S.EXE: Dragon Age II And The Long Road

By Cara Ellison on August 15th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

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I usually discover the best stories about games over a quiet drink with a friend. This week I am residing in the Isle of Wight, working with the artist Howard Hardiman, author of The Lengths. The Lengths is, amongst other things, an exploration of the world of male gay escorts based on real conversations with sex workers; illustrations and dialogue of the feelings and life of someone who lives to please other people. I found myself in The Mess asking Howard which games he liked that expressed something about the relationships between people. This will contain spoilers for Dragon Age II.

Howard explained to me that Aveline’s crush on a coworker in Dragon Age II almost broke his heart. So we went back home to play The Long Road.

It turns out Howard made the main character, Hawke, a rogue assassin and a spitting image of Sophie Ellis Bextor.

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Most battles we encountered were accompanied by my singing ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’.

(This did not make Dragon Age II battles more enjoyable.) (This is probably not Sophie Ellis Bextor’s fault.)

The Long Road is a companion quest in Act 2 of Dragon Age II that pops up just before you turn in the quest Blackpowder Courtesy. This quest is particularly interesting because if you think of it as a ‘quest’ that Aveline, the stern ginger Scottish widow, is giving you, it’s a very frustrating one. Hawke, a fully kitted-out high dragon-smasher, is asked by her best friend Aveline, a warrior and Guard Captain of Kirkwall, to go and give a package to Donnic Hendyr, who is a guardsman.

Guardsman Donnic is situated just down the hall from Aveline’s room in the keep. Just down the hall. He is in the next room over, pretty much. You could throw the package in there. It’s the sort of ‘quest’ that your best friend might give you when you are both eight and playing at being mages and assassins in the playground.

“It must be something important if you’re going to all this trouble,” Sophie Ellis Bextor says.

“That’s none of your business,” Aveline says, in her clipped Scottish tone. She has a very pained look on her face the entire time she’s discussing the issue.

OoOOOoooo.

“I’ll walk a hundred feet to him,” Sophie Ellis Bextor says, sort of shrugging.

We sort of dander out of the room, expecting the whole building to suddenly go on fire and dragons to appear to try to punish us for protesting a quest that completes one hundred feet from Aveline. Instead we just run into walls by accident, accidentally navigate the wrong way and eventually learn to use the minimap to follow the gold quest mark. When I say ‘we’ I mean me. I could get lost in my own museum.

We get to Guardsman Donnic, who just seems to be standing around in the keep doing nothing. Sophie Ellis Bextor has not seen Donnic in three years, and she forgot he was a hunk. He looks like Mr Darcy. He’s got those sideburns, you know, like he actually sculpted his facial hair instead of letting it grow the messy way Sophie Ellis Bextor likes it. (Sophie likes stubble.) Donnic greets us sort of happily. This is probably because we saved his life way back and he remembers that he likes being alive, I think smugly.

“It’s apparently very important,” we say, giving Donnic the package.

JUST SAY YOU LIKE HIS SIDEYS FFS

It is a copper relief with marigolds on it. “It’s a copper relief…with… marigolds on it,” he says. He seems confused. We have just given him garbage.

It’s at this point you can glimpse the teenage awkwardness. You understand how this is going down: Aveline, widowed three years ago, possibly forced to kill her own husband out of mercy… Well. She is lonely. And she has forgotten what it is like to tell a man she wants to be close to him.

Aveline remembers that remark made back when she hired Donnic. He said he looks forward to having Aveline “over me… above me. In rank.” The awkward correction was something she noticed. She was probably shocked that anyone could think that way about her. She probably remembered what it was like to have a libido. She probably understood at that moment that other people besides her husband could want her.

It takes a very fine writerly hand to extrapolate moments like this, to gently tug players’ memories into connecting one-line moments together. This moment is quite funny in one way: my Sophie Ellis Bextor is standing there hating the situation, annoyed that she has basically been employed to give someone a terrible piece of tack. She’s standing there in full armour just seething. The armour is probably very heavy. It is probably not often used to transport copper flower flibbertigibbets. And Donnic seems completely bemused.

JUST TELL HIM YOU WANT TO FUCK HIM! my brain yelps, which is curiously similar to what Isabela, the sex-positive pirate thrill-seeker in my party, will say later. (I feel as if Isabela and I would get on very well.)

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In another way, this moment is incredibly sad. Aveline is restrained and haughty. She seems afraid to let go of any kind of control. She understands what she is doing is unethical: Donnic is in her employ. And she seems unable to be open about her feelings, even to her friends, who are all standing in the room witnessing her pained expressions. In particular, Isabela is there, someone Aveline constantly slut-shames and calls a whore, but Isabela is happy with her life and her sexual relationships, demonstrated in a nice piece of incidental conversation that can happen as you wander about the game. It must be painful for Aveline to see Isabela enjoy herself, and not be party to the self-hatred Aveline seems to harbour.

Aveline is outsourcing flirting to us.

Aveline then gets us to post the patrols roster up for her–something she could do herself–and listen for Donnic’s reaction when he gets a preferred route. It all backfires when the other guards think he’s brownnosed some higher-up to get it.

Aveline then proposes to send a dowry to Donnic’s mother! “Goats” and “sheafs of wheat”! This is an unusual reversal of roles: Aveline’s assumed the traditional medieval western man’s role here–she is essentially bypassing Donnic as an agent of consent, or at least suggesting that a bribe would be more likely to get his attention than a simple hello or an invitation to a drink at the pub. She comes to the sensible conclusion on her own.

We offer to drag Donnic into the office ourselves. Aveline thinks it’ll look bad and she’s right. So she makes Sophie Ellis Bextor ask him out for a drink so that she can interrupt and say hello.

