Friday, July 1, 2011

In Defense of Dragon Age 2

Last April, BioWare, the world-bestriding titan of Western role-playing games came forth from their hallowed workshop in the frozen, lumberjack-infested wastes of Canada to reveal their newest creation: Dragon Age 2.

The people of the lands had high hopes for the second Dragon Age.  It had to carry the burden not only of its mighty predecessor, but also live up to the legacy of the Baldur's Gate franchise, a mighty pillar upon which the defenders of the superiority of both western RPGs and PC Gaming in general rest their arguments.  The people expected a champion.

And they were not pleased.  Mere hours after the game's release, howls of rage erupted across the entirety of the internet, from the high mountains of the GameFAQs forums to the desert valleys of Metacritic's user review listings.  They condemned the game as an inferior sequel, throwing out many of the strengths of its predecessors, becoming a cheap, dumbed-down, rushed experience.  Even some elements of the typically toothless gaming press, who almost never give a low rating to a major game, got in on the action.  Dragon Age II has an 8.1 on Metacritic-- not a terrible overall score, but still low for a major studio release, and shockingly low for a game from the hallowed halls that produced Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect.  Dragon Age II was not the prince that was promised.  Community opinion as a whole seems to have set the game aside as a disappointment, a rough patch before the inevitable third game in the series appears to clean matters up.

I think that this consensus is a shame.  I believe that Dragon Age II is actually a brilliant, innovative game which has created a new paradigm for storytelling in Western RPGs.  A modern classic.  Here I will make the case that it deserves to be vindicated by history and remembered as such.

Before I begin, I must concede that the arguments of the game's detractors are not entirely without merit.  The final product does bear signs of being a rushed job.  There are a few glaring bugs.  The animation in every love scene is painfully bad.  In the late game, fights can get repetitive, with the player spending much time just mowing down multiple waves of nearly identical enemies.  The enormous bloody explosions whenever an enemy is killed are ridiculous.  And, most abhorently lazily, entire rooms and environments (not just textures or tiles.  ENTIRE ROOMS AND ENVIRONMENTS) are recycled wholesale for unrelated missions and even unrelated places.  Most of the time, Bioware didn't even have the decency to suggest that the events happened in the same place.  So yes, Dragon Age 2 was a game with significant flaws.

However, a flawed work can still be a classic.  Fifteen-minute transitions from 1 AM to dawn in Hamlet (and all the other events which demonstrate that Shakespeare has absolutely no sense of time) don't take away its status as a cornerstone of Western literature.  The rambling, unnecessary digressions that pad out the length of The Count of Monte Cristo don't stop it from being our archetypal revenge story.  Planescape Torment's awful, awful, awful combat (it's paced with horrific clunkiness, and its interface is incredibly unhelpful) does not prevent it from absolutely blowing my mind with inventiveness of its writing.  And the second Dragon Age's flaws do not erode its fundamental brilliance.  And now that I have illuminated its flaws, I must unearth its genius.

Unlike some other past gaming masterworks-- say, Tetris or Portal-- Dragon Age II does not make its mark through great mechanical innovation.  Its inventory management system, its combat, and its character progression all sit stolidly within the western role-playing game tradition.  They're polished, and, in my opinion, combat has been improved since the first game (everything is faster and more visceral, and there are now viable strategies other than bringing two mages and spamming Cone of Cold and Forcefield to control crowds), but they aren't original by any means.  They're a clear descendant of the Dungeons and Dragons-based ruleset that powered Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and KOTOR, with a hint of more action-RPG, real-timey elements derived from games like Diablo or World of Warcraft.  Good, but not new.

Dragon Age II shines brightly not in its gameplay, but in its storytelling.  At this point, you may be thinking "No shit, it's a BioWare game.  They all have great story, dialogue, and characters.  DA II is just part of that tradition."  But Dragon Age II doesn't just deliver a narrative with excellent characters and witty dialogue.  It's different because its story, and the role that the player and player character play in the story, are entirely novel-- and, I believe, represent a step forward for the medium.

To understand how DA II moves the genre forward, we have to take a look back at the general history of Western RPG plots.  Your typical WRPG (or for that matter, your typical JRPG) has a single, uniting central narrative, takes place over a relatively short timescale, and usually focuses on some grand goal, typically involving saving the world or the universe.  At the beginning of the player character's major quest, they're sort of a blank slate.  They tend to be young, have few major skills, and not have much of a defined role in the world that the player is aware of-- and if they do, it's either a random coincidence of place and time (a la Neverwinter Nights or Dragon Age), some destiny-related bullshit or he or she is an amnesiac and doesn't remember it at all (a la KOTOR or Planescape Torment).

It's easy to understand why this story structure is popular.  Having a big, urgent immediate goal gives the player a clear direction to go in.  The urgency of the major plot requires that timespans be short.  And the power-growth paradigm at the center of RPG design (and the fact that gradually acquiring more abilities gives players more time to learn things) require that the main character start their quest as a nobody.

