Dear Bioware, Infinity Engine, Baldur's Gate, and Dungeons & Dragons:
I have a message for you. I'm sorry,
I've talked a lot of crap about Baldur's Gate and the Infinity Engine in my day. I found it unplayable. I thought that Planescape Torment had many wonderful ideas, mostly rendered frustrating and unworthy of its reputation by the Infinity Engine. And Icewind Dale! Who could have been so entranced by the combat of the prior games that they'd want to play a game of nothing but? Only the most die-hard Advanced Dungeons & Dragons fans, desperate for a computerized version of their tabletop games, that's who.
This was pretty much my argument, though not always so sarcastically.
I like computer role-playing games. It's probably my favorite genre of game. The whole genre owes an obvious debt to Dungeons & Dragons. It was invented purely to simulate D&D. Naturally, I've played a bunch of games based on D&D rules: from Curse of the Azure Bonds and Heroes of the Lance to Dark Sun to Baldur's Gate and Knights of the Old Republic. And I've never once said "well, that was a classic." There's always been something in the way, usually lack of plot, which makes sense, as the rules which the game is simulating are almost always combat rules. But there may be more to it than that. D&D is designed to be played on the tabletop, where the rules are simple enough that they can be accomplished through dice rolls. This isn't necessary on a computer, of course, which can process two, three, even ten dice rolls at a time! By focusing on modeling the AD&D rules, most of the games ignored the things which made video games good.
At least, this was my argument. And in many ways, it still is. But Baldur's Gate was the chief counter to this argument. Baldur's Gate saved CRPGs in the '90's, according to legend, and certainly put AD&D games back on the map after a lull that decade. It turned Bioware into one of the most respected developers in the industry. Its multiplayer options and even its single-player mode were considered the closest CRPGs had ever come to simulating the tabletop D&D experience.
Ah, but there's the rub, that last bit. I haven't played tabletop RPGs. In fact, it seemed to me that Baldur's Gate was critically acclaimed for being an accurate simulation of tabletop role-playing, something that I didn't really care about. I had no problem with people liking it, of course, but it wasn't me.
A couple weeks ago, however, I suddenly got the urge to play Baldur's Gate again. Maybe it was writing about late-90's JRPG for my book. Maybe it was the discussion I got into about whether Fallout was a direct inspiration for it or not. Maybe it was just time. But I felt the urge, and so I started playing.
I didn't hate it. Hell, I liked it. Rather a lot. Able to sit and play for hours at a time. What had been infuriating was now entirely playable and dare I say it, immersive. So. Bioware, Baldur's Gate, AD&D, and Infinity Engine: it looks like I was wrong. Sorry.
I'm not quite at the point where I'm going to declare Baldur's Gate an all-time classic. Its setting and plot are uninspiring, and it doesn't really do a good job of building and releasing tension over the course of the game. Most of fans don't put it on that pedestal either, saving their love for its sequel (all in good time, Bioware, all in good time). But now I grasp what it was trying to do. I respect it. And I even look forward to playing the other Infinity Engine games: Torment, Icewind Dale, and Baldur's Gate II.
This normally doesn't happen. I did give the game a good honest try when it was released. My gut feelings usually stick with me. Sometimes I'll develop a more, ah, nuanced opinion, such as the case of Final Fantasy VII which left me with a bad taste in my mouth in terms of storytelling, but which I've come to love for its gameplay. So why is Baldur's Gate different? If I knew, this would probably be a more interesting blog post (yeah, read to the end for the kicker. Sorry folks!)