~oh teen romance~

So Sophie Ellis Bextor sits in the pub with Donnic and it’s the most awkward thing ever. Donnic is bored and wants to leave. Sophie Ellis Bextor gets a little drunk and he tells her that he’s not into her, which is pretty insulting, but, you know, Sophie Ellis Bextor can just ask Isabela for a little attention if Sophie Ellis Bextor wants it. She is bound to her duty.

Aveline lurks in the background and bottles it. Donnic leaves, and I hit my chair in frustration.

The elf in our party, the one who has been a slave for most of his life, tells Aveline that she’s squandering something she doesn’t understand. I feel a little sting for Aveline: I think she does understand what she is squandering, but she doesn’t understand how she is squandering it.

So we embark on a mission to kill some irritating questcreatures, and we draft Donnic’s help, of course.

It is a mission filled with awkward conversations about how nice swords are and aren’t swords good and… well, perhaps there is some sort of double entendre at play but Donnic doesn’t take a hint. One starts to think that Donnic is a little emotionally thick.

Part of me is genuinely thinking: AVELINE IS WAY OUT OF HIS LEAGUE. WHY DOES SHE LIKE HIM? HE DOESN’T EVEN LIKE TO TALK ABOUT SWORDS.

“Take a hint and bend her over a basin,” Isabela says to Donnic, finally, with everyone standing around.

Did I mention I really like Isabela?

“Captain?” Donnic says to Aveline, all discombobulated like a fuzzy little dachshund.

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He goes back to the barracks and it’s easy to think it’s all over for Aveline. If it were me in real life, it’d be all over. This sort of stuff never comes good for me. Usually whenever you really want someone, really want someone, you can’t actually have them. You really want them for a reason. Usually because they are not for you. At one point I was tempted just to use a romance option on Aveline, one that said “He’s not the one for you.”

Back at the barracks Aveline thinks she has to apologise to Donnic and try to persuade the other guards they can still trust her not to hit on them and try to seduce them all day; Sophie Ellis Bextor seems annoyed at her panic-stricken face. One of the conversation options is to tell her to ply him with awkward gifts, which I am pretty sure is a piss-take of how Dragon Age: Origins relationships used to work. (You used to just give Alistair gifts until you could plough his royal ass into the sun.) But reassuring Aveline that everyone understands libidos happen seems to calm her down a little.

Donnic turns up and wants to have a word with Aveline. They shut the door and Sophie Ellis Bextor eavesdrops like a scumbag. After a while there is giggling.

“Donnic did not file a complaint,” Aveline says to you after Donnic leaves.

Howard and I burst into laughter.

This little strand of companion quests is very touching: there’s a little teenage angst there that’s quite rare to see in games. Everyone involved behaves like a human being: awkward twitching masses of attraction, misunderstandings, frustrations. There’s little feeling that this is taking place in a fantasy realm apart from the fact that you have to go down a quest halfway through to beat up some weird creatures. Aveline’s past with her late husband, which the player had some part in, looms large over all her emotional foibles and hovers gently over all your conversations with her. You want her to succeed, but she’s making it very hard. Isabela’s sex-positive outlook wins out in the end – her outburst “Take a hint and bend her over a basin” is a necessary burst of honesty that finally has Donnic understand what is happening around him.

Usually ‘quests’ are about the difficulty of overcoming enemies you are fighting, but there’s a very interesting narrative difficulty presented here. The ‘quest’ structure is used to illustrate some major barriers to articulating how you feel to another person. Often the quests are about the actual failure of indirect communication: the gift system of the first game is neatly critiqued in the giving of some meaningless trinket to Donnic, and mentioned jokingly in later dialogue options.

The whole pattern of having a crush is played out over a few short, very easy quests. The finding reasons to be close to someone. The attempts to contact your crush through another person.

In short, this Dragon Age II quest, instead of being about killing enemies, has articulated very well how a person might try to fight themselves.

Anyway, it turns out Donnic did not try to file a complaint.

The previous S.EXE columns are here.

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122 Comments »

  1. Big Murray says:

    Shit. You talked about Dragon Age 2.

    CLUSTERFUCK OF HATE-NERDS INCOMING!!!!

  2. Demerzel says:

    Great article, Ms. Ellison.

  3. Eight Rooks says:

    No hate from me. About the only thing I’d take issue with would be

    There’s little feeling that this is taking place in a fantasy realm apart from the fact that you have to go down a quest halfway through to beat up some weird creatures

    I mean DAII’s hardly free from fantasy blather, sure, but… sometimes you guys (all of RPS) write like it’s news to you that characters in genre fiction are allowed to behave like actual people at all. Still, other than that, fantastic piece, Cara, thanks for doing it. Made me smile.

    • Cara Ellison says:

      Not at all, I think the hallmark of great genre fiction is when they emphasise the humanity of people. I think the greatest of genre fictions, the Battlestar Galactica reboot, demonstrated that it’s at its best when it’s a full blown soap opera.

      • Heavenfall says:

        Well, they were pretty much all Cylon in the end. But they didn’t know it!

        • Bull0 says:

          How *very* ironic

        • keithzg says:

          Except for Starbuck, who was . . . an angel, I guess?

          Honestly I just pretend it ended with the mid-season finale (which was the backup in case they didn’t get to finish thanks to the writers’ strike, if I recall correctly) when the colonials and the one group of Cylons have finally put their differences together and reached their common goal of Earth . . . which turns out to be a unihabitable radioactive wasteland. Sure, it left some things unresolved, but I’m okay with that, especially since character-wise things did seem fairly settled, and it’s better for the big mysteries to be unresolved than to be resolved stupidly.

          To be clear, I really, really enjoyed the series up until the back half of Season 4, and in part I hate the “actual” finale so much because I so loved the show until then. As Cara brings up, it set a great high bar for people acting like, you know, actual people in a genre scenario (the only sci-fi show before that which I can remember would be, not-so-coincidentally, DS9…dammit Ron Moore, why can’t you return to space already?).

