“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)
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
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.