First Person

First Person
When Dragon Age II Fell Apart

Dennis C. Scimeca | 19 Jan 2012 12:00
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Critics of Dragon Age II who are bullish on the game tend to extol the virtues of its narrative. I enjoy narrative in my videogames. I do not, however, place value on narrative over mechanics. A good videogame needs to have both. They usually don't. It's therefore natural when games like Dragon Age II, whose characters and story are arguably stronger than their mechanics, roll around, those narrative-loving critics are so pleased.

The challenge with assessing value to videogames on behalf of their narratives is that we cannot read them like ordinary texts, a la books and movies. The story of a videogame that allows players to make moral choices has to provide narrative quality along all the paths its players may take in order to deserve our critical praise. Dragon Age II's story fell apart for me in spectacular fashion on account of the choices I made, which were summarily ignored.

One of the most interesting aspects of the land of Thedas in the Dragon Age universe is the way BioWare has subverted traditional fantasy lore. Elves are current or former slaves, having been at war with humanity in the distant past, whereas in most fantasy traditions Elves are an enlightened race in their declining years. The other chief subversion is the nature of magic, which in Dragon Age is born from interaction with a spiritual realm called The Fade, where spirits of good and evil dwell. Mages are susceptible to possession from evil spirits, which turns the Mages into Abominations.

The Knights Templar, a subversion of the Paladin archetype in fantasy, are charged with organizing Mages into Circles, which not only keeps the Mages in one place to be watched but also allows the Mages to police their own ranks by educating apprentices about how use of blood magic could lead to possession. This mythology of the Templars and the Mages is at the heart of the story in Dragon Age II. The game takes place in the city-state of Kirkwall, which has a large Mage Circle and an equally-large contingent of Templars. The latter are led by Knight-Commander Meredith, who is a zealot at best when the character is first introduced. She is brutal in her treatment of the Mages in Kirkwall, and this tension eventually threatens the peace of the city-state in the game's third act.

BioWare's narrative specialty is giving players the ability to shape worlds through moral choices. In Dragon Age II, the player is constantly given opportunities to side physically in action or ideologically in word with either the Mages or the Templars. My character, a female Warrior version of the main character Hawke, tried to walk a middle line between the Mages and the Templars.

Hawke's sister Bethany was a Mage, and so clearly Hawke would never support the Templar propaganda that all Mages were potential Abominations just waiting to be born. Hawke also understood that the system of Mages and Templars went back much, much further in the history of Thedas than she could remember, and maybe it was there for a reason. That was the choice I made. That was how I chose to portray Hawke.

The quest called "Best Served Cold" in the third act of the game features First Enchanter Orsino, the head of the Kirkwall Mage's Circle. Some of his Mages have been sneaking out of the Circle at night. He suspects they may be using blood magic in an attempt to oppose the Templars. The tension between the two groups is rising to a head such that Orsino is afraid to seek the Templars' help in tracking these errant Mages, so he enlists the assistance of Hawke.

Orsino directs Hawke to a meeting taking place in the upscale Hightown district of Kirkwall. Hawke and party find a group of Mages and Templars standing together in a courtyard, who accuse Hawke of working for Knight-Commander Meredith and immediately attack. One of the pieces of loot recovered from the battle is a note about another meeting at the Docks.

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