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As Crazy Quentin Knows

Dragon Age 2

BioWare, 2011

 

 

My spouse is self-admittedly contrary. Don’t get me wrong, I love this in her. Stubborn independence is absolutely charming. But it’s very, very difficult to get her to play a new game. The games she loves, she loves a great deal, but to have her to invest in something new requires overcoming some initial obstacles.

Some of her reluctance is entirely reasonable – many of the games I play (blockbusters of the gamer demographic) demand a ‘price of entry’, some kind of literacy or skill level that makes them playable in the first place. Just putting a Xbox controller – its alien shape, buttons bristling and lopsided with joysticks – in someone’s hands and saying ‘figure it out!’ is not a reasonable demand. Add to that the different ways each game will utilize the control, and you can see why ‘hardcore’ games account for only so much of the game industry’s earnings – only so many people can be bothered with their arcane mechanisms.

The remainder of her resistance is just her being her, and so I must be very thoughtful when choosing what games to introduce her to. I must take into account games she’s liked in the past, and games she’s played recently, figuring out the perfect pitch to maybe, just maybe, spark her interest.

I managed, two days ago, to get her to pick up BioWare’s latest big title, a much anticipated (and much hyped) sequel to Dragon Age: Origins, which launched its new fantasy RPG franchise. We ordered delivery the first night, then ate the leftovers the next, staying in, playing. Suffice it to say, Dragon Age II was a connubial hit.

Dragon Age II, with its action-packed trailer and its stylized blood effects, promises to be about as ‘hardcore’ as the gamer demo demands. Its tagline, echoed in the official press around the game and still carried proudly on the website’s banner, is ‘Rise to Power’, a gratifyingly Nietzschean phrase that could be a noun – describing the game’s story – a verb – the action of that story – or an exhortation – what the story demands you do.
 


 
Because the story’s ending is determined before it begins. The action of Dragon Age II occurs within the confines of a frame narrative, a classic Usual Suspects interrogation scene in which a gregarious, charming and remarkably well-shaven dwarf, Varric Tethras, is grilled by one Cassandra Pentaghast, Seeker of the Chantry, whose is job akin to that of Church inquisitor in Thedas, the world of Dragon Age. If Cassandra is a little strident in her questioning, at least she has a good reason – the stakes are high. The Chantry, an organization with near Catholic Church-clout within the medieval fantasy setting of Dragon Age, is apparently on the brink of schism, and the only hope of stemming the spreading chaos is to track down the person who was ‘at the heart of it when it all began’ – the Champion.

That’s you, by the way. This story is about you, how you went from rags to riches, pauper to prince, and how your rise to power upset the scales of the world so badly that it seems only you can set things to rights again. Of course, we don’t get to see any of the setting to rights – that’s being saved for the expansion, I presume, or the sequel. Instead we get the ascent to the rank of the mighty, a narrative certainty since Varric – who is telling the story and thus speaks with all the authority a frame-narrator is due – says so. And we are promised bloody blades and deadly magic along the way.

On this front, the game certainly does deliver. The swords and sorcery are kept in ample supply, and leveraged to continual deadly effect. In this regard it exceeds its predecessor, a markedly more traditional RPG, choosing instead to embrace the cinematic-action elements that worked so shiningly in Mass Effect II (also a BioWare title). As one of my more articulate friends put it, while the first game stayed true to its game design roots in PC point-and-click RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, Dragon Age II has adapted to the console environment and focused on delivering an experience of enabled action, of power.

This change is evident even on the level of visual design, the way characters move and fight on the screen. Where in the first Dragon Age, a mage would ‘nudge their staff forward’ to fire small bursts of magic, in the second game they are ‘acrobats, spinning and swirling their staff as they shoot of blasts of fire’. Warriors who once ‘lumbered’ are ‘reborn as quick striking, powerful soldiers’. And rogues that could ‘tactically maneuver’ but ‘never too quick’ now ‘flip and dart through the air like nimble ninjas’. All these my friend’s words, not mine.

This is the appeal of the ‘hardcore’ game, or at least one of the central ones. The prevalence of violence in gameplay demonstrates the deep connection between experiences of power and that last, bloodiest guarantee of power. Destroying your enemies, bolstering your allies, capturing enemy territory and building the strength of your base – all these are sources of gratification that, I would argue, constitute the main draw of ‘hardcore’ games. The promotion around Dragon Age II suggests Electronic Arts’ marketing division agrees with me.

But maybe I should – at least in this case – say initial appeal, rather than central. Because while I do (and did) enjoy raining fire down upon my enemies, and tossing their pathetic bodies about like rag dolls, I didn’t buy Dragon Age II for the sole purpose of sublimating the primal fury within me. And I did not pitch the game to my spouse on the basis of its virtual empowerment. Both she and I know to expect something else from BioWare games, something that makes it more compelling by orders of magnitude.

