Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Dragon Age 2 Gripe

For those who haven't finished Dragon Age 2, you may want to tune out now. I'm going to give some fairly significant spoilers about some events within the game that some may not wish to hear. If you've finished the game, or don't care, then by all means keep reading.

Dragon Age 2 is not a game without flaws. In fact, it's got some pretty glaring ones at times, but on the whole I still found it a very enjoyable experience because I felt that it was a well crafted series of events where your decisions are actually had an effect on the outcome of the game and the lives of the characters you encountered. This was one thing that was pushed by BioWare in Dragon Age: Origins, and they reinforced that those decisions would matter with the "import" function they included to allow your decisions to carry over from that game into the sequel.

However, where this came crashing down horribly was the handling of one character: Leliana. Apparently the love for the red-haired bard from the original was so great that BioWare felt like bringing her back... even if you killed her in the first game. Leliana appears in the game a few times in what is little more than a cameo appearance, yet somehow the writers felt that this justified her being alive.

Apparently she was too sweet to stay dead

David Gaider, the lead writer for the franchise, had the following comments on the issue (taken from this forum thread) were as follows:

"Because the option was there as a reaction to your choice to defile the Urn of Sacred Ashes... not as a "you will never have to deal with this character again". We're not saying what happened in that chamber never occurred... in fact, we're not saying anything yet, with regards to Leliana. You're free to make all the assumptions you like, of course, but if what you're insisting on is "I think X is dead so I should never see them again no matter what"... well, prepare to be disappointed.

What happens isn't always going to be what you think should happen. It will, in fact, pretty much always work out the way we think it should-- and that includes bringing characters we like back. For those people who are just going to stamp their feet and insist that it should be what they want instead, I can guarantee that there's no amount of explanation that will convince them it isn't some offense to their idea of how our universe should work..."

Unfortunately, I couldn't disagree more with this line of thinking. Maybe we'll get to see what the "master plan" is when Dragon Age 3 is inevitably released, but what possible cause is there for Leliana to be so vital to the plot that her role couldn't be filled by another character? Her persona appears to have changed from how she was represented in Dragon Age: Origins and even its DLC Leliana's Song, so why bother "reincarnating" her?

Admittedly, Flemeth is brought back regardless of whether she is killed in Origins, but at least she has a legitimate excuse and is a crafty old crone who had planned it from the start. As a powerful character within the Dragon Age lore, it's also potentially justified in terms of her impact on the world. It makes sense given the scope of what the player has been presented. But Leliana has no such justification for the treatment she is given, and while it might potentially be presented in the third game, players should not be left with such a huge gaping piece of the puzzle missing when BioWare are effectively breaking the contract they have made with the players: "Your decisions matter."

Flemeth being alive... well, she at least explains how

If the player makes the decision to kill someone, they should stay dead. If they do not, then the player must be given a very clear and tangible reason why this is not the case. Flemeth has that, Leliana does not. Now, I realise it could be said I'm speaking with somewhat of a sense of entitlement here, as Dragon Age is not a story that I have written. David Gaider and other writers have mentioned this concept before, in that some players have a sense of entitlement that they think the game should turn out exactly the way they want it to. Unforunately, this isn't exactly one of those cases. The writers have given us an option: to kill off a character. However, the subsequent writing has stripped the players of that decision. Dragon Age may not be written by the players, but they are making their version of that story by playing the game.

By stripping players of their version of the story, the artificial nature of the reality presented to us is exposed in one of the harshest ways possible. Effectively the players are being told "No. You did a bad thing that we don't want to happen, so we're not going to rewrite your reality and say that didn't happen." Limiting a player's options by not allowing them to take a particular action is a necessity of video games. No development team can cater for every possible action that the player might wish to do and make all actions possible. If you're playing a Call of Duty game, you can't find a Samurai sword and start decapitating people. In Grand Theft Auto you can't weld two assault rifles to your car and shoot them while driving. There are a limited number of ways to interact with a game, and players expect that. However, when you give a player a means to interact with the world, then later ignore all consequences or results of that interaction, the player feels cheated.

Unfortunately, this left a bitter note at the end of Dragon Age 2 for me. Knowing that choices had been taken away from me and that there was nothing I could do about it. Then again, potentially in Dragon Age: Awakening Anders could die and Justice might never survive... which destroys so much of Dragon Age 2 that it isn't funny.

As a closing remark, I should say that in my one full playthrough of Origins/Awakening that I didn't do any of these things: The Warden romanced Leliana, Anders survived, as did Justice. But I potentially could make alternate decisions. Knowing that those decisions wouldn't be respected effectively ruins the whole point of being able to make them and import them into the second game in the first place. Funnily enough, the solution would be as simple as "Don't allow an import". This makes each game their own self-contained adventure and leaves the writers free to write whatever they wish. Players might complain that it's not giving them the same option as BioWare's other flagship game series, Mass Effect, but if the writers never make the "promise" that the player's decisions will be carried over to the sequel, the players can't expect them to do so.


