A fate that we deserve: Choice, Triumph, and All That Remains

“When he read to me–stupid things, dragons and heroes–he wouldn’t turn a page until I reached over and took his hand. That big man made every step of the story my choice. I loved that.” — Aveline, regarding her father

(Dragon Age 2 spoilers)

Aveline fanart by aimo.

Artist: aimo

Recently, at PAX Prime, BioWare presented a panel called “The Future of Dragon Age.” (Here is a recap.) It’s the latest event geared toward luring back Dragon Age: Origins fans that felt betrayed by Dragon Age 2. I have realized I am just going to have to ignore anything vaguely marketing-related for Dragon Age because it is all going to be focused on winning those people back, and I am not one of them. As always, the marketing department is doing its damnedest to turn me off of games that I love. I almost didn’t even play DA:O because of the atrocious marketing, only picking it up because of rave reviews from friends, and I found it for less than half price mere weeks after it came out. Since then, Dragon Age has become one of my favorite game series of all time, with DA2 in particular up there among my very favorite games like Quest for Glory 2 and Majora’s Mask.

Being a DA2 fan is much different than being a fan of other underappreciated games like Majora’s Mask. It’s a little rough having such an intense emotional experience with this game and then finding most conversations online about it to be rage-fests about fair but minor things like waves of enemies or reused maps; or worse, complete point-missing silliness like… well, like not being able to save Leandra.

The fact that you can’t save Hawke’s mom at the end of All That Remains is often brought up as an example of the player having no agency over any events in the story of DA2. But I find the fact that no matter what you do, things aren’t going to turn out exactly the way you want to be one of the better and perhaps more ambitious aspects of Dragon Age 2. Because that is the real complaint here: you have barely any more real control over the plot events in Origins than you do in DA2–you can’t stop the Darkspawn from invading Denerim any more than you can stop Anders from blowing up the Chantry–but in Origins, if you pick the right options, things can turn out pretty okay for the Warden. In DA2, there are some tragedies that Hawke is powerless to prevent, but this is what makes the story unique among video games.

Hawke is not a superhero

… and Dragon Age is not Mass Effect. Mass Effect–and a great many single-player video games–is about a superhero saving the universe from an incredibly powerful evil. DA2 is about a rather talented and charismatic but otherwise fairly normal person who gets swept up in a series of world-shattering events. This narrative is reiterated multiple times in the framing story: Cassandra is under the impression that Hawke’s plan all along was to cause trouble, and Varric has to correct her that there was no grand scheme, that Hawke was just a woman trying to make a life for herself and her family.

Superpowered badasses are fun to play, but the fact that Hawke isn’t particularly special makes her far more relatable. In both fantasy in general and in video games, the protagonist is often some kind of Chosen One, a person marked as special either by circumstances of birth or by some enigmatic Destiny; in fantasy this is often just lazy writing, but in video games it is usually something that is excused because there needs to be a reason for the player to have all these awesome skills that make the game fun to play. But Hawke doesn’t have access to any abilities that other people in the world don’t, so there’s no need for her to be somehow special; and the fact that she isn’t is actually refreshing. One of my concerns going into the Legacy DLC was that it would reveal that Hawke’s father was actually someone important, especially based on the dialogue early on in the quest, but fortunately that doesn’t quite turn out to be the case.

Hawke’s inability to prevent certain events, like the invasion of the Qunari, further shows that she isn’t a superhero, with the effect that the major events can have a broader interpretation. On my first playthrough, I didn’t understand the Qunari at all, and every interaction with them seemed disastrous. (I didn’t recruit Fenris on my first playthrough, so I didn’t have access to his insight on them, either.) I couldn’t prevent the invasion and I failed to convince Isabela to bring the relic back, so when the nobles who had been taken hostage cheered after I slaughtered all the Qunari, I was angry and disgusted. Those nobles had gotten what they wanted–the Qunari out of their hair–without having to address the injustices they perpetuated on the marginalized people of Kirkwall who turned in deperation to the Qun. It wasn’t a heroic moment, it was tragic; things did not have to turn out that way, and the only reason it did was because I just kept fucking up. The statue that was erected in the Docks afterward was like a sick joke. The reaction I had, coupled with the profound sense of dread that colors Act 3, affected the entire rest of the game; by the endgame, I wanted nothing more than for Hawke and her friends to get out of there alive, and until the credits rolled I was convinced I would screw it up somehow.

Dragon Age 2 didn’t make me feel like a hero, and I love that about it. It made everything so much more real, and the stakes so much higher.

