It’s not controversial to say that Dragon Age II saw plenty of criticism, especially from the BioWare fanbase, upon release. It got dinged for recycling environments and a third act that didn’t feel as full as the first two, but one of the lesser complaints was the decision to set the entirety of DA1 within and around the city-state of Kirkwall. We went from exploring the country of Ferelden in Dragon Age: Origins to feeling caged in a single city. And that was a missed opportunity.
Specifically, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask for Nintendo 64 and, more recently, Nintendo 3DS as Majora’s Mask 3D. While stopping the moon from crashing into the planet and killing everyone is the main objective, the player can also assist the numerous citizens. Finishing these quests rewards Link with masks.
The gimmick, as you might already know, is that the player has only three in-game days before the moon collides with the surface. Using the Ocarina of Time allows Link to travel backwards in time to the first day, robbing the young elf of most of his items and undoing whatever progress was made in both the main objective and the NPC quests. Only upon gaining the mask associated with those NPC quests are they considered finished.
One of the longer and more memorable tasks involves reuniting the lovers Anju and Kafei. The man was cursed and now appears as a child, so he vanished. Getting these characters back together spans the three days, but we’re rewarded with a little of their wedding during the credits. Although Kafei is never seen, watching from his perspective suggests that his curse was lifted. We made an impact. Our actions during the game altered the world.
Dragon Age II also toys with time, but we’re not restricted to a handful of days. Instead, the story spans a decade with two instances of jumping ahead by three years. In other words, the game features three distinct moments in time, and if that sounds familiar, it’s because storytellers have been using a similar structure for, well, forever.
The first act introduces characters, the world, and usually the main threat. The second act features the protagonist struggling against the opposition, while the third act leads to the final confrontation as everything comes to a close. The story in Dragon Age II mirrors this, introducing Hawke, Kirkwall, and the city-state’s delicate political situation. The second act has Hawke struggle between Kirkwall’s Viscount and the Qunari Arishok, and expanding on blood magic introduced in the first act. Finally, the third act features Hawke caught again between two sides as blood magic becomes the focal point.
While the side-quests follow a similar structure, there isn’t a noticeable impact on Kirkwall. For instance, clearing the dragons from Bone Pit Mine for Hubert, a merchant, in the first act unlocks the second portion of the quest, playable in the second act. Apparently, in the years since helping Hubert, he hasn’t been successful as he’s still in his ratty ol’ tent. Nothing changes because he’s a low-level NPC who only exists to offer Hawke an objective.
This is expected in most games, but Dragon Age II had the opportunity to make something special. It had the opportunity to show a city evolve as the player enacts change. For instance, how cool would it be if Hubert was working in an actual building during the second instead of a dinky tent because we helped him in the first act? Or if clearing a street of criminals hanging around at night caused the area to look nicer or get decorations? Don’t do those quests means that the city stays the same instead of doing those quests and the city stays the same.
Unfortunately, I don’t feel that I’m watching Kirkwall evolve through the years.
Kirkwall doesn’t change. The destructive attack that concludes the second act is rendered moot to the player as the supposed damage was completely fixed by the start of the third act. The city appears exactly as it did during the previous two acts, excluding a statue of Hawke by the docks (which, frankly, sucks. Who doesn’t enjoy viewing honorary monuments with the smell of dead fish in the air?). That results in the disappointing realization that Kirkwall hasn’t changed in almost ten years. The leadership has, as did Hawke’s position in society (not that anyone listens to Hawke), but not Kirkwall.
Maybe that’s the point? Kirkwall is a city chained to its history. The Circle of Magi is an island that formally housed slaves, and now the mages are essentially slaves within those same walls. Kirkwall can’t change, says the mages who resort to blood magic to violently steal their freedom.
That’s not fun for the player, though. RPGs have an advantage over almost every genre by allowing players to interact with the world in ways beyond shooting a gun or punching somebody. That’s what Majora’s Mask realized. What’s the point of hanging around these NPCs for hours upon hours, as opposed to spending a few minutes in one town before vanishing as quickly as you arrived, if you don’t change them or their situation? Why bother reuniting Anju and Kafei if you don’t see the fruits of your efforts?
Majora’s Mask takes place across three days (over and over), yet I feel that I’m making more of an impact on the world than the roughly ten years I spent in Kirkwall.
There is a sign that BioWare might’ve already gotten the message. Trespasser, the last story-based DLC for Dragon Age: Inquisition, involves spending a substantial amount of time within the Winter Palace. When the DLC begins, only a small force of Inquisition soldiers are present, but as the story unfolds, your forced slowly take control in the name of security. At the very end, players make a decision whether such a powerful organization should continue existing, but point is this single location was physically altered by the story. Not by the player themselves, but it’s a step.
Whether or not BioWare continues this idea with Dragon Age 4 will be interesting. If the rumors of the game taking place in the Tevinter Imperium are true, they might have an excellent platform for the player to enact visible change.
August 16, 2017: Rewrote significant chunks of the article.