However, the structure also imposes some pernicious limits on the genre.  First off, either your character has no good reason to be important (in which case we have to wonder why somebody more competent isn't saving the world), or the reasons that they are important have absolutely nothing to do with the player's actions or choices, which is bad because removing our involvement both hurts our immersion in the game and makes it more difficult to become invested in the character.

There's also the fact that the wander-around-trying-to-save-the-world-in-a-month angle makes a lot of the things that we do in the gameworld seem rather stupid.  Go around and deliver messages for random people? Collect twenty spider mandibles?  Resolve people's domestic squabbles?  Sure, sure, we have time!  There's only a MASSIVELY POWERFUL EVIL THAT WILL STEEP THE LAND IN DARKNESS IN A MONTH THAT I HAVE TO DEAL WITH.  Frankly, since most modern WRPGS carry most of their content in sidequests and other ancillary activities, your conduct throughout the game seems entirely irresponsible.  If you played say, the first Dragon Age in the way that the designers expected you to, Morrigan's frequent disapproval of your time-wasting is actually pretty meritorious.  She seems to be the only one of your party members (actually, the only party member in any WRPG ever) who has a sense of perspective about this.

Moreover, this plot makes most of the work that goes into worldbuilding, party-member development, and character development into a superfluous, hurried sideshow.  We have no time to really explore the world in an honest way.  Information is conveyed through infodumps in codexes or in-game encyclopedias rather than naturally discovered in the process of world-exploration.  Deep-seeming relationships are constructed with astonishing rapidity.  Important historical conflicts and tensions are brought up only to serve as background for one of the sidequests, which, if you were actually a responsible hero saving the world on a time schedule, you wouldn't do.  In fact, the first Dragon Age spends quite a bit of time setting up things about the racist treatment of the elves and the tensions between the mages and their templar minders, only to have neither of those things be plot-relevant at any other point in the game-- a terrible waste.  And worst of all, your personal choices are generally irrelevant to the larger course of the game.  The narrative is about the quest to save the world or whatever, not about you or your choices.  The way in which you go about it ultimately pales before the reality of the grand quest.  In the end of Dragon Age Origins, you're going to still be the Hero of Ferelden at the end, no matter how much of a dick you were along the way.  People don't even seem to really react to you all that differently.

Dragon Age II takes the bold step of scrapping this paradigm.  It removes the orveraching, all-driving plot from things, and makes its characters-- especially the player character, Hawke, and its setting, the city of Kirkwall, the center of its narrative.  At the beginning of the game, your quest is a personal one.  You seek to escape first from the Blight that strikes your homeland, back in Ferelden (the setting of DAO, a nice touch), and then from the poverty, misery, and persecution that greet you and your family in Kirkwall.  The fact that your goals are so personal refocuses the game on you.  This part of the game also introduces you to the conflicts which seethe in Kirkwall (the tense relationship between the city's mages and its chantry, the large group of Qunari who have settled in the city and seem to want something) and allow you to freely react to them and form stances about them for the first time.  The goal and pace of this early section, which requires you to acquire significant amounts of money for an expedition, also makes all the sidequesting that you do in a standard RPG a natural part of the narrative rather than a suspension of disbelief breaker.  And the things that you're asked to do almost always involve either significant amounts of money or a life or death situation-- they're rarely just distractions.  You also first meet your party members-- connected to you by blood or common tasks or fate-- and start to react to them as well, as they react to you.  The dual Friendship/Rivalry gauge is a great innovation, since it gives you some rewards for having different kinds of relationship with characters.  Essentially, you spend the first part of the game just learning about the world, getting to know the characters in it, defining who Hawke is, and making him or her into an important person in the world-- the kind of person who would be the center of major events.

As the game goes on, the tensions that are brought up earlier come to fruition-- in ways that always keep Hawke and his or her companions in the foreground.  Their embroilment in the conflicts is natural, their positions understandable products of their priorities and past decisions.  In the second act, one particular sidequest strikes deeply at the player's heart, tearing a hole in you through the connections that you've come to understand and care about in DA II's world.  Over the game's epic, seven-year timespan, we see the relationships between the main party characters-- as well as the goals and purposes of those characters themselves-- change and grow in ways that they never really could in a short game.  We get to see how the player's actions affect the city of Kirkwall and the people who live there.  We get to see sorrow-struck Avelline find love again, irresponsible Isabella decide that she cares about something more than a big boat, vengeful Fenris come to terms with his past, and see Merrill and Anders follow the tragic course that their goals put them on.  And the player character is at the center of everything-- always reacting, making choices, and, in many ways, driving forward the action of the story, advertently or inadvertently.  And the game is amazing because of that-- despite the fact that you do significantly change the world in DA II, the story is always centered on you, on your growth and development.  And, in the surely inevitable Dragon Age III, the protagonist that you create, Hawke, will be a person who truly should be saving the world from the chaos that you unleashed-- and will be so entirely because of your choices.