That particular experience perhaps isn’t typical. For my second playthrough, I only made two changes: I recruited Fenris, and I made sure I had enough rivalry points with Isabela so that she would return with the relic. This changed much of the tone of Act 2–it was less the Saga of Champion Fuck-Up and more Inevitable Explosive Culture Clash–but the overall point remains the same: one person can’t swoop in and solve everybody’s problems. Hawke can’t get the Chantry and the Qunari to stop fighting, and she can’t free mages from the Circle. These are both major cultural problems that are much bigger than any one person. Not even a person who acts as drastically as Anders does can “save” everyone–even he merely starts a revolution, and at a very high (most would say unjustifiably high) cost; there’s still a long way to go until the mages are free.

Companions have agency

Fanart of Anders/Justice with the chantry exploding in the background.

Artist: runaire

In her review, Kris Ligman is spot-on when she describes DA2 as “ultimately a character drama, less concerned with an epic, save-the-world storyline than in examining the interior worlds of distinct personalities.” Hawke is certainly the most important character in DA2, the one who brings this hodge-podge family together in the first place, but it’s made clear that the companions don’t just exist for Hawke, they have their own lives and goals. They don’t hang around camp waiting for Hawke to take them wherever, as Dee points out in this post; if Hawke wants to talk to her friends, she has to seek them out where they live. Aveline and Anders, in particular, have responsibilities that take up most of their time. Through party banter, the player gets further glimpses into the companions’ lives and sees how the characters develop relationships with each other that have nothing to do with Hawke: Isabela and Fenris starting a physical relationship (if neither of them are romanced by Hawke) is the most notable, but the player is also shown how Varric takes care of everyone (but especially Merrill), and the fact that they all play cards together at the Hanged Man fairly often. Some of the funniest moments in the game occur when Hawke goes to visit one of her friends, and one of the other companions is already there.

Like the “superhero” problem, the problem that the world and characters all revolve around the hero is one that fantasy and video games share. Also like the superhero problem, what is lazy writing in fantasy is excused or even necessary in video games because the player’s (and therefore the hero’s) experience is necessarily the most important. Everything revolves around the hero in a video game because the hero is the player’s window to the world. Majora’s Mask avoids this by making Link a complete outsider, an observer of a separate, self-contained world (which has the added bonus of making the time-manipulation stuff make much more sense than it did in Ocarina–Link isn’t literally making the day pass faster, he’s just warping around the timestream, which he can do since he’s separate from the world). DA2 avoids doing this by giving the companions goals that are different from Hawke’s, and the agency to act on their own when it makes sense for them to do so, but the result is that Hawke doesn’t have control over the outcome of every event. When you have characters with their own goals and the ability to act on them, the protagonist has less input in what happens because characters will do certain things regardless of input or help from the hero. Isabela is going to steal the relic and run off whether Hawke promises to give it to her or not; Anders is going to find a way to blow up the Chantry whether Hawke helps him or not.

The illusion of control

Recently, Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon wrote about “the illusion of control,” which she describes as “the belief that you (or one of your allies) personally has the power to make everything go your way, and having complete control of the eventual outcome is just a matter of making the right move.” In the linked piece, she is writing about it in regard to politics, but it has a lot of applications. I’ve fallen victim to it myself; I had four people read over my gender and Mass Effect post, thinking that if only I make my arguments airtight, commenters won’t seize on the weakest sentence and ignore everything else (a futile endeavor: with a large audience, this will happen no matter what) (not that my proofreaders weren’t helpful–thank you again, everybody!).

But almost all video games are the opposite of real life: the player does have near-complete control over the game, and winning is just a matter of making the right moves. The very point of most video games is to overcome the challenge the game presents; people often refer to completing a game as having “beaten” it. In one sense, DA2 is a challenge to overcome: if you kill all the enemies, you’ll get to the end credits. But there’s no real “beating” the narrative of DA2. It’s not a game you finish feeling like you’ve won, or triumphed, or overcome–it’s a game you merely survive. This is the key to what makes DA2 special and an innovative piece of video game storytelling.

The illusion of control is in effect in Dragon Age 2 because, unlike other games, the protagonist, Hawke, isn’t a superhero, and the other characters are just as important to the story as she is. The reason the illusion exists is because of the player’s expectations about how games work, our entire conception of games as challenges. I wrote before about how DA2’s dialogue system requires players to change how they see the relationship meter, to take it as informational rather than a challenge to overcome or even exploit. DA2 is similarly innovative in that it challenges what we expect in a video game narrative. Players complained that they had no control over what happened in the game instead of asking what does it mean that no matter what Hawke does, things are kind of fucked, regardless. What people saw as a design flaw was actually done deliberately and is one of the major themes of the game, and the series in general.

