We are all, in our hearts, preemptively mourning the closure of Bioware like so many Electronic Arts-acquired studios before it. While EA bought the company in 2007, back before the release of the first Mass Effect, it wasn’t until 2012 that the first egregious signs of EA-mandated trend-following began to appear — first with stapled-on multiplayer in Mass Effect 3 and then the sandboxization and infamous timers imposed on resource missions in Dragon Age Inquisition.
Anthem, with its meandering development cycle, complete silence on post-launch support once the game bombed, and the accompanying revelations about the studio’s toxic work environment, was just the most recent and visible cloud of an ongoing internal combustion. Still though, Bioware is a studio that has given many players a lot of joy over the years, and it’s worth looking back on their body of work, some of which wasn’t given its due. I’m here to tell you that Dragon Age II was good. The original ire for the game has cooled somewhat, and it’s past time to give credence to the game’s strengths. Because it’s not just good, but one of the last truly daring efforts from Bioware as a studio.
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Clearing the Mess
First, let’s get the elements that really, really don’t work out of the way. When it comes to antagonists, DAII is a decided middle child, with each of the game’s three acts introducing a new supposedly cataclysmic threat that mostly existed to foreshadow future conflicts in Inquisition. Its environmental design also bears the brunt of the game’s miniscule eighteen-month development cycle, with a dozen or so level layouts that become painfully familiar by the end of the game’s 30-hour run. And while the sped-up combat flow is defensible, the game’s habit of spawning cheap mobs from hammerspace at the end of a fight is not.
But in some ways, DAII’s greatest crime was not being Origins. It traded the beefier dialogue trees of the first game for a Mass Effect dialogue wheel and a voiced protagonist, and it also threw the traditional heroic quest formula out the window. It was a risky maneuver, but the former is key to what makes the latter work. After their tailored backstory is out of the way, Origins’ Warden is a standard player-insert character. They only speak when the player chooses exactly what they’re going to say, and their lack of visible reaction in-story ensures that the player can map whatever they’re feeling onto the situation. It is a perfectly valid approach for the kind of story Origins tells, particularly when it came to giving weight to the end-game decisions.
DAII, however, is not a quest to gather the things that will help defeat the Great Evil. It’s the decade-long account of the Hawke family, as the eldest child flees their home and rises from nothing to wealth and infamy in the corrupt city of Kirkwall — losing everything that was important to them in the process. That’s amazingly ambitious. In fact, while I’d never say no game has ever done something like that (everything’s been done, somewhere), it wasn’t a story structure I’d ever experienced in a AAA videogame. While each arc’s antagonist might have been blatant setup for a later game, they were also tied to a character Hawke had spent time building a relationship with. And those relationships were the story’s real stakes all along.
Excavating the Gems
Hawke felt like a protagonist I was inhabiting rather than my avatar in the game world. Thanks to the rudimentary tabulation system that noted how often characters chose aggressive, flirty, diplomatic, etc. options, Hawke would sometimes respond with an off-the-cuff line that was shaped by earlier player decisions. It was easy to see how the strings worked, but it still gave a feeling of immersive charm. And “All That Remains” — a quest that involves hunting down a serial killer that’s laid his eyes on Hawke’s mother — marked the first time a videogame had ever made me cry.
The mechanical eye for flexibility also translated into the “friendship/rivalry” scale, a replacement for Origins’ zero-to-one-hundred affection meter. Rather than simply learning what quests a party member couldn’t go on because you’d lose all their affection and then they’d leave, characters could instead gain rival points and form an adversarial relationship with Hawke. Depending on the kind of protagonist you were crafting, it could turn a relationship from the usual “you’re great and I trust you implicitly,” to “you’re a real fucker, and I’m sticking around to make sure you don’t do anything worse.”
While players could still find themselves failing a relationship check if they didn’t commit to either a friendship or a rivalry, it opened up more dynamic progression for relationships with party members. And speaking of, there was the ever-contentious “all love interests are bi” element. While legitimate criticism has pointed out that the game shies away from having any character except Isabella mention same-gender attraction outside of the romance paths, I always found it to be Bioware’s least awkward approach to romance writing. The studio’s attempt to write stories about gender and sexuality have historically ranged from the “well-meaning but clunky” to “frankly, yikes.” It was honestly far less stressful to play a game that was inclusive for queer players without the anxiety of waiting for the writing to put its foot in its mouth.
The smaller number of companions was a boost to the game overall. With an essentially character-driven narrative, DAII needed time to dig into its cast. While other Bioware games generally had one, maybe two personal quests for a party member, DAII included one for each act. These were both “check-ins” meant to give the player a sense that the world of the game had continued to move during a time skip, and a way to reinforce that the primary focus of the game was on Hawke’s relationships. In practice this was somewhat easy to sequence break, as the player could rush out and do their favorite character’s questline as soon as an act started and then hear basically nothing from them for the next ten hours or so. But still, the idea was a bold one.
One for the Books
That’s DAII in a nutshell: it was bold, and while many of its ideas were curtailed out of necessity, it doesn’t get enough credit for how much of its ambition came across. It broke the established structure of “visit four worlds and then a climactic fifth one” that had defined every successful Bioware game up to that point, attempted to translate a character-driven narrative into an action-fantasy game, revamped its dialogue and NPC systems to allow for more variable roleplay, and sucked a lot less at inclusive romance than Origins or Inquisition.
While it deserved criticism for its failings, it’s a shame that Bioware backed away from the successful elements of the game when it came time to make the vast open world that was Inquisition. Dragon Age II deserves to be seen not as a temporary embarrassment, but as a real creative achievement. More than any other Bioware game, it feels alive. And unlike any other Bioware game, every once in a while, it makes me want to go back to visit.