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Dragon Age

Building character: The slow burn of Dragon Age II

Dragon Age II has the longest and most in-depth character creation system ever seen in a video game, clocking in at around 30 hours. After the initial, perfunctory decisions about lip colour and combat class, the game quickly allows players to craft their ideal fantasy protagonist over the course of several years. When they’re done shaping the soft clay of their unique Hawke into the Champion of Kirkwall they always wanted, the credits roll and the game is over; your quest is complete. Flawless efficiency.

In Origins, the first Dragon Age, BioWare created a universe that was brimming with possibility. Like many other big RPGs, it centered player choice and an ability to affect the world around you. The titular origins were important in setting up where the Grey Warden had been in their life, and what contacts they might already have, but there was a strong focus on the idea that the player had a very powerful role in shaping the destiny of fictional Ferelden. Player decisions were largely external, and also very large: save an entire race of people by risking the safety of another, kill mages to avoid them becoming a danger later, execute the ruler of a nation because you don’t like him very much. Dragon Age II instead opts for an inward-looking approach, where the outcome of events is de-emphasised in favour of putting the spotlight on how the main character reacts to narrative moments and the people around them. It’s less important what Hawke decided to do with the Qunari than how it shaped his or her view of the world.

This shift in priorities is reflected in the way dialogue functions in the game. Superficially, it’s similar to other Dragon Age titles, Mass Effect games and other modern RPGs: the player is given a choice of different responses, all of which either embody a particular emotional response or are purely informational. Diplomatic or helpful responses are friendly and non-confrontational, aggressive or direct responses are generally the opposite, and humorous or charming answers are for when Hawke wants to be sassy. What makes the system in Dragon Age II so interesting is that these responses will slowly warp the mind of the player’s Hawke, bending them further towards one of those three personalities. From the very first dialogue choice in the game, a system begins tallying a player’s responses and choosing a general tone for Hawke based on those choices. While early in the game, players might find themselves having to pick the sarcastic option themselves, late-game Hawke might offer a witty barb of their own accord.

This has a nominal effect on the overall flow of the narrative (the game will never take away any important choices) but makes a huge difference to the way the main character is perceived by the audience. Rather than being a simple mouthpiece for player choices, or a static face and class decision made in minute one, Hawke becomes a malleable character who is growing and changing as events unfold.

Altering the concept of an RPG to focus on the long-form creation of one character isn’t wholly done by mechanical means. Everything in the narrative of Dragon Age II is designed to support the idea that Hawke is the centre of this story. The game opens with a simple and oft-used framing device: the storyteller. Varric Tethras has been captured by the Seekers of Truth, and is being asked about the ‘Champion of Kirkwall’ by Cassandra. The Seeker wants to know how the Champion started a war between the mages and templars in the city, and Varric—being a bardic sort of chap—is going to tell her in the most roundabout way possible. This framing of the entire game as a story reinforces the mythic idea of a hero with a benevolent hand in matters far beyond their station. Behold the mighty champion, see how their decisions shape the world we live in. Except the reality of the story fails, on purpose, to bear that out; Hawke is no doubt an important figure in the city and present for many of the mad things which occur there, but Varric’s story frequently makes it clear that Hawke was often swept up in events beyond their control, and that tensions would have escalated regardless. By presenting the audience with the winking and unreliable narrator of Varric Tethras, it invites the player to question not just the events they witness but the role their ‘hero’ might even play in them.

So, if the story of Dragon Age II wants us to see that heroes aren’t always the most important part of a story, what does it want us to see. If you look at the companions in this game, compared with others in the series, there are some clear differences. Where in Origins and Inquisition, the main character is flanked by powerful, important and driven individuals, Hawke gathers a group of misfits, folks barely holding on to their place in the world. Fenris is a slave, consumed by revenge and despised by most; Merril is an elf cast out of her own clan thanks to her relentless pursuit of forbidden lore; Anders is a mage on the run from everyone. Through the story, the characters form a strong bond with Hawke and are drawn into the plot by that bond, rather than a menacing external threat, like The Blight, or a giant green hole in the sky. While not explicitly stated, it’s easy enough to extrapolate that if Hawke had not come to Kirkwall almost every one of her companions would have been killed by their respective obsessions or problems. With this reliance on the player character, the narrative further reinforces the idea that who Hawke is holds more importance than what they do.

And what does Hawke get out of all this peripheral heroism? What do they get as a reward for being the Champion of Kirkwall and offering snarky commentary as magic civil war breaks out? Nothing good. From the moment they arrive in the city, the Hawke family are forced to claw their way back into society, participating in organised crime and generally letting folks step all over their dignity. Where the Grey Warden Hero of Ferelden dies a martyr, or perhaps lives long enough to become a monarch beloved by all, and the Inquisitor becomes a similarly beloved hero, Hawke mainly deals with anger and death. Regardless of the player’s choices, one of Hawke’s siblings will always die in the first act of the game. The other either dies later, is forced into isolated servitude, or actively joins the enemy to the player’s cause. Hawke’s mother is kidnapped and cut into pieces, then reassembled like a terrifying maternal zombie.

Hawke provides the player with a sympathetic, broken canvas on which to paint a picture of what they think a champion looks like. With the narrative framed around the character instead of the events they participate in, and with the mechanical tools already in place to allow for shaping the way they behave, players can take an active role in deciding what kind of character they want to build. And, since the narrative is never structured to require heavy involvement from the protagonist, players can feel comfortable tweaking their personality and world view right up to the final scene. Rather than deciding how the character players envision might react, they can have a more loose idea of their behaviours, and be guided moment to moment, leading to a more collaborative and improvisational process, akin to creating a Dungeons & Dragons character.

So who is Hawke? More than most other RPG characters, Hawke is a hero shaped by whoever plays the game. She or he is the sum total of all the decisions made from moment one to the end of the epilogue. And they’re always changing, just like a real person.