Dragon Age II feels like the prequel to a really interesting series of games. The game seems to feel the same way, given its frame story of an agent desperately trying to find Hawke in the midst of a crisis. At some point after DA2, Thedas faces a Big Problem that only Hawke seems able to solve, but the game itself is just a string of little problems.
This is somewhat unusual for fantasy generally, and especially rare for fantasy games. Fantasy works from the latter half of the 20th century on tend to resolve around a single, existential threat to the entire world. Thus we have Sauron, JENOVA, the Dark, Alduin, Lord Foul, Morgoth, Sin, Voldemort, the Adephagos, and so on, problems usually solved through some technicality of magic. That’s kind of sad, because a Big Problem leads to a boring kind of constraint. It must be solved, or the world ends. Smaller problems can yield up a story with a satisfying answer even if there is no solution.
Dragon Age: Origins supplied its own variety of Big Problem in the form of the darkspawn and the Archdemon leading them, but it laid a groundwork of many little problems that DA2 further develops through each of its three acts. The first of these problems is political strife — Thedas is not a single nation and many of the countries that are neighbors are unfriendly with each other. DA2 lays this out right off the bat with the sad lot of the Fereldan refugees that reach Kirkwall. The player, as Hawke, and his family must indenture themselves to either a smuggler or a band of mercenaries in order to have a chance to enter the city. Pervasive, crushing social inequality is thus also a significant issue in this chapter, also occasionally pricked by demonstrations of the ongoing prejudice against the elves. Once Hawke and his family get into Kirkwall, they still must scrape together more coin to buy their way into an expedition into the Deep Roads in order to have any chance at a comfortable life.
This hearkens back to another one of the issues alluded to in Origins, because the Deep Roads are still full of darkspawn. The solution of the Big Problem of Origins is the destruction of the Archdemon, which ends the incursion of the darkspawn onto the surface. This, however, merely chases them down into the Deep Roads where they will continue to attack the dwarves, who are slowly dying out due to their social rigidity and constant backbiting. The episode ends with a dwarf betraying his brother — which is, incidentally, how the “Dwarven Noble” story begain in Origins.
The next two parts of the game focus more narrowly on two specific problems that are ongoing in Thedas. The second chapter takes up the issue of the Qunari presence. This is actually a counterpart to the darkspawn threat, but whereas the darkspawn are a chaotic force barely held together by the power of the Archdemon, the Qunari are an expression of total, all-consuming order that overrides even the identity of the individual. The Qunari have no names, instead identifying themselves almost exclusively by their role in society. There is no abandoning that role without abandoning society itself. Kirkwall, being pervasively corrupt and practically out of control of its rulers and law-enforcers, is a poor place for the Qunari to try to integrate or even stay for long.
That’s not to say that the conflict is perfectly drawn. Many of the Arishok’s actions seem inexplicable and even stupid, not only because he belongs to an alien culture but also because the explanations he gives for his actions make no sense. For instance, he states that he must stay in Kirkwall until he retrieves a particular artifact, yet he makes no apparent effort to actually get the thing. Similarly, he decides to absolutely protect two new elven converts to the Qun, even though they admit they are murderers. In Origins, Sten willingly accepted a sentence of death for committing murder, and it stands to reason that the Qun has something to say about this crime. Nonetheless, the Arishok offers no assurances that the elves will pay for their crime if found guilty, even though a lack of punishment for criminals is one of the things that drives him to attempt conquering Kirkwall. Part of the problem here is that the game studiously avoids communicating anything concrete about the Qun, even though it has a perfect mediator to carry out this task in the form of the convert Saemus.
Still, the explosion of violence that ultimately results from this tense situation is not exactly a surprise, and leaves an open-ended problem for the future. By attacking Kirkwall and killing the Viceroy, the Arishok seems to have brought on a war between the Qunari and the Free Marches. However, the Qunari in Par Vollen and Seheron have no direct front against the Marches, nor even a convenient sea route for attack. The Free Marches, on the other hand, seem not to have enough concentrated military might to attack at a distance. This suggests that the effect of any war would be to drive the Marches into the Tevinter Imperium’s sphere of influence, as Tevinter is still openly at war with the Qunari. DA2 itself is not particularly interested in the political ramifications of its second act, however, and this subject lies fallow in the game’s final chapter.
The final part of the game is instead taken up with the conflict between mages and the Templars who imprison them. This conflict has appeared in the Dragon Age universe almost from the beginning — the tension between the wizards and their watchers appeared in the Mage story and had a significant impact later in Origins. DA2 emphasizes the threat posed by even well-meaning mages by displaying Anders’ descent into madness and acts of senseless murder. His intentions in accepting the benevolent spirit Justice may have been pure, and many of his actions are, but it all ends in blood. As for ill-meaning mages, DA2 is full of quests where they go mad, summon demons, and become abominations. Hawke spends a good portion of the game killing these evil and possessed mages, so the argument made by gameplay takes the side of the Templars.
Which is not to say that’s a very attractive side. The game suggests that the Templars are even more oppressive than they initially seemed, often suggesting that they abuse their charges. The target of one mission is a Templar who makes mages Tranquil (cutting them off from the source of their power but also ablating their emotions and their actual self), it is implied, so that he can rape them. Mages talk of beatings and of having their letters burned. The Templar leader, Meredith, seems intent on expanding the power she is already abusing, taking de facto rulership of Kirkwall for herself. Despite all of this the game argues that things could be worse — the tortured, imprisoned Saarebas mages of the Qunari represent a line Meredith does not cross, much as she might wish to.
Again, Hawke has no hope of preventing the situation from spiraling out of control. Anders commits his terrorist act and Meredith decides to kill all the mages in her dubious care. In the ensuing chaos, most of the mages turn to blood magic and demonology, and it turns out that Meredith has been driven mad by a magical sword she’s had constructed from the artifact Hawke found in the first chapter. This is a choice that robs the preceding storyline of some of its resonance, however, as the tension between Anders and Meredith seems to be not so much one of ideologies in opposition as one of two equal and opposite kinds of insanity. Worse, because Meredith has been almost entirely absent from the preceding parts of the game, her descent into madness can’t be followed as Anders’ can, so the “reasonable” place she started from doesn’t get an airing.
The larger failing of DA2, in a narrative sense, is that these many little problems it deals with never build towards a whole, coherent story. The game has the feel of a second-rate biography, in which events are related without being organized into a theory of who the story’s central figure actually is. Something happens, and then another thing happens, and then another thing, but all this “and then” never builds into a defining moment because Hawke is never defined. Even if the player arrives at eir own definition of Hawke, eir ability to communicate this to the game is frustratingly limited. The game’s ability to recognize any theory of Hawke other than a constant pounding on one defining characteristic is correspondingly weak. Even when handed this blunt input in its purest form, DA2 can’t use that theory to assemble any more coherent narrative than “and then”.
That adds to the prequel feeling. Dragon Age II never really feels like it’s telling any story of its own. There’s no through-line, provided by Hawke, Varric, or even Meredith, to unite the story’s disparate chapters. Nor do any of the individual parts come across as particularly coherent narratives in their own right. On the whole it feels like a set-up, an outlining of the many little problems that will afflict Thedas throughout the rest of the Dragon Age, now that the Big Problem of the darkspawn has more or less passed.