aside from the earlier mentioned problems with the character restrictions, the wave-spawning ceiling-dropping enemies, and the fact that for some, Kirkwall will probably never mean much because they wanted to leave it constantly; and resultantly gave up on the game entirely. For others, they may find the storytelling facade and the flashbacks a tired and hackneyed gimmick, or perhaps as I did, find some of the dialogue so painfully on the nose that it hurts.
No, really… at one point a psychotic rogue Templar Captain actually says “We have found a Final Solution to the Mage problem!” oh dear…
If anything, that’s the one failing of the game. It feels like a lot of the script and some of the characterisation was penned as the first draft and subsequently never revised. But in a game that tries to cover a vast and complex tale of religious extremism, prejudice, racism, fear of the ‘other’ and vying political idealism, it’s no wonder they dumbed down the dialogue to make this all clear and easy to understand for even the least enlightened 13 year old playing. You can’t have everything.
For me, Dragon Age 2 stands as a singularly unique experiment into how a Roleplaying video-game can break from the shackles of the genre that have been growing more and more stagnant for nearly 20 years, and try something new. Something far more like the pen and paper Roleplaying games that inspired the D&D based games that Dragon Age is an offshoot from. It’s a game that people should consider revisiting with a fresh eye, as there’s far more to it than the swathes of grumpy player reviews might have you believe. In fact maybe for a change.. the critics were actually right about this one.