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.

Comments

I have to agree that, overall, the dialogue writing is very good for a computer game. The dialogue wheel doesn't always give you what you want and the choices you make don't always seem like they were the ones you chose depending on how the writer and user interprets them.... but Hawke's dialogue is much more human than most other games around and i agree on that front.

I think i disagree on some other points, but since they've been discussed ad-infinitum in the thread in Games and Platforms, i'll leave it at that.

Nice article

I agree absolutely. I played through with a female Hawke, and found myself very invested in the way she interacted with the characters around her. In Mass Effect 2, Shepard was interesting more in the way he effected the entire span of this galactic civilization, but the small scale effect he had on his surroundings was negligible. Hawke actually seems to have a substantial level of interaction with people in the city on a small scale, which makes the character more fleshed out than nearly any video game protagonist I've ever seen.

This article makes me look forward to picking up DA2 despite my misgivings - once it goes on sale.

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.

Really? In the demo, I noticed the same three dialogue options repeat themselves over and over - Principled, Sarcastic, and Douche. From what I could tell, that was all my character could be. So how is it not Bioware's fault that your character is a cliche when they give you such limited options in terms of dialogue choices? Do these options become more nuanced in the full game?

Finally, did you ever play the Witcher? I feel like you could replace "Dragon Age 2" with "The Witcher" in this article and come to most of the same conclusions.

So maybe we are too hasty on our concerns over the replayability/longevity of SW:TOR due to its story intensive focus. I guess the important questions here are:

How many roads not taken are there?
Is there a healthy percentage of them that will both coerce you to take them and lead to worthwhile consequences?

Finally, did you ever play the Witcher? I feel like you could replace "Dragon Age 2" with "The Witcher" in this article and come to most of the same conclusions.

And yet The Witcher never did click with me. I put a solid 8 hours in, but eventually just abandoned it.

I would say in advance that a lot of responses to this article are going to be of the "to each their own" category. And, that's totally fair.

Dysplastic wrote:

Finally, did you ever play the Witcher? I feel like you could replace "Dragon Age 2" with "The Witcher" in this article and come to most of the same conclusions.

Oh yes, playing The Witcher right now and I totally agree with you.

barbex wrote:
Dysplastic wrote:

Finally, did you ever play the Witcher? I feel like you could replace "Dragon Age 2" with "The Witcher" in this article and come to most of the same conclusions.

Oh yes, playing The Witcher right now and I totally agree with you.

I just started it. I'm about a half hour past the tutorial, and I haven't been grabbed yet. Also, the voice acting seems pretty awful.

Dysplastic wrote:

Really? In the demo, I noticed the same three dialogue options repeat themselves over and over - Principled, Sarcastic, and Douche. From what I could tell, that was all my character could be.

pretty much my opinion after finishing the game. maybe i'd need to play it again to spot the nuances but that 'aint happening any time soon.

It's FAR from the games biggest problems though - but I shall say no more of it lest this turn into another catch-all thread. The problems/non-problems with the game have been beaten to death in there I think.

To each their own.

El-Taco-the-Rogue wrote:

I just started it. I'm about a half hour past the tutorial, and I haven't been grabbed yet. Also, the voice acting seems pretty awful. :P

That's why you play it in the original Polish. Good acting? Bad acting? Who Knows! Sounds GREAT though

Hey, this is good news. I love quality game writing, but haven't heard many positive things about DA2 thus far. Back on the buy list.

stevenmack wrote:
El-Taco-the-Rogue wrote:

I just started it. I'm about a half hour past the tutorial, and I haven't been grabbed yet. Also, the voice acting seems pretty awful. :P

That's why you play it in the original Polish. Good acting? Bad acting? Who Knows! Sounds GREAT though :)

This man is correct, although the English voice acting in The Witcher is still vastly superior to most JRPG titles, I found.

My Hawke is gay. Like, really, really gay.

And I'm really, really okay with that.

I'm 100% with you,Ely. I love the character-building in Dragon Age 2. I'm not a huge fan of fantasy stories in general, but the degree to which you can customize and -- GASP -- even role play your protagonist really sucked me in, elevating the experience way beyond the usual, boring swords and sorcery hackfest. I could care less about the metaplot. I just want to know what happens to my Hawke.

Seriously, though, he's really gay.

ETA: I'm making fun, but really, the fact that my Hawke is so believably homosexual -- and not just saying what a woman would from a man's mouth -- is a testament to the fantastic writing that went into this game. Yes, I know my Hawke likes dudes because I like dudes, and I pick all his dialogue options. But within the context of the game, I actually buy into the idea that my Hawke likes dudes because, hey, that's what he likes. It fits seamlessly into the story. So: Bravo Bioware. Homosexuality is really hard to pull off well in a game, especially a story-based game, and this is the best attempt I've seen yet.