      • Misha says:

        I agree, Cara. And I didn’t see your comment that way either. To me it sounded more like “writers that make characters feel like people? What a pleasant surprise.” A sentiment with which I agree completely. More of the same, please.

      • TheMightyEthan says:

        You are now my hero.

        More sci-fi/fantasy soap operas please!

      • nitehawk says:

        Abso-fragging-loutley. This is why Babylon 5 is the best written thing in the history of sci-fi.

      • zal says:

        I feel like I must live in some weird alternate dimension… until a few years ago, my life was almost entirely drama free. This in spite of friends hitting other friends houses with cars, friends marrying friends ex’s, friends marrying friends sisters… didn’t matter! everyone worked it out civilly and we all just kept on trucking, sometimes with more or less contact.

        My first exposure to the madness that is apparently most people’s soap-opera daily lives actually came through work, in the form of a subordinate/superior relationship between a couple of friends that branched into a gigantic disaster, leading to people being fired, people quitting, just chaos everywhere. I moved on to another company a few months later and thought, “thank god I’m finally clear of a bunch of angsty teenagers wearing adult bodies…” but no, I made friends with a bunch of what seemed like relatively reasonable people, only to find myself having to deftly extricate myself from melodrama after melodrama, whenever I hung out with them outside of work. I do still hang out with most of them (they’re all very interesting people).. but I have to approach it with a certain detachment to avoid getting accidentally dragged into argument/fling/rivalry conflicts.

        A couple of years ago, I would’ve read this article and thought “why on earth would anyone think adults would act like this” these days it makes a whole lot more sense. And while I appreciate the larger perspective I now have, its also made me very thankful that out of the dozens of people I call friends, the vast majority are well balanced individuals.

    • Bradamantium says:

      I think that speaks more to the fact that it’s seldom done in genre games lately. Games in general, even. Characters fit a role in a specific kind of world more often than they fit any mold carved out as people with their own personalities.

  4. Lars Westergren says:

    Oh thank you.

    Thank you so much. I really tried to like Dragon Age 2, and failed, but that was mainly from a game mechanic perspective. It did so much right compared to previous Bioware games. Some people accuse Bioware of always reducing relationships to “agree with NPC/give gift to NPC, player avatar scores with NPC”. But Aveline completely refuted that. If you try to flirt with her, she is completely oblivious.

    • Continuity says:

      I tried to like Dragon Age Origins (for 80 hours) and failed, so I didn’t even get DA2, I’m just giving the whole series a miss I think. Bioware used to be my favourite RPG developer, but to be frank I think Kotor was the peak of their work on RPGs.

  5. Utsunomiya says:

    What is this “Murder on the dance floor” written by a hack with no talent?
    There’s just blood on the dance floor. Written by no hack.

  6. Laurentius says:

    Oh this quest, let’s make comic relief quest here in our grimdark Kirkwall and let Aveline be a butt of a joke which i think she didn’t deserve… or what you have written.

    • Cara Ellison says:

      I think it is possible to laugh at a situation in recognition and also be emotionally engaged with it too. I am not just a one emotion person at any given time, and I don’t think it’s written that way either. I think that is the triumph of this quest – is that it can be funny AND elicit pathos. I think what I’ve written shows that this quest actually demonstrates successfully how to model the difficulties of romance with humour and pathos. (Unlike the Dragon Age: Origin romance ‘put gift in, get sex out’ models.) I felt relief and happiness for Aveline by the end.

      • Laurentius says:

        Taking this quest in an isolation from rest of the game, possibly. It’s a work of fiction so I’m skating on subjective thin ice here but I didn’t like it, of all jackasses that made DAII gang (not to mention that you can play Hawk as a colossal jackass) to made Aveline a butt of a joke (grown-up, widowed woman acting that super awkward, right… ) felt.. yeah mean-spirited, like making fun of an orphan or disabled kid, yeah i know it’s fictional but it doesn’t sit right with me.

        • Philomelle says:

          Admitting that middle-aged people with emotional issues might act awkward around relationships is just like making fun of orphans and disabled people, you heard it on RPS first.

        • Grygus says:

          It doesn’t make sense to you that she might be awkward because she is middle-aged and widowed? These are skills she hasn’t used or needed in a long time; even assuming she ever had them, it isn’t outlandish to think they may have atrophied.

        • Bradamantium says:

          I s’pose we’ve just got a much different read on that bit. “Butt of a joke” implies to me a character who gets nothing but laughed at out of a particular event. Aveline gets much more than laughed at. If anything, I found the situation endearingly humorous. And I don’t think it’s unrealistic that a middle aged widow might be a bit awkward in getting at a relationship, especially when said widow is a straight-laced captain of the guard smitten with a subordinate.

        • Sandepande says:

          Widowed, middle-aged women are humans, and humans tend to be rather sucky at dealing with the possiblity of failure when it involves things that really, really, really matter. Especially when it comes to relationships. Age or combat experience matter not (unless they are so traumatized that they are no longer exactly human).

      • Saul says:

        That’s interesting, because I had an experience where I was genuinely attracted to a character in DA:O, and failed to get them into the sack. I wrote about it (less eloquently than you) here: http://gamepainreviews.tumblr.com/post/68247307615/dragon-age-origins-broke-my-heart

  7. lowprices says:

    I need to play Dragon Age 2 again. Repetitive and simplistic in places, but I love the Characters. In particular during this quest, which was the high point of the entire Dragon Age series.

  8. serioussgtstu says:

    I still haven’t recovered from that time I tried to bonk Miranda in Mass Effect 2, she told me to piss off, so I sulked in my captains quarters and never brought her on any more missions. I really should try to finish Dragon Age 2 before Inquisition comes out though, people I respect seem to think it’s good.

