Classic fantasy stories have characters that become embroiled in grand events. Dragon Age II has events that become part of great characters’ lives. Their stories as a whole could justify any number of spinoff games, and indeed some of them return in Inquisition.
What follows is a brief overview of all the companions. There are two aspects to each of their stories. The first is what they do. The second is how Hawke reacts to what they do. Fittingly, Hawke plays a large part in each of their lives, but the most poignant moments aren’t really moments at all, they’re the attitudes Hawke takes with each character during the years they collaborate. Hawke’s reaction to a character’s behavior can make their story easier to bear, or all the more tragic. It’s a different kind of agency, more peripheral, but just as impactful.
It’s not saying much in the Dragon Age universe, but Aveline’s is the least sensational story. A soldier in King Cailan’s army, she loses her husband to the blight after the disastrous battle of Ostagar. Note how she is established not just as a person but as a tool in the player’s arsenal, picking up a shield and swearing to defend her husband to the death. It’s when she first appears but it’s also when her ultimate determination never to let anyone get hurt again is born. The moment Aveline has to face her husband’s death is the moment we know she is one of ours. It is her birth into the world.
Aveline is the friend, loyal, stalwart to a fault. She’s not the only one to ask you how you feel, but she’s the one who sounds the most sincere. Her conversations are the ones that aren’t about anything in particular. Not mages, not templars, not cracked old mirrors or old grudges. It’s fitting, one supposes, that Aveline’s story in Kirkwall be the construction of a new life, and the highlight of her personal quest line isn’t her becoming captain of the watch, but her becoming somebody’s wife. The latter series of quests is silly; it has Hawke helping Aveline get the man she wants. She’s terrible at seduction, and eventually Hawke throws her in the deep end. (“I’m going to draw you a picture of where she wants to touch you,” says Varric to the eventual husband.) This point isn’t about empowerment . Her moment of arrival isn’t tactical, it’s personal. For someone who has been hurt, the struggle is intimacy, not swordplay.
Now here is something else. Siblings excepted, Aveline is Hawke’s first companion. In terms of progression her being taken on was natural, but in human terms, it was an act of extraordinary generosity. See how this same refugee narrative plays out in the Walking Dead. Stick together while it’s feasible and then get out when you can. The Hawkes stay with Aveline, and when they arrive in Kirkwall, they secure entrance for her as well. Consider what that means. Hawke faces a year of indentured servitude, payment for her family’s new life. She didn’t have to bring Aveline along, and Aveline knows. Knows and will never forget.
It was Sebastian’s destiny to be part of the much maligned day one DLC. Consequently, his is the smallest part, coming with a handful of quests in all. The trick to Sebastian is how wholly oblivious and self centered he is. His family murdered, himself ousted from Starkhaven, his story revolves around reclaiming his birthright. He is part of the clergy, but sees no problem with killing scores of men if it will get him Starkhaven. Later, the idea that he might have to start a war in the region doesn’t appear to faze him.
He’s a shining example of aristocratic entitlement, more concerned with his being legally the ruler of a city than by the bloodshed he plans to unleash. At the same time, Sebastian comes across as, well, a humanist. Kindness, respect, and uprightness seem part of his character, and at odds with ideas about the world that have probably never been tested. But like most privileged people, he tends to look down on the oppressed with the kind of empathy that he feels justifies his inaction. We can see this in his position towards the mages, sympathetic but ultimately loyal to the Chantry. Outraged by injustice, blind when it comes to himself, he’s as full of contradictions as any human being.
Fenris comes out of the nightmare reality of a world ruled by mages. He has been enslaved, tortured and experimented on. He has the best perspective on the evil that magic users can perpetuate. His role is to stand in opposition to Anders, countering one story of oppression with his own. If you free mages, Fenris might say, what you’re really creating is more people like me.
The thing about mages is this: it’s not really the magic that is evil, the person is. However, the magic is an enabler, a gateway to corruption, a literal disease. One of the tenets of the Chantry is that magic must serve man, and never rule over him. The same faith that outlawed slavery endorses the Mages’ Circle. To be fair, treating resident mages with humanity has been depicted as the norm. Hardliners just seem to love Kirkwall. The point is this, even a humane institution will imprison mages, not because they are bad, but because they can be unwilling instruments to a greater evil.
