Geek Butch Gaming: Dragon Age 2

Warning: there are spoilers for Dragon Age 2 within. If it bothers you to have spoilers for a 10-year-old game, welp, now you know.

It’s kind of annoying that they didn’t make a cover with femHawke, only boyHawke.

I am generally quite a laggard of a gamer — I let other people try out games well before I buy them, usually secondhand, and give them a try. I have many games on my shelves that I’ve picked up at steep discounts when my local Gamestop was trying to offload a backlog that I’ve never touched, or that I’ve tried and dropped because they didn’t engage me. There are not many games I go back to even once, though the archivist in me keeps all the physical copies unless the game is wildly offensive.

While Dragon Age 2 was released in 2011, I didn’t pick it up until the fall of 2014, after I’d just finished Dragon Age: Origins (also, obviously, a late play). I think I started it in August and finished in November, since I was working full time and freelancing copiously at the same time. I had enjoyed the first game, romancing Leliana, though I was frustrated that I couldn’t romance Morrigan. And I enjoyed DA2 sufficiently that I bought DA: Inquisition at full price during its first week of release (late November 2014). (Part of that choice was wanting to support Bioware’s choice to have a trans guy secondary character running around. Maybe sometime we’ll get a primary dateable trans character.)

I’ve tried playing through DA: Origins since at least twice — once with a woman POV and once with a man POV — but never managed to hit my stride. Given that I attempted DA: Origins once (dwarf woman) and ended up dropping it before trying it again later with an elf POV and finishing it, it apparently has some issues grabbing my attention and interest.

Morrigan and Alistair, arguably the best 2 things in DA: Origins.

I started jonesing for a videogame again recently, and thought about trying Origins again, but discarded the idea in favor of trying to play through DA2. I have an excellent memory for stories, and I suspect this is one of my problems with Origins: I still remember most of the story beats, because it was fairly simple and straightforward, and not a lot of them were complex or compelling. When I thought about it, I couldn’t remember most of DA2 — I remembered the big fight at the end, but not how we got there.

I’m really, really enjoying this playthrough. There’s SO MUCH I didn’t remember.

(oooo, flipping through my personal blog I just realized I was playing this through during a major upheaval at my day job that was kind of traumatic, so there may be Reasons I don’t remember this game.)

I remember that DA2 got a lot of flack originally because it wasn’t a big open world like other Bioware pieces, but honestly, I think that meant that the writers got to make it a tighter, more complex narrative with more focus on giving us fuller and more interesting characterization. It also got flack because all the romanceable characters were bi, but I think that’s a major selling point (and one of the reasons I was so frustrated with DA: Inquisition — I will never not be angry about Cassandra being needlessly straight). Even a number of the nonromanceable characters have major queer vibes — for instance, you cannot tell me Varric, with his fancy clothes and shaved chin (gender nonconforming!) and bardlike ways, is NOT a big queer fop. Maybe/probably an ace big queer fop, but big queer fop nonetheless. I think I would argue that DA2 is the queerest of the Bioware games I’ve managed to play thus far (all 3 DAs and the first 2 Mass Effects).

I really like the idea of Varric as an ace bard, actually. Spins sexy stories in his free time, but definitely has pretty much zero interest in sexytimes himself. He talks an okay heteronormative game when he has to, but I find him unconvincing.

My initial reaction last time was mostly pleased too (extracted from some of my personal blog’s posts):

... the lighting is weird and artificial. It feels like the whole thing is happening indoors, which wasn't so obvious in the first game. The characters are more pleasantly rendered, with more consistent lipflaps, and I like our POV char's voice more. I also enjoy the fact that for a while I had an all-female party, by default, and the one guy who's joined the group pings my gaydar like crazy (he's trying so hard NOT to be like ALL the other dwarves: cleanshaven, stylishly dressed, wears jewelry, and has brutally suppressed his accent/growl and up-classed his accent)

Yup, I definitely pinged on Varric last time too.

A very nice touch: when you pick the darkest skin tone for Hawke, the game gives Hawke’s family similar skin tones, so your POV char is visibly related to the family (instead of other games where my POV char was clearly the milkman’s baby or something — maybe that was a Fable game? I can’t remember). Granted, “darkest” skin tone is unimpressive in this game. But they got some points for trying, I guess.

I also really enjoyed Flemeth’s appearance — her design is really striking and now I want to go hunting Flemeth cosplayers again (wonder how many of them are cosplaying Lady Dimetrescu from Resident Evil now). Also, though I don’t like Kate Mulgrew personally, I could listen to her read the phone book for awhile. (Not as long as I could listen to Kathleen Turner, but still.) Of course now I could also see the setup for her story in the next game, which is lovely.

