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The Writing Of BioWare's Dragon Age II: David Gaider Speaks
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The Writing Of BioWare's Dragon Age II: David Gaider Speaks

August 1, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

The Finished Product

Eventually, these pieces all come together and form a finished game. Dialogue gets recorded, cinematics get rendered, code gets compiled, the game gets shipped. And what remains of the actual physical writing process?

Not a script, it turns out. Several years ago, the WGA (Writer's Guild of America) announced the creation of a Best Game Writing category for their annual writing awards. This decision was hailed as a milestone for the games industry – until several companies deserving of nominations, including BioWare, found they were unable to participate because they could not produce a physical script. The reason is that there is no script – only the game itself. And so Dragon Age II, like Origins, is ineligible for the award.

The writing team doesn't seem bothered by this. A play-through of Dragon Age II has so many potential permutations that its story can't be evaluated as a single piece of screenwriting. This is a format that defies Hollywood standards. BioWare's response to the WGA: the only way to know the full extent of the writing is to play the game.

For better or for worse, the WGA can't spare the time. On the other hand, millions of players were eager to do just that.

Release and Reviews

Dragon Age II hit the shelves in March 2011, and controversy quickly erupted. Critics hailed the game as setting a new bar in RPG storytelling, whereas fans -- particularly hardcore fans -- lambasted the game for changes to its core mechanic. (The specific critiques centered largely on gameplay issues that are beyond the scope of this article.)

The polarized opinions didn't come as a surprise to Gaider and the DAII team. "If there's anything that's surprising," says Gaider, "it's just how polarized some of the reaction has been. There's a lot of love for Dragon Age among our fans, and that love can translate into passion.

"In my opinion, that's better than apathy, even if it forces you to filter out the extremes. However, the criticism should not be dismissed as simple nostalgia. There are fans who felt disappointed... and there's a feeling [on our team] that we want to improve from the groundwork we've laid down. At the end of the day, Dragon Age can't be everything to everyone – so we simply have to pick a direction and make it the best experience we can."

In short, Dragon Age II was an experiment, and one executed over a relatively short time frame. As with any experiment, some things worked, and some did not. However, the writing team certainly stepped outside the box and attempted redefined how game developers can tell a complex game narrative. "This is something games have the potential for," says Gaider, "but which we as an industry constantly underestimate."

How will the lessons of Dragon Age II get integrated into future BioWare efforts? For now, we'll have to wait and see -- but the wait might not be long. Only sixteen months passed between the release of Origins and Dragon Age II, including a number of expansion packs released along the way, and with the continued popularity of the franchise, it's a safe bet that we'll see another game on the shelves fairly soon.

BioWare remains committed to prioritizing game writing, and players continue to demonstrate their desire for well-crafted narrative, so it seems fair to guess that Gaider and his team will keep pushing the envelope in development cycles to come.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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Dan Felder
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I must say, I felt more connected to Hawke and that I understood more about the character in Dragon Age 2 than I feel connected to Shepard after playing both ME 1 and 2. This is not inconsiderable, as Mass Effect series is my personal favorite. Though I love playing as Shepard, I really can't say I understand much about his past. You click through the Earthborn or Spacer choices and get a few lines of dialogue that refer to your choice... But you didn't experience those things. They aren't connected to you.

With Hawke, I went through HIS origin story. I made crucial decisions, experienced his triumphs and tragedies and felt my choices evolve as his character developed. What started off as a sarcastic, casual with (always the joking dialogue choice) developed steadily to a true hero as he was forced to overcome tragedy and increasingly dangerous opponents. Hawke grew and developed throughout the story, someone I look forward to going on adventures as in many future games... Provided they're made (as I hope they are).

Sadly, I think Dragon Age did things backwards. Dragon Age 2 is the consummate origin story, the hero rising from obscurity as a refugee to a mighty champion with a hundred victories under his belt. Dragon Age: Origins is the consummate epic threat - a blight of darkspawn swarming the kingdom. If only we could have played through Hawke's story first and then taken him out to unite the kingdom against the Darkspawn through the events of DA:O's storyline... That journey would have been incredible.

