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March 28, 2011 | by  | in Arts Music | [ssba]

Anomalous Materials: Playing a Role in Dragon Age 2

Earlier this month, Bioware released the latest epic in their seemingly never-ending chain of quality titles—Dragon Age 2.

I’ve been a big fan of this developer for quite some time, so I eagerly got my hands on the game on launch day, and have since sunk around 30 hours of gameplay. DA2 is immediately distinct from its predecessor, 2009’s Dragon Age: Origins. The combat is much faster and flashier, and both the art direction and technical performance of the graphics engine have been refined, allowing for a much prettier visual experience. What strikes me more than that, however, is the elegance of the writing. Taking into consideration that the game is a role-playing game (RPG), meaning there is emphasis on the player’s experience being uniquely his or her own, the narrative progression really works to bring a definite sense of consistency to the role you choose
to play.

From the get-go, the game allows you to shape its narrative. You are given a near-blank slate for a main character in the form of Hawke, a human fleeing their homeland to escape a pillaging Uruk-Hai-esque army. Your Hawke can be male or female, their appearance can be modified to suit your whim, and you are given the choice of one of three distinct fantasy classes—mage, warrior or rogue. While this choice of class is intended mainly for the way you will perform in combat, it also has an impact on the way your character acts and is reacted to in the world. For example, playing through the game as a mage, I found that in many instances I could approach conversation and decision-making from the point of view of one in touch with immense elemental power. Likewise, I was often treated with fear or caution by others for my magic-wielding ways. It is thoughtful touches like these that go a long way in bringing the character you created to life within the continuity of the game.

Hawke arrives as a refugee in the city of Kirkwall, where he/she decides to start a new life. From this point onwards, the “rise to power” (the game’s tagline) is up to you. Kirkwall is a city full of interesting—and sometimes morally dubious—characters to meet and interact with, most of whom have some kind of enterprise or problem they would have you involved in.

Conversing with these characters is handled via a Mass Effect-style conversation wheel in which you are presented with multiple paths in which to lead the conversation. You can investigate the topic of discussion by asking questions or point it in a specific direction, which is coloured by a respective emotion. In simpler terms, you can choose to be peaceful, sarcastic, intimidating, and so on and so forth.

Of course, this is not an unprecedented gameplay feature. Mass Effect 1 & 2 both made extensive use of a conversation wheel for players to express the personality of their protagonist, and simpler conversation trees have always been a staple of RPGs.

What DA2 does differently is that the more you respond with a particular emotion shapes Hawke’s general demeanour accordingly. Say I continually choose sardonic, witty responses, Hawke will take on that persona, shouting out scathing taunts in combat instead of heroic battle cries. This is all done without some awkward on-screen character morality spectrum, and you are not rewarded or punished for acting any particular way. Instead, for acting the way you want to act, the direction of the plot changes, taking you along a single thread in a complex narrative web of potential outcomes, without ever creating bizarre plot holes or breaking continuity. This makes for a very natural feeling role-playing experience.

The small steps that Dragon Age 2 takes to make playing a character entirely your own way enjoyable gets me really excited for the future of role-playing games. Fallout or Baldur’s Gate style voiceless walls of text, while charming in their own time and place, have lost their effectiveness in a medium rapidly advancing its ability to tell a compelling story. Show me what else you can do, Bioware.


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