What makes the series so interesting to me is that it’s not only trying something different, it’s doing so because it actually has something to say. It says: Religions are just a product of humans trying to explain the world without science. People do bad things for the right reasons. No one is perfect, and everything is complicated. And there are a lot more Loghains in the world than there are Archdemons. Giving Hawke complete control, having everything turn out right for her if she just makes the right moves, is just not what Dragon Age is about.

Take this brief exchange from early on in tie-in novel Dragon Age: The Calling:

“Think of what you could do as king. You could do so much. You could change everything.”

[Duncan] laughed derisively. “I was raised on the streets, and even I know that kings can’t do everything.”

Denis pointed out to me that a major theme in BioWare games, and in Dragon Age in particular, is the idea that legendary figures are just human beings who have built an extraordinary reputation, one that is eventually completely out of their control. Hawke didn’t come to Kirkwall to start a revolution–she was just trying to care for her family. Maric led the rebel army against the Orlesian usurper, took back Fereldan, and was a great king–but he was also a flawed human being, and certainly not chosen by the Maker, much less ressurrected from the dead by him. Most fantasy games are about legends, but Dragon Age is about the truth behind legends.

No one person can save the world. No king, and no champion.

The real problem with All That Remains

All of that said, All That Remains really is a bad quest–it’s just not a bad quest for the reasons that BioWare or many of the vocal fans seem to think. Not being able to save Leandra isn’t the problem; the real problem is that this is a textbook example of fridging.

Folks who read my blog are undoubtedly familiar with the term, but just to be thorough: Women in Refrigerators is a trope coined by comic book writer Gail Simone, and it refers to the tendency of writers to kill off female characters in order to further the development, angst, or revenge plot of a male main character. The name comes from an issue of Green Lantern where the main guy discovers his girlfriend dead in the refrigerator, killed by the villain in order to torment him.

All That Remains is textbook fridging–Hawke’s mother, Leandra, is killed off in order to further Hawke’s development, and to give players a reason to side with the Templars at the end of the game without being (necessarily) villainous. It doesn’t matter if Hawke is male or female, though if Hawke is male, the fridging is a bit more obvious. But what makes this particular fridging so egregious is the way it happens, which is an over-the-top grotesque serial killer arc that ends in Hawke discovering her mother’s still-conscious head magically sewn onto a body made up of the various body parts of other murdered women. The grotesqueness is a hallmark of fridging–in the original, Green Lantern didn’t just find his girlfriend’s murdered body, he found her stuffed in the refrigerator–it horrifies the hero and scars him that much more, driving him to revenge.

All That Remains stinks because the concept was bad to begin with, not because the player can’t change the outcome.

What Hawke actually has control over

Hawke: We’re not exactly friends, Fenris.
Fenris: Yet I respect you.

For all of the “you can’t change anything” and “one person can’t save the world,” it’s not all bleak. If it were, I would have given up on Dragon Age just like I gave up on A Song of Ice and Fire. There’s a thread of hope that runs through Dragon Age 2, and that thread is Hawke’s connections to her constructed family, her companions that have stuck by her side for six years or more, who have shared their struggles with Hawke and aided her in turn.

In the comments on her post, Dee suggests that the real win condition of DA2 is to get through it without having any of your companions turn on you (which, if you have Sebastian, is impossible unless you side with the Templars), and she’s right. Everything in the game comes back to the companions. They are what get you through the actual combat challenges, and they’re what keep you from being completely devastated as you flee Kirkwall while it burns.

So most of the choices in DA2 are more subtle than an either-or decision at the end of a long dungeon. The most important choices in DA2 are about what Hawke does have control over: how she relates to and how she treats her companions. Does she make an effort to forge a relationship with these people? Does she earn their respect? Does she support their goals or does she thwart them? Does she help them with their problems or merely meddle in their affairs? Friend or rival? Building a relationship with these people is the most important thing; if you earn Isabela’s respect, one way or another, she’ll bring the relic back for you when you need it; if you earn Aveline’s trust, she won’t turn on you when you side with the mages. If you want what passes for a good ending in DA2, to “win”, you need to get to know the characters. DA2 is a character drama: it is nothing without them.

Expanding our conception of what games are

BioWare is partly to blame for some of the reaction to the perceived lack of choices in DA2, for all the marketing talk about “choices that matter,” and so on. And that’s the sort of marketing speak that fans had good reason to actually take seriously, unlike, say, “THE NEW SHIT,” which immediately became a joke.

