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

KaterinLHC wrote:

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

And I'm really, really okay with that.

Glargh! You just made me snarf my coffee. How great is a game that lets you slay gay?

I'm a big fan of finding your own fun in games, stuff that the developers probably never dreamed of. (I never progress very far in MMOs because I spend hours trying to climb the supposedly unclimbable mountain and fall through the world. This is my own weird fun.)

I have this sitting on my pile and am really excited to play it but...

Spoiler:

the dlc achievements are glitched and I don't want to play it until they patch them.

KaterinLHC wrote:

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

And I'm really, really okay with that.

As anyone who follows you on Twitter would know.

Perv...

What is your hashtag you use for DA2 tweets? People must do a search and read them.

I'm in agreement in Elysium here. Generally, stories in games are nothing special, but as games go, DA2 is pretty unique right now. I think a large part of that is because

Spoiler:

Hawke doesn't save the world, or the city. In fact, he f*cks up both of them quite royally, without intending to, and despite his best efforts. There was a real sense of things spiraling out of his control, until he has to use the only tool he knows how: the sharp end of his staff.

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. 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?

Yes, they do. Conversation options range from peaceable, to witty, to charming, to firm, to forceful, to outright combative. You don't have to choose just one choice consistently and it's often better and more consistent to choose different choices.

For instance, I always chose the humorous remark when talking to Varric or my companions, but always the Peaceable choice when talking about serious matters. It affects how Hawke talks in general, and how she talks when you don't have conversation options open. In fact,

*very minor spoiler follows*

Spoiler:

In one of the side quests, my Forceful Mage Hawke only had a forceful option open, one of three choices, whereas in the same situation my Peaceable Fighter Hawke only had a peaceable option open, also one of three choices. I did not get to choose to "act out of character," though you will usually be able to act out of nature as you choose.

A firm response is not necessarily inappropriately rude, and some characters and NPCs respond better to firm choices rather than to peaceable choices.

[quote=Latrine]

Spoiler:

The templar actions in Kirkwall are specifically described to be oppressive and violent beyond reason. Not all templar behave that way. In fact, in DA:O, the First Enchanter and the Knight-Commander were friends. Moreover, the underground rebellion organized by Thrask also had templar and mages working together, presumably to reestablish sensible Circle activity after ousting Meredith.

Latrine wrote:

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.

I found this especially interesting.

I'm agreeing and disagreeing with different parts of this commentary. On the one hand, the story in DA2 doesn't fit within a typical three act narrative, but that's because the point of each Act isn't self-contained.

Act 1 is like the typical first chapters of a novel. Nearly all the parts in Act 1 are made to establish the identity of the players and to introduce the world of Dragon Age and the City of Kirkwall. There isn't much plot to be had at all because it's mostly characterization - it lays the groundwork for what happens ahead.

Act 2 sets up the hero. In Act 1, he was just another two-bit mercenary. In Act 2, we find out how he gets to the position he occupies that allows him to influence events in Act 3. In the background, events unfold that lead up to the catastrophic events that follow.

Act 3 sees the climax where everything comes together, and the short epilogue.

In this sense, it really seems more like a continuous narrative broken up by arbitrary events, rather than a true three-act structure, but I do not agree that the plots of the three Acts are self-contained. Each Act sets up the conditions and events that all comes together in Act 3.

The protagonist's circumstances change in each act but other than that there isn't really a narrative through line. Side quests in each act may thematically foreshadow events in the future, but they're not directly connected to those future events. I'd say the TV show analogy kind of works for this game. Each act of the game is like a season of a TV show, there are many episodes with their own storylines and there's a climax to each season but once you get to the next season then other than some character development and common themes nothing else carries forward.

I think it's a good thing when narratives break from the three act structure, but if you're going to replace it then you have to replace it with something that works. I think DA2's story structure only gets halfway there. They oversold on the framed narrative and ten year timeline concepts, and I feel it actually tied their hands and made the game feel disjointed.

Also another pet peeve, the story of the game feels like the first part of a trilogy, even though this is already the second game in the series! You can't have a good story if all you're doing is setting the stage for some future conflict. Good series generally don't actually start this way so I don't know why everybody keeps doing this.

Latrine:

Actually there are plot elements that only mature in Act 3 or Act 2 but are initiated in Act 1.

