Dragon Age II: So tell me what you want, what you really really want

I’ve been thinking about this a bit, and I’ve come to a somewhat uncomfortable conclusion. After the first act of Dragon Age II, that is, after Hawke and her companions make their first expedition to the Deep Roads, Hawke is no longer the protagonist of Dragon Age II.

This is a tricky assertion, given that the progress of the game is tied so specifically to Hawke’s progress from refugee, to respected member of the community, to Champion of Kirkwall, to, I assume, something else after the third act. You could, after all, subtitle the game “Hawke’s Progress,” except, well, let me talk about what I mean by “protagonist.”

Traditionally, the protagonist in a story plays the role of the prime mover, the person–and this is important–whose desire for something sets the story in motion. This desire can be positive or negative, in both senses of each of those words. That is, the protagonist can want to acquire or achieve something (a “positive” or active desire) or want to preserve something or prevent some harm (a “negative” or oppositional desire.) Or the protagonist can desire some sort of positive outcome, or even a sympathetic negative such as an antihero seeking revenge, etc.

But whatever the circumstances, the success of a story largely depends on the protagonist’s desire being strongly and clearly conveyed as the core of the story. There’s room for a million diversions and subplots (and there’s even room for some misdirection, as in a protagonist who isn’t honest about their goals, so long as those goals are eventually revealed), but the story should begin and end with the protagonist’s central motivation. The Ring of Power is destroyed (or the Shire is finally saved), the murder is solved, the romantic leads finally get married, etc.

But in DA2, after Hawke is driven by the desire to join Bertrand’s expedition as as way for Hawke to establish herself as her own person and not an indentured laborer, there’s never really another similar motivation. Hawke wants things to be okay in Kirkwall, but this is a rather ephemeral driving desire. In the second act, the primary conflict is between the Viscount of Kirkwall and the Qunari Arishok. In act three, the Knight Commander of the Templars and the First Enchanter of Kirkwall’s Circle of Mages.

On some level, this is a result of the open-ended design of DA2’s plot. To center the plot on Hawke’s desires would require establishing the nature of Hawke’s motivation and limiting player freedom to nudge Hawke in one direction or another. By making Hawke a supporting player, the player can choose to side (more or less) with the Viscount or the Qunari, the Templars or the Circle. Choices!

Except it doesn’t really work out that way, does it? The details my be slightly fungible, but one way or another Qunari tensions come to a head and they leave the city. It’s possible to sympathize with them, and maybe even to come to a peaceful(ish) final resolution, but it’s not possible, for example, to help the Arishok seize control of the city. (Choices!)

And it’s useful to draw a contrast, again, to DA:O, where the primary drive is always to defeat the Archdemon and end the Blight. So even though the Grey Warden is a much more malleable character than Hawke, she is always the protagonist of DA:O.

Which would seem to argue that it’s more the time jumps between acts than the story branching options that prevent Hawke from acting as protagonist? Maybe that’s not quite right. Maybe it’s way DA2’s acts make it function as three different stories tied together rather than one overarching story.

And maybe it’s neither of those things. Maybe it’s just the design decision to center the conflicts on characters other than Hawke, whatever the reasoning was behind that decision.

BUT (as I promised last week) the implication of that story design is that there’s not really a politics functioning in DA2 other than brute power. Neither the Arishok nor the Viscount is good or bad, and while the Qunari in particular express a philosophy which the player can express themselves as viewing as honorable or oppressive (the Viscount, on the other hand, is much more simply pragmatic), the player’s sympathies don’t actually push the plot any direction but forward.

That is Hawke enables the story of DA2 as a necessary catalyst, but isn’t really, well, responsible for it. And that’s just a bit of a cop-out for a big, grandiose adventure game that works so hard to offer so many choices.

A slightly different version of this note was originally shared through my TinyLetter, The Playthrough, where I am currently playing and writing about Dragon Age: Inquisition. You can subscribe to The Playthrough at http://tinyletter.com/theplaythrough

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