Inclusivity Review: Dragon Age 2

If you have any interest in BioWare’s Dragon Age 2 (and I realize many don’t, after many missteps by both BioWare and EA in this franchise and others), you’ve likely heard the bad by now: entire levels are used over and over to an annoying degree, combat has changed (which will bring people down on either side of the issue–I enjoyed the changes), etc. This review is more in the line of NonCon’s review of Radiant Historia, then, covering aspects other reviews will miss or gloss over in an attempt to only discuss gameplay.

Originally I was going to write this with a frame review in mind, checking my own privilege and examining the game in such a way. As I played the game, that approach started becoming too unwieldy to attempt, however. This review will include spoilers.

Flemeth, right, looks at Zel Hawke. The former is an elderly white woman whose hair is up in horns, and is wearing a studded leather chestpiece that inexplicably has a v-cut to show cleavage. Zel Hawke is a white man in his twenties, wearing a sleeveless, leather chest piece, and has auburn hair with a wind-blown look; tattoo markings are on his cheeks.

Flemeth, right, looks at Zel Hawke. The former is an elderly white woman whose hair is up in horns, and is wearing a studded leather chestpiece that inexplicably has a v-cut to show cleavage. Zel Hawke is a white man in his twenties, wearing a sleeveless, leather chest piece, and has auburn hair with a wind-blown look; tattoo markings are on his cheeks.

To start, I will claim I enjoyed Dragon Age 2, but that does not mean I ignored the areas in which it has problems. There were also moments that made me incredibly happy (such as realizing all the four main love interests were available regardless of the sex I chose to play–a point I’ll address again later). Most of these issues are not ones I will cover in much depth, as they likely need their own posts; I did want to make people aware of them, however.

Trigger warnings for: poor handling of issues with regards to mental disabilities (including violence by and exercised against such people), monosexism as exhibited by players, and oppression of entire peoples; the discussion will also cover sexuality and race.

Ronia Hawke, a black woman with her hair pulled back, stands right as she speak to her sister, Bethany, and brother, Carver. Both have her skin tone, and hair color.

Ronia Hawke, a black woman with her hair pulled back, stands right, her back to us, as she speaks to her sister, Bethany, and brother, Carver. Both have her skin tone, and hair color. The text reads, "Then let's go. Lead on."

Race

Allegra covered the whitewashing of the Champion of Kirkwall already. It remains in game, not just the demo. I can confirm that family members, including the uncle, change when you create a non-white Hawke. The reason the two siblings have black hair, for instance, is to allow for such diversity. The matter is not one of just swapping their skin color, but also changing their faces and hairstyles. I tried this two times, with a black Lady Hawke, and a Latin male Hawke. The results can be seen in some of the screenshots both above and below this paragraph.

Redgren Hawke, a dark-complexioned man with leather armor and white hair and vandyke facial hair. His brother stands to the right, with hair that is black and faintly dread-like. His mother, whose white hair is meant to indicate her age, covers her hands. Bethany stands left, with a black-haired pixie cut.

Redgren Hawke, a dark-complexioned man with leather armor and white hair and vandyke facial hair. His brother stands to the right, with hair that is black and faintly dread-like. His mother, whose white hair is meant to indicate her age, covers her hands. Bethany stands left, with a black-haired pixie cut.

The character creator itself is slightly better than in Origins. It is no longer the case that darker toned characters just look like tanned white people. The options are still not as robust as I would like, so it’s a step forward, but needs more work. The hair options are indicative of gaming as a whole (more directly, they’re weak), which deserves a post on its own. The specific facial features are also limiting (specifically in my mind are the options for eyes).

Kirkwall has people that are not white. The darker skin tones are actually used more often than they were in Origins, though rarely is the darkest used, from what I saw. The people are predominantly white, but as a city that is supposed to also be a accessible via sea, it has some more diversity than Fereldan and Denerim did. In the case of one of your companions, Isabela, it is difficult to say. She is darker in skin tone than most of your other companions, and her treatment by marketing is somewhat worrisome.

Isabela hails from Rivain, which, from talks with her, seems to reference the culture of the Sinti and/or Romani (the game doesn’t go into much detail, so it’s difficult to ascertain). This is the impression I received from both her character design and the references to a darker-skinned people who believed in seers (or hedge witches), which is a cultural stereotype of those two cultures–particularly in fantasy. In the first game, her model appears lighter skinned than in the sequel, but both the lighting in The Pearl, as well as the inaccurate skin tones of that character creator make it hard to clearly distinguish the intent behind her character.

Isabela was used in marketing the game. Both Bitch Magazine and Glamgeekgirl have handled the issue of her ads. In the former, we realize that while she is darker skinned in the game, the marketing lightens her skin considerably. Tied with Glamgirlgeek’s pointing out of the sexist German ad that uses her as an object to sell the game, it becomes increasingly obvious that her skin was lightened so that she would be ‘sexier’ to some notion of a  ‘target audience.’ This is not new in advertising, sadly, but it is disappointing that instead of focusing on advertising diversity, they downplayed that in both reducing Isabela’s character to a sex toy rather than as a sexually-assertive and confident woman and whitewashing her for ads.

Zel Hawke in a furred, spiky armor set look down at Anders, a white male mage with blond hair. Anders looks off right.

Zel Hawke in a furred, spiky armor set look down at Anders, a white male mage with blond hair. Anders looks off right.

