Writing about terrible games that we love anyway yesterday got me thinking about one game that I hold close to my heart, despite the widespread (and not entirely unjustified) belief that it’s an awful game. That game is Dragon Age II, and despite its flaws, I absolutely love it.

Welcome back to “In defense of,” io9’s semi-regular series defending works of pop culture (and science) that are unfairly dismissed or despised.

The sequel to the incredibly popular Dragon Age: Origins was, to some, an unmitigated disaster. Origins was a pristine example of the old-school computer RPG — but its follow up, which had a fairly rushed development process, was anything but. A lack of depth to its combat mechanics, fewer dialogue options for its protagonist, repeated use of the same assets and layouts for supposedly “new” areas, and a narrow focus on a small group of characters in a small locale rather than a big, sweeping dark-fantasy adventure were just some of the problems. It had a warm critical reception, but fans vilified it.

And yet one of those reasons, the small scale, is why I lapped up Dragon Age II. It was refreshing to see a fantasy game, or any other game for that matter, that wasn’t this epic-scaled “the world is ending, gather your allies and save it!” story — a story that Bioware has told repeatedly throughout all their games. Dragon Age II follows the story of Hawke, a man or woman (based on the gender you pick) who, along with their mother and sibling, survived the monster invasion that was the focus of Dragon Age: Origins and fled to the city of Kirkwall, starting a new life with nothing but the clothes on their backs. As Hawke adapted to their new home, their stature slowly grew from immigrant to wealthy adventurer, thrust into ever-increasingly hostile scenarios that threatened to tear Kirkwall apart.

Even as events escalated — later on, the game deals with a conflict between Mages, treated as second class citizens in the Dragon Age universe, and their religious handlers, the warrior-knights of the Templar order, spilling out into a Mage rebellion — the story firmly kept its scope on Hawke, a lone person swept up in events far beyond their control.

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Big games keep becoming more and more focused on how many explosions they can fit in and how vastly dire their consequences are. So a more intimate story, where the big consequences were about the characters you followed around rather than the fate of an entire world, represented a welcome change of pace. (Even if, admittedly, the story peters out right at the end, and doesn’t quite make a satisfying conclusion of itself.)

But this smaller scale wouldn’t have worked without a cast of characters that were interesting enough to explore. Luckily, Dragon Age II’s main cast delivers. Hawke’s tale offers a personal side to the game’s overarching debate about the treatment of Mages, and the terrible things that magic could do. (Hawke could either have a Mage sister, Bethany, or be a Mage themselves.)

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But it was Hawke’s allies that I fell in love with. There are the fun ones — the flippant and feisty pirate Isabella, and crossbow-toting storyteller Varric the dwarf — the tragic ones — former slave Fenris, or outcast elf Merrill trying to restore a part of her people’s cultural history, or righteous Mage Anders — but above all for me, there’s Aveline Vallen (fourth in from the left in the picture above).

A no-nonsense soldier who becomes Kirkwall’s guard captain, Aveline’s character arc is all about her trying to find a way to move on from her old life and the loss of her husband, and pondering the question of whether there could ever be happiness for her after such tragedy — even as her friendship with Hawke gets her into increasingly dangerous scenarios. It came to symbolise Dragon Age II for me, this tiny group of people, and their relationships together, even in the backdrop of the big fantasy stuff, the magic and the monsters.

Dragon Age II might be set in a world of fantasy and epic battles, but above all, it’s about people — interesting people that you grew to care about deeply, a Human (and Elven and Dwarven) story in the midst of all the fantastical hubbub and growing scales. I’ll take that over saving the world again any day of the week, no matter how flawed the frame around it is.

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