Games that defined a generation- such a title is hardly thrown around freely in the video game industry. One does not call a game generation defining without no reason. The 90s were a fabulous period for such titles. On the console side of things you had Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid, Goldeneye, Final Fantasy VII, Resident Evil and the likes. When it came to the pc, you had Doom, Ultima, System Shock 2, Age of Empires, The Sims, Diablo, and of course the star of today’s show; Baldur’s Gate. Truth be told, I’d need more than a few sheets of paper to say what I have to say about Baldur’s Gate. But I don’t have the privilege or time to do that right now. So here’s what we’re going to do. I’m gonna go put on my absolute favorite nostalgia goggles and I’ll tell you all a nice, short story about a game that defined a generation.
Baby’s First RPG
It’s hard to talk about the history of computer role playing games without paying tribute to Baldur’s Gate. I could go on and on about how it revolutionized the facet of rpgs, but where’s the fun in that? So before I begin my weekly rambling, let’s go back and witness the conception of Baldur’s Gate.
Dr. Ray Muzyka and Dr. Greg Zeschuk once had this brilliant idea while they were having lunch last century. “Why don’t we form a game developing studio?” And that was pretty much it. Medicine became more of a hobby for them. The now legendary Canadian studio Bioware was thus formed. See guys? All it takes is one random idea…more or less….mostly more. They formed the company in 1995 and had been going a long time. It was pretty much five years of operating Bioware before people who knew they were. They ended up sending out their first game Shattered Steel to ten publishers. Of those publishers, only one is still in business- EA. Baldur’s Gate was originally called Battleground Infinity; it was going to be an MMO about a pantheon of different mythologies. BG was one of the first games that was a Windows direct application. If memory serves me right, DirectX 3 was like crazy advanced at the time.
Publisher Interplay held the Dungeons and Dragons license, so what they provided was converting the engine to Dungeons and Dragons instead. The top-down camera of BG was inspired by Richard Garriott’s Ultima games. Wasteland was a major influence on Baldur’s Gate, particularly its design philosophy of having more than one possible method to achieve each goal. The development of BG began when role playing games were dead in Norh America. In Dr. Zeschuk’s words; “People would kind of scoff when you said you were making one.” Contrary to popular publisher advice, Bioware was ready to invest time and money developing rpgs. The concept of Bioware’s 4 pillars (combat, exploration, progression, and story) was used first for BG. Among the 60 people on the team, no-one had ever made a videogame before. But they had passion and the love. Interplay’s motto was “by gamers, for gamers“. It was a publishing and distribution company run by a developer. Interplay CEO Brian Fargo helped immensely during the production of BG. Dr Muzyka believes that the game was successful because of the collaboration with Interplay.
Baldur’s Gate was released on November 30, 1998, and was published by Black Isle Studios, an internal division of Interplay. Baldur’s Gate had low sales expectations from Interplay, and BioWare’s internal sales goal was 200,000 units. But surprise, surprise; in its first two weeks of release, the game sold 175,000 copies worldwide. This pushed it to the #1 position of computer game sales charts in France, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States during the period. By 2003, Baldur’s Gate had sold over 2.3 million units, deeming it a blockbuster IP.
Love at First Sight
I really had no idea what Dungeons and Dragons actually was back in 1998. My only point of reference was a crappy licensed cartoon which used to air in Star World (I secretly loved it though). I had a neighbor who was working overseas and he’d come for vacation once every year. He’d not come empty handed though. In his bag would be foreign goodies of all sorts. Us kids would impatiently wait for his arrival to glimpse in awe his collection of Batman figurines and console games. He had this book on his table which was called a monster manual. In it, were pictures and descriptions of all sorts of otherworldly creatures. It was during one such fateful visit that he explained the concepts of PnP role playing and board games to me, in layman terms. I didn’t care much for this rules and calculations and other mumbo-jumbos. I just wanted to see the pictures in those books. It was then that he booted up his shiny white pc and showed me the game that I’d soon come to know as Baldur’s Gate. Me and my friends would sit around and watch him play for hours on end. But I guess I was the only one in the group who actually dug the isometric view and the weird looking combat. It wasn’t until 2000 that I’d personally get my hands on BG. You see, before that fella left for Texas two years later, he gifted my family that pc. It was a dream come true for me. Now I didn’t have to drool at someone else’s computer and watch them play games. Man those were wonderful times. Baldur’s Gate, like Fallout took some time for me to get accustomed to. But I always knew that it was something special, even when I didn’t fully comprehend it.