I have to comment about the comparison to Planescape: Torment. I agree that Dragon Age 2 has quite good writing in the moment to moment quests, but the overall plotting of the game is poor in comparison to Torment and the themes explored in Torment are more sophisticated. If you consider both games to be in the "action" genre, as the term is used in film, then DA2's themes are common to that genre while Torment's transcends (no pun intended) the genre conventions.

Also I have to say that I think they still held too closely to the three option paradigm, only they replaced the neutral option with sarcastic. I found the voice acting delivery between the options to be so dramatically different that I felt Hawke was going out of character if I selected a different option. The fact that my most used option, the snarky one, was used to fill in uncontrolable dialog segments also reinforced my behavior to go with that option. This was especially painful by the end of the game because Dragon Age 2 is essentially a tragedy in the end but my Hawke was a full on snarky comedian and it just didn't make any sense for him to be saying what he was saying in many of those conversations. I hope that in the future they limit your choices in more interesting ways, perhaps by removing certain options where it would ruin the storytelling. It would also be interesting if they encouraged you more to behave in different ways in different situations. I mashed the sarcasm button throughout the entire game and I still got to be Friends with almost all my party members.

This article has helped put Dragon Age 2 back on my "must buy" list. After all the forum doom-and-gloom about the "dumbed down" combat system and AI, I was really afraid the story wasn't engaging. Thanks for setting the record straight Elysium.

Great article, and totally not helping my attempts to resist buying DA2, until I've finished Awakenings, and Mass Effect 2.

Bioware has always had really amazing writers, and I'm glad they used that sort of skill on DA2. But after playing the demo, I'm not sure I'll ever put DA2 high on my list of "must buy" games. It's sort of hanging out in the "Wait for the Steam Sale" pile. I disliked the demo; and it would take really outstanding writing to make me overcome my distaste for the game mechanics...a thing which I don't think was proffered in the demo. It does sound like Bioware has continued their tradition of really well done story trees, which usually offer a lot of replay factor. But it's been almost impossible for me to want to deal with the FPS feel of the new game.

I've been truly enjoying DA2 even though everyone I know said I would hate it.

The only thing I wish Bioware would learn how to do is create more open areas. Sometimes it feels like Age of Hallways. Still, that's just me nitpicking. What the title has accomplished is to successfully adhere to it's end of the faustian bargain and entertain.

but the overall plotting of the game is poor in comparison to Torment and the themes explored in Torment are more sophisticated.

I don't know that I agree. I do think Torment has become put on a pedestal over the years, and frankly I always though that Torment suffered from an even more ponderously slow plot development than that of DA2, not to mention that the game tended to prattle on and on quite a bit.

I would not be quick to dismiss the themes of social upheaval, religious conflict and political instability in the face of a displaced culture for DA2. I feel they are more sophisticated than necessarily being given credit for yet.

They have to be very good to pull this off consistently.

One of the ways you could define your character in DA: Origins was how your character interacted with faith. Essentially three options were given: religion-supporter, faithful opponent of the dominant organized religion, or cynic.

As an atheist, I kept getting drawn to the third option, which wasn't what I wanted. Clearly the authors hadn't considered the position of a secular humanist or even a moral non-theist. This meant I got a big dose of "that's not what I wanted my character to say".

But even more than that, it actually cut off side quests. I was rather shocked at this - a play option was given that had only a downside.

Obviously, this is not a thing which would be noticed by a majority of players, but I think it serves to underline the point: having an array of options is hard. Having an array of RICH options is very difficult indeed, and so DA:II is now also going onto my 'must buy' list.

LightBender wrote:

Sometimes it feels like Age of Hallways.

DA3: Forks!

Elysium wrote:

I always though that Torment suffered from an even more ponderously slow plot development than that of DA2

I agree that Torment was definitely a lengthy game that took frequent detours from the main plot to flesh out the world and side characters, which is a good trade off in my opinion since the world is as interesting as the plot. But when it got back on track it delivered a cogent story about the Nameless One. Perhaps the sequence of events in the game itself don't make for a great plotline, but there is a great overarching story that is told about the protagonist from beginning to end.

For DA2, I think you should finish it before commenting on the overall plot development. Basically my problem with DA2's plot structure is that the game is broken up into three sections that are called "acts" for lack of a better term, but the plot doesn't actually have a traditional three act structure. The plot of each section is actually quite self-contained with only perhaps some foreshadowing to the events of future sections. The sections are tied together in that Hawke is the central character and they progress chronologically through time, but I found there wasn't really a cohesive character arc for Hawke. It's more like a biography of some of the big events of this important person's life, with perhaps more to come in a sequel.

Elysium wrote:

I would not be quick to dismiss the themes of social upheaval, religious conflict and political instability in the face of a displaced culture for DA2. I feel they are more sophisticated than necessarily being given credit for yet.

