Character in the Age of Dragons
Hawke, the lead character for Dragon Age II, is a tragic and unforgivable cliche representing at best an amalgam of classic genre fiction archetypes and icons. However, this indictment has nothing to do with BioWare—the fault is mine. You see, Hawke is so unforgivably stereotyped because I made him that way.
This, above all other reasons, is why I’ve fallen in love with Dragon Age II.
It is rare in gaming to find crisp, clean, truly professional dialogue that defines not only a character, but a city and a world. Hell, it’s arguably rare in actual bookstore fiction. More often than not, good enough to avoid being laughably bad is close enough for gaming. It’s not that I think bad writers write for video games—on the contrary, I think there are some standout people doing phenomenal work—I just think the attention to detail necessary, the dedication to craft and the willingness to refine and refine again often gets lost in the development process when measured against other areas of focus.
So understand the weight intended when I make the following statement: To me, Dragon Age II is the best written game since Planescape: Torment.
Part Malcolm Reynolds, part Han Solo and part Aragorn, my Hawke is often fearlessly sardonic, but his surface disengagement belies an underlying iron streak of unwavering idealism and faithfulness. He is a sympathetic son who struggles with the guilt of believing he is ultimately responsible for his sister’s death and defers at all turns to the wishes of his grieving mother. He is a brother who wants deeply to connect with his rival sibling, yet can not find a common ground from which to build a relationship, leaving every well intentioned gesture ultimately the catalyst for another fight. He seems most at ease and even apparently flippant when facing the most serious adversary, but he can be pushed to a breaking point of almost frightful vengeance, most often when injustice comes to an innocent. His relationships with women are often trivial, but he does not know how to reach out to those that mean the most to him. Most importantly, he is universally loyal to those who show him kindness and kinship, and would turn against the world itself to help a friend.
These are not deeply unfamiliar character traits, and do not really describe a fully fleshed, three-dimensional character. Ultimately Hawke is not a particularly deep person with onion layers of complexity, but he is a surprisingly accurate reflection of the sketch I have in my head, and I am as entwined in his story as that of any character from any game I remember playing. He is a testament to the stunning refinement in character-building that I’ve experienced in Dragon Age II.
I’ve long been a fan of BioWare’s (at least well intentioned if not always successful) efforts to improve character development in games. However, even up to Mass Effect 2, getting my character to actually say the things I imagine they should say has been a hit-or-miss trial. On one hand, sometimes the selection I would make on BioWare’s dialogue wheel of fortune would lead to dialogue I’d have never intended my character to say. On the other, often none of the dialogue choices reflect the kind of character I am trying to build. Such is the symptom of games that rely too heavily on black and white, good and evil constructions.
Beyond that, though, often even in the best situation, when the character of these earlier games was expressing exactly the kind of sentiment I had intended, the writing and delivery has been uninspiring. Good and noble simply sounded pedantic. Evil and menacing simply sounded psychotically ponderous. And humorous very often wasn’t.
Dragon Age II, by comparison, is exceptionally well written and finds complexities among the gray areas that even previous BioWare titles never explored. In the highly conflicted City of Chains, there are few clear-cut lines of good and evil. Each side in almost every argument has a firm philosophical ground to stand on, leaving you rarely with an easy choice when picking sides. At almost 20 hours into the game, I’m still not sure who the bad guy is. Hell, I’m not even sure there is a bad guy.
If I can break this down Martha Stewart style, “That’s a good thing.”
This isn’t the same old end-of-the-world, hero-saves-us-all-from-the-apocalypse story that regularly passes for narrative in the game space. Even if the fate of the city Kirkwall is at stake, and I’m not so sure that it is, most of Dragon Age II is about the story of your character. The construction of that story does keep hinting at some greatness associated with The Champion, which presumably is you, but it’s easy to forget that you are fated toward some imbued station of quality while kicking around in the dirty, underground politics of the city. Smaller stakes make the story that much more personal, and you care for what is happening not because the countless, anonymous multitudes are threatened, but because the consequences are so personal to the central story. That is a subtle art that few video games get right.
As I played Dragon Age II last night, I came to yet another choice. It was a small moment in the middle of a side quest, one of countless little vignettes in the larger tapestry of events in Kirkwall, but I was frozen, indecisive in how to make my decision. Both sides of the argument at hand seemed so equally balanced, but there were consequences that I cared about, and I didn’t know which way to proceed. As I finally made the call, I was already looking forward to going back through the game again to explore the impact of the road not taken.
That’s just about the highest praise I can give a game.