Some thoughts on story in Dragon Age II

There are no spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing.

Okay, this post is a departure from what I normally blog about, so bear with me (or, you know, don’t read). I promise this is more story-centered than combat-centered (which I also have thoughts on but will instead just whine to my sister about). Dragon Age II is the sequel to Dragon Age: Origins, which I thought was an amazing game. One not without its flaws, certainly, but one that brought to balance nicely the things I enjoy in video games. First, the story was compelling. The world was rich and varied, the characters had desires and pasts and complexities, and the plot kept my interest (and continues to keep my interest through multiple playthroughs). So when I heard about the sequel, I was super excited.

Well, now that I’ve beaten the second game (which I only did so quickly because I’ve been too sick to go to work all week, but lucky for me, the couch doesn’t care if I breathe on it, or if I fall asleep on it while I’m in the middle of playing), I’ve got some thoughts.

It’s a fun game. Fun, but not amazing. And let’s just get this out into the open: I was a bit biased against it to begin with. Mostly because I really enjoyed my character from the first game (who, it must be said, was a major badass) and this game was selling a new character that the designers seemed to be pushing as somehow superior to my world-saving Warden in the first game. My new girl just worked in a city. So right up front, I was a bit annoyed that they were downplaying the plot set up to be so instrumental in the first game (the trouble with sequels, no?).

Story Within a Story

DAII also operated as a story within a story, where a character is narrating events that happened in the past. But the way the game was sold made this fall flat a bit. It was interesting to have it done this way (something I’ve never seen done in my admittedly limited gaming experience), but it starts out with the legend version of the true story where you can do crazy amounts of damage and all the women have absolutely huge boobs (sigh). The writers seemed to want to do something with how we retell factual events, but as this was only used one other time in the game, it seemed almost incidental. I wanted them to either cut it or work with it more.

Character Interactions

One of the most disappointing aspects. DAII (as was DA:O) is an RPG, but a lot of this functionality was removed. Characters could only interact at plot specific moments, or when they had a favor to ask. Basically, if there wasn’t a yellow arrow over someone’s head, you couldn’t interact with him or her. As that is generally an important function of RPGs (as well as the fact that your character is with these people for six years), it seems like there should have been more, even if it was totally unimportant to the overall plot but instead added for color.

Then, the dialogue system felt disconnected. In order to have a fully-voiced main character, dialogue options were summarized and presented for selection along with a(n unhelpful) icon serving as a cheat sheet for how the character would say…whatever it was you picked for them to say. I can’t even begin to guess how many times the option I picked turned out to have little to do with what the character said (which makes RPing a bit difficult). On the one hand it was cool to have a voice accompanying my girl, but on the other…well, without the voice, I can assign a mood for the response in my head, which I really prefer. This new system really put a damper on my imaginative involvement with the game.

World Building and Timeline

The world building was, in my opinion, not done very well. Aside from the laziness in coding various areas (“I’ve been here before!”), the game didn’t really feel like I was in the Dragon Age universe. Now, in a video game, as in movie or television, this comes from two areas: knowledge of the world and visualization of the world. Both seemed off at times, though the visualization much more so.

It was the timeline that really bothered me. Bioware broke the timeline they’d established in the previous game in order to make this one work better. Now, I’m a series reader, and I know there will be mistakes from time to time, as later work is, by definition, created later, but I’m talking discrepancies of years. Of course, I suppose it is possible that I’ve done my own math wrong, but I really don’t think so. In either case, this type of world building should be invisible. So yeah. I wonder when a character shows up that is supposed to be in another country fighting bad guys with my Warden from the first game. Just saying.

Some Good and Fun

It wasn’t all bad, though. There were plot twists that I never suspected but that fit. The dialogue made me laugh quite a bit. And there was a great moment when characters from the first game reunite and share a moment talking about how different they look (because all characters’ looks were redesigned, at least slightly, for this game).

My favorite parts, however, were the ones that I could match up to the first game. They mentioned my Queen Warden Commander Badass (yeah, that’s what I call her, no laughing), I cheered! They insulted her, I wanted there to be an option to punch them in the face. A few characters from the first game had screen time (some even had pretty major roles), and once I got over their new looks and, sometimes, new voices, it was fun to see how this game pulled from the earlier one.

But I think this is a flaw to a certain extent. Even after finishing DAII, I feel more connected to the characters from the first game. This is because of the things I mentioned above (as well as a strange feeling of not wanting to “cheat” on my Warden). Loyalty is a good thing, certainly.

I have hopes for the next installment after the ending, but all in all the storytelling in this game suffered. I’ve got some thoughts on why this happened after they produced such a hit the first time around, but, again, I’ll save it.

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