Wednesday, August 3, 2011

DA2 analysis: A lack of agency

I think it's time I delved into some analysis of DA2. It's been a while since the game was released, and as such, I'm going to be pulling apart some aspects of the game to explain where I felt the game did well, and where it didn't do so well.  To this end, I'm going to go into some fairly significant spoilers of both Dragon Age Origins and Dragon Age 2, so if you've not played these games and don't want to have the plot ruined, tune out now.

The first issue that I want to discuss about DA2 is the lack of player agency in the plot. Firstly, it might be wise to describe exactly what this means. To take an academic definition: "player agency is an attributed, contextualised power to effect meaningful change". Put more simply, player agency is the ability of the player to affect their game world and their gameplay experience. It allows the player to make the key decisions and actions that push the game and its story forward. Unfortunately, this is one area where DA2 falls remarkably short.

I loved playing Emelie Hawke, but felt like I was being taken for a ride rather than driving it

Many players mistakenly attribute the shortcomings of DA2's writing upon the lack of the chaos of the blight and the darkspawn as in the first game. However, the intrigue of DA:O wasn't generated by the darkspawn threat. The blight was the catalyst and the driver of the plot, but it lacked the punch of the individual stories that drove the four cornerstones of game.

Those cornerstones were the stories through which the player gained their four armies in support to defeat the blight: A poisoned Arl with a son possessed by a demon, an ancient curse fueling a conflict between a Dalish tribe and interlopers, internal conflict between feuding mage groups, and a dwarf obsessed with a power that was buried for a reason. These were the drivers behind the core stories of interest that made people enthralled by the game.

Isolde's guilt and Connor's possession were more interesting than mindless darkspawn slaughter

The darkspawn were merely the "big bad evil" threat that was needed to fulfill the common need of players to have some big threat that they can keep in mind as something to defeat. It wasn't until you had the conflict of Awakening that they actually became an interesting entity in their own right. While having an antagonist is frequently an important factor to an intriguing tale (hence my "antagonists" series of posts), as long as there are ongoing sources of conflict to drive the plot and the player towards a goal, there is still plenty of scope for interest within that story.

DA2's core problem with the writing is that the player can often feel like they are dragged along for the ride rather than actively pushing the events of the story forth. Hawke is a key player in a plot that evolves around him/her rather than being the protagonist who makes the plot happen. This means that the player doesn't really get a sense of agency in making decisions, because many of the key events occur outside of their control, and they merely are there to "clean up the mess".

Did the Qunari have to go on killing spree over a book?

The effect of DA2's story on the world of Thedas is far greater than DAO's, with Morrigan's disappearance and child being the only thing with the potential to carry anywhere near as much weight. So why is it that the story feels so much weaker to so many players?

The crux is the problem is that the writers forced particular outcomes for the development of the overall story arc of the Dragon Age franchise. As a result, Hawke is forced into situations throughout each of the acts and has no power to prevent or control the development of any of them. In Act 1 Hawke is betrayed by Varric's brother for the mysterious red crystal. In Act 2, the Qunari attack the city of Kirkwall to retrieve their stolen Tome of Koslun, and this seemingly incites the potential for future Qunari violence even if their Arishok leader leaves instead of being killed. In Act 3, the ongoing conflict between the mages and templars explodes (literally) as Anders blows up the Chantry and subsequently causes all mage circles across Thedas to rebel.

Anders should not have more power than the player in driving the story

It does seems that the separate stories conveyed through DA2 are a build-up that should pay off in subsequent titles.  However, because these events always plays out in exactly the same way no matter what Hawke does, the player feels railroaded. Imagine if the player player could use diplomacy and tact to head off the crisis with the Qunari and prevent their attack entirely. There could have still be a strong sense of animosity pushed through this encounter, or alternatively the Qunari could have merely chosen to kill the Viscount to make an example of the nobility and leadership and the retribution that was necessary due to their inaction before leaving. If multiple options for instigating open conflict between the mages and templars had been implemented, this would have similarly left the player feeling as though they wielded the power to change the story.

If more variance had been introduced such that final conflict could have eventuated from different circumstances based upon Hawke's choices, as opposed to the choices of NPCs, then DA2 would feel like a far better game, because the player would feel far more empowered and as though they were playing an active role in the story rather than a reactive one. In this way, the player would have felt that Hawke was a true "Champion of Kirkwall" rather than a "Champion of circumstance".


  1. I feel like DA2 has more choice and consequence than its predecessor; DA:O's choices are mostly illusionism, affecting a static epilogue card and not much else.

    On the other hand the (retroactively?) obvious consequence of that is that you may as well have illusionism on top of choice that actually forks content, as some people seem to like it and it should be cheap to do.

  2. DAO's choices often have little mechanical effect within the game (do I summon dwarves or golems?), but the player still gets to make these choices. I agree that in terms of minor decisions and their effects and subsequently the verisimilitude of the setting, DA2 is superior to DAO.

    However, as I'm saying above, DA2's main problem is that the player gets dragged along for the tide when it comes to the BIG CHOICES, and the events supposedly make Hawke such an iconic figure of the Dragon Age and the Champion of Kirkwall. The player should not lack will, involvement and agency when it comes to the key choices of the game, even if those choices ultimately result in the same end point.

    The mages had to rebel and break away from the Chantry in DA2, due to the story the writers want to tell. But it should not have always been the result of an action from Anders that they player was powerless to prevent or even alter in the slightest fashion.