A necessary clarification here: I like Dragon Age 2, and it is a good game, and it’s so easy to see how it could have been better. The infrastructure is totally there. I’ve learned more from playing it, in its flawed beauty, than I have from most games. In fact, I’ve been replaying it this week, which is what got me thinking.
Okay. Disclaimer done. Rant begins now.
Where DA:O gives you several emotionally different endings (you die, your lover dies, no one dies and you pay a devil’s bargain, your best friend dies, you become co-ruler, you become the lover on the side for the ruler, you partner up with your assassin buddy as lovers, etc.)… That sentence ran away from me. Where was I?
Right. Where DA:O gives you endings with different emotional resonance depending on your choices in game, DA2 gives you one ending. Yeah, you can choose to kill or pardon Anders, but that doesn’t really affect anything in the world. Oh, yeah, Sebastian might get mad at you. Whatever. Sebastian is annoying, and is a DLC companion, which means he’s not central to the plot anyway.
The storyline of Dragon Age 2 is one unending series of failures. No matter what you do, it all goes to shit by the end.
First goal, get yourself and your family out of Ferelden and away from the Blight. Guess what? You kinda fail in the first 10 minutes of the game. Because no matter what you do, one of your siblings will die. It’s actually kinda cool, narratively, because the two siblings are very different and will interact with you in entirely different ways, and the choice of who dies is a result of whatever character class you pick. It does establish the premise that every action is going to cost you in this game. And, oh boy, it’ll cost you big. But the fact remains, failure number one, right out the door.
You get to Kirkwall with your mom and surviving sibling, and a redheaded annoying guardswoman, but that’s a different issue. The entire first act is all about reclaiming the family name, dragging yourself and your surviving family out of the gutter and up into the nobility. Or at least the middle class. And making sure the Templars can’t touch any of you. Guess what? No matter what you do here, partial failure.
You lose your sibling. No matter what decision you make, your sibling is no longer a part of your life (except for some possible cameo moments later, if they live). Either your sibling is going to die in the Deeproads, or survive by becoming a Grey Warden, which means they’re out of your life and will always have some pretty heavy duty secrets they can never share. Plus the dying early thing, the infertility thing, the fighting nasty darkspawn thing. Yeah. Sorry, sibs. Your life sucks.
If you don’t take your sister with you into the Deeproads, when you get back, she’s being taken away and imprisoned in the Gallows by the Templars (you are a scary mage, lady, so we’re taking you away and locking you up. Sorry, Bethany. But, hey. You’re still adorable.) So you know how such a huge part of wanting status was so you could protect your family from the Templars and make sure your sister never got locked up in the Gallows? Yeah.
Or, if it’s your brother, he goes off and becomes a fucking Templar. You know, a member of the religious order that persecutes mages like you. It’s a complete betrayal of everything your family has fought for. But, you know, shiny uniform. And it does get him out of your shadow. Oh, and it makes you, his big kick ass sister who always outshone him, vulnerable to him. No family issues here.
Okay. So now, it’s you and your mom in the mansion. That’s kinda a success, right? You managed to keep her alive… (Can anyone see the foreshadowing here? Bueller?)
You are nobility. So you managed to get out of the gutter. Go, you. You also have partial ownership in a mine as a result of a quest in act 1 where you save a bunch of miners and clear out monsters from the mine. But that pesky mine just keeps having dragon infestations. So, go back to the mines to find a bunch more miners have died, but you save the rest. The mine is safe again. It’s totally a great idea for those guys to get back to work. Of course, by the end of Act 3, they’re all dead. Every last one of them. So all you did was prolong their lives working in a mine. Which is just the nicest and healthiest place for anyone to work. And then they died. Failure.
In Act 2 you also get to hook up with your love interest. Which is aways gonna have some wonky shit going on. Isabella has commitment issues, so don’t act like you’re really into her, okay?
Anders, well, Anders. What can you say about him other than, don’t. Seriously! Possessed mage! With a “sensitive guy pony tail”.
Fenris is hot, and has an amazing voice, but then he freaks out and runs. And you can’t really blame him, because slavery. Who knows what the hell happened to him when he was a slave? PTSD for sure. You can wait for him for another three years, and he will eventually get his shit worked out and come back to you, and he’ll even have your back in the end whatever you decide. But… that’s the best romance in the game.
Sebastian… celibate sworn to the Chantry. The best you can get out of him in the entire game is a “chaste marriage”. You can pray together. Hot.
Merrill. She’s adorable. She’s quirky. She’s like the librarian girl and mad scientist you’ve always wanted to date all rolled up in one. Plus kittens! Oh, and demons. You don’t mind demons, do you? She and Anders, by the way, are kinda clingy. What is it with clingy mages?
You can’t romance Varric, which is a pity, because that chest hair is pretty fantastic. You can’t romance Aveline, who I did say was annoying (red head guardswoman), but she’s at least a seriously competent warrior. Competence is sexy. It makes up for some emotional un-intelligence.
You can hook up with Zevran if you play your cards right, but he’s not a main character, he doesn’t stick around, and he doesn’t even look like himself thanks to whatever weird changes they made to elven features between DA:O and DA2
You can’t hook up with Cullen, which is a pity, because he’s adorable. And he was so screwed in game one, you kinda want to hug him and make things work out right for him.
You can go to the Blooming Rose and hook up with a prostitute. Not my thing.
