Andraste’s Knicker Weasels, Part IV: Dragon Age II

I am posting here some analysis I’ve written over the last few years about my experience of Bioware games, slightly edited from its original form.


In my completely unhumble opinion, Dragon Age II is a pale, inadequate and bastardised shadow of Origins in almost every possible way. I’m not claiming that Origins was a perfect artefact; despite the manifold pleasures I derived from it, there were moments of frustration, areas where its execution faltered. I loved it for the breadth and depth of its world-building, its social and political sweep, its ability to transcend traditional computer game polarities into shades of grey, ambiguous moral decisions and no-win trade-offs. I adored its companion development and the capacity for building relationships amid all the questing. The things which bugged me tended to be minor and peripheral: the disappearance of interesting companion interactions in the high-stakes final stages of the game versus the high concentration of interactions early on, for example, or the minor inconsistencies in responses and plot details as earlier decisions were ignored. It’s about skimping on playtesting and quality control. I also got a little narked at some of the more clichéd armour choices available for female characters. The ones with lots of breast. You’re above that, Origins.

But these pale into insignificance beside the manifest iniquities of the sequel, which appears to have wholesalely cannibalised Origins‘s world-building as a basis for systematically junking about eighty percent of the qualities which actually made the first game, you know, good. The things which particularly got up my nose:

  • Graphics glitz. Origins had a slightly muted, medieval look and feel, both in the world design and in the design of things like menus and character screens. There was a small nod to realism in character and opponent movement: you felt the effort when you hit something with a sword. The sequel has replaced this with a high-gloss definition which makes for pretty landscapes, but which replaces the feel of the original with an almost cartoon feel. You leap your own height into the air to land a blow, for example, or move at impossible speeds to flank or backstab. I hate it. You’re not supposed to be able to bloody teleport in this world, they say so explicitly! The journal and character development screens are also weirdly modern, black-backgrounded, lacking in character and rather difficult to read. I loved the parchment-style ones from the first game. This is not an improvement.
  • Scope. It’s shorter than the first one, and is also a small-minded game – not just in locations, a single city and its environs, but in the bulk of the dilemmas and objectives which confront you. You’re money-grubbing, basically. There are larger and potentially interesting issues there – the Qunari, the mage/templar conflict – but in the end you lack the instrumentality to affect the outcomes which the first game so magnificently gave you.
  • Writing. You feel as though you’re being railroaded in this game in a way you didn’t with the first one. There are continual gaps and inconsistencies in the quest plots – your inability to talk when it makes sense, for example, so that far too much of it defaults to killing large numbers of people rather than actually, intelligently, trying to solve the problem. This is reflected in your quest journal, which has become shortened, stilted and mechanistic.
  • Corner-cutting. This drove me demented. There is absolutely no attempt to make locations different; they have, as far as I can work out, two cave layouts, one underground ruin, two upper class houses and one lower-class and a few sandy outdoor tracks, and every single encounter takes place in one of the above. They “change” them by blocking off particular doors or exits, but they leave the doors there and the map intact. Nor is there much attempt to give them a superficially different feel with colour or lighting. It’s fundamentally lazy. It makes the world feel very bland and undifferentiated, and as a player, it makes me feel insulted. Do they think I won’t notice? Honestly.
  • Your companions. The bulk of them are either damaged, or idiots, or damaged idiots. Honestly, you spend most of the game mopping up the bloody stupid decisions made by the criminally short-sighted and self-absorbed among your companions. There are very few of these people who I actually like, whereas in the first game I actually liked almost all of them. Fenris is OK, once you get over the broody goth-boy stereotype. Varric is quite fun, and I enjoy Aveline when she’s not inflicting me with assisting in her incredibly lame and fumbling attempts at romance, but the rest? aargh. Your siblings: largely lacking in personality, more so because they’re removed from play at the end of the first act. Merril: narcissistic, self-destructive teenager convinced she knows it all. Isabela: slut stereotype pure and simple, and also incredibly self-absorbed. Sebastian: sanctimonious Chantry dweeb. And don’t get me started on Anders, who was rather fun in Awakening but has deteriorated into a whiny one-dimensional fanatic. Bleah. DA is made by its companion interactions, and I can’t work out what happened. Did they fire all their writers and hire adolescent boys, or did they just squeeze this aspect of the game into a corner and spend all their time and money on graphics?
  • The truncation of the romances into a set of mechanical, limited quests, which you have to do in the right order at the right time or an entire romance option whisks off into impossibility, forcing you either to give up on it, or go back and replay the last ten hours. There’s none of the open-endedness of the first game, the sense you had that you were exploring character possibilities alongside the questing; instead, you’re ticking off boxes. Yup, had that talk, gave that gift, finished that companion quest: have jumped through hoops in the right order, bring on the romance! And you’re given far less of conversation and interaction to sustain your sense of the relationship through subsequent events.
  • The RAMPANT SEXISM! Isabela’s costume makes me feel physically ill, it’s all straining bust against skimpy corset thingy, and she’s a truly horrible slut stereotype. (Zevran’s the male version in the first game, but he’s a far better rounded character without the essential selfishness). I also ran across several complaints on the internet noting a tendency for the female Hawke romances to be far less well developed than the male Hawke ones, both in interaction and in screen time. I haven’t played a male Hawke so can’t attest to that, but they certainly felt a bit perfunctory, at least compared to the first game. The romantic cutscenes in the first one were a bit lame, but at least they were trying, you know?

