5 Reasons Why Dragon Age: Origins is Still the Best Fantasy Game of All Time

I play a lot of video games. Seriously. It hinges on a pathological condition at this point. But in all the time I've spent glued to a keyboard or console, I've yet to find a video game that can hold a candle to Bioware's Dragon Age: Origins.


Spoilers ahead. Although seriously, people, it came out in 2009.


Unfair bias of living near Bioware's Edmonton headquarters aside, I've never found a game that can match Dragon Age: Origins, not in the entire five years since its release. Don't go thinking I'm some hopeless fangirl with life-sized effigies of Morrigan resting on my Bioware shrine, either; there are five very good reasons why this is still the best fantasy game you'll ever play.



For starters, they have a bad-ass blood dragon logo.


Don't believe me? Consider that...

1. Alistair exists.

If you're not familiar with the Dragon Age franchise, hold on to your panties and/or prepare to question your sexuality, because you're about to be introduced to Alistair.

Never has a look of blank-eyed bewilderment been so sexy.

In the game, Alistair is a main character, companion, warrior, Grey Warden and potential romantic option for female characters (and males, if you're handy with game mods). He's also a goofball, an emotional wreck, the product of an angst-tastic childhood, a reluctant heir, a big ball of snark, and the source of 90% of the game's best quotes. On paper, he sounds like the person you would want to punch right in the mouth. With your foot.

Actual quote. I wasn't kidding.

But somehow or other, Bioware managed to take two dozen obnoxious personality traits and cobble together the single most alluring human being you will ever meet, both inside a video game and out. He's charm itself, wrapped up in a muscled blond with a British accent. Alistair is literally a chunk of computer code responding to pre-set cues, and he's still got the timing of his lip-biting and bashful blushing down better than any human male ever will. It doesn't even matter what you say to him - if you're shy, he'll blindside you with impossibly adorable dialogue. If you try to be witty, he'll laugh and then blindside you with impossibly adorable dialogue. You can follow him around, screaming insults at him and firing combat spells into the back of his head, and he'll still blindside you with impossibly adorable dialogue. When you inevitably succumb to his internal-organ-melting-charm and other characters start cornering you to criticize your relationship with Alistair, you'll find yourself wanting to punch right through your computer screen to defend your love with this virtual character.

I would literally abandon human romance for you, Alistair.


Now, once you've finished the game once and found your happily ever after with Alistair, you might want to go again, and perhaps take the game's Spanish assassin/male prostitute or bisexual nun for a spin. And you can totally do that, because...

2. You can finish the game in your lifetime.

I am a completion freak. I'm probably the only person I know to actually read every single piece of documentation in the Dragon Age world. I don't consider a game to be 'finished' until I have completed every quest, slain every foe, talked to every character, picked every flower, and broken into every civilian home to smash every last piece of their crockery.

Everyone knows that peasants hoard untold hidden riches in random pottery jars.

Obviously, this obsession with completion makes me a poor fit for the average fantasy game. Every new game that comes out seems determined to include as many random, mundane, piddling details as it can manage without players' graphics cards melting. You can get married, get bored of your wife, fling her from a cliff and remarry. You can acquire mass amounts of wealth and start buying up houses and land like the medieval real estate broker you always dreamed of being. You can earn a freaking university degree. You can murder random civilians in the streets and look on with glee and fascination as their loved ones' virtual lives fall apart. Sure, there's still a main quest line to follow, but who can possibly concentrate on that when you have the option of stealing horses, jogging through literal miles of wilderness, resisting arrest and rotting in prison instead?

Yes, I'm looking at you, Elder Scrolls.

It would take me less time to acquire a real house, family and horse.

And that's why Dragon Age still comes out on top. It doesn't matter how much cool stuff you cram into a game if no one has enough time in their earthly lives to find it all. Some poor programmer out there probably spent weeks and months of their life painstakingly building a Skyrim side quest where the player square dances with a goat to win a trunk full of precious stones and off-brand ramen, but no player will ever delve deep enough into the game to stumble across their masterpiece.

Luckily, we have other ways of fulfilling our daily goat game quota.

Dragon Age has enough content and side quests to keep me and my fellow completion freaks busy, but not enough to send us into nervous breakdowns. I feel physically ill after spending an hour completing a meaningless side quest in Elder Scrolls, only to realize that there are approximately 4,387 more to go. The relatively constrained storyline of Dragon Age:Origins is actually a blessing, because it allowed me to finish the game with enough time left on this mortal coil to play it again, and again, finding every secret, exploring every alternate choice, and re-living every experience from a different origin story's perspective.

And to experience all the racism the game has to offer, you dirty, dirty elf.

And speaking of coping with racism...

3. Social skills are required.

Most game designers realize that there has to be more to a game than just wandering aimlessly through the wilderness, stabbing wolves and running from Slenderman. Fantasy games in particular are filled with rich relationships, flaring tensions, fragile alliances, and world-weary bar wenches with treasure troves of invaluable information. In other words, if you want to get anywhere in a fantasy world, you need to be able to successfully talk to people.

Except Slenderman. You do not want to talk to him.

For years, video game developers have assumed that the typical gamer is a slack-jawed, unwashed basement-dwelling goblin, and they've tried to gloss over this crucial aspect of human life with subtle little cheats. Social interaction in earlier games mostly revolved around the "you fetch me this thing and I will help you" system, with absolutely no haggling or eye contact required. Other games have been more subtle; Elder Scrolls games make you play a little 'spin the wheel and watch the facial expressions' game every time you try to be persuasive, and even the later installment of Dragon Age put in a little cheat wheel, so that players would no longer be required to bother with trivial skills like predicting the impact that their words have on other people.