Sexuality

There are four romance options in the base game, and The Exiled Prince DLC offers one more, albeit a chaste romance. Excepting the DLC character Sebastian, all romance options are open to either a male or female Hawke.

I have only experienced one romance as yet, that with Anders, the Grey Warden mage, as a male Hawke and it pleased me. He references a previous same-sex relationship, and while approaching him with flirting in mind, he will stop you and ask if it bothers you that he’s been in a previous relationship as such. This serves as a buffer to any who might complain they ‘accidentally’ fell into a relationship with him, as well as providing context for his character. Anders appeared in the expansion for Origins, and many have argued he never showed an interest in men in the previous game (as if that is in indication of one’s interests).

The fan reaction has been mixed. I have seen people of all sexualities claim this is ‘unrealistic.’ There is the claim that it is ‘lazy,’ but as BioWare has clearly stated, they will not have a same-sex only option. For someone who does call himself gay, this was a compromise I was willing to accept, as it opened up the majority of the the romances to everyone. Much of the debate has derailed into monosexist trains of thought, claiming that it’s impossible for that many people who happen to travel together to be bisexual, or at least open to such. Personally, I do not find it so odd at all, especially as this ignores that both Aveline and Sebastian are clearly shown as heterosexual.

In the case of two of the characters, Merrill and Fenris, their sexualities seem to not be as clear-cut. Anders and Isabela both have clear histories that indicate they are bisexual, but the two elves don’t discuss their past romances or sex lives much at all. Therefore, their sexuality is a bit more subjective in how you play and interpret it. I do not wish to indicate this erases them as bisexual characters, but that this aspect of their lives is not as clearly indicated within the context of a single playthrough of the game.

There is a brothel again this time, and the options do not include the same trans* issues the first game had. There is a range of options, with effeminate men, women who are assertive, women who are bored, men who are gruff, and such. Some of these fall into the stereotypes of the butch male dwarf and effete male elf.

Author’s Edit: Something that occurred to me after this published. I was disappointed when I discovered that stripping my male Hawke of his armor merely placed him in pin-striped pants without a top. Doing the same with Lady Hawke put her in panties and a bra. While much guffawing was done over the awkwardness of the undergarments in Origins, this approach to it seemed a slap in the face.

An image of Kirkwall, black in the distance, with yellow and orange figures grasping their face, clearly in despair. This is during a discussion of the history of slavery in Kirkwall.

An image of Kirkwall, black in the distance, with yellow and orange figures grasping their face, clearly in despair. This is during a discussion of the history of slavery in Kirkwall.

Oppression & Xenophobia

As in Origins, there is slavery, there is the oppression of the elves who live in the ghettos known as the Alienage, the subjugation of mages, and a mixture of xenophobia mixed with intolerance of other religions as exhibited toward the Qunari. These all exist in varying degrees, and the first thing I noticed were the discussions Anders and Fenris had regarding how the oppression of mages was similar to how elves were treated: both stem from the Andrastian religion. It seems to broach intersectionality and fighting against a dominant culture, while showing how minorities can be ignorant of how divisive such a culture can be, further empowering oppression.

Fenris’s own story is that of a former slave whose tattoos were seared into his flesh with lyrium by his former master. His story line does a lot to confront his own feelings, which have placed an understandable hatred for his Danarius, the Tevinter mage who owned and mutilated him. Hawke has the ability to guide him through a process where he forges a new life and/or to directly confront the injustices done to him. Of course, in this game, confrontation means killing Danarius.

The city of Kirkwall has a history of slavery, and while that is addressed in the codices, it seems to only serve as a backdrop in which one can comment on it, or notice how the refugees from Fereldan are treated with disdain. Hawke has a few options to help her fellow refugees when she improves her own status, but it’s not really seen in any measurable effect (in my playthrough of the game so far). In fact, convincing miners to continue going back to a mine so that you can eventually fight the high dragon that will be there results in them all being slaughtered.

The Alienage is not as well explored as in Origins, though issues of interracial relationships are broached a bit more, albeit through one side quest where the question of where a person of mixed races can find acceptance. When elves and humans mate, the child always ends up as human. That oppression is not really addressed,  instead the game focuses on the subjugation of mages (which reads to me as a parallel to the criminalization of  homosexuality in various cultures and decades, but I have a whole post in mind about that as well).

The option does exist to completely eradicate Merrill’s entire Dalish village, which somewhat bothered me, but the quest in which it takes place is complicated with the aforementioned issue of intersectionality, and an ignorance or distrust of certain means (in this case, blood magic, which does not have to equate with being evil, though it does seem that way quite often). The other option is to accept responsibility for Merrill’s actions, and thus be banned from visiting her clan again. The situation requires a more thorough examination than I can provide as of now.

The Qunari’s design has changed so that they are now horned and have a more light-purple/chalky hue to their skin. As they were the only race in Origins who seemed to be non-white by default, this has been a concern of mine for a while. They seem loosely based on the old Ottoman Empire, especially in both their cultural and religious clashes with the rest of Andrastian Thedas (which reads as Christianity). Qunari society is clearly sexist, they devalue individualism (their names are merely their station in life, such as Sten), and they believe in honor given through roles and fulfillment of such.

