101 – Baldur’s Gate 2: Both Sides Now

iuDavid Gaider goes to a restaurant and orders a steak. “Would you like fries or a salad with that?” Gaider thinks for a moment and finally says, “Neither. Both sides are equally bad.”

—–

As a nice contrast to the 50 hours spent over a two-week period on Chapter 2, Chapter 3 of Baldur’s Gate 2 took roughly two hours. It’s a tying-up of loose ends and a farewell–for now–to Athkatla. Your contact in the Shadow Thieves–or your vampire friend if you made that choice–gives you a couple of tasks, makes a couple of light revelations, and then offers you a boat to the next part of the game.

It’s, of course, my choice to have the structure of the game be this uneven–you can certainly split up your sidequesting between chapters 2, 3, and 6 as you like; but given that the next couple of chapters are going to be a journey to far-off places that I’d like to be leveled up for, and given that Chapter 6 is largely a bit of “okay, you’re back in the city, let us know when you’re ready for the endgame”, it made sense for me to frontload everything this way.

The feeling is of events moving quickly. You’ve been spending all of this time getting to know the city and the world while your contacts have been searching for info on Imoen and Irenicus, and now they’ve figured out where they are and it’s time for you to move. It’s a little bit of pretense: You can afford to do all of that sidequesting and spend all of those months because there really isn’t anything else you can do but prepare. Now that you have your goal, it’s time to move. I’m not one to take timeframes and chronologies strictly in RPGs–I’m not going to complain that Imoen and Irenicus will wait as long as it takes for you to get around to finding them–but it does feel a little silly to stick around the city when everything you’ve worked for is a boat ride away.

The game could do a better job of making your choice seem like an actual choice, honestly. On the one side, you’ve got a bunch of thieves, yes, but they’re all friendly and helpful to you; on the other hand, you’ve got shady vampires which are somehow working with Irenicus. “The Shadow Thieves haven’t told you everything,” your vampire friend tells you, “and haven’t you noticed that they’re just stringing you along?” And it’s true, once you give them the money they do give you a few quests before finally sending you off. But they do send you off, and their explanations–that they needed to check your references, that they needed to find out some seriously-hidden information, that they needed to hire a trustworthy crew–all pass the sniff test. The Shadow Thieves have done nothing to lose my trust, either as a player or as a character.

The question of Evil in a game like this is a fiddly one. I know a lot of Dungeon Masters refuse to let their players play Evil characters, and even when they do, and in the Baldur’s Gate series, they generally lean that more towards “selfish, nasty, and lazy”. Part of it is, simply, that even a Good-aligned party has to kill a lot of things over the course of the game–you are, after all, a child of the God of Murder–and so killing is just kind of oddly relegated into a grey area where there are a lot of acceptable people to kill, and you’re simply kind of a dick for killing anyone not on the list. In a lot of cases, you’ve got a situation where someone has an item you need–you can either do the quest they ask you to do and get some more XP and treasure, or you can just slaughter them and take it. And who in their right mind would ever pass up XP? Only Dorn in the Enhanced Edition has a quest which forces you to go beyond the pale–I ducked out after accompanying him on a quest to murder everyone at a wedding, which honestly didn’t offend my moral sensibilities as much as it just seemed unnecessary–the rest are just, you know–unpleasant. Edwin is vain and arrogant and happy Dynahier is dead–but that’s about the worst of it. I’m keeping the dwarf Korgan in my party, and even though he’s listed as evil, he’s more accurately just simply an asshole–and a good enough fighter that it doesn’t matter.

And he doesn’t like the vampires!

—–

Bioware would revisit this kind of territory in Dragon Age 2–which also took place largely in a single city and a few environs–with its mages-or-templars focus. In the Dragon Age setting, mages are seen as ticking time bombs waiting to explode and so are heavily guarded by special knights. During the entire game, you’re thrust into situation after situation in which you have to choose between the two, and unlike Baldur’s 2, you’re given a lot more characterization of the two sides. The mages feel restricted and oppressed; the Templars are trying to protect innocent citizens from people who genuinely have destructive power. It’s a nuanced and difficult argument…which loses coherence in the endgame, when both the head templar and the head mage bust out their One Winged Angel forms and rampage. It’s of a piece with Bioshock Infinite which also had two sides whose names I don’t remember accurately but boil down to Racist Cops and People of Color; and if the choice seems obvious to you, don’t worry, Ken Levine has you covered because at one point the leader of the People of Color murders or threatens to murder a child or something. I’m sorry. I don’t remember it well. Bioshock Infinite was not a good game.

