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Let's get one thing straight: retcons are really, really, bad. There's no excuse for it, and it shows an utter lack of forethought in a story. Retcons are never a good thing, so why do it? Well, sometimes it's to appease some fans you've pissed off, but when your retcon is completely uncalled for, unnecessary, and only makes people angrier, you're doing something wrong. Unfortunately, this happened a lot in Dragon Age II, a game supposedly built around decision-making.
Retconning pre-established lore is always wrong, but retconning player choice is nigh unforgivable.
No Love for Leliana
I'll jump right into this. Why the hell was Leliana brought back? I know we've probably all discussed how mad we are about BioWare going retcon-happy, but how many of us stop to seriously ask why?
What bothers me most is the faulty import system. Bugs are forgivable if fixed, but intentionally disregarding the player's choices isn't. This is unacceptable. There's absolutely no reason for Leliana, a non-plot integral character, to return in Dragon Age II if killed in Dragon Age: Origins. So let's think on it. Why bring Leliana back? She has three appearances in the entire game, and only one of those are in the main game. Retcons are a really big deal. Now, if your story is in a shitty situation, then yeah, retcon it. However, that doesn't mean it's a good thing. Truth is, it's just the lesser of two evils.
I'm not saying you should never retcon anything, but that you should never have to retcon anything. When considering retroactive continuity, a writer should sit down and seriously weigh their options. Is the current plot line so twisted that a retcon is actually preferable? If the answer is yes, then by all means. However, what was the need to retcon Leliana's death? Because... they felt like it?
So she returns at the end for one lousy line, and, if you have DLC installed, she'll make a couple of other cameos. That's all well and good, but she doesn't have to be there. Literally anyone else in Kirkwall could have been Sister Nightingale. It truly boggles the mind that they would defy logic and break continuity by bringing her back from the dead. I've heard some posit that she could have used the ashes of Andraste to heal her self, but there are two problems with this theory. First of all, you don't even have to kill her near the Urn of Andraste. If she isn't in your party, but you still defile the ashes at the behest of crazy Kolgrim, Leliana eventually finds out, and unless a very specific series of plot choices and dialogue decisions are made, you'll have to kill her back at camp. The second problem with this theory, as pointed out by Viktoria Landers, is the myriad of ways you can murder her. If stabbing, slicing, burning, electrocuting, freezing, shooting and smashing isn't enough, you can use decapitate her with a messy kill or make her explode into red mist with Walking Bomb. Yes, I have spent a lot of time thinking of ways to kill Leliana.
Why does it have to be her? This couldn't have been BioWare's plan from the start. If it was, they wouldn't have made killing her an option in the first place. This would mean that at some point during Dragon Age II's development, they decided Leliana's role would be so pivotal in the series, that they would actually retcon the player's decisions-a dangerous precedent indeed. So why does it have to be Leliana? Is her new role so important that it justifies a retcon? I don't think so. If she does have some extremely important role, there shouldn't have been an option to kill her; having no choice is always better than the illusion of choice. Instead of screwing over players even more, why not just come up with new ideas, and not cash in on fanboy favourites?
To be clear, a retcon can be very sneaky in its explanation. In the case of BioWare, the retcons we got were simply hand waves, as if to say that everything we saw was just an illusion; it never happened. Well, there was an illusion-the illusion of choice.
Take Anders for example. The explanation for Anders not having an arrow in his neck is quite clear. It is however, annoying when when we're lead to believe one thing happened as a result of our actions, only to find out that our actions and our choices are all meaningless. It's clear to all those with a working brain that BioWare lies. Worst of all, they don't even lie very well. It's clear that when Anders wrote the death slide for Anders, they meant for him to be dead. Now, it'd be one thing if he died no matter what, but when my actions are the cause of his death, and suddenly the outcome is revealed to be the same, my actions feel cheapened somewhat. Keep in mind that whilst Velanna can only disappear (a body is never recovered), Anders' death is explicitly described as actually having happened. If they had planned to bring Anders back from the get go, they would have made him go David Copperfield or simply say he went AWOL. At least, I hope so, because the "it was another mage" was a pretty contrived excuse. Then again, I can't really think of a retcon that isn't contrived.
This is a classic case of comic book death, and it's a poor decision on BioWare's part. Honestly, I like the idea of Anders coming back, I just wish they actually had the foresight to plan ahead instead of improvising a plot on the spot. I liked Anders, even in Dragon Age II. His characterisation was too heavy-handed, but I do like where they took his character; it felt like a natural progression for him and typified the central conflict. However, the Anders death slide in Awakening is devoid of any foreshadowing, leading us to believe they didn't plan for Anders returning in Dragon Age II. Instead of ignoring the impossible, like they did with Leliana, they come up with an implausible excuse. This is a bad idea however, and it's one that could act as a bad precedent for BioWare (hard to say that unironically).
Here's another instance of sloppy, shoddy writing pointed out to me by Ygrain. As it turns out, Anders' timelines for Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening and Dragon Age II are intertangled. The former takes place six months after the Blight has ended. During the events of the Awakening expansion, Anders is on the run from some Templars in Ferelden. He can join up with the Wardens at this time, but you can also turn him in to the Templars, thus never conscripting him. In Dragon Age II, Hawke meets Anders a year after fleeing the destruction of Lothering. Keep in mind that Lothering is destroyed early on in the Warden's quest.
