Monday, January 9, 2012

The Age of the Dragons, part II: The Tragedie of Kirkwalle

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife.

In my 9th grade English class, we read Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.  Nearly every public school freshman class in the United States does this, still, and has done for decades.  It's an educational rite of passage: turn 14, read about two horny Elizabethan teenagers and how they died.

At the time, I hated reading Romeo and Juliet.  I resented everything about it and only began to change my mind when Shakespeare in Love was released a few years later.  With the full force of ironic detachment that only a teenager can muster, I knew that it was "stupid."

But my English teacher was a wise woman.*  I remember very little of the details of her class, half a lifetime later, but I remember her teaching the prologue.  The tension, she explained, came from knowing that the story would end badly.  The core of the tragedy was in the audience understanding as the play unfolded that disaster could be averted, but having foreknowledge that it wouldn't be.  The story, from the outset, was a tale of doom, and in that knowledge lay its art and its power.

Romeo and Juliet and I eventually came to a truce, and while it's still not among my favorites, I respect it for what it is.  But in 10th grade English, a scant few months later, I took to Macbeth immediately and have remained a fan of the art of the Tragedy ever since.

"Maybe it's not as simple as you imagine..."

The typical model of a video game -- and particularly, a BioWare video game -- is to collect your allies, fight your enemies, and save the world.  These stories might have nuance in the details, but ultimately their shape is unambiguous and Romantic.  They're all variations on the hero's journey, and the player character is front and center to the story.  He or she is the lynchpin of all that happens in the game world, and his or her actions and skills can guarantee a positive outcome for The Good Guys.

Players went in to Dragon Age 2 expecting the arc of Star Wars and instead got handed something out of Sophocles.  Saving the world, after all, is par for the course.  No wonder so many were disappointed with what they got. 

"I'm not interested in stories.  I came to hear the truth."
"What makes you think I know the truth?"
"Don't lie to me!  You knew her even before she became the Champion!"
"Even if I did, I don't know where she is now."
"Do you have any idea what's at stake here?"
"Let me guess: your precious Chantry's fallen to pieces and put the entire world on the brink of war.  And you need the one person who could help you put it back together."
"The Champion was at the heart of it when it all began.  If you can't point me to her, tell me everything you know."
"You aren't worried I'll just make it up as I go?"
"Not. At. All."
"Then you'll need to hear the whole story..."
The events in Kirkwall leading up to the beginning of the Mage-Templar war centered around Carias Hawke.  She was quick with her wit and quicker with her daggers.  She was ruddier than her dark-haired sister Bethany, but anyone could tell they were sisters at a glance.  She tried to help apostate mages like her sister as best she could.  With all of her family lost to her, over time, she found unexpected comfort and love in the arms of a fugitive warrior elf from the Tevinter Imperium.  Although she knew him for seven years, she never did really understand what drove Anders -- once a close friend -- to recklessness, madness, and disaster.  Despite being deeply betrayed, she could not make herself betray in turn and so she chose to let Anders live, sending him away with the unspoken promise of a knife between the ribs if he should ever dare to show his face again.

The events in Kirkwall leading up to the beginning of the Mage-Templar war centered around Owen Hawke.  He was even-tempered, if prone to sarcasm, and though he was always willing to use his magical talents he, like his late sister, spent a lifetime carefully (if ultimately unsuccessfully) avoiding Templar attention.  In looks, he favored his brother Carver.  With all of his family lost to him, over time, he found his way into a torrid, passionate relationship with a fellow apostate and runaway Grey Warden.  He always knew what danger lurked within Anders but felt that maybe, if he didn't poke at it, they could avoid recklessness, madness, and disaster.  Despite a zealous, selfish, and destructive betrayal, he wouldn't turn on the man he loved.  With no small measure of worry, he chose -- for a while -- to accept his lover's apparently sincere desire to remain in his life, and after the fight at the Gallows they disappeared into the wilds together.

