Life in Canada is pretty great. I have a beautiful wife and three energetic dogs. Health care is free and the air is clean. So the only thing that really stresses me out is my massive backlog of games. For reasons we’ll leave unmentioned, I have more games still in their original packaging than games I’ve finished.
With this many unplayed games, it can be impossibly difficult to determine which new games will garner my attention, purchase, and ultimately, my play time. Every now and then, I’d like to update you on my backlog progress in the Diaries of a Backlogged Gamer. Some of you may laugh or cry or poke fun, but if I’m truthful with myself, I should probably be writing something to evoke some sort of reaction, right?
I don’t always play Fantasy RPGs. But when I do, I hope they’re made in Edmonton.
Let me be honest with you; I can be spiteful. When somebody tosses their phone in my face and says “you have to check out this video!”, I generally have my doubts about how “amazing” it is. The same can be said about Role Playing Games or, more broadly, games with a non-linear/open world construct. There is a contingent of my fellow gamers who heavily weigh their valuation of a game based on “number of things to do”, but I need a little more meat on the bone.
Dragon Age: Origins is the meatiest, most masterfully marinated game I’ve played in a long time.
Maximus, my Elf Mage (who looks like the love child of Paul McCartney and Harry Potter), and I are in for a rough ride in Dragon Age: Origins. No more than twenty minutes elapse before we are confronted with paralyzing decisions – like do I trust this mouse leading me through the Matrix-esque world called The Fade? What are my allegiances to this weiner of a Mage named Jowan?
The formula, as it turns out, was a precursor to what we would experience in Mass Effect 2. Your character joins the legendary Grey Wardens to stop the Blight – an onslaught of Darkspawn led by an Archdemon (a giant dragon possessed by an old god) – and recruit support from various armies throughout Ferelden. And this is where Dragon Age: Origins stands out, particularly compared to a game like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, because each quest is more than ‘run into that scary area and grab my super special family heirloom that I don’t know how I lost’. Whether its the the Elves in the Brecilian Forest, or the Mages and Templars at the Circle of Magi, each story quest introduces you to a fully realized world.
BioWare stacked so many layers into Origins. And whether you know about them before hand or discover them along the way, this lengthy campaign is captivating regardless. Systems like skill trees, attribute levels, crafting, powers of persuasion are all familiar pieces of any RPG, but knowing how they’ll play out in this world isn’t entirely clear at the onset. And that’s okay. For example, even though I didn’t fully comprehend ‘crafting’ until a good portion through my playthrough, this didn’t take away from the experience; discovering it only added to my appreciation of the complexity. And this opens the discussion to the most distinguishing characteristic of BioWare titles: the experience is truly unique to the player.
Currency is limited and the top tier gear is costly. Side quests are plentiful, but enemies and resulting experience points are finite. This means hard choices extend beyond dialogue trees. In Dragon Age: Origins, you can have your cake, but an Ogre will probably eat it.
Oh, the romance options. This might be the most awkward aspect of BioWare titles. That moment when suddenly your character is removed of all clothing and robotically romances his talented companion. I understand that bonding (pardon the pun) with other characters makes what we do in the game matter. But this manifestation, to me, makes sex the ultimate goal, and, in a way, errantly reinforces the rewards of a loving relationship. Further, you can (read: I did) upset a character with some questionable morality and decision making but win them over with a few shiny gifts.
The only other issue I had with Dragon Age: Origins was how many bugs were still around, now six years after release. Nothing game breaking, but things like NPCs getting stuck against a wall (both party members and enemies), or spells like Fireball clearly hitting an enemy but having no collision or impact happen from time to time, reminding you that it is, after all, just a game made by mere mortals. The most confusing bug I encountered was after destroying the Circle of the Magi (I didn’t mean to, honest!) and visiting an aspiring dwarf named Dagna. She wanted to become a Mage so badly and didn’t care if it meant leaving her casteless in the strict order of Dwarven society. As she ran off to chase her dream, she also didn’t seem to care that I just told her that the Circle didn’t exist anymore. Kids, I guess.
When you have a backlog like mine, playing games goes something like this: recover from decision paralysis and determine which game is next, fire it up, finish quickly, repeat. And while my intent was to race through Dragon Age, I found myself actually enjoying the side quests and wanting to learn more about the lore. The Dragon Age Wiki and fan podcasts have become part of my daily routine. The moment you learn of another origin story – like the City Elf and the differences between male and female protagonists – all is lost. The only thing keeping me from another playthrough is Dragon Age 2 and Inquisition gathering dust on my shelf.
Far and away, my most inspired time with Dragon Age: Origins was in Orzammar, where a political hurricane is in full force, pulverizing the Dwarven society. As with all other quests, you arrive with the goal of partnering with an army. But try convincing a King-less bunch of dwarves to forget their problems and come fight with you.
Another win for Dragon Age is that it succeeds in convincing me that each of these societies holds their own problems in higher regard than helping with the Blight. Being a Grey Warden, you’re privileged to information nobody else knows or believes – like the world’s coming to an end. So it makes sense that none of them are terribly eager to put their lives on hold to pledge allegiance to Paul McCartney and Harry Potter’s love child moments after meeting him. Also, with each successful story quest, you get a double victory tickle inside. You a) have another army to help, and b) if you’re a good person, you’ve made a real impact for people who desperately need help. Alternatively, if you didn’t help, you feel awful for missing the opportunity.
More often than I care to admit, I heard these words come out from my mouth: “oh no!” That’s when it becomes clear that I’ve said the wrong thing or didn’t do a pre-requisite quest and the story takes a turn. One time, I really wanted to help this homeless lady in Orzammar, but before I knew it, I left her and her son doomed for good – no going back. And yet, I wasn’t compelled to load my last save and do it over. Like my Paul McCartney-looking PC would want, I just Let it Be. And it was terrific! Life doesn’t always work out how you plan, and nobody crystallizes this into game form better than BioWare. Failure doesn’t mean game over. It means a fork in the road and you’re off experiencing something different.
If it weren’t for my stack of unplayed games, including Dragon Age 2 and Inquisition, I would have started a new playthrough immediately after the final frame. There is simply too much here to take in during one playthrough, and that leads me to ancillary communities like the Dragon Age Wiki to learn more. And I don’t even care how nerdy that is – you’re here with me, aren’t you?