With Exodus, ex-BioWare devs aim to be ‘a titan’ in the RPG space again

As actual play continues to mature, Larian Studios basks in the success of Baldur’s Gate 3, and Warhammer 40,000 gets its deepest video game treatment yet, it’s not a stretch to claim that we’re on the cusp — if not already in the throes — of a role-playing game renaissance. Seen one way, it could mean stiff competition for the next developer to throw its hat in the ring. Through another lens, however, it could be the perfect time for a symbolic comeback. The creative minds at Archetype Entertainment are hoping for the latter.

Founded in 2020 under Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast, Archetype is led by a few veterans of BioWare, the past-its-heyday studio behind Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and the Mass Effect trilogy. On Thursday, at The Game Awards 2023, Archetype (and Matthew McConaughey?!) revealed its RPG Exodus, complete with a lengthy cinematic trailer that sets the stage for its original sci-fi universe. Earlier in December, I spoke with executive producer Chad Robertson and executive creative director James Ohlen about returning to the RPG scene, with Exodus’ defining design concept in tow.

The protagonist and a museum guide look out over an urban landscape in Exodus, the upcoming RPG from former BioWare devs Image: Archetype Entertainment/Wizards of the Coast

“There are some amazing IPs out there right now in the RPG space,” Robertson said on a video call. “We’d love to be a titan within that. 10 years from now, we’d love fans to look back and think fondly of what we’re building, and be hoping for the next iteration to come out.”

“We’re not just building one game,” Ohlen said. “We’re building a new universe. And there are so many weird stories we can tell within it.”

With a near-mythical protagonist, third-person combat, hints of a precursor civilization, and a cast of companions from far-flung corners of the galaxy, Exodus was doomed to Mass Effect comparisons from the start. Far from feeling weighed down by the similarities, Robertson and Ohlen see it as a sturdy jumping-off point: Because starving Mass Effect fans understand the fundamental premise of Exodus, it makes it that much easier for Archetype to introduce a heady sci-fi twist to its new IP. Enter, time dilation.

A character in Exodus, seemingly not human, examines a piece of handheld tech Image: Archetype Entertainment/Wizards of the Coast

If you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, you’ve seen this concept deployed for narrative effect. Matthew McConaughey’s Joseph Cooper has just returned to an orbiting spaceship after spending only a few minutes on a massive oceanic planet. But that brief span in this corner of the galaxy constituted 23 years back on Earth. McConaughey breaks down sobbing as he watches his daughter and son jump from their years as teenagers to 20-somethings to full-fledged adults. The stakes of time dilation, itself a consequence of Einstein’s theory of relativity, provide Interstellar with its emotional anchor.

In Exodus, these gulfs between the flow of time in one solar system and another will be central to your decision-making progress. Should you travel to a distant star in the hopes of rescuing a brilliant scientist, knowing that the years that pass on your homeworld will be threefold? Should you aid a fledgling rebellion on a nearby moon, even though your favorite NPC might age or even die back home? (These situations are purely hypothetical on my part, but they give you a sense of the risk/reward at play under Archetype’s time mechanic.)

A human character braces themselves as an enemy creature sprints at them through a hail of sparks in Exodus Image: Archetype Entertainment/Wizards of the Coast

“This essentially supersizes all of the choices that you make,” Ohlen said. “Instead of seeing the consequences of a choice you make in conversation or in gameplay, you know, days later, or weeks or months later, years or even decades later, you’ll see the impact. The choice you made with, say, bringing a remnant technology back with you, or how you decided to use that tech. You’re going to have all sorts of twists and turns, and family dynamics that just get really weird. You have some children, and you go off, and it’s been a month for you, but 30 years for them. And they’re like, ‘What the fuck, dad?’ [laughs]”

Executed well, these time dilation-driven choices could be the key differentiator between Exodus and its creators’ previous work. But Exodus has another concern: sticking the landing with space travel. In Polygon’s Starfield review, we lamented how traveling between star systems is essentially a matter of navigating several menus in order to fast travel, punctuated by Squadrons-lite dogfights. No Man’s Sky, despite its stellar current state, took years of updates and patches to strike its delicate balance between scavenging, base-building, and wandering between essentially infinite procedural planets. A quick glance at Exodus’ contemporaries makes one thing clear: Space exploration is a tricky proposition in video games. Add to that the cerebral time dilation mechanic, complete with its numerous branching endings and shifting worlds, and the minds behind Exodus have their work cut out for them.

A spaceship approaches a planet that looks as if it has the conditions for human life in Exodus Image: Archetype Entertainment/Wizards of the Coast

Exodus [is very] handcrafted,” Ohlen said. “Every time you visit a world, we want it to be this experience where everything is unique. We don’t want players to see the horizon. We want them to feel like they’re exploring a universe, and that they can go anywhere, even though they can’t. That’s why we have people on the team from Mass Effect, and we have people from Naughty Dog.

“Procedural generation — that word makes me…” Ohlen coughs, smiles, and restarts. “I see [our universe] more like the Final Fantasy series, where each one is totally different, but in a handcrafted area. And because of time dilation, you can still have characters that show up again, like, you know, a favorite companion might show up, even though a game takes place 5,000 years in the future… It allows us to tell a coherent story with companions with [their own] arcs. It is a bit complex, but it’s something that we’ve already struggled with, and we figured out what the plan is moving forward.”

Exodus will be released on PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X. It has no release date as of this writing.