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Larian Studios is, for now, the Divinity: Original Sin studio. Its last two games, both Kickstarted and publisher-free, are the biggest successes the studio has ever seen. The Belgian developer didn’t go from obscurity to success, however, and it has been designing notable RPGs and strategy games, within and without the Divinity universe, for over two decades.
Founder Swen Vincke picks 1997 as the year when Larian started, and an RTS called LED Wars as the studio’s first game, though there had been some experiments and projects before that. Indeed, one of them, The Lady, the Mage and the Knight, had many of the hallmarks of today’s Original Sin series, 20 years before it made its debut.
“It was an RPG where you controlled three characters and could play in multiplayer,” Vincke explains. “It had all of the values of Ultima VII, which you can recognise today in Original Sin. But we were having a hard time signing it with a publisher, so we decided to make an RTS because everyone was making them and everyone was looking for them. It seemed to be an easy way to make some money.”
The RPG did get some interest from Atari, though, but soon after expressing that interest, it stepped away from PC games, leaving Larian without a publisher or any money. “It’s a running theme in our history,” jokes Vincke.
During the day, Vincke and some of his friends worked on The Lady, the Mage and the Knight, and during the evening they worked on LED Wars. It paid off, and in March of 1997 Larian convinced an American publisher, Ionos, to sign LED Wars. In that same week, they also signed their RPG to Attic Entertainment, publisher of the Realms of Arkania games. Unlike LED Wars, however, The Lady, the Mage and the Knight never launched.
While Larian was working on The Lady, the Mage and the Knight, Attic Entertainment took notice of Blizzard’s Diablo II, which had been doing the rounds at trade shows. The publisher was panicking because Diablo II was a 16-bit game, while Larian’s RPG was 8-bit. That needed to change, Vincke was told.
“We had to throw out everything we had because it was all 8-bit,” Vincke remembers. “They said it wouldn’t be a problem and lent us their artists. Then they came back and told us that we were going to need to make it bigger because it was going to be part of the Realms of Arkania series. They said we’d get a licence and we’d have to convert our story into one that worked for The Dark Eye. So I said, ‘Sure.’”
It turned out that Attic didn’t have the money to fund the increasingly ambitious game they’d requested. In 1999, Larian was left in dire straits, penniless again.
Vincke found himself responsible for a team of 30 people, including some of the publisher’s employees who had been sent over but who were no longer being paid or being sent back. He ended the contract. That year Larian must have made 20 work-for-hire games, Vincke guesses. These were small things like casino games, and he was just trying to keep the lights on. “It was that or bankruptcy,” he says.
Larian got through it, though, and from the ashes of The Lady, the Mage and the Knight came the first Divinity. At the end of 1999, it was sold to CDV Software, a publisher that had just released the World War 2 RTS Sudden Strike.
“Because Sudden Strike was such a success, the CEO of CDV Software decided that every other game needed to be an alliteration,” Vincke recalls. “That was how it ended up becoming Divine Divinity instead of Divinity. Originally it was going to be called Divinity: The Sword of Lies, which, granted, isn’t the best title in the world either, but it was better than Divine Divinity. It won awards for having such a bad title. We talk about Divinity ‘one’; we never call it Divine Divinity.”
Over the next couple of years, Larian laboured on Divinity. The multiplayer component that had been so important to The Lady, the Mage and the Knight was dropped because it was seen as too big a risk by the publisher. It was the largest project Larian had ever undertaken, so there was a lot of on-the-job learning. It launched in August, 2002.
“It was a classic Larian problem: the game wasn’t ready when it was released,” Vincke admits. “We didn’t even know that the publisher was releasing it. I discovered that Divinity was being released when I was doing a press tour for it in the US. We were horribly late with it, at least by a year, but we still needed some time to polish it. So it shipped with 7,000 known bugs, and the initial reviews obviously focused on them. But as we started tweaking it, people started seeing that it was a good game.”
Divinity reviewed well, and it sold well, and Larian got nothing. “We were so excited about signing back in 1999 that we didn’t really pay attention to the fact that we should earn money when a game is sold, so we didn’t earn anything from Divinity. It was a standard contract back in the day, but if you didn’t sell millions of your game under the royalties model it was very hard to earn any money out of it.” Larian had just released a critically and commercially successful game and they were broke. Again. The studio went from 30 people to three by 2003, five months after Divinity launched. It was a dark time, Vincke confesses, and one that pushed him to take a fortnight break in South Africa, where his father lived.
“I sat on the ranch and just stared for two weeks, trying to figure out what to do. When I came back, I convinced the bank to give me a little bit of money, and I convinced a Belgian broadcaster to give me some more. It was to make what they thought was going to be a website, but it turned into a big 3D game in which children were able to make creations. It was like an American Idol for kids, and it was called KetnetKick. Kids could make animations, movies and cartoons in this 3D world and send it to the broadcaster. The broadcaster would then use it in a TV show and would say which kid made it, and the kid would become famous in the 3D world.”