It’s easy to fall into this very South Park trap–that when you have any controversial issue, there are two sides, both extreme in their opinions and both wrong in their extremeness, and you, the rational player, the only one who’s able to look at both sides and recognize that the true way, the rational way, the right way, lies somewhere in the middle–a very milquetoast centrism which doesn’t believe in getting one’s hands dirty because any upset to the status quo is a bad thing, any change is a bad change. It’s a hilariously, pathetically dated theme–the kind of thinking which looked at Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and said, welp, both sides are equally bad.

In that respect, Shadow Thieves vs. Vampires is, you know, kind of quaint–because the Shadow Thieves might not be the nicest people, but at least they’re not fucking vampires. And there aren’t really any explicit political resonances to the choice–although, to be fair, “a bunch of crooks who, once they get what they want, are willing to help you out a bit” vs. “a bunch of undead monstrous abominations who feed off the blood of the innocent, murdering them and desecrating their corpses” does kind of resemble Democrats vs Republicans. Mods–third party mods–exist which apparently let you make other choices–you can align with the Paladins (which, ugh, fuck Paladins) or with a fellow who gives you a “screw you guys, I’m going home” route (that railroads you back into the plot eventually because I think he’s working with Irenicus or something, I’m just going from skimming TVTropes), but I think I like my two options. Baldur’s Gate 2 comes from the days before we wrung our hands about whether or not we were able to Make A Choice In A Videogame. I mean, of course we’re just navigating pre-written dialogue trees. Of course we’re experiencing content that somebody thought up and wrote. Not everything needs to be, you know, an expression of ultimate freedom. I’m playing a story about a lady who’s the daughter of a murder god. I mean, come on.

Off to Spellhold!

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100 – Baldur’s Gate 2: Shut Up And Take My Money

At some point in the middle of collecting my 20k gil for the faction known as the Shadow Thieves, a vampire attempted to give me the opportunity to Make A Choice In A Videogame–for only $15,000, she’d help me on my quest. This is, I believe, intended to be the evil option, but my character is Chaotic Good and so I went with the original offer–last night, before going to bed, I paid my money and entered Chapter 3.

I haven’t done every single sidequest, but–with the help of a handy quest list–I’ve done just about all of them. Oh, there’s plenty to do just stumbling around, and that’s how I handled it the first time I played, but some of the triggers are more obscure than others–going in a certain district with a certain party member in tow, talking to someone with a certain reputation score, things like that. This is not at all a criticism–it’s kind of the opposite. Baldur’s Gate 2 is trying to give the impression of a living, breathing world, and it does a lot to show you that you’re in a city where adventure is around every corner just waiting for you to find it. BG2 is a game where you are rarely bored, where you’re rarely searching for something to do.

And what you get to do is appropriately diverse–along the way, my companions and I investigated a cult, defended a castle, routed a coven of Shadow Druids, infiltrated a thieves’ den, found a home for an orphan, and discovered a shitload of magical items along the way–it’s the kind of quests where each is a little short story, and they do their best to make sure each is interesting, has some kind of twist, or at least some point. This is a team that knows its engine very well–it’s the fourth game in the series, and one coming after the high bar that is Planescape Torment, and it knows very well what the Infinity Engine is capable of.

There is a lot of content, but it doesn’t really feel extraneous. RPGs can feel very padded; for me a lot of it has to do with the dressing around the quests. My lack of passion for Elder Scrolls has to do with how little it engages me; everything boils down to “go to Place and do Thing.” We can’t deny that most RPG quests boil down to, either, “fetch me a Thing” or “kill a Thing”. And while the likes of Skyrim features detailed, intricate lore around everything, its presentation kind of overwhelms the reason you’re doing anything. I’m not questing because I have a connection to the world, to the questgiver, to the dungeon I’m going in–Skyrim is so large and sprawling, its NPCs so numerous, that everything appears to be assembled from a thing of prefab parts and I’m usually looking at Generic NPC #283 rather than a character in the world–what I end up focusing on is the dramatic drumroll accompanying the goal text on my screen, on the big arrow on my compass leading me to my goal. One of the big developments in Skyrim is what’s called the Radiant Quest system. Since Skyrim wants to be something you can play forever, there’s a series of quests which can be infinitely generated according to a framework. “Go to [place] and do [thing]”, an NPC will say, and [place] and [thing] are selected out of a hat from a list, and you can repeat that as many times as you like. It’s questing for questing’s sake.

