“Hurtled into the chaos, you fight. And the world will tremble before you.”
--Flemeth, Dragon Age II
A belatedly frigid winter and a partner who insisted I take care of myself after half a year spent in a window seat crisscrossing the country ensured that I revisited the Dragon Age trilogy in full. Like most well-made RPGs, it’s rather fun to curl up with for hours on end. Upon finishing Inquisition, I decided to go back to the beginning and play to cast the light of hindsight onto all those foreshadows. I’d not played the second entry in the series since 2012, however, and I was unprepared for how differently its prologue would strike me in the wake of current events.
It dawned on me that you’re playing the story of a refugee family fleeing a grueling, unsurvivable war, who ends up on hostile shores.
This is not a trivial plot point; it drives the action and several introductory quests, defining the Hawke family’s first year in Kirkwall; the surviving Hawke sibling refers to the refugee status as a detriment more than once; overcoming it is the main quest for the first act; posters in Kirkwall scream promises to “reclaim the Free Marches for the marchers,” to underscore how unwelcome Fereldan refugees are.
What it all adds up to may provide some insight into why the game bombed with so many Dragon Age fans.
Dragon Age II came on the heels of a hugely successful epic fantasy RPG, Dragon Age: Origins, which was easily one of the greatest of its generation, and a shining capstone of Bioware’s signature style of ‘on-rails’ roleplaying games. But it was a significant tonal shift, a tone instantly set by the Hawke family positioned as fleeing refugees, fighting for their lives against the darkspawn flooding from their burning hometown. With no money and no kit beyond what they could strip from corpses, much less any purpose.
In short, the Hawkes are NPCs in Dragon Age: Origins.
"Is empathy with someone fleeing desperately for their lives with their family really such a terrible thing to cultivate in a medium where standing in someone else’s shoes is the whole point?"
Origins tells a different story for your character. You begin as a chosen one, someone of strength, skill, and significance who--after a brief trial--is tapped by Grey Warden Duncan to aid in one of the greatest battles in Ferelden’s history. Even when that battle goes pear-shaped and you’re left holding the flaming bag with a jokey colleague and a stray dog, you have a grand mission: you have treaties that compel the nations of Thedas to aid against the coming darkspawn Blight. Even though you’ve been libeled in every corner of Ferelden, you are mighty and will not be denied.
By contrast, in Dragon Age II, at roughly the same point in the game’s narrative beat you’re just trying to gain entrance into the city you seek to call home only out of utmost desperation. In Origins the Grey Warden seeks to summon armies; in DA2, Hawke would give her left arm for a warm bed.
That sets the tone for the remainder of the game, even after Hawke claws her way out of Lowtown and into the upper echelons of Kirkwall society. The game follows an arc familiar to any RPG player: your character begins humbly and over the course of the story becomes a legend.
But--and I firmly believe this is to DA2’s eternal credit--Dragon Age 2 never loses that tone set by its prologue.
Hawke is, to a certain extent, always at the mercy of events. She has no archdemon to slay; she has a life to live, one constantly interrupted by the juggernauts of history and politics. Hawke is caught in the middle; the Grey Warden Hero of Ferelden from Origins is always shown as the master of events.
It’s a tremendous thematic shift, one that many players simply weren’t expecting. They didn’t want to play an NPC who got lucky, they wanted another legend.
Dragon Age II was not without significant technical and narrative faults, of course. Many of the questing areas felt repetitive, for instance, and the climax of the game sees a carefully constructed narrative crumble and kowtow to the demands of whiz-bang gameplay for unmemorable cheap thrills. One of the finest villains in the series was horribly undermined by the desire to give her a cool sword, one that just so happened to control her mind and thereby annihilate much of the character’s agency, which had been so carefully and beautifully written hitherto. But this doesn’t explain why so many players panned the game with such mercilessness.
Gamers are notoriously whiny about even small faults, but the utterly enflamed tower of hatred the game inspired in some quarters is something that could only come from a more primal revulsion.
I would argue that this revulsion stems from Hawke being an NPC come to life.
"Telling a compelling story through the player character is not just about what you can add to their power, but what you can take away, creating tension in a scenario defined by limits on reach and ambition."
It can feel disempowering to stand in the shoes of someone who can’t bend the world to their whim in a videogame. It disrupts the power fantasy if you find yourself cast adrift in a relentless storm instead of causing it.
