The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly Of Returning To Dragon Age: Origins

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I knew this would happen. The second I saw that Dragon Age 4 video at Gamescom, I knew I’d be back on my particular brand of Dragon Age bullshit. I want you to know I tried. I fought against the siren’s call as best as I could. But like many an ancient sailor, I too succumbed, lasting a scant 24 hours before repurchasing, installing, and playing Dragon Age: Origins again.

I discovered the Dragon Age series completely by accident in 2009. I only vaguely remember seeing the trailer on TV, its only memorable quality being the slight revulsion I felt as BioWare attempted to sell me a bloody, more mature sword and board story through some extremely on-the-nose marketing featuring Marilyn Manson screaming, “This is the new shit.”

I’ve played the games several times since my first go, but not for about nine years. As I booted it up, I wondered if it would still feel like “the new shit.” How well would it hold up? Is Dragon Age: Origins the life changing gaming experience I remember it being, or did the emotional significance I attached to it obscure what is actually a frustrating and unremarkable game?

Upon arriving at the game’s character creator, the latter sentiment came into sharp relief. It is bad, y’all. In-game character creators are notoriously reviled by people of colour for their lack of skin-tones and ethnic hairstyles that accurately reflect the wealth of human diversity. Dragon Age: Origins though, seems especially hostile. There are several fair-skinned options and only two that suggest some kind of African ancestry. The way skin colour works with the game’s complexion slider, even with the darkest option selected, my character’s skin is blotchy and two-toned.

This is unmodded and on the darkest skintone. This is bad even by the already laughably low standards of trying to make a Black character. (Screenshot: BioWare)

I wasn’t expecting to mod this game, thinking that the experience I was looking for could be achieved with the base, vanilla game. But I can’t have my homegirl out here looking busted like this. To the nearest mod forum I went.

As a rule, I don’t mod games (World of Warcraft being the only exception, since Deadly Boss Mods keeps my arse from standing in fire). In 2009, Dragon Age: Origins was my first experience with game-modding. I loved that game so much that I wanted more out of it — more dialogue, more quests, and, critically, more opportunities to smooch my chosen love interest Alistair. Mods offered me that promise. In looking for mods for this go-round, I was interested in something that could fix my character’s face, offer more skin-tone options, and a mod that had a decent amount of ethnic hair options. By the time I was finished I had failed in every regard.

Modding Dragon Age: Origins is hard. It’s an 11-year-old game that I’ve owned on both Steam and Origin. Uninstalling the game on one platform and reinstalling it years later on another has resulted in a mishmash of folders and files and locations that make it almost impossible to install and load mods correctly. Plus there are different types of mod files that each require a different approach to install and run. Why can’t I just place the file in the folder, Dragon Age?

Because this is a situation of your own making, Ashley, and you will reap its consequences.

After three excruciating hours of stopping, starting, and loading the game to see if the mods were working, I just said “screw it” (though with far more expletives that decorum won’t allow me to repeat here) and began to play.

The mods I painstakingly installed still didn’t work. Lock bash, the mod that allows you to open locked doors and chests without a rogue, didn’t work despite reading the instructions and following every tutorial I Googled. Extra dog slot works, granting my dog companion a permanent fifth party member slot, even though the mod constantly bugs out the party select screen. At least my human noble warrior looks adequately Black enough in the game that I no longer mind all the pain I went through to make her. It’s the small victories.

She looks much better in-game than she did in the character creator. I was surprised. (Screenshot: BioWare)

Once in the game and no longer fighting against the modding process, that magical feeling of “this is the game that changed your life” came back. The emotion of hearing the soundtrack swell and the voices of video game characters that I considered old friends felt like finding a treasured cache of memories. I was my happiest adult self playing in this world with these companions, and capturing that feeling again, now of all times, is wonderful.

One thing I didn’t count on was my attitudes concerning certain characters changing. Duncan is the Grey Warden you meet in each character’s origin. (Spoilers for an 11 year old game incoming.) He dies shortly after his introduction, and Alistair spends the rest of the game lionizing him as a great man. I remember feeling the same about Duncan and being sad that I didn’t get to spend more time with him. But now, I see Duncan for the arsehole he truly is.

If you see this man, run in the other direction as fast as you can. (Screenshot: BioWare )

This is a man who, in the human noble origin, shows up as soldiers overrun your house and kill everyone you’ve ever known or loved. He offers to save you if and only if you agree to join his sect of Grey Wardens, as your parents’ blood stains the stone of your childhood home. Immediately following your escape, Duncan finally deems it prudent to tell you that there is a good chance the ritual to join the Grey Wardens — something he literally compelled you to do on pain of death — will kill you anyway. When another initiate rightfully protests, Duncan murders him. I have no idea how I went through all those playthroughs of DA:O thinking Duncan was a good man when in fact he’s the biggest dick in the entire series who is not Solas.