But beyond DA2 and BioWare specifically, gamers have pretty narrow expectations about what games are and what they’re for, which I believe is no small part of the backlash against DA2, which went against some of these expectations. Kris Ligman writes in this post that “Games offer worlds that are fairer, more cleanly delineated, more elegant than reality.” DA2 is less fair, less cleanly delineated, and just a bit closer to reality than most games.

I once suggested that linear games like the Uncharted series would be more accessible if they had chapter select available right away instead of forcing the player to complete the game once to unlock it. The objection was that players could just jump to the last chapter and beat the game very quickly. Why is that any more of a problem than someone potentially jumping to the last chapter of a book, or skipping to the last scene of a movie on DVD, both of which are possible in their respective media? The only person harmed by this is the person doing the skipping, who isn’t getting the bulk of the experience that the game offers, and most players are going to want to experience the story in order anyway, so who cares? The resistance to this idea was based in seeing games as challenges that you can win, first and foremost, an idea that is deeply ingrained in the minds of most gamers. (Similar issues come up in discussions about game difficulty levels.) If the point is to get to the ending, then making it easier to get to the ending is “cheating.” But we’re quickly getting to a point where a challenge is far from the only experience games can offer or that players are looking for, and we need to adjust our expectations–and our criticisms–accordingly. Games aren’t clocks, after all.

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30 thoughts on “A fate that we deserve: Choice, Triumph, and All That Remains

  1. Pingback: While !Finished » A fate that we deserve: Choice, Triumph, and All That Remains [ AZEROTH. ME. ]

  2. Dude, this is an amazing post (I have to admit I linked it before I finished reading it, lol, so you caught me out on that one), but I absolutely agree with you 100% on everything here.

    The criticism of DA2 has really driven it home to me how differently I approach games to what I think is considered “normal”. I’ve always been a narrative-driven gamer. I don’t see games as a “challenge” to “beat”; I see them as a story to discover. So I cheat wildly where available because I don’t care about mechanics; I just want to know what happens next in the plot. That’s why I fangirl BioWare so hard, and why I get actively upset when whining that the story in DA2 is too hard and the fights are too easy is taken as some kind of gospel for how games in future should be developed. D:

    I also see it a lot in the discussion around SWtOR; a lot of the fanboi focus is on things like endgame raids and the gankability of Open World PvP. I’m all like, dudes. This is an MMO that’s supposed to have something like 1,600 hours of voiced story content. WHO GIVES A CRAP ABOUT THE PvP! Seriously, go play HoN or LoL or something if that’s your thing. I just wanna play The Neverending KotOR…

    • Thanks so much!! (I totally wasn’t refreshing my blog dashboard while I was eating dinner… no, not at all…) I have been working on this thing so long I was worried it didn’t even make sense any more.

      I’m totally all about the narrative as well. I can see the appeal of mechanics and systems, and there are definitely games that I play for that, but for the most part I am looking for interactive stories. And yeah, BioWare is where it’s at for that sort of thing, at least in the AAA space.

      I forget who coined this phrase–it was one of my twitter pals–but so many people fall into the trap of the “every game should be like my favorite game” school of criticism where they criticize a game for being something it’s not because it doesn’t fall into their specific idea of what they are looking for in a game and don’t recognize that not everyone wants what they want. (THAT IS A SENTENCE.) I think this is what Michael Abbott was pushing back against in the blog post of his that I linked. Pretty convenient of the critical blogosphere to discuss this while I was working on this post!

      Another peeve of mine is when people only count combat as part of gameplay and not dialogue. Dialogue in BioWare games IS gameplay!

      I have been wary of MMOs (especially subscription ones) since FFXI took over my life a few years ago, but I just might have to give SWTOR a try…

  3. Copy/paste/edit from my tweets!:

    I dig this. Especially the stuff about characters having agency and Hawke motivating the story but not the world. It’s what I really liked about the game.

    That it’s important is obvious from an instance where it fell apart for me: Meredith and the EVIL IDOL OF EVIL SWORD.

    In literalizing/externalizing a motivator for her crazy paranoia, it robs her of her agency to make bad choices (incidentally, one of the tricky things with speculative fiction is, in my opinion, how to walk the line of the power of metaphor/explication of issues without detaching them from the circumstances that, in the real world, give them their power).

