Dragon Age: Origins goes on sale several times a month; if you’re here wondering whether it’s a great game to buy and play, then yes, it is. That’s my short answer. My long answer is a bit more complicated.
Dragon Age: Origins has a simple plot that depends upon a considerable amount of backstory. In the fictional world of Thedas, far before the events of the game, a magocracy known as the Tevinter Imperium attempted an Ozymandian undertaking by forcibly opening the gates of Heaven. God (in the game referred to as ‘The Maker’) decides that for their hubris, He would punish them by twisting them into vile monstrosities called darkspawn.
More ghoulish than orcs and more feral than Uruk-hai, the Darkspawn are the corrupted forms of the races of Thedas who were unlucky enough to be caught by the wrath of The Maker. However, despite their highly threatening and volatile nature, the darkspawn prefer to live underground in roving megabands, constantly tunneling to find what scholars call ‘Old Gods’. Because the darkspawn ‘live’ underground, their manifest destiny have uprooted many of the powerful Dwarven kingdoms that call the place home. When these Old Gods are found, they are corrupted by ‘the taint’ – the ambiguous necrotic element of the darkspawn – and are turned into chief commanding officers called Archdemons. These Archdemons quickly marshal the various darkspawn clans and groups into a renewed and vigorous military force. From there, they empty out through various tunnels and spill onto the surface in a mass mobilization known as a Blight.
Now come the Grey Wardens. Specialists in defeating the darkspawn, they are expert trackers and renowned killers of Archdemons. The Grey Wardens function as a supranational military force that functions as a mix of bounty hunters, French Foreign legionnaires, and foreboding diplomats. They serve as the elite; both brawns and brains during a Blight.
Dragon Age: Origins is set in an old state known as Ferelden, which has wrestled itself free from the clutches of the Orlesian Empire, a vast, opulent, and highly devout swath of muscle and land to the west. South of Ferelden, in a region known as the Korcari Wilds, there are murmurings of dark things rustling in the cold forests. Evil shadows dance in the crackling lights of forest fires and soldiers hear snarls, screeches, and shouts from something gargantuan far away. Even worse, the Grey Wardens, led by a grizzled, soft-spoken man named Duncan, are already there, and that can only mean one thing.
There are six origin stories in Dragon Age: Origins that eventually, with Duncan’s aid, culminate in your escape from your current predicament to one where you are initiated into the Grey Wardens. After a betrayal from within Ferelden’s military ranks wipes out the Wardens, you are tasked with building an army that will unite to push back the Blight and eliminate the current Archdemon.
You can play as one of three races: humans, Elves, and Dwarves. From there, you can choose your gender. And from there, you choose your character class. It is important to note that in Dragon Age: Origins’, your character’s class is dictated by the backdrop of their story; certain classes can only have certain origins. For instance, Mages cannot start out as nobility, given the propensity for families to give up magically-inclined children to the “Circle of Magi,” which are complex communes of Mages living under the ever watchful eyes of Templars. Likewise, since Dwarves are resistant to magic and have zero magical aptitude due to their overexposure to Lyrium (a material mined for its magical potency), they cannot be Mages. Elves are either members of roving groups called the Dalish (who practice shamanistic and animalistic beliefs), or city Elves (reduced to workers, servants, slaves, and the oft-destitute decoration of the decaying medieval metropolises). Humans have the best position, by Pareto Principle, since the human character is in a favorable position regardless of whether they are a Mage, Warrior, or Rogue.
The origin story in Dragon Age: Origins provides a very exciting peek into the intricate machinations that function as the narrative cogs of the game. Though each story ends up in the same general position (Duncan saves you somehow so he can take you south to Ostagar), the differences between each origin story hones in on some very complex socioeconomic, racial, and political undertones that are central to Dragon Age: Origins’ believability. Because it establishes that Elves are considered cattle, possessions, thieves, and other disparaging stereotypes for the gypsy-immigrant mishmash they are, your origin story does not allow for a wealthy or successful Elf. Likewise, because of the canonical magical limitations of the Dwarves, the player cannot play as a Dwarven Mage.
