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.

Dragon Age: Origins, cold turkey edition

In general, I am a better starter than a finisher, and I always find that when I have a big project to finish up, I have to stop doing the things I am normally doing so that I can concentrate. At the moment, I have had to stop playing DA:O while I finish a project that needs to get done in the next week. Tomorrow or so, it will be out of my system and I’ll be able to have a clear head about the task at hand. Today, though, I still have that residual twinge of wanting to fire up DA:O and have a nice tactical battle to blow off some steam.

There are a lot of things I like about DA:O. The combat is about as difficult as it should be: tough, but not as brutal as some of the Infinity Engine games were at points. Much of the dialogue is well written, and there are some really thoughtful, interesting encounters along the way (the characterization of the various demons is particularly nice). I think it’s easier to appreciate the dialogue in DA:O than it is in the Infinity Engine games. For one, it’s always tempting to skim, but I also think the Bioware games may be better written now than they used to be. On occasion, the Bioware games achieve a level of polish that most other games gesture towards but never quite achieve.

Four character slots seemed too few at first, but I think one strength of DA:O is that most NPC combinations are actually quite viable– even the characters that are less powerful add interesting play dynamics.

It’s not perfect, of course. Rogues are a particular weakness, I think. They’re much less fun than a lot of other RPGs– they have less to do, have fewer interesting tactical options, and the stealth experience is somewhat underwhelming. There’s less tactical depth to playing mages than in the Infinity Engine stuff, but that’s made up for by the visceral fun of spellcasting. And finally, their decision to go with a threat system is disappointing. I get the appeal– aggro-based combat systems make for good action sequences, when your opponent turns on the mage who’s just smacked them– but it makes for combat that’s too removed from the wargaming roots of RPGs for my taste.

Playing DA:O has brought me to a realization, though, which is that I’m just generally weak at coming up with good characters. I would like to link it to what Auden says about poets (I wanted to be one, once!) in his letter to Lord Byron: “His sense of other people’s very hazy.” I could make some claim that some of my male characters are Don Draper figures, ciphers that allow for the thinking-through of ideas of masculinity. That’s probably bullshit, honestly– I think they’re really just recycled noir/Hemingway/Western characters, because I’m kind of “unobservant, immature, and lazy” by temperament. (Though I hope that there’s some nuance there.)

I think it’s particularly difficult to play a CRPG with a character concept, though. For one, pragmatic concerns often deform my character concepts: I frequently want to hit as much content in on a single playthrough, and therefore my morally dubious mage has a spate of pious behavior, or my paladin takes a chaotic neutral turn halfway through. On the other hand, it’s hard to form compelling, independent narratives within a Bioware-style CRPG narrative, and maybe in CRPGs in general. You can have a character trajectory in mind, but follow-through becomes difficult without opportunities for your character to move in that direction. You can’t throw in with a particular faction unless the game has specifically allowed for that possibility, for example, and there’s little occasion for your character to show her animus against the goblins who killed her brother if it never comes up (or if you just kill them like everything else). At best, you can make your character into a broad archetype: paladin, mercenary, asshole. I appreciate that DA:O compels you to make role-playing choices, but you’re still left with a broad, fluid character at the end of the day.

Dragon Age: Origins

I had heard a lot of good things about DA:0, and to some extent, I get it: the game is fairly nice to look at (by my standards, at least), the setting is reasonably well-done, and the combat can have that great D&D tactical/well-oiled SWAT team feel, from time to time.

After playing it for a few hours, though, the flaws become very apparent. The setting is nothing we haven’t seen before. The writing is decent, but nothing really extraordinary. What really makes the game weak, though, is simply the gameplay: areas are constricted and railroad-y, but then the combats and encounters don’t work particularly well (which is the whole point of having railroaded areas). You fight the same enemies over and over, and they’re generic rather than distinctive. I’ve broken higher-level fights unintentionally, just by doing a ranged attack from a slightly further distance than had been scripted. Other higher-level bosses are only able to be beaten one way, particularly since you can’t easily grind to get good enough to beat them fairly. It’s easy to break quests unintentionally, and quests often don’t resolve in particularly satisfying ways. (And for a game where almost everything is scripted and narrowly constrained, these seem like particularly glaring problems.)