The modern BioWare RPGs are, in a critical way, always about your story.  The initial approach to one is the story the player has chosen to tell, for whatever reason: moral self-insertion; a pre-written, pre-determined RP approach to a character; the fine art of just picking things in the moment because you don't give a damn.  It's an individual story, and the first playthrough becomes the story that the player tells about the events of the game.  (This is true of both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises, to date.)

The first story is my story.  Carias (which sounds better than it's spelled) Hawke is my canon Hawke, and when Dragon Age 3 inevitably rolls around the events of her life are the tale I will import and carry forward.  Hers is the story I have chosen to tell, and the game supported and encouraged my telling it.

The second story feels closer to being the story.  Owen, through his outsider status as a mage and his relationship with Anders, uncovered huge swaths of motivation, narrative, and foreshadowing to which Carias was not privy.  His was the second story I chose to tell, and the game not only supported and encouraged my telling it, but embraced it.

The key to reconciling these two different stories -- full arrays of different choices -- against each other and the fixed nature of the plot is through the mechanic of after-the-fact narration.  It's interesting, seeing where the "Eye of God" viewpoint falls in Dragon Age 2.  The story the player chooses to tell always meets some of the same goalposts, and while Varric's narration of events has a few tweaks, it's fundamentally immutable.

Indeed, for all that the player controls Hawke, in a meaningful sense the player is better represented by Varric.  His presence as narrator -- and a potentially unreliable one, as far as both Cassandra and the player are concerned -- echoes and underlines the entire concept of the player making choices in what is ultimately a forced linear tragic narrative.  "Here's how it really happened," the player says, and no one can particularly gainsay it because the ultimate sequence of events is still the same: Hawke came to Kirkwall in 9:30, in some way knew these 7 or 8 individuals, and in 9:37 was present when Anders destroyed the Chantry.  Cassandra may stop Varric in moments of true absurdity but otherwise, she believes the story he has to tell about Hawke, no matter how it unfolds.

A brief diversion: one theory of visual arts (in particular, film) holds that the viewer's participation is a necessary part of creating meaning, including narrative meaning.  The director and team who assemble a movie can give visual and aural depictions to their hearts' content, but true meaning comes from the viewer's foreknowledge and ability to make connections.  For example, a shot in which the camera pans through a poor, downtrodden city neighborhood relies on the viewer's knowledge of urban poverty, or at least common cultural symbols of urban poverty, in order to work.  Viewers with different backgrounds will create sightly different interpretations of such a shot and the film of which it is a part.

In the game, the player's participation in creation of meaning is more concrete, but in the same vein.  Essentially, we at the keyboard or holding the controller are standing in the wings, feeding Varric his lines for Cassandra.  The narrative on-screen is fixed: Hawke will always find the Thaig in the Deep Roads, Quentin will always kill Leandra, and Anders will always explode the Chantry.  But much of the why is up to the player's interpretation and manipulation of the text.

"A last toast, then: to the fallen."

The stories of both Carias and Owen Hawke are arguably tragedies, in the classic sense.  Only one of them gives all of the necessary markers along the way such that the player can see the shape of the story, understand its tragic nature, spot the oncoming disaster before it comes, and realize that Hawke in fact is not the center of the bigger tale.

The game more or less works no matter how one chooses to assemble its pieces.  Any combination of friendship and rivalry, any combination of party members taken adventuring, and any Hawke class or set of skills -- all will add up to a total story.  The player takes control of this Fereldan refugee and fills in the blanks however s/he likes, and it flows.

But rather than punishing the player for not making the "right" choices, Dragon Age 2 uses something of a carrot rather than a stick approach to authorial intent.   The game rewards certain choices by adding layers of character background and motivation to certain stories and certain party combinations.  My Hawke never knew that eventually, Fenris and Isabela could start a relationship -- and my other Hawke only found out by chance.  My Hawke missed out on some of Anders's political passion, but my other Hawke found his lover's manifestos lying all over the house during the years they lived together in Hightown.  My Hawke relied on Fenris to help her negotiate tricky moments with the Qunari; my other Hawke convinced Isabela to give the tome back.

