Chasing the Pink Elephant

In other words, games that make me feel fuzzy like Dragon Age: Origins

I first played Dragon Age: Origins in 2011, around the time the second game was released. Before DA:O, I was never really a gamer; my previous preconceptions of RPG’s were JRPG’s (Japanese Role-Playing Games) – a collectathon mayhem with no real RPG element other than living vicariously through this–mostly–mute character on my screen, which never appealed to me.

Then, when I sat down to play DA:O, I was blown away. I suddenly realised how rewarding, in-depth and brilliant a story-telling RPG could be. My choices matter? The people matter? I care about their perceptions of me? The world I’m currently in has an internal logic that responds to my actions in a believable manner? Whaaaat? It was the moment that my perception of games shifted from fun distractions to serious contenders within the storytelling medium.

Eventually, as time passed, it became apparent that DA:O was truly like catching lightning in a bottle. And for the past 9 years, I have been searching for games that offer me that same feeling as playing DA:O for the first time, with little success. But there has been some success, and I am here to show my findings with you, and for others like me, in search of that pink elephant.

“What genre is this?” “I don’t know. Tag all the generic ones.”

Firstly, there are a lot of RPG’s in the world. Modern developers tend to throw that tag around, even when the game isn’t actually an RPG, but it has some RPG elements. Currently, it’s too broad of a term and we need to narrow our search down. Let’s look at my 7 key requirements for a good DA:O-like experience:

  1. A party-based system with interactable companions
  2. Multiple choice dialogue/action system which impacts the world, and NPC’s, around you to some manner.
  3. A well-defined world with in-depth, accessible, lore that permeates your play experience.
  4. The ability to move freely through the game to some degree without being forced into a linear level progression.
  5. Strong internal logic which is also reflected in the gameplay.5A. If there is a “magic” system in place, the lore acknowledges this magic and how it is utilised in the world, which is also reflected in the gameplay to some degree.
  6. Character creation builds with a talent-based level-up system to allow custom player capabilities.
  7. Strategic visuals with a pause mechanic (ideally).

The only genre that truly fits most, if not all of these requirements are CRPG’s (Computer Role-Playing Games). Rather than wasting a couple of paragraphs on defining what a CRPG is, I’ll link you to the definition here.

Now let us look at our results. Below is a list of notable, community loved CRPG’s.

The titles in bold are games that I have played and will comment on. The others I have listed because of their potential, but I have refrained from playing for certain reservations or time constraints. I implore you to try them out regardless. Some sequels are grouped together since core gameplay philosophies do not change from each iteration.

GameRelease DateDeveloper
Fallout 1 & 21997 & 1998Interplay Entertainment
Baulder’s Gate 1 & 21998 & 2000BioWare
Planescape: Torment1999Black Isle Studios
Icewind Dale 1 & 22000 & 2002Black Isle Studios
Neverwinter Nights 1 & 22002 & 2006BioWare / Obsidian Entertainment
Star Wars: KOTOR 1 & 22003 & 2004BioWare / Obsidian Entertainment
Mass Effect 12007BioWare
Drakensang2008Radon Labs
Dragon Age: Origins2009BioWare
Mass Effect 22010BioWare
Dragon Age II2011BioWare
Mass Effect 32012BioWare
Dragon Age: Inquisition2014BioWare
Divinity: Original Sin2014Larian Studios
Pillars of Eternity 1 & 22015 & 2018Obsidian Entertainment
Tyranny2016Obsidian Entertainment
Torment: Tides of Numenera2017inXile Entertainment
Divinity: Original Sin 22017Larian Studios
Pathfinder: Kingmaker2018Owlcat Games
Disco Elysium2019ZA/UM

All CRPG’s are equal. But some are more equal than others.

It is true that most CRPG’s fit all of the key requirements, that doesn’t mean they’re executed to the same degree as DA:O. Some do some aspects better than others, some fall short. None have gotten that perfect balance, but DA:O has been the closest with a few close behind. Other games I’ve listed stress those definitions a bit (Fallout 1 & 2, Mass Effect series, Disco Elysium), but at their core, I consider them comparable.

