Warning: Contains mild spoilers!
In the end, he was the King of Ferelden and I was a city elf from the Denerim slums and it couldn’t work out. Wynne spent half the war yelling at the two of us that it could never work, and even pulled me aside at one point to spell this out in painful detail. It was the great Romance of the War and it died when he became King.
I have played nearly every major console or computer RPG since Bard’s Tale so I feel like a bit of an authority on these sort of things. Dragon Age: Origins reminds me strongly of, strangely enough, Ultima VII: the Black Gate. It was the not the first game with strong moral ambiguity — that crown goes to Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. It was a game more about the strong characters and a decentralized plot than a linear plotline and pretty scenes. U7 was about murder and the evil in the people you thought good and choices and fewer rails. Other games have tried to emulate the style; DA:O nailed it.
I have to admit: I loved DA:O and not because it had a special storyline. It had wonderful worldbuiding but blah blah, giant evil, blah blah, must save the world, blah blah, a bunch of quests. Seen it, done it, it took two tries to kill the Foozle in the end. The strength and brilliance of Dragon Age: Origins is two pronged: the characters and the illusion of control.
(I contend the award for strongest story on a pure console game goes to FFX but that is a debatable point.)
JRPGs bother me because the cut scenes have gotten longer, the choices fewer, and the save points — save points! In 2010! Save points are a criminal offense! — have become scarce. It stopped being a game and turned into a carnival ride. I nearly threw Star Ocean IV across the room when the cutscenes made it to 20 minutes long. It’s called “Cut Scene Hell” for a reason. When SOIV froze I sent it back to Gamefly. I was done 10 hours in. These games feel like 50 hour long interactive movies where the character makes no more choice in the story. They are boring.
Dragon Age: Origins forces the player to make actual choices. Even if the choices are ultimately illusory and the Foozle still must be fought, most (but not all) of the major decisions are through dialogue trees and the result of player choice. The player can choose not to get Sten’s sword. The player can put this dwarf or that dwarf on the Throne. It doesn’t make much difference in the end but it sure seems that way. Returning control to the player is key: the player feels they have a stake in the outcome of the game. Emotional investment keeps players returning over and over. “But I could play evil! I can make this awful choice to see what happens! Awesome!” Returning control back to the player is the core of a great game — like Fallout 3, like Mass Effect (also BioWare). All hail the return of the player actually playing a game!
The true strength is on the characters. The party members have beautifully drawn personalities. They interact with one another. They talk. They argue. They squabble in your party — Wynne explaining where babies come from to Alistair had to be the best exchange in the entire game. The game supports interesting choices and party dynamics between the player and the characters and between the multiple characters. The choices in party composition and party dynamics almost feels real, not just a bunch of scripted events by trigger points. Of course, they are scripted events by trigger points, but the tricky part is to smooth that over and make the characters feel spontaneous and real. JRPG characters feel like caricatures in pretty clothes — Dragon Age: Origins characters felt like people. You find yourself doing the wacky sidequest not because the sidequest is interesting but because you can take Zevran and Oghren in your party and who knows what wackiness might come from the two of them together.
I readily admit: I cannot remember the names of the main characters in most of the JRPGs I have played. They just fade. They were called what again? But I will certainly remember Alistair and Morrigan for a long time.
To sum up: incredibly detailed world, awesome characters, short on the cutscenes, lots of serious meat, and raising the bar for gameplay. It was awesome. Also, in the end game, you get to do what you always wanted to do in every CRPG ever: you get to kick the Bad Guy in the junk. How great is that?