BioWare's Dragon Age franchise, like its science fiction spiritual sibling Mass Effect, creates a great deal of passion among its fans. And also like its sci-fi sib, the Dragon Age games attract an enormous amount of controversy and dissent among those same fans.
Dragon Age: Origins and its DLC, including the Awakening expansion, were a slightly modernized update on the classic sword-and-sorcery, your-party-against-the-world Western RPG. DA:O was generally very well-received on its release in 2009, and the world eagerly awaited the sequel. But when Dragon Age II made its way into the world in 2011, reactions were decidedly more... mixed. The game received a significant amount of negative feedback, and remains contentious well after its debut.
But now, we find BioWare looking forward, and in the early planning stages of Dragon Age 3. Though technically speaking no such game has yet been announced, developers from the studio have recently been sharing concept art and ideas for it, taking into account fan feedback on the first two games. DA3 may well be the most open, "nudge nudge wink wink" secret in game development right now, and so it's worth looking at what both DA:O and DA2 did well and poorly, with an eye to the future of the franchise.
So what does Dragon Age have going for it, and what does it need to change?
Strong characters, female and otherwise.
What They Did Right: I spent a big chunk of DA2 wanting to punch Anders in the damn face. The man pissed me off. He was self-righteous, manipulative and self-centred. Even after I, as Hawke, had earned his friendship and should have earned his trust, he still outright lied to me and kept secrets that shouldn't have been kept. I was furious with him.
And that is absolutely brilliant. I was thinking of Anders as a person with motivations and layers. That I was angry with him meant that as a character, I took him seriously. That I felt personally betrayed meant that I was invested in the game. DA2 also featured the best combination of women characters I've seen in a video game probably ever, bringing forward the three different kinds of strength from Isabela, Merrill, and Aveline. Isabela is the very rare character who positively demonstrates the difference between "sexy" and "sexual object," and Aveline's character arc had me cheering aloud more than once.
DA:O likewise had a number of memorable, reasonably nuanced companion characters in the game. Wynne, Leliana, Zevran, Alistair, Shale, Sten and Morrigan each bring something vital to the tale, and to the Warden's life. However, with Hawke as a voiced protagonist, character relationships — the platonic, the romantic, and the antagonistic — take on a different kind of depth in the later game.
And on the note of romantic relationships, BioWare did something very right in DA2 by making all four romance options — Fenris, Isabela, Merrill, and Anders — comfortably available to either a male or a female Hawke. Indeed, there is a plausible case to be made that a male mage Hawke, in a relationship with Anders, is the closest-to-"canon" option the game offers, based on how much story he hears. At the very least, it's not an awkward or "lesser" choice, and that's a great precedent for games.
What Needs To Change: For companions that have such life to them, they sure are static. A game's worth of conversation can be "used up" too early in DA:O, leaving the Warden's camp eerily quiet during some of the more dramatic sections of the story. And in DA2, companions never move, in a literal sense. Triggered conversations show how NPC lives are delightfully intertwined (finding Varric at Merrill's house, or Isabela deep in conversation with Fenris) but otherwise they barely even blink. Varric always sits in the same chair, Fenris always stands in the same disheveled room, and Aveline always haunts her desk. They never sit; they never wander the halls of their own homes. In comparison with vivid party banter, while grouped, it's downright eerie.
The Dragon Age series could stand to take a cue from Mass Effect 3 here and give its companions the illusion of autonomy. Finding NPCs wandering around the Normandy, bustling through their tasks and conversing among themselves, was one of the little highlights of ME3 for me (best: Garrus on the bridge, hanging with Joker). If my future companions in Thedas could, say, stand at a slightly different position around the campfire of an evening, that would help.
Complex, stratified society facing the weight of its own history.
What They Did Right: In the end, the story of DA2 is a tragedy. It's a fixed tale that, no matter how hard the player struggles, can't have its final shape changed. And that tale is the story of one man's hubris in the face of a systematically oppressive society.
The tale of mages vs templars, as DA2 tells it, is at once no single story of actual human oppression, and all of them. Fans and detractors both have likened the mages' struggle in DA2 to real-world systems of prejudice, finding it an analogue to LGBT rights, racism, and more. The game is an imperfect metaphor for any real-world experience of injustice, but it does draw from real and raw human emotions and ideas. Whether or not Hawke is either threatened by or benefits from the system of society is up to the player. Hawke as a belligerent mage or Hawke as a kind, staunch ally to his/her apostate sister are two very different perspectives.
Likewise, Dragon Age: Origins is, well, all about the origins. The player's perspective on the game and the world in which it takes place vary greatly depending on who the Warden is. Is she a city elf, despised for her race and her gender? Is he a human noble, immersed in politics and privilege from birth? Perhaps she is a dwarf, set apart from the lives of surface-dwellers until circumstances force her to the Wardens. The huge array of available perspectives deepens the world to be found in both games, and Thedas is clearly a world that's had its cultures deeply thought through.
What Needs To Change: Sometimes, the world just doesn't hold up; BioWare needs to follow-through on their cultural promises. If Hawke is a mage, why does no one seem to notice the staff or fireballs? If the Warden is a dwarf, why does everyone suddenly stop treating her like one?
The variety of origins for a Warden or perspectives for Hawke, combined with the explicit and implicit cultural commentaries in both games, set up a rich, plausible picture of human prejudice and social stratification. As conflict between mages and templars bubbles up into all-out war for Dragon Age 3, BioWare would do well to remember how human tragedies end up happening, and reflect it in the story.
