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The controversial, unbalanced narrative of Dragon Age 2


This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

Dragon Age 2 is one of the most controversial role-playing games of recent years. Highly anticipated after the successes of BioWare's previous two games, Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2, it was released to strong sales and initially positive reviews. Yet it didn't take long before there was both fan and critical backlash to the game. What seemed like an unambiguously promising release turned into a lightning rod, and Dragon Age 2 went missing from many Game Of The Year lists. On the other hand, I noticed a small but extremely devoted cadre of fans, including some people who loved it so much that they immediately replayed it, four or five times, touching no other games for months.

So it was with both trepidation and excitement that I finally approached Dragon Age 2, as I missed it on initial release and then was warned off of it afterward. Having finally played it, I can see what the fuss was about, both good and bad. Dragon Age 2 almost demanded to be controversial thanks to its structure. In a genre filled with narratively complete, balanced games, DA2 ambitions push it in less balanced and incomplete directions. That's risky.

Gallery: Dragon Age 2 (2/8/2011) | 6 Photos

Now, I don't mean "balanced" in the normal gaming sense of "competitive fairness." I mean in terms of how the game is constructed through its story. In most role-playing games, you get a complete story. You move through an entire game world, visiting every important point. You solve every major problem. If you succeed in completing the game, you'll also succeed in saving the world.

That's not the case with Dragon Age 2, though, a game that spans time instead of geography. In DA2, you remain in the city of Kirkwall for seven years, divided into three acts with their own discrete stories. The final act exists primarily to dramatically alter the world of Dragon Age; it ends your characters' stories but the world isn't saved.

In a sense, this is something I've wanted from role-playing games for years. Limited storylines can allow for tragedy in a way that conventional save-the-world narratives don't allow, something Dragon Age 2 certainly attempts to accomplish. It's also simply novel to tell a story that isn't based on a well-known "epic" form.

BioWare games in particular were in a structural rut before Dragon Age 2 (and Mass Effect 3). From Neverwinter Nights and Knights Of The Old Republic on, each game followed a pattern: an introductory area, which usually disappears from the map, followed by a quest with four or five parts, which can be done in any order, all of which lead to a climactic confrontation. This familiarity is what drove me away from Jade Empire the first time I played it – the entirety of Chinese culture to pick and choose from for your story, and you make it feel like Knights Of The Middle Kingdom? The rhythm of the quests was tired.

But that doesn't mean that Dragon Age 2's focus on Kirkwall is entirely new. In many ways, it's a throwback to older games, especially D&D games like the Gold Box series, which tended to have limited geographical focuses (especially the first, Pool Of Radiance, which took place in a single city). But the closest comparison is probably BioWare's Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows Of Amn, another game with an unbalanced narrative that took place in a single city. Amn, like Kirkwall, bombards the player with quests, characters to recruit and negotiate, and locations to explore both inside and outside of the city. Even the initial main quest is the same in both games: do side quests (and learn the city/characters) until you have enough money to afford the buy-in. If anything, Dragon Age 2's imbalanced focus on its city is mild compared to Baldur's Gate 2's gloriously chaotic mess of side quests.

From this narrative imbalance come Dragon Age 2's most commonly cited strengths as well as weaknesses. By placing the characters in a relatively static situation over time, dynamic character development is easier and more effective – it's someone akin to Star Trek developing serialization when it used a sedentary space station instead of a traveling ship in Deep Space 9. So Aveline, Varric, and even Hawke herself all feel stronger than most other companions in RPGs, which especially helps Merrill in the finale of her intense questline.

On the other hand, consistent use of the same locations leads directly to one of the biggest complaints about Dragon Age 2, its use of recycled environments for different quests. RPGs, which are usually among the biggest and longest of games, have long struggled with repetition, quality, and avoiding design overrun, but for whatever reason DA2's samey environments seem particularly egregious (the use of the same mini-maps for different caves seems like it could easily have been avoided).

The controversial, unbalanced narrative of Dragon Age 2
More broadly, the chronological division of the narrative means that the different acts are more disjointed. This, combined with the choices and morality systems common to BioWare games, made Dragon Age 2's story complex in a different way than most any game prior had ever been. There are simply too many balls in the air, and several fell – I didn't know exactly why I was doing half the quests at the end, and several of the callbacks to minor characters were meaningless or confusing. It all leads inexorably to a tragic ending, which makes the manipulation of the storytelling more apparent.

And it's only a partial ending for the world of Thedas, now left to pick up the pieces of that tragedy. While I, and others, can admire BioWare's confidence in only telling a partial story, and one which ruins the world more than saving it, it's easy to see why that would have rubbed many people the wrong way. I think naming the game "Dragon Age: Kirkwall" would have been more appropriate given the change in scope.

There's an element of "be careful what you wish for" when I think about Dragon Age 2. It does – or tries to do – so many of the things I've wanted RPGs to do with their narratives for a long time, like telling a smaller story in both geography and scope, developing tragedy, and focusing on party members' stories. Yet the problems with doing those things become apparent as well, especially as the locations become tired and the narrative becomes fractured. Unbalanced narratives can fall down. It's easy to see why Dragon Age 2 became such a divisive game, but love it or hate it, I'm happy that a big-budget role-playing game was so willing to experiment with narrative form, and I hope its successes and failures are learned from.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.

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