I didn't feel shortchanged, at all, the first time I played through the game.  (Or the second, which immediately echoed the first, with nearly identical choices but with a better understanding of how it all worked and eye to foreshadowing.  Owen's game was number three.)  I never regretted the decision to roll a female character, to play a class other than mage, or to avoid the Anders romance.  I like that story, and that Hawke, and stand by the impulse to make it "my" canon.  But that "other" Hawke -- the mage who had to deal with Carver, who lost Bethany, who chose Anders -- seemed to get the full story, in the shape of so much dialogue I might never have known was in the game.  And while the game never forces a single direction on the player's character, when playing the "real" canon story, the "right" story, there's a feeling to be had that one has fallen very smoothly into the story that the game wants to tell.**

"There's power in stories, though. That's all history is: the best tales. The ones that last. Might as well be mine."

The fun part is, no player would ever be able to discover the difference -- to hear all of the details of the story -- without playing through the game at least twice.  Usually when we say a game has "replay value," we aren't talking about the strictly scripted, generally linear, straight-narrative games.  After all: their skills are easy to master and we know how their stories go.  Why revisit?

To me, the reasons to revisit Dragon Age 2 (beyond the same "old friend" reasons I revisit favorite books and movies) seem obvious: because this time, your concept of context is well enough honed to hear the prologue.  Varric's words can no longer slide through your consciousness and back out: when he describes the state of the Chantry and the Circles, when he intimates doom for Hawke's sibling on the Deep Roads, when he convinces Cassandra "if Hawke had only known..."  In all of these moments, Varric, our narrator, is helping us create the tragic arc.

Foreshadowing, after all, is a particular kind of thrilling agony when the player (viewer, reader) does, in fact, know what's going to happen as the story unfolds.***  And sometimes, it's the core of the entire thing.  And so we find ourselves winding back to Shakespeare and to Aristotle, back to stories that advertise up-front that there is no winning solution to be had.

"I removed the chance of compromise, because there is no compromise."

The true story of Dragon Age 2, especially when thought of as the middle chapter of a story that began with Dragon Age: Origins and Awakening, is the tragedy of Anders and the Chantry.  Hawke is a lens for understanding the story, rather than an end unto him- or herself.  Such a construction directly contradicts nearly everything players have been led to expect from 20-30 years' worth of tradition and history in the western RPG.

Subverting expectations and deliberately playing with tropes is tricky, and Dragon Age 2 paid a price for its efforts.  Close to a year after its initial release, player and critic opinions still stare each other down from across a mile wide, love-it-or-hate-it canyon.

In the end, perhaps it doesn't matter.  Dragon Age 2 was exactly the right game, but it seems to have landed in the wrong franchise, or at the wrong time, or with the wrong marketing.  BioWare's official position as they unofficially talk about Dragon Age 3 seems to be that they're willing to be carried at least in part by the tide shouting that this tragedy was a misstep.  The internet clamors for the combat-focused, exploration-driven, skill-and-inventory driven classic party-based RPG that Dragon Age: Origins was heir to.   DA2 instead brought a city full of companions to life and mainly gave the player's avatar a reason to be a witness to the inevitable bubbling over of violence that began the Mage-Templar War.

That war could yet destroy Thedas, and so whatever avatar takes center stage in the final installment of the trilogy will, I'm sure, be out to save the world.  No doubt he or she will briefly meet survivors of both the Fifth Blight and the Battle of Kirkwall.  And I suspect that he or she will find Thedas to be salvageable, and so help create a brave new world.

And stepping forth upon a new and mysterious shore, with all the problems of the world untangled?  That one's for the Comedies.

For further reading on the telling of tragedies in video games: Line Hollis, Four Types of Videogame Tragedy.  And for excellent further reading on Hawke and the Heroine's Journey, see here, on Flutiebear's tumblr.

* Mrs. Lucy Myers, of Belmont High School. To whom I owe rather a lot, not least of which is thanks for putting up with 14-year-old me.

**The Mass Effect franchise does this even more strongly than the Dragon Age franchise does.  Although Shepard can make a limited variety of choices along the way, particularly in the area of romance, certain decisions (Liara) have less friction against the rest of the text in ME / ME2 than others do.

