Spoilers and stuff. Also most images on this post comes from here. This is very long. I don’t feel sorry about it.
Unpopular Opinion is a series of blogs I’ll write about things I love that other people seem not to, and why they are important to me. I am a huge Bioware fan. I remember playing Knights of the Old Republic and being so blindsided by the twist in that game I had to pause it and walk around the room going ‘wtf wtf wtf.’ I played Jade Empire too. I will be writing about Mass Effect at some point, but I was flabbergasted the day I realized how much people dislike Dragon Age 2. Because this was a game basically tailor made for me to love it. I am going to up front say that this is my opinion, obviously, and I recognize the things I love about this game are purely subjective. Except they shouldn’t be, because they’re amazing things and should be appreciated by everyone. So there. I’m going to talk about the things I love about it first, and then the things I’ve heard people say they don’t like about it. I’m not going to explain general things about Dragon Age; if you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’ve played at least one of them or don’t mind spoilers. Just so you know, I could write like 10 different blogs about the different characters and things in this game. That’s how strong my feelings are about it.
Dragon Age 2 is different from the other two games in a major way right off the bat: the main character is set in stone. Marian or Garrett Hawke (first name can be changed) are a singular human entity with a set backstory and family members. You can’t make an elf or another species for your lead in this game. For others, this was a bad thing. For me, it wasn’t a problem … if I happened to like the character they made. And I love Hawke. I relate to Hawke (specifically snarky Hawke) more than any other character in Bioware’s long list of characters, so right up front I was biased for this game. This game also was contained mostly to a single area – Kirkwall and surrounding places – and had a twist in it that you cannot no matter what you do stop or change. Bioware often says choices can change almost anything, and we’ll get into why that backfired on them with Mass Effect another time. But in this game, something bad is going to happen that you cannot change, and for me, that’s what destroyed me in the best way possible. In a good story, the protagonists can do everything right and still fail, because the world doesn’t just wrap up in a nice bow or be talked out of. Certain things in this game happen and there’s no real way to “win,” just survive. It’s a bleak idea, and one that I thrive on. See my love of Game of Thrones, which I’ve written about a lot.
The game actually starts in the future, with Varric, one of the leads, being questioned by Seeker Cassandra who is looking for Hawke. He’s telling the story of Hawke, and you know he’s not telling everything, and she knows that too. Intercut through major story moments is more of this conversation, and it’s clear that Varric is being cautious as he doesn’t know Cassandra’s intentions. It’s an unreliable narrator possibility right off the bat; how much of what he tells is true? What happened that people are searching for Hawke? Why is there a disaster going on in the future? Unreliable narrator is my jam, and tragic future is too, so I was like yes, yes, this is good, I plan on being hurt badly by this game.
So Dragon Age 2 is about Hawke. She is fleeing the Fifth Blight with her mother and siblings. One of her siblings will die right off the bat depending on what your class is. If you’re a mage it’ll be Bethany, if you’re one of the other two it’ll be Carver. This game sets the tone early on. It kills one of your siblings, it kills the husband of the first supporting character you meet, and you deal with the creepster named as Flemeth who was in Dragon Age 1. The family goes to Kirkwall, a city across the sea that has hundreds of refuges flooding it. They have family on the inside, but it still won’t get them in, so you start up with Hawke having to work with mercenaries or smugglers to get in. This continues the tone of making hard decisions, of nothing good really being offered; you just have more morally ambiguous things to worry about. Every character you come across in this game are flawed. They have their own agendas. Hawke bonds with them, does loyalty quests, slowly builds a reputation in Kirkwall to the point where she becomes their Champion and is a figurehead of sorts. Which is funny, because Hawke as a person (sassy Hawke, just assume that’s always who I mean) is a walking trashbag.
By that I mean it affectionately. She is someone who has lived through a lot of terrible things from the start of the game to the end. She’s making it up as she goes, because she has no other choice, and she makes many mistakes. My Hawke copes with this never-ending storm of drama and hard choices with laughter, snark, and accepting that her life is a disaster. And surrounding herself with people who are equally as screwed. Hawke experiences so much pain. She loses both siblings, depending on how you play it, even the best case scenario for the surviving sibling isn’t a particularly happy one. Her mother is murdered in a gruesome horrific way that still haunts me sometimes. She tries to take care of Kirkwall and gets all this responsibility on her shoulders, and then she fails the city in a spectacular way. In part because of her own fault, one of her companions Anders is the one who starts a real war and she unwittingly helps him do it, and also outside of her control entirely are the rising issues between the Templars and the Mages. And boy is there a lot of stuff to unpack from that particular tension.
Generally, the Mages are super powerful and power corrupts and so the Templars are there to control them. “For their own good.” “For the safety of civilians.” The Mages are controlled by placed in circles, and some of their lives are okay, and some of their lives are completely terrible. But they are not free, so to speak. The rising resentment of mages, especially mages that live outside of the system and are always under the threat of the Templars, like Anders, is a heavy point of contention. It was built in Dragon Age: Origins, but Dragon Age 2 is when we literally see it explode past the point of return. You have to make a choice in this game between the Templars, who are basically at the ‘we’re just going to murder all the mages’ point, and the Mages, who probably should go free but will potentially be a real threat to everyone because there’s blood mages and power corrupts and it’s not a perfect solution either way. This is actually a common trope of a situation, it reminds me a lot of the mutants from Marvel. The people in the Marvel universe hate the mutants because of their powers, and mutants resent them and some rise against them as villains because of that fear and prejudice sent their way. We’ve seen it in history, it’s been in literature forever, and in this game you have to make a stance on it. Good luck to you (the answer is to save the mages, guys).