The second act of the game is dealing with the political tensions of their continued stay in Kirkwall. This can eventually result in one of four ways of dealing with the tension. If Isabela returns the book she stole from them (which she may not do, as she may run off with it), you can either give her up to them and let them leave with her as their prisoner (you later find out she escapes anyway), or fight them for Isabela’s honor. Isabela scoffs at this and demands fighting for her own honor, which the Arishok, the Qunari leader, says is unacceptable, as she is not seen as worthy. If the book is not returned, one has to either duel the Arishok one on one, in accordance to his view of honor, or bring in your entire party to fight.

The entire situation could clearly use a lot more explication and exploration for someone better versed in the such cultural conflicts, especially as it covers both religious and cultural issues. I feel it should be noted the Qunari are constantly portrayed as more technologically advanced than the rest of Thedas, but more adamant about their opposition to magic. A mixed bag from my, admittedly limited, standpoint.

The title screen for Dragon Age 2. Orsino, the elven First Enchanter mage stands left with a staff which sports three dragon heads. Meredith, the Knight Commander of the Templars, stands right, with her sword drawn, and a shield in her left hand.

The title screen for Dragon Age 2, which uses a painting/carving aesthetic. Orsino, the elven First Enchanter mage stands left with a staff which sports three dragon heads. Meredith, the Knight Commander of the Templars, stands right, with her sword drawn, and a shield in her left hand.

Mental Disabilities

The game has a number of persons who are violently insane. Outside of Sandal, who returns from Origins, I did not really find any other instances of people with mental health issues portrayed in anything that could be considered a positive light (and Sandal is up for debate–I cannot speak to it closely).

At one point Hawke is asked to apprehend a criminal hiding in the outskirts of Kirkwall. Going there will reveal the criminal is a man who is a serial killer of elven girls. Talking to him reveals a man who hears voices, considered them demons, was told they were not by mages, and refuses to believe he is anything but plagued by demons (which should sound familiar in our own ways of communicating about issues concerning sanity). The way to deal with him is to either kill him (he begs to be killed) or return him to the authorities. There is no option for actually helping him, beyond hiding him away so his politically engaged father can continue his career, or outright killing him. His begging to be killed speaks to larger issues of our society not willing to  make room that allows many other options.

Toward the end of the second act, Hawke’s mother is abducted by a serial killer whom the player has been tracking since the first act. He has been recreating his wife, and animated her using blood magic. Hawke’s mother has the face of the man’s deceased wife. Again, the only way to deal with him is to kill him.

Again, during the same act, Varric has a personal quest that involves finding his brother, who abandoned Varric and Hawke to die in the Deep Roads. He has gone violently crazy as well, though his is the result of an item he picked up in the Deep Roads. Quite honestly, the ‘item of power makes person lose sanity’ trope is tired and as it usually results in violence from both the person who has the item, as well as to stop the violence, it is really growing problematic.

The same item is then given to Meredith, the game’s end antagonist. Her reasoning for ending up as the antagonist is perfectly reasonable in the game’s plot–as a Templar of the Chantry, she wishes to provide security at the cost of mages’ freedom. Instead of continuing that thread, she has bought the item that Varric’s brother had, forged it into a sword, and she is actually insane, which is apparently what informs her decisions. It is a Chekov’s gun that never needed to be in place, and it casts her in a final villainous light not because of her actions (which, again, could be done without resorting to her having to be insane), but because of the supposed illness that has now affected her. It was a poorly implemented plot decision that undercut both the story, as well as being ignorant toward actual issues with mental disabilities.

End

These are just the issues I have seen in my first playthrough, which lasted fifty-eight hours. Naturally, I could have missed some issues due to not seeing them, as well as being ignorant due to my own privileges. Therefore, I’d like to ask of others to speak up about other issues they have seen handled positively, negatively, or perhaps in an ambivalent manner.

About Denis Farr

Denis Farr is a white, androgynously gendered, TAB, German-born and U.S.-schooled, male-sexed queer person (with a penchant for other male-sexed queer persons) who started writing about games at Vorpal Bunny Ranch (in other words, he's loquacious). He has continued with this endeavor, expanding his writing to both GayGamer.net and here at The Border House. A strong proponent of expanding diversity in games, his focus is often on how characters are depicted in games, and exploring the language we use to explicate games themselves.
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52 Responses to Inclusivity Review: Dragon Age 2

  1. Jayle Enn says:

    My first reaction is to the first image, and that’s only to say: “Wait, she’s supposed to be elderly? And that’s supposed to be -hair-?”

    My main concern is with the in-game relationships, or rather the response to them. I haven’t played DA2, and I’ve been less than thrilled with the romance options in previous Bioware titles (Liara throwing herself at you in ME1 was just downright embarrassing), but I’m honestly baffled by complaints that there are too many choices, or that being able to romance any of your unattached companions is unrealistic. It’s a game– more to the point, it’s a role-playing game. Ostensibly, you should be able to forge your own path to a satisfying conclusion, and if that includes an NPC having a mutual interest in your avatar, so much the better. It’s -your- Hawke, your Hero of Kirkwall, your happy, romantic coincidence in a dreadfully unhappy world. If you really want it to be just like everyone else’s… save yourself fifty bucks and watch a Let’s Play serial on Youtube or something.

    • Denis Farr says:

      The screenshot doesn’t do the model justice, as the face in the game actually has age marks–the body does not. There is very little body variance in the game, actually, which is a disappointment I forgot to mention.