    Anyway, making Meredith’s behavior a result of the effects of the idol turns them into the ultimate effect of Hawke’s funding and going on the Deep Roads expedition of the early game. Which ties everything together, but also makes it a much less interesting (to me) butterfly effect story, and not one about individuals and fear and power and how destructive that can be.

    Also, as Denis pointed out on Twitter, it felt like a Final Fantasy end boss. Which I thought at the time, too! This random enemy comes out of NOWHERE, does some retconning exposition, and then fights you in a three-stage battle.

    Although isn’t one of the main differences between the (overly simple, admittedly) dichotomy of Western RPG (ie Bioware) vs JRPG (Square) that in JRPGs the characters are already well-defined and often have their own things going on? IS DRAGON AGE 2 THE FUTURE OF THE BLENDED WESTERN/JAPANESE RPG? Is it our last, best hope for peace?

    • Ahaha, some kind of hybrid WRPG/JRPG would be THE PERFECT GAME FOR ME?? The real reason I love DA2 is revealed

      And yes, the idol thing was so disappointing. The whole thing would have totally worked basically as-is if they just hadn’t made the idol the secret cause of everything. I thought all the people calling her “crazy” (it must be pointed out, the game handles mental illness SPECTACULARLY badly in so many ways) were just being sexist because she was a woman in a position of power that people wanted her out of. More backstory on her would have also helped.

      • She does have backstory, but she doesn’t trust you enough to share it unless you side with the templars, which I do think is a failing considering how hard you are pushed not to side with them. She’s from a family similar to Thrask’s. It left her with a sense of betraying others for the sake of her family member, and a desire to uphold rules she didn’t actually think were fair to compensate for that. Which makes the Idol of Crazy all the more disappointing.

        I got a brief moment in my diplomatic playthrough where her voice cracks as she’s engaging in the final argument, because she’s frustrated at the discrepancy between her own public image and what she actually wants for everyone. That would have been a much more compelling final boss.

        To be fair though, Orsino goes just as nuts for as little reason without an idol. I did definitely get a Women Can’t Handle Power vibe from the way Meredith’s breakdown was handled, but the writing was just as sloppy for Orsino. That was another case for me of being angry I couldn’t ‘save’ someone not so much for the lack of agency as the hamfisted scripting.

      • Ah, interesting. I haven’t played a templar-sided character yet. Meredith seems really interesting, and tragic. (To clarify, I thought it was sexism on the part of the characters, not the writers.)

        Orsino is almost worse because it makes absolutely zero sense for him to do what he did, even though it had been established that he at least had knowledge of blood magic. Word of God is the only reason it happened is because they wanted another boss fight. I blame video game conventions AGAIN >.>;

  4. First I want to say that I’ve been there and felt that. I know how it is when your favorite thing (game, book, movie etc) is not getting recognition it deserves or even being bashed for apparently no good reason all over the internet. I too resorted to a bit of moral high ground with: “people just don’t get it”, or “how can they criticize if they don’t understand what creators aimed for”, and “people are to simple to see the greatness in …” and while I still think it’s ok to use it when claims appreciation for the game, I think it’s rather intellectually unjust way to use to brush off criticism.
    Let’s just start with “All that remains”, yes, there are people who dislike quest b/c they couldn’t get “happy ending” and save Hawk’s mother but I doubt that they are majority complainers. I think, even those who complain in such manner just voiced, that this quest isn’t what it promises to be. It suppose to be a moment you just talked about, showing that even Kirkwall’s champion cannot have everything under control, that personal tragedies happen even when making what seems to be a right choice and so on. But this quest just doesn’t deliver; even people who are not familiar with “women in refrigerator” felt that Leandra has no agency in this quest, only to play her part in Hawk’s tragedy. Of course people also found that this quest instead of delivering tragic moment ends up with obscurity and grotesque (like you noted). People can’t be blamed that when presented with grotesque situation and seconds later being told by the game that it was memorable tragic moment felt awkwardness and rather opt for “happy ending” instead. If the quest had turned out to be what it should be and probably Bioware aimed for people would have quite easily dealt with being unable to save Leandra.
    Somehow I feel it is a crux here, when I read your opinion about DA2, I cannot help but to think “What an amazing game, I should love to play and replay it too!” but unfortunately it’s not DA2 I know. Do I think you are wrong in your opinion? Hell, No! Do I think you should change your opinion about this game? Absolutely No! It’s just that other people’s experiences with DA2 isn’t the same as yours and that doesn’t mean they are automatically wrong or just simpletons who can’t grasp ambitious ideas that are behind this game. I would love DA2 to be the game for me, it is for you, but it’s just isn’t, it haven’t delivered its promises and is skewed both story and gameplay wise. End of chapter 2? If it only was “Inevitable Explosive Culture Clash–but the overall point remains the same: one person can’t swoop in and solve everybody’s problems.”, that would be great but instead it was 15 minutes of running around Arishok with my archer Hawke trying to kill him and at the end whatever thought I have for finishing that chapter it was all withered by “What have I just had to play through?” pondering. The final chapter too wasn’t about “inevitable conflict that can’t be resolved and trying to soften the blows or to do the right thing won’t work because roots run deeper then one woman/man actions” instead I faced “suddenly insanely evil Meredith with her evil red sword bwhahahaha” and “wait, what ? I’ll show them Blood Magic now, Orsino“and “two boss battles at the end would be pretty epic and cool, wouldn’t be ?”.
    I sound very negative but I very much agree on that part about companions, that works very well and it’s pretty commendable. Could work better with improved dialogue system (like in DE:HR).