But I neither want nor need to be playing a game forever–RPGs are long enough that I don’t need to extend them artificially. I’d rather a game that has a manageable, if extensive, set of things to do where all of them have character, have something surprising, where there’s a few well-designed locations than miles and miles of the same basic stuff. I’d rather have one dungeon that someone sat down and created than a hundred that were assembled out of pre-fab parts.

As to what I haven’t done in Baldur’s Gate 2:

Bonus bosses: There’s two I counted, a red dragon and a lich. I’m going to wait until Chapter 6, when you return to the city, to try these–I could use the extra levels. The lich, in partichular, is guarded by other lichs who I wasn’t able to touch when I faced them. I’ve got a bunch more spells that I can use against them at this point, and probably could make some progress, but why strain myself? He’s been buried for a couple hundred years at this point, he can wait a few more months.

Watcher’s Keep: An entire bonus dungeon released with the Throne of Bhaal expansion. I’ve done a couple of floors of it, and will probably duck into a third while doing Chapter 3–it hasn’t been too difficult so far, mostly puzzley, but since it’s technically an expansion pack dungeon I’m going to wait until then to hit the lower floors.

Fucking Mind Flayers: I’ve found an enclave of Mind Flayers in the sewers and I just can’t get past them. I don’t usually let my companions die when I’m playing IE games–even though resurrection options exist, when a character dies, their stuff falls to the ground in a pile, and I unknowingly lost a bunch of stuff in Planescape Torment this way (including the golden ball which, I’m told, gives you something nice if you bring it to the endgame). I don’t want to take any chances any more, and since I’m happy to abuse the Quicksave function, I immediately reload upon a character’s death. These Mind Flayers have an instant-death attack I don’t know how to counter yet and they keep using it. I know I’m going to have a very large Mind Flayer area somewhere around Chapter 5, and so I figure I’ll get to that point, hone my skills against them, and then go back and take care of their friends when I get back to the city.

Extended Edition content: Beamdog has unfairly gotten a lot of flak for their additional content because it’s apparently SJW-y or something–I don’t find it that way, personally, because I’m an adult–but I don’t really find their NPCs useful or pleasant. Dorn’s quest gave my reputation too much of a hit and forced me to miss out on some stuff with Jaheira. Hexxat’s questline refuses to trigger. Rasaad is decent but Minsc and Korgan are taking up my fighter spots in my party and I don’t want to get rid of either of them. And Neera–

Well, both as a person and as a game character, Neera is pretty obnoxious. She’s a Wild Mage, which means that her spells have a chance of getting a Wild Surge, meaning they could either become really powerful or they could zap all of your party’s gold away or whatever random effect gets rolled from the table. Her writing is–the term I’ve been using is “internetty”, which, it’s not that she’s talking in memes exactly, but she has that kind of blithe quirkiness that annoys me and makes me feel old. And her quest–well, I ducked into it and I already fucked it up. It centers around an enclave of Wild Mages that she’s helped start. Each of the members has their own little quest to do. One of them hands you a jar of cat food. “Find my cats!” he says. (Internet.) “There are 8 of them!” I ignored the quest and got to a Point of No Return section in it, and if the walkthrough I checked is right, I think he and all of the other members of the enclave are going to die as a result, because I didn’t feed all eight (eight! why are there eight! why did Beamdog think I wanted to feed eight fucking cats and not a manageable three or four!) or something, because the [thing] a character asked me to get was right near that Point of No Return and I figured I’d have the opportunity to swing back after doing the major quest goal, because the game insists there’s a nonviolent path through one encounter that I can’t navigate the dialogue tree and don’t feel like it–look, I think I can absolve myself from the Extended Edition content. It’s pretty much the same shit they expected me to do in Siege of Dragonspear, and I just don’t want to do that anymore. There was a rumor going around the other day, since denied, that Beamdog might be working on a Planescape Torment sequel, and man, for a couple of days my blood ran fucking cold.

I mean, maybe they weren’t really cats–maybe they were interesting magical creatures or something. We’ll never know.

99 – Massive Disap–I mean, Massive Chalice

image1I was all set to make a point about the battles in Massive Chalice taking way too long; I had set a timer and was about the six-minute mark. The battle I was in was not a particularly significant battle: It was one of the bog-standard random battles that happens periodically throughout the game. Every time I moved my heroes, another few enemies appeared–it’s one of those games that hides its enemies behind fog-of-war until you have line of sight.

This battle introduced an enemy type called Cradles. Each of Massive Chalice’s enemies has a little gimmick–some take away XP; some explode, leaving behind poisoned squares; some give themselves a defensive buff after being attacked. The Cradle’s gimmick is that it spits out other enemies, and they also happen to have high HP. Defeating one of them took several rounds, both to cross the featureless level to the area where it is, and a couple of attacks to take it down. Finally, at about the 7 minute mark of my timer, I defeated the thing, whereupon it added three enemies to the already large pile on my screen before it died.

