Control Yourself (More): Agency in 'Dragon Age'

What's more freeing -- exploring a world or creating a character?

After talking about the open worlds of L.A. Noire and Red Dead Redemption a few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the subject, which in turn caused me to realize that I had more to say on the topic. Having just finished a run through of Dragon Age II, it occurred to me that the end was somewhat less indicative of my impact on the city of Kirkwall than I'd thought it would be -- but I didn't care. Sure, in Dragon Age: Origins I had saved the whole world from a Blight, chosen the next dwarven king, cured a whole society of lycanthropy, and done a bunch of other things that would have never been resolved if not for the timely intervention of me, the Grey Warden.

Alternatively you could keep werewolves around. It is Your Choice.

In the world of Dragon Age: Origins, your control extends to the fate of the world. In Dragon Age II, you are in control of your own fate -- but only just. Both games have stories revolving around choice, yet there's no "open world" to explore. Indeed, both games in the series make the decision to cut out all the travel time between locations. There's no overworld to explore, just a series of locations that you can jump to by pointing at them on a map.

Interestingly, the choices in Dragon Age II do not have the large, world altering effects of Dragon Age: Origins (apart from the end of Act II, in which Hawke saves the city). That is in part because of the differing narrative foci of Dragon Age II, since Hawke is meant to be an individual who is merely caught up in events far beyond his control (evidenced by the indication that really there's very little difference in the ending depending upon who the player chooses to side with) Sure, siding with the Templars nets you a cushy viscountship, but there's still widespread unrest and Circle rebellions all over the damn place. That said, the player has an awful lot of control over the sort of person that Hawke is, which is thanks largely to the conversation system, a system that allows you to joke with some characters, be nice to others, and be a complete dick to the rest. My first time through, I played Hawke as utterly devil-may-care, which is largely why he wound up romancing Isabella.

Isabella:  Maybe my favorite character?

Isabella: Maybe my favorite character?

Subsequent visits to the world have involved a more complicated sort of person, as I have allowed my own dislike of Anders to influence most of the conversations that I've held with him, meaning that while my new Hawke is generally nice to most people, she is a jerk to Anders and his angst ridden mage ways.

Granted, being a jerk to Anders (or being nice at first to Merril but increasingly gruff with her the more she recklessly headed down a path of destruction) does very little to influence the actual end of the game apart from who will stand by your side when the narrative shit hits the fan, but as previously mentioned, there's no decisions that feel quite as weighty as shaping the political future of the nation for the next however many years. That's not quite the point, though, as the game allows for freedom in choosing the sort of person that the player wishes Hawke to be. This is apparent from the very beginning; the player is, after all, asked to decide whether Hawke is a mage or a warrior or a rogue before anything else, effectively setting up how the game is going to be played.

No narrative defining racial choice in DA2, just a gender choice.

The Dragon Age series gets the player to relate to the character by making that player decide what sort of a hero that they're going to be. This choice also determines which of the other characters in the game's narrative that the player will get along with. For example, I found it remarkably difficult to maintain good relations with Fenris because Hawke -- my Hawke, to be precise -- cared about his sister and by default tended to side with the Circle in most disputes. Fenris, being the anti-mage grump that he is, never agreed with Hawke's decisions.

Dragon Age: Origins gave the player similar freedom -- even greater freedom really, as you could choose the race of your Warden in the context of the world's socio-political landscape and not just the gender and class of the character. As with the sequel, the party members will react based upon your decisions, and the Warden's background will influence how people initially treat him. Regrettably this was only a skin-deep illusion, as eventually guards and other NPCs who may have disliked you initially fall back into the default "Hello Warden, how may I help you" talk after an initial meeting. That being said, adding the origin mechanic into the game allowed for players to get to know the Warden before they became the Warden, and there is no outward pressure from the game to play the Warden in the same style, since you can still be a nice person in one conversation and a complete jerk in the next. Your Warden can be schizoid, if you so choose, and yet still manage to save the day and defeat the Archdemon, possibly via heroic sacrifice. In this sense, the Dragon Age games allow for an awful lot of freedom. The hero is one of the player's own making -- up to a point.

Of course, the story remains tightly controlled, even with the ability to make different decisions about who dies, who lives, and who ascends to the throne. This is to be expected, of course, as Dragon Age is telling a story, and that story has to be told, regardless of slight variations on its themes. In the end, that's what the players are doing in the game, coming up with their own variations on the tune that Bioware has composed. In spite of the ability to determine what sort of person you're controlling, there is no exploration to the game beyond traipsing through the cities where stuff happens, traveling being confined to a map with the occasional random interruption for a cutscene or a side quest. There's no open world to explore, but there is a character to create. There's a tradeoff to be made here; either there's a world that you are turned loose in (but as a pre-defined character) or there's a world that you must make your way through (but your way is unique). The closest thing to a joining of the two is in the realm of MMORPGs, which promise open worlds and character customization, though they generally fall short in their interaction with NPCs. You are very rarely going to make a decision or even get the opportunity to piss people off in an MMO who are not controlled by other players. There does not seem to be a middle ground, although to their credit Bioware's own The Old Republic seems to be attempting to cobble the two together -- but at the cost of having each class go through a unique storyline. Obviously there's no way to know how that will come together without having played it, so I'll leave it for now.


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