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The RPG genre has undergone some fairly dramatic changes over the past decade or so, at least among mainstream gaming companies. If you were to compare, say the recently released Outer Worlds to Dragon Age Origins, you would certainly see similarities in mechanics and story, but also a distinct change in presentation, a shift towards straightforward action as opposed to turn-based tactics. To examine how this change came about, I want to look back on Dragon Age Origins, currently celebrating it’s 10th anniversary, to see how this development came about and what truly separates the differing styles of RPG.
Released in 2009, Dragon Age Origins follow on the coattails of Bioware’s earlier hit of 2007, Mass Effect, a coincidence rather amusing in hindsight, given that Mass Effect’s approach to the RPG elements of it’s series would go on to have quite a large influence on later games, such as Fallout 4. By contrast, Dragon Age seemed to be almost a deliberate call-back to the granddaddies of the genre, bearing far greater similarity to the likes of Baldur’s Gate or Fallout with a focus on tactical, almost turn-based gameplay.
In terms of the actual main plot, Origins was fairly by the numbers. In the fantasy land of Ferelden, aka, totally not medieval Britain, a great threat has arisen in the form of a horde of monstrous beasts known as darkspawn, who rise up from the depths for the sole purpose of wiping out all life they come across. The player takes on the role of a member of the Grey Wardens, an ancient order sworn to oppose the darkspawn at all costs, and who is left holding the bag for the aforementioned horde when nearly every other member dies in the initial assault.
To put it frankly, what sold Origins as a game was not it’s main story, which, while not devoid of interesting elements, such as how the Grey Wardens drink darkspawn blood to be able to sense their presence and become immune to the diseases said blood carries, still reads very much as a standard fantasy plot. Big angry horde attacks, heroes rally the realm against big angry horde, then make a plot to kill the giant dragon leading the horde and is apparently the sole reason the horde is even remotely organised.
Rather, what set Origins apart as a game, and what lead to it’s lasting popularity, was the characters, especially the companion characters that accompany the player. As Mass Effect already demonstrated, Bioware at it’s height could write pretty compelling side characters, but said characterisation really shines in Dragon Age. Right from when the game fully opens up, the player, in typical RPG fashion, starts attracted a small legion of tag-alongs from all corners of the game map.
These companions quickly set themselves apart not only by having distinct designs and personalities, but also engage in frequent dialogue amongst themselves, which not only serves to flesh out their individual characters, but also avoids the common problem of companion characters in RPGs often coming across as lifeless automata whenever the player themselves isn’t engaging with them.
Aside from the companions, this excellent characterisation also extended to the wider cast, including the primary villain, Teryn Loghain who, as if to make for the comparative lack of personality from the darkspawn, comes across rather like one of the scheming characters from Game of Thrones was dropped into Middle Earth. He’s an old soldier, traumatised by the previous occupation of his homeland by a foreign power, to the point where he ignores the rampaging army of monsters to instead perform a coup to secure the realm from the foreign insurgents only he sees. This detailed characterisation, along with several others throughout the course of the game, helps bring a great deal of life to what would otherwise be a fairly by the books fantasy story.
As I touched on earlier however, Origins was relatively unique in that it’s game design and structure were designed in the style of classical ‘pure’ RPGs that was starting to go out of fashion among mainstream companies at the time. This was ironically in part due to the success of Mass Effect, which pioneered much of the developments that went into the modern Action RPG, as distinct from the slower, more methodical style of gameplay that typifies classic RPGs.
In this style, as seen in Origins, the player can directly control any member of the party, and usually must do so to set up proper tactics and positioning to avoid friendly fire, as well as micromanaging every party members equipment and level-ups. In contrast, modern Action RPGs either have the player mostly alone, or the companions will have a fairly streamlined system of advancement that takes them along a predetermined path.
Further, Dragon Age Origins also differs from modern Action RPGs in how it portrays the player character. In the most famous examples of Action RPGs, such as Mass Effect and The Witcher series, the protagonist is a fairly set character. Sure, you can decide whether Commander Shepard is a man or a woman, or if Geralt has a ponytail or a bowl cut, but you’re still playing Commander Shepard or Geralt of Rivia, and the dialogue options reflect this. By contrast, Origins, in keeping with classic RPGs, has a much more blank protagonist, who lacks a distinct voice in dialogue and whose background is up to player choice, with said origin taking up the prologue of the game.
These two methods of dealing with protagonists have their pros and cons. In support of Action RPGs preferring more set protagonists, they give up a certain level of player decision about the character and their dialogue options in exchange for giving the protagonist a defined voice and characterisation. You can’t decide everything about the protagonist, but that allows them to be a character in their own right.
By contrast, Dragon Age Origins handling of it’s protagonist goes the opposite direction, making the protagonist more of a blank slate, yet at the same time giving players much more control over how their character behaves. Geralt wouldn’t sell out any of his few friends and most of his relationships are fairly set in stone, but the Grey Warden is not so restricted, and indeed has multiple opportunities to forgive sworn enemies or alienate and even kill close allies, assuming they even got along at all. Basically, the Grey Warden is whoever the player wants them to be, even if that means they become less distinctive as a character in the process.
At the end of the day, it would seem the main reason classic RPGs like Dragon Age have either been shuffled over to the indie market or re-imagined in a more Action-oriented direction. This is because the Action RPG, as popularised by Mass Effect, gives the general audience a much more accessible experience with an easily identifiable main character.
On the other hand games such as Dragon Age Origins have lost mainstream interest for their more complex gameplay and having silent protagonists that may seem flat in comparison to fully voiced and animated Action RPG protagonists. However, one thing Origins offered that these games don’t is the ability to place either yourself or any character of your choosing directly into the story of these games, without having to worry about being limited by only a couple of dialogue options, and gave players much greater control over the story of the game itself, even if said choices might become complicated or undone in the case of any sequels.
That said, while the older style of RPG has fallen to the wayside in the eyes of AAA gaming, the indie market continues to create games in the classic style of RPG, and among those, Dragon Age Origins still stands as an excellent example of how to create compelling characters and choices in these games.