This game felt as though it wasn’t the labour of love that the first one was; that it was impoverished in budget or time or both. It feels provisional; the really interesting world-building stuff is sparked off at the end of the game, as though they’re simply setting up a sequel. It’s profoundly unsatisfying to play, and horribly disappointing to anyone looking for the same immersion experience as the first game. There’s enough entertainment in it that I’ve played it through three times, but that’s more about the state of health and mind I’m in after ten days in hospital than anything about the game’s actual quality. I worked out how to use the developer console in Origins, because it was the only way to deal with a quest bug; however, in second and third playthroughs of DAII I cheerfully used the console to cheat (mostly money and companion approval), because I don’t fundamentally respect the game enough to refrain. As a self-confessed Lawful Good player I don’t use console cheats in computer games; that I should feel no guilt about doing so here is quite significant. It’s sad. This could have been so much more than it is.

Andraste’s Knicker-Weasels, Part III: Dragon Age romance

I am posting here some analysis I’ve written over the last few years about my experience of Bioware games, slightly edited from its original form.


At the best of times I have a tendency to vanish into computer games for weeks at a time with a muffled squeak, surfacing briefly only to whinge about the bloody cliff racers sneaking up behind me again (Morrowind), or those horrible creatures who hang from the ceiling by hooks and fall on me with violent suddenness and maniacal laughter (Bioshock). I do become immersed in these things, and need to dedicate myself to them more or less exclusively for several weeks until they work their way out of my system and I can go about my more or less normal life. I have to say, though, that the straightforward fantasy FPS of Oblivion and Skyrim, or even the deeply moody and atmospheric world of Bioshock, have nothing on the seductive appeal of an actual computer role-playing game. Dragon Age: Origins is my first experience of this genre, and it’s apparently tailor-made to addict me instantly and utterly to its environment. While the political landscape, world-building and quest narratives are well written and compelling, really I have to admit that the intrinsic appeal is in the interaction with companions.

You have a whole range of companion interactions open to you, depending not only on how you decide to play the actual interchanges with the individual companions, but on how you choose to play various quest decisions in the game as a whole. Realistically enough, some companions are goody-two-shoes and conservative, others are more anarchic and subversive, and they have their own commitments and goals and allegiances in the game world as a whole. Within this framework you can establish a wide spectrum of interactions: working relationships, comradeships, mentorships, pragmatic co-operations, goofy love stories, philosophical debates, cynical sexual interactions, grand romances – the whole caboodle. My personal gaming style is tilted towards co-operation and empathy, and I appear to be (a) fatally monogamous and (b) fatally unable to turn down romantic approaches from likeable characters; as a result, my games tend to play out as a love story with tragic implications, one that just happens to be taking place in the middle of an invasion and a civil war.