Either way, here's to Bioware for embracing a deeper storyline than ever before and truly developing the core character of their game. Bravo. This part, no matter what else, was a success.

Christopher Parthemos
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I don't know if this article really reflects my experience with DAII. I'm torn. On the one hand, I appreciate that the writers took a step back from the traditional 'save the world from orcs' fantasy angle, but on the other, I didn't feel a whole lot of tension in the story. I didn't personally get a lot of sense that *any* of my choices had effects on anything other than how many monsters would be in a certain chokepoint, or what type of monster they would be.

*Spoiler Warning*

From the standpoint of choice my biggest problem came towards the very end of the game. Ultimately, your ally Anders starts a war between the mages and the templars, and you're asked to choose a side. Now I understand that this is meant to be a complex moral/ethical choice, but I personally found it hard to distance from the fact that Anders was my team's only healer. Side with the Templars, lose my healer, and face the final sequence of battles without that. A lot of choices in the game, for me at least, came down to a similar dynamic. Yes, I'm meant to choose whether or not to help mages based on morals, but it comes down to which set of armor I want, or whether I want more experience or more gold. In DA1, there were decisions with real political/moral consequences, that weren't necessarily tied to personal gain and loss, and that felt like better writing to me.

But the bigger problem I had with the writing was that I didn't have a sense of tension. There's no real villain to the story, except for in the last chapter, and even then her motivations ultimately boil down to 'being possessed by a statue'. Each chapter has its own self-contained conflict, and it's always resolved, and it doesn't really boil over in any meaningful way. Everyone talks about Hawke like he/she is some great hero, but I never felt like I earned the title of Champion. I don't have a problem with basing the story around the livelihood of a single city rather than the fate of the universe, not at all, but I never really felt like Kirkwall was in that much danger, or rather I felt like it was in a more or less constant state of relatively high danger that my presence had no real bearing on.

Kevin Patterson
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While I loved the writing in DA2 regarding Hawke, I felt the other characters weren't quite as compelling as the first. There were characters I loved in DA2 such as Merrill and Aveline, but the rest just wasn't near as compelling. The first game's cast with Morrigan, Oghren, Leliana, Zevran, and especially Shale was just amazing. The Sequel's characters just weren't as interesting.

Edit: I loved Flemeth in DA2, I only wished she was in the game more. Kate Mulgrew was incredible.

Dan Felder
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Actually, I felt the DA 2 characters were much deeper and more complete. The DA:O characters often felt more like caricatures - vivid but mostly two-dimensional, hitting only one or two notes. The holy grail would be to make the DA 2 characters equally vivid to DA: O without sacrificing any of the depth. But I'll take the depth any day.

Sting Newman
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You have to do gift/convo quests to really get a sense of how deep the chars were in DA:O otherwise they will seem flat.

Anna Tito
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Ok I will preface this with I love both DA:O & DA2. I have played through both multiple times and have developed a series of modding tutorials (in final stages of proofing). So now you all know my bias let's begin :)

In my oppinion DA2 was definately a step in the right narrative direction, too many RPGs hold to the here's ye nemesis and this is the hack and slack training you do so you are strong enough to fight them in the end. True stories, stories that really touch some part of you should never be black an white. @Christopher if you actually wanted to side with the Templars but didn't because of team balance, then I would argue that you weren't really RPGing more RTSing. For me RPG is about playing a role, being engaged with the representation of that role in the game and making the choices that work with that role.

That all being said I think the player narrative engagement could be really enhanced by a focus on interpretive meaning, particularly in some key areas. What I mean by that is in many cases while the same actual events take place the information the player receives through their choices can be different this shapes the meaning that those events take on. I think this sort of approach would have really added to the merril plot line, as it was no matter the choices there the result was mostly the same.


I also would like to give kudos for the Anders storyline, there have not been any games that really bring that idea of the grey areas around terrorist acts. Even if you don't like him and don't agree with him you can see where he is coming from and that took some serious balls! The thing I liked about it was the more times I played it, the more I understood about him and the world and the greyer it became. So thanks!

