Pissing on Flames – or An In-depth Look at the Subtle Brilliance of Dragon Age II.

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Image taken from google

The Dragon Age series produced by Bioware has been regarded as a widely successful franchise. According to Metacritic the first installment of the series received a cross-platform average critical score of 88/100 scoring a 91 on PC an 87 on PS3 and an 86 on xbox-360. The user scores for the same game were also quite favorable averaging a 7.9 scoring an 8.4 on PC, a 7.7 on PS3 and a 7.7 on xbox-360.  The second installment of the franchise was received fairly well critically scoring an 82/100 on PC, an 82/100 PS3 and a 79/100 on xbox-360 for an average critical score of 81/100. While these critical scores are not much lower than the original scores the user scores are dramatically lower than those of its’ predecessor, a 4.2 on PC, 4.0 on PS3 and 4.3 on xbox-360 for an average user score of 4.16.  But what exactly is it that has so negatively impacted the opinions of players with regards to Dragon Age II? Well after more than two hours of digging though comments and reviews about the game (many of which were so poorly written reading them caused me physical pain) the general consensus was that

1)   Bioware has “dumbed down” the interface to better accommodate a console game play. 2)   The “repetition” and “recycling” of maps and areas throughout the game 3)   The linear nature of the story

Of these three complaints the first is rather minor, the original control interface for console was clunky. I consider this critique minor because for each PC gamer that complained about this change, there was at least one console gamer who considered the change to be an improvement. That being said the other two issues were much more unanimously agreed upon across all three platforms.

So what exactly was it that differed so greatly between the two games that would lead to this sort of disparity between the user receptions of the two games? In a word storytelling. While Origins was a high-fantasy epic with a very open plot that allowed the player a variety of experiences its’ sequel was much more contained. Dragon Age II is an attempt to do something different with the storytelling of RPGs, the developers at Bioware set out to create a frame narrative. For those who don’t know what a frame narrative is; a frame narrative is a literary technique in which the author or storyteller constructs a primary narrative almost exclusively for the purpose of introducing a second and more important narrative within the context of the initial world.

Dragon Age II constructs this initial world with the abduction of a dwarf by the name of Varric Tethras. The player quickly finds out that Varric was present for some events that have lead to creation of a world where his kidnapping becomes necessary. After some threatening remarks by “The Seeker” Varric begins to narrate a story that began a decade or more before his capture and details the events surrounding a character that is referred to only as “The Champion.”  Varric’s account of the events of “The Champion’s” life within Kirkwall (the city where the game is set) is broken into three acts each separated by a space of about three years. Presumably Gameplay is the Varric’s account of key events in the life of “The Champion” a Ferelden refugee later turned-noble-turned-Champion by the name of Hawk, events that lead to the creation of a situation that will ultimately plunge the world into chaos.   Because this narrative is already complete at the time of its telling it is already dramatically different from the story of Origins.  Further when considering the very nature of frame narratives it becomes very possible to view the critiques against the game in a very different light.

While the Player had the choice as to the race class (in terms of skills and abilities), class (as in economic class in certain stories) and gender of their character in Origins the same cannot be said for the choices in “rolling” your particular Hawke.  The only options available to the player in DA II are gender and class (skills and abilities).  This already creates a narrowing of possibilities for the player but is necessary for the story being told. If one considers the society in which the game takes place, playing a dwarf would not allow for the champion to rise into the ranks of nobility as even the richest dwarves are only merchants. Further playing as an elf makes the story a total impossibility as the city elves are at best second-class citizens only barely tolerated within the context of society, and the Dalish (non-city elves) keep to themselves and wouldn’t have been involved at all.  So yes, for the story of DA II to work as intended by its creators, the player had to play a human character.

But lets get to the meat of the issue the stories linear nature and the repetition of locations and maps throughout the game.  This story is told in its entirety by Varric after its happened, with no one else to corroborate its events.  So the question becomes “is Varric a reliable narrator” the answer to this question is inherently complicated but probably no. Within the game there are two clear instances of Varric warping events in the story. The first is at the very beginning of the game in which the player plays as a super badass version of the character they will play throughout the game, in detailing this supposed account Varric is stopped by “The Seeker” and told made to retell it in a less fantastic (and it would seem more accurate) manor.  The second blatant example of his unreliability is seen when he initially recounts the events of a companion specific side quest where Varric must confront his brother. In the initial telling Varric storms his brothers mansion and singlehandedly lays waste to his brother’s guards and then extracts a tearful surrender and plea for mercy from his brother. Again Varric is interrupted by “The Seeker” and made to recount events as they “actually” happened. When one considers these two instances alongside several comments made by Varric about the outlandish stories he is spinning to inflate the reputation of Hawke it becomes easy to doubt his version of events. This matter is further complicated by the nature of the companion loyalty in the game in fact there are two separate passive abilities that Varric can receive depending on his opinion of Hawke, “authorized biographer” and “unauthorized biographer” the caption for the first of these is “one of these days, Varric will tell your story” the caption for the second is “one of these days, Varric will tell your story. Whether you like it or not.”  This further impacts the way the player must be cautious of Varric’s account if he is Hawk’s friend then he would be inclined to make Hawk look like a hero or at the very least not the villain, but if he is not friendly to Hawk he may be inclined to depict Hawk in a negative light.