***Leandra's cheerful, happy talk early in Act II of finding a suitor is pretty much yell-at-the-computer heartbreaking on a second go.


  1. And while the game never forces a single direction on the player's character, when playing the "real" canon story, the "right" story, there's a feeling to be had that one has fallen very smoothly into the story that the game wants to tell.** 
    **The Mass Effect franchise does this even more strongly than the Dragon Age franchise does.  Although Shepard can make a limited variety of choices along the way, particularly in the area of romance, certain decisions (Liara) have less friction against the rest of the text in ME / ME2 than others do.

    This, by far, is one of my favourite things about DA2. The first character that I rolled was a mage who fell for Anders, whereas my partner rolled a rogue who went first for Isabela, then Fenris. Never did we feel that the game was pushing us to choose one class, or one LI, in order to fully tell the game's story. DA:O had traces of this with Alistair and Morrigan -- a Warden has their plot LI, and then the choice between two others who could have been left before -- and the choice in the end to agree with Morrigan's decision seems to have been designed in part to manipulate the Warden's feelings for their LI. Save Fenris, and ignoring Sebastian as he was a paid DLC character whom I never acquired, all of the LIs were integral to -- and well-woven into-- the plot; only Fenris was able to not be recruited. 

    In Mass Effect, there's only Liara. Sure, ME gives Shep the option of choosing to help a potential LI and leaving their fellow human and Alliance squadmate to die on Virmire, but Liara always lives. Liara always forces Shep to embrace eternity in front of the rest of the crew. Liara always retrieves Shep's body and hands it over to Cerberus. Liara always displays some affection for Shep when they meet again in Ilium. And Shep always reacts fondly to Liara both on Ilium and on the Normandy post-LotSB. (Not to mention that the ME comic for those playing ME2 on PS3 who wish to generate choices for ME all but pushes the player to choose Liara as LI.)

    I have similar problems with Garrus, Wrex, and Tali -- in ME2, Garrus is Shep's bro by default, Wrex, should he be alive, welcomes Shep warmly as a friend, and Tali looks up to Shep as an example -- but not even the two LIs (Garrus/Tali) are as well-integrated into the story as Liara. No LI is. 

  2. I'm not clear on this point: Why do you think your second playthrough is the *real* story versus just a *different version* of the story? Purely on account of having more context for Varric's narration the second time around?

    Are you saying Varric's narration still functions as foreshadowing in a second playthrough? If so, I would find that interesting as the power of foreshadowing depends on a lack of *specific* knowledge, doesn't it? We know something awful is going to go wrong but we don't know precisely what form it will take. In a second playthrough of Dragon Age 2 we *know* all the broad strokes already. Our new set of choices may lend new flavor to the tale, but like you said they're largely irrelevant in terms of where we're going.

    I wish I had I remembered Varric setting the stage for the ending 60+ hours before I got there. I might not have felt that ending was so jarring and haphazardly handled. "Oh, yeah, by the way, the game's over and Mages all over Thedas have revolted and sorry for the massive violation of show, don't tell, guys!"

    Also interesting that you lay a large share of player reaction to Dragon Age 2 at the feet of trope subversion. I would lay it at the feet of arbitrary alteration of mechanics first, and truncation of scale second. Had BioWare not fixed a combat system that didn't need fixing, and not removed almost all the sense of adventuring from the tale, I think a tragedy wherein players didn't save the world at the end would have been entirely palatable.

    Everyone thinks The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the Original Trilogy, after all. :)


  3. Quick response - thank you for this. I had been extremely leery of DA2 from the time it came out (I *like* my classic party-driven RPG style a great deal!) and hadn't been paying it much attention.

    You've convinced me that I really need to play through it. Thank you!

  4. Same! My other Girl Gamer had talked me out of buying it but now I will before DA3 comes out.  I hate the Chantry.

  5. I actually hoped on my second run through I could prevent Anders from blowing up the chantry. I thought I had made some grievous choice(s) my first go through that I was determined not to make on the second. Sadly no amount of save backtracking allowed me to save the chantry.