I do appreciate this isn’t a cut and dried issue. Both Meredith and Orsino are wrong and corrupt in one way or another. Both sides are complicated and murky. I’ve always found it very easy to pick the mages, but I understand how someone would pick the templars too. This game is all about the complexities of human fears, flaws, prejudices, and violence. We see it in our own party, with Fenris having good reasons for hating mages, and Anders having good reasons to hate templars. That’s a rivalry I could delve into on another day.
This is so long and I haven’t even gotten to my main points. Anyway, Hawke is screwed. No matter what she does, no matter when she has a win here or there, or makes a good friend, it all can go up in smoke and does go up in smoke by the end. I understand how this can be a difficult story for people, and especially people who are used to Bioware giving them creative ways out of situations. Personally, I find this plot is the strongest of all of them because it has a firm, unrelenting storyline, and it feels like a real tale from beginning to end. I felt like I was reading a book or seeing a fantastic interactive TV series with a set end date that the entire thing was building to. This is the kind of narrative I prefer. It’s a difficult game though; there is no possibility for a happy ending, not even a happy-ish ending. There’s pressure on you to make certain choices, and there’s a helplessness to experiencing this. If you’re as emotionally invested as the story as I am at this point, it resonates hard.
So when the “twist” happens and Anders, my first romance in this game hahahah you suck Bioware, blows up the Chantry, I actually paused the game and had to walk around my room. This memory sticks in my mind so clearly. Like a lot of people I looked up whether this was set in stone. If there was a way to stop it. And no, there isn’t. This is the crux of the game, and without it the game would be nothing. The thing is, it’s completely within character. They set this up with Anders from day one. You can think all you want that finding love and friends would change his mind, but of course it wouldn’t. If anything he gets more and more certain that doing something extreme would save people in the long run. Anders is such a sore point for a lot of players, and I think that’s a mark of a good character. If you are still angry about a character years after playing it, at least they’re memorable. If you are still debating in your head if they made the right choice, if you can understand their mindset, if you know they did something wrong but it still makes you wonder if there was any other way …. that’s terrific storytelling and character building. And then you have to decide what to do about Anders. This story does not let up in forcing you into horrible situations. At this point Hawke has lost most if not all of her family, and if she romanced Anders, she loses him, and the city she was sworn to protect. This is so dark and painful.
I love every second of it.
I recognize this is long okay I know it. So let’s talk about the characters. Dragon Age 2 is a rare case where I love every single party member. I would go to bat for any one of them. It’s such a found family concept, in a personalized way, because they live in this city and they’ve been friends for over a decade. Keep in mind how much time passes in Dragon Age. There’s no one too good or too perfect in the case, everyone is a variety of shades of grey. It’s the difference I think from having a bunch of good people becoming a rag tag group to save the world, and having a group of morally ambiguous and mostly good people being forced together by necessity and becoming Ride or Die about each other. The Avengers or the Defenders, let’s say. In the other two games, there’s at least one or two people I could live without. In Dragon Age 2, I have strong feelings and opinions about every single one of them. I’m Ride or Die about this cast. I think about sitting in the Hanged Man and playing cards with them late into the night, snarking and revealing secrets about myself and then laughing it off awkwardly. These are my types of people. Their love for each other is never in question, and they’re the kind of friends so close that they can tell you you’re wrong or get on your case. They forgive each other some really intense things too. Because they’re all lovable losers. Not all of them get along, but they will protect each other. Even with the characters who aren’t necessarily friends, I still think they’d go hey only I’m allowed to hate this person shut up.
Their dynamics are beautiful and I could write about it all day but I won’t right now. I promise.
Okay I’ve rambled mostly enough. Summary: I love this game because it is dark, desperate, intense, beautifully grim, extremely well plotted and executed, has the best trashbag lovable characters, changes everything for the series, and feels like a complete story. I know that some people have problems with how much it was rushed, and that’s definitely true. There were issues with how it worked when it came out, and it felt sloppy and they put their heart and soul into the story, but not into the graphics or setting or fighting. Kirkwall itself is a character, mind you. The city is so very real, the people and refuges and their turmoil is real, so I was invested in that. But a lot of players want it to be a more open world experience where you can go adventuring in different places, exactly how Dragon Age: Inquisition turned out. That’s completely reasonable too. They should have put more time into the mechanics of the game. I can admit, although it’s my precious, it was sloppily done in some places and they had the support and time they could have put into making it smooth and clean. The way Dragon Age: Inquisition turned out to be. It’s just that for me, none of these issues matter. It’s messy the way the story and characters are messy. The combat means very little to me. The graphics could be 8 bit and I’d be fine with it. The things I search for in a game and in a story are all here, so like I said. This was tailor made for me.
I firmly believe that Dragon Age 2 has the best story, the best characters, the best protagonist, the most satisfying unsatisfying ending, and it stays with me to today. I just wrote a very long blog that no one will read but me about why it is. I could write like 5 more of these about each character and the Mages vs. Templars and Anders solely on his own. But this will be it for today.