Dragon Age II is about prejudice, against refugees, foreigners, and those among us who are simply different. The citizens of Kirkwall hate the refugees from the Blight, they hate and fear the stranded Qunari, and like everyone else in the world of Dragon Age, they fear mages. Oh, and mages fear the Templars. The conflicts are well presented; neither side is very sympathetic as the victims often lash out with violence at their oppressors, justifying further oppression. Dragon Age II seeks to explore this vicious cycle of hate, and for the most part, it succeeds. Prejudice against mages isn’t just a major theme, it’s an important plot point with ramifications that will change the world of Ferelden. However, this delicate balance falls apart whenever the player is put in the role of victim because the player is never truly victimized or oppressed.
Dragon Age II constantly takes the easy route whenever the player encounters some form of oppression. At the very beginning of the game when Hawke first arrives in Kirkwall as a refugee, she sees a guard blocking a crowd of people from entering the city. When you talk to him, he refuses to let you through, but once you regain control of Hawke, you can run right past him, his guards, and the crowd of shouting people. You run through some hallways and come out in the Gallows, the ghetto of Kirkwall, but still very clearly within its walls. As if to hide the fact that Hawke is already in the city, the game forces players to sort out their issues of citizenship with another guard. The Gallows are nearly empty of refugees, which begs the question: if Hawke could get in so easily, why aren’t more people here? Already the game is singling out Hawke as someone special by separating the player from the rest of the refugees. Even though Hawke is clearly a refugee, she’s a special refugee, one that automatically rises above the rest. We may still have to bribe our way into the city proper, but we don’t have to stay out on the docks with the rest of the unwashed masses. Hawke is an exception to the rule of oppression.
If you choose to play as a mage, the lack of prejudice against you is even more egregious. No one seems to mind that you’re a mage even though Dragon Age takes great pains to show and tell us over and over again how most people are terrified of mages. Even before you save the city, no one ever reacts to you with suspicion or doubt or fear, no one ever refuses to work with you or sell to you. After Hawke saves the city and becomes Champion of Kirkwall, the lack of hate she receives is still surprising: Everyone accepts your heroism at face value. No one blames you for the attack or questions your intentions now that you’re so popular. Even Meredith, the leader of the Templars, gives you a free pass for being a mage.
What makes this such a missed opportunity for BioWare is that Dragon Age II offers a unique opportunity to place the player in the shoes of an oppressed minority and have that experience be relevant to both the plot and themes of the game. The mechanics of oppression would naturally hinder normal gameplay and can easily be frustrating without the right context.
What if we couldn’t buy magic items in Kirkwall, but instead had to get our supplies from outside the city—maybe at a black market trader on the Wounded Coast or from the elves on Sundermount? What if we couldn’t have a magic staff equipped when wandering Kirkwall or else Hawke would be caught and killed? To get even more ambitious, what if we couldn’t use magic inside Kirkwall at all, purposely limiting ourselves in combat in order to stay hidden?
Such hurdles would make simple gameplay more of a hassle for players who want to be a mage, but that’s the point. If anything, the design flaws of Dragon Age II have already proven that players are willing to put up with a lot of hassle for the sake of a good story and characters. Admittedly, it’s a slippery slope to criticize a game for what it doesn’t do, but BioWare of all developers is in a unique position to get away with making gameplay harder for the sake of the story because people play BioWare games for the story, not for the gameplay. That’s what makes this missed opportunity all the more painful.
I guess there’s always DLC.