Story of a Generation
The story of Baldur’s Gate takes place in and out of the titular city in the Forgotten Realms setting of Dungeons and Dragons. BG opens with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche and shows a man being strangled and thrown to death by a hulk in a scary looking armor. After creating your character, the game switches to the fortress library of Candleekeep and introduces you to the main character; the ward of Gorion, a respected monk. When you begin the game, you are told that Gorion is waiting to leave Candlekeep with you. You are instructed to gather some supplies and protection, and depart with him. During this journey full of intrigue and confusion, you are attacked by the same armored figure from the intro and his minions. Gorion is murdered in front of your eyes, and so ends the Baldur’s Gate Prologue. You wake up later to see your friend Imoen, a teenage girl from the library watching over you. Not knowing what is happening, you and Imoen follow the instructions found in Gorion’s body and set out to the wilderness to find what on Forgotten Realms is going on.
Baldur’s Gate uses an adapted 2nd edition D&D ruleset for its gameplay and mechanics. You are allowed to create a character from scratch, whether they be a human, elf, dwarf, half-elf, gnome etc. There are a wide variety of classes and weapon proficiency to choose from. By that point in time, there have been many games based on D&D setting and rules. But none have come close to emulating the feel of the PnP. D&D was the game of a generation. D&D nourished friendships, fueled rivalries, encouraged imagination and provided countless hours of sheer fun. The feeling of going adventuring with your mates as a hero you made, watching him/her grow and take part in epic set quests was an experience that I think video games still can’t deliver. This is why BG proved to be the best licensed D&D game. Because BG was the closest emulation of the tabletop ever made. While other D&D games like Eye of the Beholder, Dark Sun, Pool of Radiance etc provided challenging dungeon crawling, the primal feeling of adventure and camaraderie was lacking. Baldur’s Gate on the other hand focused on exploration, story telling, adventure and camaraderie. You went on this epic quest to save the world with interesting companions with their own backstories and motivation (Minsc and Boo are remembered as Bioware’s most iconic characters ever), solved quests in a multitude of ways, and was made master of your own party.
Combat in Baldur’s Gate was made equally forthright. You were given the freedom of micromanaging your entire party in real time. The amount of weapons and spells were astonishing. Enemy variety and combat encounters were varied and interesting. While the combat was restricted to off-screen die rolls and a plethora of uninteresting tabletop mechanics (thac0…urgh), it was surprisingly accessible. Not to mention the beautifully hand drawn environments brought to life in the infinity engine. BG featured beautiful, yet dangerous forests and clearings, muddy backward towns and hamlets, fields, caves, dungeons and finally, the titular city of Baldur’s Gate. It was a D&D lovers’ wet dream and the stuff of legends.
Legacy of Bhaal
Baldur’s Gate went on to receive an expansion pack called Tales of the Sword Coast which added new items, locations, enemies and other features. Baldur’s Gate II: Shadow’s of Amn was released in 2000 to even bigger critical acclaim. It received a story expansion titled Throne of Bhaal which concluded the story of Gorion’s ward. While BG paved the path for rpg classics like Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, Neverwinter Nights, Temple of Elemental Evil and Dragon Age, the IP itself sits unused after 20 years. Black Isle studios once planned to make a Baldur’s Gate sequel titled The Black Hound, but that project got canned. Beamdog, a studio composed of rpg veterans ‘enhanced’ BG and BG II for modern computers in 2012 and 2013 respectively. While they did add support for higher resolutions and compatibility fixes, the new additions in the forms of characters and quests were not well received. Beamdog released Siege of Dragonspear, en expansion to BG in 2016, which went on to become very controversial due to SJW elements and fans panned it for the quality of writing and quests. Obsidian Entertainment made Pillars of Eternity, a spiritual successor to BG using crowdfunding which was well received. Pillars will get a sequel on May 8 of this year.
While not bad per se, the enhanced editions adds too much unwanted stuff for my taste. You can get the classic editions for free when buying the enhanced editions from GOG. Either way, it’s a game that rpg lovers should play at least once in their lifetime.
I feel like I have rambled on far too long. But for Baldur’s Gate, I’d do it again. It’s not only one great rpg, it’s one of the best games ever made. You can count me on that. As for now, I’m going have to be left alone with my thoughts. I’ll be back with another forgotten gem next week. Til then, enjoy the weekend and happy gaming!