The additional funding allowed Larian to make a follow-up to Divinity, called Beyond Divinity, and release KetnetKick in 2004. The team grew to about 25 people, and Larian’s head was above water again, albeit only for as long as it could keep doing work-for-hire projects. By 2007, however, it finally had enough money in the bank to make a proper Divinity sequel, eventually called Divinity II: Ego Draconis.
Larian licensed The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion’s Gamebryo engine. Once a prototype was up and running, Divinity II was shown off and DTP Entertainment came on board as a co-publisher, along with CDV. Even with that deal, Larian kept doing work-for-hire. That’s where most of the money was coming from. And it was winning the studio awards for children’s games and educational titles. It wasn’t what Vincke or his team wanted to do, though.
“We ended up with a sufficient budget to make what we hoped was going to be a triple-A action-RPG where you could turn into a dragon and do all kinds of great stuff. It was also going to come out on Xbox 360 as well as PC. Our ambitions were high, but our resources were limited. We tried to reach for the sky, but at some point the publisher decided the game had to be released, and once again it was released before it was ready. It was really painful, but this was during the financial crisis of 2009, and a lot of publishers were under pressure. They got into financial difficulties and went bankrupt eventually. And we were dragged into that.”
It was meant to crack open the console market and show what Larian was made of, but after Divinity II launched, Larian was still only just getting by. In 2010, Vincke managed to get the rights to make a new version of Divinity II, called the Dragon Knight Saga. This updated version was sold to Focus, which Vincke remembers as the first publisher to ever treat Larian well. But they didn’t just want a publisher they could work with.
“I was always dealing with mid-sized publishers. The others didn’t want to have anything to do with us. They said we had no future. Literally. So our intention was to become independent, publishing ourselves. We’d had it. We’d been doing it for over ten years, just scraping by. Something had to change, and that was self-publishing.”
Vincke managed to attract two venture capitalists, one for a game called Dragon Commander, an unusual action-RTS where you could take control of a huge, jet pack-wearing dragon and rain down hell on enemy armies and bases, and another for Divinity: Original Sin. With that money, the results of the work-for-hire projects and the profits from the Dragon Knight Saga, Larian had enough resources to start developing both of the games on its own engine. It was important to Vincke that Larian be able to control its own fate, and that went beyond just untethering itself from the publisher model.
“Those were the big lessons from that decade of being stuck in that work for hire cycle, continuously scraping to get by,” says Vincke.
While Dragon Commander and Divinity: Original Sin started out being developed simultaneously, eventually Larian shifted its focus to Dragon Commander. It was the game it wanted to release first, though Vincke admits that if it had released second it would have been a better title. But Original Sin was going to be the game Larian poured everything into, including the earnings from Dragon Commander. The plan had an air of finality about it.
“This was the project where I decided that this was going to be it,” he says. “If this didn’t work out, we clearly didn’t know what we were doing.” Vincke was tired. For well over a decade, Larian had been trying, essentially, to make this game. A multiplayer RPG inspired by Ultima. With The Lady, the Mage and the Knight, and then Divinity, it was close, but cancellations and dropped features meant that Vincke had never quite been able to realise his dream.
“My first Ultima was Ultima VI, and when I played it for the first time I was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ I hadn’t ever played a game like that. I was an Amiga player and I’d just acquired a PC, and it was just so incredibly good. Ultima VI was the gargoyle menace and the Prophet and glass swords, which became something I wanted to put in every single game we did. And then Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld came out and I was like, ‘Who are these geniuses?’ Origin Systems quickly became my favourite studio.”
With this final shot at making the game that had been looming over him for so many years, Vincke did everything he could to make it happen. Even with the investments and the Kickstarter, things were tight, and as the launch date was hurtling towards him, he even stopped paying VAT, just to try to keep development going for an extra month. The bank decided not to extend its loan, prompting Vincke to once again search for help until he found, as he puts it, “the one banker in the entire country that was willing to give me money”. This was two months before the game was finished.
But the risks and the desperate attempts to keep development afloat paid off. Divinity: Original Sin became Larian’s fastest-selling game and within a few months it had sold 500,000 copies. “It wasn’t perfect, but it had a lot of heart and soul, and I think people recognised this. We were lucky. It could have not paid off. All it would have taken would have been a big save game bug or a few bad reviews!”
Original Sin represented a breakthrough for Larian. Most of its games had sold well, usually over a million copies, but Vincke now realises that it was a success that was never capitalised on. “We never got access to the profits because we were always in such a weak negotiating position. We were begging for money, essentially. We were the beggars of Belgium. It was really tough financing game development, so once we managed to get that break with the Dragon Knight Saga and then Dragon Commander and Original Sin, it made a big difference.”
Since Divinity: Original Sin’s launch, Larian’s thrived rather than just survived. Original Sin was quickly followed up by the Enhanced Edition, which saw the game released on consoles with controller support, along with a richer endgame, a more fleshed-out narrative and tweaked combat for all platforms. And just last year, Larian released Divinity: Original Sin II, expanding on just about everything established in the first game.