I wondered if my feelings for Alistair would change similarly, but the game crashed before I could initiate some flirty dialogue. I bought a new computer in the middle of this grand experiment, and while transferring my save file worked, something somewhere went wrong such that now, every so often, the game crashes. I’m currently workshopping fixes.

A sane and normal human would take this as a sign from the Maker to cut my losses and either start over or just stop playing completely. But when it comes to Dragon Age, I am neither sane nor normal. This will be my fifth playthrough of this game, and I intend to make the same choices as I have for every one of my other four playthroughs. Same origin, same love interest, same demon baby ritual. And I intend to do the same with Dragon Age 2 and Inquisition.

Back on my bullshit and happier for it.

Comments

  • I loved DA:O. But my memories of trudging around one particular series of tunnels for hours on end has stopped me from reinstalling after my first playthrough.

    • DA:O suffers from that a lot. The Deep Roads, The Fade, The Urn of Sacred Ashes; they’re all just long boring hallways full of combat encounters. DA2 and DA:I are often cited as having worse design than the first game, but DA:O’s level/encounter design is pretty poorly designed and paced.

      The entire series is sort of a flawed gem. For everything any of the games do right, there’s something they do wrong or poorly. That counts for DA:O as much as its sequels. Here’s hoping DA4 is just a gem.

  • I’m also doing a replay of DA:O at the moment. I never found the game that amazing when I first played it. It actually took me 3 separate goes to get through it, with several months break in between each go. Going back to it now I can see a certain charm to it that I didn’t really get the first time, but it’s also still full of the problems I had with it in the first place. The horrendous combat probably being the main sticking point.

    I’m using a mod that lets you respec your characters, and that’s made things a bit less of a pain. It feels good to be able to build my companions into what I need them to be from scratch without having an odd ability here or there they come pre done with that they’ll never use. Plus this way I have more freedom to bring the companions I want based on their personalities/story potential, rather than pure utility.

    That’s an issue I’ve always had with all Dragon Age games. In Mass Effect, while some companions synergies better than others, you can pretty much bring whomever you want. But in DA you generally want to lean towards the holy trinity of tank, healer, damage, and bring at least one person from every class archtype (warrior, rogue, mage) for full utility. That can really railroad into a certain party composition you may not want.

    I’m really hoping DA4 moves away from that. Or at the least gives us the ability to build any party member into a tank, healer or dps. Being able to spec a warrior or rogue into a healing role so you’re not forced to take a mage healer would be nice.

  • Dragon Age: Origins is one of those games where I played the console version first, found it to be terrible, and then playing the PC version it felt like almost an entirely different game and much more like the inspiration they had named. After the Demo of 2, I’ve picked up the various games but haven’t brought myself to play them, for I have the Backlog That Will Not End. One day. One day. When FFXIV is finally over, and they run out of PSO games to release.

    Having played the Elven Commoner and Human Noble Origins, I’d never been too enthusiastic about Duncan.

  • This is a perfectly timed article and comments section because I just got Dragon Age Inquisition and was wondering whether I should play Origins first or dive straight in…So hopefully the comments here will help with that

    • the overall lore are linked from game to game but each game is stand alone. there are cameos though although for DA:I you can set your world state using the Keep (https://dragonagekeep.com/en_US/), without ever needing to have played either DA:O or DA2 (spoilers are in the keep off course since it covers a lot of the decisions you would be making)

      I think all 3 games are pretty good story wise but the combat changes between titles might be jarring

  • I re-played DA:O in 2016 I think it was. I modded it to improve the visuals/designs of all the characters, particularly my love interest Zevran who was freaking cute after. As well as using an ENB, it was all easy because I’m used to doing that sort of thing. It was just as unbelievably fantastic as the first time I played it! The mix of real-time and tactical combat is something which still feels amazing to play. I still haven’t played Inquisition which I meant to do after upgrading my video card in 2017, purely due to a lack of time to invest in it but I will eventually no doubt.

  • I played all three Dragon Age games in a row late last year and early this year. I’d only every played Inquisition before. Origins was a bit painful to play – I enjoyed the storyline and the characters, and it was great to get a better understanding of the Dragon Age world. But the Deep Roads was the worst, and trying to beat the Broodmother nearly made me rage quit the game. The combat is clunky and slow, and it took me a while to figure out the best way to tinker with all of my party’s stats and battle behaviours to get them to do what I want.

    Dragon Age II was fantastic and I’m completely baffled by why people hate it so much.

    • because its a different type of game to origins, its in a small area and compacted. I still enjoyed it alot and in some ways is better than the first, but its very different so alot of people fell on either divide.

  • Hahah so heartening to see people bemoan the Deep Roads too…

    DAO was a very good game, but too much of it felt like a chore. I’m not ashamed to say that I actually preferred DAI.

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