The secret of actually enjoying Dragon Age character interactions is apparently to [Esc] through the incredibly lame and badly-written sex scenes. Because, pixelated naked flesh and badly-rendered gestures of intimacy, aargh. Uncanny valley. That being said, however, I have to say it’s a fairly substantial world away from the Fable ethos of “manoeuvre object of potential affection into vicinity of bed and ply them with gifts until screen blanks suggestively”. Dragon Age‘s inter-character interactions are mostly well written; you can increase a party member’s approval of you by making quest choices which groove with their particular moral leanings, or by having intense and empathetic conversations with them about personal issues and goals. (And the choices aren’t always clear-cut or obvious, it’s a reasonable stab at realistic complexity and ramification). You can, in fact, also give them gifts, but it has to be the right gift, and there are bonus points if you’ve done the chatting beforehand and give them the right gift consciously rather than by accident. Bits of the later-stage romances lean into the sappy and slightly juvenile territory, but by and large most of them don’t, and there are lovely touches both of humour and of sweetness.

These character interactions are incredibly compelling on a number of levels, not least of which are my own tendencies towards roleplaying, empathy and immersion. The mostly good writing really helps; these are real people, with real issues, and their personalities and choices tend (generally, although not infallibly) towards the coherent and believable. The voice acting is another huge pull-in, as many of the actors are adept at constructing vivid personalities. The strange muteness of your own character is one of the ways in which the game possibly falls down (obviously they can’t realistically voice your dialogue when you have so many possible identities and ways of reacting, although they do manage it in Dragon Age II), but conversely your own silence actually works as a space into which you can project your own responses. I find I talk to the screen, and the companions, a lot – I do when playing most computer games, but it’s particularly exaggerated in Dragon Age, and it feels a lot more like a conversation.

I identify with these people; I want them to like me, I enjoy both the conversations with them (and their weird/sad/troubled backstories) and the way those personalities and stories ramify out into my understanding of their tactics in actual play. And I really, really like the way that the quest-narrative outcomes hinge and morph according to your companion allegiances and goals. You’re not just hitting the big bad with a sword until it’s dead, who and how is doing the hitting is instrumental not just in the fate of the world, but potentially in your personal romantic fate as well.

My view of this is necessarily skewed because I’ve been playing only as a female character, and within the constraints of my own gaming style; I’d probably have more, and different, things to say after playing a male viewpoint, or as less Lawful Good. But if you’re playing a female character it’s actually very difficult not to romance Alistair: he’s particularly instrumental in the plot, he’s an incredibly easy sell if you’re a goody-two-shoes player, and he’s also constructed as enough of a sweet and goofy individual that turning him down feels like kicking puppies. (Internet research suggests that there is a voluble and dedicated core of female players who also end up taking exactly this route, and have constructed a whole fandom as a result). He’s a far more interesting and detailed romance than the fairly straightforward sex-options offered by other companions; he’s also an interesting option if you have a human noble origin, as your political goals and his end up being fairly entwined. If, however, you’re in a romance with him, you have no good choices at the end. You are encouraged to construct the romance with him in the mode of “one true love forever”, and one of the better outcomes for the game is for him to end up as king. As a human noble you can also manipulate things to marry him, and be One True Loves forever, knowing full well that as two Grey Wardens the chances of you having offspring are vanishingly remote, thus sparking off the whole civil war/succession debate all over again once he dies. The game’s construction demands that you examine your own motives quite significantly, and make a very deliberate choice between selfishness and self-sacrifice; it makes the self-sacrifice surprisingly hard, and if you go for the selfishness, you know damned well that you are railroading Alistair himself into it, and he doesn’t fully support you.

Thus the whole romance thing, at least in this particular set of choices, and the conflicts it creates, is really surprisingly sophisticated; while you could, I suppose, choose to play romance in terms of a basic notion of conquest, box-ticking or simple hur-hur-hur response to the awkwardly idealised animated bodies the game depicts, really that wastes huge tracts of possibilities. Most importantly, the romance options infuse the game’s fairly straightforward martial, political and quest motifs with a layer of complexity and nuance which elevate them way beyond simply finishing the boss battle. Finishing the boss battle is fun and satisfying, but it’s this kind of layering which actually convinces you that on some faintly real level you’re saving the world.

Andraste’s Knicker Weasels, Part II: Dragon Age Politics

I am posting here some analysis I’ve written over the last few years about my experience of Bioware games, slightly edited from its original form.