“It was a big leap from the first Original Sin. That was made by 35 or 40 people, and Original Sin II was made by 130. The production values went up tremendously as well. But it all came from being in charge of our own destiny, and not being at the whims of a development director who doesn’t understand what we’re doing, or a producer somewhere.
“We made a lot of mistakes, so I’m not going to blame these people who were trying to protect their investments. Larian is a company where iteration is very important, so we have to be able to try things multiple times before we feel how it’s going to be good, and then we’ve got to finish and polish it. That was always a big problem.”
Even a power outage during the day of launch didn’t seem to faze the studio, and Original Sin II has gone on to be its most popular title yet. It’s safe to say that Larian has well and truly hit its stride.
What an absolutely mad idea Larian had. Of all the solitary, longform, completely-not-appropriate-for-couchplay gaming experiences I can think of, old school isometric RPGs sit teetering at the top of Mount Impractical. And yet somehow—somehow—I played through two Divinity: Original Sin games, start to finish, with the same friend sitting next to me.
And we’ll always treasure those 100-odd hours, too. It’s just that we choose never to speak about it. Or make eye contact.
Our first mistake was to both choose archer builds at the beginning of Original Sin. Honestly, we didn’t realise quite how challenging the combat was going to be, and how important a well-balanced party is when you’re beset by sentient gargoyles and poisonous gases. It’s rarely just a group of angry chaps in Divinity, is it? Anyway, it was all fun and games as we shot through the first game’s opening like the Legolas Twins, easily downing level 1 Cursed Lieutenants on the beaches outside Cyseal and congratulating each other for well-timed and well-judged attacks. What fun.
We quickly found opportunities for get-rich-quick schemes, too. He’d keep the denizens of Cyseal talking while I’d go inside their house and steal all their paintings, then sell those paintings on to a merchant before the owner finished chatting. We’d halve the gold, you understand. Yes, in those early hours ours was a harmonious partnership, just two Source Hunters blissfully exploring a sun-drenched fantasy land with our followers, Jahan and Bairdotr, in tow.
Eight hours later, we hated each other. Not a straightforward superhero-and-nemesis kind of deal, but the silent, seething hatred of married couples cresting the hill of middle age in four-bed detached homes in the suburbs. You don’t think about how the tiny, unspoken etiquettes of a turn-based RPG can get to a pair of competitive friends, but they do.
For example, how long is it polite to leave a co-op buddy KO’d in a fight before using a precious resurrection scroll on him? What about that co-op buddy’s companion? How precisely do you divvy up gold and equipment? And does it really matter who gets the last hit, and who simply whittled down the health bar to tee it up? Given enough time, the answer to all those questions is simply fuck this other person.
We long ago discovered that Divinity: Original Sin doesn’t spawn twice the bows or arrows if you play as two archers, and entered a kind of passive-aggressive standoff every time a new one appeared in a chest. "No, you have it, I’ll make do with this one I’ve had since the start of the game, mate." Or "Ooh—that bow looks nice that you’ve just picked up, Phil. Having that one, are you?"
I’d also discovered fairly early on that I could annoy Tom tremendously by running in a circle around and around him whenever he was locked into conversation with an NPC. There he’d be, finding out some vital information about the cult of the Immaculates holed up in the Luculla Forest, and in the periphery behind his text window, there I’d be running my tiny laps. Jahan followed diligently behind, never daring to question the wisdom of his master’s orders.
It wasn’t all that funny the first time. By the end of Act One, he was quite justified in speaking to me only in single-word responses and weary sighs.
Jahan and Bairdotr had themselves become a source of tension, too. Inexplicably in retrospect, we used Bairdotr as a third archer to complement our already unwise emphasis on ranged combat. Jahan, meanwhile, was all powerful spells and staff attacks, often getting the ‘hero’ turns and mopping up enemies while the three of us held back, firing harmless arrows at varying distances between our own feet and the enemy. For Tom, who’d already had to endure eight hours of me running little circles and nicking the good bows, the chasm in aptitude between his companion and mine was a new low. Bairdotr got the hand-me-down equipment with two previous owners, while Jahan took his pick of the staffs and warrior armor.
These might seem like small grievances over the course of a normal play session. But when you know you’re going to be stuck with your decisions, your character build, and your companions for what might be another full week of playtime, they weigh heavy.
Perhaps that’s the best explanation I can offer as to why I murdered everyone in Cyseal.
By the time of the massacre, we were no longer playing a co-op adventure, but a perpetual one-upmanship sim, sprinting to every loot drop and guzzling the goodies, the pretense of splitting everything down the middle having long since departed. And I could feel that his character was just starting to edge mine for ability. He’d made some smart upgrades and used his elemental bows wisely, while I’d grown fat and complacent on the early advantage my character had. Something had to be done.
