Agency Dissonance in Dragon Age 2

Thoughts on how Dragon Age 2’s narration might have been different

A lot has already been said about Dragon Age 2, so I’m afraid I may be beating a dead horse. But after reading Mr. Eric Schwarz’s stimulating piece on Varric as an unreliable narrator, I just couldn’t resist joining in (Mr. Schwarz, my thanks for such an excellent basis to launch one’s thoughts from). I hope to contribute to the discussion, then, by talking about DA2’s handling of the relationship between ludic and narrative agency.

A warning, however: spoilers abound.

Commitment Issues

Firstly, I’m sorry to say that, after all that, I have to disagree with Mr. Schwarz’s reading of the role of Varric’s narration in DA2. It’s not that the narrato-ludic structure exists to serve an unreliable narrator as it is that an unreliable narrator was introduced in order to support an “open” narrato-ludic structure.

That is, the purpose of Varric’s narration isn’t to misguide/misinform the player as it is to give the player room to do what he wants. And the reason why the device seems to fail isn’t so much that it doesn’t work because of the nature of games as it is simply that the narrato-ludic structure of DA2 lacks consistency.

The thing with DA2 is that it is somewhat disingenuous with player agency, though purposefully so (at least, under a generous interpretation). It refuses to commit fully to either a really player driven set of events or a really predetermined set, or to even acknowledge what it actually is—an ego-teasing hybrid between the two.

(Compare with Assassin’s Creed 2, which is quite similar in narrative scope and structure, but features a much stricter, non-branching narrative progression. The player has a lot of ludic freedom, but the narrative is essentially completely predetermined.)

This leaves the player in a sort of agential limbo because his role and power in the narration is not exactly clear. The experience with DA2, then, feels somewhat like a significant other that won’t commit, but on the other hand still demands commitment from you (which is why it feels like an unreliable narrator). It’s discomforting and potentially disengaging.

This is most felt when narrative decisions made by the player do nothing to change the actual resultant ludic events. The player can sometimes produce a different narrative, but the ludic encounter that happens remains the same. Unfortunately, these two progressions (narrative and ludic) really simply can’t be considered separately—at least, not in the player experience. In the worst example, you can support the mages, or support the templars, but this basically makes no difference. You still have to kill both Meredith and Orsino. Period. And the egregious thing is that the ludic content of these battles are (as far as I am aware) pretty much identical.

The main reason for Varric’s narration, then, (outside of developing Varric’s character, which it does in a superbly subtle fashion) is to give the impression that player choices can affect important outcomes, even when they really can’t. And the essential difficulty is that DA2’s narrative, for the most part, really does want to let the player be whatever they want. It’s just that anything the player wants still has to work within a rather restricted set of ludic events, which results in non-committal narration.

Narrato-Ludic Dilemmas

I’d like to talk a bit about something we might call “narrato-ludic dilemmas”—situations where narrative goals clash against to ludic ones. When the player is offered a fairly significant number of free attribute or talent points in exchange for making a deal with a demon (“Night Terrors”), but the player wants to be sure this doesn’t affect his narrative in a permanently adverse way, that’s a narrato-ludic dilemma.

The strength of this dilemma, then, depends on how invested the player is in his game versus how invested he is in his player character. The closer and stronger the relationship between narrative events and ludic events (that is, the more choices in the one have consequences in the other), the more these two investments overlap, the harder the dilemma becomes.

Let’s put this another way. Games are about solving problems, both narrative and ludic. How much the overarching narrative dilemma interfaces with the ludic condition determines narrato-ludic coherence. I’ve posted an analysis of narrato-ludic coherence in Dragon Age: Origins before (you can also refer to my post on Fallout for another look at n-l cohesion), but let’s go over a brief summary of that in order to compare with DA2.

The primary feature of the narrative dilemma in DA:O is the Grey Warden ritual. In order to become a Grey Warden to fight the darkspawn, a candidate must drink darkspawn blood and, essentially, become darkspawn himself. His humanity remains, but only temporarily. Thus everything in DA:O (somewhat similar to the narrato-ludic dilemma of Vampires: The Masquerade) is about the Warden’s fight against (or embrace of) the loss of his humanity. The player’s pursuit of ludic agency is thus placed directly within this context, and there is an overarching narrative backdrop against decisions to, for instance, drink Avernus’s diabolist potion, accept the Fade Beast’s 25 sovereigns, become a blood mage, etc.

DA2, however, loses this rationale, although a good effort is made to substitute this with the human costs of containing blood magic. In the cases where narrative and ludic choice interface, these still have the moral component, but they now seem incidental and less (or un-) related to Hawke’s story (even with mage Hawke).

This results in no small part from the fact that the player has very little idea where the story is actually going, which, in turn, partly results from the game’s refusal to commit to a direction until the player takes one. Indeed, the fact that blood magic corruption/temptation is the primary dilemma of DA2 doesn’t really become apparent until the final act. Though hints are dropped throughout, nothing can be done about them, which reduces their value to the player.

Such curtailment of the player’s ability to plan any long term narrative goals for his character decreases the stakes in the player’s involvement with the PC, thereby lessening his investment in the PC, thereby reducing narrative involvement in ludic decisions.

