Forget all that you know

The change party screen in DA2: Hawke and his seven companions stand on a black background.

The change party screen in DA2: Hawke and his seven companions stand on a black background.

Of all the changes to the Dragon Age series implemented in the recently-released sequel, the improvements to the conversation system and the companions’ relationships are the most interesting. They take a bit of getting used to at first, especially if you’ve played other BioWare games–between the Mass Effect games and Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare has trained us for dozens of hours about how dialogue wheels and relationship meters work, but in Dragon Age 2 they’ve changed things up–and it’s fantastic.

First, the dialogue wheel. DA2’s wheel looks the same as Mass Effect‘s and is organized similarly, with questions on the left and options to move the conversation forward on the right, but that’s where the similarities end. ME’s is split between the Paragon response to any given situation on the top, the Renegade response on the bottom, and a neutral response in the middle. The way the Paragon/Renegade system works encourages the player to stick with either the top or the bottom response throughout the entire game, since additional options are unlocked at high enough Paragon or Renegade points. While playing ME, I found myself missing entire lines of dialogue because I was zoning out and just picking “the top line” (as Twyst describes it) every time the little wheel popped up.

But that shit doesn’t fly in DA2. After deciding that my first character–Tarin Hawke, mage–was a generally diplomatic sort, I found myself slipping into my ME habits, picking the top line without much thought. It was when Tarin uncharacteristically shrugged off her friend using a bit of blood magic that I realized what was happening. If one falls into the habit of always picking the same spot on the wheel, one will inevitably say something that doesn’t make any sense, either in-character or sometimes even within one conversation; in Anders’s Act 2 companion quest, for example, always choosing the bottom option will have Hawke getting indignant on his behalf only to say she won’t help him.

Zel Hawke speaks with Anders. The subtitle reads, 'It goes against the will of the Maker for mages to live as free as other men'. The dialogue wheel at the bottom has three options: 'Mages need their freedom,' 'That's a little controversial', and 'Mages must be contained.'

Zel Hawke speaks with Anders. The subtitle reads, 'It goes against the will of the Maker for mages to live as free as other men'. The dialogue wheel at the bottom has three options: 'Mages need their freedom,' 'That's a little controversial', and 'Mages must be contained.'

The dialogue wheel in DA2 may look like ME’s wheel, but it has much more in common with the lists of responses in the original Dragon Age; most of the changes have to do with giving the player more information. The dialogue wheel has icons that tell the player what tone the response will have, or if the response is part of a romance storyline, or if it’s based on special information, or if it’s a request for more information, or if Hawke is lying, or if it’s a branching choice. That sounds like a lot, but the icons are surprisingly easy to interpret–once I read through the list in the game manual once, I didn’t need to refer to it again. In DA:O I sometimes would pick a response only to think, “I didn’t mean it that way!” when a character took offense (is that “Shut up, Alistair” supposed to be angry? Exasperated? Teasing?). The way the dialogue is set up now prevents that from happening, and it also prevents players from “accidentally” either pursuing or ending a romance; overall, it provides more information so that the player can better roleplay their Hawke.

The other major addition to the dialogue system is voice acting for the player character; implemented along with this is a clever system of “response stacking,” which is described in detail in the DA wiki, but the gist of it is that there are not only (generally) three different ways of responding given, but three different personalities that affect the tone of the responses. So if Hawke has been generally kind so far, even selecting an “aggressive” response will not sound as aggressive as a Hawke who is aggressive more often than not. This is the sort of thing that’s only noticeable on subsequent playthroughs, but even on a single playthrough it has the effect of keeping Hawke’s character and voice acting consistent (but with some flexibility–for example, the response stack resets at the start of each act, allowing for character changes in the intervening years). It’s subtle, but it’s an excellent way for the game to work with the player in facilitating roleplaying, and it allows players to feel free to choose dialogue responses that are different in tone without having jarring changes in Hawke’s personality, freeing the player from always having to choose one type of response.

The second exciting change is that of the approval system, which is now a friendship/rivalry system. Essential to understanding this is realizing that “rivalry” does not mean “hate.” The game depicts the friendship-rivalry spectrum as a straight line, but it’s more accurate to think of it as a U-shape, where full friendship and full rivalry are the two highest, parallel points and the middle apathetic area is at the bottom. It’s an elegant solution to the biggest problem with DA:O’s approval system, where the player is encouraged to kiss their companions’ asses (or figure out what they want to hear) at the expense of roleplaying so that they don’t miss out on the stat bonuses high approval provides, or even lose characters entirely. In DA2, the player not only isn’t punished for doing something a companion disagrees with, they’re rewarded for it. Pursuing a rivalry (which, again, is not making your companion hate Hawke) has parallel benefits as friendship; rivalry is a strong relationship, it’s just different than friendship.

The friendship/rivalry system is something that clearly could have used a bit more demonstration or even explaining, considering some of the reactions I’ve seen. If the player approaches the dialogue and relationships in Dragon Age 2 like they’re systems to be manipulated for maximum benefit, they’re only going to be frustrated and disappointed. The game is geared toward creating and expressing a character and seeing the often-messy results of personality clashes and power struggles, and that’s what makes it such a joy to play.

Update: So I saw this post today, and while it makes some great points, especially about Mass Effect, what bothers me about it is there’s no distinction between the old relationship system in Origins and the system in DA2, even though the changes are crucial to what’s being talked about in the article. In DA2 it is simply no longer the case that sucking up to your companions is optimal play. Now it is actually better to actively piss off your party members instead of painstakingly avoiding offending them.

