The illusion of choice in Dragon Age 2

Warning: *SPOILERS AHEAD* (I think that warning must be my best friend or something, considering how often I have used it). If you have not yet played this game and intend to, do not read further!

I recently finished playing Dragon Age 2, and I outlined my thoughts on the game’s portrayal of religion in my recent post “Religion in the Dragon Age, part 2: the tragedy of oppression.” In this post, I want to talk more about the game itself. Critics and players alike were pretty split on whether or not they liked the game; some loved it and some hated it. Personally I loved the game, and I think that the people who didn’t like the game simply didn’t understand what it was trying to do.

Bethany infected by the Taint

Bethany infected by the Taint (1)

There are two primary criticisms I have seen with the game. The first criticism is that locations were recycled for many of the missions, causing the player to revisit the same location multiple times. I agree on this point, the reuse of locations did get old, but I don’t think this is a deal breaker, and this was rarely the only or primary reason given for disliking the game. Rather, the primary reason people didn’t like the game is because the choices you make as a player didn’t affect the outcome, at least not in typical RPG branching choice tree kind of way. This touches on one of my favorite subjects: choice and the role of the player in games.

To understand the ire of these disgruntled players, let’s take a look at some of the decisions and their “lack of effect.” The three most commonly cited examples where your decisions had “no effect” were when Hawke’s sister Bethany is removed from the game, Hawke’s mother Leandra is killed by a serial killer, and Orsino turns to blood magic and becomes an abomination in the final battle. In both cases, there is no way to avoid these events, but the player does make choices that lead to these outcomes. Many players complained that Bioware was simply being lazy and not really giving the player a choice in the matter, but I don’t agree.

While it is certainly possible that Bioware was trying to reduce costs, their implementation was anything but lazy; rather, they used the situation to great effect. What these critics failed to realize is that these situations are no-win situations that are meant to induce a feeling of helplessness in the player. No matter what choices you make, tragedy is bound to occur. At the same time, these tragic circumstances are still a direct result of your actions. I think this is absolutely brilliant on Bioware’s part, and is something I haven’t seen before in a game. If a character makes a bad choice in a cutscene, then that choice is divorced from the player and they don’t feel bad for making the choice; it’s just a plot twist. In DA2, however, that the player makes the choice themselves, which makes the player own the choice and the consequences it entails.

Leandra's death

Leandra's death (2)

Heading into the deep roads at the end of Act 1, I took Bethany with me, and I did not take Anders with me. As a result Bethany dies because she gets infected by the taint, and Anders was the only character who could do anything about it. In practice, Bethany is no longer a part of the story no matter what choice the player makes, but that doesn’t change the fact that Bethany’s death was my fault. It was a very emotional moment because Bethany died because of me; not the writers, not some other character, not because of the plot, but me. And that decision haunted me for the rest of the game.

Leandra is killed in a brutal manner, one that is difficult to bear. During my play through, Bethany’s death, combined with Hawke’s brother Carver’s death at the beginning of the game, still weighed heavy on my mind. I (or my character, whichever it is) was still grieving over their loss. The only family left was Leandra and a rather despised uncle, so naturally Leandra became very important to me/Hawke (at this point, the difference between the two is difficult to tell). And then Leandra is killed. It was a devastatingly emotional moment in the game. I have never played a game that has managed to convey such an acute sense of loss as DA2 does, and I have played many many games in my life. DA2 is able to accomplish this because the choices that led to Bethany and Leandra’s death are choices that I made myself.

As I described in my previous post, Orsino resorts to blood magic in the final battle when it looks like the circle is about to be destroyed. As a result, he almost immediately is possessed by a demon and becomes an abomination. The player tries to talk him out of it, and is given several choices on what approach to use, but these efforts ultimately fail no matter what choice you make. I played DA2 as a friend to the mages, and to Orsino in particlular, so Orsino’s transformation and subsequently having to kill him was a tragic event. However, if it were possible to talk Orsino out of it, then this tragic event would simply become a mistake on the part of the player, akin to dying during a fight, and would thus have lost its impact.

Orsino as an abomination

Orsino as an abomination (3)

I think that many of the game’s critics failed to realize what Bioware was trying to accomplish because they were caught up in the dynamics of the game. They felt that since there was a choice to be made, then there must be a correct choice; one that results in a positive outcome. I suspect that the majority of these players weren’t making choices because it’s what their interpretation of Hawke would actually do, but because it would result in the outcome they wanted in the story, thus making these choices a game itself. These type of players wanted to “win” at the game of “choice,” instead of taking part in a narrative. Given this mindset, it is no wonder that they were upset because they felt that the game cheated them out of winning.

I can’t really blame these players either. As gamers, we have become very accustomed to the way things work. When a  developer does something that breaks the mold and does something different, it is always a little unsettling at first. There is that feeling that the game did something wrong, simply because it did something different. I understand this reaction, but I don’t condone it. If gaming is to thrive in the future, developers must be willing to change and adapt; otherwise gaming will whither and die. As gamers, we must be willing to change with them.

(1) Ashuroa. “Dragon Age 2 Deep Roads.” Gamer’s Ramblings. Available: http://ashuroa.livejournal.com/308346.html
(2) “Dragon Age II.” Dragon Age Wiki. Available: http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/Dragon_Age_II
(3) Ashuroa. “Dragon Age 2 done.” Gamer’s Ramblings. Available: http://ashuroa.livejournal.com/312088.html

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One thought on “The illusion of choice in Dragon Age 2

  1. Pingback: Mass Effect 3′s ending part 1 – Retake Mass Effect is wrong | Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum

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