Dragon Age 2 starts off with a frame: the Seeker interrogating Varric about Hawke’s deeds, and calling bullshit on him. So: it’s first of all a game about story. But not a story with a clear ending or a clear path; and not a story where we the player (or, for that matter, the player’s avatar in game) are in complete control: other people are going to have their say about the course of events, about the basic truth of what happened. We can threaten all we want, but ultimately they’re going to say something and we have to figure out how to approach what they say. Maybe we’ll accept it as truth, maybe not; either way, we have to figure out how to interpret its significance, what our reaction to it is.
This emphasis on story is not limited to the frame. Yes, there’s a city to wander through, dungeons to explore, battles to fight. But the second and third of those almost aggressively signal that they’re not a priority: the game reuses the same handful of dungeon layouts over and over again, it teleports waves of successive enemies into your battle. If I wanted to make an affirmative case for the repeated environments, I might say that it turns the dungeons into places with their own character that deserve repeated visits, or (taking a diametrically opposite view) that it causes the environments to fade into the background in the same way stages in a fighting game do. I don’t really believe the last of those is relevant, though; I did actually find the repeated stages comfortable, but that case shows up much more strongly in the city environments. (There, the fact that all three acts of the game take place within the same city instead of having you travel from city to city on your journey really does invest those environments with strength, emphasizing the fact that Dragon Age II is, in part, about making a home.)
The game returns to this question of story and narration over and over again. It’s not just the Seeker wondering what to make of Varric’s storytelling, or you (the player) reflecting on that: in the second and third acts, Hawke herself starts questioning Varric, asking why he tells tales in the pub the way he does. Why does he put Hawke in the foreground, why does he put himself in the background? In the first act, Carver has an internal narrative going on that foregrounds Hawke (and doubtless an internal narrative picking up in parts on external narratives), but this time it’s a source of resentment: why isn’t he the chosen one? Yes, it’s a traditional fantasy role-playing game, with you (the player) controlling the hero; but other people are going to have their say in the construction of that heroism. (As, of course, game developers always do—perhaps Varric is in part a personification of those game developers?)
In fact, in general the other characters push back against you quite a bit more than is normal in role-playing games. This shows up in the very mechanics of the games: in a traditional RPG, you can control all aspects of your party members’ outfits. Dragon Age 2 generally lets you control your party members’ weapons and accessories (though even that isn’t a universal rule), but they have their own clothing. Appearance is such a strong social signal; ironically, in Dragon Age 2, your party members have more control over that than you do, because you’ll almost inevitably decide what Hawke should wear for game mechanical reasons rather than for sartorial reasons; your companions suffer no such handicap.
You do generally get to decide which party members accompany you on your excursions. But even there, the focus is away from you: party members rarely talk to you while you’re strolling around town or exploring a dungeon. Instead, the interesting aspects of those excursions involves the party members’ conversations with each other, watching their relationships with each other grow in ways that are completely independent of Hawke’s presence. I very much enjoyed watching the tone of Aveline’s and Isabela’s conversation change over the course of their experiences together, with real mutual respect developing; and seeing that externally-directed respect develop also made the times where they showed how much they cared about and trusted Hawke just that much more powerful.
This being a BioWare game, there is of course more than one way in which the word ‘relationship’ is relevant: romance options are indeed present. And they’re present in ways that gave me more pause than other recent BioWare games (though perhaps it’s also not a coincidence that it took me a while to find a happy romance option in Mass Effect 2?). I was maybe a third of the way into Dragon Age 2 when Felicity Shoulders published her article “I am not a Puzzle Box”, and RPG romance choices have the lamentable habit of structurally reinforcing a puzzle box interpretation. Which is, perhaps, understandable given games’ desires to allow you to win on both a macro and a micro level: a game that touches on romance is likely to be designed in a way that allows you to, with the right set of choices, “unlock” romance with certain characters.
But that’s not the only possible way for games to approach that question. Stepping back a level: games’ desire to allow you to win is, in part, a manifestation of games’ desire to allow you to understand systems. And those systems can allow you to discover at times that there are certain actions that you’d like to be able to perform that don’t fit in within the game’s systems. Handled in a ham-handed way, this can be frustrating (c.f. invisible walls); done right, though, it gives you a richer appreciation for the underlying systems, with the initial frustration transforming into respect, respect that would be unavailable if the game were all about arbitrary wish-fulfillment.
