Friday, November 3, 2023

The Only Negative Review of Baldur's Gate 3

Twenty years ago, I talked the missus into playing Baldur's Gate with me.  

I'd gotten a used copy of Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance for my Original Gangsta XBox, and realized that sitting together and going through the game side by side might  There was character customization, of a sort, meaning you could upgrade armor and weapons.  It existed parallel to the Dungeons and Dragons world, which was a bonus.  I'd played D&D extensively as a youngling, and made a point of introducing my boys to the game (1E, of course) when they were old enough to get it.  

Baldur's Gate wasn't quite D&D, but offered simple, top-down, single-screen two player tethered old-school action.  A "dungeon-crawling hack-and-slash RPG," in today's far more granular gaming parlance.

We played through the entire storyline, thirty hours working together and laughing, and it was a hoot.  Simple, by today's standards, but the hours we spent playing it were a great time spent together as a couple.    It set the stage for occasional married forays into gaming together, like the recent, excellent IT TAKES TWO.  

So when the hype machine for the new Baldur's Gate got cranking I immediately perked up.  Unlike some dismal prior efforts in the franchise, this seemed to hold promise.  Most importantly, the game designers had remembered to include what is now called "couch co-op," meaning you can play together with an actual human being sitting next to you in the same room.  That's the secret sauce, the magical ingredient that makes playing a game optimal.  Sure, I do more than my share of online game play.  But being right there, together, absent the mediating structure of the game interface?  Nothing better.  It's fully human.  

The game has received nearly universal acclaim from the gaming media, and felt worth a shot.

Rache was up for it, so I plopped down the eighty bucks for a PS5 copy, and we dove in.

It is, without question, a game designed by intelligent people who've done some remarkable things.  You can't miss it.  From that first moment, when you glance at the EULA.  That's the End User Licensing Agreement, that stream of legal folderol that you've got to scroll through during any software install.  It's..well.  It's funny.  Filled with Easter Eggs.  Still legally binding, of course, but funny.

It is remarkably well written, and stunningly well voice-acted.  The primary NPCs are brilliantly wrought and well designed, sure.  But the attention to detail goes waaaay down deep.  Every single NPC is well done, each with a distinct character model, each with a distinct voice.  If you have the ability to speak with animals, that extends to the cattle you pass.  Or random birds.  The world is chock-full to bustin' with beings to interact with, and every last one of them has a voice.  The attention to detail is granular and remarkable.

The combat, in turn-based mode, is perhaps the closest thing to actual Dungeons and Dragons game play I've ever seen rendered in a console game.  The initiative and saving throws required for certain actions, the little dice animations?  Wow.  For infrequent console gamers like my wife, the design gives a chance to take each decision point as they come, to adapt to the pace of the game and the dizzying complexity of its choices.

After an entire session dedicated to simply creating our characters, we played it for four evenings, putting in about seven hours of gameplay.  And then we stopped.  Just sort of petered out.

That was two months ago now.   She's not brought it up.  I've not suggested getting back into it, and am playing something else now.  I have, as much as it pains me to say this about something I dropped a nontrivial eighty bucks on, no real interest in continuing.

This game is considered the gold standard of gaming in 2023.  The reviews are reverent, almost awed.  It's considered so good among the gaming cognoscienti that other designers complain that it sets an impossible bar.  I can see the genius of it, and the intricacy of the design.  But I can't say, honestly, that I enjoyed it enough to keep playing it.  For me, it failed.  

Why?  Why didn't I, a lifelong gamer who has a soft spot in their heart for D&D, like Baldur's Gate 3?  

I mean, it's because I'm old, obviously.  

This is an age thing, and I'd be lying if I didn't say that's a major part of it.  I've been around for half a century.  I'm older than the Internet.  And that means that I have, baked into myself, a different understanding of life than the whippersnappers who enjoy this game.  

The two that stand out are Clutter and Character.

