What is Dragon Age Even About?

I was trying to describe the Dragon Age series to a friend the other day, and failing miserably. You see, this friend is a huge fan of the Mass Effect series. Should be easy, right? “It’s like a fantasy Mass Effect. It’s even made by the same studio!”

Except that is not really true.

I mean, yeah, it’s made by Bioware. But the longer I look at the Dragon Age series as a whole, the less it looks like a coherent narrative and more a mishmash of one-dimensional fantasy tropes. Dragon Age: Origins was a breath of fresh air with the Mage/Templar relationship, turning Elves into wandering Gypsies, and otherwise subverting a lot of traditional fantasy. Perhaps the genre has evolved in parallel or the novelty has worn off, as these days I’m finding the Dragon Age setting floundering for an identity.

I liked the Grey Warden schtick in the first game, even if it ultimately meant you were fighting dragons and orcs. In Dragon Age 2, you really weren’t doing anything of note; things just happened around you. While there is still time for Inquisition to kick into gear plot-wise (no spoilers, please), I’m at a bit of a loss in mustering up the motivation to care about anyone around me. Don’t get me wrong, party banter is pretty much the reason someone plays Bioware games; I just find it hard to like someone when there’s no real context for their decisions or personality.

For example, I have lost all investment in the Mage vs Templar narrative arc. The concept of anti-mage knights overseeing mage initiation rituals was pretty cool in the first game. It evoked a sort of Wheel of Time “mad dog on a leash” image; I started thinking that perhaps a similar thing should exist in the Star Wars universe vis-a-vis Jedi. It gets the mental gears moving, you know?

But now we are left with insane Mage vs insane Templar generic fantasy 101. My next Inquisition plot point indicates I will need to choose between seeking Mage support or Templar support, with the decision being mutually exclusive. I’m honestly about two seconds away from looking it up on the Wiki and making a decision based on which side gives the better loot. Quite simply, the game hasn’t given me any reason to care about the outcome. Compare that to my utter agony over the Genophage decision in Mass Effect 2. Same sort of binary, morally grey decision, but Mass Effect managed to get me to care. Dragon Age doesn’t even try anymore.

If someone asked you to sum up the Mass Effect series, you could say “scrappy Commander gets ship, builds galactic coalition to defeat Reapers.” As for summing up Dragon Age… uh… hmm. “Series of unrelated scrappy heroes collects NPCs and fights mobs.” Obviously it’s a lot harder to come up with a coherent narrative when you change heroes every game, but I’m not sure how much slack Dragon Age deserves. The Far Cry games have nothing to do with one another, and yet I can feel the thread that binds them. Where is the Dragon Age thread? What is Dragon Age even about?

I think Bioware would have been a lot better off sticking to the Grey Warden angle. Having a new Blight every game would be pretty formulaic (and unsustainable), of course, but I would of loved to have seen a more nuanced exploration of what life is like for the condemned Wardens in the post-Blight period. Sort of like a subverted fantasy plot, wherein your coalition and party members start strong and then fade out, slowly ground to dust via political machinations that find the Warden treaties inconvenient once the world is no longer ending. Perhaps there is a schism that develops amongst Wardens that desire children and security for their families. Maybe the Mage vs Templar rebellion could have started by the Mages deciding to free themselves en masse by joining the Warden cause.

Shit, can you imagine? Do you allow the Mages to essentially subvert the Warden code to emancipate themselves? They get their freedom, but there won’t be enough safeguards amongst the Wardens to keep a check on their power. Plus, what of the nobles who suddenly see the Wardens become a stateless army whose treaties supersede their sovereignty? Do the Wardens become complicit in the subjugation of Mages by rejecting them, especially when the Templars crack down extra hard after the attempted mutiny? Meanwhile, an Archdemon stirs from the all the conflict and bloodshed…

That would be an interesting decision. Not choosing between two NPC leaders that I was introduced to 10 seconds ago.

Who knows, maybe Inquisition will turn out to be super interesting in the final analysis. It isn’t terribly interesting now though, and it will have a hell of a time matching the plot I just invented a minute ago. The game is still fun, but I’d rather be playing Skyrim 2. Since I can’t, Inquisition will have to do.

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Posted on January 8, 2015, in Commentary, Impressions and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Ok, hear me out.

    DAO worked because the main plot had links to the small stuff, even if it was just lore. So when you did something, you could see the link to the bigger picture.

    DAI has little to no links between the stories. It’s a hidden main boss that has no relation on the other quests (outside the main one). Then you have the unrelateable crazies vs crazies line. And that’s pretty much it.

    You can do all of hinterlands and find no relation to the main quest outside of collecting a follower. The swamps are the same. I’m only about 9 levels, made the faction choice and one more mission after that. Not sure where on the main line that fits but I’m in the same bucket as you. A lack of cohesiveness is impeding my drive.

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  2. Not too long after picking the mages or templars you get a pretty clear goal to fight towards. Plus the game really opens up with several more areas to pick between to visit. Also stronger ties to the previous games in the series emerge overtime as well. You’re still firmly in the “Act 1” of the game.

    As for summing up the game… I guess you can use the words of warden Blackwall. “Save the fucking world, if pressed.”

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    • I am indeed being a little unfair. I just finished the Mage plot point and they are less “insane mage” than my original impression. There is plenty of time (har har) for Inquisition to redeem itself.

      I’m just sort of sad that it has to redeem itself in my eyes, you know? Maybe DA2 broke the spell for me and I’m just carrying the baggage with me. We’ll see.