And, when I thought about my romance options, my expectations were indeed frustrated. Initially, I found Merrill charming; that charm, though, is the charm of watching somebody inexperienced come into her own, which isn’t something I’ve ever looked for in a romantic partner. So, after thinking about this a bit and looking around, I realized that whom I was most attracted to was the person I saw as the grown-up in the party, namely Aveline. Which surprised me—we got off on the wrong foot when we first met—but, by then, quite a bit of mutual respect had developed.
Unfortunately, at the time I was figuring this out, Aveline was asking me to help set her up with Donnic! In a charmingly inept way; that sort of charming ineptness I might like just fine, but, well, she’s just not into me that way. So: frustration; and continuing with the theme of the grown-up in the party, my next choice (who actually temperamentally might have been the best fit of all) was Varric, who also isn’t a romance option.
This left me with Anders, Fenris, Isabela, or going without romance. And I considered the last option; but I liked Isabela quite a bit as well, and we ended up together. Which points at a more subtle way that Dragon Age 2 fights against the “puzzle box” idea: not only are some characters simply not available as “puzzles” to be solved, but the characters who are available as romance options don’t take any real puzzling to get them into bed with you: as long as you show basic social skills and decency, they’ll be happy to go along. (At least in my limited sample, but I suspect that’s true for all of them, based on my BioWare experience.) At first, I thought of this as removing agency from those characters; but after considering all of the companions together, the way I look at that now is that, in all cases, significant romantic agency is on your companions’ side. What really matters is whether or not a companion is attracted to you; you can choose to go along with that or not, but what you can’t choose is to change the basic fact of whether or not they’re attracted to you.
Dragon Age 2 is a game about story; but other people are going to have their say in how that story is told. It’s a game about relationships; but others have their say in the boundaries and nature of those relationships, and indeed many of the most important relationships in the game don’t involve you at all. And, as I briefly mentioned above, it’s a game about home; but a home that you don’t choose, a home that you’re driven to by the horrors of war. (And a home that you have to fight for, including arguing with members of your family!)
Home isn’t just a place, though: ever since I’ve left my parents’ house, home has been an affirmative choice, a conception of who and how I want to be. Not simply my own choice, to be sure—the other people who are part of my home are the single most important factor in that home, and material circumstances have an ever-present effect—but it’s something that we’re constructing.
So: what is the conception of home and self that we’re construction in Dragon Age 2? To me, role-playing games always feel like adolescent games: you’re growing up and trying to construct a story where you’re the hero. Which has its charms, but these days such games come off to me too frequently as banal wish fulfillment. (And, even setting that complaint aside: it really gets old!)
Fortunately, Dragon Age 2 steps back from that story; the steps aren’t big, but they’ve had an outsized impact on me, leaving room for the story to be personal instead of a fantasy. The dialog options are one example: instead of choosing between good/evil/neutral, you choose between being just a little too good, or being a little too impatient and focused on the ends instead of the means, or being a little too distant and snarky. (I almost always chose that last option; and what a relief it was to have it available!) Or the three-act structure: you’re doing the same leveling up from humble beginnings to unimaginable powers as in any RPG, but at least the game frames this as happening over the course of years instead of weeks, leaving enough room to interpret it as coming into your own powers instead of revealing your divinity.
And those acts. You don’t start out by fighting some sort of malevolent being, some sort of power personified: you instead fight against a much more subtle and much more real power, you fight against the indifference of society to make a home for yourself, to be able to provide for your family. (And, despite the structural indifference of society, you’re not doing this by yourself: you’re finding people who care, you’re building a second family along the family that you’re born with.)
In the second act, you’ve won acceptance from the city: you’re no longer a child depending on (trying desperately to win!) the support of others, you’re living on your own, showing you can take care of yourself. There is, I think, an undercurrent of self-doubt that remains; but there’s also a wonderful reflection of that self-doubt in others, where you realize at a fundamental level that your parents are people with their own flaws, not flaws that make them caricatures but flaws that make them people. So you’re providing for your mother; and the city as a whole is going through its own adolescent crisis, trying to figure out who it wants to be and what the Qunari say about the city, and needing you to act as the adult helping guide it through this crisis.
