Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"WTF?" moments from Dragon Age 2


Dragon Age 2 features one of the ballsiest RPG stories in recent memory, what with the framed narrative, the more personal approach, and the complete lack of an epic world-saving goal. Therefore we should be forgiving of the story's many faults, which are the natural byproduct of this noble experiment.

We should, but where's the fun in that? Instead, let's take a look at campiest, most off-putting, illogical, and downright funny moments in the game - the moments that, in the parlance of our times, make you say "WTF?"

It probably goes without saying that this is chock-full of spoilers, but I'm going to say it anyway. Twice. Seriously, do not read this if you haven't played the game but plan to at some point.

Again, SPOILERS. Got it? OK...


1. The curiously unaffecting death of your sibling
Good news: You don't actually have to buy Dragon Age 2 to experience a serious "WTF?" moment. The first baffling bit is included in the demo, when a rambunctious ogre smashes your sibling like an overripe melon. Pardon my callousness, but it's really hard to take this "tragic" event seriously given the poor setup. The Human Noble origin in the first game showed the proper way to handle a case like this, by giving the player a chance to roleplay a few typical family interactions before asking him to care about the death of his parents. But Dragon Age 2 apparently has no time for wussy dialogue when there are hurlocks to be killed and siblings to be spiked into the ground.

I may be alone on this one, but can I also just say that it's weird that my character's class determines which sibling lives and which one dies? I call shenanigans on Bioware for altering the storyline based on metagame choices rather than in-character ones. In my book, that's cheating.

2. The year of living dangerously
The long-term storyline of Dragon Age 2 was a novel idea that was carried off pretty successfully. However, there's no denying that the first "fast-forward" is awkward as hell. Hawke has apparently met a lot of people in the intervening year, as evidenced by the number of NPCs who pretend to be your best bud. But one thing he apparently forgot to do was deliver a certain amulet for a certain witch of a certain wilds. Kind of important, no? It's also slightly odd that the Hawke family has been in Kirkwall all this time, and only now does the subject of granddad's will come up.

3. Kirkwall's worst-kept secret
Clearly, playing an apostate mage in Dragon Age 2 is challenging because you have to operate carefully under the vigilant watch of the templars. At least, that's the way it should be. In reality, no one seems to care that the Champion of Kirkwall is an apostate, including the Champion of Kirkwall. Mage or not, you get put on the same rails as everyone else, being forced to help templars, track down Circle runaways, and slaughter blood mage... after blood mage... after blood mage. But at least if you play a blood mage, things get tricky then, right? Oh.

4. Nice work if you can get it
Your pal Aveline takes over the City Guard after exposing the corruption of the previous Captain... and then proceeds to neglect her duties by following an apostate all over Kirkwall and the Greater Metro Area. Seriously, if Aveline can hold a full-time job while helping Hawke, it makes you wonder what all the other companions are doing with their spare time (well, in the case of Isabela, you can pretty much guess).

The cognitive dissonance of Aveline's moonlighting reaches a high point when she asks you to look into the concerns of a local conspiracy theorist so she "doesn't have to deal with it" (uh, you should know damn well by now that you're going with me, lady). Then, when Hawke and the Aveline reach said conspiracy theorist, he complains that the City Guard won't look into his claims. To which you respond: "Dude, the Captain of the Guard is standing right next to me!" Or you would, if the game let you.

5. Livin' large, Hawke-style
Once Hawke makes lots of gold and restores his family's prestige, he gets to move into a big, fancy estate bustling with servants. OK, it's not actually big, and the servants consist of two dwarves and a emancipated elven slave, all of whom just sort of stand around. But he does get that sweet smoking jacket. Plus, visiting the lonely Hawke estate makes me feel like a medieval Bruce Wayne. Only instead of going off to fight crime, I venture forth to find new sources of elfroot and return swords to the Qunari Lost and Found.

6. Merrill's really obviously horribly bad idea
Merrill's little project to restore a dangerous elven artifact is so obviously bone-headed that even Sandal was probably scratching his head over it. And yet you still help her out because, well, it's a quest, and doing a quest is usually more fun than not doing it. Plus, there's always the hope that this is a setup for a surprise ending that defies the old "forbidden knowledge" trope. Maybe something bad won't happen this time.