It’s a bit difficult to work out whether the tensions and complexities I detect in Dragon Age: Origins are the result of actual sophisticated world-building, or, instead, of a giant, unwieldy design system imperfectly guided in its juggernaut path, so that the edges ramify out of control. However, I’m inclining to the charitable interpretation – I darkly suspect this game of interrogating its own geo-political ramifications with absolute self-consciousness. Its basis is really very stereotypically High To Middle Fantasy with unabashed Tolkien overtones, up to and including the slightly elegiac tone and the tendency for the landscape to be littered with the remnants of vast, sophisticated, sometimes Elven empires who have brought about their own downfall owing to religion, corruption, racism, bigotry, or simply becoming drunk on their own magical power and self-destructing. (Numenor, anyone?). But it’s also quite ridiculous how much those stereotypes are subverted.

To a surprisingly upfront extent the world-building effectively externalises the subtext to all classic fantasy, which is that all this is simply about power. The need to reign in power, to control and limit and punish, is inscribed on the world-building landscape – Ferelden political jockeying, the dwarven caste system, the Templars who hunt down apostate mages but are themselves deliberately addicted to lyrium, the nasty and all too realistic racial tensions between Elves and humans. And don’t get me started on Grey Wardens – proficient heroes and protectors, given power and status, but limited and focused and ultimately controlled by their darkspawn taint. The world presents systems, often extremely repressive systems, which the setting tries to naturalise but in which it dismally and I think deliberately fails.

In particular, magic in this system is extremely problematised, prone to corruption and power-grabbing, in a way that I find all too real. The world has its own Garden of Eden mythology, a transgression and Fall specifically about the profoundly arrogant and rather stupid ambition of mages. They screwed up badly enough that, effectively, God left in a huff; the whole religious structure has this slightly desperate edge of “noooo! come back! we’ll be good, promise!”. The mystical histories of the Fade aside, in the game’s day-to-day reality any mage figure is a locus of temptation and threat, prone to succumb to demons or blood-magic at any moment. You are invited and encouraged at every step to think about whether the dangers of mages are about the corruptions of power, or the desperations of over-control.

I also find the world’s gender politics interesting. There is the usual computer-game preponderance of scantily-clad, big-busted women in the graphics – Morrigan’s revealing robes, in particular, make me grind my teeth, and I’ve been steadfastly putting her in high-necked enchanter garb at the first opportunity, and regardless of actual statistical advantage. (Also, ye gods, somebody give me a computer game in which I can set my character’s bust size as well as her gosh-darned hairstyle. I swear her breasts make it downright impossible to use a bow.) Nonetheless, quietly and in the background, Ferelden’s society presents on many levels a gender equality which is largely taken for granted. Women fight quite routinely in armies; they appear to be able to inherit titles, and fulfil them in a strategic and military role, even if they have brothers littering the place. Inheritance is clearly by age alone, not sex, and bugger Salic law, anyway. Likewise, dwarven women pass their caste on to their daughters, where dwarven men pass it on to their sons. The refusal to participate in the Judeo-Christian insistence on women as fallen and second class with a purely reproductive purpose is echoed in the religion, which revolves around the Prophetess Andraste, conqueror and head of armies and also Bride of the Maker, a lovely antidote both to desexualised Christ figures and passive virgin/mother contradictions. Even the priesthood is female, and male priests are Clearly Bad. It’s refreshing.

But above all, I thoroughly enjoy the game’s huge, incredibly interesting, rather subtextual interrogation of the nature of inherited monarchy. One example is the Dwarves, whose sub-quest setting offers you, as I said in my earlier post, a choice between the thoroughly nasty son of the previous king or the king’s morally upright chief councillor. You get to choose who you support, but you have to be aware that the morally upright councillor is also a die-hard conservative and has every intention of closing his nation to outside contact, including Ferelden and you, and propagating the incredibly rigid unpleasant dwarven caste system, with all its implications of starving casteless, slums full of outcasts and beggars, and the need for dwarven women to abandon their lower-caste children in the Deep Roads. The bad guy, on the other hand, will abolish it, thus bringing Orzammar kicking and screaming into the Century of the Fruitbat. There is no right answer. It’s all about power, and politics, and expediency, and far too often you can screw the greater good completely by sticking to principle.