Something incredibly childish and petty, I mean. The idea had been forming for a while, and it began with that godawful cacophony in the market. You know what I mean. "Oh nooooo, traveler, your chakras are all out of alignment!" honks the spell seller. "Let’s see, halibut, tomatoes, sheep’s cheese…" says a passing woman for the 90th time, just before that bloody, bloody cheese seller pipes up with his "The man with the most friends is the man with many cheeses" spiel.
What if I just killed them all, I thought one day. That’d shut them up.
Then I thought: hang on. What if I actually, properly, did? That spell seller alone has every gold piece Tom and I have ever spent in this game, not to mention all the high-level kit and valuable trinkets. I’d be rich beyond my wildest dreams! Powerful as a God-king! And before I’d considered whether it would be much more difficult to complete the game if everyone in town was dead (it was) I had already begun my attack.
Tom, meanwhile, was miles away in the Luculla Forest and only got wind of my assault when he happened to cast an eye over my screen and saw large-scale combat. It says a lot about the spirit of our playthrough that when he saw what I was doing, he didn’t stop to ask me why. He didn’t head over to join in the fight, or share the plunder. He went straight to the western beaches and found Charla the undead merchant, whose trinkets and weapons were always incredible, prohibitively expensive, and upgradeable. And he killed her.
That’s what playing an RPG in local co-op does. It turns men into monsters, and reduces entire world maps into glorified loot chests. By the time we were done with Divinity: Original Sin, neither of us could feel particularly proud of ourselves.
But when Divinity: Original Sin 2 released, our memories of that bickersome campaign had softened at the edges and become something to reminisce about with wry smiles on our faces. So we did it all over again.
This time we made no mistakes about party composition. Tom plumped for a cleric build, while I went for a druid summoner. Sound logic. But again, we underestimated what the game would turn us into. I found myself getting irrationally and probably visibly annoyed when Tom gradually took his character away from the original healer remit and instead invested in several powerful magical attacks. This isn’t what you’re supposed to be doing, I screamed to myself in silence every time he landed a ranged staff attack.
For his part, I could tell that Tom really didn’t like my Incarnate. I pooled points so aggressively into my summonable chum that he quickly became the Cristiano Ronaldo of our party. What’s more, he gave me twice the turns every fight. The relationship soured before we even escaped Fort Joy.
Playing through one epic RPG in co-op is a unique experience. Playing through two of them is sadism. And Larian had obviously listened to its community’s tales of co-op betrayals and skulduggery in the first game, because in Original Sin 2 it’s sort of the whole point. Not only are there opportunities to undermine your partner in small ways at every juncture—I went ahead and won the gladiatorial combat challenge in the outskirts of Fort Joy to release my Source Collar before anyone else, so they were stuck with theirs—but also huge, looming shades of betrayal and tested allegiances in the main plot arc that the game loves to pick at. As Beast and Sebille were pitted against each other by their respective gods in the second act, Tom and I raised a smile in recognition at how we too had been pitted against each other this whole time.
Because Divinity isn’t a co-op game—not really. Playing as a duo is somewhere between a trolling mode and outright competitive play, because the game does absolutely nothing to relieve the obvious tensions that gold distribution might cause, while also actively encouraging disagreements in conversations. And the real kicker is: I think that’s why we kept playing.
If you feel sure you’ll always be on an even keel with your co-op partner, where’s your motivation? You’re probably paying next to no attention to the story because the chances of someone skipping every line of dialogue go up 100% in co-op. So you make your own story: a tale of betrayal and distrust told over 100 hours, in completely bespoke fashion. It’s such a carefully doled out bit of design on Larian’s part that it can easily be overlooked, or even erroneously totted up as a failing, but the uniquely combative nature of co-op in Divinity is the best thing about it.
It’s no secret that from the start, the Divinity series has had its sights set on respectfully dethroning Ultima 7. "Everything out there after Ultima 7 never did it as good as Ultima 7," Larian founder Swen Vincke once said. It's for RPGs what The Secret Of Monkey Island is to adventures, what Doom is to shooters, and what Shakespeare is to English literature, and not just because it's the last time a game was able to get away with 'thou', 'doth' and the rest of ye olde English without the world justifiably taking yonder piss with a catheter.
It hasn't been an easy road. The first Divinity game suffered from trying to do Ultima 7 without the lessons of first making Ultima 1-6. The passion was there, but the time wasn't right. Similarly, later games soon set a trend of having phenomenal ideas—psychic powers, turning into a dragon, being soul-bonded with a death knight and so on—but without the budget or RPG foundations to really make them sing.
With Divinity: Original Sin though, Larian finally pulled it off, gambling everything on a game that nearly bankrupted them. The multiplayer-first design meant that every system had to be rock-solid, Kickstarter offered both the money and the need to build a reasonable framework, and in those limits, the company's passion and talent finally found the home that it deserved. Fast-forward, and Divinity: Original Sin 2 is even better, tightening up the storytelling, greatly improving the characters and questing, and still overflowing with ideas and humour, without being quite as goofy as its predecessor, and offering a less convoluted but far stronger plot.
