Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

The Importance of Plot Hooks (Dragon Age II)

04.01.11
by Ty Franck

While I think the much anticipated follow up to Dragon Age: Origins is inferior in a number of ways, I’m going to pick on one in particular in this post.

The absence of compelling plot hooks.

In many ways a computer (or console) RPG is like a novel.  You create the character, but the game designers drop your creation into their world, show them what needs to be done, and then give them the tools to do it.

The joys come in a variety of ways:  Increasing the potency (and thereby their ability to solve the big problem) through levels, or skills, or new items and spells.  Each increase in our character’s abilities generally gives them access to new areas, or the ability to fight new monsters (thus leading to even more levels and loot).  And just this joy in ‘leveling up’ can take a person a long way in a computer game.  Older games like Diablo were basically just click fests that kept our attention by throwing levels, powers, and limitless loot at us.  I played a lot of Diablo, so I can personally attest to the sleep depriving power of “One more dungeon and I can get enough XP to max out my firebolt spell!”

But then a little game Baldur’s Gate came along and showed me that along with my leveling and looting, I might actually enjoy the story, too.  By the end of Baldur’s Gate, I was not only cackling over the +3 sword I’d just found, but over the twists and turns of the plot.

Baldur’s Gate II only exceeded its predecessor in this.  And for the first time, not only did I care about the loot and the plot, but about the personal lives of my  NPC party members.  Would Haer Dalis wind up sweet talking his way into the arms of Aerie?  And how did my character, who’d been wooing Aerie up to that point plan to deal with that?  Would he fight for her?  Or take a cold comfort in Viconia’s dangerous embrace?

This was revolutionary stuff, and I must have played through Baldur’s Gate II and it’s various add-ons a dozen times or more, exploring all of the possibilities.  Not just the possible characters *I* could make, but how each of them fit into the world and the lives of the people they interacted with.  Then sadly, Black Isle, the company who’d made these revolutionary games, died.

Years later, I switched from primarily PC gaming to console gaming.  I enjoyed the console games, and many of them a great deal.  But I could often be heard bemoaning the loss of the truly great CRPG.  Button mashers like Champions of Norrath, that replaced depth of story with a diablo-esque frenetic ‘kill and loot’ style play just weren’t the same.  Ironically, a game called Baldur’s Gate came out that used this style of play, which seemed only to mock my pain.

Then I heard rumors of EA getting ready to release a revolutionary new console RPG called Dragon Age.  I was intrigued.  I heard they’d hired the writers from Black Isle to work on it.  I began salivating with anticipation.

And man, did they not let me down.  Dragon Age: Origins was everything I’d been hoping for.  Rich story, lovely game play, and a varied cast of NPC characters to interact with.  They had their own wants and needs, they got angry with me for doing things that violated their personal codes.  They squabbled with each other, or flirted.  Sometimes they fell in love with me.  It was beautiful.

So, like nearly everyone else, I was pretty excited by the prospect of a Dragon Age sequel.   And they got a lot right.  There are a new cast of NPC characters to meet and interact with.  Some of their storylines are just as rich as those in the first game.  But I largely feel like I’m going through the motions as I go from quest to quest and gain my XP and loot.

“Why is that?” I kept wondering.

Plot hooks is the answer.

In the first Dragon Age, you begin the game in one of several starting areas depending on the race and class combination you chose.  After a few easy missions within that area to give you a feel for the game and the control system, you are drafted by an ancient order called the Gray Wardens to go and fight an evil army called the Blight.  Within just a few hours of beginning the game, the Gray Wardens have been betrayed and murdered, the throne has been usurped, and you are cast adrift in a land soon to be overrun by ancient evil.

You are tasked with building an army out of the traditional Gray Warden allies, and once strong enough, with driving back the blight and killing its leader, the Archdemon.

You are given this task literally within a few hours of starting the game.  The next fifty hours or so you play will be in the service of this quest.  And the game does a wonderful job of keeping the tension high.  Periodic attacks from the blight.  The loss of towns that were once available to you as the blight overtakes them.  Periodically coming across a murdered caravan or a lot of dead soldiers.  You feel a palpable sense that you’re running out of time.  So much so that several of my friends skipped major chunks of side quests because they were worried that the blight would destroy the kingdom if they didn’t finish the main quest fast enough.

The game tells you what’s wrong, and what the character needs to do to fix it.  You know, like a novel.