Nah. Something bad happens. And though there is a different way to interpret it (maybe the Keeper was wrong to intervene), we've still reached that inevitable end that we've seen coming a mile away. The Merrill quest also features the worst dialogue wheel disconnect in the game, where selecting "I take responsibility" somehow results in Hawke badmouthing Merrill in front of her clan.

7. Frankenmom
Hey, Bride of Frankenstein is one of the best movies ever, so I'm down for an homage. I also love the idea that Hawke is so busy building his family's wealth and fame that he loses sight of the basics. It reminds me of a Franz Kafka story called The Burrow, and recalling Kafka is not something that happens very often while playing videogames.

But the way Hawke's mom gets tied into this (literally) is a problem. For one thing, it's too much of a coincidence that the Champion of Kirkwall's mom becomes a victim because she happens to resemble a stereotypical maniac's dead wife. For another, see Item #1. There's no real connection with your mom because you don't get a chance to roleplay the relationship. Whatever the player feels from this scene is based on what he or she projects on it from real life - in other words, the whole thing is a rather cheap punch in the gut.

8. Companions going off the reservation
I actually like the fact that companions in Dragon Age 2 have their own motivations, even if their logic is sometimes less than stellar. However, cranking up companion independence while reducing the PC's agency has the unfortunate effect of making Hawke seem like a chump. It was bad enough getting tricked by Isabela. But being helpless to stop Anders from plotting a terrorist act right under your nose? I fear history will not be kind to Hawke.

9. Orsino: A meltdown for the ages
Mages in Dragon Age come with a ready-made plot twist - any one of them, no matter how outwardly calm and reasonable, can turn into a demon at any convenient point in the story. From now on, I'm going to start calling this "pulling an Orsino" in honor of what has to be this device's most infamous moment.

The scenario: Hawke has just sided with the Circle Mages over the templars. The first wave of templars has been beaten back with no problem, and another is materializing before you - no big whoop. But for some reason, Orsino gets all worked up, reveals that he's been experimenting with blood magic, and transforms into demon that you have to kill in what turns out to be one of the game's most tedious battles. Obviously, Bioware didn't want to "waste" resources on a truly branching plot, so they came up with a way for you to fight both bosses. But as this episode shows, what makes sense from a project development point of view doesn't always work for the story.

10. It's a bird... it's a plane... it's a really bad plot device

It's almost as if Bioware woke up at some point and said "Holy shit, we need to make the final encounters more epic!" Thus the final boss Meredith is abruptly endowed with super powers, courtesy of the lyrium idol Hawke found earlier on the Deep Roads expedition (see, it's not completely random). Orsino's flipout is a little more understandable because he's a dirty mage, but the premeditated act of acquiring the idol seems a little out of character for a stern, anti-magic templar like Meredith. Granted, a certain amount of hand-waving is allowed in game plots, which have unique requirements. But in this case, what's going on is just a little too obvious.

17 comments:

  1. Pretty good list, and I think I'd agree with all of them. The Orsino one and the Meredith fight (which really reminded me of some not so good jRPGs I might add) really had me scratching my head.

    But I think the whole mage thing is what actually pulls the game apart a bit too much for me. Just thinking of how many apostate mages, not to mention blood mages, gets slaughtered throughout the game... And how many fireballs are thrown around casually in the streets of Kirkwall. And the way blood magic itself is now treated by the game (not exactly like obtaining blood magic in Origins)... The sledgehammer existence of these things in the game really tear apart the internal logic of the game.

    And it's amplified by the fact that the game only takes place in Kirkwall. It's been pointed out some other sites as well but the game could've really used some more design decisions similar to the Cowled Wizards in BG2, *something* to recognize the insane spell-slinging, and the nightly massacres on the Kirkwall streets, haha.

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  2. I also have to agree on your observations.
    My playthrough was with a rogue so I got Bethany as a surviving sibling and Carver died. I sided with the mages as well because the whole story pushed me away from the templars.
    As to the family situation there was no bonding to speak of. I tried talking to them, made all the quests for the uncle and nothing changed. Even Bethany was brainwashed, as I was in the Deep Roads, to join the Circle.
    It was an semi interesting action game with some good moments but it was far from the engaging role playing game that was adverticed.