In short, I absolutely love Divinity: Original Sin 2. It's one of my favourite RPGs in years, and when I put that in the context of having not liked the original Divine Divinity much at all, that's only to reinforce how glad I am that Larian kept pushing forwards, kept the faith, kept evolving, and finally created a sequel that unquestionably carries the spirit of Ultima while still having its own very different, distinct soul. On any terms, it's an absolute triumph.
But speaking as an old-school RPG fan, how goes its quest to beat it? Is it finally time to stop bringing up the 90s classic in every conversation and move on?
I know it's an unfair comparison, because it’s not really Ultima 7 the Divinity series is going up against, but the legend of Ultima 7—the Platonic ideal of the open world RPG that was established back in 1992. I was thirteen when I not simply played it but got blown away by it. That huge open world. That freedom. The fact that you could bake bread and eat it. It was both a design and technical milestone in an era where 256 colours were still a novelty. The villain could talk to you. In real speech! You could blow up the world with Armageddon!
Never mind that games like Minecraft have long since surpassed its scripted, largely sign-posted crafting, or that the combat was dreadful, or that the world isn’t actually THAT big if you take a step back. No game will never supplant my love of Ultima 7 because no matter how much tech or how much brilliance you put it in it, it will never fill my soul with the magic that those chunky VGA sprites and a few speech files did back then. The same goes for many longtime RPG players, who hold Ultima 7 in high esteem - perhaps even Vincke himself. And no, you'll never experience that same feeling now, if you play Ultima 7 in a world with the likes of Planescape: Torment and Skyrim and Dragon Age. You missed it. Sorry.
At the same time, Ultima 7 doesn’t just cast a shadow. In being that illusion of a perfect RPG, even if in practice it’s far from it, it offers a great guiding light for Divinity as a whole—highlighting both how far it’s come, and where the issues still are. Again, it’s come a hell of a long way. As much as I hate to say it, Divinity: Original Sin 2… deep breath… is a better game than Ultima 7 in pretty much every way, from the depth of its world simulation to its raw mechanics and combat and character building. Certainly, as a standalone adventure.
But what more might it be? What else has Ultima 7 to teach?
Let’s start with the world. By far the worst part of both D:OS and D:OS 2’s design is that they pretend to be an open world, but they’re not. In practice, there’s a strict path that you’re meant to follow around the world. Trouble is, it’s unmarked, usually makes little logical sense, and is managed by the fact that enemies with even a slight level distance on you are notably more powerful and will typically squish you flat.
To use Reaper’s Coast as an example, you start on a main road leading north, with a town off to the west. Despite the map pushing you onwards and upwards, exploring that way only going to lead to your death. The design actually wants you to go into down and poke around there. While less problematic than some of D:OS’ pathing, this fights against both your natural inclination to explore, and often the drive of your character’s own quest at that, and the fact that the goal of the map is open in a similar way as Baldur’s Gate 2’s second chapter—to hook up with Sourcerers and learn from them, in essentially isolated modules that feel like you should have more freedom than you do.
Let’s compare to Ultima 7. One of the big lies of Ultima 7 is that it’s an open world game. This is true to a point, in that you can go almost anywhere, but in practice the intended journey around it is linear (this is why when you die, you return to the same place to be told where the people you’re chasing have gone next, to put you back on the correct course). The map itself is then typically controlled not by beef-gate monsters and impossible fights but environmental hazards like poison swamps and locations it’s pretty clear you’re not equipped for. It’s a far more naturalistic approach than just throwing in some assassins or similar to block the way, especially when the scenery itself can convey the hint that you’re getting out of your depth.
Whether Divinity wants to convey the feel of an open world or not, this is something that needs improving next game. This doesn’t mean dragging the player around by the ears or cutting out exploration, just better guidance. More clearly name checking the next camp they have to go to. Having extra NPCs and encounters point them in the right direction, and making the map progression feel like encountering natural resistance instead of punishment for not reading the map designer’s mind. The guards in Reaper’s Coast who warn you away from one of the local evil Sourcerers are a great example of D:OS2 addr—you’re welcome to ignore them and head off into a spooky part of the map anyway, but it’s on your own head.
On a similar level, and this isn’t unique to Divinity by any stretch, D:OS2 features a lot of old school moments where the designer’s intent simply isn’t clear and intuition doesn’t cut it. Many older fans chafe at modern niceties like flags on maps and being led through every step of a quest, and that’s fine. The catch is that you can’t simply remove them without having something to take their place, especially with a map and suite of skills as big as D:OS2’s. I remember not being able to find a location I ‘knew’ was on a creepy island because I was failing a stat check, despite it being on my main character’s critical path. Later, almost at the end of the game, being Mr. Clever about one puzzle solution involving a judgemental statue meant never even speaking to the character who was meant to tell me how to get past a later puzzle. Cue a vast amount of frustration and resorting to Google.
Now, Ultima 7 offered no in-game quest log at all. True. It was the era where you were expected to have a notebook on standby. However, it was good at directing players to the next location, and its puzzles and situations weren’t typically that complicated when you arrived. For all the baking bread talk and world simulation going on, dungeons tended to be about basic stuff like pressure plates and dragging things onto things versus pen-and-paper style adventure modules.