It was at that point that I uninstalled Massive Chalice.

Double Fine is a wall that I keep hitting myself against, getting more and more disappointed every time, and I think a lot of people feel that way. Remasters of Lucasarts classics aside, I’ve never met anybody who’s loved a Double Fine game. There’s something appealing and likeable about them that’s doesn’t really carry through to the quality of their games. All of their stuff of theirs that I’ve played has a really nifty premise, a confidence of voice, an uncontestable stylishness that just tumbles into bullshit. Psychonauts was hilarious and experimental and varied–and was also a collectathon platformer with finicky jumps that became more and more unpleasant to play as it went out. (Ah, for a Psychonauts that had the balls to be a straight up adventure game.) Brutal Legend was–again–hilarious, looked amazing, was an unabashed love letter to heavy metal–that threw too many ideas at the wall and didn’t do any of them well. The Cave was an interesting experiment that begged you to replay it and then bogged you down with repetitiveness. Hack and Slash had some great ideas but was ultimately incomprehensible. Broken Age was beautiful and eerie until it ran out of funding and didn’t release its lackluster second half until everybody had forgotten about it. Spacebase DF-9 was unfinished. Every one of their games I’ve played starts off shiny, full of promise, and then just crumbles.

In my most cynical moments, I want to say that the only thing that Double Fine is really good at is getting funding for their games. They’re that kind of faux indie giant that feels sorry for itself, tramples over the bedroom developers, gets itself on itch.io, and crowds everybody out of Kickstarter. And that would be unfair. Because the employees of Double Fine fucking love games. Every piece of their copious behind-the-scenes media shows a bunch of people who genuinely believe in what they’re doing, who love what they’re doing, who are living the dream.

There’s just always some issue between the idea and the execution. It always falls flat.

Massive Chalice is a turn-based strategy game in the vein of X-Com, a game that I liked but didn’t love. Its premise is that your kingdom is under attack by something-or-other, and that in 300 years you’ll be able to launch your superweapon, so in the meantime you’ve got to manage your kingdom, build up your armies, do your research, and fight some skirmishes until the final battle. It, like X-Com, is an attempt at marrying grand strategy to squad-based tactics. By and large, the grand strategy sections are very good. I love checking research off a tech tree. You appoint people to be the regents of various keeps and you get to marry them off and have babies, and while I’m not one of those creeps who loves Fire Emblem (seriously, if you’ve ever met a Fire Emblem fan, they’ll always go on, in very disturbing terms, about marrying their characters together, and there’s always a faux-veneer of self-awareness about, ha ha, I’m breeding these people together like cattle, but one which quickly falls apart because oh my god they do not shut up about how they’re breeding these people together like cattle) there’s a depth to that. And it’s all tied to a timeline that scrolls through–the UI is really pretty (everything Double Fine does is really pretty)–in a very satisfying way.

The actual battles fucking suck.

As I said: They all take too long. The grand strategy is where my heart is; every time a battle pops up, it feels like an interruption. They all take place in generic, procgen areas that are too large and have too many enemies hidden in the corners. And they are all exactly the same. Oh, sure, there’s different enemy types–as I said, they all have their gimmicks–but every single one i encountered is a simple, defeat all of the enemies. X-Com had the decency to sprinkle some bespoke setpieces at particular moments, ones which represented major parts of the storyline. Which felt like accomplishments. I know it’s one of my personal bugbears, being down on procgen, but I can see the use of it, when it keeps a game being surprising, it can add to some nice tension. In Massive Chalice, the effect is a flatness–there’s no major strategic difference from battle to battle. There’s some different wallpaper to the environments, but otherwise, you’re just going to be fighting a smattering of too-many enemies in a featureless, boring set of corridors forever. Were the battlefields half the size, were there a third as many enemies, it might be a pretty good game–the battles being quick things you duck into for a minute or two. But every one seems to go on long past the point of being interesting. It all feels like padding.

Massive Chalice has made me aware of the passage of time. As the years go on in the game, people are born, and people die–both in battle and of old age. The baby born in your keep grows up and becomes a fighter so quickly. The scholars you have researching will die of old age. And what it has impressed upon me is this lesson: Life is way too fucking short to waste on the same fucking battles over and over again.