Spoilers begin … now.

‘Do you know what the strongest force in the universe is?’ asks Quentin, a deranged wizard responsible for a long trail of grisly murders, ‘Love.’

The confrontation with Quentin is one of the darkest points in the game, a note of distinction when your stated genre is already ‘dark fantasy’. After fleeing your home, living as a refugee and mercenary to help build a new life for what’s left of your family, your character returns to his or her (character gender is selectable, a feature I value in BioWare games) hard-earned manor house to find your mother gone. A dead end murder case that went cold earlier in the game reignites as the clues amass. All to quickly you learn the truth: the killer has taken her!

And you will get there too late to save her. She has already been butchered, her head incorporated into a shambling, Frankensteinian creature all of whose components are harvested from Quentin’s victims. These sorry souls possess key features – hands, eyes, limbs – that remind Quentin of his own dead wife; love has driven him to rebuild and resurrect her, and Leandra, your mother, had the last missing piece – a face Quentin found familiar.

This is all sorts of interesting from a critical perspective, but I wish to focus on the simplest aspect of this strange and disturbing scene. While it would be conceptually unsettling no matter what, the real force of the scene’s emotional impact relies upon the player’s identification with the main character’s grief. It’s not just his/her mother that has been murdered and defiled, but your mother. You must be invested not only in your character, but also in your character’s relationships.
 


 
And there are many relationships to cultivate – and thus to emotionally exploit – in Dragon Age II. You have friends, companions, business partners; you have a mother and a sibling, and a stake in the happiness and safety of each; you also have romantic interests, and these in particular are what BioWare offers that no other major developer I know of can quite match. Love, as crazy Quentin knows, is the strongest force in the universe. And romance is BioWare’s ace in the hole, one they are known for amongst their fans.

It’s infamous among their detractors as well, as it happens, since the company introduced (gasp!) same sex romances. While the option to role play romance appears as early as Baldur’s Gate II, released way back in at the end of last millennium, the possibility of same-sex romance appears first (as far as I know) in their franchise-invigorating Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), in which a female character can develop a romance with a female fellow Jedi, Juhani. This lesbian romance – a same-sex pairing whose easy interpolation into puerile fantasy limits the decision’s daring – is more or less a tradition in BioWare games at this point, recurring in most of their RPGs since. But in 2005 BioWare’s Jade Empire finally opened the gates to the much more masculinity-threatening male/male romance.

It took until Dragon Age II, however, for a player to go so far as to claim that BioWare’s decision to make all four potential romances available regardless of gender configuration constituted ‘neglect of their demographic’: the evidently monolithic and homophobic category of ‘straight male gamer’. This post stirred up furor enough to draw the attention of David Gaider – the head writer for Dragon Age II – who delivers his rebuttal with appropriately authorial finality.

Still, the visceral response this poster and his like-minded fellows (of which there are far too many) had to seeing their male character being pursued by another male character speaks not just to the power of prejudice (though it is great, indeed) but also to the power of the game’s writing. It is not, note, that any of these romantic interests are played by other human beings – no unsettling ‘real’ human desire motivates them, no corrupt, lascivious ‘gays’ lurk behind the keys, soliciting poor innocent ‘straight male gamers’ via digital avatar. Dragon Age II is a single player game, so all of the other cast members, romantically available or otherwise, are NPC’s: ‘non-player characters’, who inhabit the game as characters in a book might, their dialogue pre-written, their whole fictional being bound to the text.

But, as with characters from the books that I love, my investment in them can be profound. As much time as I spent sorting through my inventory to equip my character and her companions with powerful battle gear, I dedicated at least twice as much cultivating relationships with them, learning their stories, coming to understand the world they inhabited, and to genuinely enjoying their company. While traveling the streets of the city, your fellow adventurers will chat to each other, engaging in quick but telling exchanges that usually cause me to stop my character in her tracks, wanting to catch the whole conversation rather than risk missing one of Varric’s bon mots or Merril’s endearing ‘country-mouse-in-the-city’ comments. I even cherished the lewd remarks made by Isabela, the swashbuckling former pirate who will sleep with you but really hopes that afterwards she won’t have to talk about your ‘feelings’ for her.

My spouse cannot wait to learn more about the sexily tormented past of the rebel mage, Anders. She’s quite sure her own character – a dashing, high cheek-boned and decidedly male rogue will be able to soothe his sorrows and inflame his passion. And while she certainly doesn’t mind that her character can, indeed, flip and dart through the air, ninja-like, for both of us the game lies much less in the monsters you’re killing than in the friends and lovers who are helping you kill them. The party that slays together, stays together, and love, be it love for a well rendered character or love for the game that they live in, never dies.

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Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.

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