For instance:

Spoiler:

The significance of letting Grace go only comes back to haunt you in Act 3, whereas you let her go in Act 1. Her actions fracture Thrask's nascent Mage-Templar allied rebellion against Meredith and set the stage for all-out Mage on Templar war.

The climax of the murderer storyline only occurs in Act 2, but is started with Ninette going missing in Act 1. The entire episode serves to underlie the kind of depravity to which mages can succumb which counterbalances Meredith's oppression in the last Act.

I agree. I don't think Dragon Age 2 is being given the credit it is due on most forums I visit or in most reviews I have read. I wonder if this is not because people are so used to a straight forward "hero journeys across the globe to save the world" narrative that anything else seems out of place to them.

I am about half way through chapter 3 and I think I would sum up what makes the writing so good in the following way:

I almost never feel like the game pushes me toward a particular set of attitudes in relation to characters or events. Rather, I am discovering, and constantly re-evaluating, how I feel about things as the game progresses.

My dialog choices are often based on the history I have with that particular character. If I feel I may have given them too much benefit of the doubt in the past, I may start being more aggressive or vice versa. And the brilliant thing is, I am not trying to do this. The game just sort of does a great job of making you care about your actions and their consequences.

There has been at least A half dozen times where I was staring at dialog choices and just gave an exasperated "well...f*ck" under my breath at the Sophie's choice I was facing.

I would like to stress that the statement, "To me, Dragon Age II is the best written game since Planescape: Torment" is not the same as saying I think it's better.

Spoilers

Spoiler:

Character building was probably the best part of the game. My Hawke was always trying to be good until her companions forced her to do horrible things. She despised the Qunari and subtly pushed them into a battle that would force her to slay the lot of them. Her goal was power to put an end to the troubles in the city but in the back of her mind Felredan will always be her home. She held of making a choice between two competing forces but was ultimately betrayed by one of her closet friends. She enacted swift vengeance and tried to put things right and was successful to a degree but at great cost to the mages.

Also proclaiming that this is an excellent written RPG is a bit tough when you haven't been through the horrible ending. (I should point out that I disliked the ending. I think some people might like it) Wow, I went into this post looking to praise the game but it's just bringing up all the things that annoyed me about it.

This brings up a real annoying part of the game. During Merrill's quest I was forced to kill the entire clan. My Hawke would not have killed that much innocent and would have instead have killed Merrill her love. It's not even brought up that I killed the entire clan?!

Nietzche:

Spoiler:

You're not forced to kill the entire clan. Your responses made them violently hostile. There is a way to talk your way out of it, but Merrill will like you less afterwards.

There are a surprising number of encounters in the game that you can get out of if you talk right. I think it's even possible to resolve your differences with the Arishok using diplomacy!

I liked the way the story ended - or didn't end, depending on your viewpoint. It's realistic, consequential, and open-ended. Like the story goes on, even though this particular narrative has a point and it's made it. Lots of stories like to add "and life goes on," at the end of them, but they tend to be cheap bolt-on adds, or unconvincing "happily ever afters." In this case, our conviction that Hawke went on to feature in other stories is fairly convincing.

Spoiler:

I tried every dialogue choice and nope. Although I did choose a dialogue choice earlier that might have given me no choice. It's just a sticking point for me that I couldn't choose what I wanted at that moment but I see why I couldn't just kill Merrill right there.

One of the best moments in the game was choosing my characters motives. While Hawke could have been lying at that moment it, and I doubt it factored into anything, I loved that I could choose why my Hawke acted this way.

LarryC wrote:
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. 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?

Yes, they do. Conversation options range from peaceable, to witty, to charming, to firm, to forceful, to outright combative. You don't have to choose just one choice consistently and it's often better and more consistent to choose different choices.

For instance, I always chose the humorous remark when talking to Varric or my companions, but always the Peaceable choice when talking about serious matters. It affects how Hawke talks in general, and how she talks when you don't have conversation options open.

Interesting - thanks for the response. Consider my interest re-piqued. In fact, I'm actually quite piqued by a lot of the character development and narrative choices they've made in the game. Looking forward to the first sale on this title.

Oh god so true.

IMAGE(http://www.brennil.com/da2.jpg)

Where's that from, Karla?

Original link: http://imgur.com/GZGu5

Thanks. Internet mystery!