Here’s a quick reference. I’ll include a more in-depth explanation of my choices below.

Pink Elephant.
(Gave me that fuzzy feeling.)

  • Tyranny

An Unfortunate Paint Bucket Accident
(Either very nearly gave me that feeling, or did but with a caveat.)

  • Mass Effect 2
  • Dragon Age 2

The Elephant Has Cavities.
(I would recommend, but with serious caveats.)

  • Dragon Age: Inquisition
  • Mass Effect 3

It’s in the Room and It’s Grey.
(It’s not a bad per se, but I can’t give it a sweeping recommendation.)

  • Pillars of Eternity 1 & 2
  • Divinity: Original Sin 2
  • Pathfinder: Kingmaker

It Never Forgot.
(Classics, but their age or obtuse gameplay systems begets disappointment in many.)

  • Mass Effect 1
  • Fallout 1 & 2
  • Baulder’s Gate 1 & 2
  • KOTOR 1 & 2

1. Pink Elephant

Tyranny (No Spoilers):

That’s right. Out every game listed in this long-ass winded post, only one game can truly compare to DA:O (in my opinion, of course). And it was a spicy pick at that, Tyranny. The hidden gem from Obsidian Entertainment that tried to ride along the coattails of Pillars of Eternity, but fell flat on its arse–bombed, and solidified its status as “never getting a sequel” (luckily its self-contained story doesn’t necessarily need one. Although it would be nice).

Let’s talk about it.

Where do I start? Well, instead of reinventing the wheel, let me quote a Redditor who perfectly encapsulates my feelings.

…I found it very refreshing that as soon as you are given control of your character, you know exactly who you are and what you are supposed to do. “I’m Judge Dredd for Emperor Palpatine and I gotta get these two armies to work together to defeat these rebels before Palpatine magic nukes the place.” Boom, let’s sort this shit out and then see where this ride goes.

Very many RPGs super slow roll the start, leaving you wondering what in the heck is going on before dropping some huge info dump on you. Or they’ll have you dick around in some quaint village before Gandalf shows up and suddenly you are The Chosen One. PoE was a particular culprit with this in regards to the hanged spirit in the tree or whatever that crammed 20 mins of arcane lore down your throat when you had no real context to synthesize it all…

/u/SpaceAkers

Tyranny starts you off with your typical character creation; appearance, backstory, skills. There are no archetypical class systems per se, but depending on where you put your points, you can build towards tank, DPS, magic-user, or a hybrid – and each have their own sub-variations.

What comes next is a brilliant “choose your own adventure” style prologue, where you are given multiple scenarios, with multiple choices that can–and will–affect your gameplay going forward, and even affecting the disposition of certain factions and people. It also serves as brilliant introductory ‘this is the world, this is your role thus far.’

Then, there’s the ingenious hover over text feature. Certain words will be highlighted that you can hover over to give you a quick summary of lore regarding that person/place/thing or of scenarios that you as a player don’t know, but your character realistically should — helping to inform your choices as the dialogue progresses. This helps limits exposition but also fully immerse the player into the world. It’s absolutely seamless and I wish DA:O had thought of it first.

There are four (technically five) different paths, each depending on the actions you make during Act 1. This sounds limiting, but it isn’t, as each path you choose features a wildly different story with hugely different perspectives that, in effect, creates four unique stories to experience; each seamlessly intertwining with the other. Every choice you make truly matters in this game. This, coupled with New Game+, allows for very rewarding replayability. All characters are memorable, believable, and although most–if not all, depending on your perspective while roleplaying– are “evil”, you enjoy interacting with them regardless.

When it comes to companions, each has their own loyalty’s and aspirations, which fit well with their character. The loyalty system itself is actually meaningful, and not complete garbage and it is well thought out. Without the DLC, there are no companion quests — which is a huge red mark for me.