The above is irrelevant to Fenris. He doesn’t tackle with the issue on a matter of principle. He has to live with the pain of magic. Oh, he knows not all mages are bad. After all, he hangs around with Hawke, even falls in love with her, an event that might lead to his unravelling.
Fenris hates magic users. But he is afraid. His fear has been chiseled into his bones, and as a consequence he has chosen to replace the fear with rage. The thing about long lasting traumas is how they definitely they affect us. How often do we rail away at others, attacking something that is now very far away, untouchable? Like spectres we haunt what haunted us in life, and Fenris is no different. This is ghost behavior. Fenris is the lyrium ghost.
The Anders we meet here couldn’t be more different than the one in Awakening. Joking, flirting, he is the Alistair of the expansion. He takes in a cat and calls it Sir-Pounce-a-Lot; he escapes from the Mages’ Circle, but doesn’t enjoy the Grey Wardens’ harsh discipline either. We don’t know what happened after Awakening but we do know that at some point he allowed Justice, the fade spirit, to enter his body. The man who arrives in Kirkwall is not the same. He has been broken by an overwhelming sense of justice. One can surmise that chemical suggestion has warped Justice’s purity, and that Justice himself gave Anders a militance he could not resist. Anders is a slave to a metaphysical compulsion.
Anders’s need for help is sincere, but his ultimate reward is a lie that allows him to enact his solution to the Mage problem: all out conflict. The fact is that Anders is dishonest. He omits information. He doesn’t trust you to help with the full picture in view. Experience has taught him that mages are feared. It’s one thing to walk into his sanctuary and ask for healing, it’s another to defy the templars. They are crimes on complete different scales. Deep down, Anders believes that only he is capable of making the right decision, and that belief goes hand in hand with his desire for martyrdom. Fanatics ascribe to their ideas a state of solipsism, which they take into themselves. It’s the kind of monstrous self-absorption needed to make Anders’s decisions. It’s also the proof that he is totally consumed with the need to free mages.
It’s a noble goal achieved through violent methods, an idea mages often echo. Sometimes they cite the struggle of Andraste, the messianic leader whose faith condemns all mages to spend their lives in prisons, against an empire run by tyrannical mages. The two perspectives on resistance — violent vs nonviolent — coexist but it is clear that one is winning over the other.
We make compromises in the interest of peace and order, but when the order we maintain is polluted by corruption and injustice, we should not be surprised that pragmatism gives way to violence. Both sides in this conflict see the others as polluted.
The mages are not dealing with governments interested in avoiding bloodshed. Their enemy is an institution whose armed branch is prepared to act without conscience, violently quelling resistance of any kind, even by mass murder, an act justified by the belief the Chantry was founded on, and the reality it emerged from: mages are fundamentally damaged. This is the reality in which Anders lives, and his determination to create an uncrossable divide between the two sides is just the terminal point of a history of oppression. In a sense, Anders is an agent — an abstract historical force — that was always going to appear, sparking a rebellion that was never not going to happen. He didn’t have to make the choice, but the choice was always going to be made. This is the world, and the characters just live in it.
Isabela first appeared in Origins as an NPC who taught the Duelist specialization before involving you and several of your coterie into her sexual escapades. This motif continues into Dragon Age II, where she wears a skimpy outfit and is heard arguing with Anders that it is indeed his job to get rid of her STDs. So far we’re on track, but Isabella is more complicated that this. Her ship lost, owing money and favors to dangerous people, but refusing to deal in slaves, she sees a Qunari artifact — the Tome of Koslun — as the key to her freedom. Well, she could kill the people hunting her, as it comes down to in the end. She could ask Hawke, and she, the unfailing protagonist, would do it. But she doesn’t ask. She doesn’t know that Hawke is the Boss, the CEO, the Chosen One of this story. So she’s afraid. She doesn’t say, she isn’t commanded by the typical NPC compulsion to spill their guts at the slightest encouragement. When she first meets Hawke she pitches her idea with bravado, a stroll in the park. Later she’s visibly panicked, but can’t bring herself to beg. She used to be the captain of the ship.
Meanwhile the Qunari, duty bound to recover their artifact, sit and fester in the city docks, growing ever more annoyed, ever more dangerous. All it would take to make Act 2 never happen is for Isabella to open her mouth and say the words, and let Hawke take charge. It’s a staple of Dragon Age II’s characters to avoid that. It’s one thing to involve the boss in your misdeeds; it’s another to let her live your life for you. Confession is an extraordinary event.