What Could Have Been Done Differently?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and describe my own personal situation in an effort to illustrate how narrato-ludic coherence and player investment could have been strengthened.

I’m 27 now, and my parents are 60. The thought of their death scares the hell out of me. These days, I want few other things as much as to establish a family and financial security so that my parents can spend their autumn years with their grandkids in comfort. I want to have a family (and for my parents to enjoy them) before I lose the one I have. But it seems there’s never enough time, and certainly not enough time to do all that. And that’s what scares me. To the core.

I'm also an immigrant whose permanent residency didn’t happen until just about three years ago. So I know what it means to live in a foreign land under the fear of being uprooted, of the possibility of losing status and being branded an illegal alien and deported. To fear loved ones being taken away and everything you've invested in go down the drain.

I say all this to demonstrate through parallel how much potential there is in DA2’s narrative for meaningful emotional investment (at the least, surely the majority segment of DA2’s audience shares my age range, no?), and to note that a really useful overarching dilemma already exists within DA2 that could have provided lasting motive cohesion through all three acts.

All Hawke wants when he arrives at Kirkwall is security for his family. And the whole motivation for the Deep Roads expedition is just to obtain enough status to not have to worry about the Templars taking Bethany away (or Hawke himself, if he is a mage) and provide comfort for an aging mother who has lost a child and husband. Hawke is willing to go to all the way to the Deeps Roads (the Deep Roads!) to do this.

There’s nothing as heartbreaking as irreversible change through the passage of time, the loss of family to processes outside of one’s control. And the essential underlying narrative, from the introductory scene all the way to the last act with “Gamlen’s Greatest Treasure” is that family is all that matters, all that really remains.

But all this seems to fade away in the pursuit of more “epic” narratives, which is really unfortunate because Hawke’s family is what keeps him human, what makes him relatable, and gave him the promise of being a truly strong character. I feel that the result is both an underestimation of the maturity of BioWare’s consumers, and a lack of focus in the ambition of DA2’s narrative.

DA:O changed me with its narrato-ludic dilemmas—they caused me to become more aware and nuanced in my idealism. DA2, well... yes, it accentuated my own hopes and fears for my family. It’s just I wish more was done to push Hawke’s desire to protect his family against the player’s desire to amass ludic agency. And I wish Hawke’s companions were more open to developing maturity, more defendable and less exclusivist and alienating so that it was more possible to think of them also as family (at least we have Varric). As it is, one does sort of wonder towards the end what exactly the player character is/was fighting for.

Another Reading

The above assessment sounds much harsher than I would like—my actual experiences with DA2 were quite enjoyable and sometimes even meaningful (I definitely had an awful, awful dream about my mom’s mortality after “All That Remains”, though it had nothing to do with zombies and everything to do with lost time), despite all the ambush waves of annoyance1.

And though I mentioned all the “commitment issues” and the shortcomings in n-l cohesion, it’s possible to draw a different conclusion—a different understanding of the player experience in DA2—from all this.

The thing with the multiple game spanning, save import narratives of Dragon Age (and Mass Effect) is that we know that what we do in a previous game can impact what happens in the sequels. This by itself contributes significantly to the narrato-ludic dilemmas in these games, because one can never be sure (well, at least until the series closes out) how a ludic action will affect narration later on, and there’s not even a way to check the outcome until the next game.

This means the player really needs to come to peace with the decisions he makes, which give them weight and meaning. My own initial, knee-jerk reaction to Morrigan’s ritual in DA:O was to refuse, but over multiple playthroughs I came to the realization that actually, even on philosophical and moral grounds, I really didn’t have all that many problems with doing it. By the time DA2 came around, the morally ambiguous choices in DA2 were far less ambiguous simply from the fact that I was now far more aware of what I was and was not comfortable with doing and supporting. That whole conversation with the Arishok about the elves in Qunari custody? Satisfactorily and readily navigated without hesitation. If that’s not meaningful progress in decision making, I don’t know what is.

So then, let me propose a hypothesis. If DA:O was about breaking an egotistical attachment to the need for personal morality to always be correct, DA2 is about breaking a similar attachment to the need for a strictly defined personal role, and for that role to have overriding primacy. And it does this, just as DA:O did, by restricting ludic agency in the face of narrative choice.

But perhaps the real takeaway message here is simply this: that there probably needs to at least be enough ludic event variations to reasonably support the narrative ones.

1A simplistic suggestion: if you can’t break combat with breather space pauses between waves, at least add an opponent counter that displays enemies left per skirmish. Heck, that might even eliminate the reason to have waves come in before combat breaks to begin with (nobody is going to leave if there are still mobs to kill).

2A final, throw away comment: guys, play this game in Nightmare mode. To be honest, I can’t say I’ve actually played below Nightmare, but what I gather is that opponents in the easier modes die too readily for the value and tuning of the combat mechanics to really come out. At the least, no friendly fire takes out most of the nuance in proper positioning, crowd control, kiting/tanking and threat management (but then again, so does gravitic ring). A personal suspicion: perhaps the complaints of the “dumbing down” of combat mechanics have more to do with Normal and Hard modes in DA2 being easier compared to DA:O than anything else. Oh, and ambushing reinforcements. Right.

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