Things I Was (Happily) Wrong About in 'Dragon Age II'

Something tells me that despite its flaws, Dragon Age II is going to have real staying power over time, especially among the critical and theoretical blogosphere where already some important dialogue is taking shape.

Dragon Age II

Publisher: Electronic Arts
Rated: M
Players: 1
Price: $59.99
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Developer: Bioware
Release date: 2011-03-08

As I wrap up my second playthrough of Dragon Age II in preparation of a full review, I thought it might prove salient to note some of the things I was especially (and thankfully) mistaken about when discussing the game in our recent Dragon Age podcast. Dragon Age II proves that it is capable of surprises at every turn, and while it's far from a perfect experience, it knocks some balls so far out of the park that it would be a shame not to highlight them.

I'll be keeping spoilers to a minimum in this, but as usual, please read with discretion if you're still in the midst of your first run or intending to buy it. For the rest, including those who might still be on the fence about the game's merits, read on.

Assumption 1: Love interest or not, Aveline is widowed to make her available to the player.

Postulate: There aren't many plain women in video games. Female guardsman Aveline might not be very conventionally drop dead gorgeous when compared to the likes of Isabela but she's still pretty, so when we see her husband die in the opening chapter of the game, my immediate thought was "of course." Not only does this serve to remove an obstacle that might keep her from being a party member, it makes her sexually available to the player -- at least in spirit. While it has already been made clear that she isn't one of the game's romance options, the situation appears to follow a traditional formula of male fantasy, in which there are no male competitors for a woman's attention.

The Truth: Aveline is possibly the best written character in the game or at least up there in the top bracket. She is self sufficient both in terms of her personality and in the mechanics of character with so much of her own interior life that Hawke needn't even be part of it. She is not frozen into an ambient state waiting for Hawke to create her story. She pursues her story herself. Hawke might end up playing a pivotal role in some of that, but it's always on the condition of Aveline's invitation, without which Aveline is quite content to go about things on her own terms.

As for her being sexually available to the player and the nonexistence of male competitors? Not really. A+, Bioware.

Assumption 2: The dialogue wheel will be too limiting.

Postulate: As reliably iconic as Mass Effect's dialogue wheel is, it runs the danger of proving too rudimentary as a play mechanic, especially when reformulating Dragon Age's more open-ended and expressive response system. Being a devotee of both franchises, I've still come to see the silent protagonists of Origins as vastly superior overall because they provide me as the player a way to fill in the details and recognize the moral shades of gray inherent in whatever action they take. Like many, I was dubious that the dialogue wheel and a voiced protagonist could work at all in Dragon Age, especially with color coding to signal to the player in advance what the effect would be.

The Truth: It can indeed feel restrictive at times but not to the extent that many of us feared. Indeed, the game mainly prevents the emotional whiplash and "locked in" feel of the Mass Effect games by avoiding extremes even when it appears to be playing to them, through an actually ingenious method of "response stacking." In a method similar to anyone who has ever taken a computer-based exam, the game assigns a sort of weight to the frequency with which players select one response tone over another. The effect is that though my sarcastic male mage Professor Hawke mainly stuck to snark responses, when I decided he had to be stricter or more supportive, the tone provided had an appropriate note of ambivalence. Similarly, when my authoritarian female warrior Toma Hawke (can you tell I just can't take this name seriously?) tended to mellow a bit around her sister, the game supported that tonal transition very effectively.

In what I can only assume must have been a process that was confusing as hell in the recording booth, male and female Hawke can go through subtle to incredibly dramatic shifts in their responses depending on player stacking, the full extent to which maybe isn't apparent if you haven't accomplished multiple playthroughs. The absence of an overall morality meter helps with this considerably, since Dragon Age has always been about choosing between evils, rather than concerning itself with Mass Effect's black-or-white polarities. The result: three separate but equally compelling Hawkes and plenty of hybridity in between.

Assumption 3: Framing the story as a flashback is hamfisted and won't work.

Postulate: It's corny. It's schlocky. It's been done. And, here, it's possibly racially problematic and misogynist as well, given that the default Hawke family is white and default Bethany is pouring out of her dress until Varric is called upon to give an "accurate" account. It seems especially cheap as means by which the game cuts down on the number of settings (a problem made worse by the limited maps) and promotes lazy timeskipping (also made worse by the way no one seems to age). Dramatically ambitious, mayhaps, but it strikes all the wrong notes, and I vaguely hoped for a while it was just a device of the demo and wouldn't be present in the real game.

The Truth: The racist/sexist undertones may still be present but that is a matter of interpretation for which there has already been plenty of point-counterpoint. Furthermore, not to minimize the issue at all, but after 40-60 hours playing as our own Hawke family, the memory of those romantic exaggerations is long gone in the minds of players and is replaced with a more structural conundrum. In short: my mind, it is blown.

Someone, maybe me, will eventually write a long textual analysis of this game as a subtle exploration of the unreliable narrator. There are at least two occasions where Varric's accuracy is called into question and countless others that caused me to pause and reflect that -- really -- the issue of character agency is incredibly complex here. By framing all of this as Varric's account and by explicitly stating that Varric is a compulsive liar who fabricates things even when it's not necessary and it's not likely that he'll be called out on it, the player is forced to reevaluate their play as in some way all being something produced by Varric's invention (or possibly Cassandra's imagination). There is really no way to verify a single detail of Varric's story, as it all literally takes place within a blackbox, and while it's clear there is some larger, exterior truth to it all, everything confined within Varric's account of Hawke's story is a puppet show played out by the gamer. It's so meta my ears are bleeding.

Assumption 4: It's going to be the same old, same old with romances.

Postulate: Come on, it's Bioware, where "emotional engagement" means "a one-night stand."

The Truth: Three-year courtship! Bodice-ripping! Living together for another three years! This would only be more like fanfiction if weddings and children were involved.

No game is going to be perfect, and some of the criticisms to be leveled at Dragon Age II are certainly valid. But I am so pleased to have been wrong in so many of my presuppositions about this game, especially in areas where I thought I had everything all figured out in advance. Something tells me that despite its flaws, Dragon Age II is going to have real staying power over time, especially among the critical and theoretical blogosphere where already some important dialogue is taking shape.

And I wouldn't say no to some future Aveline DLC in the same vein as Leliana's Song, of course. Something penned by Terry Pratchett and guest starring a certain Samuel Vimes? No? Well, I can dream.

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