      Agreed on how it can be done in some titles. I cannot speak to all the romances, but with Anders, he was actually reluctant and would not respond to my flirtations in either a positive or negative way at first. I had to actually pursue him.

      As to the decrying of too many options (or not the options they want), I’m not entirely sure I get it either, except as people may want a character who is only interested in the same sex.

  2. NonCon says:

    I am irritated that there aren’t any characters who are gay, instead of bi. Bi people need to be represented as well, of course, but I think I’d appreciate it if there were a character or some characters you couldn’t romance unless you’re the same gender.

    Also, yeah, the mentally ill murderer you kill or don’t kill in those ruins really pissed me off.

    • Denis Farr says:

      Agreed. I’d like it, but I don’t think we can look to BioWare for it any time soon.

      I was surprised, and I’ll keep a more close look at it on my second playthrough, that there weren’t any openly gay or lesbian NPCs in the game, which Origins did have (you just couldn’t sleep with them).

    • Jobias says:

      It’s true that Anders is romanceable if you’re male or female, but it should be noted that he is isn’t homosexual if you are female, and he isn’t heterosexual if you are male.

      If you’re male, he explicitly states that his friend Karl, from his introduction quest, was his first male lover. If you are female, he states that he is simply an old mage friend. I don’t know if that makes things better, but at least from a player’s point of view on their first playthrough, he is presented as exclusively homosexual/heterosexual and you wouldn’t know otherwise unless you speak with other players or playthrough a second time.

      • Alex says:

        Interesting–they seem to have basically done what Stephanie suggested as a “second best” option in the comments here: http://borderhouseblog.com/?p=732 ? (Second best to having characters with actual fluid sexualities that can change within one playthrough.)

      • Darkrose says:

        I actually think that making Anders gay or bi adds a richness to his story. The first moment I felt emotionally engaged in the game was his introduction quest, and I think it would have had less impact if they were “just friends”.

      • Kermit says:

        Well, if we assume that Anders is Anders, regardless of how we play the game, then he is bisexual. Just because we have no context in which to observe his sexual orientation (i.e. if we never flirt with him) doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a given orientation.

        One thing I love about DA2 is that the characters seem to have lives apart from Hawke and his quest, things that we as the players only receive flashes of from time to time (like Aveline and Isabela’s rivalry). Given that, there are not two “alternate reality” versions of Anders, only one – and that one is fluid in his sexuality, and indeed had a relationship with Karl whether we ever learn about it or not.

    • Thanks for writing about the coverage of mental health issues in the game; I’ve been having issues with communicating how fucked up with stuff is because I haven’t actually played the game.

      (Plus I got frustrated with Mass Effect 2 on the same front yesterday, so like… bioware I am not expecting much from ._.)

      • Denis Farr says:

        Yeah, games in general need a lot of work in that area, but BioWare in particular seems to want to explore it without actually exploring it.

        I hope someone, perhaps I, more fully examines the issues with this. There have been some on why it’s completely unnecessary to the plot and undercuts what they were trying to establish, but none I’ve seen which more fully address it as yet.

  3. Korva says:

    I’m of two minds about Flemeth’s new design. On one hand, it has “badass” written all over it — though the boob window spoils that effect somewhat. On the other hand, it’s too showy compared to the simplicity of the “haggard old swamp hermit” look she had in Origins. Her original look was of a woman who doesn’t need or want to show off, nor prove or pretend anything, is beyond caring for superficial silliness like being “sexy”. I adored that. And she had knowledge and power and menace not *despite* that simple look, IMO, but rather the simplicity *enhanced* that impression. So while I like the new design, I like the simplicity better still.

    Can’t say much more because I don’t own nor intend to play this game due to being too annoyed at many changes (though some storyline videos on youtube, which I did check out, do look tempting). As a borderline asexual I’m curious how platonic bonds are handled in this game? On principle, I am glad that Bioware has taken one more step towards giving same-sex relationships equal time, especially for men, but I do wish they’d improve the platonic relationships further, too. I grimace every time a friendship is written off as “just friends” or when having a “LI” means getting twice the dialog out of a companion while being best buddies is not even an option nor acknowledged in any way.

    • Denis Farr says:

      For this reason I’m curious about the ‘chaste’ romance one can apparently pursue with Sebastian.

      The game doesn’t follow the sex as commodity model, and I have en entire post in mind explicating the relationships. What I can boil it down to is: getting into a relationship seems to go much faster in this one, largely because the focus is not just on getting into the relationship and having sex, but including the fact that you are a couple. The scene with Anders implies sex, for instance, but does not show it at all–I could easily have made up my mind that they were just making out on a bed. The focus was much more on what their relationship meant in a platonic sense.

      I can only speak for Anders thus far, however.

      Also, re: Flemeth. I agree. I’m unsure what to make of it, largely because it fits with the plot (and could be written off as an embellishment of Varric or Cassandra’s imagination–both revere her and find her entrance in the story a bit too grandiose). In order to impress Hawke, she does seem to want to be flashy, however. Whether or not she’ll change looks again? I’d be curious to find her a chameleon who knows how to manipulate people based on how she appears, but we’ll see in the end, I suppose–the plot heavily indicates that she will be back and has a much greater role to play in Thedas.

      • If she wanted to impress people with flashiness, though, surely the Warden would have been worthy of throwing some impressiveness at? In the first game, it seemed that she wouldn’t stoop to such tactics.