Ferelden itself is less rigid a caste system: it apparently functions as a collection of bloody-minded individualists loosely held together by mostly hereditary lords who nonetheless need to politic for their adherents, but the monarchy apparently has no problem at all with removing lords and replacing them with meritorious base-born individuals at the drop of a veridium helm. (If you take the Human Noble background, you face the death of your entire family in a political side-plot to the main quest and the subsequent extinction of your line, as you can’t hold the title as a Grey Warden, which has completely driven me crazy as a player. I like that family. I’m invested in them). Even more importantly, the whole meta-plot for the game revolves around the death of the King in rather stupidly heroic battle against the darkspawn, and the lack of an heir to replace him. This leaves you with the following quite bizarrely non-ideal options for a ruler to unite Ferelden against the darkspawn threat:

  • The dead king’s widow, Anora, not from the royal line, and backed by her father Loghain, who’s a war hero who also engineered the death of the king. Even if you can turn a blind eye to her association with Loghain’s regicide and paranoia to focus on the fact that Anora seems to be quite a competent ruler (if a bit arrogantly sanctimonious), she’s also barren – hasn’t produced an heir despite five years of marriage to a husband she apparently loved. If you choose her as ruler, the epilogue makes it quite clear that she doesn’t ever remarry and doesn’t seem to see the heir thing as a priority. Everything you do to unite Ferelden thus comes to nothing with the end of her life – presumably it’s back to no heir and the nobles tussling for power.
  • The dead king’s illegitimate half-brother, Alistair, who is a Grey Warden and doesn’t want to be king. He’s a decent sort who’d probably make a good king, but Grey Wardens aren’t supposed to hold titles, and are also not good in the reproduction department owing to the darkspawn taint. This is complicated if you’re playing a female human noble who’s in a relationship with Alistair, as you also have the option of marrying him if he becomes king, and thus becoming a tainted Grey Warden queen to make an heir highly unlikely from two directions rather than one. And take it from me, it’s a fairly compelling romance, and you don’t want to give him up.

The upshot of the above is that, regardless of which option you choose, the whole edifice of inherited rule, for which you have fought through most of the game, is pretty much doomed. China Miéville would be proud. You have to interrogate, to question, to fundamentally worry about whether or not it’s either possible or desirable to save the royal line for its own sake, or even for the sake of political stability. It ends up not just being about whether you’re invested in hereditary monarchy, it’s whether the rest of the country is to the extent where the hierarchy will rip itself apart if you try and do away with it. Once again, it’s about how you control people, how you use power to limit power. It doesn’t make you a very nice person; it is, in fact, profoundly anti-heroic. Given how much I hate politics and how much I retreat into lovely clear-cut genre narratives, it’s astounding how much I continue to enjoy the game.

Andraste’s Knicker Weasels, Part I – playing Dragon Age: Origins

I am posting here some analysis I’ve written over the last few years about my experience of Bioware games, slightly edited from its original form.


I came fairly late to Bioware games, playing Origins for the first time towards the end of 2010, and without having played Mass Effect before. It quickly pulled me in to fairly obsessive gameplay, but I also became fascinated by how the game works, its actually extremely complex and self-conscious play with narrative choice, world-building and player satisfaction. I shall now proceed to theorise about this at length, and probably over several posts, so feel free to stop reading if you’re (a) not at all interested in the process by which computer games grapple themselves to your brain with hoops of steel, or (b) you’re planning to play Dragon Age Origins at some stage and don’t want a half-brick spoiler wrapped in random academic analysis to hit you in the forehead.

Origins is a role-playing computer game; its basic premise is that you don’t just play the hero, bashing your way through hordes of enemies (here, darkspawn) in a fantasy landscape, you also control a group of fellow adventurers who are companions, skills compliments and in some cases potential romances, of which more anon. The classes tend to boil down to Warriors, Mages and Rogues; it’s all terribly D&D, comfortingly familiar, and in practice much less of an agonising cliché than you’d imagine given the way the class definitions are supported by the world-building. Your interactions with both companions and NPCs are not just lines of textual conversation choices on the screen, they’re voice acted, and extremely well so – as an immersive technique it works spectacularly. The straightforward quest-narrative, hack-and-slash, kill-the-boss component of the game is thus mitigated and complicated by issues of personality, response and the ultimately quite complex process by which you end up constructing your own hero’s character in interaction with those presented to you.

