Fanfiction, Personal Narrative, and What Dragon Age II Does Right

It probably isn’t fair to say that people have reached a consensus about Dragon Age II, but it does seem like the most fiery battles have more or less run their course by now (there’s that silly optimism again).

For those of you don’t keep up with gaming news, DAII was the 2011 sequel to 2009’s much beloved Dragon Age Origins. As you have likely surmised from those two dates, an 18 month development cycle wasn’t enough to really capture the scope of the first game’s epic fantasy (by which I mean there are like six environments, and you will see them a lot), leading to much hair pulling etc. It’s not all doom and gloom, though – DAII also has its small but passionate share of defenders. And with Dragon Age Inquisition coming up this fall, it seemed like a good time to throw my two cents into the ring. Plus, I spent the time I should’ve used going over Kill la Kill this week working on a new unified Origins/Awakening/DAII save file, and the editorial had to come from somewhere.

As is often prudent with divisive subjects, let me clear out a baseline: while I’m more than happy to acknowledge the lion’s share of mistakes the game makes, particularly in terms of some niggling glitches and the time-constraint damage to the gameplay (the ‘six rooms’ problem, the fact that there’s not so much a difficulty curve as an increased spamming of trash mobs); it’s still a game I’m quite madly fond of, and I find that the strengths shine all the more brightly in the face of the poor mechanics.

The story of Dragon Age II centers around Hawke, who fled Fereldon (the setting of the first game) with his/her family in an attempt to escape the plague of Darkspawn that was making a great deal of people dead before the hero of Origins brought peace back. After a harrowing journey, Hawke makes it to Kirkwall, and things aren’t so great there: there’s civil unrest a-brewing between the mages (who are susceptible to demonic influence) and templars (who have responded by locking up anyone who can possibly use magic for the rest of their lives), immigrants are flowing out of the city’s every pore, and Hawke’s drunken uncle lost the family fortune. So begins a journey to rise from the bottom of Kirkwall’s underbelly into its Champion, and a story that will span a decade or turmoil and growing loss.

I just made that sound way more cohesive than your usual plot summary. That’s not a knock on those other summaries so much as an observation of how very atypical DAII’s story is. If you try to organize it in terms of events, it’s ‘Hawke makes friends, hunts treasure, quells an uprising, gets caught up in the mage vs. templar fight that’s actually meant to be a setup for Inquisition, end of game.’ Putting it that way, it’s no wonder people get angry about the plot! There’s hardly a traditional fantasy narrative, particularly as set down by the previous game. The player who came in looking for an extension of Origins’ approach was already set up for a rather nasty fall.

The game is banking extremely hard on one thing to make itself work: that you will invest in Hawke’s journey, and the characters who make up his circle. If that fails it’s pretty much dead on arrival, because this is an attempt at a character-driven story rather than a narrative-driven one. While I wholeheartedly enjoy the Zero Punctuation review for DAII, I found myself drawn instead to the editorial Yahtzee wrote to go alongside the video – a rather tender examination of how the game effectively crafted a relationship he could become invested in. And that’s how I’ve found it across the board – the greatest articles, by and large, tend to focus on the people populating the game.

It’s a story about Hawke, who more than the Warden or the Spirit Monk or even Shepard, has a feeling of being ever so slightly distinct from the player-puppeteer. Hawke occasionally speaks in conversation without the player’s direction, and his (which I’ll go ahead and use from here for the sake of ease, since my primary Hawke was male) responses are formulated from the tone of the dialogue options chosen before. A primarily Renegade Aggressive Hawke will make threats or blow someone off, and a Silly Hawke will make jokes or sarcastic remarks. It’s a fairly simple algorithm, but it adds an infinite depth of character to Hawke, making him seem alive and functional beyond his work as the player’s meat puppet.

By the way, take a look at that summary up there if you would. It’s very fanfiction-y, isn’t it? By which I mean, it’s a story that splits off from an early point in Origins, includes some of the secondary characters from that selfsame story and uses the rules of the world in a rather loose way; gender is an irrelevant issue when developing romance between characters, and it focuses more on character drama then a large world-changing event. It’s this element, I think, that contributes to the feeling of DAII being smaller, in both the size of the world and the scope of the story.