    • Gog Magog says:

      I am still outraged over how Mass Effect 2 handled Jack.
      Having casual sex with her is the RENEGADE OPTION and immediately breaks off any sort of further relationship.
      The PARAGON option is some kinda platonic “will you be my therapist” bullshit. Cuddles and stuff is nice, yes. But Jack is not a child nor even a broken person, much as BioWare’s resident JackWriter would like you to think. She’s brutal and egotistic and also twisted and reserved and full of regret and hate for herself. That is not broken. That is fucking baseline by person standards and is in no way some kind of dam to be bust before she can have a “twu wewationshwip”.
      Also I felt it was a really fucking offensive way of handling shit, casual whiteknighting and voyeuristic “who hurt you” bullshit and all. Bit like the trailer for the latest Larry Kraft game.

      Also fuck Miranda. But not in a sexual way. She was unforgivably lame and boring and non-sexy-while-trying-to-be-sexy to the point I made it a point to brush her off completely in all situations. Yeuch.

      • bleeters says:

        It’s kinda more accurate to say that having casual sex with her basically as soon as she joins cuts off all further relationship options. Which for a character that has a history of being used for sex by people who didn’t give a shit about her in any way seems pretty reasonable.

      • Eight Rooks says:

        Uh, Jack’s entire life – her entire persona – was a lie she built up around herself because she didn’t want to/couldn’t face up to what was really going on. If that’s not “broken”, I’m not sure what is. At the very least it’s hideously wounded. I wasn’t expecting “Awww, let it all out for Papa Shepard” or anything similarly creepy, but it would have been nice to have been able to say “Given your psyche is, y’know, objectively fucked, are you sure you don’t want to talk about this?”, even if she just shot me down afterwards. Nope; instead we get yeah, demons conquered, job done, let’s move on and never speak of it again. God knows I’m no expert but I’m fairly sure that’s not the way these things work.

      • Red Tonic says:

        The most I remember about ME2 was the very weird relationship my male-Shep ended up in with Jack. I pursued a pretty manipulative agenda, I admit: using renegade options just often enough to get her to like me, with negging (looking back, apparently I practically followed a PUA handbook), and then paragon after that (cuddly counseling!). Not with the intention to seduce her, though–I wanted her loyalty in case there was another loyalty test at the end. I had intended to remain loyal to Liara from ME1! Then suddenly there’s Jack crying and she drags me into bed. At the time I told my partner that it felt like rape-by-guilt. I didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late, and I was oddly afraid to say no (because of the risk of going from an already terrifying rapport with Jack to possibly being murder-zoned). Having been, in the end, counter-manipulated into bed by Jack, I expressed my frustration at the infidelity to Liara by seducing Tali. The entire ship turned into some seriously crappy power dynamics/sexual drama really quickly.

        • Booker says:

          Although I don’t interpret things the way you do, I have to say it’s really horribly handled, how they are letting the player know when something is still “normal conversation” or at what point it’s already part of romancing a character. I partially blame the dialog wheel, because it trains players to just click through the paragon/renegade options (depending on which type of character you play) without giving much thought, the few words in there don’t necessarily give an idea about what Shepard is going to say anyway…

      • Arren says:

        …..Mass Effect as Rorschach test. Fascinating.

      • Jackablade says:

        Isn’t Miranda pretty skin-crawly by design though? That was certainly my interpretation. Then again, I held a candle for Kaidan throughout the entire trilogy so never got too close to the rest of the crew. Well, besides audaciously flirting with Garrus and Thane, but you know, girl has her limits.

      • Opellulo says:

        It’s a problem in all the romanceable characters in ME: they’re all Princesses (character defined by the relationship with their “father”), so Jack has to suck up and stick to the abused child storyline.

      • Booker says:

        Well Kelly Chambers warned you not to have casual sex with Jack, so it’s really your fault for not listening. :P

  9. Anthile says:

    There was also the Merrill romance which I thought was well done but in the end I had to slaughter her entire clan to progress. It’s certainly another atypical romance because it doesn’t really end too well.

    • Ringwraith says:

      Of course, that’s not the only outcome…
      Although I think it’s arguably one of the companion storylines in which supporting their actions isn’t necessarily the right thing to do.

      • Anthile says:

        I played the game near release and the quest bugged out. For me it was the only outcome.

        • Ringwraith says:

          That sounds… about right.
          Dragon Age 2: A example of rushed game development.

          • montorsi says:

            It was actually not supposed to be Dragon Age 2 the full blown sequel, but more of an expansion pack type deal. I guess somewhere in development they were pushed into making it a full length game. Thanks, EA.

      • bleeters says:

        I actually liked that. Too many rpgs operate on the premise that if you do the right thing everything will work out somehow regardless of the circumstance and it’ll generally be the best outcome.

        Of course, it did bug me that the only option once attacked was to slaughter the entire clan to the last as opposed to, I don’t know, running away, knocking them out, stunning them with magic or some kind of combination of the above.

        • Eight Rooks says:

          Yeah, I replayed DAII earlier this year and it still shocked me when I blundered into the worst outcome. Sitting there desultorily clicking the mouse, thinking but couldn’t I just… run for it? Then I couldn’t face seeing it through and reloaded. Still, even having resolved that one the “good” way, hearing Merrill’s whispered “They would have killed me if you weren’t here” floored me all over again – like you say (and like I’ve tried, clumsily, to argue on the forums!) sometimes games really, really need to tell the player no. You cannot have the ending you want – there is no way to work this out happily for everyone involved.

          • Faxmachinen says:

            At the other end of the scale is the ham-fisted approach in The Witcher, where it rammed binary choices down your throat. It would make you choose between a douchebag and a turd sandwich (often at inappropriate times), and then your protagonist would promptly forget that the option you chose sucks. Instead of trying to fix things, you would then go around telling everyone how much you love turd sandwiches.