Dragon Age II, sadly, totally fails in this regard.  It looks like Dragon Age, mostly.  It sort of feels like it while you are playing it.  I liked some of the NPC’s.

But there’s no plot.  I mean, sure, when you get to the end you fight a big battle that sort of resolves a major conflict.  But it was a conflict I was basically unaware of at the start of the game.  The first third of the game was about getting enough money to buy my mother a house.  I mean, fine, establishing myself in the city is a fine goal, but what does it have to do with anything else?  The second third of the game hints at what the final conflict will be, but drops a giant red herring about an invasion in your lap.  When I defeated the leader of the possibly invading forces, I honestly thought the game might be over at that point.  When there was another 12-15 hours of gameplay, and a whole new problem to solve, it felt tacked on.

It was pretty disappointing, story wise.   But what really bugs me is that Bioware knows it.  They know the game has this flaw, and they try to fix it with a cheap framing story.  Between each section, you see a knight questioning a dwarf about someone called The Champion.  You get a sense that this champion did something to upset the balance of power in the world.  You get a sense that the dwarf knows the champion personally.  When you then run into that dwarf early on and he becomes a member of your party, you realize, “Ah, I am the champion.  Check.”

But what the champion did, or why this knight is interrogating this dwarf remains nebulous as best.  It’s like the game keeps jumping in to say, “I know this all just seems like some random shit at this point, but really, something important happens later.”

And it feels perfunctory.  I’m going through the motions until the game decides to let me know why what I’m doing matters.  And by the time it does, the games almost over.

Plot hooks.  Just like in novels you need to tell your reader what the problem is, and why you should care about how the characters are going to solve it, you need to do that in this type of role playing game.  And Dragon Age II doesn’t.  It winds up being unsatisfying as a rich story, and it’s not good as a button masher either.  It’s this sort of limp thing in between the two, but not enough of either one.

Honestly?  It made me want to return it and play Origins again.

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22 Responses »

  1. It’s kind of funny that you specifically mentioned Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, because I used that very game when I thought about what was ‘wrong’ with DA2 and wrote about it on my site (shameless plug! http://www.honkifyoulovejustice.com/2011/03/17/on-sequels). I feel like they shouldn’t have even called DA2 a sequel or used that dreaded ‘2’ designation. The game is different enough that releasing it with a different name (like Dragon Age: The Champion of Kirkwall) and then simultaneously announcing a true sequel to come out 3 years later would’ve been a better choice. Heck, since the three acts of the current DA2 are so different , releasing them as an episodic adventure via Steam could’ve been an option.

    In this day and age of DLC there’s no reason to try and rush a sequel in there. Release a few one-off DLC’s for the original, like Leilana’s Song, or use my episodic idea, and then use the time you bought yourself to make a real sequel. I mean, people don’t mind that it’s been 5 years since Oblivion. They just want a new game in that world, myself included.

  2. And your last line is exactly how I know a sequel or a game in a genre isn’t that good – I end up playing a different game instead. Numerous RTS games make me go back and play Starcraft. A few hours of mediorcre first person shooters and I’m putting my Unreal Tournament or Jedi Outcast server back up…

  3. There is a plot, you just aren’t the main character.

  4. Anders. You are just one of the many venues through which he is trying and failing to change the world.

    I saw you were playing as a rogue. My first playthrough was also rogue. Fighter is more fun for us button mashing lovers.

    • I don’t want any button mashing in my RPG. I have plenty of other games that let me mash buttons if I like.

      • I can see that. You and I do have pretty different preferences in gameplay. The DA2 combination of tactics and button mashing is optimized for my casual, unskilled approach.

        We can at least agree that the map reuse was downright criminal, right?

  5. Rogue was the most fun in the first game, but it seems like it may not be in this one.

  6. What annoyed me the most about the game were the companions. In the beginning I liked most of the companions (although I never liked Anders, even in Awakenings), but then halfway through I realized that they all wanted you to sit back and applaud as they murder siblings, consort with demons, send the city into war to save their own skins, blow up churches, and eradicate their own people. None of them had enough moral backbone to take responsibility for what they did, and by the end of the game the only character I liked was Aviline.

    Don’t get me wrong, Zaphran from Origins wasn’t any better as a person, but you knew who he was. He was a career assassin, he tells you that he enjoys killing, that’s just built into his character. While in DA2 you have sweet little Merrill whose mother figure/mentor sacrifices her life for Merrill, and she wants you to pretend like the Keeper was just interfering and then cause a fight with the Dailish in her defense. Most of the characters didn’t seem all that bad, but did horrible things.

