Dragon Age has always played second fiddle to BioWare’s other series. While Mass Effect hype was at an all-time high, public perception of the Dragon Age games cratered.
Yesterday was Dragon Age: Origins’ 10-year anniversary. With that in mind, it’s time we re-examine the series that’s lived in the shadow of Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect for so long. This isn’t the opening act for Mass Effect’s headliner; this is one of BioWare’s most ambitious series, which managed to return to the fantasy well while reinventing conventions, even its own, in the process.
Origins saw BioWare go back its roots. It positioned Dragon Age as a spiritual successor to its older Dungeons & Dragons RPGs, most notably Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. In an interview with Eurogamer at the time, critics seemed skeptical about the game, questioning where it would differentiate itself from its predecessors.
“I don’t think we could get away without doing a fantasy RPG at BioWare,” Dragon Age: Origins game director Dan Tudge told Eurogamer. “And really, honestly, it’s where we started, right? It’s our roots, it’s where we got our… really what gave birth to the BioWare that everyone sees today.”
The first Dragon Age added a few interesting twists, like spell combos and origin stories, that would get expanded on in later games. The protagonist of Dragon Age: Origins was not a defined character. Mass Effect’s Shepard could be Paragon or Renegade, male or female, but these were largely cosmetic choices. The Grey Warden of Dragon Age: Origins was instead defined by your decisions, and this malleability carried forward into future games. Your Hawk in Dragon Age 2 would change as you responded in various situations, developing romances and even rivalries due to how they interacted with your party. Your Inquisitor could be any class and any race, with the idea being that they are a nobody who has become a somebody.
What this did was create a story with a greater understanding of its own world. The idea of replayability usually just meant seeing the other side of the coin in games like Mass Effect, but what if Commander Shepard could be non-military, or be an Asari or Turian instead of human? Dragon Age’s origins let you start as a dwarf in Orzammar, or an elf in the woods, or even a mage at the Circle of Magi.
But the greater part of this choice was that Dragon Age let you determine your own destiny. In fact, Dragon Age’s designers often cited the Paragon-Renegade dynamic from Mass Efect as a pain point; mechanizing morality in a binary way meant there wasn’t much room to define who you were. It was deciding between two paths at a fork, and rewarding you for consistency more than role-playing.
“Most games like that don’t reward a player for choosing good this time, then evil next time, because then you end up in the middle, and the benefits of the meter are always tied to being at the extreme ends,” said Origins writer David Gaider in a 2009 interview with Tor.
This was reflected in your companions, who followed you and took note of the decisions you made, with their approval rising and falling over each one. High approval could lead to romance, while low approval might result in a companion leaving or even dying. Other RPGs often had your companions blindly following you, often only demanding a loyalty check to see if they were truly your crewmate. But in Dragon Age, relationships were more tense.
It all resulted in a game that never really called acts good or evil. It reveled in the moral grays, and wanted to encourage players to choose based on their own feelings on the matter, rather than which morality extreme they wanted to end up maxing out.
“That’s when we’re at our most successful. When we have villains that feel like people,” lead designer Mike Laidlaw told Prima Games in 2009. “When you go, ‘Oh, I see why he made that choice.’ Or you have situations where you know neither situation is really right, but neither is really wrong.”
Dragon Age would become a series that explored the moral in-between. Dragon Age 2 would spark the idea of romance that wasn’t based solely on infatuation, but begrudging rivalry. Inquisition forced you to grapple with the conflicted factions of Thedas, and often handed you more questionable resolutions than Mass Effect 3 did with a similar motif.
Ten years later, we’re already in a state of BioWare nostalgia. Triple-A RPGs seem more like prestige projects than the annual blockbusters they used to be, and though 2020 has a few major entries in store, BioWare’s particular style of role-playing game has been absent in the wake of Anthem. It’s to the studio’s credit that it already has imitators in games like GreedFall, which feel like the continuation of so many of Dragon Age’s concepts.
In an age of stats-focused morality, Dragon Age tried to imagine better systems. And while it looks like we’ll be without a new Dragon Age for a few more years, it’s nice to remember a time when the studio was daring to subvert expectations, even its own, in pursuit of new roleplaying horizons.