Five Thoughts on Baldur’s Gate

I’ve gone back to play through some of my Steam backlog, and I’m doing it alphabetically, with  one game for each letter of the alphabet. Unfortunately, I had to take a break four hours into my A game (Amnesia: The Dark Descent), so rather than start it over, I started, late December, to play Baldur’s Gate, the 1999 computer role-playing classic. Or rather, since Baldur’s Gate Original Flavour is somewhat hard to access legally these days, the 2012 remastered version, Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition from Beamdog.

Some thoughts:

  1. What am I playing here? I’m not one to get too caught up in authorial intention, but at the same time, it’s a factor I’d rather be aware of than not. I know Beamdog made some changes to the original game, which is fine–it’s not just the developer’s prerogative in a remaster, but a necessity, in order to bring the game to a new market. But I really wish there was a list of additions or alterations within the game itself, rather than something I have to hunt down in forums and wikis. I recently did some research on a game publisher that specialized in localization, and one of the things they did was list in their manuals what kind of changes they made. Even with a lot of those lists ending “…and other changes too numerous to mention,” the discussion was fascinating–the choice of what was altered and what they mentioned suggested a lot about their vision of the game. The Age of Internet means that the same discussion is probably out there for Beamdog, and probably in a more detailed form, but I wish I didn’t have to move so far out of the game to find it.
  2.  It was more meta than I thought it would be. I’ve played through the original Baldur’s Gate II, and one of the sequences in that game features another party that fights against you, gets slaughtered, and then “reloads” and decides not to fight. It’s a weird, meta-moment that stand out particularly because the game generally avoids that sort of exploration. I had assumed that BGI would be similar, but the tutorial is seeped in metahumor, as the player-character’s journal complains about doing fetch quests and slaying rats. Granted, the meta-humor references tend to drop after leaving the tutorial area (which is interesting–it implies the rest of the game is the “serious” role-playing), but it still took me a bit by surprise.

    Part of my bemusement with that tutorial is what it revealed about my own biased understanding when it comes to game history. I know that computer RPGs predate Baldur’s Gate by a long shot–I’ve been following the CRPG Addict for years, and part of the appeal of their blog is the way it plumbs the depths of the genre’s history from the 70s onward. I know it from my own childhood, playing games on the Apple II and Macintosh.  And I know it from reading dozens of books on videogame history, not to mention the history of Dungeons & Dragons. And yet, thanks to my own play of games from Planescape: Torment to Mass Effect, I thought of Baldur’s Gate as a progenitor, not an inheritor, of role-playing tradition. As such, when it overtly played with RPG conventions from elsewhere, it startled me, because I unconsciously think of it as a game from which these conventions come. It’s a fairly pointed reminder–I can read all the books on the world about a subject, but there are some things I still don’t internalize until I work through them myself.

  3. The plot is kind of a fantasy version of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. The skeleton of the story is very traditional fantasy: you are the ward of a powerful mage, raised in an isolated monastery. You grow up with flashes of strange powers, and after a string of bad dreams on your part, the father figure mage decides to take you into the wider world–but instead, he’s killed moments after you depart, and you set out for revenge. Or, given this is a fairly open world game, for whatever you feel like doing. So, speaking of Star Wars, the game goes the familiar route of an orphan raised in isolation, and a slayed father figure that ushers them into the larger world. Very New Hope in that regard.

    The details of the plot after this point, however, get murkier. What eventually comes out (spoiler warning for a game edging towards its twentieth anniversary) is that the Big Bad is deliberately undermining (pun intended) local iron mines and hiring bandits to waylay merchant convoys carrying iron in order to inflate the profits of the trading company he infiltrated with a staff of shapeshifters, so he could amass the profit he needed to springboard himself into politics, arrange murders for the other local leaders, and start a war with the neighboring country, whom he has blamed for the said iron deficiency, all so he can use the resulting chaos to create a massive bodycount that will elevate him into his birthright as a god and son of Bhaal, the Lord of Murder. Put in those terms–ambitious politician manipulates a small local trade conflict in order to amass power and pursue a secret mystical agenda–then yes, Baldur’s Gate bears a weird resemblance to a movie that won’t be released for another year (It also feels weird that the time gap is so brief; my sense of Baldur’s Gate is that it’s a lot older than it actually is.)

    The reason I’ve gone on at such length on plot is that it seems almost antithetical to base the start of a franchise on something so convoluted, and something that can at times seem very far from the good versus evil that I’d associate with the start of game series, or Dungeons & Dragons, which I tend to associate with exploration and modular adventure. It could be, again, that my sense of Baldur’s Gate as progenitor over inheritor is at work, that I’m underestimating how far the genre has gone in terms of story. I’m also overstating the plot to an extent–the open-world nature of the game does mean it tends more towards that modularity anyway, where the heroes just kind of keep running around, and they’re told about the greater plans.

