The Making of Divinity: Original Sin II and the History of Larian Studios

The 316th issue of the PC Gamer magazine featured a couple of articles dedicated to Larian Studios and their Divinity series of video games. Those articles are now available on the PC Gamer website and offer plenty of insights into Larian's turbulent history and the development of their latest, and most successful to date, title - Divinity: Original Sin II. Here's an excerpt from the former:

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.”

And the latter:

"There are always pros and cons, of course, and there's the learning curve and making sure people understand what it is to write for a game instead of writing a screenplay," says writing director Jan Van Dosselaer. "It's a linear experience compared to a game like this, which is completely open. But I think when looking from one game to the next, the dialogue is a lot more conversational. It’s clear we tried to do something different."

For both Vincke and Van Dosselaer, it was imperative that extra attention was given to the narrative and the dialogue, two things they'd already tried to improve in the Enhanced Edition. "One of the main critiques of Original Sin was the story could have been better and could have benefited from more gravitas," Van Dosselaer remembers. "We took that to heart. So the main thing we wanted to do was work on a better, more epic narrative, give it more gravitas, and invest more time on characters and character development." From that goal, the origin system was born.

The system lets players not only pick a character with a fleshed-out backstory, identity and personal quest, they could choose to bring the other origin characters along as party members. This means it's possible to experience up to four origins in one playthrough, from different perspectives. It proved to be Original Sin 2's big hook, and the thing that most clearly set it apart from its progenitor. It also proved to be a huge challenge for the writers.

"When we did our postmortem after releasing Original Sin 2 to learn the lessons about what we did wrong, what we could do better," Vincke says, "one of the scripters asked us to never let origin moments interact with each other ever again. But that’s what people like the most!"

The origins and quests intersect, not only with the main quest, but the personal quests of your companions, too. You might need to talk to a character because it's integral to the main story but your companion is adamant that they get to kill that person. The writers had to consider the world state, what quests might already be underway, how killing one NPC will affect other quests—all the while trying to make sure that actions would have consequences.

"The one thing I don't want to do again is to write two of them," Van Dosselaer laughs. "I wrote Red Prince and Sebille, and I love both characters, but especially near the end it got schizophrenic writing the two of them at a very quick pace. I’d prefer to have just one baby to focus on. You have a lot of these conversations where the characters reflect on things, and I brought all of these conversations together and just spent days writing all the observations of all the characters, working like a machine."