        Blaming the whole thing on Varric’s imagination is the only logic I can come up with.

        (Haven’t played the game yet only the demo)

      • Korva says:

        Hmm. A “chaste romance” doesn’t count as platonic or asexual for me. Chase means they still want to bed each other but don’t because of religious vows or some other reason. Still, it’s an interesting change of pace. And I’m glad if “scoring” is no longer the big goal/reward of the romances, too. “Being a couple” sounds much better!

        If this question does not derail things too much, how does the delightfully non-romanceable character Aveline do in the “strong platonic friendship and sister in arms” department? She is one of the reasons why I was tempted to get the game after all for a while.

        As for Flemeth, I have no doubt that she can be, has been and is a woman of a hundred faces and facets (I love the character as much as I loathe her daughter, heh) and that flashiness is a part of her repertoire. I just liked my ominously plain swamp hermit. ;) If she does want to impress Hawke, though, she certainly doesn’t need a weird hairdo or a boob window — roasting a darkspawn horde in the shape of a high dragon did the trick just fine!

        • Jonathan says:

          I think they’ve done a fine job with the party relationships on many levels. During my first play through, Varric and Aveline definitely become good friends with Hawke, while his relationship with Fenris was more one of mutual respect and convenience. Anders was interesting, as I got as far as the “intimate moment” part of his romance storyline, but I’d already slept with Isabela. He questioned the status of the relationship and I had the opportunity to say that I was in love with her, admit that it was only casual or lie about it only being casual.

          You also get to see relationships build up between your party members, which is fantastic. Quite often you’ll visit one at their home and see another just leaving.

          • Denis Farr says:

            Yes, this was my experience as well. The relationship with Aveline grows to be quite strong. What I find interesting is the friendship/rivalry aspect of it all. It is assumed that your relationship grows, even if it’s not as a friendship. This means that you are essentially close, but you may have fundamental disagreements. I’m curious as to how that will play out in multiple playthroughs.

            You can actually flirt with Aveline, but she has aims for another character. I never took the option, but I imagine she just rebuffs you–she’s not available, and she will make it known. We had some disagreements, but she believed in the same basic principles, so became friends (those being that people need to rule themselves, not be ruled by the Chantry).

            She’s also the best companion for a tank, so in many party makeups, she can be quite essential. I really enjoyed how her character wasn’t just a Strong Female Character, but shown to be a warrior, have emotions, and be able to be both vulnerable in certain areas, and reflect on her past (which she won’t always share with you).

            • Linar says:

              Aveline doesn’t rebuff Hawke if s/he flirts with her — she just doesn’t realise that Hawke’s flirting.

              I’m pretty certain that I loved everything about Aveline. She keeps certain things to herself, and that’s just fine with me.

            • Kermit says:

              Oh, you simply MUST play as Aveline’s rival – the exchanges are priceless – arguably as good or better than her interactions with Isabela. I marveled at how different certain things played out, like giving her a shield as a gift, and discussing Ferelden’s offer for her to return to service.

              The exchanges between her and Hawke in these situations are completely different as friends and rivals. So awesome.

  4. Lake Desire says:

    I haven’t played either Dragon Age game yet (I’ve been trying to borrow Dragon Age for, well, ages!) so I won’t comment on the characters yet, but I want to point out that it’s hard for me to make out the features of the dark skinned characters in the screen caps. I’ve been noticing in games lately that characters with dark skin seem to have their features blotted out so it is harder to see their facial expressions. I wanted to play a black character in Final Fantasy XIV, but I was so irritated I couldn’t see her features that I rerolled.

    Does anyone know of any articles on videogames being biased towards highlighting the features of light-skinned people? I’d like to write an article on this but want to do my research first. My hypothesis that games are implicitly remediating film, which was designed to make white people look good on screen, but I haven’t even found a good article this type of racial bias in film, either, to use as a starting point.

    • Denis Farr says:

      I’ve noticed that in my screenshots, but I’m not sure what’s happening with the lighting between game and screenshot transfer. I know in game, the features aren’t as blotted out as they appear here, which is a bit troublesome, but may be a technical error I don’t know how to overcome.

      In general, I would agree that features on darker skinned characters tend to not be as noticeable, however. I do not know of any articles to that effect, though.

  5. Ultraviolet says:

    Just one thing i wonder about – if i had worked so much on the queer, equality and intersectionality issues as DA crew seems to have done, unlike every other game – i’d be in tears and totally disencouraged by all the naysayers on the queer side now. Hope they are stronger and better people than I.

    i really liked the moment of fleshed out interaction between elf and qunari cultures besides their relation to the dominant human cultural paradigm.

    i liked my adorable armoured ball of fluff and awesomeness that is the new Flemeth. The most breathtakingly attractive woman ever…because of everything, the character, how her age plays into it in a positive way, you don’t get badass women of a non-Hollywood age often. Wait, there is also Meridith…maybe not a ‘hero’ but still….

    i liked Sandal. You can’t dislike him.

    Not to speak of both male and female gay romances which aren’t 1:1 hetero ones with changed pronouns and occasional errors. Soooo happy about those.

    • Denis Farr says:

      Agreed, the romances are definitely much better done than in most games that allow for such. I can both understand and not stand with those that do complain about it, largely because there are subjective takes on it in a single playthrough.