          • Laurentius says:

            @Faxmachinen

            Ah, the pattern is complete.
            Typical RPS (not only) conversation between cRPG aficionados:
            Gamer A: I love games in which your character is not the chosen one set to free the world from eternal evil.
            Gamer B: I know right, and when despite your best intentions not everything ends well and toot sweet.
            Gamer A and B at the same time:
            Gamer A: Games like Dragon Age 2; Gamer B: Games like Witcher series.
            Confusing moment.
            Gamer A: Wait, what? Witcher games? Bluergh… These games have horrible writing, shallow characters, ham-fisted choices, crappy combat etc.
            Gamer B: Wait, what? Dragon Age 2 Bluergh… This game has terrible writing, shallow characters, your choices made zero impact at the end, combat is shitty, reused dungeons etc.
            Both gamers made 180 turn and walk away grumbling:
            Gamer A: I really don’t see what people see in Witcher games…
            Gamer B: I really don’t see what people see in Dragon Age 2…

          • Faxmachinen says:

            @Laurentius: What on earth are you on about? I never mentioned my opinion on DA2. I didn’t even give my general opinion on The Witcher. I was just illustrating how “no right choice” can go horribly wrong.

    • Eight Rooks says:

      Indeed, it… doesn’t have to end quite that badly!

      But yes, the dear little flustered sociopath with the cute Welsh accent remains my favourite. I kid you not, I would have pre-ordered Inquisition by now if they’d brought her back. No other reason needed. She was a great character – shameless fanbait and genuinely fascinating (because, y’know, she probably really would ultimately have tried to kill you again in the future, no matter how much she liked you) all at the same time.

      Aveline was great too, mind! Just I’d always rather play the exasperated friend in The Long Road. Wouldn’t dream of doing anything else.

  10. The JG Man says:

    I’m disappointed that no-one else has brought up the Indiana Jones reference yet! (It was one, right?)

    Aveline’s personality and general character was so engaging throughout DA2. How you meet her is quite tragic and if none of this happened to her, it’d have made that initial meeting really tacky. That there is an actual impact on her and that it’s tied well into the time jumps in the game gives her character some depth that others don’t really have. Isabella doesn’t really change, her character already confirmed by herself some time ago and Varric simply has more stories to tell etc. This quest line was one of my favourites simply because the writing was done well.

    For all the deserved flak DA2 gets, I think the writing was for the most part really well done. There was a good opportunity to dip into characters’ lives, develop and cement your own character and general dialogue and scenarios were at least interesting. In other words, cool article!

    • Paul B says:

      I always found Aveline a bit dull compared to some of the more colourful characters like Varric & Isabela. However, put into the context of losing her husband, it’s understandable that she’s become emotionally cut-off after his death.

      I also fondly remember this quest-chain too – it felt rooted in reality rather than the surfeit of blood-mage quests I was being served up at the time. Also, Donnic and those sideboards…mmm…. :)

      • The JG Man says:

        I actually appreciated Aveline’s…errr, simplicity? There was nothing outstanding about her, which in turn helped her to stand out. She was The Straight Woman of the cast (if you were not also playing as that type of Hawke too). In a lot of RPGs, situations can get quite farcical, so to have a character that is far more grounded and isn’t based around one specific characteristic, I think that’s pretty neat.

        • Paul B says:

          Thanks for that JG – it’s interesting to read someone else’s take on a character you’ve formed an opinion on. Maybe I underestimated Aveline, distracted by the more extrovert characters… which reminds me – I’ll have to revisit DA II one day, to see if it deserved its reputation.

          • montorsi says:

            It definitely has its flaws and the main plot does sort of devolve into farce but along the way there is a great deal of well written characters and quests. I loved just about every one of my party members and had fun times adventuring with them. It’s just a pity they had to push the game out the door before they could put together another dungeon layout or two, haha. Or finish the main plot in a sensible manner. Or do anything at all to sell the fact there was indeed time passing in Kirkwall. Anyway, warts and all, Bioware’s companions are still top notch and worth a visit every now and again.

    • Ieolus says:

      I caught it too, it was well done (the Indiana Jones reference that is).

  11. DarkSaber2k says:

    And suddenly this week the scrubs are honored with the ability to comment again. How bizarre.

  12. PopeRatzo says:

    Thanks, Cara. Good article. Aveline was a very affecting character in a sort of so-so game.

    But even in less than great art, there are lessons.

  13. Orillion says:

    I loved Dragon Age 2 more than Dragon Age Origins. There. I said it.

    The character writing in Dragon Age 2 is at least as good as the best character writing you see out of Obsidian, and that’s absolutely incredible coming from a studio which, even at its best, never really impressed me on that front. DA2′s combat? Not good, definitely. But then, on casual difficulty it’s really just a roadblock from conversation to conversation, but I would make the argument that it’s needed for at least that. In DA2 the combat is the “quiet time” while the conversations are the action. If you approach the game from that angle, just play it to experience the interactions between the characters and see how they handle the situations the world keeps throwing at them, then it’s an amazing experience. It’s all about mindset.

    Also, like, women can have Shepard, but have you heard Nicholas Boulton’s voice? He is Hawke.

    • Shieldmaiden says:

      Don’t worry, I did too. I didn’t enjoy the combat in Origins much anyway, so the issues that people had with DA2 on that front didn’t bother me. Origins just seemed like Bioware by the numbers with a bunch of failed attempts at being dark and gritty. DA2 had much better writing and, for once, the whole world didn’t revolve around you. I also really appreciated it not having a story arc that was massively obvious within a few hours of play.