  1. I would suggest we're looking at one of:

    1. Schedule keeping the "Provide replacement for Leliana" card in the backlog column, alongside the "reclaim our level artists" one ;) And what sort of monster kills Leli anyway?

    2. The planned role for Leliana in DLC and/or DA:3 is so large that the writers felt it was worth overriding the choice of the subset of players that killed her. Is there an achievement for defiling the Urn? I wonder what data they had.

  2. Oh, I imagine there is some reason for it, but the issue I have is that Leliana's character has changed significantly. Sure, she's still devout to the Maker, but now she's blindly loyal to the Divine, whereas previously she had her own faith that she believed in the Maker through her own means rather than through the organised institution of the Chantry. Even her letter in Awakenings seemed a little strange to me.

    Given that change of character (or at least it's a change as far as she's presented in DAO and Leliana's Song) and the minimal role that she plays in DA2, why not just create a new character entirely? My issue is that it smacks of laziness and/or fan-service rather than focusing on giving players the choices and consequences that they were promised by the series.

    Yes, writers are there for the fans/players, but those people deserve to be treated with as much respect as the reality of the fiction that is being presented to them. For me, the return of Leliana does not provide that.

    Again, I could make the same argument regarding Anders and his reappearance, also noting that he has undergone somewhat of a character change. Admittedly unlike Leliana's this change has been justified by the lore, but it still gives me a bad feeling that Anders was brought back merely for the fans who liked him from Awakening given that DA2 was supposedly offering "a fresh entry point into the series" for players who hadn't tried DAO.

    Isn't the blood magic specialisation obtained by defiling the Urn?

  3. Blood Magic is from mages siding with the demon inside Connor. Reaver aka Warrior Blood Magic is from defiling the Urn, which has its own achievement (though it's possible to keep Leliana from dying.)

    Maybe I'm a sucker like the BSN forums say I am, but I haven't yet decided what to think of Leliana. I just think it's a poor choice to have all the hints to what may have happened to change her personality and role in DLC only. (Dorothea in Leliana's Song and the codex entry about Dorothea becoming the Divine in the Exiled Prince.) If they're going to bring a character back from the dead without an immediate reason, I'd think they'd at least have the foreshadowing in the main game. You have to pay ~15 USD to even start to wonder why Leliana is back.

  4. Ah, my mistake. I knew those were the two options to get the specialisations, I just mixed them up.

    Apparently I missed the Dorothea connection. Still, it seems odd that Leliana would disappear to talk to the Grand Cleric (as she specifies in her letter from Awakening) - which is different from the Divine and therefore can't be Dorothea.

    Some people might consider this a petty or minor complaint, but in my opinion it's a significant issue.

  5. The Divine is effectively the Grand Cleric of Orlais, similar how the Pope is the Bishop of Rome. As such there could be a complaint made that Leliana wasn't specific enough in her letter, but then this can be handwaved as her being intentionally vague to make it more difficult to guess who exactly she was meeting with. She is a secret agent after all and she's well aware letters can be intercepted and read.

  6. On second thought the Primate of Italy would be a better analogy, but the point is quite the same.

  7. True, but Dorothea does not become the Divine until 9:34, and as far as I am aware, Awakening is set before that time. Again, it could be Leliana being misleading, but that seems curious. It also seems odd that she would return the Chantry so emphatically given she seems determined to serve the Maker in her own way in Origins. To me it seems that her character changed significantly from Origins to DA2, which is why it feels like blatant fan service to have brought her back.

    I hate to do it, but in this case I have to compare Dragon Age 2 to Baldur's Gate 2. BG2 allowed the player to import their character. However, there was never any implication or suggestion that anything more than your character would be carried across. The players were never given any suggestion that the decisions they made in the first game, or the people that were killed would stay dead. In fact, some dialogue even made a slight joke out of this where the player could ask "I thought you were dead?" This was perfectly acceptable, because there was never any expectation that events would carry across the two games.

    Compare this to DA2, where you import your save for your player's decisions. This establishes a contract with the player that all of the decisions and actions they took in Origins/Awakenings/Golems of Amgarrak/Witch Hunt would carry over into DA2. This understanding was reinforced by the developers before the game's release, who stated that players who imported their save would get to see the effects of the decisions they had made. By bringing back Leliana (and Anders/Justice), DA2 completely and utterly breaks this contract with the player, effectively telling them "Sure, you can make decisions, but if we don't like the choices you make, we're just going to wave our hand and make them go away."

    In my opinion, it's poor writing or a terrible design decision. Possibly both. I'm only so harsh on this because BioWare have been pretty much on top of the pile of RPG developers for quite some time. I expect better from the company that is supposed to be best.