When the Blight rose in Ferelden, most fled or pretended it didn’t exist. Fortunately, Virginia Cousland, a new recruit to the Grey Wardens, turned out to be the best hero the country could have hoped for. She balanced pragmatism with benevolence. She could be coercive and callously calculated, but she never lost her compassion. There was context to her decisions and her moral character grew out of her choices. She always had the option to choose otherwise—she could have tainted Andraste’s ashes as easily as she preserved them—but she stuck to her principles even when an easier path forked away from them. Virginia’s successor, Mira Hawke, did not make her own choices even when there was room in the story to do so.
Both the Warden and Hawke’s moral strength can be judged by their actions, but Hawke’s actions, unlike the Warden’s, are largely out of the player’s control. Judging Hawke’s moral character, then, is done on the basis of actions that can not be avoided. Hawke is racially and economically privileged; she’s ushered into the ruling class, and she exploits the underprivileged citizens of Kirkwall.
One of the frequent defences of Dragon Age II is that it is a game about prejudice and the powerlessness in trying to stop human conflict. The problem with that argument though is that Hawke isn’t powerless. Of the few Fereldens that are actually admitted into the city, she’s the only one that manages to eke out a living above the poverty line. Her first act when she reaches Kirkwall is murdering other Ferelden refugees that have waited for days to be allowed into the city. Hawke isn’t incapable of stopping prejudice, she actively participates in it.
This treatment is vastly different from the Warden’s. Regardless of her origin story, the Warden’s class is levelled and her previous social connections are severed. How the Warden raises and commands Ferelden’s army is based on her choices. She may exploit or cooperate, coerce or negotiate. Origins forces the Warden along some paths, but for the most part, the player can build a unique character with concrete values. For Hawke, though, there are no choices, the player must abuse her position and delay action until any moral stand is too late to translate into results. The most that the player can do is choose “kind” dialogue options (which sound more like self-pandering and flimsy justifications).
For example, early in the game Hawke is given the chance to enter into a partnership with an Orlesian man that employs Ferelden miners. Should Hawke accept, she must clear out a dragon’s nest where many miners have been killed. After the dragon’s nest is cleared, the Fereldans exalt Hawke, and they round up more refugees to work at the mine, relieved that “we’ll have one of our own watching our backs.” A year later the mine is attacked by a giant spider and then demons and is finally destroyed along with the miners by a high dragon. Hawke is partnered in a profitable venture that exploits immigrant labour. There are plenty of warning signs that the work is dangerous enough to get every one of her employees killed, but Hawke only deals with the problems once the casualty count gets high enough to threaten profits. There’s no way to change how these events pan out. Hawke can’t choose to pay her employees better, and she can’t employ security to protect her workers. She can chastise the Orlesian, but she doesn’t accept responsibility herself. She collects the gear of the felled dragon and forgets the whole thing.
Furthermore, there’s an entire slum in Kirkwall called dark town populated largely by fellow refugees. There’s a Ferelden beggar woman that Hawke can donate a silver to (never more), but the woman’s poverty drives her make a deal with a demon so she can feed her family. Hawke kills the woman when she’s lost to dangerous magic. Dark town also features an impromptu hospital that takes sick Fereldens for free. Even a magely Hawke can do nothing to help Anders except give him a pat on the back alongside some encouraging advice before going home to her estate.
And it isn’t just former Fereldens that Hawke exploits. Merrill’s companion quest necessitates that Hawke kill the leader of the marginalized Dalish, which will either get Merrill exiled from her people or turn the elves against the party, forcing you to massacre them. Similarly, during Fenris’ quest, Hawke is given the option to keep an elven slave or to release her to join up with the Dalish. But this is another morally despicable choice given the elves history of slavery—you’re given the option to pay the elf, but curiously she never gets to move into a mansion of her own—and even if she is handed over to the Dalish, Hawke kills the Dalish leader anyway.
Hawke isn’t any more generous to Kirkwall’s other persecuted group, the mages. When tasked with hunting a group of rogue mages, you’re forced either to kill them all or to kill half of them immediately and to kill the other half when they later seek revenge. Dragon Age II sets up which minority groups are the worst persecuted and places Hawke in a position in which she must continue persecuting them. The most that the player can do to ease the city’s suffering is sometimes make Hawke feel kinda bad for her systematic tyranny.
In fairness, my examples against Hawke have so far all been sidequests. Players don’t technically need to pursue any of them (although it’s most likely that they will, even if accidentally). But the main plot doesn’t make Hawke seem any better. During the prologue, Hawke flaunts her family title to get into a city that has already turned away hundreds of refugees. When Hawke’s title is questioned, her sleazy uncle worms Hawke into the city through his criminal connections. Hawke’s only choice is which crime lord will lift her above the masses of starving refugees. Once she is allowed into the city, her only character motivation for the first third of the game is to git rich or die tryin’.
During the second act, Hawke is commissioned to quell a Qunari uprising. While her tenure as ambassador has some success (perhaps the beneficiary of one classist society can relate to the beneficiary of another classist society) ultimately she’s too apathetic to change anything. Hawke doesn’t offer the Qunari official assistance in his search for their relic, she doesn’t warn Kirkwall of the coming slaughter (even when it seems inevitable), and she may only repay the Arishok’s violence in kind. The Qunari must revolt, they must catch the city by surprise, and Hawke must ultimately benefit from the siege. The third act parallels the second almost exactly; Hawke is only able to express sympathy or contempt for the mages—without ever acting on either until it is too late.
Hawke’s rigid acceptance of her society is a far cry from the Warden’s behaviour in Origins. Where Hawke makes war with the Dalish, the Warden can choose to reconcile ancient Dalish feuds. Where Hawke takes slaves or abandons them to avoid responsibility, the Warden can dismantle a slave-trading cartel and expose the tyrant that made it possible. Where Hawke tracks down rogue mages, the Warden can disassemble the Circle of Magi in Ferelden entirely. Where Hawke euthanizes qunari mages according to the Qun or hunts qunari tal-vashoth race traitors, the Warden can restore the honour and position of a Qunari warrior, teach him Ferelden’s ways, and even join him when he returns home as emissary of the rest of Thedas. The Warden doesn’t have to do any of these things, but she has the choice to. She doesn’t have to accept the society that she lives in, and she can try to change it.
Kirkwall is a place where wealthy, nonmagical humans rule at the expense of the poor, the elves (Dalish and non-Dalish), the Qunari, mages, and unconnected immigrants, and it’s appropriate that the player takes on the role of a wealthy nonmagical (or mage whose powers are ignored) well connected human that has no interest in acting against her benefactors. As one of Kirkwall’s elite, Hawke either lacks the power or the benevolence to reject evil or abuses free will and perpetuates the already rampant evil in the city.
The Warden’s goodness or wickedness can be measured by her choices. The Warden must save Ferelden, but she is given a great degree of freedom with how she may do so. Hawke, on the other hand, is the result of accepting evil. The conclusion of Dragon Age II suggests that Hawke and the Warden may have met somewhere to deal with the crisis ignited in Kirkwall. If Virginia Cousland, my Gray-Warden Commander, and Mira Hawke do cross paths, I trust that Virginia will do what Mira was never willing to do: the right thing.