When Hawke arrives at this second meeting, she is attacked by yet another group of Mages and Templars. After this second battle, a Templar saved by Hawke in an earlier quest appears and informs her that these Mages and Templars have been working together to take down Knight-Commander Meredith. Her intolerance has become a clear danger to the entire city. And this is when the story fell apart.
If the player has chosen to align with the Templars throughout the story, this course of events is not unwelcome. All of the Templars in these meetings were traitors, and the Mages would be a happily-removed threat. If the player has chosen to align with the Mages, or walk a middle path, these battles were unmitigated disasters and make no sense because there is no reason for any of these characters to suspect that Hawke might be working for Knight-Commander Meredith.
It is revealed that the Mages and Templars in question have kidnapped one of Hawke's friends, to use as leverage against Hawke should she interfere with their plot. If Hawke had chosen to befriend the cause of the Mages at this point, that makes no sense. The Mages might even have approached her for help with their plan. If Hawke had chosen to walk a middle line, incensing the Champion of Kirkwall who had saved the city from an invasion in the previous Act and proven herself a person of virtue also makes no sense.
The end of Dragon Age II was, in my eyes, an unmitigated disaster. The final choice the player is forced to make between Mages and Templars is a false one. If the player sides with the Mages, the Mages utilize blood magic to turn themselves into Abominations in order to fight the Templars, thereby justifying everything Knight-Commander Meredith had said about why the Mages were dangerous. If the player sides with the Templars, they discover that Meredith is actually insane and wind up having to kill her, which justifies everything the Mages had been saying about the Templars.
Some critics have painted this ending as a brilliant exercise in tragedy. I think it's the result of the game having been rushed, which is not an outrageous proposition considering Dragon Age: Origins was announced at E3 2004 and released in December, 2009 suggesting a good three years' worth of development at least, and Dragon Age II was released only 15 months later in March, 2011. The final cinematic describes a massive conflagration between Mage and Templar which has spread through the entire land of Thedas, sparked by the goings-on in Kirkwall, related in a flashback sequence in one of the worst violations of "Show, Don't Tell" I've ever seen. That's a cinematic narrative mistake that a first year film student knows not to violate, and also suggests that there was more story intended to be told, but BioWare ran out of time.
So I return to the point where Dragon Age II fell apart, the "Best Served Cold" quest. My Hawke would have been overjoyed to learn of a rebellion against Knight-Commander Meredith by Templars and Mages combined! What an opportunity to not only unseat a maniac who was threatening to destroy the city, but to also forge a new bond of cooperation between the two factions whose rivalry had been at the heart of Kirkwall's tensions!
That would have been a choice that had reflected all the others I had made thus far. Instead, I was rushed into an ending that didn't make any sense based on my choices, and my character. A game that presents us with those choices is obligated to account for and honor them, or it certainly doesn't deserve our critical praise. We're long past the point where anyone thinks it isn't possible to tell stories in videogames, such that half-measures and incomplete narratives ought to impress no one.
First Person is a weekly column by Boston, MA-based freelancer Dennis Scimeca. You can read some of his other musings on his blog punchingsnakes.com, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.