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

This screen should also say “Welcome back, you will be here forever now.”
This screen should also say “Welcome back, you will be here forever now.”
Screenshot: BioWare
Kotaku Game DiaryKotaku Game DiaryThe latest thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we're playing.

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.

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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.”

BioWare (YouTube)

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?

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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 color 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 color 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.
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 ass 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.

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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.

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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.

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She looks much better in-game than she did in the character creator. I was surprised.
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.

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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 asshole he truly is.

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

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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.

Kotaku Staff Writer - Fanfiction Novelist - Unapologetically Black

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DISCUSSION

donaldcostabile
Old Grey Young of Shub Niggurath

I always have, and always will love the original game (DA:O) the best, as I was born & raised on all ye olde Baldur’s gate/Planescape/Idewind Dale games of yore, and I LOVE the depth and difficulty(?) of the combat/spell mechanics. (Plus, you know, the characters were reasonably well-written, and the areas were pretty diverse.)

It blew my fucking MIND back in 2009 that I could combine skills/spells to create wholly new and amazing effects in the game world. To the point that ANY time I made a new playthrough, I ALWAYS had two spell casters, so I could continue to discover new combinations and continue being OP in the way the game (I assume) intended.

Raegarding DA2: though I think I may still come back around to it some time, I bounced HARD off the second game (twice), as I couldn’t get past the hyperactive, dumbed-down combat/spell mechanics and the teeny-tiny - and too-often copy/pasted - areas & textures/assets. (I know - it’s absolutely STUPID to rail against an entire game JUST because of these two aspects, but they hit me hard. Apologies to all who enjoy/ed the game.)

The third game...well, “Inquisition” and I have a complicated relationship: at the time it launched, I was excited and VERY into it, but...I was also seeing a couple other sprawling RPGs and, well, though I tried a good handful of times, I never got completely drawn into “Inquisition” enough to get much past the intro area(s). Again, I’m sure I’ll come back around and try again, but... /shrugs

Speaking to some points from your article:

1. (Back in 2009) “...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.’”

SAME. *UGH* I was like, “What? What the fuck...WHO the fuck are they marketing this to? Is THIS what’s become of my Badlur’s Gates and Neverwinter Nights?!”

2. Girl. Your character model looks fucking AMAZING. (And this is coming from a guy who spent an equal amount of time modding/QCing the mods as he did playing the game.)(And tha well over 150 hours.)

What mod(s) did you use to get that level of detail/diversity?

3. “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.”

Dude, honestly: burn it to the ground - uninstall the game, delete any remaining folders, run a registry scan (I’m being 100% sincere), THEN reinstall and start a fresh playthrough. As janky as the modding mechanisms for this game were/are, it’s the only way to get a solid playthrough.

***

Anyway, now, thanks to you...here I go again. /installs Origin client... :D <3