    TL;DR Game experiences vary from person to person and criticism does not always come from lack of understanding what game aimed for and what have achieved or could have achieved.

    • A 3300+ word essay isn’t brushing off criticism, it’s engaging with it.

      And my whole point isn’t that people are stupid and just don’t understand the game–I think for the most part they ARE getting what the game’s communicating, they just don’t like it because it’s not in line with what people expect from a video game (people had the reaction they should have when they didn’t save Leandra–I don’t understand why you think people being able to easily deal with her death would be an improvement). It’s not anyone’s fault, either. We’ve understood as long as there have been games that games are about winning and losing. The people I’m talking about don’t like that you can’t “win” DA2 and are upset because they have therefore “lost.” It has nothing to do with intelligence, it has to do with how almost ALL gamers see games.

      Obviously experiences vary from person to person. My point in writing this is the people who don’t like what DA2 did seem to be having their voice heard–to the point where Mike Laidlaw is snarking about All That Remains at the PAX panel–and I wanted to get another perspective out there.

      • To be honest „people are too set in their ways to like something new and innovative” is another argument I think should be avoided but I forgot to add it. Not that it is particularly untrue, it’s just there examples for both ways, sometimes innovative things getting critical and popular recognition and sometimes receiving harsh treatment from an audience.
        Though I speak for myself but somehow I feel I am not alone at this, I actually agree with your description of DA2 but unlike you I rather see this as an potential that actual game didn’t deliver due to hindrance of narrative and gameplay nature. I also disagree with people bashing DA2 left and right and declaring it the “worst game ever” or something like this. I think it’s a good game but with obvious flaws which if not overlooked could be really off-putting.
        As to Leandra quest, I’m saying that people didn’t like this quest, not because they can’t save Hawk’s mother or because they don’t like tragic moments in video games but because it’s terribly delivered. Treating your audience with obscure and grotesque situation while trying to evoke tragic catharsis of losing your mother would be a challenge for best theater’s directors and actors and most probably would result in jarring and disjointed experience just like in DA2. I didn’t say that players should have easy time dealing with Leandra’s death; I only said that players would accept quest about such moving experience like PC mother’s death if it is was actually any good.

      • Look, I don’t disagree that All That Remains was badly executed. I have an entire section of this post devoted to that. But the overwhelming reaction to the quest WAS a complaint that she couldn’t be saved, and that’s what I’m criticizing. Being able to save Leandra wouldn’t make ATR a good quest. People are prescribing the wrong solution because they think the problem is lack of agency when the actual problem is poor execution. I explained all of this in the blog post.

        As for pointing out that people have narrow expectations of games, it’s a topic that has been discussed recently in the critical gaming blogosphere and I don’t think it should be off-limits. Did you read the Brainy Gamer post I linked in the last paragraph?

        Please stop oversimplifying my arguments.

  5. Pingback: Roundup of Unusual Size: Videogames are dead, long live videogames. « Dire Critic

  6. This sums up pretty much everything I liked about DA2, and why I’m sad that BioWare probably won’t make another game like it.

    I don’t think it’s perfect and it has problematic moments, but for someone like me who prefers their interactive storytime to be a more story/character+cool and less slogging though the killing fields, it has a special place in my heart.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Thanks for reading! There’s no reason to be optimistic, but for some reason, I am? People who want to play the hero can go play Mass Effect, I think the DA team is going to keep dealing with more complicated situations just because it seems like they really want to.

