When Larian boss Swen Vincke first heard that his debut RPG would be called Divine Divinity, he thought it was a joke. But his publisher in Germany, CDV, was too serious. They had had success with a game called Sudden Strike and suspected that alliteration might be the key to their long-term success. Reader, they were wrong.
Today, CDV has been dead for a long time. But the name ‘Divinity’ has remained attached to almost all of Larian’s featured projects ever since. It is an artifact of a long and grueling period in which the studio was subject to the whims of the one who pulled the strings of money. An inescapable reminder of outside interference that the developer has now triumphantly erased.
Of course, no Larian story begins with godhood. Getting there can be a slow, strategic, and sometimes painful journey, as the study itself showed. On the way to release, Divine Divinity was compromised not only by CDV, but also by the previous publisher, Atari. Larian should have been following in the wake of Baldur’s Gate, his spiritual relative; instead, he was ordered by the studio’s paymasters to copy Diablo, the leading light in the adjacent action RPG genre.
The result was an identity crisis viewed from an isometric perspective. On the one hand, Divine Divinity boasted the complexity and interactivity of Vincke’s beloved Ultima VII. In her world, all the boxes and barrels could be moved with the mouse, and all the kitchen tables could have their cutlery removed. Outside of the alluring density of civilization, though, the game evolved into long, challenging dungeons, leaning heavily on simplistic hack-and-slash combat. The fact that the screens seemed to roll forever, rolling out a near-continuous tapestry rather than the inconspicuous tiling of Infinity Engine games, only added to the sense that Divine Divinity was being stretched. To quote Bilbo Baggins, it was like butter spread on too much bread.
However, he checked well. Released during a CRPG drought in 2002, Divine Divinity won over a dehydrated hardcore and warranted a sequel in the same vein: Beyond Divinity. Yet the landscape was already changing under Larian’s feet. With Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare moved into 3D gaming for a console audience and brought the entire RPG genre with it. If Larian wanted any chance of attracting money from publishers, he had no choice but to go along with it.
Divinity 2: Ego Draconis was exactly what an RPG was required to be in 2009: a fully voice-acted adventure in a bright, sun-dappled land that was easily navigable via an Xbox 360 controller. crowd, Larian developed not one but two tricks: reading the minds of NPCs and the ability to fight in dragon form. But without BioWare’s budget, Ego Draconis belonged firmly in the B-tier, along with other European efforts like Risen, Two Worlds, and a slightly muddled Polish novel adaptation of something called The Witcher.
Despite his best efforts, Larian hadn’t tempted the new RPGs converted to Fallout 3 and Fable. And in the pursuit of 3D fidelity, he had sacrificed much of the granular interactivity that had made Ultima VII so compelling to a young Vincke.
“I lost track a bit,” the CEO wrote in a 2012 blog post. “The joys of console development took Divinity II away from the original idea, and so many compromises were made on that game that what shipped was just a shadow of what I had imagined it to be. In truth, there are only a few gameplay moments in there that come close to why I established this company.”
As the sun set too flowery in the 2000s, Larian seemed doomed to repeat this unsatisfying cycle: chasing the leaders of the genre at the behest of their publishers and at the expense of his own vision of the future of Western RPGs. But something changed, and that something was Kickstarter: a lightning rod for the revival of classic CRPGs. The same move Larian had missed a decade earlier.
To the public, Larian released Divinity: Original Sin, aptly named, as it was pretty much the game Vincke had been trying to make all along. Gone was the isometric perspective and tactile connection to the world of Rivellon, an intricate creation that you could take apart with lockpicks and fireballs to unlock its secrets. Those continuous maps were back, too, now backed by a sense of purpose. With a little ingenuity, you could design solutions to your problems using tools designed for other mid-level quests, much like a Deus Ex or Dishonored player would.
However, the wisest design decision came midway through production. Vincke was in the shower when he realized that although Larian was independent, he was still listening to the ghosts of publishers from the past. “What are we doing? We’re making a real-time game because they told us to,” he thought, later telling Game Informer. “Are we going to compete with Blizzard by making an action RPG? We can’t compete with Blizzard, we don’t have the resources.”
Rather than repeat Diablo’s mistake, Larian turned Original Sin into a masterclass in turn-based tactics. It struck a chord, topping the Steam sales chart upon its release in 2014, before its sequel repeated the feat in 2017. Over the same period, Larian has become a seasoned self-publisher, partnering only with companies that already love what the studio does, and they don’t seek to alter it.
Now, finally, Larian joins the BioWare lineage in developing an official sequel to Baldur’s Gate, the quintessential CRPG. The Forgotten Realms is a perfect home for study; Like Rivellon, D&D’s favorite setting is malleable by design, a blank canvas on which to scribble settings and draw entertaining characters.
None of which is to say that Larian couldn’t adapt his talents to a more specific fantasy world if need be. But a recurring theme in the studio’s work is the prisoner who, growing in power, breaks free of his shackles. Maybe he’s had enough restrictions for a lifetime.