I’ve been getting into Dragon Age after Act and other friends recced it. I played Origins a little while ago, and recently finished Dragon Age 2. But for all the talk of the excellent writing and the meaningful choices the game offers, I found myself extremely disappointed and frustrated with just how little freedom I actually had, especially in DA2. There’s a really baffling disjunct between which characters you are and aren’t allowed to kill or save, and which choices are respected and which get quietly retconned or ignored.
(mega spoilers for both games, fair warning)
A lot of my problems relate to just how violent the games are. You mostly fight people, especially in DA2, and the encounter sizes are enormous. Just walking down the streets, you’ll encounter bandits who for some reason decide your party of world-ending supermen are a good target, and you have to kill every single one. No option to nonlethally incapacitate or arrest them (not even in DA2, where one of your party members is captain of the guard), and at no point do they try to cut their losses and run, even if I reduce the rest of their party to a red mist in the first ten seconds of battle.
Now, you could argue that those are just random encounters, so whatever, they’re not plot-relevant and we don’t have to think too hard about them. But it’s the same even in plot-relevant fights too. My most memorably egregious example is the quest “Act of Mercy”, in DA2: A group of apostate mages are on the run and have been cornered by the templars. A sympathetic templar tips you off and begs you to intercede, because he fears that if even if the templars try to negotiate, the mages will panic, fight back, and get killed.
Five seconds after walking into the cave, a mage sees me, attacks, and I have to kill him. There’s not even a cutscene or line of dialogue acknowledging how this is the exact scenario I was supposed to prevent, he’s just instantly aggroed and I can’t continue until the combat is resolved. This continues until you reach the end, where you finally get a chance to talk with the mage leader… who is so ~crazy and unstable~ he can’t be reasoned with and you have to kill him anyway. The most you can do is save about half his followers, who refuse to fight you and run away instead.
Except, whoops, turns out they get captured and tortured in the Gallows anyway! Screw you for trying to help people! Oh but at least they get to live, right? Hahaha no, in the endgame they try to form an alliance with the sympathetic templar to perform a coup against the abusive templar commander, but one of the only mages you’re allowed to save in “Act of Mercy” also becomes ~crazy and unstable~, kills the sympathetic templar, then attacks you and has to be killed herself. You can do nothing to change this. Screw you for trying to save people, screw you for believing in compromise, screw you for thinking your choices matter.
And this keeps happening. In one of the DLC quests, “Mark of the Assassin”, you get attacked by a petty noble early in the quest for stupid petty noble reasons. He miraculously doesn’t get reduced to giblets when his HP reaches zero, and you’re allowed to let him go afterwards. If you do, later in the quest he attacks you again anyway, and this time you do have to kill him. I had half a mind to kill that guy anyway, but I was just so sick of killing people I took the one chance the game offered me. Then even that proved to be a false choice.
You’re only allowed to defer combat so it can come back to bite you, or when it’s objectively the wrong choice. Pretty much the only time you can avoid killing opponents in quests is if you accept a bribe to let them keep doing evil things. In Origins I frequently found myself hearing the demons out, even though everything I saw pointed to that being an objectively bad idea, just because they were the only people in the entire game who were willing to negotiate.
Now sure, Dragon Age is a fighting game. There has to be combat and a boss battle in every quest. But it doesn’t allow you any flexibility or creativity even in that sphere. You cannot run away. You cannot perform nonlethal incapacitations. You cannot selectively target people to see if the underlings will surrender once their commander is defeated. (In “A Paragon of Her Kind” I wanted to save the golems, so I targeted Branka in the hopes of deactivating her control rods – but of course they keep fighting afterwards, even though that makes no logical sense, and you still have to kill them.) Only death for any foolish enough to raise a hand against you.
Now sure, Dragon Age and especially DA2 is a story about difficult situations where sacrifices have to be made. So okay fine, it’s making a point that killing is easy but saving people is hard. So tell me then, why can’t I kill anyone I want to kill? Why can’t I shank Cullen at any point, even after he says to my face he doesn’t think mages are people? Don’t tell me it would be suicide to do it in front of the entire templar order, you’ve had no problem throwing small armies of bandits and mercenaries at me the whole game. The one army I’d gladly slaughter to the last man is the only one I can’t aggro.
And tell me, why is Cullen there at all, when his canon ending in Origins if you side with the mages is that he has a complete mental breakdown and gets dishonorably discharged? How exactly did Meredith find this broken wreck of a man and piece him back together until he was remotely functional? No. I sided against him and I was told he ended up in a position where he could no longer hurt people. Why isn’t that a choice that gets respected?
This isn’t really a game about freedom of choice. It has a narrative it wants to tell, and you’re not allowed to deviate from it. You’re meant to be reactive, not proactive, reacting to events in the moment. And sure, that’s a valid narrative style, but it makes no sense at all in a power fantasy, which RPGs are. My party is a four-man army – literally, the player accomplishes tasks that have stonewalled the actual armies of the setting. I absolutely do have the power to break the world over my knee if I want to. I should not need to be corralled into the standard villains-act-heroes-react paradigm and be forced to just stand there like an idiot during cutscenes where characters loudly declare their intents at length before acting. Ironically, the narrative would make much more sense as a visual novel with no combat mechanic, where I really do have to consider my own safety and limit my options accordingly. But in the game we have, we snap from cutscenes where everything is gritty flawed realism to gameplay where four people effortlessly wipe the floor with an entire army – how can I not see that as anything but absurd?
I’m left with the sense that this flattens the narrative, and cheapens the choices you are allowed to make. DA2’s Big Choice, and the one that seems to have stuck with the most players, is the choice of whether or not to forgive Anders for committing an act of terrorism: He bombs the Chantry to assassinate the grand cleric, in the process doubtlessly killing many innocents who were there in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s framed as an incredibly dramatic moment – it’s clear they poured all their writing, artistic, and directoral talent into putting that scene together.
Instead it’s a farce. Because how in the world do I have any stones to throw here when my own kill count is in the hundreds? Because he killed innocents? Yeah, like how I slaughtered Merill’s entire clan, including noncombatants, just because I made the wrong dialogue choice and accidentally aggro’d them? Like how I slaughtered innocents mind-controlled by blood mages and demons? Like I could have potentially willingly condemned innocent children like Feynril to death or worse? And how are we even defining “innocence”, here – we’re told the Tal-Vashoth in the mountains were bandits, but why should I believe the narrative spread about a marginalized group? Were they really evil or did they just panic when I approached, like the mages in “Act of Mercy”? The player has no leg to stand on here.
Anders’ actions don’t stand out. The endless slaughter throughout the rest of the game desensitized me. You can’t write a story exclusively about horrible people doing horrible things and then expect me to care when a horrible thing happens.
And the thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve finally started Torment: Tides of Numenera, and I’m in love with how much choice it actually gives you. I’m several hours and quests in and I have not used the combat mechanic once since the tutorial. Every single quest gives you a cornucopia of nonviolent options, varying shades of compromise and resolution you can each accomplish through a variety of roleplay styles. And you can still go in guns-blazing if you want to!
Obviously absolute freedom of choice is impossible, but we can still do so much better than the current norm. I hear everyone say Dragon Age has great writing, but I just can’t agree. It has writing, and that’s sadly notable in this genre – but that writing is confused and haphazard. It can maintain decent quality when it comes to fixed narratives like character arcs, but the moment it tries to give the player Meaningful Choices it falls smack on its face, tripped by genre trappings and its own rigidity. I’d like to see choice-based games that aren’t so narrow in their way of thinking.