I'm not saying those themes aren't import, I'm just saying that they're common to the genre. You can see similar themes in movies like District 9 or Avatar for example. Torment was more introspective thematically, something you don't get often in the action genre which is where most games are.

Also I personally have ethical issues with how some of those themes play out in DA2. This concerns how templars and mages are portrayed in the game. No specific story spoilers but I'll spoiler tag this just in case.

Spoiler:

Basically, Templars are facists and Mages are mutants in the vein of Marvel's X-Men. Mages are a group of people with a genetic predisposition that happens to give them super powers. Templars want to put mages in interment camps (the Circle/Gallows), lobotomize them (Tranquil), or simply kill them all if they get out of line (Right of Annulment). Bioware gives almost equal ethical weight to both sides over the course of the game, you see both sides do despicable things. I think it's almost morally reprehensible to make these two sides ethically equivalent when you consider the real world equivalents of these groups. Siding with the templars condones all sorts of atrocities, but it is presented as a perfectly valid and logical option within the context of the game world. Now I don't mind if this was a game like Brenda Brathwaite's Train where this kind of allegory was developed and thought provoking, but I don't think Bioware actually thought this through to that level. This is reflected in the game since I'm pretty sure that no matter which side the player chooses to support that the player is given similar feedback on the moral choice.

Latrine wrote:
Spoiler:

Basically, Templars are facists and Mages are mutants in the vein of Marvel's X-Men. Mages are a group of people with a genetic predisposition that happens to give them super powers. Templars want to put mages in interment camps (the Circle/Gallows), lobotomize them (Tranquil), or simply kill them all if they get out of line (Right of Annulment). Bioware gives almost equal ethical weight to both sides over the course of the game, you see both sides do despicable things. I think it's almost morally reprehensible to make these two sides ethically equivalent when you consider the real world equivalents of these groups. Siding with the templars condones all sorts of atrocities, but it is presented as a perfectly valid and logical option within the context of the game world. Now I don't mind if this was a game like Brenda Brathwaite's Train where this kind of allegory was developed and thought provoking, but I don't think Bioware actually thought this through to that level. This is reflected in the game since I'm pretty sure that no matter which side the player chooses to support that the player is given similar feedback on the moral choice.

This is probably better discussed in the catch all, but I think your interpretation completely glosses over (spoiler? guess so to be safe)

Spoiler:

the tiny issue that mages have a high propensity to be possessed by demons. You might see both mages and mutants do despicable things, but the analogy doesn't hold when they are doing those things because they agents of the dark lord(s). IMO, the connection to mutants, and consequently, "real world equivalents of these groups" just doesn't make sense in that context.

Spoiler:

If you accept the premise of supernatural predestination and there is no free will in the Dragon Age universe, which I don't think is explicit, then it's completely divorced from reality and makes otherwise rational social commentary nonsensical. On the other hand if you suppose that mages have free will and have some effect on whether or not they'll turn into abominations then the relation holds. Mages who choose to turn to demons and blood magic are no different from the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in the X-Men analogy or radical terrorists in the real world. But then you have the argument that because some members of the group do evil things that the whole group should be controlled and oppressed, which is what I have a problem with.

Latrine wrote:
Spoiler:

If you accept the premise of supernatural predestination and there is no free will in the Dragon Age universe, which I don't think is explicit, then it's completely divorced from reality and makes otherwise rational social commentary nonsensical. On the other hand if you suppose that mages have free will and have some effect on whether or not they'll turn into abominations then the relation holds. Mages who choose to turn to demons and blood magic are no different from the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in the X-Men analogy or radical terrorists in the real world. But then you have the argument that because some members of the group do evil things that the whole group should be controlled and oppressed, which is what I have a problem with.

Spoiler:

I think your "there is no free will in the Dragon Age universe" is needlessly extremist. Consider demonic possession as an illness/disease/affliction. Does the fact that some individuals in the real world are born with autism automatically mean there is no free will in our universe? Maybe there is no free will in our universe, but that certainly isn't a sufficiently strong argument to establish the case. Consider also: if you know a group of people are infected with a highly contagious bioweapon even if some of those group happen to be immune to it, if you have no reliable way of telling which ones are immune and which are not, do you quarantine the group or not?

re: mages & the end of the game

Spoiler:

the sudden "every mage is suddenly a demon" nonsense at the end of the game felt like it jarred a bit with the first game in my opinion. Despite templar/chantry propoganda, I don't think being a blood mage should automatically turn you into a scenery chewing psychopathic Malificar/demon on the spot. It's a step in that direction certainly, but I can think of at least three blood mages in the first game (the mage at redcliff, the old dude in the keeper tower ruins and - potentially - the warden him/herself) who are managing just fine sans-demon infestation).


the end of DA2 felt like a big cheat to me - that I was going to end up having the same two boss fights and killing 90% of both sides regardless of which side I chose. Maybe it DOES make a difference if you side with Loony Miss Templar and her Final Fantasy sword, but there's no way that was going to happen - and as far as I could see there was no middle ground, it was either one or the other. Could be wrong though - I'd have to play through the game again to be certain. Or at least the last half hour or so when you get that final choice.

