I had expected to have this entry ready last Saturday, but I knew that it would take a little more time and care to give the subject the proper attention that it deserved, and as I carried out the last blitz toward our vacation to New York, it became apparent that I just wasn’t going to be able to give it the time that it deserved. It’s just as well, since I’ve also been replaying Dragon Age Origins and have a few more things to say about its story vice the story of Dragon Age 2.
Click here to re-read the Dragon Age entry but, to get new readers up-to-speed, Dragon Age Origins was a fantasy role-playing game that came along in 2009. With a sprawling, epic story, it represented a throwback to the 1990s style of crafting a role-playing video game. Last time out, I said that it was a commercial flop, and a commenter pointed out that the game was actually an objective commercial success. Good point. From the standpoint of the gaming industry, it should have been a success: it sold more than 3 million copies, which is a fair hit, though not an unqualified success like some other modern games (the biggest game ever, Modern Warfare 2, sold 7 million in a single day upon release).
The biggest problem with Origins was the long cycle of development and creeping production costs, which ensured that Bioware (and parent company parent company Electronic Arts, who purchased Bioware in 2007 for $860 million) lost money on the venture. That’s very important when we talk about Dragon Age 2 because a lot of the reasons that the company cited for missing sales expectations were tied to the “archaic” game play, slower pace, and more methodical story and quests. Somewhere in there, either Bioware or Electronic Arts decided that Dragon Age 2 would be the opposite of this. I mean, don’t just take my word for it, watch this video:
As you see, you push a button and something happens. It’s the button-awesome connection. This was a pretty controversial decision; without even seeing the game, some fans were critical of the transition from a more traditional, strategic role-playing approach to something that resembles a brawler. If you’re not familiar with the brawler genre, they were popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s and were 99% about walking to the right and pushing buttons to beat up people. Double Dragon is probably the most famous example of that genre:
Dragon Age 2 could have worked as a brawler – and sometimes it even does. But this blog is not about game play conventions, it’s about writing. To expand upon my previous explanation of the story of Dragon Age Origins, I’ve come to realize that the original game was about betrayal, especially in the name of something that is “for the greater good”. Sure, there are a lot of other sub-plots that explore themes like identity and loyalty, but that was the overarching theme. Ask me right off the bat, though, and I couldn’t tell you what Dragon Age 2’s theme was supposed to be. A rise to power, perhaps? The dangers of fanaticism? The plot places you in the role of a refugee, Hawke a defined character who contrasts against the many characters you could possibly portray in Origins. Hawke ends up a refugee in a city far from home after almost everything he held dear was destroyed as part of the events of Origins.
Over the course of several years spread over three acts, you build Hawke up as an important person within the city. In doing so, you uncover several plots to overthrow the power in the city, as well as a simmering conflict between the mages and the Templars who control them. This storyline seems to pose the question of what it is to have exceptional power and whether that exceptional power is inherently evil or uncontrollable. This may have been intended as the prime storyline, but it only becomes important in the last act, highlighting one of the many problems with pacing. Still, some aspects of that storyline were interesting and had potential. Unfortunately, it all comes across as something of a mess. Again, don’t take my word for it. Look at this plot on Wikipedia that reflects the problem with defining what unifies this story (some minor spoilers):
Set in the mythical world of Thedas, Dragon Age II tells the story of Hawke, who fled the nation of Ferelden during the events of Dragon Age: Origins and traveled across the Waking Sea to the Free Marches and the city of Kirkwall as a refugee. Within the span of a decade, Hawke would rise in power and influence to become the legendary “Champion of Kirkwall”, and the center of events that change the course of Thedas forever. The game focuses on Hawke’s rise to power and is framed through flashbacks by one of Hawke’s old companions, Varric, who relates the Champion’s “true story” to Cassandra Pentaghast, a Seeker of Thedas’ religious Chantry. Hawke’s companion characters are Fenris (an elf and former slave in the Tevinter Imperium), Merrill (a Dalish elf rejected by her clan), Isabela (a pirate captain stranded in Kirkwall after her ship crashed), Anders (a former Grey Warden and apostate), Aveline Vallen (a Fereldan refugee who becomes a guard), Varric Tethras (a dwarf who maintains a spy network in Kirkwall) Sebastian Vael (a former prince of Starkhaven brought up in Kirkwall’s Chantry), and either Carver (Hawke’s brother) or Bethany (Hawke’s sister).
I’m not saying that none of the story arcs are interesting, but I had two major problems. One is, of course, the overall arc and the mess that it represents, and the other was that none of the characters are likable or relatable at all – they’re all stereotypes of one type or another (see above, the shy schoolgirl! The pirate hooker!).
As I said, the pacing is also a huge problem. Up front, the story is very exciting and everything seems to have a purpose, leading somewhere. I loved the damn thing during the first ten hours, but by the time I hit the third act and everything fell apart, I was sitting there asking, “What just happened?”
Assigning blame is tough. Some may lie with Bioware. They tried to put out a sequel to the original game in something like a year and a half when a typical game development cycle, especially for something of this size, is anywhere from two to three years. They also rebuilt from the ground up, so there are a lot of unfinished things in the game and a lot of repeated usage of assets. I don’t want to call the whole thing lazy, because they probably did the best they could with the time they were given. At the very least, however, the whole thing comes off as un-creative. I suspect, however, that a lot of blame lies with Electronic Arts. It would not be the first time that the company pushed a team to get a game out the door as fast as possible in an attempt to recoup some of the development costs of the original game.
Whoever was responsible for the decision, it was a failure. Dragon Age II, to date, has sold 1.56 million copies in just around seven months of release. Could it ultimately match Origins? Possibly, but it’s very unlikely, given the poor word-of-mouth surrounding the game. It’s funny. I was ready to use this as a platform to launch into some of the problems of the video game industry at the moment, but players pleasantly surprised me.
In the end, I just can’t recommend Dragon Age 2, unless you can find it for a very cheap price and are willing to suffer some of the ridiculous things that happen later in the plot. Still, I think the story of its creation is important to writers, as it’s the classic tale of external market pressures shaping a story, as well as what happens when you run out of time to give a work one more editing pass and produce something that doesn’t really satisfy you.
So while we can show funny videos of bewildered game designers, we can also be a bit sympathetic with their plight in trying to get something like this out the door so quickly, especially when being pushed by marketing. That’s probably relatable for every writer, on some level, and something that we all fear.