      • I try to be optimistic! I guess I just get freaked out and depressed by what feels like massive amounts of haters. And I should say that I adores the Mass Effect game world, warts and all. But messy, human stories move me deeply. I’d like to see the DA team continue in this thoughtful, experimental (for a major studio) direction, even if they don’t always get it right. I think that, long-term, it’s important that someone in a AAA game studio is trying to tell complex stories.

      • Sooo many haters. They’re pretty much what compelled me to write this wall of text, haha. But yeah I’m totally with you. Fingers crossed!

  7. I was just surfing the Bioware forums and came across this post by someone who had only just finished DA2. I find it interesting and thought that it validated a lot of what you wrote above (albeit anecdotally). After stating that they had trouble believing that DAO and DA2 had the same lead writer, the poster remarks:

    “DA:2 made my uncomfortable, and not because of dark/mature content. I have no qualms with that. I often felt like I was being forced into choices I did not like. Neither side felt right at times. And playing any side completely has some really nasty consequences. Despite what Varrick may say (in a friendship) Hawke isn’t exactly a hero. And even if you do your damnest to do right by people and make good decisions, you directly cause a lot of harm.

    I get that it is a story with telling, but I would have preferred a story like this as a DA novel. As a game, I really didn’t particularly enjoy putting myself in Hawke’s shoes. Quite frankly, if Hawke never came to Kirkwall, the world would have been better.”
    — Source: http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/304/index/8379461/5#8417154

    I actually think that what I find most intriguing is that they don’t group moral greyness and unintended consequences of actions with “dark/mature content”, considering that’s kind of what I’d consider the definition of maturity in storytelling.

    • Nice find. It’s pretty telling that they would have preferred to read this story as a book than play it as a game. It does, to a certain extent, make YOU feel complicit in a lot of the bad stuff that happens (but I’d disagree that Kirkwall would have been better off if, say, Hawke had died in the Blight or something–for all we know, things would have ended up a whole lot worse! No one could have stopped the Arishok, for one thing). It’s just not something that’s really done outside of Serious Games. But that’s why I love it so much! I mean, I don’t know if you follow me on twitter, but when I was playing it for the first time I tweeted a lot about how stressed out and anxious and filled with dread I was during Act 3 especially. And maybe that wasn’t FUN, per se, but it was so great being that into the story that it actually had an emotional effect on me. It’s a game that will stick with me for a long time, that is for sure.

      And great point–THIS is the sort of maturity the game industry sorely needs! (I almost quoted Heather Chaplin’s 2009 GDC rant at the beginning of one of the sections, but I couldn’t find an exact quote that quite fit.)

      • Sadly, I only discovered your existence about a week ago, so I must extpress regret in not following your Act 3 journey via twitter ;). I can empathise though, because it sounds very much like my own.

        I remember when I first finished DAO, and I remember how “epic” it felt, I remember how much I wanted to know what would happen next but also felt a profound sense of accomplishment and completion. The journey was over, with all the pathos and glory it had contained. DA2 affected me in a quite different way, it was almost like a daze that continued for several days. The game *stuck* with me in a way Origins hadn’t. I think you said it best when you wrote that DA2 isn’t so much a game you “beat” as a game you survive. I survived it, and was left trying to piece together the broken shards and work out what it all had meant. I tend to think that feeling is the main reason I forgive it a lot of its faults (while still recognising that they exist, and there are many): it affected me in a way few games have.

        It’s amusing, really, because for a game filled with endless waves of exploding enemies, acrobatic ninja-rogues, battles with monsters and a final boss whose shear OTTness topped fighting a corrupted dragon atop a tower amidst a burning city by several notches*, I actually think DA2’s main crime was that it might have been too subtle. =/

        * I confess, I did actually love the symbolism of defeating all the bronze slave statues. It was like fighting against endless waves of slavery. Ham-fisted, yes, but still poignant.

  8. Pingback: Why is everyone writing about role-playing games? | Digital Ephemera

  9. Thank you, THANK YOU for this! I was just putting together my own (considerably less well written) write-up about why I think DA2 is a great game and you’ve got everything exactly right. BTW, don’t feel alone – the fan community on Tumblr is VERY vocal about their undying love for DA2 and I regularly see some pretty intelligent discussion and debate about it popping up on my dash. (They’re also obsessed with naked fan art and gay porn though, so take a look only if you’re okay with that. xD)

    Also, I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who felt Orsino’s sudden change was out of place. Apparently it wasn’t originally intended but they had to put that in because someone in the chain of command decided they needed one more boss battle.

