Not Everyone Hates Dragon Age II, You Know

Illustration for article titled Not Everyone Hates emDragon Age II/em, You Know

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.

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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.)

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Illustration for article titled Not Everyone Hates emDragon Age II/em, You Know

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."

"Players went in to Dragon Age 2 expecting the arc of Star Wars and instead got handed something out of Sophocles."

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"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."

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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.

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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.

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Illustration for article titled Not Everyone Hates emDragon Age II/em, You Know

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.

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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.

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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.

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Just don't make me play it any more.

(Sorry, couldn't resist.)

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DISCUSSION

"and even my beloved Far Cry 2 could be said to fall into this category."

Far Cry 2's primary issue was that it felt... consolized? Repeated? Like... a game, maybe? I'm not...

Like, I didn't hate the voice acting's fast pace. I didn't hate the lack of fast travel (though what it implemented could be bothersome). I only slightly disliked the hamfisted take on the Heart of Darkness.

What I hated was something no one else seems to have picked up on, and I really, really wish I could discuss it with someone who loved the game, because I think it's really, really important to explaining why the game failed as much as it did.

It told you that it was a game. It constantly made you aware of this fact.

When I play a game that's more PC than console, I often find that it has fewer abstractions. This next statement's going to sound mean, but honestly, it can't be helped. Consoles, being constrained/limited as they are, can't quite capture the realism that a PC game can.

Far Cry 2 was a bit like Harvey Dent. On one hand, it wanted to be accessible and easy. On the other, it wanted to be an immersive sim (which I fully believe is the best game genre ever, haters be damned).

You had these very clear patterns of, say, enemies respawning at checkpoints (nobody seems to have pinpointed just WHY it was so frustrating—it's because it felt too gamey), or safehouses that were all functionally identical, or missions that always followed the same structure, or fire that didn't have any lasting damage. These kind of things pulled players out of the game experience.

Meanwhile, you could shoot a guy, he'd drop to the ground, and his friends would come over to help him. You'd set things on fire and the fire would propagate in a way that felt very realistic, which helped you with new tactics. Your friends would rescue you from death, which didn't pull you out of the experience with death (which is one of those things that should try to be eliminated in games somehow). Your friends could DIE.

See, all the things that are great about the game? They all feel more immersive. They all try to simulate realistic behaviors. The things people complained about, on the other hand? You'll notice that they're much more gamey.

Far Cry 2 was a game at odds with itself. It was Two-Face.

Maybe I should blog about this.

"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."

I like this too, but sometimes, people are just crazy.

...like when they like Final Fantasy XIII or Dragon Age 2.

"(See, for example, the #FarCry2CoreHarder hashtag that came to brief, wondrous life the other night.)"

Please explain!

"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."

They defend it with brains?

I had one person say "it's good because it discusses real-life issues, like how people mistreat homosexuals!"

To that I say, "well, assuming you're right, and the mages are supposed to be homosexuals, what's Bioware mean when the homosexuals go around blowing up churches and attacking their friends and murdering your mother?"

(I realize people are going to misunderstand this and call me a bigot because I am speaking with a negative tone and homosexuals have been mentioned, but do try and understand that I'm pissed about the fact that they basically said gay people were all crazy motherfuckers and I'm mad at that.)

I really do think that they WERE trying to make the mages homosexuals (for one thing, everyone in the game is bisexual, and there's one particular conversation where you have to either sleep with Anders or act like a bigot (I wanted to pick the "Anders, we're good friends, but I don't find you the least bit attractive because you are a complete psychopath who murders churches" option), if you're playing a male; it seemed like they REALLY wanted people to be gay or think about being gay in this game), but that idiotic writing got in the way. The ideas were there, but so were talentless hacks.

One of the WORST, most INDEFENSIBLE things about Dragon Age 2 was the constant stupidity of its writing. I'm about to spoil the game (I guess I already have), so if for some weird, morbid reason you care, you'd better back out now.

We're talking about a game that had a guy who you sided with throughout the entire game get locked up in prison with you. Then, he decided that fuck everything, he was going to turn into a monster and murder you. At the very least, he could have chosen to turn into a monster and murder your/his enemies, but no, he wanted to murder you for no reason at fucking all.

"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."

This is not a valid argument in any way, shape, or form.

It's like praising an indie game for offering a new mechanic no one's ever used before.

