I will now present to you an extremely abridged history of PC role-playing games:
Once upon a time, there was tabletop role playing, and it’s most famous example, Dungeons and Dragons. The hobby grew out of the tabletop wargaming hobby. In these early days, there was no conventional wisdom yet about what a tabletop RPG should be, and the genre took off into a dozen different disparate directions. Some faded away, while others became mini-traditions of their own.
In such an environment, trying to guess what a critical mass of potential customers actually want is partly an exercise in guesswork, and partly an exercise in trial and error. TSR (it’s publisher) put D&D through a refinement process, resulting in several different versions of the game. I won’t go into this in too much detail, partly because I don’t really know it. But the first “edition wars” sprung up over these different versions of tabletop roleplaying’s flagship franchaise.
Looking back now, I see this as an iterative process. TSR (or later, Wizards of the Coast) would put out a new version, wait for the community’s opinion to coalesce enough that you can locate a center, then start working on the next version. This process, while not exactly democratic, was at least democracy-adjacent. The community and the developers worked together as well as they could manage to collectively wrangle into the light what exactly it was we all wanted this thing of ours to be.
Eventually, this process made its way onto the PC. I’m actually just barely old enough to remember Pools of Radiance, which I played somewhere around age ten or eleven, though I don’t believe I ever finished it, or even managed to puzzle out how exactly THAC0 worked. It didn’t hold my interest – it was too weird, rough, and difficult to play. It couldn’t hold my interest as well as, say, the Final Fantasy series, which was just getting started at the time.
So I didn’t play the first Baldur’s Gate when in was released in 1998. In fact, I didn’t play either game in the series until sometime in the mid-2000s (I don’t remember exactly when). There’s a sort of swap meet/outlet mall in Los Angeles called the Slauson Super Mall where I happened across used copies of both the Fallout and Baldur’s Gate series. Most likely it’s the best ten dollars I ever spent.
The reason I include all this backstory is as context for my attempt to puzzle out what it was then-rookie developer Bioware was trying to do with the game. Nowadays (largely thanks to Bioware itself) people have a relatively clear and developed idea of what a PC RPG should look like, but back then the genre was a somewhat uncomfortable adjunct to the tabletop experience.
The basic problem is that a computer is no substitute for a live DM. Tabletop roleplaying is a tricky balance or freedom and restriction, requiring multiple snap subjective judgments every time a player decides they want to try and bluff the guards, create a molotov cocktail out of a whiskey bottle, or whatever shenanigans they inevitably get up to.
On the other hand, a computer has certain advantages over a live DM. Dice rolls and their attendant calculations, for example, can be done in a flash, greatly speeding up combat. Artists and builders can create dozens of maps and mini-quests – never again will the DM have to tell the party they can’t go to Blackrock Castle because he hasn’t made maps for it yet. Best of all, it doesn’t require anyone to herd 3-8 cats into the same house at the same time, which is possibly the single most difficult thing about the traditional tabletop experience.
Given all this, I’m going to try and put myself in the headspace of Bioware circa 1996 or so. They want to make a PC RPG, so they want to make a game that takes the most advantage of the medium’s strengths while trying to minimize or maneuver around its weaknesses. So they made a game that:
- Was combat-heavy: An encounter that might take an hour to resolve in a tabletop setting might take just a few minutes on a PC. Dungeons and Dragons had developed a battle-tested rhythm of fight-breather-fight again, and keeping that rhythm in a new environment meant adding more fights.
- Was real-time with pause: I suspect this was partly a reaction to the popularity of RTS games at the time. The verdict is mixed to this day on how well this type of gameplay has aged.
- Was deliberately Dungeons and Dragons: It’s set in the Forgotten Realms setting so much that both Drizzt and Elminster show up. Excepting the switch to real-time with pause, it imported the ruleset of the time wholesale. It even (miraculously) manages to import the hardscrabble vibe of a low-level D&D campaign.
- Provided players with as much freedom as common sense allowed: The game does not railroad. It points you towards the next point in the story but expects and even wants you to get distracted along the way. The slow pace of leveling (see ‘low-level campaign’, above) facilitates this, as it’s forgiving towards doing things out of order.
- Had a minimalistic story: The game’s “main quest,” so to speak, is not the focus of the gameplay but more like a set of checkpoints. It deliberately avoids interfering with the player’s independence.
- Started to focus on companions: The companions of the original game aren’t quite as memorable as some of the standouts of later Bioware, but they’re more memorable by far than anyone in a PC RPG before the Infinity Engine era. I see this as an attempt by the developers to recreate some of the camaraderie and variety of a tabletop gaming session.
- Focused on worldbuilding and ambiance: The hand-painted backgrounds are gorgeous and rightly praised, but I’ve also always thought that the sound design in these games were excellent, from the barks to the ambient sounds of wind/surf/nature.
Given the complexity of the task, I’d rate their success as admirable. I recently replayed the whole seriesAlbeit in its “Enhanced Edition” form, sparing me some technical and UI headaches., and was surprised at how well the session-to-session experience of the game held up.
Of course, some things hold up better than others, and we’ll get into more specifics once I actually get into my playthrough, which starts next entry.
 Albeit in its “Enhanced Edition” form, sparing me some technical and UI headaches.
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