Spoiler:

As I said in the catch-all thread, what I think is one of the themes in DA2 is "Power Corrupts". Certainly the Templars have been corrupted by their power and I think it is fair to say that the more often a Mage uses blood magic the more likely they will be corrupted by the demons. Look at what happens when you enter the Fade in the game; a demon corrupts one of your own party.

And as far as I am concerned, Anders is possessed by a demon from the moment you meet him. Yeah, the demon may call itself "justice", but a demon is a demon.

One mechanic that I thought of that I thought would be interesting... Make Blood Magic powerful. As in "instant win against any non-boss and pretty damaging to them" powerful.

Then have a chance every time Blood Magic is used that the mage in question will become possessed, go berserk and attack everyone in their own party. Don't even kill them permanently, just throw a +100 or so rivalry after the fight. Make the chance go up every time they use Blood Magic. See how people react then.

Finally though, you may not like the fact that mages in general (there are of course exceptions) tend to become corrupted by demons but that is how Bioware has defined their world. Demons are intelligent entities and people can be swayed. Hell, look how many people in the real world look up to Glen Beck for instance. There is no "predestination" required there; just a realization that many (most?) people will make bad choices; especially if they think they can gain power through it. Remember my first point? Power corrupts.

I'm skipping over all the blank spoiler space above, to say that I think Elysium makes a great point. There are things that irritate me about the game--the insta-finish side quests, the almost-Final-Fantasy-sized weapons, the way the game robs me of micromanaging by making nearly every drop suitable only for Hawke--but I still find myself completely engrossed. The dialog is better than the story so far, and I think that's the first time I've ever been able to say that about a game.

Heh, I didn't intend to turn this thread into a huge block of white.

juv3nal, I think your hypothetical situations go too far afield from what's represented in the game and raise entirely separate moral quandaries.

Spoiler:

The mental illness situation brings up the idea of imprisoning and euthanasia of people who have no control of their actions, which I'm not a fan of either. I don't think this is how mages are represented though.

An extreme hypothetical like an undiagnosable bioweapon causes the same distortion of reality as the game's hypothetical world. I don't dispute that in the world presented in Dragon Age that it would perhaps by morally justified to oppress mages if they predictably turn into abominations and kill people. I'm just saying that this is not a situation that has a reflection in the real world, and the closest approximations are either the extremely disturbed or entire ethnic groups composed mostly of individuals with free will. On the other hand, the templar response to this situation is something that has occured throughout human history and has a completely different moral evaluation when considered in our reality.

This makes me wish there was a book of the story of Dragon Age: Origins for those of us who never finished it. I loved the universe in Dragon Age: Origins. Just not enough to finish the game. I loved the dialogue in that game, though, and better dialogue with more streamlined combat is attractive to me.

You know, I think you might be right on the money here, Elysium, at least in the early game. But in the late game in particular, there's some really egregious plot holes and mistakes that shouldn't have gotten past. I can't be more specific without spoiling your game, but I thought it fell apart in a number of areas in Act 3, where Torment kept improving right up until the end.

I do like a lot of what they did here, and I've explicitly mentioned that I absolutely love the idea of a smaller scale story that's not about Saving The World. And I agree about the smart dialog and clever writing. But despite the talent on display, they simply weren't given the resources and time they needed to hit a home run. It's a solid triple, but they didn't even hit the outfield wall.

I did voiceover for several years, and I write for a living (about cancer drugs, but still). As a result, any game I play tends to fall under my critical eye for both of those factors. It is for that reason that I am always, always attracted to Bioware games. The voiceover is always at the top of the game in terms of clarity, inflection, accent, and just plain old delivery of the lines.

And what lines! Yes, the dialogue is cliche at times, but upon replays of their games, not as much as you'd expect. And one of the things I appreciate about the Dragon Age universe is the Bioware team doesn't feel completely beholden to the typical fantasy formula. Dwarves without Scottish accents and beards? This break from convention really allows them to expand their dialogue choices.

Dragon Age 2 does have some aspects that are formulaic, and overall I'm enjoying it less than Dragon Age: Origins (but that's like saying I enjoyed sex with Megan Fox less than Scarlett Johansenn). Admittedly, I'm only at the end of act 1 (right before the deep roads expedition) and I heard it gets better after this. But overall I'm very, very happy with DA2 and expect to replay it soon.

After DA Origins. And Shogun 2. Supid pile...