Dragon Age presents an interesting quandary in the Qunari. They’re an incredibly interesting people, who haven’t been explored enough in the one and a half Dragon Age games I’ve played thus far. We hear a lot of vague platitudes about honour, duty, and having a predetermined role in society, but little else despite the fact the second act of Dragon Age 2 focuses entirely on their species’ revolt.
One aspect of this comes from the Qunari themselves. They’re often portrayed as semi-emotionless creatures – not quite full Vulcan, but certainly on their way towards the Spockier end of things – and that goes twice for the regular grunts. The Arishok, the Qunari leader in Kirkwall, has more of a personality, but even that is largely defined by anger as the story progresses. As the Qunari grow frustrated in Kirkwall and cannot leave until they find a precious artifact (thanks, Isabela), dissent starts to spread and anger turns to revolution and all out war. But I found myself struggling to care.
It’s not just down to my lack of connection to the Qunari. I don’t care about Kirkwall either. Hawke is a Ferelden refugee who only made a name for herself in Kirkwall because of her excellence in unsavoury dealings. Thieving, extorting, murdering, that sort of thing. She had to fight to even be allowed in the city after her home was overrun by Darkspawn in the Blight. She owes this city nothing. My Hawke is also a Mage, and therefore faces persecution at every turn, not least from her brother who joined the Templars. Why would she care if the city was run by Qunari – who have been relatively respectful and almost friendly to her thus far – rather than the constant power struggle between the Templars, who hate her, and the Circle of Mages, who also kind of hate her?
But I also didn’t care for the Qunari’s plight. It feels unfair that they’re stuck in a Lowtown compound, but so are the Elves. I’ve helped both races on various quests, and yet don’t really care for the Qunari. Part of the reason is that the Elves in the Alienage have nowhere else to go. The Qunari can leave, they’re just looking for their book. But also, the Elves you meet and help have far more personality than the Qunari, plus several have fought by your side, allowing you to develop a deeper connection. Compare the fraught, emotional Arianni to the collected, methodical Arishok. Compare their missions: the Arishok wants you to track missing soldiers, whereas Arianni wants you to help her son from his nightmares and find him the help he needs to overcome his magic problems, whether that be by Circle or by Dalish.
That’s why I think we needed a Qunari companion in Dragon Age 2. As well as Arianni and Feynriel, Merrill is a Blood Mage who accompanies us on our journey. She’s in my party some of the time, she’s in my flexible spot after Varric and Isabela, as I flit between Aveline, Anders, and our Dalish outcast. Merrill provides another perspective into the Dalish struggle, and our conversations with her, as with all companions, not only foster our relationship with her, but evolve our understanding of her culture.
We’ve got to talk about Sten. A trusty ally in Dragon Age: Origins, the fact that you recruit him early on means most players will have spent a bit of time with the Qunari prisoner. To start with, he’s guarded and cold like the Qunari in the sequel. But the more time you spend with him and the more conversations you have with him – even just at camp, he’s nowhere near the top three companions – the more he opens up. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth, but eventually he is comfortable enough with you to discuss his feelings, his relationship with the Qun, and to ask for help in retrieving his sword, an incredibly personal task.
A similar character in Dragon Age 2 could have given Act 2 the emotional gravitas it needed to hit right. Perhaps they would be an outcast who abandoned the Qun, or they’re just a bodyguard that the Arishok sends with you on your quests to help him. Someone to have conversations with would offer a personal insight and add a human element to the overly political nature of the Qunari questline.
For all its graphical overhaul and improved combat, I feel like Dragon Age 2 is often let down by its writing. A part of that is the limiting options presented to Hawke in conversation, but even heartfelt talks about characters being sold into slavery or other such serious matters don’t hit the same levels as similar conversations in Origins. This hurts the Qunari more than any other race, as they quickly fall into the emotionless mercenary stereotype and struggle to get out. Would a Qunari companion have solved this issue if our only conversation options are ‘nice,’ ‘nasty,’ or ‘banter’? Maybe not, but it would definitely have been worth a try.
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