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Fifty Shades of Hawke

HELO December 3, 2012 User blog:HELO

WARNING: This is NOT a fanfic rendition of this past summer’s insanely popular erotic novel trilogy recast with Merrill and a hermaphroditic Lady Hawke. (Sorry. But I already did “Story of O(rsino),” and I don’t want to pigeonhole myself.)

Now, before you let that stinging disappointment drive you away, please know that my choice of title isn’t just some cheap gimmick to catch your attention. Primarily a gimmick, yes, but not solely a gimmick, I promise. Because, silly as it sounds, it actually frames what I hope to discuss--starting with the acknowledgment of this hard truth:

Hawke is the most important figure in the DA universe.

Wait--don’t warm up the vats of tar just yet: I said “DA universe,” not “Thedas.” Because, while we can debate the overall relevance of Hawke in recent Thedasian history, I think his significance within the DA franchise is undeniable. He is the face of what BioWare wanted DA to become after Origins and, consequently, the lens through which we, consciously or not, will view the next wave of DA content, from story execution to roleplaying minutia. Which means DA’s immediate future will unavoidably be painted in shades of Hawke. (See how I did that?)

But that, too, is just a frame--and, I think, an important distinction must be made regarding it: in emphasizing the significance of Hawke, I am not advocating any particular opinion of him or, for that matter, DA2…but I do assume some of the more commonly expressed criticisms of each are generally accepted as valid.

Given this, I am very interested in where we are, right now, caught in this no man’s land of potentiality between what DA2 was and what DA3 might yet be--and in how we will get from one to the other.

Like everyone else, I’ve been excitedly looking over all the DA3 hints and leaks and press releases. And, in that excited looking, it seems to me that BioWare, too, is mindful of the Hawke Effect, taking great pains to collect every last piece of the DA2 black box for thorough analysis, hoping to avoid a repeat of the kafuffle that followed the game’s release.

It’s a reassuring effort, to be sure. But I worry that the desire to distance DA3 from the negative reactions attached to DA2 might cause BioWare to…well, distance DA3 from DA2. Or, rather, to over-distance it--that is, to ignore as much of DA2 as they can in an attempt to keep what is out of sight, as it were, out of mind.

Certainly, the temptation is there. It would be easy enough to do, to make only the barest, most necessary references to “the Kirkwall Incident.” And, moreover, it would likely please much of the fan base to hear that DA2 would be naught but a distant memory, come December of next year.

But, as beneficial as this might initially seem, I think ignoring DA2 would ultimately be a disservice--not necessarily to DA3, but to us. Because, to me, ignoring it means missing an opportunity to address an important, lingering question that can only be answered in DA3:

What was the point of DA2?

I realize that sounds flippant, just another piece of sneering derision to throw on the yellowing pile of tired complaints, but I promise you it is not. My “important, lingering question” is sincerely a question, not a judgmental colloquialism, and it is meant to address what I consider a crucial part of DA2’s state of being. Which is especially important to understand, because, to address this point, I’m going to say a couple of things that sound very much like that old pile of complaints.

You see, something is…missing from DA2. Beyond the topical, aesthetic complaints about caves and armor, there is an incongruity within the game that throws its significance into question, a mortal dissonance born of two interrelated issues raised by the frame narrative structure: a disparity of purpose and a lack of context.

DA2 was meant to accomplish two things: first, as a game in the DA series, it was supposed to introduce the Mage/Templar War into the DA universe; and second, as an individual game, it was supposed to tell the story of the Champion (remember: Cassandra asks about Hawke, not about the Kirkwall Incident).

This, in and of itself, is not problematic. DA:O had similarly dual purposes (introduce the DA universe/stop the Blight), and it suffered no ill effects from it. Indeed, the one went hand-in-hand with the other: while traveling all over Ferelden to raise your army, it was only natural that you would learn about and deal with the cultures and politics and lore of all peoples and groups in the DA world. And each purpose ultimately enhanced the other, which ultimately enhanced the overall game experience.

But DA2’s dual purposes lack such synergy--primarily because there is no direct connection between them. At all. In fact, this lack of connection is actually the climactic revelation at the end of the game:

CASSANDRA: So, Meredith was to blame!
VARRIC: Or that damned idol was. Or Anders. Take your pick.[1]

But even this lack of direct connection is not, in and of itself, problematic--until you consider how much we, as the audience, needed there to be a direct connection.

When we entered DA2, we lacked two important pieces of contextual information: we didn’t know who or what the Champion was, and we didn’t know there was a war going on. We could see from the initial cutscenes that something Cassandra thought was bad had happened and that she thought Hawke had something to do with it, but the specifics of these two pieces of information--which drive the interrogation that frames the plot--were deliberately withheld from us. So, when Cassandra demanded to know what someone called “the Champion” was doing in the years leading up to the unrevealed bad event, we naturally assumed that the Champion and the Event were connected [2] and that, therefore, the game we were about to play would be an account of that connection.

But it wasn’t. As I mentioned earlier, it was actually an account of how Hawke didn’t start the Mage/Templar War.

Which is really, really problematic.

You see, the dramatic arc of DA2 is reliant upon the disparity between the accepted version of how the Mage/Templar War started and the “What Really Happened” version that Varric tells Cassandra. The ending in particular is built on the expected reaction to this disparity: we are supposed to be shocked by the unbelievable revelation that Hawke is innocent(-ish).

