Why do nearly all RPGs, even the ones with elaborate character creation systems, always start the same way? There are many sensible reasons for this, but I appreciate how Dragon Age: Origins rejects that idea outright. Just after character creation, the player chooses one of six different Chapter 1’s to begin the story, and everything from that first chapter informs the rest of your Grey Warden’s journey.
But that’s just one thing. Dragon Age: Origins is an excellent dark fantasy RPG that embraces some tropes of traditional western fantasy and subverts others, from its underground dwarven hyper-meritocracy to its culture alternately celebrating and demonizing mages. Dragon Age has some of the most fascinating lore and world-building that BioWare has ever conceived.
I’ve beaten Dragon Age: Oranges (you knew I was gonna say it) five times, each time making different decisions and building my Grey Warden in a new way. This time around I delivered a magic artifact to a dwarven despot, romanced an elf-assassin, and became king of Ferelden after betraying my best friend (I was running a backstab build in more ways than one). I had so much fun that a Dragon Age II podcast is already on the schedule.
Bioware is responsible for all of my favorite western-developed RPGs, and Dragon Age: Origins is a big reason why. It’s not for the gameplay, even though the gameplay holds up fine. It’s not for the visuals, which have aged slightly worse. Instead, it’s almost entirely based on the roleplaying possibilities, and a level of immersion I still haven’t felt in another game since.
It starts with the origins themselves, which allow you to see where your character comes from and to start making decisions about how your character responds to those circumstances. Thankfully, this isn’t divided into simple good-and-evil choices. Instead, you’re given nuanced options that affect how others see you more than some global sense of morality. These decisions will help inform how your character interacts with the greater world as the game opens up. For instance, my mage ended up supporting the Circle of Magi system, but if mages had more autonomy. This extended to how my character treated everyone in the world, even outside of the Circle of Magi quests available later.
I’ve rarely put this much thought into roleplaying a character. It’s possible I’ve never put as much thought into a character this side of tabletop RPGs, in fact. I never felt forced into a certain decision because it would fill up some good/evil bar. Instead, I made decisions based on who I wanted my character to be. This is the real magic in Dragon Age: Origins. The game has a lot going for it, and I enjoyed this playthrough every bit as much as I did previous ones.
But what still stands out, even all these years later, are the decisions I made.
Despite having played and enjoyed all of BioWare’s other games from Baldur’s Gate to Mass Effect, I never got around to the Dragon Age games for some reason. This was an unfortunate oversight. Dragon Age: Origins combines the fantasy role-playing of Baldur’s Gate 2 with the compelling character interactions of Mass Effect 2—my two favorite BioWare titles—into a traditional yet elegantly streamlined WRPG package. The voice acting is a cut above its contemporaries, the combat balances accessibility with tactical depth, and there’s just enough variety in the world/level design that the game doesn’t drag over 60+ hours (and you know what, The Fade segment is actually pretty good). This might just be the quintessential BioWare game.
The real touch of brilliance here is in the name: the Origin stories. Whereas creating an avatar from a plethora of race/class options has been a staple of WRPG design, Dragon Age: Origins realizes that this holdover from tabletop games doesn’t translate seamlessly into the digital realm. Character creation in TTRPGs is the player’s gateway into building an entire identity for your avatar. In a game like Baldur’s Gate, though, it doesn’t matter how much of a backstory you imagine for your character; the system won’t acknowledge it the way a dungeon master can.
But having these distinct, playable opening sequences in the form of Origin stories allows the player to easily establish an identity in the context of Dragon Age’s world and for the game to offer continuous feedback that reinforces that identity, while giving the player wiggle room to make it their own. This simple innovation made Dragon Age: Origins one of the most personalized and satisfying roleplaying experiences I’ve had with an RPG—and there’s still four more Origin stories should I ever want to return to Ferelden.
That’s the beauty of
origins oranges. You can eat one segment and there’ll still be more to go.