It’s a less common path taken in RPGs and one that the fan base built up by Origins was unprepared for. But it is not without a certain measure of precedent. Another controversial second entry in an RPG series, Knights of the Old Republic II, does something similar with your character’s relationship to her mentor Kreia. One of the most common complaints I heard, regardless of one’s “hardcore” status, one’s political affiliation, or age, was that Kreia’s manipulations throughout the story mean your character’s choices don’t matter.
A similar charge is often leveled at Dragon Age II. There are places in the game where, narratively, choice should’ve mattered--like choosing the Mages or Templars at the end of the game; that was reduced to something that was functionally cosmetic. You get the same boss fights with basically the same ending. But the complaints go beyond that. Hawke, some seem to think, should’ve had the power to dispel all the plagues of Kirkwall, fix and heal everything that was broken, and conjure perfect endings for everyone.
I’m sure Hawke herself would have loved to have that power. She can’t save her sibling, she can’t save her mother, she can’t stop Anders’ act of terror nor the Mage-Templar War it initiated. Hawke’s story is one of winning the battle and losing the war.
But that, really, is the point. Bioware wanted to tell the story of a person who could credibly have those longings: someone with some strength and ample talent, but still just that erstwhile refugee, sword or staff in hand, who was just trying to defend her family.
Bioware wanted to tell the story of someone who was, at times, just as much buffeted by change as the catalyst of it. That Hawke never quite seizes the reins of history, save for fleeting, almost accidental moments, has a kind of realism to it and makes the struggle of her and her companions all the more compelling to me. But it might also repulse players who wonder why they’re in the middle of this refugee’s story when they could be off ending another Blight, or at the epicenter of some other global existential crisis.
Even if that refugee’s family was originally from Kirkwall, and their story is about regaining lost nobility--with the titles, wealth, and estate that come with it--Hawke is always marked by her origins; that she never loses sight of them is part of why she is heroic, after all. Long into the third act, the game doesn’t let you forget that Hawke is Fereldan and seen as a refugee “rat” upstart by some. An old antagonist from the first act returns near the endgame to organize a “rally against the tyranny of the guard and foreigners who infest Kirkwall,” namely Hawke and her friend Aveline, fellow Fereldan and now Guard-Captain. However high Hawke climbed, her influence was always curbed by a relative lack of real political power.
For me, this is a story that matters all the more in recent months, when actual refugees fleeing from a very real blight are cast as vermin marauders on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. We have our own posters demanding “Free Marches for the Free Marchers” and plenty in positions of power eager to say “fuck off, we’re full” in all the great languages of the world. Is empathy with someone fleeing desperately for their lives with their family really such a terrible thing to cultivate in a medium where standing in someone else’s shoes is the whole point?
Stories from the point of view of someone like Hawke, beginning as they do from the bowels of a ship packed with war refugees, are ideal for making a game out of tuche.
As I wrote in a nearly two year old article about Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, tuche is:
“a very distant ancestor of the word “luck”, [and] a much broader concept than that in the cosmology of Greek antiquity: it essentially means all the grandiose, macro-level forces that bear down on human life but are woefully out of anyone’s control. It is luck, yes, also Fate, but also nature, society, the wrath of the gods, or the crushing weight of historical events in motion.”
This was the heart of tension in Greek tragedy: the main character confronted forces he (for it was usually a he) could not overcome, forced to make awful choices between competing, inescapable evils. Whether you were a commoner or a king, you could not escape tuche, nor could any of us, implied the old tragedies. It’s bleak on one level, but also inspiring. It prompts both a confrontation with the real world in all its breadth, prompting a mature reverence for those powerful forces, and it gives a measure of the heights of human spirit. For it is during those dark moments when one is about to be overcome by forces greater than one’s self that our mettle is truly tested, that our characters are clarified. What we do, even when we know we cannot save the world or even ourselves, is always quite telling, morally and spiritually.
It gives insight into what happens when someone is, in Flemeth’s immortal phrase, “hurtled into the chaos” to fight.
Perhaps Dragon Age II was the wrong game at the wrong time for some, and certainly its marketing did it no favors in terms of building up expectations for a completely different kind of game. But it is, at heart, a game about survival athwart the inevitability of tuche, and that is grand in a different way.
Empathy with powerlessness is not merely an act of charity, nor the hallmark of a “bad game,” even if it is unsettling. It’s a way to tell an interesting story using gameplay. The writer’s dictum that there is “freedom within limits” applies to narrative design too. Telling a compelling story through the player character is not just about what you can add to their power, but what you can take away, creating tension in a scenario defined by limits on reach and ambition.
It’s a reality check we all need now and again, and a reminder that even one relatively powerless person can still do some good in the world.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.