BioWare has an unrivalled knack for turning its fantasy role-playing games into shrewd allegories. Whether making a statement about sexual liberty by allowing players to create openly gay characters who aren't defined by or persecuted for their sexual preference, or forcing us to view discrimination from a new perspective via the depiction of systemically oppressed non-human races, the Edmonton-based game maker rarely misses an opportunity to inject a bit of social commentary into its otherworldly stories.
Never has the studio's penchant for politics been more evident than in Dragon Age II ( Platform: Windows PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (reviewed) Developer: BioWare Publisher: Electronic Arts). An immigrant's tale, this high fantasy RPG has players assuming the role of a man (or woman) forced to flee his war-ravaged homeland. It begins with our hero arriving by ship with his mother and sister in the foreign city of Kirkwall with hopes of beginning a new life.
However, while refugees are allowed to settle in Kirkwall, they are generally looked down upon by locals. The only way for them to escape their dismal socioeconomic lot is through hard work and by relying on each other for help. One of the game's dozens of optional ongoing story threads has our protagonist investing in a mining company to help its poorly paid immigrant workers, whose on-the-job hazards include, among other things, a family of fire-breathing dragons.
It's a powerful story about an outsider working to become a prominent citizen, and, eventually, a binding political force in a community with deep religious and philosophical divides. As a Canadian, I couldn't help but draw a parallel to newcomers to our country and think specifically of those determined immigrants who have become important players in our government and economy.
But it's also a risk. Compared with other fantasy RPGs, which typically see players warring against world-ending evils, it lacks a clear through line, a driving sense of purpose. Can a game focused on the unstable politics of a fictional city really hold a player's attention for dozens of hours? I think so.
I credit Dragon Age II's deep and dynamic emotion-based dialogue system, which makes the countless conversations we have with complex and emotional non-player characters one of the game's highlights. There were times I wished my lightly flirtatious discussions with a petite and innocent Irish-lilting elf mage would never end.
The game's streamlined character-management system deserves recognition, too. Players exercise complete control over the development and combat behaviour of each member of their parties. This allowed me to set about making my hero do his best Legolas impression, rapidly mowing down dozens of enemies with his bow, without worrying whether his comrades were acting as instructed. It's a shame that BioWare didn't see fit to offer a wider range of battle settings – we're stuck exploring the same environments over and over again – but it's the content of the action, not its location, that makes it so appealing.
However, rousing as the fighting sequences may be, I doubt I'll remember Dragon Age II for its desperate battles against Templars and walking corpses. What will stay with me is its determined protagonist and his struggle to carve out a place for himself in a new country. Only a Canadian studio, it seems to me, could have made such a game.