regarding your latest dragon age analysis, you state that dragon age used to be great at one point. while i agree, and origins is still one of my favorite video games of all time story-wise, i would like to know if this is actually your opinion or just what i want to hear? because i personally think that in the latest game they really lost track of what made the past games really good, but I’m not sure if that’s your opinion.
It’s not. I found Origins underwhelming, with both design, writing, and business decisions that I’d call questionable at best. The business decisions fall well outside the scope of this blog, and I covered my issue with the game design last week.
I realize it’s a dark horse in the fandom, but the only Dragon Age game I really like is 2. The writing does a couple things very well, giving the game a truly unique flavor from the rest of Bioware’s releases. That’s kind of the problem. So, there’s four things discuss, that are worth taking a moment.
Dragon Age 2 does a good job with shades of gray morality. In most Bioware titles, it’s easy to identify the good/evil dynamic. To borrow a phrase, your choices split between being a saint, or eating babies. That’s not true in DA2. The game presents you with a lot of situations where both sides have legitimate positions, and you’re left with some difficult choices. This can easily leave you feeling like, no matter which way you went, you’d made a mistake. There’s a true to life quality to this, and it fits well with the overarching tone the game is following, but if you came here for a conventional power fantasy, the game shanks you at almost every turn. This is something that Origins claimed it would do, but 2 delivered, and the community’s reaction was less than enthusiastic.
It’s story and setting are serious, it’s characters aren’t. Origins and Inquisition both inject their humor into the events around the characters. Sometimes these are the result of character action, but often these jokes are delivered deadpan by the world. This is a familiar beat in tabletop roleplaying games, where the GM chooses to be a smart ass for a second, but it’s incongruous with the setting that the development team was trying to sell.
DA2 doesn’t do this, nearly as much. Most of the humor there comes directly from the characters responding to the horrific events around them. Again, there’s an uncomfortable truth to this kind of behavior; humor is often a defense mechanism. It’s a way to deal with things that are too horrible to deal with. In contrast to a normal heroic story, this is an arc of people falling apart, or struggling against it. There’s a corrosive quality to the events story, where characters simply trying to survive and cope with the things they’ve seen. This can leave you with the impression that these are truly horrible people, and over the course of the story, a few of the recurring characters become far less palatable than they were at the beginning.
It violates audience expectations from the developer. This isn’t automatically a good thing, and the fan reaction can probably serve as a warning against this kind of behavior. DA2 is very critical of the normal Bioware game, to the extent that it’s almost an inversion. Your character starts in a relatively stable city surrounded by loyal friends and family, but as the story progresses, the city falls to ruin, the friends and family start to scatter or die. While Hawke, the protagonist, becomes more politically important, they become more disconnected and isolated. The opening cutscene even tells you, this isn’t the story of how a scrappy hero arrived to save the day, it’s the story about how someone who tried to make things better served as a catalyst for the unspoken chaos that followed. This is more in line with authors like Michael Moorcock than Bioware’s normal stable.
If you picked up 2 after playing Origins, you’d be greeted by a mostly unfamiliar setting. There are some superficial similarities, the game’s prologue and first chapter play out during the events of Origins, however, almost immediately the tone is unrecognizable, for a number of reasons. First, and foremost, Dragon Age 2 is in a completely different fantasy genre from every other game in the series.
I mentioned Michael Moorcock earlier, and there are some hints of Elric of Melniboné in Dragon Age 2, but the major influence, visible up front, is Lankhmar. From Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, the city of Lankhmar was a fantasy pastiche of contemporary New York City. The strange confounding, almost ungovernable mess should be immediately familiar to any player who spent any time wandering Kirkwall in Dragon Age 2. The similarities aren’t just in the architecture or denizens, but in the borderline feral quality that resists governing. Leiber’s opportunistic rogues are also instantly recognizable as kindred spirits for Hawke and party. Even the narrative structure of the game, as multiple semi-connected vignettes is very reminiscent of the short stories. There’s still a lot of Warhammer here, but it’s marinating with a diverse array of influences, and the result is something completely different.
There are some major flaws. Some critical exposition for understanding what’s going on in the city are buried in an unmarked collectible sidequest, leaving many players with the impression that the events happened for no reason. (This may have been impossible to complete on some platforms due to a bug, making things worse.) The ending is rushed, probably owing to an abbreviated development cycle.
In spite of how the community rejected Dragon Age 2 at the time, I think it’s probably the single best example of writing from Bioware. I can understand the people who didn’t like the gameplay experience. I can understand the people who felt betrayed. They were promised a specific kind of experience, and were delivered something unexpected and, at times downright vicious. Personally, I still prefer something that takes risks, and commits, more than a writer that plays it safe, even when it doesn’t quite work out. Also, the sarcastic personality was shockingly close to my outlook on Dragon Age after playing Origins, so that probably helped a bit.