When you’ve got as many characters and subquests as a modern narrative game, a notepad doesn’t necessarily cut it. Modern narrative driven RPGs offer far more tools and possibilities than the Avatar and friends had, and that player feedback is important. It’s not a question of dumbing down, but designing so that the player can better intuit what the designer wants. After all, in real life if someone asked you to deliver a package, you could at least outright say “OK. Where to, exactly?"
Most of this is of course implementation rather than design philosophy per se, and again, D:OS2 is a massive jump over its predecessor. The same applies to the story. It’s a wonderfully simple concept where all your party members are competing to become the next Divine, against a background of wider political and metaphysical messing around. It’s a fantastic RPG story because it’s simple enough to grasp and appreciate the implications of, wide enough to allow more or less any smaller story within its confines, and feels both epic and personal. It’s not as complex as, say, Planescape Torment, but it works in a similar way.
So why does Ultima 7 still feel like it has an edge? A couple of reasons. The first is that its world of Britannia is a place that doesn’t simply have lore, but history. You’ve visited it as the same character, and adventured with the same Companions, and seen the same towns many times over. It’s like a virtual home away from home, kept interesting by the constant changes to the status quo in each game—in Ultima 7, the biggest being that you’ve been gone for 200 years and life has moved on without you. You see it as you explore, both in the stories you hear and the quests you complete, and in the incidental details as people go to work, go to bed, head to the local tavern, and otherwise show off all kinds of NPC scheduling fun that’s all the more incredible for how hard that stuff is for games even twenty-five years later.
That sense of life would of course be wonderful to see in Divinity. However, even excluding it and focusing on the sense of Home that Ultima 7 offered, it’s not hard to see how the series has squandered its potential somewhat and doesn’t have the same foundation. The big reason is that despite all the games being set in the world of Rivellon and having a few recurring characters, each game time-jumps and focuses on completely different areas each time. They’re connected by lore, yes, but that’s not the same visceral sense of returning to a beloved world that you get in long running series like, say, Tex Murphy’s Chandler Avenue and Monkey Island’s corner of the Caribbean, nor are there many familiar characters there to greet you and feel like old friends who are glad to see you back.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this approach per se, but it does mean that the familiar tends to be mechanical, like the Pet Pal perk, or mythological like its pantheon of gods, versus recurring characters to deal with on a more human level, like Bracchus Rex, Damien and of course Lucian the Divine.
The second is that while their success has arguably been overly glorified over the years, the Ultima games from U4 onwards were overtly About Something in a way that very few RPGs manage to be. Ultima 4 of course was about becoming a hero, Ultima 5 about the misapplication of justice, Ultima 6 about racism and tolerance, Ultima 7 about corruption and the power of religion, and Ultima 8 about a hero forced into a position of doing evil for the sake of the greater good.
(We don’t talk about Ultima 9).
Specifically, Ultima 7 features persuasive moral philosophy and shows how it can be perverted to promote selfishness and obedience to a cause, the much denied but blatant fact that the villains are a pastiche of Scientology, and smaller stories involving many important themes of the time such as drugs and the growing violence of the media, as seen by the fact that your first encounter is a bloody sacrificial murder site full of assorted giblets.
This isn’t to call out Divinity: Original Sin 2 for not following the same storytelling path. Both its main story and its character based plotlines are excellent. It is however a big part of Ultima’s core design philosophy—that RPGs can be about more than gods and monsters and saving the world. Though nothing else has truly surpassed it, bits of that have wormed their way into many RPGs since, to make them more than the sum of their adventures. Planescape has ‘What can change the nature of a man?’, while Fallout followed both its catchphrase ‘War never changes’ and the unspoken ‘even as the world does’ in developing its world.
These are the touches that help a story really resonate; to sink their claws in and stick with you as meaningful long after the credits rolled. That resonance is also a big reason why other classic RPGs like Might and Magic and Gold Box games may be beloved by fans, but the likes of Ultima and Wasteland remain nothing short of legendary decades after their time.
The Divinity series isn’t quite at that level yet. But as I said at the start, that’s not intended as a criticism—talking in these terms, and about that possibility, is intended as a huge compliment. Nothing has ever gotten closer to beating Ultima 7 at its own game, and that includes its sequels. To accomplish that and still have time for ideas as great as Pet Pal, talking to ghosts, and a campaign that works just as well if you play it straight or if you team up with friends and murder everyone Diablo-style is nothing short of incredible.
The fact that there’s still inspiration to be taken from the classics is honestly exciting, especially after seeing the love and commitment in every part of the jump between D:OS and D:OS2. Maybe the next Divinity: Original Sin will finally push over the edge, or maybe the company will go in a different direction entirely—to take the vast amount learned so far and create something that’s entirely their own, as, say, Troika did with Vampire: Bloodlines, Toby Fox did with Undertale and BioWare did with, ooh, let’s say 2.9 Mass Effects.
