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A couple of weeks ago, I picked up a second-hand copy of Dragon Age II for $8. It's been on my list for a while, and the upside of coming to games late is being able to pick them up for cheap. As it turns out, I've been getting a lot more than $8 worth of enjoyment out of DA2.

The plot. The world-building. The characters and their short dialogues that are there for no other reason than to develop their personalities and relationships. It doesn't hurt that now, instead of a little laptop, I'm playing on my big, flat-screen TV with loudspeakers and a handheld controller on my sofa. Since I went for a female mage in DA:O (which I'm still yet to finish, for reasons that small laptops aren't great gaming platforms), in DA2 I made my Hawke a male warrior. Personality-wise he's turned out a little serious, the first-born son who has had to take on far too much responsibility too early, but who will quickly drop the diplomatic niceties for snark around good friends, and in the face of evildoers and demons. And I'm having a ball navigating him through a world where politics and social movements are more dangerous than dragons or demons.

Arriving in Kirkwall as a refugee, having fled disaster and strife and losing a sibling along the way, and trying to find ways to get out of lock-out into the city? I played that after seeing the most recent news bulletins on the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe and Australia's politicians squawking about border protection. The sad history of the elves, most of which is completely lost, and Merrill's obsession to revive her culture, that I found echoing with thoughts I've had traveling through China and Tibet last year. The entire mage/templar issue, which, although I certainly lean on the personal freedom/responsibility side, I completely understand the other characters' disagreement on (read: Fenris). It's an incredible amount of complexity and world-building in terms of story - I made a comment on Twitter that DA2 is like an epic, three-book fantasy novel series, except instead of reading it I get to play and experience it, and not just talk with the characters, but get emotionally involved with them.

I went for Anders. Merrill is sweet but disturbingly naive, which, for me personally, makes the thought of romancing her incredibly awkward and uncomfortable. Fenris is far too dark and brooding for my tastes, although I'm curious enough to try an alternate playthrough as a mage and rival-mance him just to see what happens. Isabela is fun, and I can see myself going for her as another female rogue-type character, but on this first play-through she feels like someone works far better as the bantering friend constantly teasing Hawke about his relationships. Which left Anders, and even if I hadn't already gleaned from vague internet references that his romance would be the most interesting/devastating in terms of plot, on a simple character basis he easily became my favourite. He's damaged, yes (and I really have to go back and play DA:O with all the DLCs) but he channels his energy into helping people and social justice. He reminds me of friends working in NGOs and other non-profits, friend who, when they see wrong in the world, are not just determined to change things for the better, but genuinely believe that things can change. Not only that, they can hold onto that belief no matter what the cynics and powerful say, and that's a courage of conviction I both envy and admire. Anders may be intense and sometimes glow-in-the-dark crazy, but in a way I can't help but like. Plus I grin every time when, in battle, Anders brings the lightning and hellfire down on my foes.

That being said, I've just started Act III, and, after catching up on all my companions, reading Anders's Codex entry about his life the past three years was painful. Moved in with Hawke, but struggling - and potentially losing - the battle for his self and mind. The line about him and Hawke still being a loving, fairly open couple and the explicit statement that Hawke is probably the only reason Anders has kept his sanity, particularly struck me, to the point that I started wondering what it would be like to live with a mentally unstable partner, who obviously loves and is loved, but is fighting a mental battle alone. And I'm both impatient and terrified to find out how this is going to play into the story's end. For all that the maps are repetitive and the gameplay sometimes buggy (why am I getting hit by the Arishok when I'm not actually in his strike zone?), I can't find myself caring in the face of such rich storytelling.

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tingjz

May 2016

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