Blood magic means looking a demon in the eye and saying yes. Merrill has said yes. Merrill, in my humble opinion, is the game’s tour-de-force. Starting out like a mix of Tali and Liara, she is revealed to be much more. Living in a poor, barely furnished house, the only ornament an old mirror that doesn’t even work anymore. That mirror, the Eluvian that corrupts the Dalish Warden, is her life’s obsession. Convinced that it can help her recover some of the knowledge and power the elves once possessed, she doesn’t mind selling her soul and body, and leaving the only people who ever cared for her, and whom she cared for. It’s framed like a classic tale of the selfless hero who becomes a villain. Mostly the person Merrill victimizes is herself. In the climax of her story, her clan leader and teacher reveals that she has taken the demon into herself to keep Merrill safe, so once again the demon has won. The ensuing battle ends as elven hunters stumble onto the place. You can imagine what happens next.
At the end of years’ long wait and research, Merrill has only a shattered mirror and the weight of having destroyed her own clan. She filled herself with the pursuit of something that could never be gained, and when the pursuit ended she found nothing but an empty home and a broken mirror. When you first meet her she must climb a mountain. She begins the climb but never finishes it. It will carry on for the rest of her life.
Merrill doesn’t have the brawn, the natural confidence or just plain machoness of the others. She’s the one that seems the most insecure, a picture not helped by her frail appearance and wispy voice. But she’s the bravest one. She goes against her mentor’s wishes, defies her clan, makes a deal with a demon, and goes to live in a city far away where her kind see her as an outsider, and humans look at elves as the dregs of society. When other people tell her no, and they often do, Merril perseveres. It takes outstanding courage to do that, and sometimes outstanding foolhardiness. And Merrill does foolhardy things. She hurts herself, she alienates her family, she destroys the lives of others. She has good intentions.
After my first run I wished it had been Hawke or Varric to sell the lyrium idol that ultimately drives Meredith insane. Guilt by greed would have spiced things up, and made Hawke’s disappearance more intriguing, and Varric’s position more interesting. The fact is that Varric’s such a good guy. He’s charming, debonair, funny. He rarely loses his composure. He gives people nicknames and offers good advice. Most importantly he doesn’t make trouble. He helps you get out of it.
Varric is the most fun character, but this is why he’s also the least interesting. He’s the one character without an arc. He leaves the story having learned precisely nothing. Though he’s the one who transmits Hawke’s story to the world, by the end all he acquired was a big book of facts and a series of plots. You can only get so far on jokes alone. I never suspected that there was something behind his devil-may-care attitude.
What’s interesting is that Varric is surprisingly similar to an ironic Hawke. The difference is that while Hawke can deflect overt statements through humor, she also expresses emotions. Her mask falls off, Varric’s never does.
While the game finds its justification in Hawke’s ultimate destiny, the reason it’s interesting is the precarious life the Hawkes face as refugees. Hawke isn’t moved to action because the world needs saving. She’s out there hustling because her sister is afraid of the templars, because her mother used to live in a palace, and because the Hawkes, like all people, want to live with dignity. Material and personal security are what drive the adventure forward. Even in the later acts self-interest remains a driving force.
To be fair, we aren’t dealing with a real immigration story. Life in poverty, as a refugee with no legal status, who can disappear overnight, is not depicted. Hawke returns to her dilapidated home to speak to people, yes, but not to live in it. Maybe we should take that as brilliant subtext: Hawke lives on the streets where she risks her life, and not in the home she takes refuge in offscreen. Or maybe it’s just the reality of limited resources and being still too close to Origins to really take off as human drama.
Hawke doesn’t come to Kirkwall alone. With her are her mother Leandra and one of Bethany and Carver, depending on which class the player chooses.
Bioware’s decision to kill off one of your siblings at the start of the game is bold. A dead character isn’t just dead, it’s content that the player may never see. There’s also a unique phenomenon at work. The usual argument is that life is not complete without the experience of death, but in Bioware’s new canon a character’s death is not complete without the record of the life they would have lived. The life cut short invites us to resurrect the dead through new playthroughs. One more delicious detail: it can be argued that since Hawke’s class determines who lives and who dies, whether she is a mage or not decides which sibling will survive. Doomed since before they were born.
