Dragon Age II

Abstract image evoking bird silhouette

Critical Distance is proud to present this Critical Compilation of BioWare’s critically polarizing Dragon Age II by Rollin Bishop, as part of our new series of commissioned features.

Dragon Age II is a divisive video game, but not so much within critical circles. There are essentially two kinds of discussions people have about the current middle child of the franchise: they either talk about the poor enemy mechanics and reused maps, or they gush about the incredible characterization and setting. Even then, the latter tends to outweigh the former in terms of sheer amount of words put to page.

But that’s honestly probably why the game maintains such a strong following even now. On one hand, it’s not much of a game when you look at the mechanics it plays with, but it tries so hard to do something different and break from the typical role-playing game mold — one that BioWare themselves patented — that a lot of the rough edges tend to be forgiven. On the other hand, those rough edges cause constant friction between the experience the game so clearly wants the player to have and the one they are actually presented with.

The problem with systems

Dragon Age II has a systems problem, according to the majority of critics. Specifically, Dan Bruno at his now-defunct Cruise Elroy nails the game’s biggest problem with a succinct paragraph about how it uses environments:

One especially grating change, even for fans of the game like myself, is the frequent reuse of environments. Rather than creating unique dungeon layouts for each quest, Dragon Age II relies on the same handful of maps and varies them — or at least attempts to — by walling off certain sections, such that each trip to a dungeon reveals a particular subset of its tunnels.

On a slightly positive note, Geraldo Nascimento compares the structure of the game to a three-act stage play, and comments that the backgrounds in plays are often reused and recycled–they are unimportant beyond their service as backdrops to character action.

The expectations set by the original Dragon Age in terms of scale makes this shift chafe even more for some, however. As John Walker notes in his 2011 Rock, Paper, Shotgun piece about what went wrong with Dragon Age II, “[i]t would be madness (sic) to say that Dragon Age II is a bad game.” But he then goes on to provide a litany of legitimate issues with the game–including how it manages the jumps in time between acts. Those jumps represents years, and yet:

[T]he same people mill in the same places, the same merchants stand at the same stalls, the same buildings stand in the same places. It’s a conceit that the game seems entirely unwilling to deliver on in any imaginative way.

(It’s also worth noting here that Walker is one of an incredibly small number of critics that have enjoyed the combat system.)

Walker’s not alone, either. Brad Gallaway also found the reuse of the environments to be frustrating and suggests it’s a sign of the developers taking shortcuts, and he also lambasts the “mess” of a combat system. He even goes so far as to straight up tell folks to not bother purchasing the game. His full review is scathing. Bill Coberly at The Ontological Geek had similar issues with the game, but thinks that some critics are perhaps equating certain design decisions with specific problems that aren’t actually to blame:

Dragon Age 2’s problems stem from liberally reused environments, a sadly shallow combat system, and a clumsily shoehorned ending. But these problems somehow get conflated with its deliberate choice to reduce its scope, such that now people will say that “being stuck in Kirkwall” was the problem, when in fact it was 2’s best idea. The problem wasn’t that the game took place only in Kirkwall (nobody seems to complain that all the big sandbox games mostly take place in one city, after all). The problem was that Kirkwall’s designers apparently only had about three sets of building plans.

It’s not just the more traditional gameplay systems that are troublesome, though. Sparky Clarkson argues that the biggest problem with Dragon Age II is the fact that its mishmash of smaller issues “never build towards a whole, coherent story.”

The unexpected journey

Perhaps part of Gallaway’s major disappointment is the fact that his expectations were for some version of the Hero’s Journey; his articles seem to suggest as much. This isn’t what Dragon Age II truly provides, as it instead opts for something more akin to the Heroine’s Journey–at least according to prolific Dragon Age theorizer and Tumblr user Flutiebear. In some ways, it almost feels like Flutie is directly responding to Gallaway’s criticisms while explaining what the Heroine’s Journey is and how it applies to Dragon Age II:

When seen through the Hero’s Journey lens, a story like Buddha’s enlightenment or Journey to the West might look weak or unsatisfying. But that’s only a fault of perspective. Trying to understand these stories as Hero’s Journeys is a lot like looking at a black hole through a backyard telescope – it’ll never work, you won’t see anything worthwhile. That is, unless you use the right filter, you’re missing how beautiful that blown-out star can be.

If there’s one word to describe the construction of the game’s narrative, it’s ambitious. Kate Cox goes so far as to compare at least the way the game begin’s to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. She argues that the use of Varric and the larger frame story immediately sets the stage for a tragedy; players are made aware that something dramatic has occurred in the past, and so the actual game plays out with a certain sense of suspense. In fact, Cox posits that the mixed reception Dragon Age II received upon release is at least in part due to this unexpected structure for the sequel to a game that was admittedly more standard fare:

Players went in to Dragon Age 2 expecting the arc of Star Wars and instead got handed something out of Sophocles. Saving the world, after all, is par for the course. No wonder so many were disappointed with what they got.

Writing for Paste Magazine, Kirk Hamilton similarly found himself questioning whether it was a desire to return to this expected journey that was holding him back:

“‘Maybe I miss the journey,’ I said to myself, trying to put my finger on why I was so thoroughly disenchanted with this game. Compared with its epic, far-ranging predecessor Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2 is a bit of a homebody—the narrative concerns itself entirely with the city of Kirkwall, and so players are rarely given the opportunity to leave the city’s cramped and dusty alleyways.”

In a tangentially similar way, Dan Bruno praises the game for its strong sense of moral ambiguity that delves even further into the murk than its predecessor. Often as not, the Dragon Age II tasks the player with making a call between what are arguably two bad choices, and it’s a change Bruno finds refreshing considering the typical fare found in role-playing games.

