If you had to pick the one game that perfectly represented the wheels coming off a sure thing, you could do a lot worse than Dragon Age II.
Video game studios develop reputations that often overwhelm the reality of their products. BioWare is The Story-Based RPG studio. They’re not the only one, of course — you’ve got your Bethesdas, Obsidians, etc. — but there’s a certain set of expectations from BioWare games. They’ll be lengthy. They’ll often feature as much talking as they do combat. You, as the player, will have many choices to make, all with an ostensible effect on the game world as a whole. At one point, your character will be able to receive or initiate a declaration of undying love to one of various NPCs, followed by an awkward sex scene which means you have to be very careful playing a BioWare game in a shared living space. At the end of the game, you will have probably saved the kingdom, world, or galaxy, depending on the scope of this particular adventure. You will sit back as your virtual friends celebrate, and it will have been a Good Game.
Dragon Age II is not a good game.
It superficially resembles a good game in that it has every one of the above elements, but they don’t quite add up as they did in Dragon Age: Origins or Mass Effect. For every good idea they had (companions having lives outside what the player character did), they countered it with incredibly baffling design decisions. I am playing Dragon Age II as I type this sentence, engaging in a battle which requires me to do nothing but press the “A” button, over and over again. It kind of breaks the engagement, is what I’m saying, and brings to mind unflattering comparisons to something else you can do one-handed while typing.
Dragon Age II told you that you would make decisions that would change the fate of the world, but looking at the plot in retrospect leads one to the conclusion that everything that happened would have happened anyway if the player character was removed from the story. Even the final, climactic decision of which side to support in a magical civil war doesn’t matter — if you support one side, you have to kill your side’s leader (who has given into dark magic) and the other side’s leader (who has gone insane). Supporting the opposite side leads to the exact same series of fights in the exact same order with the exact same outcome. You might say that BioWare’s problem with endings started well before Mass Effect 3.
What Dragon Age II really does wrong, however, isn’t so much a product of its ending. It’s present right from the start of the game.
A good beginning is important to any piece of media (otherwise people will just move on to whatever the next bit is), but it’s absolutely crucial to story-based role-playing games. Much of the motivation in playing a video game is kinetic in nature — you’re promised more or better. Gears of War lures you onward with the carrot of more things to murder and more creative ways in which to murder them. Diablo (also an RPG, but with a greater emphasis on things like loot and leveling up than character interaction) lets you watch your experience points pile up like sand, while your character is clad in beefier and gaudier bits of equipment. Story-based RPGs need to do more to convince the player, because (at least in a BioWare game), everything you do is run through with consequence. Because you can choose your character’s decisions, you have to be made to care about the world and characters you’re affecting. This is a bit tricky, as there’s no real right way to do it, but there’s definitely a wrong way. Dragon Age II chose the wrong way.
Here’s how Dragon Age II begins:
That’s not the full beginning, but it would take an awful lot of your time to watch the whole thing. I’ll sum it up: you’re privy to the beginning of an interrogation. The man being questioned relates a fake story of Hawke, your main character. You take control of Hawke for a brief and bloody battle in which you rip through your enemies easily. The interrogator calls bullshit on the story, and the man being questioned starts to tell the real one: Hawke and his/her family are on the run, fighting the same battle but in a more desperate and realistic way. Hawke’s brother or sister (depending on which class you choose) are killed by a marauding beast, but the remaining characters are saved, to be spirited off to Kirkwall, the city in which the majority of Dragon Age II takes place.
As a beginning to a piece of media, it’s coherent. Everything that happens makes sense — even the early reveal of the narrator as unreliable. For a story-based RPG, however, it’s thin and inadequate, roughly comparable to meeting your spouse on the day of your wedding. In no particular order:
Who are these people? You’re part of a family on the run, but the first time you see them, they’re in a stressful and dangerous situation. Their characteristics are vaguely sketched — you get an impression that your younger brother is kind of a hothead, but that’s about the end of it.
Where are they from? There is constant talk about where the family is from — a small town which you passed through in Dragon Age: Origins — but you never actually see any of that yourself. You’re told about it often, but there isn’t chance to form an attachment to the place before it’s stolen away from you. The characters clearly miss it, but as you’ve just been introduced to them…
Why should I care about any of this?
Let’s take an example from one of the six possible beginnings (depending on your class) to Dragon Age: Origins. BioWare made that game too, so it’s not as if this is some trade secret to which they were never privy. If you play as a human noble character, you spend the first half-hour or so wandering around your family’s castle, talking to characters and doing minor quests (clearing giant rats out of the pantry, for example). Some of your family friends are visiting, and they’ve brought with them an attractive handmaiden named Iona. If you talk to her, and you’re playing a particularly charming or lecherous character, you can invite her to your room after everyone goes to bed. Thankfully, there is not an awkwardly-animated scene for this (you still don’t want to play it with other people in the room), but the result is that Iona is killed when she opens your door to investigate a disturbance — your family has been betrayed from within, and she’s the first casualty.
Roughly, here was my reaction to Iona dying in Dragon Age: Origins:
By comparison, here was my reaction to my character’s sibling dying in Dragon Age II
Both characters died horrible, unfair deaths, and yet the one that got to me was the one that my character had just met. I was all ready to go to town on the bastards who killed Iona, but when the ogre smooshed my character’s sibling into paste, my reaction was “oh, now I have to go kill that ogre so I can start the plot, or whatever”. Dragon Age: Origins has six separate introductions for your character, each allowing you to care about what you’re supposed to be doing before you get into the hack-and-slash. Dragon Age II only had one, which would lead you to expect that they would put a lot of care into it. They didn’t — whether due to a company-wide brain freeze, a lack of development time, or something else — and it really shows. You could have probably figured out that Dragon Age II was going to be a mediocre game based on its first twenty minutes. It was a half-formed game with half-formed ideas, just like its introduction.
Between this and the ending to Mass Effect 3, BioWare’s reputation has been in something of a freefall. There are some signs that they’re returning to form, however — the recently-announced Dragon Age III: Inquisition was accompanied by promises of lessons learned. How well they incorporate these lessons remains to be seen, but honestly, you won’t have to play the entire game to figure out how well they did. You’ll know in the first ten minutes.