The survivor will follow Hawke into Kirkwall and stay with her until the end of Act I. Later portions of the game also include some limited interaction, depending on Hawke’s choices, but for the most part this where we get to see how the Hawke family gets along.
Carver is stifled. He’s come to the point in his life where he has to strike out on his own, but has nowhere to go. It doesn’t help that Hawke is pretty much infallible, that insufferable person you’re always compared against. “Why can’t you be more like your big sister?” I can imagine Leandra Hawke saying. After a while it takes its toll. You start to build resentment. You want to get out. I put it to you that Carver’s name isn’t incidental. He’s not just good with a sword; he’s out to carve his place in life.
Bethany has accepted that her role must be to support her big sister. It may not be what she was expected to do, but it’s the role she’s internalized. It’s what comes natural. And unlike Carver she isn’t interested in competing. She wants to build. The implication is that Carver’s oppression exists in Bethany, but goes unexpressed. At the same time, Carver complains, but ultimately obeys. Big sis has the last word on everything. It’s why she gets to carry the family name.
The critical point in Hawke’s relationship with her siblings comes at the end of Act I, when Leandra asks her to leave Carver or Bethany out of the Deep Roads expedition. If you take them with you they either die or become Grey Wardens. Leave them topside and Carver has to live down being left behind, while Bethany has to deal without Hawke’s protection. Every situation ends in a separation. Carver goes to the Templars, Bethany to the Mages. Whatever happens, there will be years of reproach, and an emptier house.
One of the more poignant moments happens when later when, Carver and Bethany gone, Leandra dead, Hawke visits Uncle Gamlen in the beaten down house he once demanded she pay rent for. By now Hawke lives in her mother’s old estate. She has servants and high social standing. She wears silk as a rule. She has no family but an old man who is lonely, and willing to connect with her. They are both orphans.
The Hawkes experience a meteoric rise in Kirkwall, but it comes at great effort and sometimes at greater cost. In spite of this, Hawke’s drive to continue doing never wanes. You may choose her tone and personality, but the fundamental drive remains the same: win through, no matter the cost. That’s the Hawke obsession.
At first Dragon Age II appears less a sequel and more a spinoff, reduced in scope, forced to recycle environs and enemies. Much has been said against its monospecies protagonist, a step back from cRPG tradition and its promise of depth and diversity. Perhaps the game hasn’t distanced itself as much. Origins gave a lot to the player, who in one story was a nomad, in another the son of a king, but it took a lot away from the characters, who were so absorbed in the player’s life they couldn’t involve him in theirs.
Dragon Age II may be poorer in content but it also creates an interesting reversal, as the player has less freedom to choose their path, while the characters have taken over the story. This wasn’t a trade many were happy to perform, but there’s one thing worth considering:
Fenris, born in a ghetto and taken by a sociopathic potentate.
Merrill, a dalish elf corrupted by a mirror that is much more than that.
Varric, son of disgraced dwarven nobles, betrayed by his brother.
Sebastian, heir to a murdered family, on a quest for justice.
Anders, escaped mage, freed by becoming a Grey Warden.
I think each of them mirrors one of the Origins. Far from discarding them, Dragon Age II has united them in a way that wasn’t possible before, giving them lives, problems, and feelings the wardens of the original might have had but never could because the warden you chose always cast the rest out of the story, into death and obscurity. Here we see their archetypes play out in ways more mundane but also more moving and involving. They have little to add to the player’s sense of empowerment, but they have a lot to say and do. They have lives you can be part of.
Before Mass Effect 3 came out I wondered whether the lessons of Dragon Age II would be forgotten in the midst of the Reaper invasion. They weren’t, and the result was a sequence of devastating moments in which Shepard learned that for all her skill she didn’t have the ability to save the people around her. People, at last, had lives that developed independently of her, even in spite of her. The project begun by Mass Effect 2 came to its conclusion. So diseases advanced, loyalties changed, personal destinies were fulfilled. The characters, in short, made the choices that only they could make, and that is of great significance for Mass Effect 3, because those doomed, heroic acts were also the only choices they could ever make.
It’s strange to close with a consideration of another franchise, but maybe it’s fitting that so flawed a game contain the one critical lesson worthy of remembrance, brought into another game so much more polished and certainly not lazy. In that respect Dragon Age II succeeded in a way that will be felt across Bioware’s history.