The game is thus predicated on choice, to an extent which ramifies its possible outcomes to an unbelievable extent, and makes me wonder how the hell it can possibly be cost-effective for Bioware to commit the time and production costs to the raft of detailed alternatives given that a single player only experiences a fraction of them. You can start not just with any class or race, but with six possible backgrounds and starting scenarios. What you choose impacts seriously on the possible outcomes to the meta-game; in a sense, from the first click which chooses your background, you are already narrowing the possibilities in a way you can’t possibly be aware of until much, much later.

This instrumentality of choice is really one of the defining features of the game ethos. There are multiple points throughout the game where an apparently minor choice of dialogue shapes your experience extremely profoundly much further along, to the point where it’s honestly not worth reloading and replaying. This sounds as though it should be frustrating, but in fact it’s supported well enough by the general shaping of choice that it’s more satisfying than anything else. Origins has this disconcerting way of feeling real, and the limited ability to predict outcomes is an integral part of this. (You can, of course, cheat by looking it all up online and playing accordingly, but you thereby rob yourself of a fairly specific kind of immersive pleasure).

It may sound a bit odd to talk about an unabashed middle-to-high fantasy computer game being “real”, but in fact it does present in these terms, not just in narrative consequence, but in the frequent absence of clear-cut choices and obvious moral polarities. Despite the centrality of “kill the Evil Darkspawn”, this is in fact an intensely political game far more than a heroic one – in this it’s a beautiful contrast to the far more clearly heroic structuring of something like Fable. It fascinates me that Origins so often presents you with a narrative scenario in which there are no perfect choices – everything is compromise, settling for the lesser evil or the pragmatic option or accepting the unpleasant consequences to a gesture of principle – surprisingly more like real life than computer game. I end up chewing over the options for days – do you support the total bastard whose political plans will intersect well with yours on the meta level, or the honourable, upright, reactionary dude whose closed-minded virtue will reduce trade with you? Do you secure your own life or that of someone you care about at a morally dubious cost which may have nasty consequences later? A lot of this, of course, happens because as a gamer I skew to goody-two-shoes with horrible inevitability, and I’m sure the game is a lot more clear-cut if you are inclined towards the murkier depths of cut-their-throat-no-problem, but I’m charmed and impressed by the extent to which the game doesn’t allow me to pretend for an instant that it’s all gas and gaiters if I’m Simply Nice To Everyone All The Time. (And some of your companions are extremely morally dubious, and get all miffed if you don’t do the pragmatic thing, so even a clear-cut decision in moral terms may make difficulties for you in terms of party approval).

The deliberate undercutting of heroic expectation takes place in the world-building as well – Ferelden is an entertainingly-constructed sort of dogged-British-culture in the midst of louche pseudo-Italian assassins, slightly fey quasi-French invaders and weird Germanic types up in the cold north, but it’s in no way an idealised fantasy setting. I particularly love what they do to elves, who are a downtrodden minority who live in ghettos and are the subject of casual racism and discrimination – the antithesis of Tolkien. (I tend to default to mages and often Elves for racial bonus reasons, but I don’t actually think you want to do that here. I didn’t follow the Elven mage I generated very far, her life was sad and unpleasant and rife with downtrodden dysfunctionality which I found horribly true to life.) But it’s more than inverting obvious racial stereotypes – the religion, while pleasingly centred on a female rather than a male prophet, is nastily closed-minded and given to crusades, the Templar order who suppress mages are downright frightening in their zealous bigotry, and the landscape is littered with entrapped, marginalised, desperate, death-centred groups (Grey Wardens, blood mages, Legion of the Dead, Andraste knows what else) whose adherence to ideas of “glory” and “sacrifice” is beautifully undercut on an ongoing basis.

Ultimately I’m surprised at how well Origins gets away with the gritty bit, given the necessary balance in computer gaming between immersion in a “real” experience and the basic function of wish fulfilment. We don’t really want to play games in order to mirror real life too closely, we want to be heroes with actual agency, and to be able to Win, to Set Things Right. The trick is to infuse the heroism with difficulty and consequence to the point where the stakes are high enough for victory to actually mean something. Even complicated, ambiguous victory. I think they nail it.