    But to give them some credit there were some good ideas in it( not finished ones or even completely thought through but thats beside the case). Did you notice the spam mail you got in the mansion?
    The setting was good, you had a base of operation, the companions had their own homes and maybe their own lives, the conflict between the mages and templars was an interesting conflict as main plot (awfully executed but interesting), the Qunari as missionaries were a good idea.
    It could have been a great game if they had taken more time, had a clearer concept of the kind of game they wanted to make and had some story checking before shipping.

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  3. Starwars, I agree. Something like the Cowled Wizards would have been nice, but DA2 and other more recent Bioware games don't have emergent elements like that - instead, everything is tightly controlled, like an interactive movie. What they really should have had is a plot where a dogged templar tries to expose the PC if he's an apostate. But then, they seem to be eschewing class-specific content, too.

    Apolyon6k, it seems a lot more natural to side with the mages, and I think that's why the writers made so many hamfisted attempts to even the scales and make it a more compelling choice. Every mage (besides Bethany) seems prone to blood magic and possession. Then there's the Orsino twist, the Anders thing, and the blood mage who kills your mother. It seems very forced.

    I agree that the game has some great ideas in it. I don't know if some of the basic flaws in the story would have been fixed with more time and resources, but they would have been much easier to overlook.

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  4. I have still not played the game. I sometimes think I should and sometimes think I shouldn't. It does seem that some of their narrative problems (bathing the streets in the blood of blood mages, for instance) have to do with what you point out--lack of "time and resources" (creature models!). A less constrained setting probably suits a hack-n-slash game, which DA2 must to some degree be, more. On the other hand, the constraints they were working with could have been a strength in a different kind of game.

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  5. Maerduin, you're right about the hack-n-slash style not really melding with the lack of creature models. However, they really could have mitigated the damage with better encounter design. The wave encounters are fun, but they needed to mix it up more.

    That said, in one respect the game did turn constraints into a strength. The city adventure with day and night versions of the districts worked really well with limited levels. Of course, they went too far in reusing *other* levels and pretending they were different locations, but...

    At this point, you may want to wait until the price drops (may not be long). You should definitely pick it up at some point, though. It's interesting, if nothing else.

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  6. 1,2,3: Agree. These are fairly poorly implemented and could have been handled a lot better.
    4: Partial disagree. Aveline "not having time" for things was a bit off (I took her with me most of the time) but I can't recall a single situation that related to issues with the city guard where she didn't immediately pipe up and complain if someone was bad-mouthing them.
    5: Erm, and? I'm not sure I see a concrete complaint here. Hawke gets a smoking jacket and a home? I really didn't feel anything was particularly out of place here. Sorry, I just don't get it.
    6: Agreed with the dialogue wheel, that was horrible. The whole quest did seem like a terrible idea and the fact that there was no real resolution (at least in my playthrough) just made me feel like it was half finished. It's not the idea that fails here, it's the lack of a conclusion.
    7: I'm going to have to give a strong voice of disagreement here. You had a lot of time to roleplay and form a connection with your mother by this point in time. If you didn't, that was entirely your choice to not engage with your family and you can't blame the game for that. The real problem was that the sequence tried too hard to pull your emotional strings. By overdoing it, BioWare actually failed to reaction the potential emotional impact that the scene should have had.
    8: Again, I disagree with this. I had absolutely no issues with Isabela's betrayal (though I did think "curse you, rotten pirate wench!") and Anders just made my jaw drop. Of course, even though my FemHawke loved him, she had to kill him because of what he'd done. The issue here isn't the characterisation, because honestly that's perfect to a tee. All the companions act exactly as they've been portrayed in DA2 ignoring that Anders may as well be a ompletely different character from Awakening, just like Leliana - for me that's more of a concern for the internal consistency of the series. It's the plot railroading that is the problem here. The point somewhat valid, but your rationale behind it is misplaced as the characters act exactly as they should given their presentation.
    9: Agreed wholeheartedly, and for me the low point of the entire game. They butchered Orsino's character here - converting him from a level-headed and reasonable character to a complete nut-job. There was absolutely no need for this to occur. The rationale might have been to cast doubt on the player's choice, but all it did was make them feel like that had been cheated. Truly a disgraceful moment that should never have been included in the game.
    10: Again, this made the end feel overblown and unsatisfying. The idol was one of the weakest and worst explained plot devices in my personal video game history (and that covers a LOT of games) and I'm ashamed that one of my favourite developers utilised such a horrible mechanism to enforce the conclusion of their plot. There's a difference between an interesting mystery and an arbitrary macguffin, and BioWare erred far on the side of the latter in this case. An unequivocally terrible writing decision, and something I'm shocked made it past the first edit.

