Some General Thoughts and a Longer Dragon Age 2 Discussion

So, there was a bad storm out here recently, and I lost power for an extended period of time. Not being able to do most of my regular pass-times I instead did a little light reading: “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” (I took a short break to read the entire comic series “Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man” at one point). This, of course, worked out really well for my general reading, as I went from about 600 pages before the weekend to sitting at over 1000 today, when the book was going slowly not because it was a bad book but because it is a rather heavy book — in both content and actual size, since I’m reading a hardcover version of it — and so I can only get through a relatively small number of pages in an evening. But now I’m almost finished, and then that just leaves “Guns, Germs and Steel” out of my list of historical books and then that list will be finished! Right now, after that I’m planning to turn to fiction and read my collection of Ben Bova books, and instead of going on to philosophy after that I’m thinking about going through some serious literature for a while. But that’s in the future, and the X-Wing books will have to go in there somewhere.

Of course, being without power didn’t do wonders for my watching DVDs. However, I had just finished watching Dynasty — I’ll put up my final thoughts on that Monday — and have started watching Wonder Woman. Yes, I’ve comitted to finishing it this time. I’m working my way through She-Ra, and can’t wait to finish that one, for reasons that I’ll expound on at length when I talk about the series as a whole. So that’s still going along.

If you’ve been following my list of video games, you’ll note that I’ve put the Persona games on hold and started playing Dragon Age: Origins again. So far, I’ve finished my Dwarf Noble playthrough and am now working on finishing my Dalish Elf (she’s an archer, which is a bit of a different playstyle for me. I think I might need to start bringing along two warriors instead of having only one — Alistair — and then bringing along Leiliana). But you also might have noticed that after that I mentioned Dragon Age 2 and talk about it being an “Analysis run”. What’s all that about? Well, at work I was listening to a lot of Chuck Sonnenberg’s old video game reviews while working, and that included his Dragon Age 2 run. The first time I had watched it, I had disagreed with some of his conclusions in Act 2 and Act 3, but at the the time didn’t really go into it because some of them were things that I kinda griped about in my own thoughts on the game. I think, though, that it might be worth taking a look at them again and replaying the game with that in mind.

I’ll outline the two main issues here, but will revisit them and go into more detail on them later. The first is that in I think Act 2 — I’ll look it up more specifically when I directly address it — Chuck comments that Dragon Age 2 was the canary in the coal mine for Bioware. What he means by that is that DA2 was the first game where there was a huge discrepancy between professional review scores and player review scores, with professional reviews rating it so much higher than the players did. This was only exacerbated in Mass Effect 3. While I think he’s right about that, I don’t think that it was the canary in the coal mine for, at least, the issues that led to it. I think that honour belongs to Mass Effect 2, because as outlined in Shamus Young’s massive treatise on the Mass Effect games Mass Effect 2 was the game that moved away from giving you interesting choices and having those choices matter and instead towards railroading the character into doing what the writer wanted, which in that case was work for Cerberus. Chuck laments that choice was an illusion in DA2 but at least there that your actions couldn’t prevent the times to come was itself an important part of the story, as it seems to me that DA2 definitely aimed at being far more of a tragedy than the first game was, and in a tragedy no matter what you do you won’t be able to stop the tragedy from happening, either because it is inevitable no matter what you do or else because the reactions of the characters in the story will always be ones that lead to it due to their natures. They’re just not capable of doing the things they need to do to prevent it because those things are so anathema to their own personalities and who they think they are and how they think the world should work, and thus they create their own downfall due to who they are as people.

But Mass Effect 2 was not a tragedy. The player is not forced into working with Cerberus due to their own character, and in fact their own character likely would forestall them from actually doing it. Nothing in the characterization from Mass Effect suggests that the Council would ignore the Reaper problem after one attacks them on their doorstep, that the Alliance would simply abandon their colonies that are under Collector attack, that Cerberus is interested in them, is trustworthy enough to work with, or is even competent enough to make a difference here, or that Shepard would even consider working for them and not returning to the Council anyway. ME2 derails the plot and characters to make this fit, but covers it up with cool characters that you want to play with. DA2, instead, builds the railroading into the story but doesn’t have the interesting characters to make that more palatable.

Which leads to the second issue. In Act 3, I believe, Chuck comments that given all that’s happened in DA2 he can’t understand why Hawke doesn’t just leave, and that he/she only stays because they’re railroaded into it. Shamus, on the other hand, remarks that there is no reason for Shepard to work with Cerberus at all and only stays with them because the game won’t let them quit. The thing is, I think that unless you’re a character that is mercenary to the point where even Isabella would look at you funny, DA2 actually is careful to give almost all characters plenty of reasons to want to stay. First, Hawke for almost all of the game has family that they care about in Kirkwall, from your surviving sibling to your mother. Even in Chuck’s playthrough, Hawke isn’t likely to leave as long as Bethany is still in the Kirkwall Chantry. Second, even if your family is all dead — as mine was in my playthrough — you have friends that can’t leave as easily. Avelline, for example, is captain of the guard, while Varric still has some contacts there. I’d mention Anders’ seeming attachment to the place, but does anyone consider him a friend in that game [grin]? Third, you have a family estate and history there that you’ve recently reclaimed. That’s a reason to stick it out there instead of simply giving up that thing that you did so much work to get back, and that was very important to your mother. Fourth, it wasn’t that long ago that you had to uproot yourself and begin a new life elsewhere. Now that Kirkwall is finally feeling like a home again, Hawke might not be anxious to pack everything up and start over again. And, finally, Kirkwall’s not even all that bad compared to the rest of Thedas. What we have are unstable situations and one really disastrous event — the end of Act 2 with the Qunari — in the number of years you’ve been there. Ferelden, where you came from, had a civil war in the middle of a Blight. And a lot of the simmering issues in Kirkwall are simmering elsewhere as well. Hawke has some power and authority here and so is likely to think that at least they can make a difference here, which isn’t possible elsewhere. So almost all characters can find some reason to stay and try to make Kirkwall work rather than moving on.

Compare that with ME2. The main issue is disappearing colonists that no one seems to care about and that Shepard really has no reason to care that much about either. Cerberus is at best a small-time organization from the first game, and at worst is at best incompetent and at worst evil. Joining Cerberus actually causes Shepard to have less authority — because no one trusts Cerberus and so are reluctant to help someone working with them — than they would if they went back to the Council or the Alliance. Moreover, the Reapers are the bigger threat and one that Shepard should be more interested in pursuing. Yes, the two plots tie into each other, but no one seems to know that at that point in the game. ME2 doesn’t really give you any reason to think that working with Cerberus is going to in any way help you achieve any of your goals.

When we look deeper at DA2, we can see that the motivations were actually there, while when we look deeper at ME2 we can see that the shallow motivations it gives make no sense. DA2 might have failed to make the emotional connection, but from a plot and characterization standpoint we can see that it did the work to add the things to the story that we could then use to drive us forward. However, deciding that is the point of the “Analysis run”: to play the game with this in mind and see if it does or doesn’t work and what the game itself actually does here. It’ll take a while for me to get there — I do want to finish the DAO stories first, and then pick one to start from — but that’s the goal, at any rate.

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