(WARNING. SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD)
I have now beaten Dragon Age 2 once, and after beginning another, I've come to a few conclusions about it that make me think that, despite the intense divide among fans of the franchise, this is a very good game. Aside from it being a very tightly made, virtually bug-free RPG with a superb combat engine and an engaging conversation system, it also has one of the most compelling narratives I have ever encountered. The story is simple: Hawke (who can be male or female), a refugee from a war-torn country, arrives in the ancient city of Kirkwall with her (since this is my character, Hawke is a woman) family and tries to start a new life. Instead, political and religious tensions drag Hawke and her new found companions into a war for the city, with greater ramifications for the world at large.
Ultimately, it is a story about religion. It took me a while to come to this conclusion, but it is. In the world of Dragon Age, the Chantry dictates the words of the Maker and the Prophet Andraste. In the Chantry's eyes, mages are dangerous, susceptible to demons and possession, and so are locked away in specially secured towers, called Circles of Magi, to keep the rest of the world safe. Ultimately, there are mages who rebel, who flee, and some turn to darker forms of magic in order to fight against the Chantry and its sanctioned guardians, the Templars.
In Dragon Age: Origins,
the trouble within the Chantry is barely hinted at. In Dragon
Age 2, chaos has risen to full
blossom, as more and more mages manage to escape, and, increasingly,
turn to dangerous methods in order to secure their freedom. The
Templars, in retaliation, grow increasingly violent and abusive,
going so far as to make mages Tranquil (essentially lobotomize them)
even if they have proven themselves capable. Into this mess comes
Hawke and Company. It is increasingly dangerous to be a free mage,
and in my story, Hawke is one, as are two of her companions. All
three are considered apostates, and it is only through their friends
that they are kept safe.
The Chantry is divided on how to deal with mages, and mages are divided on how to deal with the Chantry. The Templars want control, but some cannot agree with the harsher methods taken against their charges. Some are friends with mages, and some believe that all mages are dangerous and evil, and should not be trusted.
Throughout the game the characters are exposed to bad and good magic, the wickedness of the truly selfish and the kindness of those who strive to do right, even as the final act of the mages' leader is to essentially doom every mage in the world. Templars run the gamut from incredibly cruel, controlling their charges with their own brand of magic, to sympathetic, such as a father whose daughter is a mage, and the price he has paid to keep her hidden. Ultimately, there is a Templar whose paranoia and rage have made her a greater adversary than even the internal conflicts in Hawke's motley crew of followers.
It is a complex world, a political and religious machine that operates smoothly only so long as all the parts work together. When the wheels fail to turn, though, the chaos explodes, and Hawke has to step in and take a stand for what she believes in.
My first play through, I played as a rogue who romances an apostate mage, whose ultimate act actually left me, the player, shaken. His one act reverberates, and it causes ripples that cannot be stopped, threatening full-scale war because of one, ultimately selfish act. It shook me, the player, up, because I didn't know how to react to what I had just seen. The game does this in its narrative - telling the horrible stories, the good stories, and the weaving together of both. Everything from the traumatic escape from a war, to the unwelcome arrival in the city of Kirkwall, and on into the game proper, where the story twists and turns, as Hawke rises to become a known quantity in the city.
The story is not afraid to twist players' expectations. No one is ever as they seem on the surface, and perhaps it is for the better. Allowing such fluidity creates a unique story each time the game is played. The story is also not afraid to use emotional connections, sometimes in brutal and horrifying ways, forcing players to choose a path they might not otherwise take. It affects the game play, the way characters react, how they speak, and what my Lady Hawke ultimately does to preserve her own freedom and the freedoms of those to whom she is close.
The story's twists and turns, the fury of certain characters, the patience of others, kindness, a gentle nature, and sometimes one wrapped in wrath and uncertain action. That was the one I didn't expect. I have played games where a betrayal can really wake a story up, but in this case, I was already awake, and my own personal horror at the action, coupled with the reaction of another character, gave me pause.
I made my choice within the game, and I did end up paying for that choice. This time around, I'm playing a mage, and I see the entire game in a whole new light, especially through dialogue and character reactions. Perhaps this time, through my choices, I can fix it. I can make it not happen the way it did the first time.
But that, I think, is the beauty of a video game that allows such a fluid story, with a narrative that cannot be tied to one place. My Hawke is a shy character, gentle at times, but has a bit of a smart mouth when the occasion calls for it. She can also shoot fireballs from her fingertips when she is angry. Some characters hate her on sight, others are willing to give her a chance, and still others wait in the wings, watching what she does, and waiting for the opportunity to seize her loyalty or her wrath. The choices, the consequences of those choices, and the continuous twisting of the story make it unique, creating a story that cannot have a canon, cannot have any set stage of how it played out.
It's the best fantasy novel I've never read, because, ultimately, it's my story. It's Hawke's story, and the more I learn about her, and about how she reacts, the more I reconsider my own thoughts on freedom, submission, and what it means to bow before god and country, even at the cost of everything. It's powerful stuff, maybe a reminder that video games, despite their ability to divide people (Are they art? Do they encourage violence in children? What is their ultimate purpose?), do have the power to make people think about the world. That, I think, is the first step for video games to be taken seriously as an artistic medium.
Follow Alexandra on Twitter: @Al3xandra_G