This article contains complete spoilers for Dragon Age II. It assumes you know the story of the game.
It was in the first few moments of Dragon Age II that I began to worry that BioWare had no idea how to use the storytelling device they had chosen for the game. They seemed particularly proud of the idea that Dragon Age II was a story told in flashback, from the point of view of a narrator who would be a member of your party in the game. Except like so many other things in Dragon Age II, it feels like BioWare decided that just having the idea was way better than executing it with any ability.
The scene that clued me in to the problem with the flashback structure is very early - the prologue of the game, more or less. You are the future Champion of Kirkwall, but at this point in the tale you’re just another Ferelden escaping the Blight from the first game. You encounter a huge group of darkspawn and battle wave after wave of the creatures, until a huge dragon enters the fray -
And with that the game cuts to the storyteller, who is being called out on the veracity of this tale. “Bullshit!” the listener exclaims. So the storyteller begins again, but this time the story is… more or less the same. The new version of the Champion, Hawke, who you control, is powered down from the original version of the scene, but most of it is exactly the same. Down to the dragon.
Shit, I thought. The BioWare writers don’t understand the way to use this ‘framing narrative’ device, at least insofar as creating tension between the teller and the tale. The game has a thematic element that examines the creation of legend, but if the story itself doesn’t show that creation - if the talespinner Varric isn’t adequately hyperbolizing the hyperbolic parts - then that theme sits, lifeless, in the script.
And that’s the problem with all of Dragon Age II - so many great ideas that sit, lifeless, in the script. So many themes and concepts that never transcend being themes and concepts. If I told you the story of Dragon Age II you might think this was the great narrative video game we’ve been waiting for, but if you played Dragon Age II you’d wonder what the hell happened to that narrative.
I originally intended to write a critique of just the narrative of Dragon Age II, but I quickly discovered that the problems with the narrative and the game mechanics are so tightly interwoven there’s no way to take them apart. The fact that the game retreads the same dozen or so environments isn’t just a game mechanics problem, it’s a story problem. The game is tediously repetitive, which makes the story small and without scope. The game ostensibly takes place over a decade, but NOTHING changes in the city of Kirkwall - even the people look exactly the same at the beginning and the end of the game. In many ways the huge failure of Dragon Age II has let me better understand how game mechanics impact game story, and vice versa.
The biggest problem with the game, narratively and play-wise, is the fact that there is no throughline. Dragon Age II is an aimless ten year shuffle, divided up into three different acts, each of which feels like its own game - meaning that when you finish an act you’re not entirely sure why you should begin the next one. For whatever reason the game’s writers, who are incredibly ambitious in the kind of story they’re trying to tell, decided to give the story absolutely no forward momentum. The only reason you keep playing is because… well, because it’s a video game and you paid your 60 bucks and you know there’s an ending.
Here are some examples of how the game gives you no narrative momentum: after the prologue, when Hawke comes to the city of Kirkwall, you pledge yourself to a year of service to either smugglers or mercenaries. And then the game skips ahead to the end of your term of service and you’re free to do what you want*. What’s the point of that? Why am I still playing the game? I’m now Hawke, a free man of Kirkwall, and I have no pressing reason to do ANYTHING. A better story - and game mechanic - would have been to have me want to undertake the Act 1 main story - a Deep Roads expedition - so I could earn enough to buy my way out of servitude.
The problem happens again in Act 2 - I come out of the Deep Roads a rich man and buy my ancestral estate. Game over! What is the driving force that keeps me wandering the city doing menial tasks for strangers and authority figures I don’t much like? There’s simply no narrative momentum, which makes every quest feel even more tedious than the poor quest design already makes them feel (most quests involve traveling to a different location - usually requiring a boring, slow load screen or two, talking to someone, maybe fighting them, then going through load screens again to turn in the quest. And maybe fight the quest giver. Only a handful of quests break up that extraordinary monotony).
