Baldur's Gate ('98 Week)

I turn left into the rabbit warren of corridors that make up the campus center--tiny rooms behind worn blonde wood doors, each dedicated to a student group: the hang gliding club, the transgender union, the young republicans, ROTC. Turning a corner, I see Donovan, Chris and Ellen sitting on the floor.

“Oh good, you’re here,” says Donovan, adjusting his glasses. “I was going to start without you.”

“Thanks for waiting.” I sit down on the cold floor and reach into my black Jansport knapsack. I remove my Players Handbook. Unlike my fellow players, mine is first edition, dog-eared and filled with pencil drawings from when I was 11. Thiers are second edition, and pristine. Noobs.

Donovan pulls out a folding, cardboard DM screen and a Crown Royal bag that jitters with the sound of possibilities--10 siders, 20 siders, and more. Ellen fumbles with her single companion set of pink dice. Chris stares at page 59 of the Fiend Folio.

“Chris, you and the Lamia Noble are just never going to work out. She eats internal organs or something.”

“Shut up Jules,” he says, blushing, closing the page on the bare-breasted serpent woman I know all too well.

For the next few hours, we sit on the floor and make a world. It’s cold. It’s uncomfortable. But the story we tell feels wholly ours. The choices we make matter in a way that little seems to in college classrooms. The sound of the dice ticking on the concrete floor is magical.

This week, Baldur’s Gate was released by BioWare. Unlike the loose interpretations of the old Gold Box D&D games from my college days (Pool of Radiance, etc), this new computer-aided imagining of D&D isn't just a familiar place (the same Forgotten Realms setting we adventured on in college, and in which Pool was also set), it recreates with deep precision the same ruleset we used at the time: straight-up Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and in a level of detail that makes the Gold Box era seem like the age of dinosaurs.

If there’s a fault to Baldur’s Gate, it’s that it may be too faithful a recreation of the AD&D ruleset. Character creation is incredibly detailed--down to rolling and rerolling and rerolling dice to get that perfect “min-max” character with nothing but 16s and a few key 18s. Combat, while it eschews actually showing you dice rolls for every attack, is AD&D to the core. With fighters standing toe-to-toe, trading blows until somebody keels over dead. Mages start the game made out of tracing paper, tediously memorizing spells, but become out-of-balance superpowers by the mid-levels.

Personally, all of that feels to me like putting on a pair of old jeans fresh out of the drier. The depth and complexity of D&D is here in all its hot twisted mess, and it’s glorious. The faithful recreation of D&D tropes like thieves’ skills and charisma add real depth to the role playing experience, a depth that’s been frankly missing from Computer RPGs. But for gamers used to either a more straightforward dungeon crawling experience (Diablo), or a more nuanced combat system (Fallout), AD&D could seem an odd collection of conventions.

Thankfully, all the bookkeeping mostly disappears, and once out of the way, Baldur’s Gate shines, and shines bright. The story--a fairly simple affair of impending doom, really--is beautifully told. Broken into chapters, much like a pen and paper D&D game is broken into sessions, the pacing is spot-on.

The characters--not just your own, but the NPCs who join your adventuring party, and those who will aid or thwart your quests--are well realized. Their motivations are quite complex (don’t mess with someone’s alignment!) and their dialog genuine, and occasionally quite funny.

The environments are richly detailed and feel far more like art than the repetitive garishness of Diablo. There’s a real satisfaction of walking through the landscape knowing that each tree and rock was placed there on purpose--perhaps just to look pretty, but perhaps to hide a treasure, or serve as cover for an ambushing gnoll. The environment is so vibrant that, just as in a good book, it becomes a character itself, as seagulls fly overhead, flames flicker, and smoke billows.

Unfortunately, I have yet to test BioWare’s real innovation in Baldur’s Gate--multiplayer. Criticism of computer RPGs is often that they are solitary and sterile experiences, far removed from the inherently social and organic experiences that evolve on both sides of a DM’s screen. BioWare has included support for up to 6 players, each player controlling one character in the adventuring party. While this sounds amazing, I can’t help thinking that if I could cat-herd 5 like-minded friends into a 4 hour session on some Tuesday night, I should perhaps have them over to play actual D&D.