Clutter:  There's simply too much going on, too many choices, too much to think about around every single action.  This can mirror the pace of a book-and-dice game, sure.  But the sheer density of the game feels faintly claustrophobic, the pace of decision-making smothering.  My wife described it as "tiring."  "This feels like work," she said, and I'd have to say it did at times.  

Every choice requires another choice, and you have so very very many choices to manage.  In the warm collective storytelling and play of an in person book-and-dice game, that pace feels organic.  For me, in this game?  It felt faintly oppressive. 

The clutter also impacted the sense of scale, the sense that the world we were inhabiting outside of the cutscenes was a real space.  Things were too densely packed.  It took around four hours of gameplay to move a distance that felt less than the ten minute walk to my local library.  Wait, here's a new character!  Here's an IMPORTANT CONVERSATION.  Oooh, here's a thing!  Look at this!  What about that?  Here's a monster!  Here's a central character!  Here's another ten yards further down the path!  Or not!  Here's an abandoned temple!  Talk to this pig!  Get a sidequest from this cow!

The effect of this design was to make game progress quicksand-slow, and simultaneously a little ADHD.  Everything was overcomplicated.  For the Children of the Internet, whose minds have been rewired to expect everything to cause anxiety, this may feel natural.  

But again, I'm old.  Give me movement.  Give me purpose.  Give me progress.  A quest.  A story.  None of that was happening.

The oversaturation impacted any sense of forward momentum, of the overarching reason to be doing this.  If, six hours in, you're still dooping about a hundred and fifty in-game yards from your start point, talking to livestock?  The sense of narrative is gone.


I was also, to be blunt, bothered by the amorality of the game.  Dungeons and Dragons, frothing glazed-eye fundamentalist critiques aside, was originally a game with a moral compass.  Quite literally.  Good and evil were core aspects of character design, compassion and power, empathy and greed, a propensity for chaos or order, all folded into the essence of character creation.  

But as the game has "evolved" along with our culture, the idea that morality is a central aspect of character creation has fallen out of fashion.  It's oppressive.  Probably racist in some way or another.

So when you're designing your character, choosing alignment...that orientation towards good or longer exists.  In that, it tracks with the de-emphasis of alignment in the book and dice, game, but still.  It's a devolution, a depersonalization, a descent into shallow mechanistic reductionism.  

I mean, this from a game that has made much hay from allowing you to explicitly select the appearance of your character's genitalia.  This was good for some guffaws from the wife and I, along with a few moments of ew, but what the hell does that have to do with character?  Sure, it allows for characters to have sex with Non Player Characters of any gender and gender identity, with the full frontal of your choosing. Or sex with characters in their animal forms.  Or sex with characters whose size and character models are similar to those of human children.  

So sex-positive!  So progressive and free-thinking!  So amoral, in a more-than-faintly skeevy pornified way.

It's been a bit since I did book-and-dice gaming with peers, but I'm reasonably sure that's not what role playing groups are like in person these days.  There's adults playing roleplaying games, and there's Adults Playing Role Playing Games, and someone somewhere seems to have gotten those two things confused.

Rache and I never got to that point, of course.

What we did encounter were central nonplayer characters who were mostly annoying.  A Hot Githyanki Fighter (Hot Githyanki?  Lord have mercy, when did that happen?) who is both cruel and hostile.  A Hot whiny, retentive cleric.  An utterly debauched and untrustworthy but Hot elven thief who assaults you.  All can clearly be members of your party.  Or lovers.  Though why you'd be interested in a relationship with these Hot Unpleasant beings is beyond me.

Kind?  Honorable?  Tolerant?  Merciful?   These traits weren't encountered.  Why would I care about these NPCs?  I didn't really see any reason to spend time with them, let alone go on forty hours worth of questing with them snarling and complaining and catting at each other in the background.

I know, I know, this is just the old man shaking his fist at a cloud.

But that we've gone from character being defined by good and evil to character being defined by penises and labia seems...well...something.

 Like, perhaps, that the clutter has done something to our character.