And then there’s the Arishok. I wish he was romanceable. I so wish. But he’s not. What a waste of a gorgeous voice. And he’s an interesting character. I kinda agree with him when he rants about how fucked up the city is. Actually, I agree with him on a lot of things. He’s a hell of a lot more competent than the Viscount who rules the city. And a lot more sane than Knight Commander Meredith who leads the Templars, or First Enchanter Orsino who leads the mages. And let’s not even get started on the ineffectualness that is Grand Cleric Elthina. But no matter what, you’re gonna have to fight him. Which could have been cool with a little bit more emotional resonance between you and him. It nearly was cool. But.
Either you let him kidnap Isabella as punishment for her theft, thereby losing her entirely. Or you have to kill him. And I hate having to kill him. But I also can’t convince myself to let him take Isabella. No matter what you do, he’s gone at the end of Act 2. On its own, this is actually a perfectly good plot point for the game. But taken as part of a series of continual failures, meh.
Oh, and the Viscount is dead. Remember all that work you did for him trying to keep the city stable? Remember saving his son and trying to help out with their conflict? Yeah. His son is dead, now. And so is he. And there was never any decision you could make that would change that. Really, the end of Act 2 is pretty depressing.
Act 3, you have the Templars and the Mages frothing at the mouth to have a go at each other. Initially, I find the mages more sympathetic, but by the end of the game, I just want both sides dead. And guess what, that’s what you get! I guess that’s kinda satisfying, getting to kill the dumbass leaders of both factions… But you spend so much effort trying to make peace between the two sides, and nothing you do makes a difference. And you can’t convince that ineffectual head of the Chantry to get her head out of the sand and do anything…
But I get ahead of myself. You remember your first ever goal in the game? To keep your family together and get everyone somewhere safe? Yeah. Your mother dies in Act 3. No matter what you do.
It’s actually one of the more effective storylines for me. That ending is just gruesome and heart wrenching. But the fact of the matter is that at this point of the game, you have completely failed. Your entire family is either dead or taken from you by the wardens or the Templars. And you never had any chance of making it turn out differently.
When you resolve Varric’s storyline, you end up killing his brother. When you resolve Merrill’s storyline… god, poor kid. No matter what, she’s screwed. No matter what, her mentor and mother figure bites it at the hands of Merrill’s pet demon. And she is completely rejected by her people. And her entire quest to save her people through studying old and forbidden magic? Total failure. Congrats.
Isabella… You know, I don’t even remember what’s up with her. Was it all resolved with the Arishok?
Fenris, you do at least get to kill his former master if you so desire. Or you can let him take Fenris back into slavery. I always kill the bastard. That is satisfying. That is one of the few moments I find completely satisfying. And if you romanced Fenris, you get back together and he’s with you through the end.
And then there’s Anders. Who betrays you. Again, no matter what you do. He betrays you. He lies to you, gets you to help him make his stupid bomb, tricks you into aiding and abetting him in blowing up the Chantry.
The Chantry. The center of the religion. The main power in the city. The folks who control the Templars.
No matter what you do, no matter how much effort you put into making peace between the Chantry/Templars and the Mages, Anders starts a fucking war. The end.
Okay. Maybe not the end. Not completely. You do get to kill the obnoxious leaders of both sides. Knight Commander Meredith, who is just evil from the get go. And then Orsino, the First Enchanter. Who was a sympathetic character. But then he goes batshit and eats his apprentices (or, well, uses their bodies to create a grotesque golem creature with him as the head). And, and! Turns out he was totally in on that crazy shit that got your mother killed. Ass.
So, basically, all the authority figures in the game die. Unless you let the Arishok go. And he’s the only competent one, so I guess him having a chance of survival makes a certain amount of sense.
Your entire family dies. Wait, no, your alcoholic asshole uncle who stole and the gambled away your mother’s inheritance and then sold you into indentured servitude and bitched at you a lot? He’s still around somewhere. As is his illegitimate daughter, I think. She’s kinda cool. But they’re not hanging out with you.
The religious war you tried to stop is happening.
You’ll lose all of your companions, except your lover, unless Anders was your lover and you decided to kill him for the whole starting a war thing (and really, don’t get involved with Anders).
The game is one long failure of a life. No matter what you do. Your choices don’t matter.
This in part is due to middle of the story syndrome. DA2 has to bridge between DA:O and DA3. It’s got major limitations because of that. There has to be a religious war, so that has to start in DA2. There’s probably stuff going on with the Arishok and his people (the Qunari). They are conquerors and they will be coming after the rest of the world, so we need to set that up, too.
The main character of the game has to be central to all of this, but the way they did it, you’re just running a maze where nothing you do makes a difference. Instead of making the player feel important, it makes you feel powerless.
If you want to look at the game philosophically, it’s a great treatise on nihilism and the ultimate heat death of the universe (not literally, but I feel the same way when I think about the heat death of the universe). I just happen to find that depressing.
It plays like a novel. It’s actually a pretty good novel. But I play RPGs to feel agency. To feel like my actions have meaning.
So Dragon Age 2 had a lot of great things going for it. Tension, motivation, gorgeous art, some awesome voice talent, plenty of interesting characters (plenty of blah characters, too, but whatever), and some witty banter. And it does a great job of carrying through on things that happened in the first game. But you only get the illusion of player agency. In the world of DA2, nothing you do changes anything.
Abandon hope, ye who enter here, because you’re screwed whatever you do.