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    • This. It’s stupid that the game doesn’t push you through the story faster to invest you.

      Pick your side, do the next story mission (it sounds point-of-no-returny but it’s not), off you go. The narrative starts making sense.

      (Although I think the whole game suffers a bit from not driving the story forward enough.)

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  3. I think where the series loses me is how it is still obsessed with the Chosen Hero story. I am still giving DA:I a shot, but I hate the underlying narrative behind my rise to power in a fairly large-scale operation. I wish the game was less epic and more of a strategy game in delicious, ‘boots-on-the-ground’ RPG form!

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    • I think a game like that could be really fun. It would have to be constructed carefully though, as it gets annoying in WoW (etc) when NPCs end up striking the killing blow and taking the credit. I mean, it makes sense given the “everybody kills Arthas” limitations, but it can still feel a little anticlimactic.

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  4. They should have stuck with the DA:O storyline. The connectiveness of the world is what made me absolutely love the Mass Effect series (even with it’s shortcomings) and each of the Dragon Age games could probably be named something different and be about the same. I haven’t played DA:I yet but DA2 was a big disappointment from DA:1 for me.

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  5. Question for you. I played DA:O. However, I never got around to playing DA2. Should I play DA2 before DA:I, or would I be fine just skipping DA2?

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    • Without spoiling anything, if you don’t want to play DA2, I would strongly advise reading through the plot. DAI will simply make more sense.

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    • If you don’t already own it from somewhere, it’s difficult for me to say to pick it up for more than $5. It took me 40 hours to get through, doing just about everything, and it was… okay. It’s definitely not Baldur’s Gate anymore.

      Skipping it is probably okay, but as Drew says, the majority of the events are predicated on what happened in DA2 (including, apparently, the DLCs). At a minimum, you’re going to want to do the Dragon Age Keep deal to get an imported save to use. That might be good enough, depending on how much of a plot guy you are.

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  6. I think Dragon Age is more about the world than a particular story or character. Since the protagonist keeps changing, it doesn’t get you as attached to the main character as you do with Commander Shepard. But, there are great threads that weave through all the games, and I find the world building is great.

    I had issues with the beginning of DAI but overall I really like how it made me feel like I was the head of an army, whose reach extended throughout all of Thedas and had people working for me, as opposed to the lone hero who had to slay every demon and solve every dispute myself.

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    • I have a post ready for next time, but basically I agree that the game has significantly improved for me in the meantime.

      While I can accept that Dragon Age is about the world and lore, I’d argue that those get much less billing than the characters generally. Hmm. Or perhaps DA2 really ruined the world-building flow to the point that I stopped caring.

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  7. Mass Effect and Dragon Age are fundamentally different, and it’s not fair to compare them to one another.

    Mass Effect is a complete trilogy, conceived as a single story which is told in three parts for convenience, much as Lord of the Rings is split into three separate books. At its heart, Mass Effect is a classic space opera of a hero and her motley crew(s) fighting against a cosmic evil that is neither understandable nor needs to be understood. The protagonist is the right person at the right time in the right place; the theme is that with luck, perseverance, and skill, a person can triumph against all odds and earn her happy ending. The Mass Effect trilogy flows together because it is a single entity.

    Dragon Age, in contrast, is an episodic series where the theme and style changes with each new installment. If Mass Effect is the Lord of the Rings, then Dragon Age is Glen Cook’s Black Company; in the Black Company series, the first novel is concerned with the morality of soldiers in the service of evil; the last is about a soldier coming to terms with surviving all of his friends. They share a setting and characters, but they are in critical ways fundamentally different. Common threads tie the works together, but they are not a single entity.

    Origins establishes the setting as an “anti-Tolkien” fantasy with real-world parallels, but the narrative structure hews to traditional fantasy narrative that is very similar to traditional fantasy such as Lord of the Rings. The hero is the right person in the right place at the right time. She fights against an enemy who is akin to a force of nature — the Blight and the Archdemon are not true protagonists, much as Sauron is not really the villain of the Lord of the Rings. Her antagonists instead are ordinary people pursuing their own agendas, particularly Loghain but also Bronca and Anora, to name a few. In short, is is a traditional Tolkien-esque story set in a “nontraditional” setting.

    Dragon Age 2 then subverts all of the tropes of Origins. The protagonist of Dragon Age 2 is perpetually the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time, who achieves her goals only if those goals are maximum chaos. The well-meaning Hawke cannot win in Dragon Age 2. The theme of Origins is that triumph over adversity is possible; the theme of Dragon Age 2 is that sometimes the best efforts and intentions are futile. And perhaps that the ability to set things on fire by itself does not give a person authority. Unfortunately, Dragon Age 2 was released well before it was ready, and so Bioware was never able to fully develop that thread of thought. Dragon Age 2 is weak not because of a failing in its ideas, but because those ideas are not given time to properly flourish.

    Inquisition, is a third kind of game, related to but not identical to either Origins or Dragon Age 2. Discussing it further would probably spoil the plot, except to say that it’s ultimately about sacrifice and betrayal. This is a game with enormous scope, and its threads are not always apparent. Inquisition is a “why” game to Origins “what”, aimed at the player who wants to know not only what happened and will happen, but why. Once you get out of Haven, the world opens up enormously, and it pays to take the time to fully explore it. I am 150 hours into the game, and am yet to fully explore everything. If the game becomes too easy, adjust the difficulty upwards.

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