But that’s for tomorrow. For now, let’s stick with what really matters. Whether Ultima 7 can ever officially be ‘beaten’ or not, nobody has come half as close as Divinity: Original Sin 2. It’s a great RPG on its own terms. It does the greatest RPG of all time proud. Most of all though, it should give RPG fans everywhere reason to be excited about the future of both the Divinity series, and the as-yet unknown promise of anything else Larian might have bubbling away over in its labs. Anyone else’s fingers crossed for urban fantasy?
Summer Games Done Quick isn't over yet, but there's already a Mad Max-style trail of demolished games lying in its wake. Doom? Destroyed. Half-Life 2? The bastards skipped the . Dark Souls 3? Completely humiliated. In fact, few PC games have walked away from the event with their dignity intact. Speedrunners are a savage group.
This year has had a fantastic showing of PC games—many of which have never been run at the event before. There's the return of some old classics which, while fun, we've already covered at and . But, this year, we're calling out some new contenders you should be sure to watch.
Time: 23 min 47 sec
Let's start strong with my favorite speedrun from SGDQ 2017. This is Divinity: Original Sin's first showing at the event and the results are spectacular. For one, I have to acknowledge that runners Shaddex and Drtchops manage to beat a 50-plus hour, relatively linear RPG in just over 20 minutes. That's thanks to a string of ingenious skips which largely rely on a pair of pyramids each player has in their inventory that allows them to teleport to the other instantly. At one point, Drtchops clips a pyramid through a wall and Shaddex warps to it, skipping 90 percent of the game in one fell swoop.
The best part, however, comes from the main objective of the run. See, Divinity's combat is pretty damn tough and the two under-leveled players don't stand a chance in hell against the unavoidable final bosses. So they spend almost the entire run going around the world gathering over 60 heavy barrels to put into an indestructible chest until it's so heavy that they can simply drop it on the final few bosses and kill them instantly. It's one of the funniest game exploits I've seen. If you watch one run this year, watch this one.
Time: 26 min 43 sec
Ignoring that this high-octane platformer took longer to beat than Divinity: Original Sin, this Clustertruck run has an excellent twist. If you're not familiar, Clustertruck has Twitch integration that allows viewers to alter the game by voting in the chat. Speedrunner 097Aceofspades continually has to contend with very thin trucks, trucks with lasers, or inverted mouse controls. But halfway through the run, Clustertruck's developer hacks into the game and starts screwing with him in the best possible way. It might not be anywhere near the world record, but this run is so unpredictable and fun to watch. 097Aceofspades never once loses his cool even when the entire world seems to be conspiring against him.
Time: 1 hour 43 min 05 sec
Nier's combat can be complicated for people who have use of two hands, but Halfcoordinated makes it look easy with one, pulling off some very technical skips to bypass huge sections of the game. If you haven't played Nier, you don't have to worry too much about spoilers either since every cutscene is skipped and Nier doesn't make any goddamn sense anyway. The only thing is that the whole run is set to a constant barrage of Nier puns from the commentators that range from clever to cringey. If you're a fan of dad jokes, this is your El Dorado (also Halfcoordinated's dad sends him a message via donation that's really cute).
Time: 21 min 14 sec
Nothing makes you more aware of how bad at videogames you are quite like watching two people crush Super Meat Boy in 20 minutes. This head-to-head race is a photo finish because both Fimbz and Warm_Ham are just so damn good. Despite the odd mistake, watching them tear through each level is almost dizzying. It's speedrunning in its purest sense because neither runner exploits game-breaking bugs to gain an edge. Instead they each use a series of very subtle tricks, like pausing the exact same frame that they jump to basically trigger auto-jumping and bounce through a level extremely quickly.
Time: 1 hour 03 min 49 sec
This is probably my second favorite run this year for one reason: It's nearly impossible to tell when Matchboxmat is exploiting the game. See, Mirror's Edge Catalyst boasts a big open-world to run around in but the game still pushes you along a linear path from objective to objective. In the true spirit of parkour, Matchboxmat uses many of Faith's abilities to go outside the intended path and pull off some legitimately impressive stunts without actually breaking the game. Unless you're familiar with Mirror's Edge, you might not even realize the moments when he's gone out of bounds or is doing something extra tricky because, like the best parkour, it all looks so effortless. The best speedruns are those that give you a newfound appreciation for a game, and after watching this one I felt a much deeper fondness for Catalyst.
Time: 35 min 14 sec
Similar to Mirror's Edge Catalyst, this Dishonored 2 run is all about inventive use of Emily's powers to quickly skip through entire levels. Speedrunner Bloodthunder whips through each zone so quickly you'll forget that this was supposed to be a stealth game. Because Dishonored 2 is so story-driven, there's a lot of unskippable cutscenes that need clever tricks to avoid. The most common one is finding ways to damage yourself after the cutscene begins in order to interrupt it, like when Bloodthunder tosses a bottle in the air that'll hit him in the head seconds later. Also there's an exploit called the "Jesus Jump" that let's you skip across water like a rock, so extra points for that.