    • You’re not saving the world in this one, so perhaps that was on purpose, to be more morally…foggy. That will bother me too, probably, when I’m further in as I always play as a good guy.

  7. Oops! If I’d known that you hadn’t played all the way through I wouldn’t have posted that, sorry. One of the crutches that the writing staff used was the survival theme. Everyone is just out to get by, no matter the cost to others. This disappoints me because I thought one of the best parts of Origins were the character quests, after which each character became a little bit better as a person. For the most part the opposite is true in DA2.

    • Don’t worry, I accidently spoiled myself already anyway.

      I think the part about the supporting cast not being likable is big. I know that I’m picking companions now based on who is most plot-centric and not who I like or want to know more about. I was really interested to know the background of my favorite companions (Leilana and Shale, primarily). These guys? I’d kill them myself just to get my dog from DA:O back.

  8. Neeeerds!

    Seriously, though: one of my brothers loved Dragon Age. I know little to nothing about it. Me == teh sUx0r

  9. DA2 feels like the difficult middle book in a trilogy. There’s a huge list of things that need to happen for the final book to make any sense, but at the same time there’s a limit to how much you can tell without giving away the rest of the story in advance. Tricky!

    I thought the character relationships were – for the most part – done better in DA2 compared to DA:O/A. However other than the Champion, Anders, and Merrill, character progression (or the character’s personal story) wasn’t done nearly as well this time around.

    I enjoyed reading your post but I disagree with the point of it. The plot hooks have been there since Dragon Age Origins, hinted at again in Awakening, and were highlighted right from the get-go in DA2. The Templars want to steal your sister, Flemeth warns of chaos & change, and Anders is feeling vengeful.

    I’m looking forward to the next game, mostly for the inevitable Big Reveal explaining why all this has been happening.

    • “The Templars want to steal your sister”

      That’s assuming that you’re not a mage. Non mages get Bethany, mages get the brother.

      Also, I could easily be mistaken, but I believe that they are planning more than just a three game series. There are still two more Old Gods out there, and potentially two more Blights.

      • I’d be happier if each game had an actual plot without worrying about needing to play all of the games to see it.

        It’s possible to do with better writing.

        • It makes me think of how different authors [write? / publish?] their books – some are episodic like a tv show where each book has it’s own ending but are part of an overall arc, and some leave you with a cliffhanger at the end of each book until the finale is reached.

          I’m happy with either! 🙂
          I’m also looking forward to the conclusion of the Mass Effect story later this year…

          • See, Mass Effect is an excellent example. Mass Effect 2 was part of the overall storyline, but it was also self contained. Right at the beginning you see what the big threat is, and you are working up to dealing with that threat throughout the entire game.

            Mass Effect 2 makes effective use of plot hooks to get you interested in the storyline of that game, while ALSO being a separate chapter in a longer story.

            This perfectly demonstrates what DA2 fails to do.

  10. I agree with your identification of a central issue, but I think it holds true for DA1 as well. I was thrilled until after the major plot twist. I felt the main quest of collecting an army and uniting the different factions, with the accompanying little entanglements and requirements, is basic stuff, and I always wondered what else there would be. But it turned out that there wasn’t much else, and that the tremendous length of the game was largely due to monotonous waves of fighting involved in solving this quest. It was basically “You want our army? Clean our dungeons over yonder, and then have your say in who’s to be at the head of us (you know it’s me or else…)”. It didn’t have much to say in terms of real consequences and development that changed the story while playing it, apart from the ending credits. And here I thought that was the whole point of this spiritual successor to BG2. Real consequences. Instead it was basically a checklist of dungeons to clean up.

    I find the basic premise of a more “personal” or “political” story instead of an epic quest in DA2 quite interesting. But I see they were incapable of doing anything convincing and satisfactory with it. It also seems to be a rush job and I’m not a fan of the commercialised presentation (even more blood, super ninja moves etc), so I didn’t buy it. The Witcher 2 is making a good impression though.

    • Yeah, I fear that the investment of resources and time necessary to put together modern RPG’s will make the truly open (and consequence rich) storylines of the 90’s a thing of the past.

      As Daniel once said, DA1 was amazing in it’s ability to keep you on rails throughout the game while giving you the illusion of choice. I agree with that assessment. But I enjoyed the story, and I enjoyed the place my character had in that story, so it bothered me less.

      When I didn’t have a good story distracting me, the rails became a lot more visible.

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