During this, your relationships with your party members deepen; by the end of the second act, your places and selves are all set, though implications remain. I loved the way my story with Isabela played out: she’s very much her own person, I was also my own person, and we both had to work out what that meant; but ultimately that relationship was strong enough to win out over forces that would otherwise have pulled us in different directions.
Which brings us to the third act. In a normal RPG, this would be where you fight against some sort of all-encompassing evil. But Dragon Age 2 only hints at that (and, honestly, the external nature of Meredith’s evil was probably the single weakest aspect of the game for me): instead, you’re fighting for control of the city with somebody who is powerful but far from god-like, who is ambitious but not clearly overly driven by that ambition. (Indeed, not clearly any more driven by ambition than you are!) Instead, Meredith is driven by a vision of morality, with a bright line between the good and the bad and with a willingness to consider horrible tactics in support of that line.
And I found that, in its third act, rather than becoming more grandiose, Dragon Age 2 became a lot more real. Meredith’s labeling of mages as fundamentally not to be trusted, as fundamentally evil, is something that’s playing out in the world in so many ways right now. Pushing people into boxes, labeling them as terrorists, and using their reactions to that boxing to further justify that labeling: it’s going on all around us. My only regret with Dragon Age 2‘s treatment of those matters is that it goes far too far along the path of seeing that threat as justified: in Thedas, mages really do consort with demons, really are at risk of being possessed by those demons.
That’s the political question that the third act of the game sets up (helped, of course, by the second act); what I wasn’t expecting was how unexpectedly personal it would be to me. I live in a context of privilege, so I have the great luxury of not being personally attacked for who I am; but I do have experience being around authoritarian assholes, people whose general political temperament is extremely different from mine and who systematically disrespect and attack others because of those others’ memberships in politically disempowered groups.
Or at least that’s the story I tell about some situations I’m in; as Dragon Age 2 teaches us, there’s no reason for you to trust the story that I’m telling, and I should be suspicious of my own stories as well! Our own stories are too easy, too pat, too likely to frame a situation in ways that are convenient to our own self-worth. So I should be suspicious when I start telling stories like that about my own situation; I should look for other ways to interpret what’s going on, and if I find I can’t, I should seriously consider simply removing myself from that story.
But, if I find myself going along with such a story, the question is: how do I see myself, how would I like to act? And Dragon Age 2 provides an answer to that question: I don’t want to use the situation as an excuse to grab power for myself, but I have a strong reflexive instinct for which side I’m fighting on, an instinct which is strong enough to overpower critical thought in some circumstances. And if my friends get involved, which side I’m on gets even clearer; fortunately, in real life, none of my friends act in ways similar to Anders, and, also fortunately, in both real life and in the game, those loyalties to friends play both ways. (I loved the scene where your various companions had to pick sides: I was completely happy to have Fenris go his own way, but I would have been devastated if Aveline hadn’t stuck by me. Certainly some of her nature must have pulled her in the other direction; but our bonds were strong enough that she went along with me, and could see why I was acting the way I was.)
Dragon Age 2 is a game; resolving these questions is always much easier in a game than it is in real life. But it’s a game that serves as a mirror, enough so that the third act had me shaking; and the vision that I saw in that mirror is one that I can learn from, in which I can see somebody that I’d like to grow into.
That unreliable narrator, though: always there, always reminding me not to take my own stories as telling the truth. And the acts that divide in this game, the fact that it’s the second game in what will at least be a trilogy. Taking a Latourian point of view, we see the Politics of Nature unfolding: following the Requirement of Consultation, we listen to the voices around us. The Requirement of Hierarchy says that we build up our understanding step by step, each new understanding respecting what came before. The Requirement of Institution says: at some point, an argument comes to an end; but the Separation of Powers and the Requirement of Perplexity say that we can’t ignore facts because they’re uncomfortable. And yes, Scenarization of the Totality says that we weave all of these voices, all of these layers of understanding, all of these uncomfortable facts into a grand retrospective narrative of truth.
But at the end, we have the Power to Follow up: that grand narrative always has flaws, there are always events that leave uncomfortable lumps as we sweep them under the rug, leading to another go around of the story to recontexualize what has come before. So it is in life; so it is in Dragon Age 2, which ends in as unsure a state as any game I can think of. That uncertainty isn’t a sign of weakness or a sign of a lack of belief in its own powers and message: it is, instead, a simple acknowledgement that this story was told by these people at this time in this place, and different stories will be told in the future.
This post has not been revised since publication.