Saturday, December 28, 2013

Three first impressions of Baldur's Gate

I've long been curious about Baldur's Gate since it seems to have set off our current popular interpretation of roleplaying games. Just as the current (and erroneous) concept of the "MMO" hinges on World of Warcraft's formulaic slot-machine, no-repercussions gameplay, just as FPS games rarely exceed the limitations set forth by Doom and Half-Life, computer RPGs as a whole are largely defined by Bioware's isometric D&D wonderlands. When you boot up a CRPG, you sort of expect to watch your level whateverteen Barbarian/Bard strutting around a vaguely medieval town. You expect to hear terms like "armor class" or "critical hit" and feel like you've been cheated if the dire badger you just killed didn't drop a magic sword of some kind.

Most comparisons between the Infinity Engine games, the Neverwinter titles and Dragon Age stem from the D&D license or lack thereof, and I won't get into them here. It's more interesting to note a striking similarity in Bioware's releases which persisted through and past the days of Black Isle. I've often remarked that both NWN releases followed a set order: the original campaign serves as a very generic, introductory "hero saves the day" routine, the first major expansion presents a more interesting story and the second focuses on combat mechanics and various gameplay improvements. Amusingly, this pattern itself was set by Black Isle.
Baldur's Gate seems at first glance to be a very expansive but relatively shallow, quaint, generic mix of classes and adventures.
The year after, the next Infinity Engine game Planescape:Torment, gave players a dialogue-centered adventure.
One year later, the somewhat grindy Icewind Dale gave them a dialogue-free, decision-free stream of tactical challenges to test their dungeoning&dragoning mettle.

I have no idea if this order was kept at all through the later Infinity Engine sequels, but in Neverwinter Nights terms, Undrentide and Betrayer were what Torment was to Baldur's Gate, while the Underdark and Zehir expansions mimicked Icewind Dale's combat focus.
The pattern seems to have finally been abandoned for Dragon Age with both good and bad results, but that's a topic in itself.

The second observation has to do with RPGs' target audience. In 1998 Baldur's Gate was still a game for nerds. It was blatantly intended for existing D&D fans and a certain familiarity with the various tropes and trademarks of the Forgotten Realms was expected. You're expected to know whereabouts Amn might lie or the type of personality expected of a Fighter or a Druid. By 2002 however, Bioware having apparently shaken off the collaboration with Interplay and Black Isle was setting out to capture the mass-market. If BG seems less wordy at first glance than Neverwinter Nights, it's largely because it was still a niche product and could throw its target audience straight into the escapist fantasy they already loved. Much of the first content you see and hear is therefore less of an introduction and more of a stream of tongue-in-cheek jokes about medieval roleplaying.
"Yeeees, oh Omnipresent Authority Figure?"

Third, a pleasant side-effect of BG's niche-market appeal is the lack of instant gratification. This holds true for the later two Infinity Engine games as well. They were still selling a product to an informed audience and expected that audience would want to stop and smell the roses. There was little instant gratification to be had but plenty of quaintness and delight in the activity itself. Case-in-point: starting level.
It's become a given that the first few levels of an RPG are freebies. They are meant to introduce the concept of leveling. The NWN games' introductions both put the player at level 2-3 automatically. In Baldur's Gate however, I've gone through two towns and two wilderness areas and am still a level 1 diviner. It was the same with Torment with its endless running about the Mausoleum and Icewind Dale... well, look out for that first band of goblins on your way out of the starting village and be ready to re-load a few times.

And that part, at least, I'm loving. It's good to feel weak at the start of these adventures. It was delightful to spend the first couple of zones of Half-Life whacking things over the head with the crowbar, before worrying about rocket launchers or the gluon gun. It is important in a strategy game to start out with a warrior and settler. Perspective matters.
One of the common detriments of wider commercial appeal, one of the most reliable destructive means which the average consumer brings against a genre is the loss of balance and contrast. The average moron doesn't really "get into" a game, a book or a film or anything else for its own sake. Lacking the intelligence to consider anything objectively, they only seek art as an extension of their social worth. They seek only what will give them a constant high - constant car chases, constant sex scenes, constant reinforcement of masculinity and femininity and social hierarchy.
For computer games, this has meant constant reinforcement: constant loot, constant levels, constant patting on the back. You saved the world, hurrayyyy! Never mind what world. There are no small or medium shoulderpads or monsters in World of Warcraft. Everything comes in large, jumbo or mega-gulp.

It's worth going back to old games like Baldur's Gate just to see something done at least partly for its own sake and not entirely to hand out facile endorphin boosts to all the brainless apes who don't care what they're buying as long as it makes them feel big.

I'm looking forward to working my way back to Ultima someday.

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