Its treatment of the characters falls into the same category. The loose play with Dragon Age lore also got on a few players’ nerves (the redesign of the elves and qunari, tweaking the rules of lyrium and the Fade, etc.), but mage Anders is a far weightier debate – his change from carefree flirt in expansion pack Awakening to increasingly broody proto-hipster mage activist in DAII is often argued as character derailment, which will then lead to defenders pointing out Anders’ dark offhand mutterings in Awakening and newfound status as a spirit-vessel in DAII as justification. Which is true, but does rely on the player to trust in offscreen development expanding on character undercurrents and a massive change in circumstances. It’s not impossible, and there’s a clear line of logic to follow that draws from the source portrayal, but it’s also not laid out clearly in what we might think of as the ‘canon’ in this case.

anders

Just by existing, this picture of Anders has lit a flame war somewhere

That’s the tricky issue when writing characters with an existing body of work, whether professionally (Batman) or in fanfiction (and let us not use that term as a dirty word, for there are fanfic stories out there that trump officially published novels I’ve read in quality). If it’s a character worth anything at all, they’ll have many layers to their personality. By playing to various traits, writers can create many shades of one character that still forms a cohesive whole. The bigger the chance taken or the smaller/more understated the trait expanded upon, the greater the danger that your audience will feel an integral part of the character has been lost.

Hawke is the quintessential nature of this writer’s dilemma, given into the hands of the audience to experiment on. The basic skeletal structure will remain the same, but there’s enough shades of distinction to make dozens of unique character arcs. I, for example, can say that Hawke’s story is a deeply bittersweet one, effectively twining the themes of loss and power with the central bedrock of the mage question and Hawke’s personal struggles. For all the great gifts afforded him, his life was haunted by magic: as free mage he put his family in danger from the authorities, and potentially from himself; he wasn’t powerful enough to save his young mage sister, and in trying to protect his brother Hawke drove him into the arms of the mage-suppressing Templars instead; he lost his mother to a monstrous man who represented what Hawke feared he could become, his friend and confidant to a spirit claiming to desire Justice. A sarcastic quip and an ever-helpful hand might’ve helped him rise to prominence, and magic might’ve healed his comrades, but it didn’t keep the city he came to call home from collapsing in civil war, or the friends he made from drifting apart. And despite giving up everything he had to help the mage rebellion, the only person by his side in the end was someone who’d started out hating everything about mages.

IMG_2434
How he turned out bright blond in a family full of brunettes
is a mystery for the ages

Even as I pour that out with genuinely fond and vivid memories, there are a dozen other people saying ‘what? That’s not what happened at all! My Hawke was a warrior and a diplomat, and she sided with the templars!’ There are some things that don’t change: Hawke will always lose people as he climbs the ladder of wealth and success, though the circumstances will change. There will always be a civil war. Hawke will be Champion of Kirkwall, and Anders’ and Isabela’s actions will always start the same. Batman will always have a cowl, dead parents, and a butler named Alfred, but that doesn’t mean that Adam West, Kevin Conroy, and Christian Bale are interchangeable.

‘My’ is the issue, though. My Hawke. My Shepard. My Warden. Bioware trades in a style that encourages a feeling of personal ownership. When it works it’s a sight to behold, and when it doesn’t the sense of betrayal runs far more bitter and deep than it might otherwise. Discussion comes down to individual experience, which is a great triumph of flexible storytelling but extremely difficult as a critic. Must we fall on the immutable factors of gameplay? In such a case, I must by rights call the game mediocre at best – the combat is serviceable but often devastatingly cheap later on, glitchy and tiresomely repetitive long before you’re done. But the RPG is a story-driven genre, and that personal narrative journey cannot be so easily dismissed.

I’ve never cottoned to the idea of a story being beyond criticism or analysis, and it hardly seems fair to say ‘I thought it was good therefore discussion over.’ Do I say to the critics of Anders or Fenris, ‘you just didn’t spend enough time with them,’ not copping to the fact that the majority of the plot-dense dialogue forces those two characters to serve as mouthpieces for the mage/templar conflict? By the same token, do I condemn them as flat characters for those contextual scenes, when incidental dialogues and interactions imply a far greater wealth of characterization and depth? Is the idea that I created relationships befitting the Hawke I created and his party members in my head, onscreen and off, a matter of personal interpretation or the core intention of the game’s design? If a game is explicitly designed for roleplaying, is it fair to dismiss it when it inspired me, more than any other Bioware game, to imagine a world for these characters to inhabit?

Perhaps I should say, instead, that Dragon Age II brought me tears. I sat, invested but dry-eyed, through Aeris and James Sunderland and Mordin Solus (though that was a close call). But for Hawke I cried, as pulled into the story as I’ve ever been for a series, book, or film. It isn’t an automatic stamp of approval, and it doesn’t absolve the game of its occasionally crippling issues. But it is a mark of distinction, a moment that marked the game in my mind as a glittering, flawed gem. To me, anyway, it’s an experience I’ve yet to feel again, and one I go back to as I would favorite chapters in a book. If a game can manage to leave that kind of mark I’ll take it, failings and all.

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