    • Philomelle says:

      Origins was, in my opinion, a step backwards for Bioware. It rolled back huge chunks of gameplay ideas introduced in KOTOR and Jade Empire for the sake of essentially being Baldur’s Gate II in 3D, but with less freedom and romance driven by gameplay mechanics. Meanwhile, Dragon Age II experimented by focusing entirely on your actions as a person and how they affected people around you. It wasn’t an entirely successful experiment, but it brimmed with personality.

      The whole thing nicely reflects the eternal hypocrisy of gaming masses who cry for innovation while using their wallet to vote for stagnation. Dragon Age fandom denounces a game that tried to be its own thing with unique direction and ideas while worshiping what is essentially a HD reskin of a game that was 10 years old by the time said reskin came out.

    • Palindrome says:

      I also prefer DA2. In fact I don’t really like Origins.

      DA:2 obviously has some real issues but I still liked it enough to complete the game which is a lot more than can be said about Origins.

    • 9of9 says:

      Four people who share my feelings!

      DA:O’s writing really did feel ridiculously insipid in so many places, it was annoying to see the whole ‘Rwar, generic evil forces are coming, you must save the world!’ played out yet again through all the same Bioware story beats. The combat was pretty dull (and then again, I never play these games for the combat anyway). DA2 is perhaps the first Bioware game in a rather long while where the writing and storytelling impressed me, and the lack of an evil force that you must fight and save the world from is a refreshing change of pace, as is the presence of honest-to-goodness character arcs and entire quest lines devoted to exploring personal relationships like this one.

    • Philopoemen says:

      Origins had a much more expansive combat system, whereas DA2′s was reduced in complexity – still had some good fights, especially in the Legacy DLC.

      But the byzantine-style politics was the high point of DA2 for me. Everyone is a bad guy, they just don’t know it yet. The party members themselves were a bit ho-hum, or bordering on fan-service.

      But basically, we needed Origins to create the broad setting so that DA2 could focus on a small part of it. If they’d made DA2-style RPG first the exposition would have been longer just to world-build, and either become very wordy, or not as well fleshed out.

  14. ssh83 says:

    I thought that was really cute and character-defining for Aveline. There’s just no one like her in gaming.

    Well.. unless you include characters from Japanese romance games… where I’m sure they’ve exhausted every possible combinations of character traits for female characters.

  15. Deano2099 says:

    This game did romances so well… the fact that characters can be friends or rivals, let it lets you romance them regardless (but the romances are different)… greatest step towards actually modelling real life romance games have ever taken.

    And the tragedy of romancing Anders…

    Never did this quest with Isabella along (she left me early on as I wasn’t enough fun, which sounds about right) so didn’t know about that line! Want to play it again now with her and Sebastian (the chaste monk) to see how it goes down…

  16. Misha says:

    Good piece of writing, Cara, and one that made me decide to play DAII after all, a game I’d left for dead without a second glance because of the mixed reviews. If that’s the quality of the writing in it, then it definitely deserves my money.

  17. bodydomelight says:

    Oh my word, an article that paints an element of Dragon Age II in a positive light. I will frame this and kiss it every night before bedtime. The character work and ongoing melodrama of DAII is excellent. It’s really flawed in other areas, but fuck it. It does the things it does well maybe better than any other Bioware game.

    MY NAME IS MATT AND I ENJOYED DRAGON AGE II AND I DON’T CARE WHO KNOWS IT.

    Great article.

  18. Gog Magog says:

    IT IS NOT SPELLED DANS YOU UNBELIEVEBLE TWISP OF A PIKING BERK
    I AM SO GOD DAM ANGRY NOW

    Er.
    Ahglgebeghgh.

    Dragon Age II is a steaming pile but I do still have to concede the hypnotic capabilities of Varric’s chest hair.

  19. Grygus says:

    I doubt you will get much DA II hate from this article; I’m a DA II hater myself, but of all the things to dislike about this game, the characters aren’t one of them. I was exhausted with Fenris’ constant melancholy and found Anders’ ending arguably stupid, but hey sad and stupid people actually exist so it’s hard to call that bad characterization.

    I liked Aveline a lot; in fact, I wanted to romance her until this quest line when she made it clear she was attracted to doofus guardsmen and not city champions. I sought solace in Isabella’s arms and by the end felt that I’d gotten the better deal anyway.

    I kind of want to play the game now. I trusted you, Cara! Look what you’ve done.

    • Ieolus says:

      If only they didn’t call it Dragon Age 2, amirite?

      • Grygus says:

        I’m not entirely sure what that means, but if you mean that one complaint is that the game isn’t “Dragon Agey” enough, then I do not agree; my hate is mostly due to how rushed the game felt. I will overlook a few bugs, and the reuse of resources was merely annoying, but there is no way BioWare had time to playtest that combat and thought, “multiple waves on every single fight, spawning in when it makes no sense whatsoever and completely ruining tactical positioning which, by the way, we encourage on one of the loading screen tips, is great fun.” It makes the combat tedious, and that’s a huge part of the game (as it was with Dragon Age.)

        Also, as someone who supported the mages, I found the entire last act to be nonsensical, even ruinous. I don’t know whether it’s better if you’re a Templar booster.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      I’m of the idea that Bioware now has pretty mediocre writers, but I did enjoy DA II all the way through. Haven’t played the game for years now, but for me, this (really great) article highlights two things about the character writing (and which kind of extends to the rest of videogame writing, I think): (1) it works very, very well when it’s framed under a teenage conception of relationships (everything is romantic with a small r) to others and to the world, but (2) when you start looking at them from a perspective that does not idealize every relation then many of them end up being shallow and even stereotypical. Take this quest as an example, like Cara has shown, it’s really good in the context of RPGs and specifically DA, but if you widen your view and compare this kind of writing with some of the literature out there, it’s just a bunch of clichés. But hey, baby steps, I guess, since videogames are pretty new to this whole story thing.

