Finding “Home”

June 1, 2011

Playing through Dragon Age II, I’ve spent much of my time waiting to be either delighted or repulsed; very little that I’ve read on the game so far has left room for anything in between. There has been much to read, after all — Kris Ligman over at PopMatters spent a solid month talking about some of the various intricacies of the game, while Brad Gallaway of GameCritics has made it his personal mission to tell everybody how awful it is.

So far, I’m actually pretty impressed by how mundane it all is. I am finding some joy in accepting low-profile jobs that carry little to no risk of failure — many “quests” in the game are as simple as “talk to person X” or “destroy baddie Y”, and solving these quests often means some sort of development of the relationship between protagonist Hawke and the members of Hawke’s party. Squeezing money out of an old man when he asks you to find his son, for example, could cause some members of the party to lose respect for Hawke while others like his style; the game lets you play as much of a saint or selfish ass as you like, though admittedly there’s not much of a reward for shades of gray.

Having played through two acts of the game so far, though, there’s a recurring theme that I do find quite appealing that is pushing me to bully my way through the rest: the definition of “home”.

For each of the characters in the story, the idea of what “home” means is a constant and pressing question; mage-elf Merrill leaves the elf settlement on Sundermount to join Hawke, coming to live in the slums of Kirkwall. Human healer Anders is relegated to the underground to avoid the strong arm of the powerful Templars, who fear and punish those who would practice magic. Aveline fled her hometown with her husband to get away from the Darkspawn, but lost that husband on the way, forcing her to make her way alone in the confines of Kirkwall. And then there’s Hawke himself, who fled alongside Aveline, made his home with his shady uncle as he got on his feet, and eventually found himself living amongst the upper crust, one of the most respected men in Kirkwall.

Is home simply a place to lay your head or is it where your family and friends are? This is not a new question, but the various angles presented by the characters do offer a complex and satisfying investigation of it.

Awesome Hawke/Anders drawing from http://criz-zone.blogspot.com.

More striking, however, is the way that Dragon Age II forces you to make Kirkwall your home, with the operative “you” here meaning “the player” rather than “Hawke”. As you venture around town, you know its nooks and crannies, you know the shortcuts from one place to another, you know where various vendors and roustabouts like to hide. You know where you will probably need to go to find someone who’s trying to hide, and you know where to go if you’re looking for a quest or three to bump up your stash of gold. It’s true, there are very few good opportunities to venture outside the walls of your town but that only emphasizes just how much there is to do in your town, especially if you are trying to maintain working relationships with everyone in your party. Help out a lousy employer, find a lost trinket, kill some guy for money, it’s all out there, and the jobs you take will have some bearing on the ideal you set for Kirkwall.

As such, when the town is eventually overrun from within from a to-that-point non-violent set of aggressors, you take it personally.

By that point, Kirkwall is home to both Hawke and to the player. The familiarity bred by the constant activity within the confines of Kirkwall manages to increase the stake that the player puts into the town; to see it threatened cannot be tolerated regardless of what has come before. It is this forced familiarity that allows the plot to progress as planned regardless of whether the player has molded Hawke into an iconic good guy or a complete jackass.

That the concept of “home” as such an important theme would be appealing to a player like me is likely predictable. There is going to come a point, and soon, at which the weighing of the benefits of a long distance move against staying in the house my family has loved for the last however many years is going to end, and we’ll either make the leap or settle in for a very long haul. Perhaps getting the chance to play out such choices on my TV screen will help.

One comment

  1. […] Lastly, my colleague from PopMatters, Mike Schiller, writes in his own blog dwelling on the meaning of “home” in Dragon Age II. […]

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