The orcs are at it again, as if I didn’t have enough problems.
They’re calling themselves Darkspawn this time, and they want everyone to know that what we may think of as an orcish horde is actually a blight. They can call themselves mouseketeers for all I care. If it looks, walks, talks, and destroys crops like the grayish-green result of an angry high fantasy god’s judgment upon a people ambitious enough to anger him, it was an orc last week and an orc it shall remain.
I can’t count how many of these incursions I’ve stamped out. A handful of Dungeons & Dragons derivatives here, a few Lord of the Rings spin-offs there. Two Warhammers, 40,000 years apart. Hell, I’m sure even Lord British let a few fall between Ultima’s cracks back in the day.
Now it’s Dragon Age: Origins’ turn. Dragon Age: Origins (the whole “origins” thing is never really quite explained) is Bioware’s attempt to take its ball and go home after losing out on developing Neverwinter Nights sequels for Atari. Bioware would like us to believe that it just happened to develop another medieval fantasy RPG in the same vein as its previous works, but if it looks like swords and sorcery and gains XP like swords and sorcery... but we’ve been over that already, haven’t we?
Call it the Call of Duty syndrome. Traipsing through a vaguely European countryside and single-handedly solving a fantasy world’s problems is as played out as traipsing through a vaguely European countryside and shooting Nazis in World War II games that don’t have the good sense to go the Wolfenstein route and throw some occult super-science into the mix.
A college of wizards accidentally summoned a few horrors from beyond the veil? A dwarf kingdom is collapsing under the weight of its own stubbornness? An elven population is dwindling because they’re too wrapped up in hugging unicorns to husband themselves properly? These are all known quantities, even remedial ones, and the addition of a few blood magi does not a refreshing take on the genre make.
It’s enough to wear on a man (or in my go-to character’s case, a haughty elf mage who thinks his command of the elements makes him better than you). It would be one thing if this was the first or the second or even the 20th exercise in Tolkien staples, but at this point it feels like the last couple of decades’ worth of them should at least count for intern credit. Final Fantasy 6, one of the first games to take the plunge and move the genre out of these tired old tropes (if only to a medieval/steampunk hybrid), was 15 years and three console generations ago. We’re supposed to have moved on by now.
But here’s the problem: Origins does all of that well. Like, really well. “Eat your heart out, Peter Jackson” well.
Origins redeems itself thoroughly through the degree to which its world is fleshed out. Bungling wizards can be aided or put to the torch, dwarven political matters are no longer a simple game of “pick the non-jackass” (Pro tip: They’re all jackasses), and elven courtship and mating rituals... you know, let’s not go into that last one. Suffice to say, they’re all equally (if sometimes awkwardly) rich and well-defined.
Complex, too. Character motivations and interactions are explored to a degree that goes beyond the standard, easily ignorable fare all too typically tossed aside in favor of a party with maximized number-crunching effectiveness. Origins’ deep characterizations almost make directing your characters in a manner becoming their personalities more appealing than just picking a series of responses that maximize their rewards. (Bioware’s own Mass Effect surpasses Origins in this respect, but only because Mass Effect’s writers removed all ambiguity from its storyline and replaced the traditional “good” and “evil” PC archetypes with “space hippie” and “Samuel L. Jackson.”)
Multiply that by the few hundred meticulously scripted Origins events sprinkled liberally through a game world an order of magnitude more lively than previous efforts in the genre, and you have something that for all its implacable sameness is still a strikingly engrossing experience. When you stop thinking of it strictly as a game and instead consider it as a work of interactive fiction which occasionally lets you drop a column of flame on a non-horde of non-orcs, then the rules of engagement relax themselves a bit and Dragon Age: Origins falls neatly into place.
It’s a narrative in game form, and even if the specifics of it are well-trodden, more of that is something that the industry wouldn’t hurt to see. Or at least that’s how I explain it to my girlfriend. As it turns out, the “research for a review” excuse wears thin after the 40th hour of watching me be an elf.