Dragon Age, to help prepare you for all of the choices you’re going to agonize over for the rest of the game, has you pick between 3 different races and 6 different backstories (and offering 7 different combinations).
You can be:
1) A Human Noble
2) A Human Mage
3) A Dalish Elf (a Wood Elf)
4) A City Elf (but in the ghetto, not one of those fancy elves you’re probably used to)
5) An Elvish Mage (there’s 95% overlap between this story and the Human Mage story, but different races have different reactions in different parts of the world)
6) A Dwarven Noble
7) A Dwarven Casteless (effectively an untouchable)
Now, each of these backstories offers a different opening sequence and a different perspective… for example, my first game had me playing as a Dwarven Casteless rogue. I lived in the dust and worked hard to help my family survive. My sister was dating a Noble Dwarf (they are not a particularly fecund people, you see). In an effort to help a local crime boss fix a fight, I found myself putting on a drunken warrior’s full-face helmet and winning a tournament… only to be found out when the drunk wandered into the arena while being praised for winning it. Hoo boy. I ended up in the clink with my best friend, breaking us both out, fixing the local crime boss but good, and joining the ranks of the Grey Warden potential recruits before starting the story proper: you know, getting a Mabari Hound whose previous owner had passed, joining the Order, fighting a battle, fighting a war, fighting a Blight.
It was when I played through a second time as a Human Noble that I realized how important it is to be a player character. I started the game with a Mabari Hound… and was put in a situation where, apparently, an ordinary NPC would have perished. I then went on to join the ranks of the Grey Warden potential recruits. When I got to the homeland of the Dwarves, I found myself wandering through the jail and seeing the dwarf’s best friend still locked up and grieving his friend who “just gave up” after being tossed into the slammer.
(When the add-on “Darkspawn Chronicles” came out, you were given the opportunity to play as a Darkspawn and fight against the Wardens at the Final Battle and, yes, to win and have the Blight overtake the world.)
From the get-go, you are overwhelmed with the nigh-infinite possibilities before you… not only for such things as “will you save the world from the Blight or not?” but even how every little choice will have impacts upon little tiniest corners of the universe. Being a Player Character is *THAT* important!
Which brings us to Dragon Age II.
The first moments of Dragon Age II show us a Dwarf being dragged to an interrogation room where he is asked to give the story of what “really” happened. After an interesting fight where a pretty overpowered Player Character and his (or her) entourage fight a grossly mismatched fight against some darkspawn, the Dwarf tells us “Nah, that’s not what happened. Here’s what *REALLY* happened…” and then we fight that same fight again using level 1 characters this time. Plot events happen as the Player Character plays through them and… we’re back to the interrogation room. “So did Plot Event inspire the Player Character to do the thing that is the reason we both know you’re here so I won’t bother saying it out loud?” “Well, here’s what happened next…” and we fast forward to the next chapter.
As the game goes on, there’s more and more hints dropped about what happened (mages talking about this, Qunari talking about that, guards getting antsy when this other topic is brought up…) but the precipitating event for the interrogation is not mentioned (at least, if it is, it hasn’t been yet as far as I’ve played).
This gives the player a weird and strange experience… you don’t know what the story is about.
In Dragon Age, you knew what was up, who the antagonist is, what the Blight is, what the stakes are, and what your eventual goal is: To Save The World.
In Dragon Age II, you don’t know your character’s eventual goal… and, as you play, you only get feelings of inevitability when you hear a rumor of unrest.
In Dragon Age, you were the Agent of Change. It was Epic.
In Dragon Age II, these things that you are experiencing have already happened. You’re not the main character in the game, you’re the main character in the story being told by a guy talking to an interrogator in the game. It’s an interesting story… but it’s less immediate than, say, Dragon Age.
(Now, there was an interesting moment at the very beginning when the interrogator told the version of the story that she knew and then we got “what really happened” and I wondered, for a moment, if this was going to be a Rashomon kind of story where the Interrogator told the “official” version and the Dwarf snickered and said “close but no cigar” and told what really happened… but that’s not the case*. I think that that would make for a fairly interesting RPG, though. Have an idealized powerful Hero in the official story… and have the real hero be shorter, spottier, weaker voiced, and with far fewer spells and powers. In the official story the character can be Good as Good can be and the real story can have the character be a heel. Have the character be hyper-chaste and the real story can have the character be more of an “anything that moves” kinda person. Or vice-versa! Make the official story about a jerk and the real story is of a saint! Or have them overlap mostly! The possibilities are endless! Note to self: Design RPG.)
(*Okay, I just played a scene where it was the case and it was pretty awesome but it was played for laughs rather than as something that seems likely to happen often.)
To Sum Up: Do you love Bioware? Did you love Dragon Age? Well, then you probably already know these things because you’re playing it too.
Are there games you could stand to put ahead of Dragon Age II if you haven’t played Dragon Age yet? Sure.