Of course there is always more that can be done but any sequel to DA2 is building on a strong base.

Christopher Parthemos
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I'm not disagreeing with you Anna, I'm aware that I wasn't 'doing it right'. But I don't think that was my fault. Multiple aspects of the games design made healing difficult - the time reset on healing potions was longer, you couldn't be both a spirit healer and an attacking mage at the same time, and other than Anders, none of your companion mages were capable of healing. So while I appreciate that I was ultimately the one that made the decision, I was never so engaged in the story as to put its interests above having to use lame healing potions.

Similarly, there was no compelling reason to take the two-handed warrior class, because Fenris, your party member, was 175% better than you could ever be at it. Same with being an archer, only with Varric. With the Original DA, I was never aware of my strategic decisions interfering with the story; in fact, they served to enhance it.

Christopher Engler
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"If you actually wanted to side with the Templars but didn't because of team balance, then I would argue that you weren't really RPGing more RTSing. For me RPG is about playing a role."

Nicely said, Anna. Playing a role in a game is different then simply playing a game. I mean no disrespect to those who play it RPGs differently, but I find decisions made as a character in a game aid in the suspension of disbelief, thus adding a lot of depth to said game.


In DA-O, I played a woman for the first time in an RPG, and I had to asked myself several times what sorts of decisions this city elf would make. She was dear friends with Morrigan and was heartbroken when she had to disagree with Morrigan's end plan. Because that friendship was terminated, the final battle was more like a welcomed suicide mission for her, which (oddly) gave her the strength she needed to sacrifice herself in the end.


I find when I do go meta and think outside of my character, most of the magic is gone. The experience loses its illusion and shows itself as simply as a series of "if/then" statements.

Tim Reilly
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I agree with this in general, but the Anders example specifically rubbed me the wrong way, as well. Going without a healer means (sometimes) being unable to complete the storyline, which is a pretty big problem and certainly shatters immersion. It's hard to defend RPGing over RTSing if it disables the game for OOC reasons.

Evan Rodwell
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You're exactly right. In many respects, RPGs don't fall within the category "games" at all. A game player makes decisions for himself - advancing his own interests within the game's rules - while a roleplayer replaces his interests with those of his character.

The great thing about most of BioWare's games is that they can be played both ways. Sadly, I think their newer games (ME, ME2, DA2) favour the "game" side quite a bit more than the "RP" side, but that doesn't really have anything to do with the writing, so that's beyond the scope of this article.

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This article is very interesting as it describes clearly some parts of the methodology used by the writers. Thank for sharing this with us.

However, as I hope people from Bioware would read this and answer with some eye opening answers, I'd like to say that i was hugely disappointed and underwhelmed by DAII story.

And even if I acknowledge the risk taken by the writers to come with this "usual suspect" kind of narration; it didn't work at all for me.

Why ? Because :

1. It's not epic; rising slowly to the top of a city council by doing some bunch of small and sometimes unrelated quest, is quite disappointing.

2. I don't feel like I have any control on my journey as it is told by a dwarf sitting in a chair and talking with a weird armored girl feeling like an FBI agent

3. I don't know why my character should do anything she does during her journey through the game.

Ok at the beginning, she want to restore some of her family wealth, that's good; but then...

Consequently as a player I don't feel like I should achieve anything.

What about you ? How do you feel about it ?

Dan Felder
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Truly, I didn't mind the lack of Epic scope - but I had the advantage of going in after reading many articles about the game and understanding what I was getting into. I was looking forward to exploring this subtler story and it didn't disappoint. However, I enjoy epic conflicts immensely and always look forward to them.

Finally, everything clicked when I began looking at DA 2 as Hawke's Origin Story. The events themselves aren't world-shattering, but they are personally shattering. Hawke's journey is formative as he steadily looses each member of his family and fights a losing battle to protect the city. The events are epic because they are personally meaningful to him rather than because they threaten the entire world. Now that I've spent an entire game developing Hawke's character, I'm eager to take him into a truly epic conflict on the larger scale. Commander Shepard was just handed to us, a ready-made-badass. Hawke I know intimately, and have experienced every important event in his life.