The game is still buggy – nothing game-breaking but definitely lowers the overall “polished” feel. The DLC is very controversial; heralded by the publishers as “expansions” when in reality it’s just content that wasn’t finished in time (if it’s on discount and it’s your first, or second, playthrough, I’d still recommend picking them up). The VO’s, although brilliantly done, are sparse and it can be jarring at times to hear it in one part of the dialogue and not the next. The combat mechanics are… meh. The magic system is wonderful but woefully underutilised, and stealth builds are basically useless. It’s also been dropped by Paradox, the owners, even though Oblivian developed it. So, I very much doubt we’ll get any new updates or sequels.

In saying that, it’s very much my new favourite game, alongside DA:O. I heartily recommend it, even with its faults.

Games listed that I have not yet played, but could potentially be in this category:

From the looks of things, it is most definitely pushing the boundaries of my “7 Key Requirements”, but from what I’ve seen and heard, it has the potential of joining the upper-echelon alongside DA:O and Tyranny. I’ll update my post if I get a chance to play it in the near future.

2. An Unfortunate Paint Bucket Accident

The Mass Effect Series (No Spoilers):

Who doesn’t know about Mass Effect? When the second game came out, BioWare had solidified their positions as the RPG Masters of both medieval fantasy and futuristic space. Then they followed it up with a tremendous… whimper. It’s not hard to see why people dislike the third game nor is it hard to blame people for not wanting to play the first, with its outdated gameplay and a very special fuck that regarding planet exploration with the Mako. ME2 is clearly the shining beacon sandwiched between two huge caveats.

But, that doesn’t mean the series as a whole doesn’t deserve its place alongside DA:O. It is truly the best cosmic horror story, with all the elements that we adore from the dragon age franchise… Only with more guns, aliens and spaceships. Regardless, the world-building is there, the choice system is there, the loveable companions, the fleshed-out lore, the solid internal logic of the world–it’s all there! Except, if you want to experience it all, you’ll have to push through the first game with gritted teeth and be disappointed with the tricolour ending of the last game. Sigh. Also, don’t even bother with Andromeda.

Dragon Age II (No Spoilers):

This game had some seriously big boots to fill, and it did so like a curious infant. When DA2 first came out, the community lambasted it and threw shit-covered scorn on it and BioWare. Then, time simmered their anger and it has since been slowly welcomed back into the DA franchise like a once troubled family member.

In all honesty, I really enjoy DA2. And I have done so since my first play-through. In theory, it ticks all the boxes. In reality… it falls short. My main gripe is the level design; which, from what I gathered, wasn’t the design BioWare wanted to take. But they were under strict time constraints and had to make serious concessions in order to get the game published under EA’s tyrannical expectations. And thus, we have DA2.

So with that new perspective–I relish what they managed to achieve with the game, but I also mourn the potential that was squandered through short-sighted management. If this game came out before DA:O, I’m sure it would be a much more loved addition to the serious. As it stands, I can’t help but wonder, what if.

3. The Elephant Has Cavities

Dragon Age: Inquisition (No Spoilers)

I’m only going to talk about this game since I’ve already discussed Mass Effect 3 in the previous section.

So, let us discuss the bastard child of Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2. What do I mean by that? Well, it has the same problems as both. The game is on a shiny, sparkly new engine with nearly the same development time of DA:2. So, considering what they achieved with this iteration of the DA franchise, I’m blown away. But, it also leads to a lot of the same issues as DA:2, only reversed. Instead of having a very limited world map, it has an incredibly sprawling one — at the detriment to the deep character studies and subtle world-building we were spoiled with before. The grimdark tone has been replaced with a LOTR-esque fantasy feel, and it pitters and patters along the plot, pandering to previous fans while trying to force multiple-choice options in a way that feels like an obligation, rather than a true desire from the developers.

It’s not a bad game. Again, I like it. I love all the new lore I now have for the DA universe. Varric is still bae and Morrigan is as wonderfully enigmatic as ever. Dorian is a brilliant addition to the world and is a much-needed insight into the Tevinter Imperium that’s been alluded to all these years. Orlais is a huge disappointment, but I really enjoy the combat, and the game truly is beautiful. But it still falls short… Until the Trespasser DLC that is.