      • Grygus says:

        To be fair: I think it is obvious that video game writers are under a lot more restrictions than other fiction writers, and for some reason this is often ignored.

    • Jackablade says:

      Fenris is the whiny elf, isn’t he? I refused to let him join my party because he seemed like a jerk and upset the other party members that I had with me.

      • Grygus says:

        Yes. Well, “whiny” is a bit harsh; he is an escaped slave, after all; I complain when my waffles are unevenly heated, so I imagine that slavery might wring some bitching from me as well. But he is insistent on being negative about everything and everyone, and his hatred of mages, while perhaps well-earned, is usually against my policy of treating them like people.

        I must admit though that on my second playthrough I am seeing the Templars’s (and Fenris’s) side of things a lot more. In DA: Origins, Mages are mostly regular people who occasionally make mistakes. Most of them have no access to blood magic and they’re terrified of demons. In DA II, Mages are ticking time bombs; they all have easy access to demons and blood magic, and will resort to them very quickly. Under attack? Why use Fireball when you can turn yourself into a demon-possessed abomination? Some kid named Hawk says something you don’t like? Probably best to invite an unknown denizen of the Fade into your soul. Door stuck? SLICE YOUR WRISTS AND BRING DOWN CIVILIZATION. I might not side with the Mages this time.

        • Jackablade says:

          The thing is, the only reason you’d put up with him long enough to learn anything about him is because of Player Knowledge that he’s a designated party member. You meet him and he’s a complete ass and then asks to join your party. I took the logical choice and told him to shove it.

  20. Noviere says:

    That quest was definitely one of my favourite moments from DA2. I actually enjoyed DA2 in spite of all of it’s problems, but mainly because of the characters and style of the story(which fell apart at the end in a big way). It’s a shame that the gameplay itself is so tedious… Every attempt at re-playing it has ended with me abandoning it after the first Act.

  21. FilipMagnus says:

    For me, personally, that was one of the most memorable moments in the entire game.

  22. LeCommunard says:

    “Aveline then proposes to send a dowry to Donnic’s mother! “Goats” and “sheafs of wheat”! This is an unusual reversal of roles: Aveline’s assumed the traditional medieval western man’s role here–she is essentially bypassing Donnic as an agent of consent, or at least suggesting that a bribe would be more likely to get his attention than a simple hello or an invitation to a drink at the pub. She comes to the sensible conclusion on her own.”

    Well, not to be too pedantic (oops, too late), but strictly speaking this isn’t the case. (*begin tangential history lesson*) A woman’s consent was considered fundamental to marriage in the Middle Ages, and it was grounds for annulment if it wasn’t properly obtained. This didn’t mean women had always had a say in who became their partner in marriage, but it does mean that cutting them out of the equation was highly frowned upon. In fact for widows like Aveline were generally seen to be their own marriage executors, and while they didn’t necessarily have the power to choose their own partner, they did possess the power to remain a widow, and could bow out of significant political and social pressure to remarry.

    That being said, setting the real life nitty-gritty aside, in the romantic literature of the Middle Ages, love is presented almost entirely as winning the consent of a woman. To be in love is often seen as to make a woman your master, and to swear your life to hers as if she were your lord. By her yes or no you live or die. Basically, the whole idea of courtship and wooing women was born out of the notion that their consent wasn’t just important to love and marriage, but it was central. Now, is this to say that the women of the Middle Ages were empowered in some modern feminist sense? Not at all. But it is largely a myth that they were traded about like horses. (*end tangential history lesson*)

    That being said, this really doesn’t have any bearing on the real point of the article–its just my hobby horse. But that doesn’t mean this all wont be on the quiz, so you better all have been taking notes.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      Thanks for this. I love RPS.

    • Grygus says:

      I think you’re failing to distinguish between what people said was romantic and what they actually did. We agree that romance was (and remains) a domain ruled by women, but you seem to be asserting that marriage was primarily a romantic affair, and I don’t think that is remotely true.

    • Faxmachinen says:

      So is women-as-commodities something that was invented in the modern day? Or are you talking about specific middle age cultures?

  23. Bluerps says:

    Lovely article. I loved this quest when I played DA2. Also, Isabella is my favorite character too.

  24. Syme says:

    I’m starting to think there’s quite a blurry line between fanboy service and sex-positive. Particularly with regards to this Guardian article comparing Bayonetta and Lara Croft http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/aug/05/lara-croft-bayonetta-female-games

    It’s interesting to me that as a straight male, Isablela and Bayonetta are both characters that made me a bit uneasy, because they felt like characters written for the male-gaze and yet in recent weeks female writers have caused me to rethink my opinion by defending both of them.

  25. LuckyKrys says:

    I’m a fan of both Aveline and Isabela. As it’s wonderful to see people praise Isabela as opposed to slut-shame her, it always breaks my heart to see these very same people shame Aveline for being the opposite of Isabela in the sexuality department.

    “It must be painful for Aveline to see Isabela enjoy herself, and not be party to the self-hatred Aveline seems to harbour.”

    Let me reword this sentence to make it clear.

    “It must be painful for Isabela to see Aveline have self control, to love and settle only with one man for the rest of her life, and not be the party of self-hatred Isabela seems to harbour.”

    If you’re confused about there ever being self-hatred in Isabela, guess what, I’m confused to see someone say Aveline has self-hatred.

    In the earlier parts of this game, Aveline slut shames Isabela, Isabela prude shames Aveline, as well of a series of comments bashing each other’s femininity not being feminine enough. In the end, they both learn that’s just the way they are, that’s their personality and quirks, and they become best friends unlike most of their male counterparts. Which in itself is some groundbreaking stuff that women can become best friends, while the men continue to carry out the constant bickering, but that’s besides my point.