  6. I don't disagree with any of the points you made, my issues with DA2 (I don't hate the game but it isn't one of BioWare's best in my book) were less the narrative framework/personal tragedy/swept along by events aspects of the game and more the mechanics of it.

    It's sad that something so experimental from a game story viewpoint was so let down by the technical aspects; things like the exploding/parachuting waves of enemies, the city that didn't change over the course of a decade, the magic jumping jack final boss, templars paying zero attention to mage Hawke using powers in full view of them, the re-used maps etc.

    The only part of the story that impacted my personal enjoyment of the game was the final act  mini-boss when you play mage supporter, it's oddly timed, logically badgered and makes absolutely no sense. But all that said, again agreed that there's plenty of freedom to make your own story with the Hawkes, and it is a good story, it could just have done with a slightly better game (possibly one that'd taken more time to develop) to go with it.

  7. My first was a female rogue who romanced Merril. But she befriended Anders and her house was full of manifestos; Fenris and Isabela started their romance; and she was friends with Isabela, who returned the Tome. She was a very talky and affectionate person.

    I do have the impression that male mage Hawke romancing Anders is canon, but that's more from reading things the developers, especially Gaider, have said. And I'm ready for the canon character in part 3 to be female for certain.

  8. Though Gaider's romance preference seems to be mage male Hawke with rivaled Fenris.

    I've enjoyed your writing about DA2 bunches. Despite the irritatingness of the first final boss if you're siding with the mages and the reused maps, I love this game so much

  9. I think the second playthrough was closer to the "real canon" because of what was uncovered while playing it.  I can't remember all the dialogue off the top of my head but particularly in conversation with Anders, Owen Hawke heard relevant bits and pieces that neither of my other two Hawkes did.  The one that I do remember is hearing about Anders and Karl decidedly being more than just friends, by way of an example.

    As for Varric and foreshadowing, he's always hinting at something but the effect that hinting has on the overall shape of the story is different if you know you're doomed, which is knowledge that comes either from spoilers or from a previous playthrough.  There are tons of other instances of foreshadowing, though, in party banter or in the comments of other NPCs.  (Emeric, to Hawke, in Act I, when looking into a woman's disappearance: "What if it was someone you loved?")

    There were issues with the mechanics, I do acknowledge, and DA2 isn't flawless.  I didn't mind the repeated locations, I approve of the closely limited geographic scope, and I vastly preferred the new combat (though I hear auto-attack didn't work correctly on the console versions, initially?).  But I realize some of that is personal, and no one game will please everyone.

  10. Then playing through DA2 and finding out what happens in the tie-in novel leading up to DA3 (I admit it, I read it, I'm vaguely ashamed but oh well) should suit you very well indeed!

  11. I liked most of the mechanics, but I'll join in the, "no, really, WTF?" about the parachuting waves of enemies.  "Mysteriously appearing from some alley or doorway" I can take.  "Dropping in from above" is, well, pretty stupid.

    I also agree about the Orsino fight.  While it was a really neat piece of horror, it felt discordant in a mage-supporting playthrough.

  12. The sad thing is (imo) it could have been the one time the wave mechanic would have made sense story-wise; confront the character (and through them the player) with a seemingly endless wave of (non-parachuting) enemies and the sudden snap into a desperate act might have made more sense.

    And I don't know what would happen if someone parachuted in full plate mail,
    but I almost wish someone would do an un-manned experiment - for science!

  13. So that's how it ends.  Huh.  Almost makes me want to finish it.  Maybe once I "finish" this *other* Bioware game I'm currently embedded in.

  14. It's not actually terrible.  David Gaider (who's the writer famous for his rebuttal to the "straight male gamer" some months back) did the novelizations and while they're hardly at the pinnacle of literary prose, they hold up as basic stories (or at least, this one that I read; I don't care about the pre-DAO ones with Maric) and the characterizations of folks who appear in the games are consistent.  It's kind of like reading a story in the codex, but quick and zippy.