      That moment between the elves and Qunari was so… packed full of the plight of intersectionality. In many ways, it reminds me of the some of the movement of African Americans to the Muslim faith in the U.S. The intersectionality in the game definitely needs a lot more focus drawn to it (and I would likely praise it).

    • glamgeekgirl says:

      I love Wynne for almost the same reasons I love Flemeth. Two great examples of how elderly women can be portrayed positively in games. :)

      (This is a short comment to counterbalance that essay I wrote earlier. hehe)

  6. Superblondine says:

    I found that Dragon Age 2 handled relationships in a much better way than in previous BioWare games. It actually felt like a genuine relationship, with ups and downs. I chose to romance Fenris (as a female mage) and I loved how it played out in the game.

    Essentially he harped on my for being a mage but began to grow more affectionate as I continued my advances and raised his friendship meter. He later comes to your estate at night and reveals that he can’t stop thinking about you, and that he has feelings for you. It is then implied that the two of you have sex, but after the act Fenris is distraught over having had flashbacks of his previous life and decides that it is better to separate himself from you. At that point you can tell him you didn’t want to pursue a relationship or ask him not to leave. Regardless of what you choose he ends up calling the relationship off, though he comes back to you later and asks for forgiveness if you chose to pursue the relationship.

    It was wonderful to see the reactions of the other party members, namely Anders. I had flirted with him early in the game but went with Fenris instead, and this caused tension between the two of them (they were ALWAYS at eachother’s thoats). I was constantly being asked by Anders if I really wanted to be with Fenris and not him, which made the characters appear more realistic, with their own wants and feelings.

  7. Laurentius says:

    Hmm, that’s interesting review, I read part about race and Qunari and it seems that there is some improvement over DA:O but what about culture? Is it so ostentatiously anglo-saxon centric like the Origins ? Forcing the name for Gray Warden – Hawke, seems like they decided follow bad ME example, Shepard still being for me mostly disconnecting feature of that series.

    • Sif says:

      “Forcing the name for Gray Warden – Hawke, seems like they decided follow bad ME example, Shepard still being for me mostly disconnecting feature of that series.”

      It gets really, really old trying to write around a nameless character in a fully-voiced game, really fast. They had to give your character some kind of name other than The Champion.

      • Robin says:

        Especially since you’re not the Champion until later in the game anyway.

        For me, giving the protagonist a name and voice made it more immersive. Much as I loved Origins, the voiceless, nameless (in terms of how others interacted with them) protagonist didn’t always feel part of the story. They felt like a placeholder, because that’s what the writers had to write them as in order to accommodate all the different options with the resources they had.

        • Laurentius says:

          Voiceless- i agree, i myself hated silent protagonist in DA:O, nameless – not so much, they give you ability to choose your sex, even sexual orientation to a degree, skin colour etc but Bioware force a name on you, and it’s not that inclusive especially if it comes with designed cultural baggage, for me it is irritating and disconnecting for others it may be opressive…

          • Sif says:

            “especially if it comes with designed cultural baggage”

            To be fair so does your protagonist. You’re always a Fereldener refugee in DA2. The name is appropriate from the country you come from. There’s really no way you could write this without some kind of set name for your character. It would get silly.

            • Laurentius says:

              How so? Bioware managed to do this in DA:O, didn’t they? PC was silent one, but not your companions and somehow they were able to go through all plot and story arc that involved even romantic relationship without forcing name on you.

              Bad decision following ME steps in terms of inclusiveness.
              /notsigned

            • Sif says:

              “Bioware managed to do this in DA:O, didn’t they?”

              Not entirely. The absence of a real name for a character in DA:Origins occasionally made a sentence sound stiff or bizarre because the writers had to work around that limitation. It must have been a tremendous relief to avoid that this time around.

          • Robin says:

            I don’t think the name choice is flawless by any means. I felt sort of pigeonholed into what kind of name I should give the character that would ‘fit’ the surname, and although you could change their appearance including skin colour it was clear that the background was designed to work in harmony with the white default Hawke.

            For me the nameless alternative doesn’t really make it better though, because my immersion relies more heavily on how my character connects with the story than on how I connect with my character (I can’t even create a character with the same gender as mine). I found the way nobody ever used your character’s name in DAO to be very conspicuous and awkward.

            That’s clearly not the case for everyone, though. I guess ideally they could provide a voiced surname (or maybe even a small number of them to choose from) and have a custom option which is left unspoken in the dialogue. That might out of the question in terms of resources, though.

            • Sif says:

              “I guess ideally they could provide a voiced surname (or maybe even a small number of them to choose from) and have a custom option which is left unspoken in the dialogue. That might out of the question in terms of resources, though.”

              Yeah, you’ll never get multiple choices of voiced names. That racks up the voice recording and translation costs across a game that’s already really big.

          • Darkrose says:

            I much preferred my silent Warden, because I knew that the response I chose for her would be the response she gave, and because I could decide for myself what her voice and tone sounded like. I also don’t feel like having everyone call me “Hawke” is an improvement over “Warden”. At least with “Warden”, it makes sense for people to call me by my title, since that’s how I’m presenting myself. But my love interest never uses my first name, and I don’t either? That’s a little silly.