I think these problems make it abundantly clear that the people who made this game never really played role-playing games, because they clearly don’t get what a role playing game is about. They don’t get the attraction of combat, or the pleasure of figuring out different ways to resolve a situation, or the pleasures of exploration and serendipity, or countless other things. These are basic features of a role-playing game, and the problems of the game are things you quickly learn not to do when DMing.

And for all of the hate that Bethesda gets (and rightly, I think, for Oblivion), these are things that Bethesda mostly does well. Combat can be a bit generic, as can the writing, and character builds often end up running in the same direction, but the bones of Bethesda games often do manage to give a satisfying role-playing game experience. DA:O, to my mind, simply doesn’t.

Role Playing

There’s an interview (http://consumer.hardocp.com/article.html?art=MTA2NCwxLCxoY29uc3VtZXI=) with Ken Rolston of Bethesda up at some random website I’ve never heard of. It’s always nice to find someone’s an RPG true believer.

“Rolston: I had once dreamed that roleplaying games would transform culture. I expected roleplaying games to take their place alongside literature, drama, and cinema. It didn’t happen that way, perhaps just because it is so much more work for users to produce a narrative than to consume one — or perhaps because crafting narratives as a hobbyist is of interest only to a limited number of people. I’m only a little disappointed, though. For a small number of people, roleplaying games have become a uniquely satisfying pastime, perhaps even occasionally a vehicle for exploring the human condition.”

I think people who play role playing games and take them seriously know what he’s talking about; there’s a feeling you sometimes get when you’re like, “whoa, there’s something powerful going on here.” It’s that feeling that keeps you coming back, that makes me hope I’m still playing when I’m three times my age.

I enjoy computer role-playing games well enough, but even my favorites don’t come close to a good session of PnP role playing. The older you get and the more experiences you have, it gets harder to enjoy a computer role-playing game– no matter how sandboxy its sandbox. Your experiences, who you are, what you believe– these things just make PnP playing richer and better. It’s amazing stuff. If you’re in the club, you know what I’m talking about.

Even so, I think Rolston is unrealistic in his expectations. Things that are popular are either crass and undemanding, or fads. People make meaning for themselves apart from the whirl of popular culture.

Oblivion

Right is right and fair is fair, and it’s only honest to hang my head and confess that I’m pretty seriously hooked on Oblivion. (That and David Hackett Fischer’s ‘Albion’s Seed’)

To some extent, I think it’s possible to see Morrowind as a gamble– Morrowind was a move away from the leetness of Daggerfall, and a bid for a more mainstream audience. I think you have to see Oblivion as the payoff.

OB’s stealth system feels nice. A few kinds of besties ragdoll really nicely when you snipe them (skeletons being my personal favorite). Stealth in Morrowind was a joke– immersion-breaking, for one, and also just plain broken. Today I stalked some deer in the Colovian Highlands (which feels a little too real, actually), and also circled around behind and killed a bandit (ditto).

Not to say that it’s flawless, though. For one, it’s weird to have a bow as a stealth weapon– the point has been made before, but crossbows make a lot more sense. And I don’t think stealth attacks really work without localized damage. In the selfsame Colovian Highlands I was clearing out an abandoned mine and I managed to take out not one but two goblins by shooting each in the arm. Hopefully at some point in the TES future, there will be localized damage, crossbows, and stealth-worthy blades (daggers, shortswords, &c.). (This doesn’t seem to be the trend, but one can always hope)

Thus far the vast majority of my impressions of OB have been positive. Around sunset I ran into another bandit on the road who I dispatched without much trouble. I pressed on further West as the day darkened; it seems weird to say, but it felt _lonely_.