10 Years in Kirkwall: Dragon Age II‘s Limitations Make It the Best Dragon Age GameGames Features Dragon Age II
There likely won’t be another Dragon Age II. The product of a rushed development cycle and recipient of undue hatred, I’ve come around to appreciating Dragon Age II, a sterling experiment made under duress which we surely won’t see again. At least, not on purpose, that is. They say lightning never strikes the same place twice and in the 10 years since, it seems like they might be right. I really wish they weren’t.
When I think of the high point of the Dragon Age series, it’s easily Dragon Age II, which benefits from a lot of changes from the original. The most obvious improvements come by way of its combat, which actually felt like combat, and ditching the plainclothes and bland aesthetic of its predecessor for something just a hint more stylish. But the most significant aspects that help it stand apart from the games that bookend it, and which polarized audiences and critics at release, were that it takes place in a single location and that it takes place over the course of a decade. Kirkwall, the main setting of Dragon Age II, and the 10 years you spend there are the best things to ever happen to the series.
It’s hard to not immediately think of the polarized reception Kirkwall and Dragon Age II received. Only taking place in one city was a huge change after exploring all of Ferelden in its predecessor, and it was a change folks weren’t happy about. It was necessary, though, because development was such a nightmare and on such a fast track that the team could only really afford to build out one location like Kirkwall. Seeing the same mine or coast over and over does become tiring, but these constraints gave way to something that worked better than I think anyone expected. Dragon Age II ends up emphasizing that characters matter more than place, ultimately transforming Kirkwall from a crutch into the beating heart of Thedas, quite ironically making it the series’ strongest setting.
While I deeply love Dragon Age, it’s just an unfocused mess of a series, seemingly unable to commit to a cohesive story if its life depended on it. The Darkspawn are the great conflict of the first title before mostly dropping off the face of the Earth in subsequent installments. Meanwhile, some of the side conflicts are given star-billing moving forward, which isn’t necessarily bad, as the mage-templar conflict that drives Dragon Age II winds up being some of the most compelling material in the entire series. However, even that winds up feeling like a story only allowed to prosper because of the consequence of Dragon Age II’s scale. Once the games balloon in size again with Dragon Age: Inquisition, the conflict feels all but pushed to the background to make room for another world-saving plot that wastes a lot of the potential of what was set up before it. It’s also just a boring and less intimate recapitulation of the exact structure of the first game, coming full circle in the worst way.
Kirkwall snaps things into focus in a way the series has never seen before or since. It’s almost like Bioware is afraid to try it again. Dragon Age II is a bottle episode of a game, essentially. It’s bold, bucking standardized RPG storytelling to deliver something that winds up being more honest and raw, but isn’t really revolutionary. It feels fresh after a formula which grew incredibly stale. Perhaps the best thing about the game winds up being how much of an indictment it is of the standards that produce most videogames, even if the standards under which it was made itself shouldn’t be idolized.
Role-playing games love choices and love having them ripple out into the world in these big meaningful ways. As games have grown in size, it’s become more and more important that these changes be more spectacular than substantial. I’ve always been a sucker for this kind of stuff because it’s genuinely cool to see your actions reflected in the world, real or not. This seems to lose focus of what really motivates change, though, and what really propels RPGs, which are people and characters. Dragon Age II seems starkly aware of that, leveraging its scale and change in structure to dive into the characters of its world rather than the world itself. Over the course of a couple dozen hours, you explore a small cast of characters through the years, and through them, we learn more about the cultures and problems that make up the world of Thedas, learning more than virtual tourism could ever teach us.
Merrill, for example, is a nomadic elf who does more to inform me of the values of her people than walking around her home ever could. As she flirts with what her tribe deems a dangerous power, which she claims is needed to actually help them, she becomes ostracized from them and hardens, which flies in the face of the solidarity and unity emblematic of her people. Fenris, a character enslaved by mages, absolutely rejects you in every sense if you try to side with them, even if the mages you side with are having violence committed to them by a power greater and more oppressive than the ones that harmed him. Even if you hate his opposition to you siding with the mages (and let me be clear, you should side with the mages unless you’re a fascist), you get where he’s coming from on a personal level and can’t resent him all that much for not being sympathetic, though it might still put you at odds. These characters and their personal conflicts complicate the narrative of Dragon Age and intrigue me in ways that world-ending plots and grandiloquent villains can’t. It’s something I’d love to see more of in that world.
I hope the series (and the folks behind it) realize what they had with Dragon Age II and Kirkwall a decade ago. Looking forward, the next Dragon Age installment is set in a location as ripe for exploration and conflict as Kirkwall wound up being and with way more history to dig into. I think really doing that world a service would be to realize that the lifeblood of it is the characters and hone in on what drives them. While I’m likely never getting another game from this studio in this franchise at the scale and cost of Dragon Age II, I hope they get that what really works for them isn’t size but focus and a complicated cast. Until then, Kirkwall and Dragon Age II will sit up there as one of the more unforgettable settings and RPGs in recent memory.
Moises Taveras is an intern for Paste Magazine and the managing editor of his college newspaper, the Brooklyn College Vanguard. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.