Setting and a sense of place.
What They Did Right: Kirkwall, in and of itself, was not a bad idea for Dragon Age 2. The city of Denerim, in DA:O, was likewise well-placed and well-used. High fantasy, and fantasy games, are often associated with endless woodscapes and caverns but let's face it: trees are boring. People of all kinds live in cities of all kinds, and urban environments are endlessly fascinating in all their variety. You can tell a lot about a people by their cities, and that kind of vibrance and population flux lend themselves well to all kinds of stories.
What Needs To Change: Setting DA2 in Kirkwall was not, in and of itself, a bad idea. The execution, however, was desperately flawed. I love cities because they have souls: New York has a personality in its every brick. So do Boston, and London, and San Francisco. And none of those cities is exactly like the others. Kirkwall's personality, though, was absent. The city was static where it should have grown, shrunk, or just overall changed more over the seven years of the game. DA:O's Denerim, too, suffered from a sense of Generic RPG R'Us.
But the worst offence goes to DA2's endlessly recycled maps: just one or two caverns, warehouses, and mansions repeated endlessly throughout 30 hours and seven years of game. It would be one thing for a warehouse, revisited over the years, to maintain its floorplan. But for every building in a city to be identical is implausible and boring. Surely a cavern inhabited by rogue Qunari would have different items, or different facilities, than one taken over by runaway mages or by a group of dwarves.
The lack of variety in DA2's locations hurt it very, very badly. Staying in metro Kirkwall could have been fine if the city had a tangible soul, or if the interior locations had personality and variety. DA2 featured neither, and was weaker for it.
RPG hallmarks: stats, levelling, inventory, combat
What They Did Right: DA:O and DA2 were very nearly polar opposites, in this respect. Origins appealed to a huge cohort of longtime RPG fans with its tactical, patient combat and its massive, sprawling inventory of weapons, gear, and potions.
Dragon Age 2 streamlined most aspects of DA:O, minimising gear for Hawke and effectively removing it entirely for Hawke's companions. Combat, too, moved significantly faster in the second game, with quicker auto-attack and faster animations contributing to more non-stop sense of action. For my money, I prefer the DA2 style. Sorting through endless piles of inventory, nit-picking over every companion's every stat, and agonizing my way through a party's tactics never were my favourite things to do. It took me many years to warm to party-based RPGs through what felt like an endless slog of irrelevant details. I suspect, however, that my opinion is a decidedly minority point of view.
What Needs To Change: Again, like its space-age cousin Mass Effect, Dragon Age took a good idea — streamlining down some overwhelming bits — and went too far. Even I, bored by so many of the details, lamented their absence in DA2. Many players were deeply upset by the loss of equipment for Hawke's NPC companions, and BioWare has already begun to address how they plan to put that back into DA3 without completely losing the distinct "look" they hope for each character to have. Similarly, having a specific, best-in-class set of armour waiting along the way for Hawke, in every act, kept a sense of visual fidelity for the character but at the expense of, well, being interesting. With one set of gear clearly placed in the player's path as the must-have, they may as well not have bothered filling chests with anything at all. And exploration — complete with treasure hunting — is half the fun in an RPG.
As for combat, for all that I preferred the DA2 style of fighting, one thing needs to go and never be seen again: the endless waves of parachuting enemies that defined nearly every fight in the game. It's one thing for giant spiders to drop in from the ceiling of a cave. It's another thing entirely to be standing in an open city square and yet see guards, assassins, burglars, and all other manner of miscreants suddenly appear from the rooftops and skies, endlessly. Waves of mindless enemies are only fun to slaughter for the first few battles. DA2 lets the player choose among a variety of different fighting styles and powers; it would be great if more fights presented a reason for the player to choose among them. Dragon Age 3 needs to be faster with its combat than DA:O, but far smarter about it than DA2.
And in the end...?
The first time I picked up Dragon Age: Origins, I got bored with it. I played the city elf story as far as being sworn into the Wardens and the fight at Ostagar (which is to say, not very far at all), and then I wandered away, unable to make myself pick up where I'd left off. Months later, I was in the mood for something new and picked up Dragon Age 2, which drew me into the story of Thedas enough to make me backtrack to Origins and all its DLC, as well as picking up the novel Dragon Age: Asunder.
I love what BioWare is doing with their fantasy world, and despite my early disinterest and protestation, I've become an ardent fan. I'm not the only one out there who loved DA2, not by a long shot, but even those of us who most ardently defend its successes and sings its praises acknowledge that it held deep structural flaws.
In sharing feedback they've received, BioWare showed that "go back to the Warden" and "new main character" are both popular demands, as are other contradictions. The developers literally cannot please everyone. To win back all the fans who walked away after DA2, what Dragon Age 3 needs to be is perfect, which won't happen. No game ever has been, nor will one ever be.
But I do believe that BioWare can find middle ground, where the mechanics, scope, personality, and epic feel of DA:O can join the deep, heartfelt character drama and personal tragedy of DA2. At least, I certainly hope they can. Thedas, with all its rich history and cultures, is reaching a state of war. The player has shaped the world twice so far, determining the fates of many lives both large and small. I want to know how it all turns out. Hopefully, as both a story and as a video game, it will turn out well.