Time: 44 min 19 sec
One of the best showings at Games Done Quick is always traditional platformers like Mario and Sonic. They just never get old. But this year, I was blown away by Fladervy's run of Freedom Planet. My love for this run comes down to two things. First, Freedom Planet is a wonderful homage to classic Sonic games in a way that very few imitators ever achieve, which also means that watching it as a speedrun is as thrilling as the real deal. Secondly, Fladervy is an absolute machine. Not only are the levels large and very intricate, but he navigates them at such a breakneck speed it's sometimes hard to keep up. Fortunately, the commentary from his friend fills in all the gaps and you'll quickly begin to appreciate Fladervy's skill. Like Super Meat Boy, this is a speedrun that relies heavily on dexterity and muscle memory rather than exploits.
As the year draws toward its final frosty furlong, I’m slightly surprised that one of the games I’m most looking forward to playing is also one of my favourite games from 2014. It’s Divinity: Original Sin, a game that I adored when I played it last year and that I expect to lose myself in again when the Enhanced Edition comes out next week. It’s not the only RPG that I’ll have revisited this year – both Pillars of Eternity and The Witcher 3 sucked me in at release and then lost me for a while when I realised they were going to require weeks of attention, but I used their expansions as an excuse to pick up where I’d left off. Here are five reasons to love digital expansions.
Divinity: Original Sin no colon Enhanced Edition is now out on Mac, Linux, and that newfangled SteamOS, meaning you can play it on that fancy Steam Box your mum's getting you for Christmas. I wasn't supposed to tell you that. Oops. Here, let me distract you with the news that Larian have updated the PC game so it's "in synch with the Mac & Linux version", oh and they've also "fixed a number of stability issues reported by players". That certainly sounds like a sensible thing to be doing.
I'm getting Divinity for Christmas, and I'm quite excited after hearing people banging on about it for months and months. The game made it onto our Best RPGs of All-Time list, so I'm blaming PC Gamer if I think it's rubbish.
As the dragons finally return to their nests to hibernate and the ghosts don their chains to help remind misers of the meaning of the season, we approach the end of another year. As is tradition, that is time for we at the guild-house to award both quests and questers the ceremonial Scrolls of Honour . (Chorus of affordable angels)>
Scribed upon only the finest vellum in ink taken from a particularly recalcitrant octopus from the Abyssal Depths, they are a testament to skill and imagination and occasional disappointments that mean exactly nothing whatsoever except that I have a column and so I can hand out whatever made-up crap takes my fancy. Lo! We begin!
One day I’ll write a Desert Island Discs about the games I’d keep with me until the end of days, given a choice of ten. It’ll no doubt be a Desert Island Digital Downloads given the absence of physical media in my life. I live with the ghosts of entertainment.
Rather than compiling the list of games I’d take to the Vault with me though, today I’m aiming to put together a collection, one from each genre, that I’d use to introduce those genres to a PC gaming newcomer, or a lapsed gamer. A friend inspired this particular bundle of joy, someone who grew up with an Amiga but developed other interests and hasn’t touched a game for more than a few minutes at a time, either console or PC, for over fifteen years. A recent illness has left him unable to engage in his usual outdoor hobbies and games have filled the gap.>
Every videogame has an EULA—End User License Agreement—and nobody reads them. And before you leap into the comments to expound on the unflinching attention you pay to the fine print, yes, I know that some people do give them the once-over before clicking the button that allows the action to proceed. But it's a tiny portion of the gamer population who bothers with them. I certainly don't. And because of that, I, along with just about everyone else, missed out on a little something being cooked up by Divinity: Original Sin developer Larian Studios.
Larian revealed today that it performed "a little experiment" with the Divinity: Original Sin Enhanced Edition EULA, just to see if anyone read it. "Our EULA on Steam included the following phrase: '16. Special Consideration. A special consideration in material or immaterial form may be awarded to the first 100 authorized licensees to actually read this section of the EULA and contact LARIAN STUDIOS at email@example.com. This offer can be withdrawn by LARIAN STUDIOS at any time.'," it wrote on Facebook.
"We're telling you now because the results are in and it turns out that you in fact do read these things. Our lawyer feels good about this," it continued. Unfortunately, there's no indication what the "special consideration" offered to those who were paying attention might be, or if it even exists at all: It may well be one of those amusing ideas that doesn't quite get the full follow-through it deserves.
Either way, it has since been withdrawn, and section 16 of the EULA now reads, "Miscellaneous. Nothing herein shall be deemed to supersede or derogate from LARIAN STUDIOS's remedies at law," yadda yadda booboo—the sort of mind-numbing lawyerspeak that keeps people from reading EULAs in the first place, in other words.
It's not the first time that someone has decided to have some fun with a license agreement—remember when Gamestation collected 7500 immortal souls from its customers?—but more often than not, that fine print is more likely to to bite you in the ass than to tickle your funny-bone.