The Baldur’s Gate series

So I’m finally playing through Baldur’s Gate 2 in earnest, after several started (and aborted) attempts. It has me reflecting on what I think of the series as a whole, especially given the series’ hallowed status among diehard CRPG players.

To begin with, there are really a lot of things I like about the Baldur’s Gate series. I think the Infinity Engine is nicely polished and allows for a lot of flexibility in the way the game is played. I enjoy the flexibility of the magic system, although I think it feels a bit clunky compared to later Bioware magic implementations (I’m thinking of DA:O in particular). And one of the clearest strengths of the series, I think, is the way combat manages to feel both tactical and satisfying, but also with a sense of the underlying mechanics– in DA:O, for example, the combat system always feels a bit overly hectic and chancy; in BG and BG2, by contrast, combat seems like a puzzle that can be cracked with the right application of spells and tactical deployment.

For me, though, the BG games seem less successful in comparison to later Bioware offerings. For whatever reason, the characters seem more one dimensional, the plots a bit flimsier, the ideas a bit less compelling. By contrast, DA:O takes one of the laziest tropes in CRPGs and executes it with memorable characters, compelling places, and satisfying fights (despite their tactical limitations). (I’ve frequently been impressed at the way that the DA games manage to make the lore of the DA world memorable and meaningful.) The BG games shoot high, but never quite get there. Maybe some of that is precisely because of the tactical depth of the game– there’s an ever-present temptation to minmax a little bit more, to tweak your party composition, to rethink how your spellcasters are kitted out.

At the end of the day, I think the BG games are ultimately a close CRPG relation to those classic D&D modules you’ve got in a box somewhere in your attic. When they work, they give you a nicely packaged adventure with a memorable place and some good fights (and maybe some sweet, sweet loot, too). But the contrast here is telling, too, because the strength of tabletop games is that they can be played in a whole host of ways: you can come up with novel strategies to defeat an enemy or solve a quest, or the game can even drift substantially from the author’s original conception. Bored of combat, but love the color text? Your DM can adjust. Hate the color text and want to skip to the combat? Your DM can adjust to that, too. (At one point, I had a memorable DM who would just say “color text, color text” whenever running D&D modules.) But the BG games lack this flexibility: their plots are on rails and their problems often have one solution. They’re an achievement, to be sure, but one that often seems limited in hindsight.