Icewind Dale: The Past, Present, and Future

27 Oct 2011

Windswept, icy plains. Majestic and dense forests. Deep canyons falling miles into the earth below. A perpetual blanket of snow. Barbarian camps and wintry hamlets barely pock-marking the landscape. The eerie chill of the northerly wind, an eternal presence. I'm talking, of course, about the evocative and imaginative imagery found in one of the best-remembered Infinity Engine franchises, Icewind Dale. Based upon a trilogy of novels by famed fantasy author R.A. Salvatore (though taking place many decades apart), the Icewind Dale name is perhaps better-known within the gaming community for the two computer role-playing games it spawned in 2000 and 2002. More linear and combat-focused than the ever-successful Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale eschewed much of the lengthy dialogue, open-ended exploration and storyline that made its predecessor so successful to begin with, but in so doing, managed to carve out a unique identity for itself that has stood up well for over a decade... so much so that it may well be high time to revisit the Dale once again.

An Icy Gem

Icewind Dale was initially conceived as a lower-budget title, intended to help fill out Interplay's catalogue by repurposing their older technology and filling the gap between the two Baldur's Gate games. As former Black Isle technical designer Scott Everts explained,

    "Icewind 1 and its expansions did very well and I’m both happy and proud to have worked on them. The original concept was to make a dungeon crawl instead of a more scripted adventure like the Baldur’s Gate series. So you started out with your full party that you created yourself instead of picking up as you adventure. I think that’s why the Icewind series did well since we didn’t try to just duplicate BG but instead took it a different direction. It gave our fanbase another experience and complemented the BG series quite well."

As such, Icewind Dale was conceptualized as a fairly small-scale game, taking a break from the epic size and world-saving of Baldur's Gate, trading it for a more self-contained experience that focused more on the basics of combat and exploring dark caverns and ancient temples.

Unfortunately, this smaller scope and relatively simpler gameplay next to other RPGs of the time may have ultimately cut into Icewind Dale’s success. Given the game’s positioning, it was almost doomed to be overshadowed by its "big brother" Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, which released only a few short months afterward and went on to gain huge critical acclaim and sales numbers. Meanwhile, Diablo II, perhaps the biggest game of 2000, released on the very same day as Icewind Dale. However, marketed as a hack-and-slash, dungeon-drawling adventure, Icewind Dale's round-based combat, Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, emphasis on single-player, and measured game pace simply didn't match up to Diablo II's more immediate appeal. Though still financially successful, Icewind Dale was perhaps destined to be overlooked by the mainstream.

Despite the competition, Icewind Dale managed to find its own niche. The most obvious hook of Icewind Dale, and one I think was a mistake for BioWare to largely ignore in Baldur's Gate II, was the ability to create an entire party from scratch (though preset characters were still available for rookies, or those who just wanted to jump into the game quickly). Baldur's Gate had already introduced a robust character creation system, complete with importing and exporting of characters, but it was Icewind Dale which realized the dream of creating an entire band of adventurers - at least without resorting to some work-arounds using the multiplayer mode, or modifications. The obvious downside of this new freedom to fully explore the game's ruleset, however, was a lack of party banter and interaction in general, as putting words in the player's mouth wouldn't have made much sense in such a context. Indeed, the lack of extensive dialogue options and story motivations in Baldur's Gate (especially for evil players) was one of the major critiques made against that game, so perhaps it even worked to Icewind Dale's advantage.

If story and characters were one thing that Icewind Dale downplayed, it made up for it wholeheartedly with atmosphere and a strong game world. Beginning in the small, snowed-in fishing village of Easthaven, one of the Ten-Towns of the Dale, Icewind Dale eschews the standard tutorial dungeons and most of the fetch-quests that so define most RPGs, instead opting for a few side-quests, world-building and establishing its unique visual identity. From the snow-covered log cabins, to the icy waters of the harbor, to the twisting, bare trees, to the towering, wood-carved chapel in the village's northwest corner. To this day it remains one of my favorite opening locations in an RPG, serene and simple, with a rustic charm, without feeling like a tutorial area or overstaying its welcome before the player is put right into the action.

That action, appropriately, is an expedition into the frozen wastes, undertaken in order to reach Kuldahar, a druidic grove of a village built around the roots of a massive oak tree. Under the guidance of Kuldahar's archdruid, Arundel, your adventuring party soon set out on a lengthy journey to expose and defeat a plot that threatens both the Ten-Towns and all of Faerûn. Icewind Dale was extremely light on story, but it managed to still build a convincing and enjoyable context for the dungeons that made up the bulk of its gameplay. The focus on the single town of Kuldahar may have been a design choice made out of the game's more limited scope, but it too helped to solidify the game's focus and emphasize the isolation of the Dale, making every trip into the wilderness feel like its own doomed expedition - making it back alive to the warmth and safety after successfully scouring a dungeon was one of the game's high points.

Indeed, out of all the RPGs released from its same period, it's quite difficult to find a game as consistently enjoyable as Icewind Dale. In the lead-up to this retrospective, I played through it fully in a matter of days, and never felt as if the game slowed down, lost its pacing, or ran out of ideas. The environments one explores were always varied, there were new and unique enemies introduced with every new chapter, and there are just enough characters to talk to, plot threads to follow and magic items to uncover that one always looked forward to the next chapter. Furthermore, Icewind Dale's phenomenal 2D artwork was and still is some of the most beautiful I've ever seen in a game, and the soundtrack, courtesy of Jeremy Soule, set the mood of frozen desolation perfectly. While there are other RPGs which reached higher highs than Icewind Dale, it only rarely suffered from any drops in quality - the Dragon's Eye dungeon in particular standing out.
 
 

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