Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. Some of these are forgotten gems, some you will guess straight away. Others cover more than one game in a series, or compare two similar games.
On a day when Microsoft just announced its acquiring of InXile Entertainment and Obsidian Entertainment, famous for their work in the genre, we will begin a three-week look at different epic fantasy RPGs on OnlySP’s top 50.
#18. DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS, BY MITCHELL AKHURST
BACK TO THE ORIGIN
For certain video game genres, the 2000s were only slightly less disruptive than the 1990s. Of course, the late nineties saw the shift to 3D, which affected both PC and console players for better and worse. Some inventive franchises such as Mario, and practically all racing games, pushed through mostly unscathed. On the other hand, many action-adventure games and RPGs from that era are now unsightly and dated, lost in the race to show off what the PlayStation could pull off, or attempting to chase more cinematic presentation.
The noughties, however, were a time of great evolution for game consoles. The PlayStation 2 and Wii put up massive sales numbers (unlikely to ever repeat in today’s splintered market) and a majority of today’s console franchises managed to find their 3D feet in the new millennium.
PC gamers were not so lucky. The platform was struggling to retain the attention from developers and the wider community that it had built up in the nineties, and traditionally PC-only or PC-first developers were lured by the PS2’s siren song of “over one hundred million units sold” or Xbox’s promise of DirectX under your TV.
BioWare, despite its indelible track record, represented this trend at its peak. In the 2000s, Knights of the Old Republic released on Xbox first. Jade Empire was conceived with action combat, better suited to console controllers than a mouse and keyboard. Even Baldur’s Gate, BioWare’s once proudly PC-only RPG series, saw the release of unrelated hack-and-slash entries on consoles, rather than a proper sequel in the Infinity Engine style.
Thanks to studio shuffling and licensing problems, BioWare could not return to the Baldur’s Gate IP, but as the PlayStation 2 generation marched on, development began on Dragon Age.
Dragon Age was an original IP, descended spiritually from the Infinity Engine games and lead by the team behind Neverwinter Nights. Originally announced in 2004, this game would mark a return to the studio’s computer-RPG “origins”, and was re-revealed as Dragon Age: Origins in 2008.
PUSHING RPG STORIES FORWARD
Dragon Age: Origins hit in November 2009 and was a shining example of BioWare at the top of its craft. Perhaps because the developer never expected to make a sequel, the game holds nothing back. Akin to a good fantasy novel, Dragon Age adds its own twists to the popular medieval-European fantasy genre while remaining familiar enough to a general audience.
Among the innumerable games that use medieval fantasy trappings, Dragon Age was not just its own animal, it even managed to stand out for its tweaks to the formula. The writers aimed to synthesise the epic fantasy of The Lord of the Rings with the low fantasy of A Song of Ice and Fire, for a tone they called “dark heroic fantasy.” This work resulted in a setting that combines epic political stakes, high magic, and blood-and-thunder that would not be out of place in Conan the Barbarian.
Origins has enough story for a full season of television, and the world-building in the game also avoids the laboured “easing the audience in” hustle of Game of Thrones. Instead, the game offers six radically different opening chapters (the eponymous “origins”) each of which quickly establishes an important element of the setting: from the oppressed second-class elves, to the political struggles of the dwarves, to the sad fate of outlaw magicians.
Choosing the character’s origin does not so much change players’ entire experience as prime them for constantly choice-driven play. Unlike the binary morality systems in KotOR, Jade Empire and Mass Effect, Origins’s story constantly offers decisions that change the outcome without being coded as either puppy-kicking bad or impractically empathetic.
The game’s overarching structure belies this decision, mimicking BioWare’s previous games: a linear opening, three or four main quests that can be completed in any order, then another linear leg for the finale. However, every decision along the way not only impacts how the player’s party hangs together (some characters will straight up leave if they do not believe the player is worthy) but then feeds into an epilogue that varies wildly depending on one’s choices.
A GAME FOR THE AGES
Thanks to such a detailed and reactive story, Dragon Age: Origins showed the potential of video game storytelling in the modern age, but its presentation allowed Origins to be more palatable to the masses than any RPG had been before. The game boasts cinematics that are appropriately cinematic, a cast that reads like a list of the best voice actors working today, and sharp environments that look just as good whether from a bird’s eye view or over-the-shoulder.
In retrospect, the idea that the game might have only been one-and-done seems ridiculous, as the world of Thedas was so well established in Origins, and clearly had so much more to explore. The game was an ocean of possibilities, and strong sales showed that players responded well to BioWare’s signature style given the modern treatment. However, like other genre-defining games at the time such as Call of Duty 4, Gears of War, and Oblivion, Origins did its job almost too well.
The game represents the last gasp of one kind of computer RPG, polished as well as can be, before the industry’s pendulum swung in the direction of more action-oriented and console-focused fair. Dragon Age II gave players plenty of reactive story but failed to satiate fans of Origins with simplified combat and a reduced scope. At the same time, the Mass Effect series’s decline dominated the conversation, and key developers of BioWare’s legendary games were departing the company.
Conspiracy theories aside, the fact remains that unnecessary business practices had begun to seep into Bioware’s output. These included over-numerous DLC add-ons (a problem that not even Origins avoided completely, being released shortly after BioWare’s acquisition by EA), as well as shorter development cycles (while Origins took over five years to develop, Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 3 were made in two years or less). The BioWare that made Origins just does not exist in 2018, and its new vision for Dragon Age—closer to Skyrim‘s wide-open environments and including online-service-based hooks—is simply not the sort of CRPG that fans of Baldur’s Gate were excited to see back when Dragon Age was first announced.
Thankfully, the advancements made by Origins are being picked up by teams other than BioWare. Obsidian Entertainment’s Pillars of Eternity saw great success by winding the clock even further back to the time of the Infinity Engine, and the Divinity: Original Sin games share the quality of presentation in 3D, bird’s eye RPGs that Dragon Age helped pioneer. If you want to play the best that this style has to offer, Dragon Age: Origins is a must. But instead of following up with Dragon Age II or Inquisition, you might need to look further afield.
Next week, Damien will take us through what makes Divinity: Original Sin 2 so special, as our trilogy of adored fantasy RPGs continues. If you have a favourite fantasy RPG, on PC or console, why not share it in the comments? Even if you enjoy the other Dragon Age games: they might not be the same as Origins, but they each have their own charm as well!