So why do Dragon Age games always insist on asking me if I want to kill all Mages? If it was a bit weird in DA:O, when I was playing as a mage, and came back home to Circle Tower just to have the Templars suggest that just maybe I wanted to murder all of my old friends, but it’s even harder, for me at least, to imagine siding with Knight-Commander Meredith as she invokes the Rite of Annulment after–
Well, maybe I should talk about that first. While act 3 of DA2 revolves around the seemingly irresolvable conflict between an ambitious and overreaching Knight-Commander of the Templars and a Circle of Mages whose members whether as a last ditch effort to resist a tyrannical regime or through the temptations of power possesses a disturbing tendency to resort to blood magic, it’s one of Hawke’s own companions who sets the endgame in motion.
There’s a lot that’s just okay about the final confrontation in DA2. I’m not in love with the fact that whichever side I choose I end up having to kill both First Enchanter Orsino and Knight-Commander Meredith. It makes the decision kind of play as a choice for nothing, which could even be fine if the entirety of the third act weren’t structured around investing me in the struggle between the Circle and the Templars as a meaningful thing with significant but contingent ongoing repercussions.
There’s something cynical in the one-as-good-as-the-other narrative architecture, especially, in my reading, where Meredith is involved in a power grab as far back as act 1 (I started a second play with a male warrior Hawke, and caught a bit about the dynamics between Meredith and the Viscount that didn’t mean anything to me my first time through), and Orsino’s mission in act 3 involves bringing rogue mages in line rather than undermining the Templars in any way. (It’s possible to read this mission as conveying exactly how little control Orsino has over his own circle, but it struck me that Orisino is more or less on the Templar’s side, at least in terms of dogma. It’s the extreme oppression of Meredith’s regime that puts the two in conflict.)
Orsino isn’t a revolutionary, for better or worse. That role falls to Anders.
And as shaken by it as I still am, it’s this, more or less, that makes the destruction of the Chantry the one moment in the endgame that really works for me. It’s a terrible, horrible act, and one that takes place whatever choices you make. Even as a crime, it’s the one event that feels narratively necessary, and the horror I felt–even (or especially) as someone who sided with the mages felt that the Grand Cleric had abdicated her role as a moral authority, and through my assistance to Anders was deeply implicated in the act itself–was more meaningful than all the choices I had made to support one side or the other.
Dealing with Anders afterward wasn’t easy. I have, in my Dragon Age play, largely declined to take on the role of judge, jury, and executioner where I could help it. I think it’s significant that I don’t actually remember what I finally did with Jowan, the hapless but deeply dangerous puppy dog blood mage in DA:O. I think, when the Arl of Redcliffe finally demanded a decision one way or the other, I sent Jowan back to the Circle, rather than killing him, or appealing that he be set free. In effect, I should probably interpret this as dooming Jowan to the Rite of Tranquility, the fate he sought to escape all the way back in the prologue, but it was the outcome based most firmly in mage self-government, as compromised as that self-government may be.
But with Anders, given the collapse of all of Kirkwall’s structures of law and justice, I finally took the knife into my own hands and did the only thing I could to hold Anders accountable.
It was a difficult action given that I generally play to save everyone I can. I even convinced Fenris to rejoin my party after he left to side with the Templars. But I couldn’t save Anders.
Or Orsino. Or my mother. Or Kirkwall.
Way back in my first DA2 note, I speculated whether DA2 might be more highly regarded if it weren’t a sequel to DA:O, and I’d like to end by re-raising that question. On its own, DA2 is a solid RPG, but it reverses the general sequel template, zooming in on a corner of the world rather than pulling back to set the original story in a larger context. I think the finished game more than justifies the gesture, but maybe even titling it Dragon Age: Kirkwall might have communicated its ambitions better, and would have fit more consistently with the title conventions guiding Origins and Inquisition.
As it stands, that ordinal operates rather awkwardly for a game that stands just as well on its own in a series more concerned with establishing a world and a lore than telling a single story.
It is fitting that Hawke joins the Grey Warden to disappear into the world, a legend, a whisper. We move on in the world we help create, pushing history forward. But our champions exit the stage, a little more human for having done so. The have earned their rest, until we turn back to the beginning and summon them again.
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