I've enjoyed Mass Effect's storyline more, but I feel more deeply connected to Hawke than any Shepard I've ever played.

Despite what so many fan's rage against, I feel Dragon Age 2 is an honest, spiritual successor to DA: O. It's the deepest origin story of any game thus far.

Bioware, please make a sequel to Dragon Age 2 - continuing Hawke's story. Make many and keep them original. Now we've gone through his Origin the possibilities are endless and content on an epic scale can be brought in. Just please, don't sacrifice originality and depth from bombastic battles.

I'm looking forward to them.

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I understand your point but I really don't feel the same way you do. Sad for me :)

I think the main reason I can't feel as you do is because, as I said in my third point, I don't understand why Hawke would like in any way do everything the game want her to do during the whole game.

Why would she act like that ? On what purpose ? It doesn't make sense at all for me, i don't see no personal nor sustainable goal that would drive a character like Hawke from the beginning of the DA II story to the end.

Rebecca Phoa
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I don't disagree with Gaider that they wanted to try out a new method of storytelling for Dragon Age 2. For the most part, I heard the experiment was for most part very acceptable.

But I am still unclear why the gameplay took the turn that it did. I still do not understand the rationale of why they decided to remove much of the usability of the engine. If they were given 18 months to build a game, why would they make these huge modifications? Why not just build the new game on top of the old engine while making tweaks to the console version to make it better? You could still use the different art style after all.

I think there was a question about whether or not the top down camera used too many system resources and maybe it was technological headache regarding textures? But I know that the console version of DA2 has a targeting circle for spells that the PC version doesn't have to make up for the lack of that camera. This is the more the reason why I am not very eager to play the PC version of this game.

Willach Butlerhandz
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Actually, aside from the reuse of dungeons and a few other minor issues, the gameplay as a whole wasn't the major complaint I had heard levied in regards to this game. Most of the issues I had heard about were with the storytelling. Things like the lack of a cohesive story arc between the different acts, the lack of real consequence with the different choices and a feeling of the game being rushed forward especially in the latter two acts were just some of the complaints I've heard. There seems to be some confusion in that the writers seemed to think that a story not following the traditional "Hero's Journey" model was somehow "darker," and if the story structure was supposed to demonstrate that, it was very much unsuccessful in that regard. It seems, at least to me, that Dragon Age 2 was supposed to somehow be transitional between Dragon Age 2 and 3. Because of that, it was tough to give the players choices that would matter in more real terms, because those choices(like the many, many possible choices in Origins) would have to be carried over into 3, and the sheer weight of having to keep track of that many decisions would be positively mind-blowing. Still, many of the key moments that the story revolved around which were inevitable(I'm not going to mention specifics, because of the possibility of spoilers, but I'm looking at Anders and Leandra) would have probably been more acceptable if they didn't seem... avoidable. In each case, there were apparent outs which would have given players more opportunity to get invested in the story and additional replay value, but instead the results were inevitable. That's not to say that the writers should not have given any plot points with some level of inevitability, but the fact that the players were given apparent choices to inevitable problems was just a choice that seemed poor, especially given Bioware's reputation for games with choices that matter.

Kenn Thompson
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I love the fact that the creators' of DAO decided that for the sequel instead of forcing another blight on us they went with a world that shows the aftermath of the events from DAO. I though it was the best decision that could have been made for a sequel to a game like DAO....That being said I'm grossly disappointed by DA2. I know people love the new combat-system, the ME wheel, and having a preset character with a interesting backstory, but I myself don't want that if it comes at the expense of game quality. In my biases opinion DAO is night and day better than DA2, which as someone who owns all things DA that's kind of disappointing.