Except…there wasn’t any time prior to the ending where we ever even knew what the accepted version of the story was supposed to be. Sure, we may have assumed a connection between Hawke and the Event, but we never knew the Event was a global war, let alone that Hawke was supposed to have deliberately started it.[3] And without knowing what the Event was about or what Hawke’s specific role in instigating it was supposed to be, we never had the opportunity to generate an opinion about either one…which means we never had the chance to pick a side or take the necessary moral stand that would have given us a personal stake in the validity of the accepted story and, therefore, influenced our perception of the interrogation--which would have made the intended revelations feel like actual revelations and not just, y’know, facts. Because the only version of events we were ever aware of was what we played through. So, there was no disparity between “What We Believed to be True” and “What Really Happened” because, for us, they were always the same thing. Which means we were never going to be able to feel the in-game significance of what we saw.

So…what was the point? What were we to take away from a game that seems like it was deliberately designed not to feel impactful, that seems like filler, just a series of loosely-related vignettes thrown together only for the sake of one piece of information that could have more efficiently been given to us in an introductory cutscene, a codex entry, a press release, a blurb on the back of the box, or a live-action YouTube series?

Honestly, I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone does.[4] Which is what makes ignoring DA2 so tempting.

I mentioned earlier that BioWare, with DA3, has to account for what happened with DA2, to show us they learned from their mistakes (and their “mistakes”). And we, whether we realize it or not, will measure how good DA3 is (at least, in the immediate sense) by how much better it is than DA2. In one way or another, both sides want to put DA2 in the past…yet, at the same time, the specter of Hawke will be the driving force behind the creation of and the reaction to DA3. Which kind of makes it impossible to ignore.

But, in an odd bit of serendipity, this problem may be the key to its own solution.

Right now, BioWare has the advantage of hindsight: they see what didn’t work, and they know to do it differently. But hindsight doesn’t just show you what you did wrong--it also shows you what you did. Hindsight allows you to take stock of what’s already there and, in doing so, can show you what you have to work with, to build off of, to carry on from. It may not let you fix the past, but it gives you some perspective on it, lets you see where it can fit in the bigger picture. And I think DA3 gives BioWare the opportunity to do just that, to reframe DA2 and justify its issues of purpose. To show that DA2 is what it is because there was always going to be a DA3 to back it up. To show that it feels like something is missing because, in a sense, DA2 isn’t over yet.

Because DA2 wasn’t about Hawke. It was about Cassandra.

I know, I know. It sounds a little crazy, at first. But, if you really look at it, it’s been there the whole time, secretly causing the problems I discussed above. (And remember that, at this point, we’re not looking at original intentions, but at the end result.)

Here’s what I mean:

DA2 is presented as a story, not a history. That is, the game is focused on crafting a flashback of the events of Hawke’s life, not living through them. By the time we (as the audience) arrive in the Thedas of DA2, Hawke’s story is already over, his decisions already made, the consequences already played out. That an interrogation about these things is taking place only serves to emphasize that point. All we, as players, are doing is filling in some of the details of how these decisions were made.

So, for all our time spent with Hawke, moving him around Kirkwall, he’s not really our proxy. He’s actually little more than…well, a character in a story. Because, when you think about it, that’s the extent of our gameplay: storytelling. We don’t repel the Qunari or romance Isabella or rain fire on templars and blood mages. We just talk about these things. We recount the events.

Because, despite all the effort we put into the character creation screen, we are not Hawke.

Because, when you think about it, we are Varric: strapped to a chair, answering questions.

As such, we are not telling the story of Hawke for our own benefit. We’re doing it for Cassandra. She’s the one with the context, the one with the goal to achieve, the one who can understand the magnitude of the big reveal. We are there for her sake, at her bidding, subject to her intentions. Really, we are almost incidental to what’s going on: the whole of DA2 is really just Cassandra’s hunt for information.

Which is why the whole thing feels so weird. We’re playing a game where we, despite our role in literally moving the story along, are passive to the overall development of the plot. Everything, from the inception to the conclusion, revolves around Cassandra.

And that is key to all this. That is the answer to my “important, lingering question.” DA2 seems not to have a point because the point hasn’t been made yet. Because Cassandra’s story isn’t over. Because we haven’t yet seen the consequences of her discovering the truth.

And DA3 has the chance to change all that, to make sitting through DA2 feel truly relevant, by making the big reveal feel important, by letting us help Cassandra do something with the information she (and, in a way, we) uncovered and explore the consequences.

…but only if BioWare wants to. Which I hope they do. Because, when it comes right down to it, I liked DA2. And I don’t want to pretend it isn’t there.

Author's Notes

  1. The frame narrative attempts to soften this point by having Cassandra and Varric both immediately muse that Hawke’s presence may have influenced the battle that ensued after the chantry exploded. But this ultimately makes no difference because Varric’s “It may not have gone that far [without Hawke there]” has a natural, if unspoken, counterpart: “…or it may have gone that far anyway.” So it is hardly a convincing argument.
  2. Because the brain naturally tries to fill gaps in information. So, when it sees two items placed next to each other, it naturally assumes them to be connected--which, in point of fact, is why juxtaposition works as a rhetorical device.
  3. I know that Cassandra repeatedly implies that Hawke was in Kirkwall just to cause trouble for the Chantry, but even the heaviest of her implications fails to give us the specifics necessary to feel shocked by the big reveal.
  4. While I’m sure BioWare knows what their intentions were, I doubt they can fully account for the results.

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