There’s a very interesting ludonarrative component at play here: gamers who may be more interested in the messy politics of the Dwarven assembly and its Machiavellian culture are pigeonholed into a very specific set of perspectives. Because you can’t be a Mage and a Dwarf at the same time, if you want to be a Mage then you can only experience Dwarven culture and politics as an outsider. Likewise, for the Circle of Magi, if you’re not a Mage, then you’re only exposed to the Circle of Magi when it’s under siege by demons and never in its splendor. Of course, people can just play through each scenario and decide whichever one they like best, but from the character’s perspective it creates a much more realistic sense of self and belonging within the world of Thedas. There aren’t any exceptions.
While this claim about the origin story of your character seems a minor one, it’s quite an important illustration on the attention to detail in the world-building that took place in Dragon Age: Origins. Despite its simple endgame (kill the Archdemon), Dragon Age: Origins is finely crafted and smartly put together. This attention to detail goes quite a long way in terms of constructing a believable Ferelden that’s constantly under threat of buckling.
Though there are other universes that have very intricate backstories (Kingdoms of Amalur, Fallout New Vegas), what separates Dragon Age: Origins from the others is that this game fully understands that the devil is in the details. Speech preceded with “By the Maker” and the racial slur, “knife ears”, pepper your conversations, breathing life into the inhabitants of Thedas. When we compare the topic of racism in Dragon Age: Origins to a game like Bioshock Infinite, we’re given a choice in Dragon Age: Origins to live within semi-realistic parameters that replicate that racism. In Bioshock Infinite, you see racism, but it’s peripheral and separate from Booker as a character. In Dragon Age: Origin, this racism exists all around you, from Leliana’s deft yet assuming tone when she speaks of Elven servants to Vaughan’s psychopathic treatment of the Elven Alienage’s women. You’re an active participant against such vitriol.
But Dragon Age: Origins’ most powerful assets are its characters. One of the biggest strengths of Origins is its ability to utilize the wide array of tropes and archetypes with confidence and ability. Though many of them begin based on particularities and quirks (the DLC character Shale has an insistent hatred for pigeons, Oghren is a drunken Dwarf, and Zevran seems to be a callback to Inigo Montoya), layers of their shallow mannerisms are unfurled to reveal quite complex and human characteristics.
If there is a primary stellar component that underlined Dragon Age: Origins’ strength, it’s this. What separates it a lot from Bioware’s previous games is that it’s not experimental like Mass Effect, and it’s not confined to a particular canon like Knights of the Old Republic; it’s a phenomenal example of Bioware’s ability to confidently, stridently, and unwaveringly construct and utilize well-worn tropes to their advantage. There’s nothing overly complex about the characters: they have a secret or two, but they exist within these archetypes quite comfortably. Though Oghren is more than a drunken Dwarf, we watch as he attempts to move on from his obsession with Branka while remaining a drunken Dwarf; Zevran finds the strength to leave the assassin outfit – the Antivan Crows – and seek more from life than murder through adventure, but still keeps his sharp and playful nature; Alistair remains goofy and light-hearted, but now uses it as a personal foil to his royal responsibilities (whether he rejects them or accepts them). The transitions are subtle and muted, barely noticed, but there.
That’s why the small snippets of conversation when your characters walk around with you are so important and rewarding. A few of them change as you progress down each character’s dialogue tree, revealing more and more of their preferences. Within your group, friendship (Leliana and Wynne), distrust (Alistair and Morrigan), and respect (Shale and Sten) blossom. Instead of gravitating around the main character, the group feels organic, alive.
While the plot isn’t necessarily innovative, it’s nevertheless solid. Bioware falls back on the four main locations formula they often use (Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic come to mind) to move the plot along at a brisk yet manageable pace. To some degree, it works. Much of the rising action comes in the form of the Landsmeet, which functions as the fifth main location before the climactic battle against the Archdemon. By sticking to this formula, Bioware ensures that they can at least guarantee that each section functions as a strong serial in its own right.
But here’s where the origin stories matter and Dragon Age: Origins reveals its brilliance. Since you’re a native of Ferelden and cast out from the comfort your home, many origin stories give you the opportunity to return through your duties as a Grey Warden. Doing so reveals the changes that occur in your absence, giving you a sense of time and animation. To show the world as organic, Bioware convincingly crafts your character’s slice of Thedas as having moved on.