  15. If it doesn't splatter, it's not Science.

  16. I remember that. "Actually, we want our games to be for everyone. [Dumbass.]" I like him. 

  17. These are my points as well, Bioware needed six more months refining the mechanics of the game.  The biggest complaints what happens when a game developer has run out of time/budget to completely finish the game.  It's a shame too, since I find the story and combat mechanics to be superior to DA:O.  I very much enjoyed the combos with different characters, especially since at higher difficulties you do need to take advantage of them.  It's also one of the first RPGs I've played where the non-mage combat actually looks deadly.  The way rogues jump around in combat, is one of the cooler things about the game.  And the mages, oh man they just look absolutely devastating in combat.  Now those are spells that look like they can kill.

  18. (I hope this formats properly, and also hope you don't mind the pastiche!)The events in Kirkwall leading up to the beginning of the Mage-Templar war centered around Dominic Hawke. He was generally an agreeable, compassionate man, although occasionally he would surprise people with a quietly delivered joke or remonstrance. He strongly resembled his father, one can assume, since he didn't look much like anyone else in his family. As a mage, he was stubbornly principled. He never made a demon pact, though demons tempted him with promises of power many times, and he never used blood magic. While making his way around Kirkwall doing odd jobs, he met a troubled elf named Fenris, who had escaped slavery at the hands of a mage of Tevinter. To the surprise of both of them, since Fenris unrelentingly hated mages, they fell in love. Dominic distrusted and avoided fellow apostate and runaway Grey Warden Anders from the beginning, as charismatic as he was, because he had made a pact with a demon named Justice, and every demon Dominic had ever seen had been bent on manipulating its human host toward its own, always destructive, ends. His distrust was justified when Anders, at the behest of Justice, made a reckless, mad, disastrous decision that killed many innocent people. With no small remorse, Dominic killed Anders with his own hand. As they prepared to face Kirkwall's greatest battle, Dominic and Fenris pledged their future together in a fashion true to their relationship thus far: reserved on the surface, passionate at its core. *****In my opinion, the option to spare Anders gives the player an out from making DAII a real tragedy.  While grim and truly heart-wrenching, Anders's death was his perfect end for me. He was bent on destruction, and, in his turn, he was destroyed. Full circle. I had a very cathartic response to this part of the story, as I've mentioned, which may not have happened if it hadn't been me-as-Hawke wielding the dagger...and would definitely not have happened had I-as-Hawke spared him.My youngest brother killed Anders without compunction. In his simple words, "He made a dick move."My romance was also cathartic, which made my playthrough quite the emotional rollercoaster. It wasn't a tragic catharsis, but it COULD have been if my Hawke had chosen a particular fate for Fenris in Act 3 in response to his business in Act 2. But, man, I can't even look at that on YouTube.

  19. Nuts, it didn't format properly.  I hope it's at least somewhat readable.

  20. I had actually planned to have Owen kill Anders. But then I was spoiled as to the literal how -- in the back, while sitting -- and I just couldn't do it.  I think any Hawke of mine would at least have the decency to look the man in the face first.

  21. I still can't decide if the positioning during the Anders dies Y/N? thing is a cinematic choice made because it looked dramatic, or if deeper thought went into the symbolism of turning Hawke into a literal backstabber. It really struck me as odd that it didn't change if the character was in a relationship with him either - possibly another casualty of the reduced development cycle.

  22. Furtled jumped in before I did!  Overnight I was thinking about this, and I wondered if it was cultural.  My Hawke Tranquilized Feynriel (don't look at me like that, he begged Hawke to!) and the positioning of the characters was very similar, only Feynriel was standing.

    Of course, Fenris does his dispatches face-to-face.

    Way off the topic, but interesting.

  23. Popping in to say, yeah, the auto-attack was promised (on the forums, at least, maybe elsewhere as well), but didn't make it onto the disc and had to be added in the first patch. And, if you think sections of the forums went WILD over this violation of their entitlement and savaged every BioWare employee from the doctors on down to the poor community managers, you are correct.

    Honestly, that place just lost its collective mind when DA2 released.

  24. I really enjoyed The Stolen Throne because it's in part a road-buddy flick with Maric and Loghain and I loves me some Loghain.