And I just might. The best part of Baldur’s Gate may not be the game itself, but the residues it will leave behind. Memories of just how good D&D can be, and just how much fun it is to role play in the land of Elminster and Drizzt Do'Urden and the rest of the Forgotten Realms.

Those are lessons that Jules knew 10 years ago very well. A bit more grown up, the world a bit heavy on his shoulders, they are lessons 31 year old Julian could perhaps use tutoring on.

Comments

IF only I had the ability to experience BG for the first time again. That ability with coupled with the time to become lost in the game world would be so amazing. Instead, I will just reinstall this again on my laptop, with all the patches. Play for an hour, and then have to go to bed because the duldrums of work will be calling in a few short hours.

I gave the first one a miss. Planescape: Torment was my first Infinity Engine game; I recently tried replaying BG1, and it was a pretty good experience, but it was diminished by how much better PS:T and BG2 were as storytelling and gameplay experiences.

Get poor Chris a copy of Deities and Demigods. At least in there, most of the naked women have human legs.

A good friend of mine used to love to DM our D&D sessions. His favorite part was to wait until we felt like we were accomplishing something, and then unleash a surprise Lich on us. It wiped us out every time.

Good times, sunnier days.

What's all this I hear about a 'miniature giant space hamster'??

"You must gather your party before venturing forth."

This game was my gateway into pen & paper roleplaying (albeit after a gestation of two more years)... So, I think I can say that the game itself was an amazing, engaging experience, and I think I can say that on the game's own merit, but I do wonder if the stuff it'd led me to later is coloring my memory of the game itself.

It sounds like I have an excuse to re-install and play through again. Right? Right?

I have the Baldurs Gate 1+2 and Icewind Dale 1+2 boxset including expansion stuff. I know I should get round to playing them on my netbook but I also know that I can't devote the time. Gaaargh.

I have NWN kicking around too but I've rolled three characters on it before and my interest got sidetracked each time and NWN got uninstalled to clear the drive up. I'm also putting off buying PS:T from GoG. Oh, and I have a stalled playthrough of DA:O on the PC, just too much stuff competing for my attention. Mass Effect 2 was the last RPG I played to completion, before that, Risen. I guess for me, Epic means 20hrs playtime. Kind of a shame since the imminent release of Ultimate Newcomer for the C64 (<---That's not a typo) is 70-280hrs long.

Could you all stop making new games please... except the Activision side of Activision Blizzard who can't back an interesting or 'new' game to save their share price.

Tanglebones wrote:

I gave the first one a miss. Planescape: Torment was my first Infinity Engine game; I recently tried replaying BG1, and it was a pretty good experience, but it was diminished by how much better PS:T and BG2 were as storytelling and gameplay experiences.

My sentiments exactly. To me, BG1 is best appreciated as the first step to bigger and better things.

I liked BG1 better than 2. Never managed to make it out of the first dungeon in BG2... not sure, I suspect it had more to do with how my life was shaping up at the time than the game itself. But I must've explored every single inch of the first Baldur's Gate.

Oh yeah, this comment comes from the future me etc etc etc.

Awesome article, making me wish I had the time to once again dive into games that take a week or more to complete.

If I hadn't already started replaying Baldurs Gate II then this is the point where I'd be moaning about having now to reinstall and start replaying Baldurs Gate II.

However, I have. So I wont.

Clemenstation wrote:

I liked BG1 better than 2. Never managed to make it out of the first dungeon in BG2... not sure, I suspect it had more to do with how my life was shaping up at the time than the game itself. But I must've explored every single inch of the first Baldur's Gate.

Oh yeah, this comment comes from the future me etc etc etc.

I'll send you an achievement if you beat BG2. Honest. From the future, even.

I've got BG1 and 2 and IWD1 and 2 sitting around on disk. But I'm missing a couple of disks.

After listening to this week's podcast, I *could not stop myself* from going to GOG and purchasing all four of them.

I hope you GWJ conference call people are proud of yourselves!

Don't forget the mod that lets you run BG in BG2's higher-res version of the Infinity engine.

Tiger Walts wrote:

Don't forget the mod that lets you run BG in BG2's higher-res version of the Infinity engine.