    • Yeeeah the reason I don’t use tumblr so much is the random porn without warning or clickthrough links. But if you have any good links, please share! I don’t mind it if I know ahead of time, so I can just read it when I’m home and not at work xD

      The worst part about the Orsino thing, for me, was that he changed in a place where he was locked in with his allies and the Templars couldn’t get at him ANYWAY. What the hell? Video game conventions are also to blame here!

  10. I don’t think people expected Hawke to be a “superhero.” I certainly didn’t. But I found Hawke passive. Ridiculously passive. When confronted with dangerous people who will likely get innocents killed, he simply stands idly by, i.e. letting Sister Petrice go free despite her admission that she wants to start a religious war, standing idly by while Cullen takes Bethany to a Circle where he knows mages are being illegally made tranquil, or watching as insane and foolish mage antagonist Grace murders Ser Thrask right in front of him.

    I think people would be less inclined to dislike his passive nature if Hawke actually tried to stop some bad things, rather than doing nothing, – i.e. trying to locate the conspirator who worked with Quentin, rather than doing anything about the hand-written note he finds in Quentin’s lair, or speaking out for three years in support or in opposition to Meredith, rather than not doing anything about the dictatorship of Meredith for three years.

    I respected Hawke’s companions because they were trying to accomplish tasks. Merrill wanted to help her people through ancient technology that could be revolutionary for the People across Thedas, Fenris managed to find his sister in Tevinter, Aveline was trying to maintain order in a hellish place like Kirkwall, while Hawke seemed to do nothing besides kill people. What bothers me about that is the player – as Hawke – can tell Varric that they want to go into politics, or own a business – but the narrative provides the feeling that Hawke isn’t really doing anything. It’s infuriating for players who were expecting a pro-active protagonist, and some of us feel like we weren’t provided with one.

  11. I’m a narrative gamer, too, and that’s where DA2 failed very hard for me. I also prefer character dramas, and again, this is precisely where the lapses of the game felt so egregious. The NPCs did not feel like real individuals whose interests converged with the protagonist in different ways; they were either walking codex, like Fenris, or plot devices, like Anders and Isabela. The very fact that nothing essential in the story changes no matter what you do reinforces this criticism. Anders and Isabela are there to start wars, period. Sure, you can hang out with them in the meantime, but when it comes down to business, they’re just bots. I’m not shaping a story, I’m observing a story. I play RPGs to shape a story.

  12. I love your post and agree with most everything you have written, starting with the value of narrative on. I actually love the combat in the game, also, because it gets your juices flowing but is still not so mind-numbingly complex that it takes away your attention from the story and the general feel of the game.
    One thing I disagree with is your stance on the Song of Ice and Fire series. It’s not actually anything negative, just a wish you would give it one more chance (I’ve followed it since the third book came out), because I do feel a constant glimmer of hope shining through the bleakness of it all, getting ever stronger.
    And I agree with you that the books are much like DA2, showing us not every man has to be a hero, or even can, for that matter.
    As for the conclusion, well, I am sure everyone will get what they deserve.

    • Thanks for reading =) You know, I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to the ASoIaF books, but I am LOVING the TV show. I guess because a. it is streamlined, and b. I can leave the room or close my eyes through the really awful stuff =/

  13. Pingback: Freedom, Culpability and Failure in Dragon Age II, or: My Boyfriend The Terrorist | Girl from the Machine

  14. Hey – I know this is an old post, but I had to drop by and say I think this is a really good argument, and I definitely agree with your contention that DAII is fundamentally a game about powerlessness. I wrote this piece (https://puellaexmachina.wordpress.com/2015/02/15/freedom-culpability-and-failure-in-dragon-age-ii-or-my-boyfriend-the-terrorist/) almost as a response to what you’ve said here; I think even the agency you get given in regards to your companions is rendered problematic by the overarching freedom-vs-struggle theme, but yeah. Thanks again for writing this, really helped me shore up my own thoughts about a game that I love the more I think about it.

    • Hey, thanks for commenting! I’m proud of this piece, and it makes me really happy people are still finding it and getting something out of it.

      YOUR POST IS INCREDIBLE, HOLY SHIT. I had honestly never realized friendship vs rivalry was working that way, turns out it’s actually even bolder and more interesting than I initially thought. I friended pretty much everyone on my first playthrough except Merrill, and I ended up killing her entire clan… it’s interesting how not indulging her is likely better for her as a person but still feels a lot like a tragic disaster.

      I always wondered how or why anyone could or would rival Aveline or Varric, and you’re right, it’s just not a compelling option because there’s no reason for it, they don’t have any self-destructive tendencies like the other companions do.

      Thanks again for stopping by and linking your piece, it’s given me tons to think about!

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