Critics of storytelling mediums often deconstruct a new piece of work to show what it is doing, what themes it's exploring, and what other stories influenced it. This type of deconstruction is, unfortunately, rather uncommon when talking about video games.
What follows is a literary deconstruction of Dragon Age II. Obviously, spoilers abound. The setting of Dragon Age II will be compared to the history of Asia Minor, the other stories Dragon Age II draws upon will be examined, and the tragic arc(s) of the story will be dissected.
Before getting into the story of Dragon Age II, we should talk about the setting. 90% of the game is spent in Kirkwall, the city of chains, but beyond its walls lies Thedas, a continent Bioware infused with a rich history. A history that can be examined through the lens of Asia Minor.
A Brief History of Asia Minor
In 70 AD, (soon to be emperor) Titus of the Roman Empire laid siege to Jerusalem, ultimately destroying the city and the Jewish temple. The Jews suffered "diaspora," a term invented to describe their condition; they were scattered among lands that were not their own, typically kept in poverty by the rulers and people of those lands. But they were able to keep their identity and their religion.
Over the next 400 years, the Roman Empire slowly collapsed on itself, effectively splitting into the East Roman Empire and the West Roman Empire. The West Roman Empire fell when Romulus Augustus was deposed in 476 AD. Constantinople, built over ancient Byzantium, become the seat of power for the remaining empire, the East Roman Empire, which became known as the Byzantine Empire.
In 1299 AD the Ottoman Empire was founded in Anatolia (modern Turkey) by Osman I, and rapidly conquered territory of the Byzantine Empire. The Ottomans had vastly different beliefs and culture than the Byzantines, and had a policy of convert or kill.
In 1365, the Ottomans conquered Adrianople and moved their capitol there. Adrianople is on the west side of Constantinople, while the rest of the Ottoman territory was east of Constantinople, effectively cutting off the Byzantine capitol from the rest of its territory. But Constantinople remained unconquered by the Ottomans due to its gigantic triple walls and rich ports. The Ottomans would ultimately conquer Constantinople with the aid of gunpowder canons, but that's getting a little ahead of ourselves.
A quick summary:
Jerusalem Arthalan, the ancestral home of the Jews elves, was destroyed by the Roman Empire Tevinter Imperium, and the elves suffered diaspora. The Tevinter Imperium went into decline, eventually ruling a small territory from its capitol of Constantinople Tevinter. Tevinter was challenged by the invading Ottomans Qunari, who had strange beliefs and culture and brought gunpowder to Europe Thedas.
Dragon Age II uses the history of Asia Minor as the backdrop for the continent. For the magic, the power relationships, and the characters we must look to literature for Dragon Age II's inspiration.
The Debts of Dragon Age II
All stories are built on the stories that came before them. Here are a few that Dragon Age II is indebted to (excluding the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, not because Dragon Age isn’t indebted to Tolkien, but because every fantasy story of the past 70 years is indebted to Tolkien).
The Wheel of Time
While the magic system of The Wheel of Time (reweaving threads of the Pattern) differs vastly from that of Dragon Age (drawing power from the Fade dream world) in concept (if not effect), there is one element that is nearly identical. In The Wheel of Time, male magic users will go insane, unpredictably and without warning, causing great destruction upon even those they love. In Dragon Age, all magic users can become possessed, unpredictably and without warning, causing great destruction upon even those they love.
Further, “stilling” (or “gentling,” as the case may be) is nearly analogous to making a mage tranquil, and "the tranquil solution" that Meredith resists is essentially modus operandi for Aes Sedai and male magic users.
Song of Ice and Fire
The use of “ser” instead of “sir” is an obvious nod to George R. R. Martin’s works, but the relationship goes much deeper than that. This relationship was clearer in Dragon Age: Origins, but lingers in Dragon Age II. As in Song of Ice and Fire, Dragon Age II doesn’t have clear cut villains and heroes like most fantasy stories. Sometimes the brutal dictator is right. Sometimes the courageous freedom fighter is wrong. Sometimes (usually) who’s right and who’s wrong is debatable.
Obviously, for Dragon Age II I’m talking about Meredith and the Templars versus Orsino and the mages. Yes, Meredith is oppressive and brutal. But at the end of the day, she’s not wrong: the mages, even Orsino, unleash waves of demons upon Kirkwall. Would they if Meredith hadn’t been oppressive? Irrelevant; blood magic and consorting with demons is repeatedly shown to be worse than dying for everyone involved (and anyone in the near vicinity).
The willingness to use blood magic, under any circumstances, paints the mages black. Orsino even admits to hiding knowledge of a serial killer that could have saved lives because the serial killer was a mage and Orsino was interested in his blood magic research.
Then again, Meredith is certifiably insane, a paranoid schizophrenic who sees blood mages around every corner (even when there are blood mages only around every other corner) and ultimately tries to kill everyone involved, not just the mages.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the television show)
There are strong parallels between some of the characters in Dragon Age II and Buffy. Merrill, the awkward stuttering witch with a dark side, closely mirrors Willow. Anders tries to out brood Angel (and can even put on a powerful “scary face” when threatened due to being possessed). Aveline, as the strong female with relationship awkwardness and the job of protecting people, makes a good bid for Buffy. Hawke awkwardly quips at people, while trying to keep the peace, just like Xander (that might be just my Hawke).