  25. That's been fixed in a patch. More romantic options were supposed to show up in dialogue (and you can sway a rivalmanced Anders to side against the mages!), but there was a bug. They really needed more time on the project, alas.

  26. That is something I should probably have noted somewhere: I played the fully patched (1.03, I think) PC version of the game, in November and December 2011.  So there are some meaningful, negative ways in which early players and perhaps console players had a different experience than I did.

  27. I managed, by sheer luck, to capture a gorgeous screenshot of my rogue in mid-air, about to land knife-first on some undead thing.  It is seriously badass; a moment out of The Matrix sitting happily on my hard drive.

  28. Probably not worth a footnote, but yeah. I was playing it from Day 1, and my most recent play-through last month was a very different experience.

  29. Romeo and Juliet is horribly taught in 9th grade English. There is a fantastic literary theory that Romeo and Juliet is actually a satire of the tragedy and Shakespeare was trolling over dramatic Italian drama of the time. That theory puts a new light on the play. Macbeth on the other hand...pure awesome.

  30. "Players went in to Dragon Age 2 expecting the arc of Star Wars and instead got handed something out of Sophocles." I have to respectfully disagree here. I found the narrative to be terrible, and no where near Sophocles. Mage antagonists are all insane and stupid, templar antagonists were sadists (and two of them were rapists). The narrative lead to Orsino becoming a Harvester for no real reason, and Meredith became possessed by a macuffin the same absurd reason -to provide a boss battle against a ludicrious villain.
    In fact, Gaider's novel "Asunder" points out that Hawke and Anders' actions didn't mean anything - the mage revolution happened for reasons that had nothing to do with Kirkwall which, for me, makes Dragon Age II pointless.

  31. If I'm being strictly honest?  I picked Sophocles rather than a hundred other go-to examples of tragedy because it made the sentence sound nice.  Had I known it would be a pull-quote on Kotaku, I might have chosen differently.  ;)

    That said, I'm not making a statement on its quality for the ages there, but rather its general nature.  I found the story to be a key example of a classic tragedy, and so that's what I compared it to.  I do agree that the Orsino thing does come out of nowhere and was a very poor narrative choice to include in a pro-mage playthrough.

    As for Hawke and Anders not meaning anything though, I disagree.  Well, no.  Hawke doesn't mean anything, and that's something I addressed in the essay.  But Anders's actions do spur further rebellions elsewhere.  There's unrest with the Divine, the Chantry, and the Seekers as a result of Anders's actions, and the destruction of Kirkwall's Chantry is cited several times in the novel, by both mages and templars, as an instigating event in the Circles' withdrawal.  In effect, Anders got the eventual outcome he wanted, at least as far as we know.

  32. That would make a huge amount of sense, really.  I like that theory.

  33. I couldn't find it last night!  This made me sad.  On the other hand I have a ludicrous number of DA2 screenshots at the moment so it might still be in there somewhere...

  34. Personally, I didn't like R&J much until I saw the Baz Lurhman version.   I think that DiCaprio made Romeo feel enough like a depressive teenager that I believed he might well do something so colossally stupid as what he does.  

    Still, I like that theory, too.    Macbeth is good, but King Lear is even better.   It's a bullet to the brain pan.  

  35. As a culture, we seem to have given up on tragedy.   What's the last tragic film published?   Citizen Kane?

    Hmm, I sort of think of the recent Captain America as a tragedy, that was slipped in while nobody was looking.

  36. Aw, it's okay. Just thought I'd ask!

  37. I actually thought DA2 did a good job to not pick a "real canon" story that "the game wants to tell."  Of course you're going to find out more information when you make choices you hadn't made before.

    The best example of this that I can think of would be Meredith.  On a pro-mage playthrough, that woman is just 150% crazy.  But if the PC has a track-record of sympathizing with the Templars, then Meredith volunteers an actually quite compelling story behind her "Yes, I know most mages mean well, BUT..." mentality.   Yet, I'm definitely getting the feeling that the spirit of DA leans towards pro-Mage (Asunder cemented that feeling).  But pro-Magers don't get the aforementioned piece of (in my opinion) very illuminating information.

