This post contains major spoilers for the entirety of Dragon Age II. If you have even a slight interest in playing the game, do that before reading.
One of the chief complaints that I’ve heard about Dragon Age II is the relative lack of choice compared to the first game. In Dragon Age: Origins, you could change the fate of each little society that you visited: You could bring peace to the elves and werewolves or wipe out one side, you could save the mages or let them all die, and you could choose a king for the dwarves who would either modernize the people or steadfastly cling to tradition. (Your choices at Redcliffe aren’t as grand since the Arl sides with you no matter what happens.). In each instance, the choices that you made affected the world at large; your Grey Warden was a force of change that irrecoverably altered the lives of all he/she came into contact with.
Contrast that with the Champion of Kirkwall, who is unable to change any major plot point in the entire game:
Anders will destroy the church whether you help him or not, Merrill will have to kill the Keeper whether you help her or not, Isabella will leave at the end of Act 2 whether you help her or not, your sibling will become unplayable at the end of Act 1 whether you take him/her on the Deep Roads expedition or not. The qunari will always revolt, the mages and Templars will always go to war, and you will always have to fight both Orisino and Meredith regardless of who you side with in said war.
On the surface, this lack of player agency seems like a developer shortcut, a way to cut content (and thus development time) from the game by not asking for that content to begin with, A game with two endings takes twice as much effort to create as a game with one ending, so the story of Dragon Age II is written with a single ending in mind. However, when the game is analyzed as a whole, this lack of agency can be seen to reflect the larger themes of the game and reveals Dragon Age II to be far more ambitious in its narrative than its predecessor.
In Origins, you played the typical hero on a typical hero’s journey; a story that’s been done countless times before in this medium. In Dragon Age II, you play as an average civilian. Over time you become a popular and respected member of Kirkwall, but you are not a unique hero like the Gray Warden; you are not special, and you do not have some kind of superb negotiating skill that can erase years of prejudice with a single speech. Unlike the hero from Origins and even Commander Shepard, Hawke is never really in a position to change anything.
On a thematic level, the grand battles that you fight in Dragon Age II are always hopeless affairs. You spend much of the game trying to convince two opposing sides not to kill each other. Whether it’s humans vs. qunari or mages vs. Templars, you’re fighting prejudice, not physical armies, and prejudice is much harder to stop.
The Viscount in Act 2 embodies the hopelessness of this struggle. He holds no grudge against the qunari, but all his attempts to make peace are met with violence from one side that are beyond his control. He’s worried but not personally against his son’s admiration of the qun, but he knows that any public mention of that admiration will make the people assume the qunari have undue influence over the government and will likely react with violence, so he asks you to convince his son to stay quiet; a move that certainly doesn’t make him look good to the qunari. He also makes qunari soldiers tie their swords down when they visit the castle in order to ease people’s fears of an attack, but then they’re captured when they can’t fight back. He, like you, is fighting a losing battle. He can’t keep the peace when his people and the qunari are so unwilling to compromise. He’s killed at the end of Act 2, and all his attempts at arbitration are made pointless. This same story plays out in Act 3—with the mediator again being killed for trying to interfere. No one can win these battles. In fact, the only thing that makes Hawke special is that she simply survives when the hate turns to her.
On a personal level, you can’t change the course of events because they’re not important enough to warrant such an effort. Dragon Age II isn’t about an epic quest, it’s about Hawke and the relationships that she develops with those around her. The real drama of the game isn’t in the machinations of the plot—but in how those machinations affect your relationships. It’s on this more personal level that our choices become meaningful.
Isabella will leave at the end of Act 2, but if you have a loving relationship with her, she’ll come back for Act 3. Your sibling becomes unplayable after Act 1, but depending on your relationship they might come back in Act 3 to help you or hurt you. Anders will always succeed in his terrorist attack, but his punishment is up to you.
Unlike Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age II isn’t about fantasy wish fulfillment. We play as a normal person in trying times that is only able to react to the world, not change it. This could easily have been used as a narrative shortcut, but BioWare wrote a story that reinforces this lack of power on a thematic level. We do have less choice in Dragon Age II, but that’s the point.