  8. Gina says:

    I didn’t purchase this game (I failed at the demo soon after meeting up with the couple) but I don’t see anything wrong with most of the characters being open to romance your character. There are times when I’m playing Mass Effect/ME2 with a new character and I wished one option was available because it felt right for my character but alas, it’s not an option. Yes, in life we meet people who aren’t “available” to us for these very same truths, but it’s a game wherein elves and magic exist, so why can’t sexuality be more fluid? Like you, I understand the complaints but I don’t find such a thing to be disappointing or a poor change because it gives you more freedom in your gameplay. There are tons of videos on YouTube that have people messing with coding in ME2 to get Miranda in a relationship with their female Shepard – which is probably the very reason DA2 made this change. I mean, Miranda (as well as the other characters) doesn’t treat either gender differently until the moment you start a relationship, which is one of the last 2 encounters you have before endgame. So why not?

    Good to hear that the relationships are handled better, though. (What with ups and downs.)

  9. glamgeekgirl says:

    If there were Like-Buttons, I’d have button-mashed my way through the comment section! :) Great observations on lots of topics!

    A few thoughts:

    I think DA2 is quite balanced in terms of male/female NPCs in positions of power, evil NPCs, insane NPCs, etc. Compared to other RPGs (the Gothic series especially) that’s a huge plus from where I stand.

    As Denis mentioned in a comment further up, DA2 doesn’t employ the commodity model of sex, like Origins did (or my pet worst example, The Sims). Your relationship (I romanced only Anders so far) has ups and downs, and you can’t just “give them gifts until they give in”. I really loved that. I played my mage as a proud, witty woman who doesn’t take shit from no one, is deeply loyal to her friends, but also has a strong sense of right and wrong. (Quite like I am, or want to be, except that I’m still working on the not taking shit from anyone-part.)

    Anders’ romance was really much more bitter than sweet for me, because you can’t reason with him (at least I had no luck whatsoever); it reminded me of how women (traditionally) would follow their male lovers blindly into a dead end, regardless of how wrong it all feels, no matter the consequences. It’s a gender cliché, but it still often holds true in real life… and I am usually quite adamant that I wouldn’t be one of those women, ever.

    But, if you forgive me for merging with my Hawke for a moment: “Anders used me, and while he may have truly loved me, he made me do things that I will never forgive myself. What he did was wrong, despite all the oppression we mages faced, but I couldn’t let go of him. I did it all for love.” In other words: I took really big shit for my love. (And in yet other words: Is my Hawke a fool, or could it be… I?) I tried to turn him down when he asks for help, and his reaction was quite pathetic – “I’ve always been alone”. So I reverted to the other savegame and became his partner in crime, unwillingly, and none the wiser until things went boom (both in and out of character, I must admit).

    In the last part of the game, while I thought that Meredith’s being insane due to the idol was a trite and cheap trick (and questionable on different levels as mentioned in the OP), I really wished and hoped that someone would reveal to me (or to the Seeker in the epilogue) that it hadn’t been Anders’ fault. I wished that, despite knowing enough about RPGs to tell that this was the final boss fight, I’d get a chance to redeem him. Make it right somehow.

    I’ve pondered this since finishing (an hour or so ago), I feel that Anders went out of character, somewhere in the middle of the plot (contrary to Bishop in NWN, whose betrayal felt totally in-character; as did Sebastian’s refusal to stand by Hawke), and subsequently the game forced me to go out of character myself, so I could finish it. It was the same in DA:O with the ritual (I didn’t touch the game for a week). It’s not that I can’t handle tough decisions (I could handle them in Mass Effect and The Witcher, with their profound consequences, regret, and all that entailed), but Dragon Age seems to force it for my taste, for the second time in a row. In DA2 it sort of snapped me out of my immersion in the game, characters, story and especially the romance, and I never “found my way back in” until the credits rolled.

    I wonder what will happen with Anders’ legacy in possible DLCs/expansions. And I’m afraid that the immersion-breaking decisions will get greater in number or impact in ME3 or further (BioWare) games.

    I’d love to hear how you all feel about Anders and what happened in your game regarding him!

  10. Ultraviolet says:

    ^ About Anders – i am a predominantly gay woman, as in pan non-equal but Anders got into my heart in Awakening, he was the most adorable person ever. I mean come on, Ser Pouncealot… Even without an in-game romance – i loved the friendship story and TBH would have given up on you probably know whom for him (heh and would be justified, given the endgame of DA2).

    The events of DA2 just made me terribly sad – as a story. I took it as a sad story not as ‘what the writers should have written instead’, it wasn’t me writing. First, that he had given in to bullying and willy measurement contest in the Keep, to the degree of getting rid of the kitty. Second, the possession. It all but took away his personality, he’s consumed by it and i couldn’t see the person from Starkhaven Tower where everyone kissed everyone anymore. But well, after the 1st quest i kind of understood. Even if there could not be a romance, i was definitely a friend and stood up for him, even after the fireworks – it’s not what i’d have done or wanted to do but i can’t judge. It was being tricked to a degree, but it’s not that i followed blindly. Sometimes Fate chooses for us.

    Maybe it’s because I’m a blood mage and an intimate friend of Vengeance IRL even if by some unknown blessing or luck my eyes don’t detectably glow – and having two ex-gfs tranquilised and one dead, i have more than occasionally daydreamed of bringing some sparkle and magic to the Chantry Festival, or a Magister’s Scythe with a magic crystal magnifying glass to a High Priestess’ reading. It’s just dreams, but i understand someone wanting them to be real.

