The Family History: Part Two


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.

Aveline

Av01It’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.

Sebastian

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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

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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.

Anders

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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

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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.

Merrill

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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.

Varric

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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.

The Hawkes

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.

270px-CARVERCarver 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.

270px-Bethany_profileBethany 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.

Conclusion

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.


Andrei Filote

About Andrei Filote

Andrei Filote lives somewhere between the Alps and the sea. He studies foreign languages and writes about games and all things eSports. You can tweet to him @letominor.