Dragon Age II: Making the Case for “Quality” Games

Reposted from PopMatters Multimedia Reviews.

At this point, I am uncertain there is anything I can really say about Dragon Age II that isn’t found half-buried in my deluge of running commentary to my friends made over the course of my two playthroughs. It’s fantastic, it’s horrible. It’s brilliant, it’s ridiculous. This is the best thing I’ve ever played. I want my money back.

It isn’t particularly often that I feel a game should be forgiven for its monstrous shortcomings, but if one did, it would be this one. For that reason I am going to ask that you take any criticism here with a grain of salt, as this really is one of the most awe-inspiring play experiences I’ve had in some time– but not at all for the conventional list of reasons.

This is not a game about clever battle mechanics, classical riddles or exceptionally original environments. The music is so-so, the graphics push no particular envelopes. For any conventional player concerned with aesthetics and innovation, these are valid complaints to be held against the game, and that’s even before taking issue with the story’s dubiously implemented (if subtly brilliant) plot structure. In short, I find it hard to fault any player, even a fellow reviewer, for openly and honestly disliking the game. It’s just frankly not all that good under the parameters we are used to using in evaluating games.

The problem is that those parameters are not the right ones for talking about Dragon Age II.

Strip away the pretenses of a AAA studio and the worst of its hamfisted tie-ins to the first game (spoiler: Flemeth doesn’t actually factor into the plot and the eluvian has nothing to do with Morrigan) and you have what is possibly some of the most compelling characterization this side of a good book. I argue this is so because the game possesses two very important things we seldom if ever see out of AAA titles: minimalism and an open appeal to middle-class liberalism.

The latter may be more easily discerned than the former, with the series’ willingness to tackle LGBTQ relationships and openly discuss the breaking of social norms and ideas. Dragon Age II takes its predecessor’s themes one massive step further by blatantly (in a style reminiscent of Bryan Singer’s X-Men) drawing a direct parallel between the plight of mages and alternative sexuality, with both romanceable mages, Merrill and Anders, being bisexual as well as fearing societal oppression from the religious templars. Anders makes multiple references to the freeness of sexuality he was used to in his youth, but in pursuing a romance with him the player becomes keenly aware how closely the game’s writing is linking the magical gift and sexuality:

“Ten years, a hundred years from now, someone like me will love someone like you, and there will be no templars to tear them apart.”

Other major themes of the game include slavery, Stockholm Syndrome, mental illness, feminism, post-feminism, immigration, cultural relativism, religious fanaticism and terrorism, all of it treated with an uncommon degree of humanism you would be hard-pressed to find in the comparatively clinical Mass Effect franchise. In a risk-averse industry where outspoken liberalism has never had much traction, we can see Dragon Age II playing with some very weighty, controversial ideas.

This leads into the other aspect of Dragon Age II as a “quality game”: its minimalism. If you are not absolutely sick of the repetitious scenery and unaging characters by the third act, you are not investing yourself terribly much in the game. But eyesore though it may be in a medium where we’d prefer close attention were paid to keeping environments fresh and changes be shown, not told, the narrative is actually doing some remarkable, subtle things within its confines. By stripping the game of much of its visual excess –characters stick to the same environments, don’t age despite the story taking the better part of a decade, always wear the same clothes– the player’s attention is steered to the characters themselves in all their likes, dislikes, politics, morals and humors.

Dragon Age II is ultimately a character drama, less concerned with an epic, save-the-world storyline than in examining the interior worlds of distinct personalities. These are flawed beings, doomed by their own hubris or madness; weak creatures whose personal and psychological failings become centerplace to the unfolding action. I can’t really think of another game which has accomplished this to the extent and depth that Dragon Age II does, save perhaps the kind of late-1990s Japanese RPGs which don’t really get made anymore.

Add to that the uncommon subtlety of gestures and interactions in dialogue scenes, and you have a game which sincerely rewards your attention to enhance the dynamism of otherwise understated scenes. The moment you the player realize that that tap of Anders’s staff connects with that one particular game-changing event I won’t describe here, something goes off inside. A game which can create high drama from these moments, the smallest of actions, is rare stuff indeed.

Unarguably flawed and understandably polarizing as it may be, Dragon Age II attempts something so wholly unique and ultimately satisfying to such an extent that there is no amount of careful dissection of battle logistics that can adequately do justice to what this game is or what it can do for the individual player. Its various components do not all fit together, no, and many of them are unappealing on any number of aesthetic or gamic levels. But my greatest fear right now is that history will blame Dragon Age II‘s failings not on these disconnected elements but on the things it gets absolutely right above all, giving us the sort of novelistic characters and depth we find ever so elusive in games.

I’m making this impassioned plea right now: we need more quality games. We need games like this which court a more cerebral sort of controversy and subtlety in equal doses. Perhaps eventually we’ll work up to “quality” being a general descriptor and not simply referring to the themes of its premium cable cousin, but for now I’ll take poorer production values as a more than acceptable trade-off if I get characters even half as dynamic as Anders or half as quirky as Merrill or Isabela. It’s been too long.

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