98 – Baldur’s Gate 2: True (And False) Companions

The Baldur’s Gate games have a huge roster; BG1 boasts 25 (29 in the Extended Edition) companions who can join your journey. Baldur’s Gate 2 has only 16–21 in the EE–and makes up for the lack by giving them all more focus, dialogue, and quests. A few of your companions had things to do, all of which were on strict time limits: Montaron and Xzar need you to get to Nashkel, Kivan needs you to complete Chapter 4 hours before you’re ready to get there, Minsc wants you to rescue Dynahier. If you don’t do what they ask, they’ll leave your party forever. There’s also some characters who come in pairs–once you rescue Dynahier, she and Minsc are joined at the hip, and Jaheira will not join your party unless Khalid is there, which is a shame because Khalid sucks.

But for the most part, your characters are a bunch of barks and incidental dialogue. Baldur’s 2 greatly expands all of their roles. Some characters will refuse to be in the same party as one with opposite alignment, and they’ll even fight each other to the death. Characters can be romanced–as I said, BG2 is Bioware becoming Bioware. (I hate romance subquests, but that’s another story.) And many of the characters have personal quests, ones that are much more detailed than those in the first game.

And Baldur’s Gate 2 is very happy to let you fuck those quests up or otherwise kick the characters out permanently.

Anomen, an irritating fighter/cleric who’s desperate to become a knight, gets charged with avenging the murder of his sister. Complete the quest, and he’ll not get that knighthood and his alignment will change. Keldorn, a Paladin, finds out his wife, lonely from his insistence on going on adventures, is seeking affections from another man; you can encourage him to leave the party for good in order to spend more time at home. Dorn, one of the Extended Edition’s terrible characters, asks you to help out with a series of assassinations, damaging your reputation every time until you finally get sick of him and he leaves in a huff. Jaheira, a Harper and friend of your foster fathers, sees your low reputation from all that time spent with Dorn and leaves rather than vouch for you at a kangaroo court, shutting you out of some later quests with her.

This is what we call “true role-playing”, and it’s a kind that I know upsets some people. All of the mutual exclusivity in party members means it’s difficult or impossible to do an optimal route. Most people consider games with branching paths to have only one “real” route, and anything else is a fuckup. This is a big reason why you’ve never made a choice in a videogame: If games were to let you, why, you might not like the results. Best to have one basic route through, and maybe some light, cosmetic things here and there.

But I find Baldur’s Gate 2’s philosophy to be much more interesting, although, yes, it is slightly disconcerting at times. The game figures there’s so much of itself that you’re still going to have a satisfying amount to eat no matter what. There’s some quests you’re going to simply miss–the triggers for the companion quests, for example, depend on having a party member around for a certain amount of days, or taking one to a certain area–and if you get a bad ending or someone leaves for good, well, that’s life. There’s still more to do, and there’s still other people around you haven’t offended. Maybe your reputation is just so low that you’ve got to fill up your party with Hexxat and Viconia and Edwin and you’ll just run with it.

Losing Jaheira does sting a bit, though.

I earned my 20k gold, spent most of it on spells and supplies, and earned it again. Now I’ve gotten my stronghold–due to class choices, it’s the same exact stronghold (Nalia’s) as I got my first time through, which is kind of a shame–and am exploring the wilderness areas outside of Athkatla. Which by no means means I’ve finished everything I’d like to do in the city. Like I said. There’s so much to do in this game. I am a busy Bhaalspawn.

97 – Baldur’s Gate 2: The City and The City

map1I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the city of Baldur’s Gate feels like an afterthought in its own game, but it’s close. That game, as I’ve said, is so wilderness-focused and you only make it to the city in its closing acts, while Baldur’s Gate 2’s Athkatla is front-and-center. Athkatla has better quests, and comes at a time when you’re fresh for them: Everything you do in Baldur’s Gate comes, for me, at a time when I’m ready to end the thing.

But Athkatla has a much better layout, at least in videogame terms. It’s entirely down to Bioware getting better at its own engine–in general, BG2 has finer dungeon design and benefits from a couple years of Infinity Engine games. Both cities are too large to fit on one screen–not counting underground areas and buildings, Baldur’s Gate needs 9 maps, Athkatla 7. But those 2 extra screens don’t seem to add much–Athkatla does a lot more in terms of structure and density.

Here’s an image of Baldur’s Gate I’m stealing from a walkthrough that’ll help me make my point:

 

baldursgatechapter7

You start your explorations of the city in the middle right. When you leave a section, you’re tossed back to the world map and the districts slowly unlock–so if you go north, you’ve unlocked the upper-right, if you go left, you get the one in the middle, etc. You can travel to any unlocked district. Makes sense. But the problem is, the districts aren’t really differentiated by anything other than their physical position, and that isn’t even related to the physical layout of the city–it’s arbitrary.