Actually, it should be pretty obvious what that dialogue option does.

Dragon Age: Origins is the only fantasy game to credit its players with some social skills; all dialogue choices are unmarked, and it's up to you to figure out whether or not your words will send the listener into a rage or inspire them to slip into your tent that night for naked fun-times. This isn't a throwaway thing, either; a single line of dialogue can have a profound impact on a character, to the point that they remember it and let it influence a major decision down the line. If you want to explore the game's romance options, you'll have to whip out your social skills before you whip out your genitals. Say the wrong thing, and the object of your affection will come to despise you. Say the right things to the wrong person, and you'll quickly find yourself having to have the 'it's not you, it's me' let-down conversation. 

And now you've made Alistair sad, you monster.

Are you the sort of person who traded in your social skills a long time ago for a fedora and a life-sized My Little Pony plushie? Not a problem. You'll learn as you go along. To this day, I credit Alistair's sassy one-liners with teaching me how to flirt, and a quick browse of the more unsettling threads on any Dragon Age forum tells me that I'm not alone.

But maybe you're not in the game for the romance. Maybe you just came for the combat. Well, that's fine, because...

4. There is no button mashing - unless you want to.

Look, I get it - not everyone likes turn-based combat. It's slow, and it's awkward; in real life, no one quietly paces back and forth on the sideline while they wait patiently for their opponent to bash their skull into an exciting new ellipsoid shape. Battles move faster than that.

Although, in real life, this man's battles would be halted indefinitely after the first sword swing while he sought help for a torn rotator cuff.

The opposite of turn-based combat is a delightful tactic called button-mashing, which is exactly what it sounds like. Players wait until enemies wander into ass-whupping distance, and then they release a devastating display of absolutely no skill whatsoever as they slam their sweaty little thumbs into whatever button controls the weapon. Plenty of best-selling games rely on this tactic; I beat most of the Resident Evil franchise by pointing myself toward the exit and holding down the trigger.

Resident Evil: for when you want to experience the feeling of mowing down an entire small country without getting off your couch.

Unfortunately, there isn't much of a middle ground in video games; you either have to spend precious time formulating a strategy and passively standing by while your opponent gives you a facial restructuring with a broadsword, or you blindly fling yourself into battle with nothing but your trusty X button until your controller disintegrates in your hands. Oh, no, wait... that's where Dragon Age comes in.

A moment of silence for the fallen victims of button mashing.

The combat system in Dragon Age works in real time, allowing you the satisfaction of ganging up on a hapless enemy mage and murdering him in a frenzy of stabbings and D&D ripoff spells before he can get in so much as a feeble slap in his defense. But if strategy is more your speed, you can also pause the game, giving you time to re-position your party and enact your master plan, without any turn-based nonsense. Hell, if you really want, you leave the game running and let your party fend for themselves, throwing out automatic attacks while you wander off and get yourself a soda.

Although there's no telling what they'll get up to when you're not looking.

But whether you choose to strategize or just 'Leeroy Jenkins' your way through the game doesn't ultimately make a difference. What's really important is that...

5. Your choices actually matter.

Like any good fantasy game, Dragon Age: Origins is all about choices. Virtually every quest you take will present you with choices, and your conduct outside of the quests also makes a huge difference. You can decide who lives, and who dies. You can choose to take risks, or play things safe. You can choose to intervene in injustices, or to walk by with your ears plugged, screaming "LA LA LA LA LA" at the top of your lungs.

The epitome of heroism.

The choices you make in the game seem huge and important in the moment - mostly because they are - but they have consequences for you much later in the game. If you choose to spare the life of an out-of-control mage, he could come back to bite you in the merciful butt at a later date. Say the wrong thing to someone in a passing dialogue, and he might be too afraid to claim power for himself when the opportunity arises. 

Put the wrong mod on Morrigan, and she'll think this costume is adequate protection in battle.

The problem with having choices that echo through the entire game - from a programming perspective - is that it's hard to do. You have to think, and use variables, and there's probably some math involved. It's far, far easier to make most of the game's choices into meaningless illusions, and base the entire ending on a single choice that the player makes right near the end of the game. 


*ahem*

And instead of disappearing with improvements in technology, the "Ha ha! Your choices mean nothing!" category of game is only becoming more common. You can choose to re-play only the last five minutes or so, and aside from some superficial details in the background, you can reach every possible game ending just from selecting one or two final options. 

Yeah, don't think you're innocent, Beyond: Two Souls.

I can safely say that Dragon Age: Origins is nothing like that. I've played through the ending a few times, and each time, I've reached a drastically different conclusion. I've gotten married. I've died. I've taken the throne. I've lived out the rest of my days in a blissful haze of romance and the violent slaughter of unholy creatures. I'm not sure if the game will let me wander off into the desert to live as a hermit and mumble racist comments about those damn meddling humans until my final breath, but I intend to find out. 

Because ultimately, it's all up to me, in ways I never could have predicted from the start. And until I find another game that can offer me the same thing, with a snarky English love interest to boot, Dragon Age: Origins will always be the best fantasy game of all time.

1 comment

  1. YES! I agree with you on all your points. I always get bashed when I start singing about licking lamposts in winter, but Alistair has a fan club for a reason, right?

    I'm also a completionist. I've re-played Origins around ten-or-so times and I'm still not bored of it. It's an absolutely fantastic game. Even now, as I'm working through my fourth playthrough of Inquisition, all I really want to do is go back to the beginning and fall in love with all my companions time and time again.

    Thank you for giving Dragon Age: Origins a great review. I love your writing style and I can't wait to read more!

    ReplyDelete

Back to Top