    My point is, why didn’t anyone learn from that? These women are happy and satisfied with themselves, neither of them are really doing anything wrong with their personalities and lives (besides that qunari book thing, but that gets fixed). However, people pick both of them apart and take sides when there are no sides to be taken. Please don’t assume Aveline is miserable and envious because she doesn’t enjoy the same type of sexuality Isabela does. Both women are sexually positive in their own ways. Aveline is just more awkward and tries to apply unnecessary rules about it. But as everyone knows and this article points out, Aveline realizes how silly she was being in the end.

  26. charmed23 says:

    You know of Sophie Ellis Bextor.

    I just love you more.

  27. Grumpy Trooper says:

    I loved DA2, I loved DA:O, and Mass Effect. I am currently playing ME2 with ME3 waiting for me when I’m done with Shepard for a second time.

    I’m not much for RPG’s usually but I find those series of games fascinating due to the interactivity between characters. Bioware, in my opinion, is leaps and bounds ahead of the normal curve for player interactions.

    The idea of a video game is that it allows you to do things you do not normally do on a day to day basis, so the further away from reality they take me the better they are (I hate the f****** Sims). This is partly the reason as to why I dislike some open world sandbox games, every single day of my life I have to decide what I need to do next, to make important decisions for my family and so when I play a video game I don’t want to really be in charge like that. I want to know exactly what I am supposed to do (unlike parenthood which is a “make it up as you go along” type deal) I want to know exactly who I’m meant to be dealing with and how.

    I get alot of criticism especially from the younger generation for my viewpoints but that is because they don’t lead stressful lives full of decisions that could mean the difference between eating or not, having a roof over your head or not (real life sucks sometimes), however I get through every day with food on the table and a roof over head (does this mean I’m winning the RL game ?).

    So in short Video games are my complete escape. /tangent……

    anyway good article RPS, and did you know that Sophie Ellis Bextor can not dance ? (she admitted it during an interview).

  28. HisDivineOrder says:

    Of the things people complain about with Dragon Age 2, the two that resonate the most to me are:

    1) The repeated combat areas. Oh so many.
    2) The narrow options for choice in the story that lead to little meaningful difference.

    The first one is horrible. Horrific. Dull. Mind-bendingly bad.

    But the second one feels like a choice. I mean, sure, it was probably a choice made to keep the game relatively small so it could come so soon after Dragon Age: Origins, hoping probably to build off the first game to flesh out smaller stories on a more regular basis.

    Now with that said, I think the thing about DA2 that makes it interesting–different, interesting but not nearly as incredible imo as DA:O–is that one of the results of the very narrow plot and little opportunity for HUGE changes to it is that it gets a The Stanley Parable-kinda vibe going for it.

    That is, you get choice, but the choice only proves that free will goes so far. You can choose to back this faction or that faction, you can save these people or not, but in the end when large wheels are in motion there’s only so much one man–no matter how incredible he is, no matter how capable he is, no matter how influential he is–can actually do to change the course of history.

    The world was already pretty much set up to play out a certain way and though you can change some details to go one way or another, in the end you can’t make some things stop no matter how big a Champion you are. I think more than DA:O–which takes a very fantasy color of you being able to change the world–the critical viewer of DA2 perceives that the game is more about someone being there at the start of a new world war. You’re there at the critical moment and even as everyone declares you a champion, you realize your limitations and your inability to stop what is inexorably coming next.

    I suppose this resonates for me because it matches my world view. That free will is less about being able to change the world and more about being able to accept (or not) what the world throws at you. If everyone pulls in a different direction, then whatever accidental direction winds up leaning the same way as most people (even if it’s incidental) becomes the way forward.

    In its own way, I see DA2 as a counterpoint to DA:O where you truly made huge changes to the world and reshaped it as essentially you saw fit. You chose races that lived or died. You chose sides in nearly eternal religious-like conflicts. You chose kings, etc.

    In DA2, you are rammed repeatedly into the fact that though you are a champion, you are remarkably ineffective at doing much to change the way the ball is rolling. That’s personally, professionally, or romantically. If DA:O had a Hero who could reshape Ferelden with a wave of his hand, DA2 had a Champion who rode on the back of history with all his might, hoping to make it to the end.

    That’s probably why you become high profile far sooner in DA2 than you did in DA:O. DA:O is huge geographically, but narrow in terms of the timeline. DA2 is huge in timeframe, but narrow in terms of the territory being affected. As a result, with more time, you see that those huge changes you thought you made wound up doing… remarkably little in the long run.

    Why? Because while you might have free will, so does everyone else and they’re all pulling (regardless of their often divergent desires) in different directions.

    I think DA2′s story is interesting in that they went in this wildly different direction and even against the overall trend of fantasy themed RPG stories that emphasize your choice and how important you are. This game revels in saying you are important, but highlighting how unimportant you really are in the final analysis in terms of control. Of course, control is not the end-all, be-all of importance. That’s also what Mass Effect 3 was trying to teach you.

    But DA2 should be lamented for all those horribly repeated, recycled, dull-as-dishwater combat areas. The story was different and had a different theme, but it wasn’t bad.

    It was just a shock to the system to play one game that emphasizes how you can change the world and then play a sequel that mocks you for thinking you can change the world. I played DA2 (my canon) with the two characters being cousins (mages), which imo is great because it highlights one as a Circle Mage and another as a Apostate directly because of the first cousin being taken to the Circle. That the two popular figures are cousins makes them an incredible bloodline, too. And then to juxtapose them as foils for one another in how they can assert control over the world or stop tragedies…

    For me, it made the story richer.

  29. Booker says:

    I love Isabela too. I’m already sad she’s not going to be a companion again in Inquisition. That would have motivated me to go get this game a lot more. Now all is left, is to hope that she’ll at least be present for a short cameo. :(

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