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Lessons from the Aether: Dragon Age II and how NOT to create a sequel.


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Sequels are hard. They have to expand, explore and excite while keeping the same “feel” of the original work.  The one thing they are not supposed to do is to be money grabbing place holders until the shock of the original’s success wears off and the creators get serious about their product.

Oh BioWare, here we go again….

First a bit of history. Dragon Age: Origins was a game produced by BioWare that came out in 2009.  It was an computer RPG and spiritual successor to past BioWare titles Baldurs Gate 1 & 2 (based on the Forgotten Realms setting from D&D).  It had all the elements you would expect both from a fantasy CRPG with some twist on the Tolkien/Gygax mythos and lots of blood. For more, please watch this instructional video (NSFW due to language):

Got all that? Well, as CRPGs goes it was good: interesting characters, solid plot, good combat, and not too shabby on the graphics. The world building was solid and entertaining. It had a few DLCs tacked on which boosted sales. You can imagine that the pan was primed for the sequel (as if the Origins in the title didn’t clue you in).

The key to creating a good sequel is the transformation, via sequel hook, of a relevant subplot in the first installment into a solid main plot in the following installment.  That allows the original to be a complete story yet leave room to expand the story. DA:II kicks off with the Hawke family fleeing the devastation of the war in Ferelden (the location of the DA:O). Along the way the meet a witch named Flemeth that saves their collective bacon from some ugly baddies. She then asks the player character to take a trinket across the sea to the city-state of Kirkwall, which where the family originally came from and was conveniently fleeing to.

Great this ties in with the whole true nature of magic in the world vs. Church and all of that rigmarole of the first game.

Except it doesn’t.

Then you find out that they don’t want filthy refugees in the city, so you have to earn your way in.

Okay, not exactly a sequel hook, but I can work with that.

But that’s not the plot either.

A bunch of interesting side characters are introduced, each with their own story arcs and yet….

You guessed it, no main plot to be had.

And on and on and on….

Instead you spend two thirds of the game doing almost everything to avoid the main plot until you run out of file space. It is as if the writers were writing the story while I was playing it. If, and the third installment has already been announced, this is the second part of a trilogy, then the sequel has to stand on its own while carrying the overall story arc forward. This was more of a “we have a bunch of cool ideas but can’t make up our minds so will thrown them all in the same pot” kind of place holder + since the main story line gets delayed, not in a journey of discovery where you put it together piece by piece, but by a series of red herrings, distractions and holding patterns designed to pad the game play. Even the locations are repeated over three dozen times with slight changes in enemies types.

A holding pattern within a holding pattern to borrow a phrase. This is Act II kiddos, stuff needs to happen, story needs to move forward, characters need to grow. This is not the time to park your audience in the airport lounge until their already delayed flight decides to take off from the other airport with a drunken pilot because he is such a good drunk he always remembers the breath mints . In the end, Dragon Age II is the perfect example of how NOT to create a sequel as well as how TO sink a trilogy/franchise.

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4 comments on “Lessons from the Aether: Dragon Age II and how NOT to create a sequel.

  1. I thought while playing, and still think, that the team was trying to make Dragon Age into Mass Effect, specifically Mass Effect 2. You can see it everywhere, from the focus on side stories to the late introduction of the villain to the dialogue wheel with the same layout to the romance options. The removal of a lot of in-depth customization options too.

    The problem is that they seem to have forgotten that ME2 involved the same main characters and some of the same locations, with an epic scope. By ditching those and limiting itself to a single location, DA2 shackles itself so that it can’t possibly live up to either game. Instead of a game you’re left with a series of short stories with existing concepts and characters shoved in so badly they almost seem to be fanfic.

    I loved DA1 and ME2, but DA2 was a major disappointment. I really hope they go back to more of what made DA1 a fantastic game in the upcoming sequel.

    • Did like the attempts at creating a different player character experience,and the dialogue wheel was an improvement. But unlike ME2, or DA:O it lacked the focus of a unified plot device. Even Borderlands, which is nothing but a single player version of your typical MMORPG had the Vault as a vague but known end game goal.

      Plus they brought back the worst of ME1, the cut and paste maps, made even worse by the fact that even the “main plot” (for a given value of “plot”) locations were ones you seen a hundred times when at least ME1 had unique plot areas and reserved the same three rooms for the countless (optional) side quest.

      The combination of DA II and ME:3 has convinced me to jettison BioWare and EA for the foreseeable future. Now I’m replaying the classics like Icewind Dale. :)

    • I loved ME3 up until the vomitous ending, but BioWare has been on an uncharacteristic losing streak lately. I blame Star Wars: The Old Republic for devouring too many resources (as filthy MMOs are wont to do).

    • I blame EA. You can start to see the changes in ME2 but the whole shoehorning of multiplayer plus first day DLC (and the delays) are more a sign of a shifting corporate culture that wants short term profits and turns every game into a clone of whatever is “hot” these days. In this case, MMORPGs and FPS.

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