BGTuTu - this helped a lot with my playthrough. It also lets you use BG2's ruleset, so you can play the specialty classes and kits that aren't in BG1

Quinten_Stone wrote:

Get poor Chris a copy of Deities and Demigods. At least in there, most of the naked women have human legs.

Well since I am pretty sure I am the Chris in the story, I am glad to report that I had a copy of deities and demigods, in college, when the article was written in 1998 and still on the shelf now in 2010. Rarely used but much perused.

Sorry it took me 12 years to comment on this thread.

I'm living with a couple of friends straight out of school, all with PCs. One friend has an 'illegitimate' copy of Baldur's Gate so we've tried the multiplayer, it's awesome. Only we need to pass the relevant disc around whenever we change area. It's a PITA, but better than buying blank CDs on what we are all earning.

/1998

Oh man, you jerks are going to make me buy and download, and play, this game.

Rat Boy wrote:

"You must gather your party before venturing forth."

Needs to be said about twelve thousand more times for it to really feel like Baldur's Gate.

You must gather your party before venturing forth.

I seem to remember it differently...

Malor wrote:

You must gather the loot from your party of corpses before venturing forth.

Clemenstation wrote:

I seem to remember it differently...

Malor wrote:

You must gather the loot from your party of corpses before venturing forth.

That part goes without saying.

"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."

Did you kill that guy? Or did you let him live? I was so tempted to kill him, but never did.

sithload wrote:

"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."

Did you kill that guy? Or did you let him live? I was so tempted to kill him, but never did.

I kicked him in the head 'til he was dead.

wordsmythe wrote:
sithload wrote:

"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."

Did you kill that guy? Or did you let him live? I was so tempted to kill him, but never did.

I kicked him in the head 'til he was dead.

If I recall, I bludgeoned him bare-fist and he ran away. That's my faulty recollection anyway.
There are so many great soundbites from that game. Including those we added ourselves for our characters (startrek sound pack = "He's dead Jim", monty python soundpack="runaway, runaway", etc.)

I also liked BG1 a lot more than BG2 (which was still excellent). BG2 got this steampunk vibe going with a villain that broke my childhood images of D&D. Not a bad thing, just doesn't invoke the same nostalgia for me. BG1's story was simple but very "poetic" for lack of a better word. The whole lost family with mysterious villain somehow connected. The dreamscapes with the voiceover. And on. I will never forget the opening scene in BG1 with the knight at the top of the building and the blood flowing into the cobblestone grooves.

All that said, while BG1 was really the ultimate return of D&D to the PC, the goldbox to me were technically better from a rule implementation point of view. They felt much more D&D to me, especially with the turn base. ToEE would have been an excellent return to this if people could have gone back to turn based after experiences the semi-turnbase/realtime of Infinity engine and NWN series.

"Me will crush you, crush you to goo!" <-- still say this around the house when I'm frustrated

sithload wrote:

"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."

Did you kill that guy? Or did you let him live? I was so tempted to kill him, but never did.

I don't remember what I did in the game, but ever since BG1, "Heya" has been my online greeting of choice in MMOs.

burntham77 wrote:
sithload wrote:

"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."
"Heya."

Did you kill that guy? Or did you let him live? I was so tempted to kill him, but never did.

I don't remember what I did in the game, but ever since BG1, "Heya" has been my online greeting of choice in MMOs.

Ultima 7's "Hello, friend" is my default. Freaks my brother out.

Them's were de days!

Timely article to come across courtesy of the front page, as I am rounding the corners off of the Tales of the Sword Coast, and will wrap the game (for the first time, despite having owned it since release!) in June. Greatly looking forward to playing through BG2, as well.

I think that one of the most significant aspects of BG that made it enjoyable was its willingness to penalize the player for their own poor decisions; a broken build, poor equipment choice, or ill-chosen companions had real consequences, and as a result, there's a depth to it as an RPG that modern games in the same vein (DA, for example) lack. One of the last of its kind, in that regard.

brokenclavicle wrote:

Them's were de days!

Dude, you live in Costa Rica? I was sitting at SJO at the end of last week, catching up on the Conference Call podcasts on my iPod, and wondering whether (a) I could manage to move to CR in the next year or two, and (b) whether there was any kind of gaming community there. So jealous!