Monday, February 22, 2016

On Replaying Dragon Age II

I finished revising a short story recently and sent it off to one of my friends who does a bang up job of pointing out flaws. He's not a writer, which is important, because he doesn't suggest fixes. He just lets me know what looks wrong or weird to the untrained eye, which ought to be most of my readers.

What's this got to do with Dragon Age II?

Well, I knew I was going to be getting a reply back in a few days and I didn't want to lose momentum. It's terrible setting aside a project only for your mojo to leave you, so one of the things I sometimes do is go play a game with a customizable main character and play as my protagonist. This means that I get to think idle thoughts about my character during the empty times when I can't actually work on the story.

I picked Dragon Age II because it's the only one in the series that allows for a human character of common birth, and my protagonist is a scrapper.

This is not my first time playing through Dragon Age II (it's actually my third, since I did two back to back playthroughs when the game first game out), but it's been enough time that I'm able to look at it with more distance than I did before. And coming off the third game, Inquisition, it's a very different animal. But I still like it a lot.

I was never one of the people who disliked the second game, and despite any shortcomings, there's a lot to enjoy about it.

Usually I talk about a game's story on this blog, and while I do like the writing, particularly as far as the characters are concerned, this time I want to talk about the things I didn't appreciate the first time around.

For instance, the getting around town and doing quests is very user friendly. After the initial visit to any given location in Kirkwall, the player can easily rack up a bunch of main and side quests, and then systematically knock them out one area at a time. It makes it possible to completely clear out all or most of Kirkwall in an given story act with just an afternoon's play time. A second afternoon will cover the outlying areas and any backtracking.

The side quests are dropped right alongside main quests and are very easy to do along the way. Other than a few straggle quests that are usually related to major characters I rarely felt I had to go out of the way for anything. In these days with 100+ hour games I really appreciate the efficiency as time spent running around just getting from one place to another is time I'm not actively progressing.

I also find that I like the entire game being centered around a single city and its multiple districts, because how many games are built like that? I never felt like I knew Denerim in the first game, but I know Kirkwall. The good part of town looks different from the bad part of town, and the city itself has all kinds of flavor leftover from the empire that once built it. I don't remember being quite so disturbed the first time I played as I did now walking beneath the bronze statues of tormented slaves. (Seriously, who commissions those kinds of pieces?)

Dragon Age II got a lot of flak for its reused dungeons, and I remember being annoyed by them the first time around, but now I barely noticed. Yeah, it's the same cave for the fifth time, but most of the dungeons are very small and quick. I'm in and out so fast that I can run through a couple of them in a single night. I'd rather have a small dungeon reused several times than go through a long unique dungeon where I have to make several trips back to town in order to empty out my bags.

And bag management is quite reasonable. I love being able to do several side quests that involve lots of fighting and looting and not have to empty out my bags until I'm halfway through the act, and by most standards I'm a packrat.

Okay, there is one story thing on my mind though, and it stuck out at me more this time than it did before.

The whole thing with Kirkwall in Dragon Age II is that the simmering hostility between the mages and the templars who watch over them has reached a boiling point and the two sides are braced to shed blood over it.

I think most players are predisposed to feeling sympathy for the mages. Mages are born with their powers and they can't help being vulnerable to possession by demons, so the Chantry mandates mage Circles as a place for them to live and train with others like them. It's not a voluntary choice to live in one, and the templars oversee the mages should any of them tread down a dangerous path, but depending on the mage it's not a bad place to be. Ideally the templars are there just in case anything goes wrong, but each Circle and the templars watching over it are different.

My first playthrough was as an apostate mage (a mage who has never been in or has rejected the Circle) and I ended up siding with the mages in the final battle between mages and templars. It made sense that she would defend them.

My second playthrough I was determined to be a jerk to everyone and sided with the templars. I wanted a different playthrough and did one that would justify taking a harsher route in the end.

Now that I'm in my third playthrough, I know what's going to happen, but I have more distance, and my protagonist is not a mage. I think I'll end up siding with the mages this third time, but it's less of a blind choice than before.

Seriously, there are blood mages practicing illegal, sacrificial magic all over the place! I don't think it's that I didn't see it my first playthrough, but being a mage I was very much in the mindset of "not all mages." This time, my protagonist recognizes that there is a serious problem here and the mages are out of control. For a while I thought I might actually side with the templars and it'd make sense.

But I probably won't. My protagonist still can't imagine mass killing an entire group of people and that's what the templars call for at the end of the game; the Right of Annulment. Even if half of the mages are psychotic nutjobs, I couldn't condone killing all of them just to be sure no more of them turn. I suppose some characters could justify it, but my protagonist is a kinder person than that.