Trespasser gave me that fuzzy feeling ten-fold. It’s like they picked me up and thrusted me into this beautiful reimagining of DA:O, and it was wonderful. But, just like Mass Effect 2, it comes with the caveat of having to play an entire game before getting to experience it. At least DA:I isn’t as egregious as ME1.

4. It’s in the Room and It’s Grey (No Spoilers):

Phew. I feel like these are my most controversial picks, considering that all three of these games hold the top 5 spots of “best-selling CRPG’s” on steam.

Pillars of Eternity 1, Divinity: Original Sin 2, and Pathfinder: Kingmaker all suffer from the same issues: the illusion of choice. They pretend that your roleplaying matters in the grand scheme of things, and they veil the railroaded storyline behind tomes of lore that they throw at you in the beginning to make you care about the world. Which just makes the world difficult to immerse yourself into more than anything. I’m sure there’s a wonderful story there, but as it stands, I can only enjoy it from a surface level.

In reality, these games are CRPG’s that focus on gameplay. Which many people will prefer, as it is evident from the game sales, but for those of us chasing that true immersive world that DA:O offered, it will do nothing to satisfy that need. They ticked all the gameplay boxes but then smudged the worldbuilding boxes with an ink-covered limp finger.

I’m also going to take a moment to talk about DOS2 in particular. Out of every game I have played thus far, it truly has the best combat mechanics I have ever seen in the genre. But, it severely destroys Key Requirement: 5, and especially 5A.

The skill books are a neat mechanic but make no sense within the world. Can anyone learn them? Squatters, slummers and lowly-men all seem to sell them. What restrictions are there? Why doesn’t everyone have these abilities if they’re so readily available? I know I’m being nitpicky, but when the creators pick up things like this–and give us answers–it truly elevates the world into a new dimension of experience.

I remember while I was playing through Act 1 of DOS2, I was near the end, levelled up significantly, and I went back to Fort Joy and killed everyone. Nobody was safe from my boredom-induced killing spree. And as fun as it was, nobody cared. Not a single person later in the game commented on my horrific acts within Fort Joy. There was another instance at the end of Act 1, while aboard the Lady Vengence. I covered the whole ship in water, poisoned the water, and laughed maniacally while everyone meandered aimlessly, and without reaction, as they slowly died an agonising death. It was hilarious. It was fun. But it totally broke my immersion, and thus, my ability to care about the world.

All the companions had seemingly really interesting backstories; yet, for one reason or another, I just could not bring myself to care.

And that’s when I realised that DOS2 is simply a giant combat toolbox, with the illusion of a story scaffolded on top. And that’s okay. But it’s not for me.

Games listed that I have not yet played, but could potentially be in this category:

  • Divinity: Original Sin 1
  • Torment: Tides of Numenera

5. It Never Forgot

Pretty much any game listed above prior to ME1 would fit into this category. I would recommend them for the same reason as I would recommend Metropolis (1927) or Dracula (1932); if only to see where it all began.

Between very difficult game mechanics–especially if you no prior knowledge with AD&D mechanics–and incompatibility issues with modern hardware, the entry barrier for these games are becoming higher and higher, while the worth to play them to a modern audience, or for someone like me chasing that Pink Elephant, becomes increasingly diminished. There are some true gems here; Baulder’s Gate, Fallout, KOTOR (especially if you’re into the Star Wars universe, which I’m not particularly, so I found it a bit of a drag to play). But unless you’re super hardcore for the genre, then I would probably advise to give them a miss.

A modern(ish) game that also falls into this category, but I have not yet played, is Drakensang. A relatively unknown, German published game that is only here simply because of its AD&D-like mechanics.

A slumber is welcomed under the savannah shade…

And that’s that. There lies my 9 year journey trying to re-create the impossible. A forlorn nostalgia lost to the sands of time. For the most part, I enjoyed every game listed here. Some much more than others. But none strike me as a bad game. Some haven’t aged well and some target other demographics; and you know what? I’m thankful for variety. I just wish I could selectively delete memories and replay my favourites for the first time again.

🐘

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