  11. Jennifer Brandes Hepler says:

    As the writer of Anders, and many other aspects of DAII, I found this an interesting and thoughtful examination of what we tried to do with the game. I do find it odd, though, that Anders is not discussed in regards to the treatment of the mentally ill. For me, that is primarily what his relationship is about — the difficulties of loving and trying to help someone who struggles with a part of himself that he cannot control and may never be able to control. It is certainly the experience I drew from when writing him, and I think it uses the fantasy setting in the way I most prefer to see — providing a magical metaphor for exploring real-world problems. To me, this is the central feature of his character — not whether he is gay or straight, but the inner demons (personified as Justice/Vengeance), which both he and you, as his lover, must struggle against every day.

    • Denis Farr says:

      This is an avenue I wish to explore more, though I’m still figuring it out myself. I noticed how other companions would treat him as two separate people, despite his protestations of being one person.

      I do have plans for a more thorough examination of my romance with Anders, as well as him as a character (as far as I’m concerned, while Aveline may have had the strongest character arc, Anders has had the most dynamic).

    • glamgeekgirl says:

      Hey Jennifer, I see your point, and I agree with the game-real life metaphors. A problem with the topic of mental health in the DA setting might be the over-abundance of spirits and demons and powerful items, as Denis has already stated above, which makes possession a rather common burden. Even as a mage, you kill possessed mages for much lesser crimes than Anders’.

      But that wasn’t even my main point… I felt that mid-game, there was a halt or even gap in Anders’ plot. Since I loved him in Awakening, I was thrilled he was romanceable in DA2, and it also suited my mage (I had also played a Warden Mage and freed the Circle, so our struggle seemed the same). I completed his quest (which IMO superfluously included collecting piles of poop) as soon as it was available, and then, for a long time, nothing happened. When I talked to Anders, I got the repeating one-liners. The journal/codex didn’t really tell me anything about this ritual of his, whether he had completed it or failed, or anything really. I actually wondered whether the quest was broken or something. So, when I was confronted with Anders’ action near the end of the game, it felt very disconnected and out of character. Sometimes that happens when I don’t pay attention to a companion’s story, but in that case, I did, and I still was left with the feeling that there was either a technical fault or a gap in the otherwise very dynamic and engaging narrative.

      Side note: Did you also think up Ser Pounce-a-lot? Greatest pet (mention) in an RPG since Boo in Baldur’s Gate. :)

      • Orianna says:

        There never was any ritual. You can question Anders about this when he asks you to distract the cleric. The ingredients you collected were for the bomb.
        If there weren’t any further dialogues available after this, it is because the relationship wasn’t maxed out. There is a final dialogue when friendship/rivalry reaches 100.
        Hope this helps. :)

        • glamgeekgirl says:

          I know there wasn’t one, but there was a gap in the journal/codex until I found out what Anders had really been doing instead. That’s exactly what I mean – I did his quest as soon as it became available, and then there was nothing, not even more deceiving information, for a quite long time, until I found out what had happened. It felt like getting the same line from Garrus over and over in Mass Effect 2. ;-)

          But as of now, I don’t remember the dialog you mention, though I am sure the relationship was maxed out.

          • Orianna says:

            Did you agree to distract the cleric? If you didn’t it, the game treats it as if you haven’t completed the quest so you don’t get the final dialogue. It’s frustrating, really.

            Well, I interpreted it as Anders waiting for the right moment. When you click on him he says ominously ‘the wheels have been set in motion’, so you know that he’s done something but you don’t know when you’ll see results of that.

            • glamgeekgirl says:

              Oh, I probably didn’t. I am not sure IIRC, but I probably didn’t distract the cleric!

              Yeah, but sometimes Anders also said “Your support has meant the world to me” or something, so I felt like it (i.e. the ritual) had all worked out for him.

              I will check that out now, I should have a savegame prior to this….

            • glamgeekgirl says:

              That save I have was after that already – but I remember now, I didn’t distract her and Hawke still can make a reference to it “So that’s what you needed me for?”, but it’s just a one-liner and not really satisfying…

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  14. Apotts says:

    Wow, great review, and also great website. Glad I stumbled across you.

  15. Orianna says:

    I enjoyed this tremendously. This helped me to look at DAII from perspectives I’ve not thought about myself.
    Thank you.

    Also, it’s amazing to see Jennifer herself post here. :)

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  17. Ritchie says:

    Totally agree about Meredith’s sword being a Chekov’s gun (never heard that expression before). I’ve just completed the game, and what keeps ringing in my mind is how totally unnecessary those plot twists (this, and Orsino’s final act of defiance) were. This final conflict was interesting and morally ambiguous (if a little tired by this point in the game) and making the two central figures of the dispute veer off into the realms of the insane and diabolical was as unnecessary as it was distasteful. Rather an own-goal there.
    As for Anders, personal issues will never be sufficiently explored unless we can interact with the characters in a deep way (in the manner of the first DA game) rather than just when it advances the plot (in the manner of Mass Effect). This holds for all NPC’s. There was party banter which often held flashing gems of brilliance (Isabela’s ‘We are defined by our mistakes’ revealed a side to her I particularly wanted to explore) but they were no substitute for a good old chat! DA2′s characters may have been as well defined as DA1′s, but I never felt as attached to them, or that I simply knew as much about them.

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