There is zero gameplay difference between having a companion as a rival or a friend; Isabela comes back for you if you have high enough friendship or rivalry with her, other companions will stay with you at the end if you have enough friendship or rivalry, max friendship and rivalry both give a companion bonus stats, and you can even romance every romanceable character on a rivalry path. As I said above, it’s incorrect to criticize DA2 for encouraging players to game the system to please everybody; the only thing encouraging players to do that is their own desires (and perhaps BioWare not explaining–or better yet, demonstrating–the rivalry thing well enough). I’d be lying if I said I never wanted to reload because I got a few rivalry points, but letting go of that impulse and doing what you think is right (or what your character thinks is right) makes DA2 a much better game.

The screenshots in this post were provided by Denis’s DA2 screenshot gallery–thanks, Denis!

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10 thoughts on “Forget all that you know

  1. Oh boy, how many nerdrants have I heard about this topic. I do agree that the system in DA2 is much more… coherent? Not forcing you to treat a difference of opinions as a defeat?

  2. I did run into that with Isabella. I was freedom loving enough, but upright enough in my playthrough that all I got from her was ambivalence. She never came back, and I wasn’t all that sorry I wasn’t going to hear about hat shops anymore; though I did feel sorry about the book walking off.

    That’s what worried me about Merrill and Fenris. For the most part we’d get along, but you got a huge knock if you were/n’t into demons or didn’t think his revenge sounded very bright. The idea of them not being ‘locked’ and turning on you bothered me.

    • Yeah, that is exactly what happened to me with Isabela in my first playthrough. This time I am actively seeking out rivalry points so that she comes back… but I hate being mean to people! Haha. I didn’t recruit Fenris the first time, but I did this time, and I’m worried that since I was nice to him in the beginning, I won’t be able to get enough rivalry points so that he sticks around at the very end when I side with the mages. We’ll see, I guess!

      One thing I like is that it’s not always the nice options that give friendship and the mean ones that give rivalry. I’ve noticed this especially with Merrill, where she’ll take your diplomatic responses as patronizing and they’ll actually increase rivalry. It adds nuance to their personalities and makes things a bit more complicated than it was in DA:O.

  3. Pingback: While !Finished » A fate that we deserve: Choice, Triumph, and All That Remains

  4. This. Just. This.

    I actually think one of Bioware’s problems was colouring Friendship blue and Rivalry red. Gamers seems to have been conditioned to see blue as good and red as bad (maybe secret Democrat agenda in industry =P). I have a couple of friends who, when they played DA2 for the first time worked to make everyone their friends. One of them absolutely hates Merrill, and was complaining to me that she had to break character and be nice to her. It was… more than a little frustrating. To quote Varric, “Point. Missing it.”

    Seriously, though, I do think one of the main issues was the colouring decision. And the fact the system recieved absolutely no in-game or (I think) game-manual descriptions. You basically had to have been following dev comments in the pre-release hype to even know anything about it.

    • I think the siblings were supposed to be their demonstration of How It Worked–everyone knows the phrase “sibling rivalry”–but it could have used more spelling out.

      • I’ve seen more-than-a-little dislike for Carver though, precisely because he didn’t bow and scrape to the almighty player character (which raises the interesting-yet-disturbing question of whether it’s less players gaming the system and more players just wanting their avatar to be idolised). You’re right, though, I think (I hadn’t actually considered that the siblings were meant to serve as the approval tutorial). Regrettably, the fact that one of them always dies 10 minutes into the game, though, with the fact that most people will play rogues or warriors instead of mages (assuming a third of players per class), tends to mean the rivalry exposition gets cut fairly early on for a lot of players (or would that be crushed? =P)

      • It’s funny, I don’t pay THAT close attention to fan reaction to stuff because that would mean having to deal with sexist and racist and homophobic fans too, but lately I’ve heard so much about fans throwing fits because characters don’t kiss their asses or if characters challenge them in anyway, and all of this makes me even more convinced that my latest post is totally right.

        (For the record, I dislike Carver because in my playthrough he JOINED THE TEMPLARS AND BECAME THE OPPRESSOR, that bastard haha.)

        And yeah, you’re right that if they were going for a sort of rivalry tutorial with the siblings, it doesn’t really work very well. Shame, I think the friendship/rivalry thing combined with the dialogue wheel is one of the best changes from DA:O.

      • See, this is why I now always take Carver to the Deep Roads (w/Anders). Warden Carver is so much better. After things blow up in Act 3 (figuratively and literally), he comes running back to Kirkwall because he thinks you’ll be fighting for your life. And OMG, does he get angry if you’ve sided with the Templars. He became the oppressor in my first playthrough too, though. I suppose I could partially blame my Hawke for telling him to start living up to his own name.

        Your latest post is, I think, completely correct. I mean, it’s really what sparked me to comment (despite the fact all my comments have been on other posts, go figure). I got linked to it from Dee’s blog. But yeah, I can completely understand why you’d avoid forums, considering what gets said there. Like the furore that erupted when they announced Man!Shepard could be gay in ME3, or how bisexual characters are “sooooooo unrealistic” (but apparently dragons and magic are pretty standard in modern society. Wait, what?), not to mention the 16 metric tons of s**t-shaming regarding Isabela.

        I’m going to stop now, because I’m liable to start ranting, and this isn’t really the place for that.

      • Aw, Warden!Carver sounds awesome! I plan on doing another mage playthrough, so I’ll have to make sure that happens on that one.

        Not to mention mods that make Isabela white and shit. Arrrghhhhhh gamers >_<

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