My problem with DA2 is that for one your choices' don't mean anything in the grande scheme of the game and the story is so linear it makes my head hurt. To top if off I don't like the main character. I felt like the character of Hawke didn't really do much to effect the world of DA2, until the end of the game, only thing he did was sit around and let things happen like mother being killed , brother being killed, and sister being taken right in front of him. I rather have created a new character and built his backstory myself than be forced with a Mass Effect driven idea of having a preset character with their own background installed for you.

I hope for DA3 they take 3-4 years and go back to what made Origins great while also combining it with some of the new things they did in DA2....because one mediocre I can deal, but two is a different story.

Christopher Braithwaite
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I LOVED the narrative direction taken in DA2. While the story wasn't perfect (e.g. madness was often used as a lazy copout) I really enjoyed the framing narrative and the lack of "epic" scope. I also really enjoyed the story dealing with discrimination and privilege in an intelligent way. These are aspects of the story that may be lost on the average white male gamer but for me they absolutely resonated and were greatly appreciated.

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"I also really enjoyed the story dealing with discrimination and privilege in an intelligent way. "

True, it was interesting. The Witcher 2 does it also in some interesting ways.

Rich Hautanen
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I don't see the DA2 "experiment" as a success. Everyone is unique, but my opinion is I want these games to be "epic". That's what I pay for. I want to feel heroic. That's what I enjoy. Even if it's been done a zillion times before I want to ...

*** Spoiler ***

Have a chance to save the world, or barring that at least a chance to save my mother!

Some of the DA subplots were good, but the top line was weak. The main impression I got in DA2 was "PC survives X hours of collecting loot and XP while the rest of the world goes to hell". Not nearly as satisfying as DAO's "Epic hero saves world from destruction".

Yes, the above is an exaggeration but it's not that far off from the truth AFAIC. So I hope I DON'T see another DA installment "soon" as the article predicts. I'd rather they go back to making epic stories and if that requires more time to make so be it.

Anna Tito
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If you like the standard heroic journey there is a new Indy RPG out D&D Daggerdale. It is an Indy so has some things that are not 100% but it definitely follows the usual heroic arc.

That being said I like the fact that in DA2 the world goes to sh*t and you can't change it. I feel it is more real and meaninful. The standard epic hero journey can get a bit repetitive, I got tired of it around NWN2. I like to see something different, keeps the spark in the gaming genre I love.

Raphael Ochsenbein
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The main problem I have with DA2 is the stark contrast between what BioWare tried (and promised) to create, and what they really delivered. And I would not want to judge them or say that it is a bad game. There are many people who enjoyed the game, but I would argue that the claim of an epic story told over the span of ten years is not really what the game delivers. And very often, even in the game, we can see the vision they've had; the problem lies within the constraints of the execution for those visions.

I think, Dragon Age 2 is very similar to its predecessor, in that it is ultimately a highly political game at the core of the story. In both games, the player has to get to know the different factions of the game, to gain their support and win the campaign. But where in DA1 every faction (Dwarf, Mage/ Templar, Elves) had its own campaign where you learned about them and basically decided their fate for the years to come, that part almost completely misses in DA2.

In the beginning there are the smugglers and the mercenaries, then the Qunari (and maybe the city guards), and the game climaxes in Mage versus Templars. Not only did we already know that particular conflict, but more importantly, I feel that player agency lacks in each plot line. I do not even know, if it changes anything at all, when the player chooses his faction in the first part of the game. Further along the line, it does not really matter, how the player interacts with the Qunari or the female jack sparrow. In the end, the Qunari are going to be slaughtered in their attempt to defend their honour (how come, a small group of like 3 ships of stranded warriors without any support/logistics can even dream of raiding a city that has been built to quell exactly such (slave) rebellions?

And about what that stupid mage does in the third act. You can be his lover and you can save the underground mages a bazillion times, and he still does not trust you enough to inform you of his plans? You do not even really meet that underground society.

And what is so good about Hawke as a character? I can only see a greedy first-born who sacrifices his whole family to become wealthy and gain influence. Your sister/brother? Killed just so, to show that they can and to balance the game, because they were not capable of doing it otherwise.

In the second act? Loose your second sibling to go on a risky expedition to the deep roads (which will then become the base for all your riches, really).