  38. Thing is when Anders kills Karl it's face to face, that's more the physical positioning I'd expect to see between two people in a relationship/former lovers; the standing behind just seems so off in that situation, even with the additional patched dialogue.

  39. Oh sweet zombie jesus, I have almost unholy love of Lear as a tragedy, hubris, madness and the ending when Lear comes to his senses with Cordelia, it's incredible.

  40. I felt the same way when I finally an a pro-Templar Hawke through the game, Meredith's talks with pro-Templar Hawke added so much to her character, but without that extra depth she only ever comes across as an almost pantomime like villain.

  41. .rec, Pan's Labyrinth, Dawn of the Dead (both versions), The Orphanage, Eden Lake, Paranormal Activity (original ending), The Descent (UK ending), The Mist (seriously bleak ending) and No Country for Old Men spring to mind; not classic tragedies as such (and arguably most of them are 'genre' films opposed to well known blockbusters) but depending on your reading they all end badly for the supposed protagonists.

  42. Well, I don't think it's fair to count a UK ending, I'm talking the USA here. Dawn of the Dead reminds me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as well. But I kind of think a good tragedy has to be plausible. You have to think, "Oh yeah, that could happen."

    Strangely, most of the rest I haven't seen, and with major regrets about No Country for Old Men.

    But you're kind of making my point when you say, "not classic tragedies as such".

  43. Ah it wasn't intended as a slight on the US or anything like that, they're mainly European films because that's where I'm based :) On the subject of plausibility I tend to take it from the responses of the people involved rather than the framework of their interactions; so the actions of people in Dawn of the Dead are just as plausible as the actions of say, Lear.

    Completely agree that classic tragedy isn't a big thing in popular cinema right now, but it was the same during the last major recession/depression, I would argue there's a fair amount of tragic films (more modern tragic than classic) out there beyond Kane; even something as ridiculous as Ghost Ship, The Fly or Titanic has most of the hallmarks of a classic tragedy (but you're right - not all of them).

    And No Country for Old Men is (imo obv.) superb and really worth a look if you get the time; also the Mist is worth watching too as it's the one on that list that comes closest to being a 'classic' tragedy, there's actually a few similarities to Hawke's story now that I think about it.

  44. I didn't take it as a slight, I'm just an observer of US culture, and know little about the zeitgeist in Europe. I'm sure there's overlap, but I'm not really confident in extrapolating.

  45. Ahh cool, tone is always a tricky bugger to pick up online :) There's a cheap stereotype of US culture being unable to cope with sad endings in Europe (or film execs being convinced they can't), something The Descent's new ending didn't help with unfortunately!

  46. Just a brief return to say that Flutiebear's link was, indeed, great stuff.  I was pretty hip to the concept of tragedy through various lit classes, but had never heard of the heroine's journey.

    It goes a long way toward explaining why so many women love DA2.

  47. OK, maybe I'm just weird, but I think it's more a mercy to let Anders not actually SEE his death coming.  They don't offer blindfolds to the victims of a firing squad to INCREASE their fear of death, after all.  And it wasn't like it was unexpected or undeserved or anything remotely like that.  Anders knew what he did was wrong, knew it was inexcusable and unforgivable, and chose to do it anyway.  He knew full well he deserved to die.  To me, in order to have the negative connotation of "a backstabbing son-of-a-bitch" (or daughter-of...) actually apply you have to stab somebody UNDESERVEDLY *and* UNEXPECTEDLY.  Neither of those applies in this case.

    I agree with Anders that the Chantry system (the circles, and more) all needed to change (badly), but as soon as Marian Hawke got her romantic achievement I went back and executed that slimebucket and never looked back.  (Pity Varic doesn't account for that in the epilogue tho.)

  48. Heh, as a programmer myself, I know the first release of ANY product is never truly "complete"... so I like to wait on purchases to give them time to fix the obvious flaws.  And I'm also a cheapskate and I like getting things on sale. :)