I was surprised to learn that I couldn’t change my companions’ armor in Dragon Age II. I shouldn’t have been: when I spoke to Matt Goldman for a series of previews I published on Destructoid, he let it slip.
“And, basically, to confer the advantages of having that one really good design on all of our characters, we made certain decisions: to limit the amount of changes you could do on them. They evolve as the story evolves, rather than when you decided to give them different gloves, for instance. Which, I think is a stronger motivation for changing their appearance.”
It seems obvious in hindsight, but I totally glossed over because I was speaking with Goldman with art direction in mind, not design or mechanics. And it’s too bad, too — if I’d been thinking about it in different terms, I could’ve run it as a story. Instead, I learned about it from Joe Juba on Game Informer three months later.
Role-playing games of the J variety tend to also be pretty stingy with character designs. Despite, say, Zidane Tribal’s gear being fully customizable, I can’t think of a single high-profile JRPG that is as visually flexible as, say, Diablo or Dragon Age: Origins — Final Fantasy X-2 being the exception that proves the rule. To see that extended below the presentation layer as an actual game mechanic is new to me, though.
And it creates something of a problem: in the interest of maintaining strong character designs, BioWare sharply curtail the amount of flexibility the player has to customize Hawke’s party.
Goldman’s problem seems easy to solve and BioWare already has the tools to do so. Both Origins and DAII occasionally restrict gear — it’s not uncommon to find a special sword that is only available to, say, Sten. Or an amulet only for Wynne or Merrill. Why not extend that to every piece of gear?
For example: Aveline, the captain of the City Guard, spends most the game in her guardsman’s issue armor. In my hypothetical version of Dragon Age II, I could find, say, “Ceremonial City Armor,” made out of red steel and sporting an attack bonus. Draw my new armor in the same style as Aveline’s template armor, and problem solved — I retain my sense of customization (and the joy of seeing Aveline in some badass red armor), and BioWare keeps control of Aveline’s strong design.
My other armor-related quibble — and, to be sure, that’s exactly what they are: quibbles — Dragon Age II refuses to tell me what class of armor each character is wearing.
Let me backtrack: In Origins, light armor generates less threat than massive armor, threat being a hidden stat that calculates which team member a given enemy will attack. Because I cannot change companion armor in DAII — and because the game does a bad job of communicating how its threat mechanics work — I have to make a series of assumptions based on my collected knowledge of role-playing games.
I can assume, for example, that Aveline generates a lot of threat because she wears bulky armor and carries a shield. I come to this conclusion because, traditionally, warriors with shields generate a lot of threat. What about Fenris, though? He’s a warrior (traditionally threatening), but he wears a little leather breastplate (traditionally non-threatening). For people who really want to dig into the tactics and mechanics of the game, this isn’t a trivial question, and it’s one that DAII never really answers.
Furthermore, this is exactly the kind of behavior that BioWare were trying to avoid with Dragon Age II. There was much gnashing of teeth and harumphing when lead designer Mike Laidlaw stated that his team were hoping to make DAII accessible to new players. I think they’ve succeeded, more or less, but the fact that I have to rely on years of built-up role-playing knowledge — and not information presented to me by the game itself — to decipher its underlying mechanics signals a misstep.
And yet, I don’t fault BioWare for its decision, if only for the way it fits into an entire campaign to individualize the half-dozen roustabouts you’ll be buccanneering with for fifty some-odd hours.
The stickiest, messiest point in all of the discussion of Dragon Age II is that some players feel that their choices are meaningless. A question like this isn’t limited to BioWare games or even RPGs — it’s pretty critical to the modern videogame writ large. It’s well-aimed criticism, but only half-true in my opinion.
Think of the extent to which Hawke’s decisions change the lives of her immediate family. Think of the small-scale genocide she may (or may not) trigger. Think of the lives she holds in her hands — a quick count reveals at least a dozen.
And yet, Hawke’s companions are largely indifferent to her opinions or whims. Merrill, Andres, and Isabella each make decisions without Hawke’s knowledge or approval; Aveline and Fenris change and grow, slowly but surely, over a decade, despite Hawke’s well-laid plans.
The beauty of Dragon Age II is the extent to which Hawke’s companions flex their agency — it’s not enough that they each have personal ambitions or motivations, but they tend to act on those ambitions. Kirkwall is equally independent — one gets the impression that the political tensions of the Free Marches would come to a head whether or not Hawke was involved.
Make no mistake — BioWare’s is a seldom-used gambit. For most RPGs, “meaningful choice” means that the mechanisms that propel life in a particular game-world can’t function without player input. Dragon Age II takes a different approach to world-building and its thesis — lead, I suspect, by Mike Laidlaw — is fundamentally different from most.
For those who miss the deific powers of most RPG protagonists, the perceived lack of meaningful choice isn’t so much a criticism of Dragon Age II, but a fundamental disconnect with the game’s goals. On the other hand, I’m impressed by BioWare’s decision to limit the scope of the story and its protagonist and their willingness to draw fully-realized companions.
And because I buy into Hawke as a badass but ultimately limited hero, I also have to buy into the limits imposed on how she interacts with her companions — i.e. their armor — despite the execution of those limits as a mechanic.
In any case, my review of Dragon Age II has been on Destructoid for a while by now. You can check it out, if you’re so inclined, here.