You should be rewarding them for doing good things, not stepping out in new directions, particularly when those directions are poorly-handled MMO-style wave-based combat, terrible, terrible writing (even if it isn't the traditional Bioware plot), and imitating Mass Effect 2 (I would like to point out that imitating Mass Effect 2, isn't actually a new direction, but an old one for a different sort of series).

This would be like saying "XCOM is a great game because it's an FPS and is therefore a new direction for the series!"

No, XCOM is presumably going to be a great game because it has an incredible art style and is developed by one of the best developers/writers in the business. I'm fairly confident they'll handle gay characters a lot better, too.

""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.""

You can't, because they're all bisexual.

Wait, wait, hear me out!

Look, if you make a character who is not even defined enough to have their own sexuality, you have written a bad character. Actually, this is why Avelline is one of the better characters in the game—her sexuality is defined. Now, granted, it makes sense for the one with the breasts (she's a bad character in other ways) to be bisexual, because they characterized her in that way, but others just appear to be a case of "well, I'd fuck that character, so let's make them whatever sexuality the gamer wants them to be!" Guys like Fenris and the other elf make no sense whatsoever.

Anders doesn't seem to be straight, gay, or anything in between (he seemed to be gay in Awakening, though). No, he's Buffalo Bill from the Silence of the Lambs, but not nearly as well-written.

I could go into greater detail on why they're pretty bad, but that would involve replaying the game, and I'm simply not willing to waste my limited lifespan replaying Dragon Age 2 without a really, really compelling argument. The bisexual argument is just the absolute simplest one—these characters are not even defined enough to have their on sexualities. They're there simply as fuckthings.

""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.""

If Dragon Age 2 was this game, it would be my Game of the Year.

It's not. It's really not.

I can't think of anyone guilty of hubris, except elfgirl, who is an immature little brat who believes that blood magic won't hurt her because she is insanely stupid. Also, the game forces you into completing her quest line. Even if you steal the ONE MAGICAL THING THAT WILL HELP HER REFORGE THE MIRROR AND OBTAIN HER GOAL THERE IS NO OTHER WAY TO DO THIS THING and never give it to her, the game ignores it, she finishes fixing the magic mirror, and you're off to massacre elves.

Then there's your sister, who hates you. Actually, everyone in your family hates you, except your mom, who gets sliced and diced into little pieces to become Frankenstein's Bride. Your sister will hate you for either leaving her behind when you go underground, or she'll hate you for taking you along... when you go underground. She asked you to take her, but she hates you anyways.

You've got Fenris, who is essentially indistinguishable from Uchiha Sasuke of Naruto fame. You've got Anders, who is this wizard possessed by a ghost of Justice who goes around blowing up a church full of innocent people to demonstrate to the Templars that they were wrong to be wary of wizards. Yes, the game tries to pretend that DOING A CRAZY THING is a great way to prove that YOU WOULD NEVER DO A CRAZY THING, SO THE BAD GUYS SHOULD STOP THINKING YOU'RE CRAZY.

Meredith is a militaristic bitch who goes crazy when an ancient evil artifact turns her evil.

It's really not hubris, it's stupidity getting confused with hubris. You'd think someone with the power to nullify magic wouldn't be corrupted by Magic, for instance (oh, and it was no surprise whatsoever that she stole the magicky thing that turned people crazy, nor was it any surprise that her only goal was that she "wanted power," which is cliche villain goal #1).

"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."

This is... finding meaning where there is none.

To illustrate, let's look at Anders again. You can rely on him no matter what—except when Bioware doesn't want you to. So yes, while he'll blow up churches, he'll never be crazy during a battle or anything. You can make him do whatever you want.

I kept him around after he murdered all those people because he was the only healer in the game (other mages had one healing spell, but he had the healer class).

Likewise, yes, you can rely on Carver , but that's because, mechanically, you have to. Nobody would want to make a game where you can't rely on your party members, because it would break the mechanics of the game.

The game doesn't acknowledge that while he may be whiny, he's loyal to you. It's not smart enough to use the fact that you can rely on him mechanically to turn that into a story element.

Instead, you can rely on Carver because the game says "you need a tank."

"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.""

Fucking what?

If I'd gotten Sophocles, I would have been blown away.

You know what Dragon Age 2 is, with the exception of the neat bits about religion?

It's a terrible, terrible story.

It's a game where all mages, for no reason at all, turn evil at the drop of a hat and/or decide to use magic that will turn them into psychopaths.

It's a game where your family are a bunch of whiny, bickering jerks.

It's a game about a MacGuffin.

BAH.

Weather has shut down the building. We have to close. I'll add more later.