Take that upper-right section. You’ll see a wall dividing it into two parts. One is not accessible from the other. To get to the left section, you’ve got to go into the top-middle district and travel east, go to the world map, and click on the upper-right district. To get to the right section, you’ve got to travel north from the middle-right district. This is one of the most egregious bits of the city, but it speaks to one of the general issues with it–namely, that they’re trying to fit a sprawling city into a grid.

Athkatla, meanwhile, is much simpler–all of the seven sections have a name (Temple District, Government District, Slums, Bridge, etc), and each is a complete map unto itself. You’re funnelled into the slums after Irenicus’s Dungeon in order to get a plot event to kick off Chapter 2, but once that’s done, the city is open to you–all you need to do to go into another district is just leave by any exit, and you’ll be given the opportunity to select any section. It’s a much more elegant way of displaying the city, and one which makes traveling it a lot easier.

Now you’re looking at the Athkatla map and you’re noticing that a lot of it is not visitable–the parts you can go to seem to make up maybe half of the map of the whole, while you’re allowed to visit the entirety of Baldur’s Gate. The problem is, most of the Baldur’s Gate you get to visit is utterly irrelevant. There are weapon shops, houses, inns, all of which have absolutely nothing to do with your quest and which are very generic–you can maybe steal a couple of gold from houses, you can buy a couple arrows from a weapon shop, you can rest in the inn–but you don’t need to and it adds nothing. All you get is a couple of lines of generic dialogue–and, of course, by this point, gold means nothing, you’re not doing much weapon shopping, and there are some nicer inns with greater plot relevance in the city. It’s that design philosophy that would reach full flower in the Elder Scrolls series–a “real” city would have a lot of inns and shops, so let’s put them all in, even if they don’t benefit or interest the player in any way.

Athkatla strips it down to the essentials and manages to create a much denser, more vibrant city. There are some unnotable houses, some random weapon stores you won’t visit twice, but there’s far fewer, and the percentage of important locations is a lot higher.

And there’s also the fact that I can count the houses in Baldur’s Gate and get an exact size of the city. By restricting our movements to the only districts of Athkatla that there’s action in, the city feels much, much larger–I know I’m skipping over the sleepy residential parts and the office buildings and the areas that my party has no interest in, and I can imagine a lot of that. Baldur’s Gate depicts a small city; Athkatla suggests a very large one.

This is one thing that Siege of Dragonspear does very right–you spend some time in Baldur’s Gate in an early chapter, and it’s reduced to a couple of notable locations and their immediate surroundings. You only see the sections you need to see, only the important or interesting stuff is available, and the city is much more pleasant to navigate and spend time in. This is one lesson that the team learned that I appreciate.

I’ve currently got about 4k of the 20k I need to finish Chapter 2, but I need 5k to purchase a license in order to use magic in the city because I keep getting into combats, throwing off a magic missile, and then getting attacked by magic cops. Athkatla runs on coin, everybody tells me; this is definitely the case. I’ve explored half the city, unlocked a couple of wilderness locations, and done a couple of quests, but I’ve pretty much just scratched the surface of what’s available. We are in this for the long haul.

96 – Baldur’s Gate 2: The Best Things In Life

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The question of money in Dungeons and Dragons is apparently one that a lot of ink has been spilled over. You buy your starting equipment, it goes, and because of a lack of meaningful purchasable upgrades, you keep that starting equipment until your DM gives you some magical equipment, at which point you keep that. That’s how it’s worked every time I’ve played. I have had the good fortune to have played games DM’d by people who aren’t nitpicky nerds, and that’s how I plan on DMing when I can get a group together: I just don’t want to have to keep track of gold pieces and arrows and encumbrance because, oh, man, I know D&D got its start in wargames and that wargamers love that kind of minutiae, but, well, I don’t. The rules for the RPG Toon specifically say, if you have a set of small items such as thumbtacks or rubberbands or whatever, to assume you have as many as you need at any given moment (unless, of course, it’s funny to run out), which is something I can get behind. Your DM might create some money sinks for you, big-ticket items you can buy, but I’m reading the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and I’m reading about upkeep costs and how you need to spend a certain amount of gold to keep your lifestyle up and I’m thinking, why would anybody want to deal with that shit? Just, you know, assume that my adventuring is giving me enough gold to keep me installed in the lifestyle to which I have become accustomed, unless you want a reversal in fortunes to be a plot point.