What is the Dragon Age team’s obsession with horns, anyway?

While I had remembered that I would lose one sibling at the very opening of the game (I continue to have zero interest in Carver), I had forgotten that I only keep my remaining sibling through the first act. I am still disappointed by sibling’s lack of personality or characterization. Bethany is flat as a cardboard cutout, especially compared to the other mages of the party. I think the first time through, I may have lost her in the Deep Roads (and had to come home with that news to Mom). This time, I lost her to the Circle and Cullen being all angry with me for harboring an apostate. (Cullen is kind of dorky and fresh-faced compared to his appearance in Inquisition, yet I still have zero patience for his inability to sympathize with the mages. It smacks too much of the inability of prison guards to see that their charges are human beings.)

I had utterly forgotten the whole Deep Roads trip. Which, to be fair, it was pretty unmemorable despite the doublecross by Varric’s brother. Certainly not as interesting as the trip into the Deep Roads in the first game — I think this is one place where the story rail got neglected in the rush to get the game out the door. Very little story, despite the mystery of the primeval thaig and all the really interesting things they could have done with it. My inner anthropologist really wants to explore the ruins and learn more about the early dwarves and I’m really disappointed that we don’t get any of that in any of the games.

(There you go, gaming companies: give us an archaeologist/anthropologist exploring ruins and digging into the past instead of collecting treasure and unaddressed trauma.)

Now I’m in Act 2, where Hawke has a mansion, Bethany’s been stolen off to the Circle, our uncle is nowhere to be seen, and Mom is contemplating dating.

I regret that Aveline is not romanceable, but they’re very up front with Aveline’s interests — she likes himbos who are into her being the relationship top. This makes for some complex power dynamics with her affair with one of her guardsmen. She wouldn’t be the relationship top with Hawke, so it’s absolutely understandable that she’s not interested in Hawke.

Aveline is charming in that “I don’t have quite enough snark to keep up with all these other people hanging around Hawke but I’ll try anyway” kind of way.

I have already accidentally fallen into bed with Isabela (kind of literally, given her… enthusiasm), who I adore, and continue to flirt with the other flirtable characters. Flirting with Fenris got me +5 rivalry points, which caused great household hilarity. I’ve pretty much decided that my current Hawke is nonbinary and pansexual, so they’re flirting liberally with everyone. I think I’m going to go for a romance with Anders to see how much more depth I get on him that way. I’m tempted to try Merrill, just because what little I recall of her story was pretty fascinating and also I’m intrigued by Merrill being written as neurodivergent — something I’m paying more attention to these days, as I’ve been reading more about neurodivergence. (I appreciate Isabela’s friendship with Merrill too.) Maybe when I finish the story with Anders, I’ll pop back to an earlier save and try Merrill.

I continue to be utterly unable to sympathize with the Templars in the least. It’s bad enough in this game that I can’t even contemplate the Templar skill tree. I just skip over it. I appreciate that they’re telegraphed pretty heavily as Abusive and Fascist Bad Guys (the “Tranquil Solution” indeed). Being pro-Templar is a Choice someone who is not me can make, I suppose. (I’m also reminded of the fact that the Templar-Mage conflict inspired NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. I think she has done an amazing, gut-wrenching job of deeply exploring what abuses the Templars would likely be perpetrating behind the closed doors of the Circle to keep the Mages in line. If you haven’t read the books, I highly recommend them, particularly if you’re a fan of Dragon Age and not a fan of the Templars. But be warned: I am absolutely not kidding about the gut-wrenching part.)

I had completely forgotten the Qunari plot, and now am admiring the way it ties together with what I remember of the end of the game. It also makes me eager to replay Inquisition so I can see if I can get more depth with Iron Bull. Maybe I’ll play a dude in Inquisition this time. (Maybe I can even convince Inquisition to load my Hawke from this run this time instead of serving me up whitebread default Hawke.)

Iron Bull’s a little weird on proportions, but I guess that makes him look more inhuman? Or something. I let him and Dorian get together last time.

I’m really enjoying my return to wandering through the queer world of Dragon Age 2, and loving my party banter so, so much. I can feel myself trying to brace for the less-queer world of DA: Inquisition as I go, and I’m trying hard to put that aside so I can enjoy where I am right now. This replay is helping inspire me to work on my fantasy tabletop game, which is very much due for its next run.

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