Achilles: This game. Is taking. Forever.
The Grognard: That bad, huh?
Achilles: There’s just so much of it! It’s like they finished a full game, and then said “you know what, let’s throw in another sixty hours of side content.”
The Grognard: 1998 was the debut year of the Great Big Honking PC Role-Playing Game, or GBHPCRPG. Baldur’s Gate came out that year, and the series taken as a whole is probably the apotheosis of the form. But Fallout 2 came out just a month earlier, and that was great, big, and honking too. At least when compared to the first in the series. All of the sudden, RPG developers realized it was feasible to make their games almost twice as long as they had been previously.
Achilles: But why? Who asked them to do that? Top Hat Guy’s soul is weary from killing his 43rd spider pull in the Cloakwood. Why couldn’t there just have been 42?
The Grognard: We asked them to do that. GBHPCRPGs are popular. They sell well. We keep buying them, so they keep making them. Didn’t you sink, like, seven hundred hours into Skyrim or something?
Achilles: That’s not something I’m proud of anymore. I don’t remember half of those hours, and now hearing the Whiterun theme makes me break out in hives. Didn’t you say there were normal-length classic RPGs, too?
The Grognard: There were. Fallout, Planescape: Torment, the original Deus Ex – all were relatively short by today’s standards. Baldur’s Gate, though, was the Skyrim of its time. At least in terms of the amount of content.
Achilles: I don’t know how you all did it. I looked for walkthroughs of this game, and found THIS on an actual website. It’s a walkthrough for the entire game, and the expansion, written in plaintext, about a thousand pages long, last updated in 2002.
The Grognard: Ah yes, SWCarter’s walkthrough. I know it well. It’s one of the better ones.
Achilles: Of course you do. It’s weird seeing stuff from the era before the actual internet existed. How could you stand it, alt-tabbing to that thing every ten minutes, in fear of missing the +5 Ultimate Death Sword hidden in a bale of hay? Did you no part of you get bored?
The Grognard: Yes, and we complained then, as you’re complaining now. But we still bought the games. The truth is, as a group, the shortier, artier RPGs never sold as well as the bigger, commercial ones.
Achilles: I guess it makes sense. They make movies that are way too long all the time, even though you can almost never find anyone who actually wants to sit in a movie theatre for three and a half hours. But I thought this game was supposed to be an adaptation of the tabletop experience. If an actual live GM had groups go through this many nearly identical fights against 4-8 kobolds with fire arrows, they’d have an empty table before long.
The Grognard: True. Keep in mind that in 1998, Bioware were still rookies, so to speak. In the second game you’re going to see less filler, less slapdash content, and more polish.
Achilles: So basically, Bioware GM’ed the first two games. Who’s GMing the one that’s coming out?
The Grognard: Larian Studios, best known for the Divinity series.
Achilles: And what are they like?
The Grognard: Well, the founder walks around in a full suit of plate armor.
Achilles: I have to say, that is a promising start. The fact that it’s no longer considered socially acceptable to wear full or even demi-plate in public has always been frustrating to me.
The Grognard: The studio certainly has personality. But is it the right personality? The Divinity games tended towards the tongue-in-cheek, with a sort of “ironic Disney” aesthetic. Baldur’s Gate is different. Of course there’s humor, but the games went to some pretty dark places, which you’ll see for yourself as you keep playing.
Achilles: There was some darkness in the announcement trailer, though. That flaming fist guy turned into a mind flayer, and there was all that Cthulhu-looking stuff floating in the sky.
The Grognard: Yes, but we’ve seen so little of the third game that we have to get our speculation where we can. All hope is not yet lost, however. Do you remember I mentioned another tradition, distinct from the Bioware one, last time?
Achilles: The Black Isle one?
The Grognard: That’s how I described it. Calling it that is an oversimplification, but for the sake of the explanation: a gameplay theme in the original Fallout (by Black Isle) is that every quest has multiple solutions showcasing multiple build types. You know fighter, bluffer, sneaker, that sort of thing. Each has a way they can complete the quest.
Achilles: So not like here, where it’s usually fighting, fighting, and more fighting.
The Grognard: Exactly. In Baldur’s Gate you have plenty of player freedom in the open-world sense of the term – you can go almost anywhere in the game right from the beginning. But for the most part, all it comes down to in the end is freedom in determining what order you fight things in. The things themselves are the same each time.
Achilles: And what does this have to do with Larian? Or are we still talking about that?
The Grognard: We are. By way of prologue, let me introduce you to the art of Barrelmancy.
Achilles: So let me see if I’m understanding this correctly. In the Divinity series, developed by Larian, you can put basically infinite weight into the game’s containers.
The Grognard: Correct.
Achilles: And then there’s an ability that lets you telekinetically drop those containers on enemies, killing them instantly.
The Grognard: You can one-shot anything in the game if you get your barrel heavy enough.
Achilles: Ok… I mean, that’s cool, I guess. It’d be fun to do it a few times. But it’s kind of a gimmick, isn’t it?
The Grognard: It is, but it’s a gimmick that hints at great potential. Packing a barrel full of smaller barrels and then dropping it on the bad guys using telekinesis is exactly the sort of craziness that makes for a good tabletop session. If Larian’s gameplay systems are deep enough to support that, then they may be deep enough to bring that next level of player freedom to the Baldur’s Gate series.
Achilles: The word “may” is doing a whole lot of work in that last sentence.
The Grognard: Hope and cynicism are both ways to keep yourself sane. I’m going with hope on this one.
Achilles: For the sake of balance, I’ll go with cynicism. There won’t be a Baldur’s Gate III. Not really. There’s gonna be a first entry in a series reboot, and they’re gonna to play it safe. They’ve licensed Dungeons & Dragons. They’re working with Wizards of the Coast. Everyone involved is going to want a smooth landing, and this gaggle of friendly, agreeable Belgians are going to give them one with a side of wafflesAchievement Unlocked: Belgian Waffle Joke. And you know what? That’s a good thing! Better a solid game, that you can actually play, than some abstract-expressionist art project where you throw improbably heavy barrels at symbolic representations of your subconscious fear of change.
The Grognard: Not better! I disagree. “Playing it safe” has been an anchor around the neck of the genre for over a decade now. I don’t have a subconscious fear of change, I have a subconscious fear of stagnation. What if this game comes out, and no one even cares? What if it comes out, and it’s an 8/10 that everyone forgets about in three months? What will I have invested all this time and effort into then?
Achilles: I have to ask, does playing these old Infinity Engine games always turn into a therapy session for you?
The Grognard: More often than you’d think.
(Overlong awkward silence.)
The Grognard: So what’s next? The city itself?
Achilles: The city itself. Sixty hours in, and I’ve finally arrived at the city the game was named after.
 Achievement Unlocked: Belgian Waffle Joke
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