To evaluate the story of Dragon Age: Origins in terms of believability, effectiveness, and resonance is to evaluate it on a spectrum. Dragon Age: Origins has a semi-linear experience because the origin of your character matters, despite the smallest of the differences. Since many places have you return home, players may experience very different emotional responses to certain situations. Delegitimizing Bhelen as a political force in Orzammar and giving the Dwarven crown to Harrowmont means much more if you play the Dwarven noble origin, since you’re Bhelen’s brother. It’s more cathartic and personal. As a Grey Warden from any other origin story, it’s simply another step to acquiring your army. To some characters, certain places have meaning, and finishing them in turn generates something more than just arms and soldiers. To the Dwarven commoner, you return home to the family that never was; to the Mage, you return to a home riddled by disaster; to the human noble, the assassination of Arl Howe gives you finality and vengeance for your family. The arc eventually closes, and it’s much more satisfying for that.
While Dragon Age: Origins does a lot of good and right in its writing, there are two main issues I have. The first is that Dragon Age: Origins doesn’t compellingly recreate a sense of time. A conversation with Wynne via the Mage origin story insinuates that at least one year passes between the main character’s uprooting and the sacking of Lothering. That’s around twenty percent or so into the game. You’re never given a good idea of how much time has passed between each location and journey, so there’s no sense of emergency, Blight or no.
For example, when you need to save a young boy from demonic possession, you’re told that you must hurry to the Circle of Magi and that there isn’t much time – the game doesn’t punish you if you drag your heels. If you compare this to time sensitive missions such as Mass Effect 2’s Collector Base mission and crew abductions, an unknowing player is forced to choose between saving their crew members before they’re liquefied or assault the Collector Base with suboptimal crew strength. It forces a harder, stronger choice on you, impressing and demanding that you manage the time it gives you. We don’t really have that sort of urgency in Dragon Age: Origins, even though Ferelden is constantly under cataclysmic threat.
My second gripe isn’t unique to Dragon Age: Origins, but it’s an issue nevertheless. Some of the romance in Dragon Age: Origins comes off as a reward rather than a relationship; the character arc climaxes (pun unintended) at sex. It’s not a very interesting or realistic perspective on relationships, and much of the romance that occurs in Dragon Age: Origins is quite shallow.
Now, there are two exceptions. Alistair’s romance continues past sex, but only because the plot demands it. His behavior would invariably be influenced by his relationship with the Warden, and choosing not to acknowledge any sort of romantic involvement would be immensely faulty writing on Bioware’s part. On the other end, Morrigan’s arc begins with sex, but she doesn’t develop genuine romantic feelings for the protagonist until later. That’s much more interesting than putting sex on a pedestal to be reached, but when you compare Morrigan to someone like Leliana or Zevran, it doesn’t seem to fit her character. For her, sex seems to be constructed by her understanding of its usefulness for reproduction; looking into her backstory, she’s revealed to inquisitive and free-spirited, but by no means does any part of her insinuate that same freeness with her body. The game implies that Morrigan’s understanding of sex is influenced by her mother Flemeth, who uses sex as a means to entice able-bodied Chasind men so she can have more daughters.
When you compare this to Leliana (who has implied that she is not above using seduction and sex as a means to get what she wants) or Zevran (who revels in gluttonous and sexual escapades), Morrigan seems as a bit of an odd choice. Of course, this is aside from the general concern that sex in Dragon Age: Origins is approached instrumentally and self-fulfilling. It’s a trophy, not an expression, and there really doesn’t need to be any sex in it at all.
Sex can be a powerful visual indicator of a cemented relationship, and Bioware is ultimately working with limited resources for an audience that expects certain indicators. But that doesn’t mean that we need to have an awkward cutscene with stilted models dry-humping each other by the campfire. If you look at Mass Effect 2, there’s a powerful, laconic scene in the form of Garrus’ romance: though sex is implied (in conversations leading up to and following the night before the Collector Base mission), you don’t see it. Rather, you see Garrus fumbling awkwardly as he opens up about himself, trying to make right and meaning in what he does and the choices he makes.
This comparison is important because it shows how much of a periphery the visual indication of sex really is. It’s unneeded and feels more like a self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back than what it should be: a culmination of two people’s trust and affection. Sex in real life often isn’t that: it can mightily emotional, yes, but it can also be fleeting and physical. Sex in Dragon Age: Origins is the gatekeeper for the final tier of character development; except for Morrigan, once you’ve unlocked it, you’ve cemented their highest level of affection. It many cases, it feels cheap and tawdry.
But like I said, these are fairly minor points. Overall, the game is written and structured in quite a stellar fashion.
Gameplay-wise, it’s surprisingly fun. I’m not a massive fan of Bioware’s d20 hide-the-turns system of RPGs, so my relationship with the gameplay is that it’s more of a way to move from one plot point to another. That said, it works seamlessly enough, there aren’t any major issues, and the tactical view that comes with the PC version makes the experience for Dragon Age: Origins much more exciting than the 360 and PS3 variants.
It’s quite a complex system, though in my experience doesn’t really ramp up difficulty until Nightmare. Most of the time any sense of excitement comes from the pause and go strategy that dominates the more difficult battles, where you’re stuck trying to desperately keep your healer alive so your max Dexterity tank can rampage through unmolested by enemy accuracy curses. It’s pretty kinetic, and if you’ve ever played Knights of the Old Republic, you’ll recognize the same system in Dragon Age: Origins.
However, there is some questionable macro level design. While places such as Redcliffe and the Brecilian Forest move at a reasonable pace, the tower of the Circle of Magi and Orzammar are particularly cumbersome. Though the tower itself is paced and designed quite well, a particular segment – where you enter The Fade – loses its novelty quite quickly. Much of it is due to gimmicky and lackluster puzzles that artificially lengthen the time required to get through the level as well as an inconvenient dependence on backtracking. You’re not moving from point A to point B to point C, but rather you’re at Point A and then moving to point C so you can get to point B which will unlock more of point C; it’s somewhat meandering and time consuming.
Orzammar is a different type of long: where The Fade is long because it forces you to constantly backtrack, Orzammar is…well, lengthy. In the Brecilian Forest, Haven, and Redcliffe, you’re immediately made aware of the situation, the conflict area, and then you’re sent on your way. Moving through the major plot points is much easier and clearer. For Orzammar, because of the constant politicking that occurs between the two major players, Harrowmont and Bhelen, there’s a huge amount of work that needs to be done that it (pardon the unintended pun) dwarfs the other major locations considerably. It’s just long and arduous, and like the fade, its novelty wears off because of the sheer attrition that comes with slogging through the Deep Roads or the Proving Grounds, and then the Carta, and then the thaigs, and then the Deep Roads again, and then several bosses. It’s tedious.
Again, these are all minor points; they’re not so big that my pleasant experience with Dragon Age: Origins is washed in a tide of disappointment. Bioware certainly has a flair for detail, and even though the game isn’t known for its visual fidelity or its blood-pumping action, it does show that Bioware knows how to craft a game focusing on storytelling above everything else.
Of course, beside these minor gripes there are even more minor gripes that could be mentioned, such as the immersion-shattering blood spatters or the buff effects being visible during conversation, but those are even more nitpicky and needless. Overall, it’s a game that doesn’t depend upon its visual immersion, sweeping vistas, or heavy exploration, but by its writing. In many ways, Dragon Age: Origins is not that far off from a more complex choose-your-own adventure book, emphasizing the words that leap out from the Codices.
Overall, Dragon Age: Origins can be summed up as a culmination of Bioware’s long-standing strengths. It’s a story that is engaging, exciting, and enthralling, but doesn’t care about needing to be thought-provoking or philosophizing. While its gameplay and design isn’t the best, it hides its weaker components through a beautiful, haunting score and a zealous fixation with detail. It’s a solid story meant to grab gamers and keep them ensorcelled in the world of Thedas. It’s not laconic; it doesn’t make use of quietness and solemnity in the same vein as The Last of Us does, and it isn’t as cowboyishly confident as Mass Effect. It’s flowery and frilly, and…well, I kind of like that.