When Larian CEO 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 far too serious. They had had a hit with a game called Sudden Strike, and suspected that alliteration might be the key to long-term success. Reader, they were wrong.
Today, CDV is long dead. But the name “Divinity” remains – associated with almost every Larian project since then. It is an artifact from a long and tiring period where the studio was subject to the whims of whoever held the bag. An inevitable reminder of the external disturbance that the developer has now triumphantly removed.
Of course, no Larian story begins with the deity. Getting there can be a slow, strategic and sometimes bruising journey, and it proved so for the studio itself. Along the way to its release, Divine Divinity was compromised not only by CDV, but the publisher before it, Atari. Larian should have followed in the wake of Baldur’s Gate, its spiritual relative; instead, the studio’s paymasters instructed it to copy Diablo, the leading light of the adjacent action-RPG genre.
The result was an identity crisis seen from an isometric perspective. On the one hand, Divine Divinity boasted the intricacy and interactivity of Vincke’s beloved Ultima VII. In its world, every crate and barrel could be shunted around with the mouse, and every kitchen table was cleared of cutlery. Still, outside the alluring density of civilization, the game evolved into long and testing dungeons, which leaned heavily on simplistic hack-and-slash combat. The fact that the screens seemed to roll on forever – unfurling an almost continuous tapestry rather than the discrete patchwork of the Infinity Engine games – only added to the feeling that Divine Divinity was stretched thin. To quote Bilbo Baggins, it was like butter scraped over too much bread.
Nevertheless, it was well reviewed. Launched during a CRPG drought in 2002, Divine Divinity won over a dehydrated hardcore, justifying a follow-up in the same vein: Beyond Divinity. Yet the landscape was already changing under Larian’s feet. With Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare had graduated to 3D gaming for a console audience, taking the entire RPG genre with it. If Larian was going to have any chance of attracting publisher money, it had no choice but to follow suit.
Divinity 2: Ego Draconis was exactly what an RPG needed to be in 2009: a fully voice-driven adventure in a shiny, sunny land that was easy to navigate via an Xbox 360 controller. To stand out from the crowd, Larian developed not one, but two gimmicks: NPC mind reading and the ability to fight in dragon form. But without BioWare’s budget, Ego Draconis was stuck in the B-team, along with other European efforts like Risen, Two Worlds and a slightly messy Polish novel adaptation of something called The Witcher.
Despite his best efforts, Larian hadn’t enticed new RPG converts away from Fallout 3 and Fable. And in the pursuit of 3D fidelity, it had sacrificed much of the granular interactivity that had made Ultima VII so immersive for a young Vincke.
“I lost track a bit,” the CEO wrote in a 2012 blog post. what I had envisioned. In truth, there are only a few game moments. in there that are close to why I created this company.”
As an overgrown sun set on the noughties, Larian seemed doomed to repeat this unfulfilling cycle – chasing genre leaders at the behest of their publishers, and at the expense of their own vision for the future of the Western RPG. But something changed, and that was Kickstarter: a lightning rod for the revival of the classic CRPG. The same move Larian had just missed a decade earlier.
For the crowd, Larian pitched Divinity: Original Sin—aptly named, since it was more or less the game Vincke had been trying to make since the very beginning. Back was the isometric perspective, and the tactile connection to the world of Rivellon – an intricate creation you can pull apart with pickaxes and fireballs to discover its secrets. The continuous maps also returned – now backed by a sense of purpose. With a little ingenuity, you can engineer solutions to your problems using tools designed for other missions halfway through the level, just like a Deus Ex or Dishonored player might.
Nevertheless, the wisest design decision came midway through production. Vincke was in the shower when he realized that although Larian was independent, it was still listening to the ghosts of former publishers. “What are we doing? We’re making a real-time game because they told us to,” he thought, later telling Game Informer. “We’re going to compete with Blizzard and make an action RPG? We can’t compete with Blizzard, we don’t have the resources.”
Rather than repeat his Diablo mistake, Larian made Original Sin a turn-based tactics master class. It was a hit, topping Steam’s sales chart upon release in 2014 – before the sequel repeated the feat in 2017. Over the same period, Larian has become a seasoned self-publisher, only working with companies that already love what the studio does, and not trying to change it.
Now, finally, Larian gets to join BioWare’s lineage by developing an official follow-up to Baldur’s Gate, the quintessential CRPG. The Forgotten Realms is a perfect home for the studio; like Rivellon, D&D’s favorite setting is malleable by design, a blank canvas on which to scroll scenarios and draw entertaining characters.
None of this is to say that Larian couldn’t adapt his talents to a more specific fantasy world if necessary. But a recurring theme in the studio’s work is the prisoner who, growing in power, breaks free from his chains. Perhaps it has had enough restrictions for one lifetime.