Which game was the biggest disappointment this year? Many gamers (me included) would answer with Dragon Age II by BioWare. With recycled environments, combat void of tactics, and a meaningless item system, BioWare seemed to do quick work of unraveling the success of Dragon Age: Origins. After completing the game, I read some criticism that changed my mind. So much, in fact, that I count Dragon Age II as not only superior to its predecessor, but one of the best games that I’ve ever played. This turn of my dissatisfaction into fervency led me to reflect on how game criticism enables such changes in perspective.
In “Games Aren’t Clocks,” Michael Abbott challenges the preoccupation that critics have with judging a game’s value mostly around its gameplay (“Games Aren’t Clocks”, The Brainy Gamer, 11 September 2011). Abbott’s take on the issue implies that gamers will put up with lackluster results in something like narrative as long as the gameplay is good enough, but not the other way around. This doesn’t excuse Dragon Age II its many negatives, which have been fleshed out by many critics. However, the complaints focus on gameplay and are spare in commenting on a character drama rarely seen in games. Good writing is rare to come across in gaming, and Dragon Age II engages with the conversation on how to imbue a game with meaning through its narrative elements.
It’s possible that gamers haven’t figured out a use for criticism, as the recent debacle over game reviews’ ratings teaches us. Most game criticism strives to assign objective-like values onto games with the assumption that the reader is researching a game for purchase. On the other hand, articles like Alex Raymond’s “A fate that we deserve: Choice, Triumph, and All That Remains” offers a viewpoint that the player might have not considered (“A fate that we deserve: Choice, Triumph, and All That Remains”, While !Finished, 27 September 2011). This type of game criticism is a means to understanding the game rather than an assessment of its value, a lens to highlight certain features and focus a player’s attention to subtleties that surface elements obscure. Raymond pushes aside the categories that Abbott finds unsatisfactory, like gameplay, to center on the characters. A knee-jerk reaction might accuse this perspective as one that views games under the same rubrics that define literary or film criticism, but it is actually the tension surrounding character interaction that makes Dragon Age II so compelling. The game’s characters are unconventional in having lives and pursuits of their own, acting upon the story world as they want to, and not asking the player for permission to do so. The player visits their party members, watches them interact with one another, and changes the tone of the game by building rivalries and friendships.
In her article, Raymond readjusts some aspects of Dragon Age II perceived as faults into evidence of a great game. Some players saw Hawke as ineffectual, unable to control many of the game’s events. Raymond’s analysis instead suggests that the game is forcing the player to experience something that they don’t feel often in games: powerlessness. It uses the player’s predisposition to having control against them. Instead of being like other games and looking to empower players by giving them the illusion of freedom and choice, Dragon Age II tells the player that they are not a superhero. Instead, Hawke is a survivor and witness to catastrophic events that they had little to do with by comparison to others. The constant character drama reinforces this feeling; the “game” exists in the relationships, not the events.
This is when the light bulb went on for me. Like others, I had a mild affection for most of the characters in Dragon Age II but felt like there was little to them. I didn’t realize that seeing the sheer skill that went into building their characterization occurs only over multiple playthroughs. How the player handles these relationships, what kind of personality Hawke has, the stance they take in the Templars vs. Mage conflict, all change the nuances of the character’s attitudes and personalities. The ultimate example of this process, for me, revolves around Anders destroying the Chantry, as it is an event that prompts the player to parse complicated feelings with their own ideology. Was Hawke Anders’s friend, lover, or rival? Were they for or against the Templars? Given the choice of what to do with Anders afterwards, the player must reflect on what brought them to this point and what seems to be the most monumental choice for their game.
I replayed the game three times after this realization. I saw a bubbly, benign Merrill and a stubborn, selfish one recontexualizing the fate of her clan. I can’t decide if Fenris is an outright bigot or a justified skeptic, as I’ve seen both versions of the character. In other words, Dragon Age II presents gamers with meaningful interaction with relationships themselves in video games, a feat commonly fumbled at by other games. It took only one section of one article to reach this level of appreciation for a game that I thought was past redemption. Game criticism can add replay value to games and make them culturally significant, a process that takes looking past just the gameplay and considering what the whole might mean.