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With Baldur’s Gate III looming on the horizon, we get an opportunity to check out a couple of articles that remind us what made the series so great in the first place. First, there’s PC Gamer with a massive 2-page retrospective that covers the entire series, including the canceled Baldur’s Gate III: The Black Hound and the Dark Alliance spin-offs. Here’s an excerpt:
For years, RPGs had remained, typically, stoically turn-based, even with popular series such as Interplay’s own Fallout. And turn-based fans, like it or not, this method of play was what many perceived as holding the genre back. Baldur’s Gate became a bridge between turn-based and real-time, the old and the new, unfashionable and the fashionable. “That was me and Ray [Muzyka],” remembers James. “Ray was a big fan of turn-based games, the Gold Box games, and my favourite genre was real-time strategy—I played Warcraft 2 and StarCraft more than you can imagine. So it came from having to have a real-time game that satisfied fans of that genre, but also satisfied turn-based fans.”
The result was tactical pause, where the player could pause the action before and during a battle, allocate weapons, target enemies and even quaff potions to buff up their party members. Then you’d unpause, and let the decisions take effect, for better or worse. “Maybe I shouldn’t say it,” reveals James nervously, “but I was never a fan of Fallout and Fallout 2. I liked the story and the world, but the fact it paused and took turns for moving, I never liked that. RPGs are about immersing you in their world, so the closer you get to the feeling of real, the better.” Despite James’ convictions, the decision was not met with universal praise; but his philosophy paid off when Baldur’s Gate was released to almost total acclaim and sales far in excess of Interplay’s expectations.
As Baldur’s Gate sold in its thousands around the world, sucking gamers into a time warp where suddenly it was 3am in the morning and they were still engrossed in its world, BioWare was already at work on its expansion. “We were always going to have Tales Of The Sword Coast,” says James. “It wasn’t left over material, we just needed an expansion to make extra money.” Given no one had any idea how big Baldur’s Gate was going to be, the add-on was a little by-the-numbers. “It wasn’t much, as we didn’t stretch ourselves. It was okay, but Baldur’s Gate II was when we knew we had to have something that would blow everyone away.”
And then, there’s VG247 with a detailed look at Athkatla, Baldur’s Gate II’s main hub city. A few sample paragraphs:
One of Athkatla’s most effective Djinni tricks for maintaining its two decade old illusion of a living city is how its politics and laws directly encroach on the player’s own freedoms. You may be tempted, after watching the Cowled Wizards imprison Imoen and Irenicus for illegal magic use, to try out some magic of your own. Try it once, and a wizard will teleport in and tell you to knock it the fuck off. Keep trying it, and a few of them will appear and start trying to incinerate you with high-level spells.
You can spend 5000 gold on a magic license, and the 5k isn’t too hard to come by, but just the act of forcing the player to buy their way out of the city’s byzantine governance goes a long way in effectively conveying the weight of Athkatla bureaucracy. If you’re used to a consequence-free open world, it’s an effective way to set a mood. Throw in the guards that wake you up and call you a vagrant if you try to sleep in the streets instead of an inn, the spontaneous fights that break out in the street between Shadow Thieves and Vampires, and every idiot in the city trying to mug your party of powerful wizards with minus one short swords of misplaced confidence, and the place starts to feel a lot less static than it otherwise could.
It’s become a bit of a cliche to point out the dissonance in open world games that set up an apocalyptic scenario before letting you go piss around with a fishing rod for forty hours while the local villages burn, but this is partly because it happens a lot. BioWare’s solution here was to have a representative of Athkatla’s thieves guild, Gaelan Bayle, ask you to gather up 20,000 gold pieces before he’d help you free Imoen from Spellhold. The whole second chapter of the game is based around collecting this money, and it’s a great narrative trick to get around the loss of urgency. Each side quest, no matter how small, is working towards the main plot goal.