  4. Bad Dads and videogames. There’s been a flurry of academic activity recently about the increase of father protagonists–especially very flawed father protagonists–in videogames, from BioShock Infinite to The Last of Us, and what that means in terms of discourses of masculinity. However, long prior to those games, general themes of fatherhood have been a videogame staple. It’s not until near the end of Baldur’s Gate that you learn your player-character has a stake in that discourse, when you find out that your father is also Bhaal, Lord of Murder, and the game’s primary antagonist is targeting you in part to eliminate competition. (Evil dad revelation = more Star Wars at work.)

    However, between the open world nature of the game and the lateness of the revelation, there’s not a lot actually done with this idea. And that part was disappointing to me, because Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn and the expansion Throne of Bhaal go deep, deep into this aspect, and as a result, have some of the most effective and affecting moments I’ve ever experienced in an isometric RPG. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to name any overall themes to BG at all. The main game’s theme could, if pressed, be considered an exploration of how neoliberal pursuits like economic exploitation and the consolidation of political power lead directly to outright evil and violence, but arguably, that’s kind of the deal with the CRPG in general. (See Andrew Baerg’s “Risky Business; Neo-liberal Rationality and the Computer RPG.”)

    The 1999 expansion adds two major quests, one featuring the shapeshifters and one featuring a new addition of an island of werewolves, both of which suggest a sort of “monster among us” kind of thing, which has interesting implications given the PC’s hidden role as the child of a monster. But again, it’s the sequels that explore this notion in a more complete manner. It’s not a bad game, and it’s loaded, even overloaded, with things to do, but it’s a long way from the thematic tightness of something like The Witcher.

    And yet, there’s something there, something to that theme that keeps getting repeated, even if it’s not the originator of it.  BG was hugely influential for RPG design, and not just because Bioware went on to play such a significant role in the Western RPG. The emphasis on fathers and destiny and progeny is a major part of many of my favorite RPGs–to list just those with direct BG lineage, there’s Mass Effect 2, the aforementioned Baldur’s Gate sequel, Planescape: TormentPillars of Eternity, and Torment: Tides of Numenera. There’s something worth unpacking there, and after my replay of BG II (you know, after I finish the other 25 games in the queue) I think I’ll do just that.

  5. To develop the “overload” thought a little more, this game is too long. I clocked in at 60 hours; granted, some of that is inflated because of my tendency to leave the game running during breaks. And some of it comes out the fact that the core game has received two major upgrades, between the 1999 expansion and the enhanced edition–I imagine if I just played the original vanilla, the length would be quite different. Regardless, though, for everything that happened after I reached the return to the game’s starting point, I was constantly thinking “Is it over yet?”.

    Baldur’s Gate is far from the only RPG I’ve had this response to. In fact, with one exception, EVERY RPG I’ve played since at least the the 2013 Ni No Kuni (and including it) has felt at least 10 hours too long for me. For the record, that list includes the aforementioned Witcher (2007) (It may be thematically tight, but that final chapter lags), Avadon: The Corruption (2013), Final Fantasy XIII (2009), Final Fantasy XIII-2 (2012), Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII (2014), Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011), Shin Megami Tensei IV (2013), Paper Mario: Sticker Star (2012), Pillars of Eternity (2015), Fire Emblem Fates (2016), Dragon Quest IX (2009), Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014), and almost certainly more that I’m forgetting.

    I want to add that I enjoyed aspects of all of these games; it’s just that by the time I got to the end, in every case, I wished the end had come sooner. It left me with a feeling of bitterness to the game overall that I can’t imagine the developers would want. Admittedly, part of the problem is my own playing style, that I want to experience everything, but I’m intellectually lazy when it comes to ideal tactics, which means a lot of grinding and a lot of time spent in-game. (One thing I’ll give BG credit for–I played it on easy, so I never felt that I had to go out of my way to grind.)

    The one exception I mentioned was actually Torment: Tides of Numenera, which I finished in 33 hours, well under the typical length for an RPG. And yet, instead of feeling ripped off or underwhelmed, I was gratified that the game didn’t overstay its welcome, that it presented its big ideas and didn’t force me or make me feel compelled to linger after the main event. I wish more games did that. There’s a sense that games in general have a quality that maps onto their length, and that goes especially for computer games of that era, open world games and role-playing games; Baldur’s Gate is essentially rooted in the trifecta of an expectation for a game that goes on a long time.

I could go on a bit more–the function of humor and evil in the game is pretty interesting (fitting nicely with observations Frans Mäyrä has made about “art-evil” and the videogame) as is its balance and compromises in terms of saving content for the sequel. But if I’m taking any lesson from the game, it’s to end before things get too lengthy.

(I’ll also add a quick plug for Cameron Kunzelmann and Danni Ash’s Mages and Murderdads series, in which they play through the Baldur’s Gate franchise. I have not actually watched any of the videos–didn’t want any spoilers–but knowing that smart folk were discussing the series at length was what finally motivated me to play. At four some episodes of 1 hour length, it sounds like they were much more effective players than I was.)

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