"While <insert present day RPG> performs adequately in this regard, it still lacks the colorful, elaborately sophisticated character interactions of say, Baldur's Gate II."
Ever since the massive Baldur's Gate II was released half a decade ago, reviewers commonly levy this criticism on any RPG with a party system, and BGII remains ever the benchmark. So with RPGs now one of the most popular genres (for every three action games at this year's Tokyo Game Show, there will be two RPGs), where's the evolution? Has BGII, with its 16+ completely fleshed out recruitable NPC's - each with their own professionally voice acted and well written storyline, alignment system, and personal, optional quests - somehow been outdone by some obscure "no name" these past 5 years?
That there's a strong focus today on online multiplayer, solo party hybrid RPGs, and the conveyor belt sequels says one thing to me: a superior NPC interaction system ain't happening any time real soon.
Take for instance, the relationship between Korgan (the "evil", yet sometimes father-like dwarf) and Aerie (the young, sweet and innocent good-aligned elf). Throughout the game, Korgan made it a point to harass young Aerie at certain times in the adventure, to the point of her... well, actually issuing the party an ultimatum if you didn't get rid of him. It didn't happen right away, and she certainly worked up to her decision, however when she left the party, it hit me like a slap in the face. Poof, she was gone. She made good on her promise and, despite mine (and I'm sure many many other's) refusal to believe she wouldn't come back - after all, the game wouldn't do that, would it? - it just did not happen.
It was not only the emotional and devotional attachment to each of your characters that made this game great, but the spontaneous and inspired interactions. Every party you could throw together had characters talking, joking with, bickering or even romancing one another at every turn. And the consequences of the results were real. Party members could leave or stay, complain to you or fall in love with you (or each other, or both!), all based on your reactions. Literally it's been over 4 years after my last BGII install, and I'm in awe that I remember each of their stories as if I had just finished the game.
Yet, since Baldur's Gate II, which was based on the AD&D 2nd Edition ruleset, was given so many accolades - over 10 RPG of the Year awards through 2000 and 2001, four Game of the Year Awards, and the 4th best PC game of all time according to www.GameRankings.com (if you consider that any indication) to go along with numerous individual achievements on various levels such as (no surprise) story - there had to be more to its success formula.
As it happens, there certainly was.
In hindsight, BGII is turning out in many ways to be the evolutionary RPG equivalent to the dinosaur. It remains well known and celebrated, with our inboxes at GameBanshee still receiving hundreds of emails every month about it, yet for nearly all its major strengths, games have evolved (ostensibly at least) in a different direction. Let's take a look.
It was gigantic, at over 200 hours of gameplay, with tough completely optional battles (Kangaxx the Lich comes to mind) and an optional personal stronghold quest for each class. Nowadays, games are "long" if they last over 30. Even the RPGs. Is there a reason games have become shorter? The obvious answer would be money. Give more eye candy and reduce the length to use less assets (especially art) and shorten development time.
Perhaps an interesting question would be, "Is there any correlation between the steady decrease in the length of games and RPGs in particular, and the steady rise in the commitment to 300+ hour MMORPGs?" Interestingly, a significant percentage of your time investment in these can typically be to solo until the very high levels, especially when you start playing multiple characters. While many (even most) would say that MMOs are a completely different experience, with BGII the twisting story, continuous supply of quests with fleshed out NPC's and scripted events, and interaction between party members was almost like playing a single-player version of an MMO. So the game was huge, and represents perhaps the last of these types of monstrous single-player RPGs (except for perhaps the non party driven Elder Scrolls series). What else?
Baldur's Gate II was the last great party based game and arguably best to use the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition ruleset (or any D&D ruleset for that matter), which has more recently been replaced by the 3rd and 3.5 Editions. The 2nd Edition rules were around for a very long time by the time BGII hit the shelves, and were fundamentally more esoteric. The uninitiated had to learn and understand terms like THAC0 (to hit armor class 0), Saving Throw and Initiative. The deep, party driven immersion certainly wasn't for the faint of heart with its myriad of possibilities, but to the game and manual's credit, BGII refined the system into something approachable even by more mainstream players. These days, the 3rd and later editions are based on an easier d20 system (a 20 sided dice) with much of the depth still intact.
Finally, to keep this analogy going with the dinosaurs (yes, at all costs), BGII featured an almost inexhaustible stream of impeccable 2D rendered art. With today's almost total 3D conversion, impeccable 2D rendered art is now relegated to a few franchise titles in the ever dwindling (but still breathing through a straw) Adventure genre.
From its massive length to its easy implementation of the 2nd Edition AD&D ruleset... from its nearly never ending supply of beautiful 2D artwork to its perhaps best ever character interaction in a game, Baldur's Gate II, like the dinosaur, was both the height of an era, and the end. How many other games can claim that?