Dragon Age: Origins marked the point at which western RPGs properly moved into the spotlight. Knights Of The Old Republic laid the groundwork, combining a surprisingly geeky implementation of Dungeons and Dragons rules with its direct player control and swishy lightsabers. Jade Empire then tried to take it somewhere new, only to stumble right out of the gate. It modernised the genre, offering something fresh, but it never really got its due.
With Dragon Age: Origins, we saw a game torn between an old audience and the new, designed as a spiritual return to the hardcore charms of Baldur's Gate but at a scale where only a mega-hit would do. It was a strange combination. BioWare talked about the detail of its lore, and of taking inspiration from the likes of A Song Of Ice And Fire, long before Game of Thrones had become so popular. And at the same time we had trailers fast cut to Marilyn Manson and a cleavage-baring Morrigan.
Dragon Age: Origins was so often torn between its inspirations - dark, gritty and with a relatively realistic brand of low fantasy - and the needs of a big budget game. Magic is canonically rare, with mages locked up in Circles for everyone's own safety and every spell putting the user at risk of demonic possession. The idea was that most people would never even have seen magic performed in public, at least, nothing more dramatic than the pulling of a rabbit out of a hat. In practice, mages are everywhere, and nobody blinks an eye at spells like Walking Bomb that turn the screen into a swimming pool of gore. Why? Because people like throwing fireballs, and mages make for better opponents than endless enemies wielding the old sword-and-board.
It's not hard to find similar examples, and they've only become more pronounced with age. The sex scenes for instance, in which characters blankly pet at each other in hideous beige underwear were hilariously twee even before Game of Thrones came along and moved the bed posts. More jarringly, they were often totally inappropriate for the characters. It would take until Inquisition for both the bras and pants to come off, and more importantly, for most of those scenes to actually feel like character moments - to be naughty, funny, heartfelt, individual, even a little bit sexy.
Despite all this, Dragon Age: Origins knew the game it wanted to be - and when it gets down to it, that game holds up pretty well. It's a half-way house between the hardcore RPGs of old and a more modern style that was taking over, with an emphasis on the former. Magic with no concept of friendly fire, making every fireball a potential disaster; huge dungeons full of puzzles; grand moral choices to be made, with tangible consequences; a world full of lore, lovingly built, with more complex characters than people often care to give it credit for.
Take Loghain, Dragon Age: Origin's villain, who spends much of the game screwing everyone over, stopping just short of twirling a moustache while he does it. The more you look at his character, though, the more layered it becomes. His abandoning of the King was a pretty pragmatic tactical move given that the battle was hopeless, his hatred of neighbouring Orlais has rational grounds, and his goals, while typically carried out in awful ways, are what he genuinely believes are for the great good, and his political concerns also blind him to the Blight that you spend the entire game fighting against. While he's wrong, often inexcusably so (poisoning nobles, allowing elves to be sold into slavery and more) he's also rational enough to ultimately accept that and try to atone, even joining the party for the endgame.
Throughout Dragon Age: Origins we see this level of writing care and attention lavished on the world's heavyweights as well as the smaller stories that make it human. Take Dagna, a dwarf longing to study amongst the mages despite dwarves having no magical aptitude whatsoever. She doesn't care, she's happy to be a theorist. It's a one-way trip though; to leave home and become a surface dwarf means never being able to return. Take the battle for succession, also in the dwarven home of Orzammar, between two competing would-be rulers - the old-fashioned Harrowmont or more modern Bhelan. There's no clear-cut choice, with the epilogue quick to show the difference between words and deeds.
This is a place where heroes can make a difference, though - where standing up against injustice can be worth the price, as long as you accept that there will be one. That lesson is reinforced time and again, from the game's opening set-piece battle that sees naive King Cailan in his gold armour mistake his world for heroic high fantasy and get betrayed and butchered for his trouble, to the major romances of the game.
As a female player character, for instance, you can have a romance with Alistair, your Templar companion. You can push him to claim his rightful place on the throne. But in doing so, you'll usually lose him because he's painfully aware that as much as he loves you back, the world won't accept a non-Human Noble queen. Your order of Grey Wardens' infertility, a side-effect of your protection against the rampaging Darkspawn and their Blight, would destroy any chance of succession. Even the finale of the game is a bitter one. Where most RPGs would treat slaughtering a dragon as a triumphant moment, Dragon Age typically makes it a sombre, regretful affair.
None of this was outright new for RPGs, in that it's not hard to point to at least similar cases of smart writing and intelligent plotting - being able to talk the villain of Fallout out of his evil plan for instance, the looming darkness of Planescape Torment vs the more heroic Baldur's Gate, Knights of the Old Republic 2 acting as a dark mirror of the first game. The list could go on.
Dragon Age's prominence did two key things, though. It proved that a hardcore, older-fashioned game could still find a devoted audience (even if BioWare itself didn't stick around, and indeed increasingly moved towards the existing mainstream rather than trying to bring it into the fold), and it established a new baseline for the genre in much the same way as the original Baldur's Gate back in 1998. It made more people care about the genre again, as well as set up some of the rules that the RPGs that came later have greatly benefited from - not least escaping from the mechanical shadow of D&D, showing that original settings can capture the world's imagination, and making real player choice an expectation rather than simply an option.
Who knows. Maybe this is just part of a glorious cycle, and in another ten years, BioWare will get nostalgic and give going back to their roots another try. Over EA's dead body, probably. Still, the recent success of RPG Kickstarters has shown that there's definitely still a market and pent-up demand for games that graduated from the old-school, so never say never. Unless you're still holding out for Jade Empire 2, of course. That one's still looking pretty darn unlikely.
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