    The problem is that the overarching plot and ramifications of are superb, it's just that the means by which they were reached feel hackneyed and diminish player agency in reaching a truly memorable conclusion.

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  7. Keeping Orsino level headed would have meant that siding with the mages was the 'correct' choice in a supposed gray-morality game. I think what would have worked better is if they made Orsino more sketchy as opposed to the reasonable person he was presented as. Perhaps making him overly cautious and cowardly.

    IIRC, the only thing Orsino deals with is that whack job who kills Hawke's mother. More stuff like that should have appeared sooner in the game. Something different from blood magic too, because not every player thinks blood magic is the devil's work. Something mundane, but still awful; murdering Templar initiates, funding gangs to stretch the Templars ranks, etc...

    Sorry it's not coherent. By the way, excellent blog.

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    1. It's been almost a year to the day since this was posted, but I'd like to respond anyway, just because it's been gnawing at me and I'd like to have this out there as a point of consideration.

      Observations 1-3 I agree with entirely, 4-8 I disagree with (but my disagreement mostly stems from personal choice and the enjoyment I derived from the same parts that irked you; there is no flaw in your judgement, I think, besides Hawke's mansion, which another has already pointed out).

      The last two moments are the ones that have been on my mind since I read this post.

      You have clearly played the game and from the tone of the writing I'd gather that you're a fan, so I will assume that you've read the Codex entries; and in that, I mean the new "Kirkwall" entries, not the reprints from Origins and Awakening. So what of "The Enigma of Kirkwall?"

      The Enigma is a tale of three curious adventurers who take it upon themselves to understand the history of Kirkwall. Throughout the three acts of the game, spread four each, the entries grow darker as the men discover the madness built into the very stone of the city from the backs and blood of Tevinter slaves and the lust of the Magisters. The blood of thousands of slaves covered the streets, literally.

      Dragon Age 2 is, amongst many other things both awe-inspiring and maddeningly frustrating, a well-crafted ghost story. As the story progresses, it is to become increasingly clear and daunting to the player that something is VERY wrong with Kirkwall. They are beset on all sides by madness. Literally surrounded by it by the end. The Arishok even SAYS this on multiple occasions. Kirkwall isn't just a den of filth, it is a mad city. The Enigma of Kirkwall, if read in its entirety (or near enough) explains why.

      Consider the climax of Ghostbusters 2. Manhattan's citizens going crazy because of evil goop running beneath the streets of the city. Kirkwall suffers the same fate, and has since the suffering of the slaves. Their misery and the madness of the Tevinter Magisters has stained the stones and affects everything in ways both small and large. Orisino and Meredith were both struggling to remain calm and sane people with opposing viewpoints in the beginning of ACT III. But by the end, they could fight the madness no more. It wasn't even each other they were fighting. It was Kirkwall.

      This did not come out of thin air. It had been established and built upon from the moment Hawke and co. sailed between those giant miserable statues and entered the city.

      That's it. No one will read this, but it feels good to put it out there.

      Delete
  8. It's been almost a year to the day since this was posted, but I'd like to respond anyway, just because it's been gnawing at me and I'd like to have this out there as a point of consideration.

    Observations 1-3 I agree with entirely, 4-8 I disagree with (but my disagreement mostly stems from personal choice and the enjoyment I derived from the same parts that irked you; there is no flaw in your judgement, I think, besides Hawke's mansion, which another has already pointed out).

    The last two moments are the ones that have been on my mind since I read this post.

    You have clearly played the game and from the tone of the writing I'd gather that you're a fan, so I will assume that you've read the Codex entries; and in that, I mean the new "Kirkwall" entries, not the reprints from Origins and Awakening. So what of "The Enigma of Kirkwall?"