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a classic hero's journey: the hero, initially weak, fails to overcome the adversary. With help from a mentor, the hero conquer's her failings, but not before descending into hell and having to crawl back out, before, ultimately, vanquishing the adversary.
Dragon Age II, unlike most videogames, is not that story. It's a tragedy. Or, rather, a number of tragedies.
The Tragic Arc
While most fantasy games are epic tales saving the world from some evil person, monster, or force, Dragon Age II is about the tragedies in Kirkwall. What are the elements of a tragedy? The classic Greek Tragedy involves:
1. A character of high station brought low by their actions
2. These actions do not have to be the character’s “fault” or even within the character’s control
3. Upon becoming aware of his/her crimes, the character is overcome with impotent remorse
For example, Oedipus unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, then gouged out his own eyes when he discovered his true relationship to them.
Dragon Age II is full of such tragedies.
The tragedy Knight-Commander Meredith Stannard begins with her sister. Amelia Stannard developed magical ability, which the family hid from the mages and Templars. Amelia became possessed by a demon and killed the entire family except Meredith plus a number of villagers before being killed by the Templars. This event fuels Meredith’s ambition within the Templars and her harsh view of mages.
At some point in Act 2, Meredith acquires the lyrium idol discovered by Hawke, Varric, and Bartrand in the Deep Roads, which she has made into a sword. Over the next three years, the strange lyrium drives her to become more paranoid, and, ultimately, she betrays the Champion of Kirkwall, who is forced to kill her.
First Enchanter Orsino is, by all accounts (except Meredith’s), a good man. He works to shelter the mages from Meredith’s harsh decrees and personally avoids blood magic and consorting with demons. Nevertheless, in Act 2 Orsino supports the “research” of a blood mage/serial killer, and is ultimately willing to summon demons and desecrate his friends’ bodies to become a Harvester to get revenge against Meredith. Hawke is forced to kill him.
Although the protagonist of Dragon Age II is Hawke, and Varric is telling the story of the Champion of Kirkwall, the story of Dragon Age II is arguably more the story of Anders. The Chantry Sister Cassandra is only interested in Hawke to the extent that he was involved in setting Thedas onto the path of war, a war of which Anders is the direct cause.
Anders is an apostate mage who runs an underground movement to save apostate mages from the Templars. He is possessed by a spirit of Justice, but his anger has largely turned Justice into a being of Vengeance. After years of helping and hiding mages from the Templars, Anders decides that the current status quo is untenable. He kills the Grand Cleric, the only person with the ability to mediate between the Templars and the mages, with the intention of starting a war between the mages and Templars.
For his crimes, Anders is killed by Hawke in a futile attempt to stop the war. This is, arguably, the least “tragic” of the options, since Anders doesn’t have a chance to see the results of his actions.
Hawke can’t bring himself to kill Anders, and lets him go, with a warning to never cross Hawke’s path again. Anders wanders Thedas, seeing the results of the horrific civil war he started.
Hawke forgives/approves of Anders’ actions, and they remain together as fugitives, wandering Thedas and seeing the results of the horrific civil war Anders started.
The tragedy of Hawke is more nebulous, given the requirement of player agency. Nevertheless, all the tragic elements remain, although some choices may lead to a less strict tragedy than others. Hawke is the well-respected Champion of Kirkwall, one of the few people whose words Meredith and Orsino both consider.
At the end of Act 1, Hawke inadvertently helps to discover and acquire the strange lyrium that ultimately drives Meredith insane. He may be partially responsible for kicking off the Qunari invasion, depending on what happened with Isabela and the relic. Hawke may also have unknowingly helped Anders plant the bomb that killed the Grand Cleric.
Finally, Hawke is responsible for killing, banishing, or supporting Anders, and, ultimately, is forced to leave Kirkwall and go into hiding.
Those are the four central tragedies of Dragon Age II (although Meredith, Orsino, and—possibly—Anders die before becoming fully aware of their crimes), and, while I won’t go into the others, I think it important to mention them: Merrill, Isabela, Bethany, Thrask, and Feynriel all have (or can have) tragic arcs.
I’m sure there are more. How many tragic arcs in Dragon Age II can you name?
Videogames are the most exciting mediums for storytelling, and it’s disappointing to see the same plots played out again and again: bad guy does bad thing, kill bad guy (and bad guy’s guys). Dragon Age II took several risks in how they told the story. They told a tragedy instead of the standard hero’s journey. They used a notoriously unreliable narrator to tell the story, allowing them to introduce bits of the story that never actually happened (such as Varric walking alone into the mansion and killing everyone with ease) but were important for characterization.
Hopefully, developers will look to Dragon Age II not for the criticism it received and What Not To Do, but for the successful risks it took in storytelling, and produce more diverse plots and themes in future games.