Dragon Age 2 Analysis: Importance

So another criticism that Chuck makes of Dragon Age 2 is that it lacks the illusion of importance. He uses the question that Varric asks about what you want to do to show that you can’t actually do any of those things, and later says that you need to feel that you have consequence in the world, because, as he says, if we wanted to feel inconsequential we can do that in our real lives (at about 12:48 or so in Part 4). He ties this to focus, in that the story has to focus on the player or else it loses that illusion of importance. While he concedes that some players weren’t bothered by the fact that the player isn’t shaping the events, he still criticizes DA2 for not giving you anything to do or any reason to do it beyond that there’s nothing else to do, even if those things don’t relate to your own goals or desires. Which, to be honest, sounds more like a failure of motivation rather than a failure of importance, and I’ve already talked about motivation earlier.

Later, in Part 12, starting at about 26 minutes, Chuck tries to break it down into chapters, and I think this reveals one of the real issues that Chuck is having with importance: he wants more of a power fantasy than it provided. His chapters tend to be incredibly dramatic with Hawke being incredibly effective and performing incredible feats with everyone else having to rely entirely on Hawke and Hawke always succeeding, or at least mostly doing so in the two he outlines. This is a classic escapist power fantasy.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with power fantasies. But not all games need to provide that or provide that to that level, which brings me to my comments on importance. The importance of importance in a game — no pun intended — is not that you are the most important person in the world and have to always succeed, or have to even succeed. No, what importance provides is a counter-point to motivation for a game. Motivation gives the player the reason why they have an interest in doing those things or getting those results; importance gives the player the reason why it has to be them who has to do it. It ties back to the old standby discussion of Pen and Paper RPGs: if the person giving you the really, really important quest is so powerful, why don’t they do it? It always takes some narrative work to show why the players and their party or group is the best one for these tasks and why some of the other heroes or soldiers aren’t able to do it instead.

Dragon Age 2 is actually pretty good at explaining why Hawke is the one who has to do these things. In the Introduction, Hawke leads because she’s the member of her family with the most skill. And them being competent explains why they get hired to work with either of the two groups that they work with to earn their way into the city. Because we don’t actually see those quests, Act 1 is actually the one that sets this up the worst, as we aren’t sure why Varric has such faith in our abilities and more importantly in our trustworthiness when he tries to sign us up for the expedition. Because the quests that we took on to make the money for the expedition involved the Qunari, it is established before Act 2 that we’re among the few if only people in Kirkwall that the Arishok has any respect for (more or less respect depending on how you deal with him, but it’s still more than most other people). This then provides sufficient reason for the Viscount to send you to figure that out, because the Arishok, in fact, asks for you on the basis of that respect. In Act 3, your stopping the Qunari attack saved many lives and Kirkwall itself, which gives you the title of the Champion of Kirkwall. This means that the people of Kirkwall have a lot of respect for you, and that places you in a unique position to mediate the Templar/mage dispute because your fame and popularity and importance to the city is unrelated to the dispute itself. Meredith has power because she leads the Templars; Orsino has power because he is the Chief Enchanter of the Circle. Both of them get their power from and are responsible for their specific side in the conflict. Hawke, however, doesn’t get her power from either side. Hawke can stay neutral and try to broker a compromise because she has no necessary vested interest in either side winning. Or if she takes a side, it carries more weight for that same reason: she has no real reason to take one side over another (although her being a mage or having Bethany still alive gives her one). That explains why Meredith and Orsino both court her and recruit her for quests in an attempt to sway her to their side; swaying her gives them an additional form of influence that they can use to overwhelm the other.

Now, the game isn’t perfect at doing that, and has flaws. And yes, Varric’s questions hint at goals that you can achieve but never pursue. And yes, for all of your importance you can’t actually resolve the issues peacefully and without bloodshed and even disaster. But, again, DA2 is meant to be a tragedy, and throughout the work and every step of the way it tells you that you aren’t going to be able to magically make everything better and be a non-tragic hero. You’re a tragic hero. This is a perfectly valid plot choice and one that I found interesting. It’s not a standard power fantasy where at the end of the game you save everything through how awesome you are, but not all games need that. I suspect that Chuck wanted more of the standard power fantasy, and the game disappointed him in that it didn’t provide that. And that’s fair. But I submit that DA2 made Hawke important enough to fulfill what is needed from importance, which is to explain why Hawke is the one who has to do this. I can accept that Chuck was not motivated by the motivations provided, but Hawke is important enough to be the one who has to at least try. Chuck’s objections still seem more like asking why Hawke should bother trying as opposed to why she has to be the one to try.

The final part will talk about whether DA2 was the canary in the coal mine that hinted at the disaster of ME3.

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