    The Enigma is a tale of three curious adventurers who take it upon themselves to understand the history of Kirkwall. Throughout the three acts of the game, spread four each, the entries grow darker as the men discover the madness built into the very stone of the city from the backs and blood of Tevinter slaves and the lust of the Magisters. The blood of thousands of slaves covered the streets, literally.

    Dragon Age 2 is, amongst many other things both awe-inspiring and maddeningly frustrating, a well-crafted ghost story. As the story progresses, it is to become increasingly clear and daunting to the player that something is VERY wrong with Kirkwall. They are beset on all sides by madness. Literally surrounded by it by the end. The Arishok even SAYS this on multiple occasions. Kirkwall isn't just a den of filth, it is a mad city. The Enigma of Kirkwall, if read in its entirety (or near enough) explains why.

    Consider the climax of Ghostbusters 2. Manhattan's citizens going crazy because of evil goop running beneath the streets of the city. Kirkwall suffers the same fate, and has since the suffering of the slaves. Their misery and the madness of the Tevinter Magisters has stained the stones and affects everything in ways both small and large. Orisino and Meredith were both struggling to remain calm and sane people with opposing viewpoints in the beginning of ACT III. But by the end, they could fight the madness no more. It wasn't even each other they were fighting. It was Kirkwall.

    This did not come out of thin air. It had been established and built upon from the moment Hawke and co. sailed between those giant miserable statues and entered the city.

    That's it. No one will read this, but it feels good to put it out there.

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    Replies
    1. You sir, are brilliant. I had always thought there must me something more to the Enigma than simply a bit of useless if interesting lore, and a meaningless achievement, but its obscurity baffles me. Now that you point out it's (in hindsight, obvious) relevance, I feel a bit gobstopped. WHY did Bioware bury this, when its critical relevance is so apparent? The symbols they splash at every screen-wipe and transition dripping with the blood, no less! THIS should have been the very heart of the game! There are still plenty of major narrative fumbles which can't be justified, certainly, but the Enigma does explain a LOT! Thank you for pointing this out!

      Delete
  9. wish i played more of the game to read the whole thing lol i loved this but i wana finish the rest of these quests before i read anymore spoiling the game... hate spoilers -.- but worth reading what i have done already :D

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  11. More than half a decade has passed since this article (review? Critique, perhaps...) was posted, and as one who's been playing and replaying DA2 since then, I was glad to find it. It's cathartic to read that others who clearly on some levels love the game as much as I do were also just as frustrated by it's massive narrative failings, and the author nailed most of the game's worst points precisely. I have discovered that if I mod the game to allow me to multi-class, people not noticing my mage activities makes worlds more sense. That Hawke- she doesn't wear robes, she wears leather armor! She carries a bow, not a staff! She couldn't POSSIBLY be a dangerous apostate! And it lends credence too, when Fenris says, "I SAW you casting spells in there," as if he had seen through my quite deliberate deception. And when Cullan remarks, "They're not like you and me," again- he doesn't KNOW! Of course all this was shot to hell by the helpful Varric addressing me as "Enchanter Hawke" to the Templar Thraske, which is convenient, since it's about the time other NPCs start to look askance at Hawke, and make mutterings of her magical pursuits.

    It doesn't fix a lot of things. It doesn't fix the fact that it would take an idiot of a mage/alchemist not to notice that the ingredients Anders wants help finding are the makings of explosives.

    It doesn't fix that there is NOWHERE in the game you are allowed to point out the obvious: that punishing people for crimes they have not committed is an attrocity. Anders knows this- but he's batshit crazy, AND possessed by a demon. It doesn't fix that Carver clearly HATES the Templars, but gets angry any time you defend mages from them, and will happily go off and join them in their lobotomizing of innocents the moment you leave him to his own devices. It doesn't help that several of your closest friends think that all mages SHOULD be lobotomized and imprisoned, and only once in the whole game are you actually able to say "HEY! Do you want them to do that to ME?" And you barely get to pay lip service to the notion that power over others is wrong, magical or otherwise.

    BUT.... it does make it fun to at least try to pretend that you're bothering to hide from persecution.

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