Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Videogame Solipsist: Baldur's Gate I

Baldur's Gate(PC) 1998
In the mid to late 90s, I flirted with being even nerdier than I already was: Magic The Gathering and other 'collectible card games' became a short time obsession. In fact, I had subscribed to InQuest magazine and eventually tried forcing all of this on my friends. As if that wasn't enough, the same went for a starter kit of Dungeons & Dragons. I might have gotten my friends to try collectible card games once or twice, but the D&D kit never saw use beyond me reading the big manual over and over, messing with the figures included, and wishing I had friends who weren't jerks. Since I never had a girlfriend in high school without being a D&D and Magic playin' fool, I doubt it would've made much difference. And I think I would have really loved D&D because, hell, I'm a writer and I'm a good improviser. Plus I have a soft spot for anything fantasy. On a sidte note, one of friends was really into Warhammer, specifically the naval sort of Warhammer, so I don't know why he felt so 'above' my stuff. But I guess this is just nerdy kettles calling nerdy pots black.

Anyway, it was during this time that my family got a second, newer computer and I was getting fed up with my Nintendo 64. Thus I ended up going through a phase where I played a bunch of awesome PC games in about 3 months before I got back into console gaming again thanks to the Playstation I got for Christmas in 1998. With Half-Life 1 and Starcraft fresh in my memory--two games that revolutionized their respective genres--it seemed only appropriate that I would play Baldur's Gate in early '99, a game that similarly revolutionized PC RPGs after they had spent years wandering in the wilderness.
The original Baldur's Gate is one of those "classic" games that you can go back to now and find lots of flaws with. It's a matter of evolution in terms of game mechanics and graphics. Graphically, it hasn't aged badly, but it doesn't still look amazing, either. Mostly, I suppose, the flaws are with its gameplay, which tries to encompass too much in one game. To be a true D&D experience, it would need to allow for a wider range of options and character types. Even though you can go anywhere at any point in the game, theoretically, you're definitely guided down a linear series of stops. At the same time, you'll be hard pressed to finish the game if you don't make a character that's at least very good at combat. Baldur's Gate isn't as combat intensive as the dungeon hacky Icewind Dale games, but it's still more or less mandatory to beat the game. The Fallout games did a bit of a better job with this 'open ended character' idea; it wasn't easy to finish Fallout 1 or 2 with a non-combat character, but it was at least possible. This isn't the case for Baldur's Gate, but then again, that kind of play never interested me. I suppose the biggest problem with the game is that you would really need to know a lot about the D&D universe and rule system to understand most things without trial and error. The death mechanic and spell systems are very, very different from most other RPGs and without reading the impressively thick manual you would only find these things out too late. Even as familiar as I was with D&D, it took me awhile to get over the fact that Warrior types are incredibly basic and have no 'special' attacks. And the armor class thing has thankfully been finessed a bit in later rule revisions of D&D. THAC0?? Oh no!!
However, I'm not here to criticize Baldur's Gate. Sure, the future Bioware/Black Isle games would improve on nearly every aspect of this game--from the combat (the Icewind Dale series), the story/dialogue (Planescape: Torment), to the expansiveness of the world and number of options available to you (Baldur's Gate II)--but there's always something to be said for being first. To my knowledge, this was the first RPG that operated in real time but let you push the spacebar to 'pause' the action and issue commands on the fly. This made the game simultaneously more streamlined and more strategic than the average PC RPG. This 'real time' concept carried over into the non-combat elements of the game, meaning that Baldur's Gate had day/night cycles and changing weather. Unfortunately this tied in with the D&D mechanics of how you regained spells and replenished health, so you would have to stop every so often and 'rest', causing hours to pass in the process so that you would suddenly be in the dead of night and at a disadvantage (unless you had someone with infravision). Or you might have that annoying thing where you try to rest but random enemies interrupt your sleep, so your battered party has to fend off some foes with low health and/or spells. In which case you quickly learned to use (abuse??) the game's save/load system. And if you didn't rest, eventually your party members would complain incessantly and their abilities would suffer. This made the game more realistic but also more frustrating, too.
Though I never got far into the game, the story and characters were the first inkling most of us got of how brilliant Bioware/Black Isle's writers were. The first two Fallout games were out by this point but they were mostly just about the character you made; as they were set in post-nuclear war settings, you were alone for long stretches of time and the world was a lot of empty, moody expanses. Still, it all gets a bit complicated when you know that while Bioware wasn't involved with the Fallout series, Black Isle worked a bit on Baldur's Gate and solely developed later games using the Infinity Engine ( the engine made for Baldur's Gate) including the aforementioned Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale. At any rate, I was looking over a FAQ for this game yesterday and Baldur's Gate has way more characters than I remember, most of them with unique voice actors and personalities. The most memorable is, of course, the crazy Minsc, who has a hamster named Boo who he thinks is some kind of 'giant space hamster.' It'll be awhile before you forget his battle cry of "Go the eyes Boo, go for the eyes! Rarrrghhhhh!" The story, meanwhile, was a classic fantasy tale of the main character (who you create) trying to figure out his or her backstory set against the backdrop of bandit raids and an iron shortage in the Baldur's Gate/Sword Coast region. I think it eventually comes out that you're a spawn of one of the Gods or Demons of the D&D world, which is a pretty interesting plot twist.
Though the Fallout series got there first, Baldur's Gate set the precedent of Bioware games having moral choices and entirely different quests based on your actions. Of course this moral system is borrowed wholesale from the D&D 'alignment' system, but it arguably makes the first, best, and most consistent use of it in an adaptation of D&D to videogame. Depending on your alignment and the responses you give in dialogue, you can end up intimidating people, tricking them, insulting them, praising them, and much more. Not only did this go for NPCs, it went for your party, too. Depending on their alignment, the characters in your party might leave if they don't like your actions or how you're running things. There are also a few 'pairs' of characters, so if you, say, get rid of Jaheira or Khalid, the other will leave, too. If memory serves, you could even run into situations where your party members were so horrified/disappointed with your actions, they would leave and subsequently attack you. Speaking of killing: since I didn't play Fallout until later, this was also the first RPG I played where you could kill anyone you wanted in the game. Yes, this would call down the guards and eventually powerful bands of mercenaries and troops, but it was a really novel thing for the time.

I still have my complete box copy of Baldur's Gate and looking over the contents just now really puts me back in the mood and mindset of a younger version of me, incredibly excited to sit down with this game and go on an adventure. The Baldur's Gate series always struck a Lord Of The Rings-like balance of exploration, story/dialogue, and combat, and so whenever I think of classic RPGs--PC or console--it's usually what I'm thinking of. Looking back, the game has some flaws insofar as the gameplay is concerned--the difficulty varies wildly depending on your party and how you're playing the game, on top of the sudden curves already inherent to it because of the various assassins and 'boss' characters--and you'll need to do a lot of tweaking and modding to get it to run properly on today's computers. But I would argue that, for its time and for how its aged, Baldur's Gate is every bit as important and still incredible as its '98 brothers, Starcraft and Half-Life.

Just remember to gather your party before venturing forth.

No comments: