Breaking through Baldur’s Gate

I finished Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition. I’ve tried to play the first Baldur’s Gate before, but never got very far; it’s the only game in the series I’d ever tried. Beating the campaign feels like an accomplishment. And especially once my party was around level 5, the game did start being generally more fun, the truly challenging battles more memorable instead of just another in a long slog of painful party wipes and reloads.

I knocked out the Tales of the Sword Coast content along the way; while nothing in that was vital, I thought that it represented a general improvement in storytelling, with a concentrated hub town serving as a springboard for a variety of diverse quests, from a variety of events related to delving into a truly nasty dungeon, to sailing for a fabled shipwreck on a distant island only to find yourself in the middle of lycanthrope tribal warfare, to putting down a cult dedicated to a powerful demonic enemy. (There were probably more Ancient and Terrible Evils in the quests of Tales than in the entire base game–it did start to feel a little crowded). Two very different elements represented my favorite components of the expansion. Probably my single favorite was uncovering the layers of mystery and deceit associated with the shipwreck and islanders; having the option to befriend a local islander and a long-lost mage and having them both help me in the final moments felt surprisingly organic for a game whose mechanics typically grind away all too visibly. Second favorite was dealing with some of the puzzles in the lower levels of Durlag’s Tower, which really helped develop the setting and the tortured mindset of the dungeon’s creator and long-dead lord. The dungeon wasn’t just dangerous and torturous; it was created by a man who had suffered great losses, and his psyche left a permanent impact on its design and implementation. Both of these examples of favorite moments highlight where characterization and environmental storytelling won out over heavy lore dumps and hackneyed, conventional plotting; the latter, unfortunately, constituted the majority of Baldur’s Gate. (While I liked some of the lore I picked up from the game’s items, I object to the idea of lore descriptions for items. How are the characters gleaning this detailed information just from inspecting it? Meanwhile, the in-game history books, mostly short chapters of larger histories, suggest there’s almost too much lore for the relatively straightforward story being told in the game itself. But that point probably has more to do with the Forgotten Realms setting in general.)

I don’t really want to focus on the bad, though. It’s an old game, and I don’t want to just pick away at it. Still, it must be said: the plot largely serves as a vehicle for advancing your character in power and exploring new map segments. It’s (mostly) serviceable, but ultimately mundane and uninspired. That said, even the base game had its moments. I liked exploring the city of Baldur’s Gate itself and learning more about its mercantilist government topped by oligarchs. I liked learning more about how the disparate pieces of the story fit together into Sarevok’s master plan–which was more interesting than any boring old stuff about a Great and Terrible Destiny for the player character. I think my favorite moment in the base game was when you encounter the doppelgangers who take on the aspects of Elminster and Gorion in the dungeons below Candlekeep. Before that, the doppelgangers are very transparent, often clearly searching for a weakness if not outright hostile even before they reveal their true forms. But these two, for a moment, had me wondering what was real. Could Gorion have survived? What “Elminster” and “Gorion” said sounded sensible. I hadn’t confronted doppelgangers putting so much energy into convincing me of their worn identities, and their answers were plausible. What if I had fallen under the sway of a powerful illusion? Forcing me to pick dialogue responses there really made me consider my decisions and how I reacted. I had to remind myself that everything I’d seen before indicated that these two were fake. And of course, they were. But the game made me doubt myself, and I was anxious and uncomfortable with the prospect of choosing to fight them, even though I felt it was necessary. Seeing them revert to doppelgangers to start that fight was a huge relief a little too soon, so it’s possible that the game could have pushed harder. Imagine if they’d stayed in their forms and used spells you’d expect a mage to have up until the moment of their deaths! But it was still a very good moment where the emotional stakes were raised, however briefly.

As soon as you defeat Sarevok at the end, there’s a closing cinematic, the credits roll, and then, in the particular version I have, you’re immediately launched into the opening cinematic of the 2016 Beamdog expansion, Siege of Dragonspear. That opening cinematic does a good job of establishing the setting and the new antagonist. Then you’re dumped into a new dungeon, where a quick game-engine cutscene shows that you’ve pursued the final holdout of Sarevok’s followers to a decrepit tomb. Already, there’s a little more dialogue, and the characters of my party feel familiar and comfortable together. The relationships largely built up in my head with little textual support feel reinforced by that opening. What I mean to say is, the story was already more interesting to me, the characters more alive, in just the opening 5 minutes. Kudos to the writers–of course, they’d had almost two decades to let the first game permeate, and they could take into account the elements of the second game and developments in game storytelling over time. Still, I’m impressed. I’ve sunk many hours into Siege of Dragonspear since when I originally started this post, and the improvements to characterization, pacing, and storytelling have remained sharp. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s a colossal leap forward when compared with the original game.

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