And as soon as your mothers influence with the elite of the city is not needed any more, because you are the champion, she is murdered. By a serial killer who hunts women, and our rich champion surely did not have enough money to hire a handful of guards (preferably some that were templars at some point in time) to protect her. The only explanation for this 'oversight' from Hawke is, that he did not care enough. Never met such an egoistic hero before. And I don't think, that playing a female Hawke would really change any of that.

In conclusion I would say that all the elements that made DA1 great, are also present in DA2. It is just, that they were not made deep enough to create the immersion DA1 had. And the many bugs and the other stuff that has also been held against the game did only demonstrate what a rush-job the game really was. I did encounter a game-breaking bug, where I had to go and edit the save-game in order to fix it. And my as I played a healer, my hero somehow always became immortal (ie. he had infinite health regeneration without me doing anything). And I don't think anybody play-tested Nightmare difficulty (one-hitting rogues you can't do anything against rock). Combined with Mass Effect 2 reused soundtrack and graphics...

It is just sad to see them always talk about what they intended to do, and never mention that they were not able to deliver what they had in mind, because they did not have enough time available.

Diego R Pons
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Here I am, writing about it after almost three years of its release!

However, I picked it up again.
It's very rare for me to stop playing a game altogether, but I think a big cause was my lack of interest in political strife.
And in this game politics were given preference over adventure.

Sure, not having a character that intends to save the world is refreshing... but that didn't mean you had to remove the sense of adventure or discovery.
But on top of the constant political decisions and forced decisions - when you finally give in to them - the biggest problem arises when your decisions end up being irrelevant (which sadly seems to be exactly the opposite of what the article claims to be the developer's intentions)

I understand the back ropes: to hit the plot points, some events simply must happen.

What if you could actually convince Anders to not blow up the chantry?
Don't take me wrong: the possibility is very interesting and should be there.
But it takes a lot of commitment and siding to get Anders fully by your side... why not reward the player for it?

Meredith or Orsino still wanted the war to start, so they could have had triggered the event in other ways: hiring a mercenary to assassinate the Grand Cleric, or each other, for example.
Too hard to implement? I don't think so.
Does it lead to the same plot point? Yes.
Is tragedy and loss still present? Yes.
And that way your decisions and character interactions would matter.

With Merrill's struggle there's a good example on how decisions can alter the outcome in meaningful ways: the Dalish clan may be entirely wiped out or not.
But unfortunately, the outcome is not caused by the player's build up of real informed choices.
The difference simply comes from choosing a vague character line that doesn't even foreshadow the outcome: "I take full responsibility".
Really? How is the player supposed to know the relationship between the decision and the outcome?
It's expected to be forced to take some uninformed decisions - such is life - but uncertainty shouldn't be the norm.

Talking about Leandra, I thought it was incredibly refreshing to have a persistent motherly figure.
It would have been a great experience to been able to protect her, even if that meant huge costs.
For example: what if you had to resort to blood magic (your own, or from one of your companions) to save her?
What if that had an obscure cost: permanent draining for a stat, an ally leaving you, or problems with the templars?
That would have been a real moral decision!
Instead, we have an inexorable outcome.
Being able to cause feelings of sadness or hopelessness in a game is great, but not when they're supposed to be result of the player's actions and instead, are forced into them.
Doing so makes it more a movie and less a game.

However, the game had one perfect example on how decisions were meaningful and where the outcome is both expected and with uncertain consequences:
Bringing your brother or sister to the Deep Roads.
This thread was implemented brilliantly: it made sense for the character to get tainted; it could have happened to anyone.
Shortly after, a second decision comes - for the sibling to become a Gray Warden - and because of the situation, the fact of it being forced makes sense.
Later in the game - and also near the end - the player has the chance to see the outcomes and story variations, making the decisions truly meaningful, and the experience more personal and immersive.
Unfortunately, this is the only example I think they got right in Dragon Age II.

In Dragon Age I, all decisions did matter... is almost as if this article was talking about the first game instead.