And what’s worse is that by the time we get to Act 2 I’ve seen all Kirkwall has to offer. There are no new locations, and the old locations haven’t changed in any way (which makes having to search previously searched areas for new crafting supplies or hidden items all the more frustrating. It’s an endless sense of ‘I have already done this’). This is where narrative, design and mechanics all come together to create a really unpleasant experience. One of the great things about World of Warcraft is that even if you’re not interested in the lore or the bigger story of whatever expansion you’re playing, the game offers other incentives to move forward, a big one of which is the exploration of newly unlocked areas. The designers at Blizzard are experts at giving you the opportunity to move to the next area just when you’ve begun to feel sick of the one you’re in.
There’s nowhere else to go in Dragon Age II. It’s the same thing again and again. On top of that there’s no drive in the story to keep you interested, which is the second massive failing of the ‘framed narrative’ device. By having Varric telling the story after it’s over he should be able to contextualize elements and add foreshadowing. There’s an idol from the Deep Roads in Act 1 that has a (weak) role at the end of the story, but the way it plays out in the game feels disjointed and largely unconnected. If Dragon Age II had a strong spine - if Hawke had a very specific end goal, and all of the main quests were dedicated to getting him to that end goal - this wouldn’t matter. The first Dragon Age had a very specific and obvious central goal that kept you motivated towards the end. But as Dragon Age II is just a seemingly random series of events staggered out over years, the idol and the Deep Roads lose all meaning. Hawke is the Forrest Gump of fantasy game characters, and he just sort of keeps showing up when things get bloody.
What’s interesting is that, despite promises that character choices would have major impacts on the game story, there is no way to avoid most story points. No matter what you do, Anders always blows up the Chantry and starts the war. There is no way to avoid that, so why is it not referenced from the very beginning? The conversation between Varric and his questioner is so vague - the Champion did ‘something’ involving the Circle of Mages - that it makes you feel like the endgame options are so vast that the game can’t offer too much foreshadowing. But it’s exactly the opposite, and the endgame options are rigid and unavoidable. Which means these things CAN be foreshadowed. The Qunari will have an uprising, no matter what your Hawke does, so why not have Varric lean on that to give early events the weight that the storyline can’t?
The whole point of telling a story in flashback - or a ‘framed narrative’ as BioWare calls it - is to create tension. The framing device in Dragon Age II offers no tension at all. There is no threat to Varric, the storyteller. The location of the interrogation has no meaning until the last seconds of the game, and is in fact presented as a black empty space. The Chantry operative has no obvious goal in the interrogation. All that the player gleans from it is that SOMETHING happens over the next 40 hours of gameplay, that Varric won’t die in game, and that you become the Champion of Kirkwall (which, by the way, happens at the end of Act 2, leaving you to wonder what the point of continuing to Act 3 is. You hit the ending, it seems). A well done framed narrative would have talked about the Qunari uprising from the start, would have talked about a holocaust in Kirkwall from the start, would have created the tension of impending future events. That was always Hitchcock’s favorite trick - let the audience know there’s a bomb in the room and allow them to squirm. Telling the player that a horrible disaster hits Kirkwall in Act 3 creates the dramatic tension utterly missing from the rest of the game.
The real pity is that Dragon Age II should have been a good game. The game’s heart is in the right place, attempting to tell a story of politics and power and social justice, but the developers never figured out how to tell this story in video game format. Hawke wanders through the events of a decade, never really taking part in them until things get violent. I happened to be reading George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels while playing this game, and I can see that BioWare would have liked to tell that story here - intrigue, politics, sex, war. But they didn’t have the ability. Or the time, since the game seems unforgivably rushed (there is no other reason for the game to have such a painfully limited number of environments).
If you judged games on intentions, Dragon Age II would be a winner. But since you can only judge it on the way it plays, Dragon Age II is almost a complete disaster, a boring game that offers no reason to keep playing except to get your money’s worth. And because you hope Dragon Age III will be better.
* side note: this is a terrible narrative decision, by the way. Letting you play Act 1 as someone indentured to the smugglers or mercenaries would be a great way to give your quests some sort of meaning. You wouldn’t just be randomly walking around town getting quests from strangers, the quests would be tied into your service to the group.