So let's piece that all together. The Warden can conscript Anders half a year after the blight, but Hawke meets Anders in Kirkwall less than one year after the Blight ends. Anders is pivotal to the plot of course, because they need a Grey Warden. Only problem is, Anders can only become on sometime during mid to late 9:31 Dragon, thus creating a time paradox... or something. Problem is, we have to account for time. The Blight begins sometime in 9:30 Dragon. Hawke leaves Lothering and flees to Kirkwall sometime during the blight. However, he likely would have still gotten to Kirkwall that same year. Now, when you consider the considerable amount of time the Warden spends travelling, the Blight is probably ended sometime in 9:31 Dragon. Add to that another six months, plus the amount of time the Warden-Commander and company spend on their grand adventure, and you've got a plot hole. Hawke left Kirkwall in 9:30 Dragon and met Anders a year later. I don't think time works like this.
It amazes me that the writers being paid to create this universe are actually incapable of writing a coherent, logical plot, whereas the players, who are piecing the story together, can catch this mistake immediately. Now, unless Anders is a Time Lord, there is now way this could have happened.
The worst part? You don't even have to conscript Anders! In my warrior playthrough, I turned Anders over to Rylock. Ignoring the fact that the writers made a completely avoidable plot hole, it still doesn't make sense for Anders to be a Grey Warden, because he never became one. This is completely ridiculous. This is a complete contradiction of the previous story, and cheapens both the original game and its sequel. Time restraints or not, that's just shamefully poor storytelling. When you have multiple choices, and only one outcome, you know something is wrong.
Anders was confirmed dead via a slideshow. Sure, we have no corpse, which is convenient, but the same can be said of many others. When my actions cause the death of another, on-screen or not, it should stay that way. Leliana however, is killed in combat. You can even get a messy kill animation, decapitating her. How in the name of Andraste's holy tits did she survive that? There is no justification for this. Problem is, if BioWare accepts this as "telling the best story they could", literally any character could be brought back to life. Loghain Mac Tir, The Mother, The Architect, Rendon Howe, Kolgrim, Orsino, Meredith, Hawke's mum, the Dr. Frankenstein ripoff who killed her, the Archdemon, Grace, and even Carver can all reappear in Dragon Age III: Inquisition. Why? Because this is a story whose writers are without restraint. Instead of internal consistency, anything goes. Nothing is off-limits for the fine literary Bachs at BioWare, so really, what's stopping all the previously mentioned characters from returning, if Leliana can survive a decapitation with no visual injury?
The Warden? Why not? The Maker samed them... somehow. Or maybe Morrigan slipped a roofie into the Warden's/Alistair's cup one day. Thus, even if you didn't do the ritual with Morrigan, she still gets preggers. Or, if you told her to leave, well, let's just say you were unconscious for a while after the Battle of Ostagar. Anything could happen. See? It's easy to subvert player choice!
Anders explains that it wasn't him that they saw dead. There are a few problems with this. For one, I'm not sure if there were even any other mages in Vigil's keep. I certainly don't remember seeing any. Was his body so badly burned that no one recognised him?
Another issue I have is with Cullen. He has two epilogue slides available: one in which he becomes Knight-Commander, and one in which he loses his shit and murders some mages. Either way, it's very unlikely that he would get a job in Kirkwall. Another irksome quirk is that during the quest Check on Anders, Anders says that two mages stopped the blight. This isn't always true; you can tell Morrigan to go away, and cut down Wynne the second time you meet her. It is certainly possible to beat the Blight with absolutely no mages in your party whatsoever, so what the hell was he talking about?
Dragon Age II also made some visual retcons that I wanted to bring about. Not a huge deal sure, but the little things are the most important things, right?
First off, I will say I prefer the look of the Qunari in the sequel over the original. However, it's a bit strange finding out that a majority of Qunari actually do have horns, when Sten doesn't even mention it at all. It's also strange that the Qunari in Kirkwall who are supposedly Tal-Vashoth don't even take off their horns, but all the ones in Dragon Age: Origins do? Again, not a big deal, but had they thought of it sooner, it would have been slightly less jarring.
Another thing that ground my gears was the new face models. Now, I don't mind the fact that everyone looks slightly better (or at least different, in some cases), but I did want to nitpick on one thing: Tattoos. Both Zevran and Merrill, former party members from Dragon Age: Origins, got cosmetic makeovers. For the former, the tattoos were removed entirely, and for the latter, they changed. What's up with that? Do they have laser tattoo removals in the Dragon Age universe?
On the upside, Isabella doesn't look like her face lost a fight with a meat grinder. So there's that.
Retcons in games such as these are worse than in any other media, because it invalidates our choices and cheapens our experience retroactively. It makes me cautious when considering future actions. Will my decision simply be swept under the rug so that BioWare can arbitrarily reintroduce a character or plot point that's not even pivotal to the storyline? Either have a proper branching storyline, or have a single story that you tell the way you want to. Don't tell us that we as players can be a driving force in the plot, only to invalidate our options.
Take Mass Effect 2 for example. If you're not prepared for the climax of that game, people on your squad will die. If they die, they don't show up again. Ever. However, what if they did? Imagine if, for sake of argument, one or more characters (and all squadmates are mortal in that game during the Suicide Mission) came back in its sequel? They didn't of course, but if they did? It would make me feel like I worked for nothing. Then, if I played through the previous title again, it would lose some of its allure. There'd be no excitement, because the stakes have been dropped.
That's the problem we face moving forward with the Dragon Age saga. If more retcons are made, going back through the series will have less meaning, and the stories will retroactively get worse. A story should be judged not by how we experience it, but how we remember it. And right now, the details are getting a bit murky.