It’s not just the greater structure of Dragon Age II that’s unexpected. Denis Farr, for example, found the relationship between the protagonist and their brother, Carver, almost hauntingly reminiscent of his own relationship with his brother.

Agency and sometimes the lack thereof

One of the most interesting criticisms of the game is a seeming lack of agency. This is particularly evident in regards to Hawke’s companions–they have lives of their own that continue and expand with or without Hawke’s approval.

Denis Farr actually relates the inability to make certain changes with companions, such as whether Anders blows up the local Chantry, to social change in reality. As Gunthera1 notes at The Border House in a lovely post about Aveline, a companion with her own motivations and even romantic entanglements, “[i]nstead of serving only as aides to the main character, their motivations and goals are independent of the main character.”

Critical Distance’s own Kris Ligman also points out that some of the best dialogue and character development — between the previously mentioned Aveline and her apparent opposite, the pirate captain Isabela — doesn’t even involve the player at all beyond overhearing it. Cara Ellison actually found that, in the case of Aveline’s awkward wooing of Donnic, the protagonist seems to be superfluous when it comes to the most interesting and important choices that companions make. Yann Wong notes that when the player actually does have an influence on a companion, it isn’t always positive despite the best intentions.

This sense of absent agency isn’t only confined to the companions, however. Mike Schiller points out that the game sort of forces the player into making Kirkwall their “home” regardless of whether they want to do so. Alex Raymond at While !Finished writes at length about how the nature of the immutable choices in Dragon Age II aren’t that different from those in Dragon Age: Origins, but the emotional impact and depth to those choices in the sequel are more significant, and thus create strong reactions. For example, Mark Filipowich actually posits Hawke as an active participant in the subjugation of and prejudice against others thanks to the inability to make significant changes.

Even the player’s romantic options aren’t entirely of their own choosing. As David Carlton notes, the only available options are a series of broken and lonely people. Aveline and Varric, the two most likely to be considered complete and functional adults, aren’t available options. The “romantic agency,” as he refers to it, is in the hands of the companions. Alex Raymond explores similar ground in an issue of ctrl+alt+defeat.

That doesn’t mean everyone gets to take part in this agency. Sara Davis at The Ontological Geek dives deep into the greater sexualization of certain classes of characters in BioWare games and specifically calls out the way Dragon Age II treats city elves as something of a sex class by default. Davis doesn’t take issue with the fact that they’re sexual creatures, but in how they’re handled — they are seemingly meant to be insightful critiques of the problems they represent while also being sometimes used in the exact problematic way that’s being critiqued. Katherine Cross makes a series of similar points about sex workers in the game at The Border House.

We need to talk about Anders

More so than any other character in Dragon Age II, Anders represents an important keystone. Arguably, he represents the most important keystone: it is his actions, regardless of those taken by the player as Hawke, to blow up the Chantry which set the stage for the wider conflict in the third game in the series, Dragon Age: Inquisition. Gaby at Girl from the Machine lays out the importance of Anders — both in the game and to herself as the player — in an incredibly detailed and nuanced post. The post specifically ties back to a seeming lack of player agency, though with Anders it’s even more complicated:

Wait, what? Undisguised manipulation coming from another PC? This whole conversation is easily one of the most stone-cold insane things that’s ever happened to me in a video game, period. When, if ever, is a player character placed in a scenario when they don’t hold most or all of the cards in a relationship? It’s a daring move, and one that I think was intended to make the player uncomfortable — yet another occurrence of Dragon Age II deliberately being provocative.

It’s this sort of manipulation that left something of a bad taste in Kate Cox’s mouth, and ultimately caused her to connect with the game, and Anders, even more through her distaste. Players are traditionally rewarded in the kinds of games that Dragon Age II initially seems to follow in the footsteps of, and that means companions like Anders generally get their way–it’s just how it’s done. But Cox essentially argues that the game provides as much if not more satisfaction from disagreeing with Anders’ actions:

What Dragon Age II has done for me is that it has allowed me to bring that last, formerly missing piece of my personal moral core with me into my characters. You know what? I don’t need Anders to like me! I don’t need to help him. And if he’s making a series of poor choices that harm Miriam Hawke’s life and her other relationships? He can go to hell.

While not necessarily about Anders’s specific actions, it’s worth noting that his sexuality was also given close scrutiny by members of the community, leading Dragon Age II scribe David Gaider to reply with a self-described “wall of text” in defense of the game’s romantic options:

The romances in the game are not for “the straight male gamer”. They’re for everyone. We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention. We have good numbers, after all, on the number of people who actually used similar sorts of content in DAO and thus don’t need to resort to anecdotal evidence to support our idea that their numbers are not insignificant… and that’s ignoring the idea that they don’t have just as much right to play the kind of game they wish as anyone else. The “rights” of anyone with regards to a game are murky at best, but anyone who takes that stance must apply it equally to both the minority as well as the majority. The majority has no inherent “right” to get more options than anyone else.

Perhaps it is best if we end here on a note from Kris Ligman’s review of Dragon Age II at PopMatters. The review goes back and forth on the game, both crucifying the poor bits and glorifying the ones that land best, but it’s really the final passage that’s worth noting here.

I’m making this impassioned plea right now: we need more quality games. We need games like this that court a more cerebral sort of controversy and subtlety in equal doses. Perhaps eventually we’ll work up to “quality” being a general descriptor and not simply refer to the themes of its premium cable cousin, but for now, I’ll take poorer production values as a more than acceptable trade off if I get characters even half as dynamic as Anders or half as quirky as Merrill or Isabela. It’s been too long.

In short, Dragon Age II is a fascinating, provoking, and an — at times — inconsistent game that, if its critics are anything to go by, the world could use more of. Amen.

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