I have a lot of fun ripping on Dragon Age II. BioWare's 2011 follow-up to their epic and beloved Dragon Age: Origins disappointed and frustrated me in many, many ways.
But plenty of people liked it just fine. In fact, some people bloody love this game, to the point that every time I poke fun at it here or on Twitter, I get a flood of well-meaning responses hollering to the heavens about how great the game actually is, and would I lay off it already, and jeez Kirk what's your problem it wasn't even that bad.
This sort of thing happens sometimes with games that are commonly held to be "bad"—a small group of people fall in love with them and embrace them in spite of their flaws. Games like Nier and Deadly Premonition, and even my beloved Far Cry 2 could be said to fall into this category. (Fahey suggests Phantom Dust for this category as well.)
I love it when this happens. It shows that taste in gaming is not universal, that the critical consensus never speaks for or to all people. Often, we just like what we like. In addition, defending a game that is commonly thought of as overlooked, underrated, or unfairly maligned brings out a sort of zealotous passion that can border on unhinged—but passion is passion! (See, for example, the #FarCry2CoreHarder hashtag that came to brief, wondrous life the other night.) The Dragon Age II defenders may be defending a game that I generally found to be frustrating, claustrophobic, weirdly paced, and overly streamlined, but they defend it with passion and brains.
One of my favorite pieces written in the game's defense was 'Dragon Age II': Making the Case for "Quality" Games by Kris Ligman. In it, she argues that while DAII is flawed, it is worth rewarding the Dragon Age team for making a game that concerned itself with setting out in new directions. "Strip away the pretenses of a AAA studio and the worst of its hamfisted tie-ins to the first game," she writes, "and you have what is possibly some of the most compelling characterization this side of a good book."
"Dragon Age II is ultimately a character drama, less concerned with an epic, save-the-world storyline than in examining the interior worlds of distinct personalities," Ligman writes. "These are flawed beings, doomed by their own hubris or madness, and weak creatures whose personal and psychological failings become centerplace to the unfolding action."
Ligman concludes her critique by making the argument for more "quality" games like this that embrace qualities outside of the "aesthetic and ludic" qualities gamers have come to celebrate. "My greatest fear right now," she writes, "is that history will blame Dragon Age II‘s failings not on these disconnected elements but on the things that it gets absolutely right above all, giving us the sort of novelistic characters and depth we find ever so elusive in games."
Friend of Kotaku Denis Farr wrote a very nice piece about the game over at his blog "Vorpal Bunny Ranch" (best blog name ever) titled "Carver's My Brother," in which he analyzed the relationship between his protagonist and his in-game brother, finding layers of nuance that, it must be said, do not exist in the vast majority of games, even deep RPGs.
Carver had both been a battle companion, and was someone who had interacted more heavily with both myself and the other people with whom I traveled who became my extended family. His role in my group had been a tank–my protector. It influenced how I saw him: despite my quibbles with him, he was someone on whom I could rely.
Kate Cox recently posted a wonderful look at the narrative tragedies in Dragon Age II, titled "The Age of the Dragons, part II: The Tragedie of Kirkwalle." (Spoilers abound.) "Players went in to Dragon Age 2 expecting the arc of Star Wars," she writes, "and instead got handed something out of Sophocles… No wonder so many were disappointed with what they got."
Cox also illustrates a point similar to Farr's: In this game, much of the reward and depth is tied to the relationships you forge and the characters you meet. The key here being the difference between " my story" and " the story," which is a hazy difference, particularly given the fact that Dragon Age II is itself a frame-narrative, a story told after the fact by Varric the Dwarf. (Remember, yonder lie spoilers.)
Indeed, for all that the player controls Hawke, in a meaningful sense the player is better represented by Varric. His presence as narrator — and a potentially unreliable one, as far as both Cassandra and the player are concerned — echoes and underlines the entire concept of the player making choices in what is ultimately a forced linear tragic narrative. "Here's how it really happened," the player says, and no one can particularly gainsay it because the ultimate sequence of events is still the same: Hawke came to Kirkwall in 9:30, in some way knew these 7 or 8 individuals, and in 9:37 was present when Anders destroyed the Chantry. Cassandra may stop Varric in moments of true absurdity but otherwise, she believes the story he has to tell about Hawke, no matter how it unfolds.
Clearly, the game is worth talking about. It's worth talking about its failures, sure, but also about its successes. The people who have tweeted and commented and written at length about Dragon Age II haven't chosen an underdog just to stand out.
They legitimately believe Dragon Age II is fantastic, and they're eloquent in talking about why. In fact, many are willing and able to talk about the game's flaws in the same breath as its strengths. We could stand to see more of the inverse of that, to see more people talking openly about the flaws in widely-praised, successful games.
Yeah, I said that Dragon Age II felt "akin to attending a dinner party and being fed unsatisfying side dish after unsatisfying side dish while awaiting a main course that never arrives." I also may have called it "flat, unfinished and short on soul." I still feel that way about it, for the most part.
But while my distaste remains, even I don't hate Dragon Age II, not really. It had its redeeming characteristics, most notably some of the characters (Aveline!), its interesting and nuanced portrayal of interpersonal relationships, and its laudable inclusivity.
So it's nice to see that there are folks out there who disagree with the critical consensus. Regardless of its frustrating faults, Dragon Age II should not be dismissed, and not simply because it has a sequel coming that Might Fix Everything. For the time being, it's enough that Dragon Age II is a work worthy of its own discussion; it is perfectly capable of standing on its own to be criticized for its failings and celebrated for its successes.
Just don't make me play it any more.
(Sorry, couldn't resist.)