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Image taken from Dragon Age wiki

It is clear that Varric is an unreliable narrator, as such it becomes important to realize that every bit of gameplay the player has is in actuality an account from Varric. Now I don’t know about you but if I were on a mission into the deep roads, or to storm the mansion of a blood mage, I’d be far more concerned with the darkspawn  and demons and undead hell-bent on killing me, maiming me and eating my face (if I’m lucky in that order) as to opposed to how the rocks looked that day or if the crazed mage had green carpets in the entrance hall or blue ones.  The fact is Varric is detailing the events of numerous hostile situations in which he and his companions (assuming Varric is in your party if not then that opens a whole new can of worms) had to fight for their very lives. Not to mention the fact that some of these recollections are close to ten years old. With this reading it becomes possible to see the reuse of maps not as a time and money saver (as is the common critique) on Bioware’s part but rather as an additional layer to the clever narrative technique that has been employed in the telling of this story.  Further the linear nature of the narrative is reflective of the fact that its told in hindsight, perhaps there was space between the events taking place in the champions life. Perhaps Varric altered the account to better appease “The Seeker.” None of that can be definitively known because the only facts that we have are that there was a Champion, that he/she did live in Kirkwall for a time and that Varric knew them to some extent.

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Image taken from Dragon age wiki

I feel that the reason this game did so well with critics while being disparaged by players is two fold, the first is obviously economic. Critics are not going to complain about the price of a game because it’s their job to rate it, they are also less likely to allow their experience to be so heavily impacted by cost.  It is a common supposition that EA in some way paid off critics to rate the game to a higher standard than it deserved. I find this to be unlikely and would sooner assume that most of the games detractors are either being deliberately obtuse (as is the case with some kinds of gamers) or simply didn’t understand what Dragon Age II was trying to accomplish. The second difference between critics and players is that Critics are going to look at this game both in the context of Origins and as its own entity. Critics are able to step outside there preconceptions and just play this game. Further Critics are just more likely to be able to recognize the brilliant storytelling experiment that was Dragon Age II.

  4 comments for “Pissing on Flames – or An In-depth Look at the Subtle Brilliance of Dragon Age II.

  1. February 2, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    I’ll readily confess to not knowing much about the Dragon Age games, but I found this interesting:

    This story is told in its entirety by Varric after its happened, with no one else to corroborate its events. So the question becomes “is Varric a reliable narrator” the answer to this question is inherently complicated but probably no.

    As you probably know, there are other games that deal with layered narrative as the (stated or implied) frame for what you’re doing in the story. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is an obvious example, but something similar happens in Eternal Darkness (a.k.a. the game I always find a way to mention).

    I like how you focus on what this implies: the narrator, one would think, is probably not, and shouldn’t be, interested in conveying the physical details of the world down to the rocks. Obviously, oral or written storytelling is a different medium than a game, so each focalizes in different ways.

    Whenever a book is compared to its film adaptation, it’s often pointed out that the pictures we create in our mind are the best ones anyway. The film’s director has created a set of images to build out in a way that matches her vision for it. Likewise, a videogame engine creates a set of images based on someone’s ideas for a world. Even though it doesn’t make literal sense, it’s interesting to think of a game engine as another person listening to the story — a separate agent of interpretation that sits between us and the storyteller in a way that’s true of every game, not just those that employ the trope of the frame story. What would that mean for a game like Limbo?

  2. 302writing
    February 4, 2013 at 11:45 am

    I liked how you analyzed Dragon Age II as a Frame Narrative. It was a very unusual storytelling choice by Bioware, but I think that if you actually play the game, it becomes very clear why consumers were displeased with it. Dragon Age was a great game, but Dragon Age II didn’t hold up as a standalone game. Because you knew Hawke was important due to him being the subject of the story, it lent him some degree of assumed importance, but the actual story is really just a lead-in for Dragon Age III. One of the nice features of a frame narrative is that it allows you to kill the main character, or to have unusually bad things happen to them, but Hawke is fine at the end of the story, there’s not even the chance for him to die, so there really wasn’t much point to the frame narrative. While I can see why critics may have liked the game for its different storytelling and I do like to see developers taking risks, I think it was the story itself that let the game down.

    • patcrosmun
      February 5, 2013 at 3:42 pm

      first of all thank you for the comment. I am intrigued by your opinion that hawk was “fine” at the completion of Varric’s tale. It further interests me that feel that Bioware failed to “let bad things happen” to Hawk. For a brief recap by the final fight with the Knight Commander Hawks brother or sister is dead, a Grey Warden or a Templar/Circle Mage any of these options mean that Hawk has effectively lost His/Her sibling. Further Hawk’s mother is murdered and utilized as a part of a necromantic ritual to bring back a crazed blood mage’s wife. His/Her original home is destroyed. Hawk can be betrayed (and abandoned) by Isabella. Also Hawk can be “duped” by his/her friend or lover Anders to unwillingly aid in a terrorist action that leads to direct confrontation between Mages and Templars. All of that in mind Hawk has definitely had a good deal of horrible things happen to him/her. As for being fine we have no idea whether or not Hawk is “fine” Varric has fallen out of touch with Hawk and as such cannot speak to the wellness of Hawk. Hawk didn’t die after fighting Knight Commander Meredith, but could very well be dead now that the Chantry and its Seekers are looking for him/her. I respect your opinion on the story but I do not share it, I feel that the story of Dragon Age II was most certainly a more interesting story than its predecessor because Hawk as a character has the potential to be a corrupt power grubbing villain intent on destroying the current order of the world or on the other end of the spectrum Hawk can be the liberator of the oppressed and the champion of the down trodden standing against the injustice and corruption of the Chantry or anything in between. The warden was always simply a hero regardless of his decisions.

  3. chocobunnysk
    February 5, 2013 at 11:33 pm

    On the repetitive nature of the story take a look at this.

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