Dragon Age II: A few quick notes and one long one

At least once for each game I play I’m likely to do a letter that’s a set of rough notes, and this is that letter.

The “All That Remains” mission: HOLY CRAP. MOM MOOOOOOM. . .

Varric on Merrill: “There’s a whole lot of crazy in that little package.” Yeah, but she’s my crazy. Also, I think I’ve noted this, but I love that Isabela and Merrill are besties. I think the relationships between companion NPCs are some of the best parts of BioWare games. They really seem to think about who would get along, who wouldn’t, and who would get along that you might not think at first would get along. Merrill’s social awkwardness might initially disguise the fact that she’s really a bit of a swashbuckler, but not to Isabela, who saw it immediately. Well, and to Varric, too, and it reveals something about everyone involved that Isabela is attracted to Merrill’s edginess, and Varric finds it concerning.

In the Quinari attack, some Grey Wardens show up and just as quickly split, citing “pressing matters.” A Grey Warden with someplace to be is always a worrisome thing.

I killed the Arishok. I have a lot of sympathy for the Qunari, but I wasn’t willing to turn over Isabela.

The Qunari departure from Kirkwall removes a leg of the triangular balance of power, leaving just the mages and the Templars. An inherently unstable situation, especially when the Grand Cleric largely declines to place the Chantry into the vacant third position, for better and for worse.

Two thoughts on that–it’s hard to get upset, at least for me, over the fact that the Grand Cleric doesn’t take action to empower the elements of zealotry in her group, but her lack of action reads (and seems to be written) as something of an abdication, motivated perhaps by her own internal conflict over the Knight Commander’s clear overreach of her authority in placing herself as the de facto viscount, and the fact that the Grand Cleric largely agrees with the Knight Commander’s fear of mages. That is the Grand Cleric seems to think that the Knight Commander is doing the wrong thing, but for the right reasons, and unable to come to a resolution, the Grand Cleric settles for paralysis, neither supporting nor acting to restrain the Knight Commander.

And then there’s the weird power dynamic of the mages themselves, who are clearly written as an oppressed class, but written just as insistently as inherently dangerous to themselves and others. That is, mages in themselves are powerful beyond any other individual, AND prone to possession by demons in direct relationship to the level of their individual power.

On some level, this dynamic is constructed to allow players to side with or against mages roughly equally–that is, depending on whether they tend to favor the rights and dignity of the individual mage, or the safety of those victimized by blood mages and abominations.

Except that this is a false equivalence in the real world, and it’s difficult for me to not read it as a false equivalence in Dragon Age as well. Given recent unfortunate parallels in rhetoric, I’m a bit annoyed by the invocations of “not all mages,” but this is really the first time in a BioWare narrative conflict where I really don’t want to thread the needle. I’m on the mages’ side. Blood magic or not blood magic, the Templar regime isn’t acceptable in Kirkwall, and really kind of isn’t anywhere else in Thedas.

Maybe one day, Tevinter will be more than just an offscreen boogeyman meant to vaguely invoke what can go wrong when mages are allowed to participate even a little in systems of power, but until, and probably even then, people are people, whether they’re humans, dwarves, elves, Qunari, or even mages.

(That was a longer short note than maybe I expected.)

But before I move on, I’d also like to say that my thinking has shifted a bit since my last note, from simply observing that Hawke isn’t the protagonist of DA2 after the first act to suspecting that BioWare was up to something in making that shift.

The standard high fantasy trope is for a great hero to take on a great (and absolute) evil. DA:O follows this pattern fairly closely, and even though the Grey Warden has to navigate a lot of Ferelden politics, culminating in trying to sway a vote in the parliamentary assembly (high fantasy for wonks!), all of the politicking, currying favor, and earning allies is motivated by the necessity of raising an army against the darkspawn horde.

But in DA2, there is no darkspawn horde. The enemies in the final accounting are not demons or zombies, but other people, factions among the residents of a single city whose differences become intractable. (And it’s worth noting that after act two, even the “alien” presence of the Qunari isn’t fulfilling the antagonist role any longer.)

All of which is to say, by eliminating the protagonist, DA2 opens up possibilities for how the antagonist role can operate. It’s basically the same move that Game of Thrones pulls when it kills off Eddard Stark–allowing the action to focus on the conflicts between people rather than between “heroes” and “monsters.” (Pull that one out at your next cocktail party. You’re welcome.)

NEXT WEEK: Well, next week, I’m moving, so the next note might be two weeks out. I’ll do my best! In either case, I’m planning two more DA2 notes, and I need to revisit companions, talk about the Mark of the Assassin DLC, and cover the endgame. So it’ll be fun!

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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