That legacy is, in general, all over most videogame RPGs. Economies are usually hilariously broken. Dragon Quests usually do it the best–they balance their money so that you’re usually saving up for something–but, I mean, how much gil do you have built up in the average Final Fantasy? The Infinity Engine games are no exception–maybe in the early game you can’t afford the big-ticket magic items (incidentally, you’re apparently discouraged from letting players buy magic items from stores in the tabletop version, for Reasons), but after a while there’s nothing much to buy. You’re maybe restocking some special arrows/bullets/etc, you’re buying potions if you’re the kind of person who likes potions (I absolutely do not, potions and scrolls are bullshit in my book), but–like, why even bother charging to stay in an inn? The highest-quality room costs 10 gold. That’s the pocket change that pocket change carries.

After you complete Irenicus’s Dungeon in Baldur’s Gate 2, you get access to a district of the new city in which you find yourself, and you can do some light questing–a nifty little quest involving a gnome illusionist that connects to some of the setting’s larger themes (magic is illegal under most circumstances and mistrusted and looked down upon in all, the city you’re in is in general suspicious and hostile of foreigners and people without money) which nets you a new character–and then you leave the district and begin Chapter 2, at which point someone approaches you and asks you to give him 20,000 gold in order to get to Chapter 3.

It’s not the obscene sum the game makes it out to be–I’d done some shopping and I still have about 10% of the total necessary–and the first time I played the game, I was able to afford the price well before I had all the sidequests done (I’m planning on spending as much time as I humanly can in Chapter 2 this time, because I know you don’t get the opportunity to complete all the sidequests again, and since I know the shape of the game I’m less anxious to see what happens next), but either way: It’s a reason to earn gold in an Infinity Engine game!

I’ve said BG2 is Bioware becoming Bioware, and one of the things they’ve always excelled at is making games made out of sidequests. It’s a difficult thing to do: I’m down on Elder Scrolls games because, you know, there’s a Main Quest that feels urgent and overwhelming–portals to hell are opening up, Dragons are attacking and destroying everything–but the game also very badly wants you to want to simply dick around and live your little life in this fantasy kingdom. There’s a ton of running jokes about the parts of Final Fantasy VII where a meteor is threatening to crash into the planet but you’re just hanging around for dozens of hours breeding chocobos. Bioware generally frames its sidequest-games around “We need to prepare for X” or “we need more information about Y”–whether that’s the assault on the Collector base in Mass Effect 2 or the reason behind the Rifts in Dragon Age Inquisition–and that’s in play here. Imoen and Irenicus are trapped in a wizard prison, but the powers running it are beyond your reach, and the only group willing and powerful enough to help you really wants that money. It’s this open, sprawling meandering that is the finest and best-remembered parts of Baldur’s 2–there’s nothing much else you can do, so you might as well explore and find out what there is to be done. Later sections are more linear–similar to Planescape Torment, once you leave the city you find yourself on a tour of several goal-focused areas.

I like the frontloading of this “content”–while the stakes are high, they’re not as high as they’re going to get, and your major quests are in a kind of stasis right now. And it’s Imoen that we’re dealing with–she really can just hang out in another area of the game because who cares. (I’m sorry, I just don’t like Imoen.) Baldur’s 1 backloads the city sprawl–you don’t get to the titular city until late in the game, at which point you’ve done so much traipsing around the forest that you–well, I, at least–just want to see the thing through to the end. Its deluge of sidequests comes a little too late for me.

But either way, that’s where I’m going to be for the next few dozen hours–running around Akathla and figuring out ways of making money. If only the adventuring lifestyle were feasible in real life–I’d certainly prefer that to going to work every day.

95 – Baldur’s Gate 2: Irenicus’s Dungeon

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 8.06.16 AM.pngOf the Infinity Engine games, Baldur’s Gate 2 has the finest introduction. Baldur’s Gate 1 begins with Candlekeep, which is, as I’ve said, comfortable and friendly but not exactly exciting–it’s a tutorial-focused quest where nothing much happens until the end, at which point you’re thrust into a gigantic world with only vague direction. Siege of Dragonspear’s first dungeon has nothing to do with anything. Icewind Dale sets you up in a town where you can either Talk To All These Assholes until you find a couple goblins to fight. Planescape Torment wakes you up in the Morgue, and you’re given all of these cryptic suggestions at the larger story, but there isn’t exactly a time pressure and it did lose me the first time or two I played. Icewind Dale 2 acquits itself well–you land in a city under siege–but it’s a long, extended sequence with many parts. (I’m fond of games that essentially have no intro–that start off and you’re simply playing, and ID2 does that well!)

