When I talk to Larian Studios founder Swen Vincke about his influences, it’s like I’m being thrown back to my childhood. He’s just shown me both Dragon Commander, the developer’s forthcoming strategy/RTS/RPG hybrid, and Divinity: Original Sin, an open-world RPG. As we talk about the inspiration behind these games, the titles they draw upon, the same phrase comes up over and over again: old school.
It’s not that Vincke wants to mine nostalgia for the sake of it, he doesn’t want to remake the games of old simply as a gimmick. No, it’s about the roads never travelled, the ideas that were abandoned by a PC games industry that gradually became increasingly homogenous and is only now starting to embrace the variety that gaming once championed.
He can’t help his influences. It’s not an attempt to be hipster, but a reflection on the age he grew up in and the games that have stayed with him. “I’ve always been ‘old school.’ I mean, I was raised with Pong,” he says. “Literally, as my parents had an arcade hall next door and so I spent my time there.” Vincke spent much of his youth playing a host of different games in the arcade, on consoles and, of course, on his computer.
He tells me he remembers this as a time before genres existed, when developers were far more inclined to create games based around a concept rather than a desire to fit into any pre-defined category. Now, he says, games are pigeonholed and developers feel obliged to design and pitch their titles accordingly. To step outside of these conventions is to rock the boat.
“Dragon Commander is a genre mix and that’s been held against us,” he says, telling me that publishers or even the games media would be likely to take a sideways look at it. “They’re asking, what shall we call it? How shall we categorise it? As an RTS with action and RPG elements?” But it is what it is, Vincke explains, a mix of many different influences that plays in a particular way and, he hopes, isn’t quite like anything else out there.
“When you played all those older games, there was no genre,” he says. “You take King of Chicago or you take Rocket Ranger, the old Cinemarware game, and they didn’t care about genre. A game was just trying entertain and say ‘You are the king of Chicago, this is what you do.’ Here, you are the Dragon Commander, so what do you do? Well, you go through your ship, you talk to your generals, you have some romantic interests, you organise your troops, you decide where to invade and you join the combat. Great! That sounds like a good concept for a game to me.”
The influences that he name-checks are similarly games that don’t easily fit into any particular category or that married genres to suit their needs. He mentions the minigame mix Defender of the Crown, the marriage of real-time battles and turn-based strategy that was North & South or the space sim and sometime soap opera that was the Wing Commander series. It’s a collection of games that take us back more than twenty years to a period where, Vincke says, developers felt they had the freedom to experiment and there wasn’t nearly as much money riding on their work, but as genres became increasingly established and development costs rose, by the close of the 20th century publishers wanted to plump for the safer options.
“I think a lot was invented there [in those days] and there was a lot that was never explored to the extent that it should’ve been explored,” he says. “As risks and costs increased then, obviously, you’d go for what works, but there were all these things that weren’t explored and I’m sure they’d open up plenty of new franchises, genres, whatever you want to call them.” Old school games, Vincke says, are a source of still-untapped ideas, branches on the evolutionary tree of gaming that were never allowed to grow, but with the rise of independent development and self-publishing, developers are once again able to experiment and or explore what were once considered dead ends.
Such is the idea behind Divinity: Original Sin, which Vincke is hoping will resurrect a certain very old school-style of RPG , something inspired by one of the genre’s defining classics. At first, I don't make the connection and after playing through an early build of the game that gave me considerable freedom to explore the world and interact with the many, many people and objects inside of it, I ask if other open-world RPGs like Skyrim and Morrowind were an influence. Even with the former, I’m more than a decade out of synch.
“Ultima 7,” Vincke says, and he says it a few more times for effect. “Ultima 7. No, Ultima 7, always. It’s probably one of the best RPGs ever made. It had an open world with the absolute height of interactivity. It didn’t have great combat, but it had a fantastic world where you could go anywhere. You could spend so much time in there, so this is something we’ve tried to recreate, that feeling, and I think we’re starting to get close to it. It’s one of my core RPGs. Everything out there after Ultima 7 never did it as good as Ultima 7, other than the visuals or the combat.”
And so Original Sin is not a game of pre-rendered cutscenes, a game with hours of recorded dialogue or enormous polygon counts. It’s a game built primarily around interactivity, a game with a massive world that’s waiting to be explored and to be played with, a game full of objects that can be moved, items that can be combined or secrets that can be discovered. While some developers might see the absence of a such things as cutscenes as a considerable weakness, or the game’s text-based conversations as outdated, Vincke doesn’t believe that reading is something that particularly bothers RPG fans.
“I keep telling the guys, there’s nothing wrong with a line of text,” he says, because players who want to step into a fantasy world will already be in the frame of mind to excercise their imaginations, they don't need every line of text read out for them. “When you say ‘roleplaying,’ what’re you doing? You’re putting yourself in the role of somebody else, right? So then, if you’re really roleplaying, there’s quite a lot of empathy to be able to do that.” I mention the cornerstones of my own roleplaying experiences, the remarkably literate Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment, which were similarly inspired. Fast forward to the modern era and to something like Dragon Age II and, for all its recorded dialogue and carefully-crafted cutscenes, I would never claim it had as much character or depth.
Like many of their peers, Larian are taking to Kickstarter to fund the final stages of Original Sin, hoping that players will be happy to pay up front to give the development team extra time to test and to create more quests, creatures and items. Vincke sees the rise of Kickstarter as an opportunity for developers like him to be able to experiment and to enjoy not only greater creative freedom, but also to manage their money how they want, including taking funds from what are effectively pre-orders and investing them in development: “If a developer is willing to sacrifice part of his future profits to put that money back into the game, why would you not want to do that?”
Vincke is clearly very happy to be making the sort of games that he wants to, exploring ideas old and new without the constraints imposed by a publisher and with decades of influence to draw upon. He’s watching both Dragon Commander and Original Sin, two games it might well have been impossible to pitch to a publisher even five years ago, gradually come together, and he doesn’t have to make any excuses about their inspirations, nor try and justify the design choices his team is making. Though I’m usually the one asking the questions, he has one for me:
“Old school’s not a bad thing, is it?”