Baldur’s Gate 2 starts off with you captured and held in the dungeon of Big Bad Jon Irenicus. He appears, says some cryptic things, tortures you a bit, and then leaves to deal with an assault on his dungeon. Imoen appears (he-ya, it’s her!), sets you free, and now the two of you plus any companions you can get have the opportunity to wander around and escape. It’s the best starter dungeon in the franchise, and, frankly, should be taught in schools because it’s actually one of RPGdom’s best starter dungeons. It:

Is not a tutorial: There’s pretty no “how to play this” information given in the section. If you’re here for the second installment, the game assumes, you know what you’re doing, and if not, you’ll read the manual. This frees the dungeon up to be pretty cool–while combats are certainly simpler than they’re going to get, you’re facing bunches of goblins and some new foes and you’re doing some actual puzzle challenges. None of Baldur’s Gate 1’s “Go into the thing behind me and get a thing and then talk to me again.”

Tells you what to expect for characters: Baldur’s Gate 1 has about 500 potential playable characters; 2 trims down the cast while giving those left expanded roles. Khalid and Dynahier are slaughtered between installments. While I could give a tinker’s damn about Khalid, it gives his wife Jaheira a lot of fun emotions to work with and some clear motivation. Dynahier is a loss–one of my favorite characters both mechanically and personality-wise. It’s fridging, but at least it’s equal-opportunity. (Hey, Siege of Dragonspear, when you were busy telling your story about nothing at all interesting, why didn’t you, you know, include these moments? This is something I actually was interested in!) We also get an introduction to Yoshimo, who is going to have a big role in the plot to come, and in addition, he’s of the Bounty Hunter class–a “class kit” (alternate build) for the Thief, so even that’s new!

Shows off the expanded dialogue: Character dialogue was largely reduced to barks in the original Baldur’s Gate–characters don’t really comment on the particular situation you’re in, they only slightly interact with each other, and they’re mostly just people you have along for the ride: There’s little difference between the pregenerated characters in Baldur’s Gate and the people you create in Icewind Dale. In BG2, which is the start of Bioware becoming Bioware, your party members will initiate conversations with you and with each other, ones where you can choose between multiple bits of dialogue. Many of them have personal quests, if I’m remembering correctly. The reduced cast gives everyone left more opportunity to get their personalities fleshed out.

–Characterizes the main villain: Irenicus has very little screen time so far: A minute at the beginning of the dungeon and another minute at the end. During that time, he tortures you, makes cryptic portents about your potential, brutally kills a few fantasy cops, and figures out a way to legally abscond with your friend Imoen–in just a few short strokes, he’s already a more effective villain than Sarevok. If that isn’t enough, his dungeon is spent giving you a lot of clues to who this fellow is: His dungeon has a bunch of denizens, all of whom talk about his cruelty, his lack of emotion. Other characters allude to his past and great changes in the man’s character. There’s a soft bedroom filled with pretty things–a shrine to a lost love that several characters insist is an emotion Irenicus cannot feel–and the moment you enter, a klaxon bursts out and a pair of golems attack. Irenicus is a violent, terrifying figure with a very large plan and a complicated personality and he’s the fellow you’ll be chasing after for the next 50-10- hours.

–Alludes to larger plot developments: The assault on Irenicus’s dungeon has nothing to do with you–it’s the result of a “guild war”, which is something we’ll learn about in the next chapter or two. I love RPGs where your character isn’t the focus of every plot, and that’s the case here–the couple of assassins you talk to don’t even give a shit who you are, they’re just trying to kill everyone in the dungeon. It’s nothing personal. But you are important, too–all of Irenicus’s portents add up to you being even more special than you know. Baldur’s Gate’s closing hours reveal that you’re the child of Bhaal, God of Murder; BG2 promises to go into what, exactly, that means.

Features the weirder shit: Sure, there’s goblins living in the dungeon, but there’s also Dryads, mephits, and a portal to the Elemental Plane of Air and a djinn inside. There’s arcane magic and horrific experiments. We’re going to see a lot of the more outre elements of the Forgotten Realms setting before this game is done. But what I particularly like–especially in contrast to Dragonspear’s random “Well, let’s have Demons! Here’s a Lemure! Isn’t that cool!” in the zero hour, BG2 ties them in. Not only is all of this weird shit living in the dungeon, but it’s under Irenicus’s control. He’s captured that. That’s another characterization of him: He’s playing with some very dangerous things, and he’s contained them very well.

I am expecting to have some fun with this.