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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11

For its initial stages, there’s a lot that’s very datedly wretched about Dragonsphere–it has a SCUMM-esque verb list at the bottom, a slightly clunky interface, glacial movement speeds, and what appears to be an extremely, extremely cliche plot: You’re the King, and you’ve got to kill the evil Sorcerer. Go to. You spend the first few screens in a very generic-looking castle, and only nostalgia and patience kept me past them.

But what hooked me was the absolute lushness of the game. Adventure games have always been praised for their advances in the quality of game narratives, but they also deserve a little more credit for their graphics. Given the genre’s slow pace and its tradition of hidden-picture pixel hunting, it’s only natural that adventure games tend towards pretty backgrounds. The game isn’t very good at mundane areas like the castle, but that might be intentional: When you get to the magical areas of the kingdom, and there are a lot, they’re explosions of color and surrealism. Shapeshifters are rampant in the kingdom–and not at all trusted for their abilities to impersonate anyone–and their land is particularly eerie–the rocks and trees have eyes and ears: They’re people partially shifted.

And so an appreciation of the background led me to press on; a nifty little game began to reveal itself. Let’s talk about death for a minute. There was a while where playing adventure games was an extremely punishing, gory experience. Sierra was infamous for being cruel about it: Not only are there many, many ways to die in the average classic Sierra game, there were just as many ways to get irrevocably stuck. Often these two are intertwined: Forget to pick up a sword in the first room and you won’t be able to kill the monster two hours later.

We must remember that while pointing out the unfairness of classic adventure games IS a legitimate criticism…it’s also a selling point. The audience for the early days of interactive fiction and adventure games were frequent computer users–the average person didn’t own a computer in the 80s and early 90s. These games were being played by science-minded people, academics, programmers–people who *enjoy* an intricate, cerebral challenge. The entire process of playing an adventure game is scientific–it largely boils down to trying objects on other objects until the desired result is achieved. Playing a game for hours only to realize that an early, crucial step was missing and needing to start completely over–that may be failure as I see it, but take it from the perspective that it’s simply an unsuccessful experiment.

Lucasarts didn’t invent the deathless adventure game, but it’s the watchword for the forgiving one: Early works like Maniac Mansion aside, Lucasarts very deliberately avoided unwinnable situations and death. The intent was to make games more accessible, and while their games were no less difficult, their worlds feel so much less hostile than Sierra’s. And so, when confronted with a threat, your character will either run away, or the bad guy will just wave some teeth around and make growly noises, but either way Lucasarts obstacles turn out to be more paper tigers than anything else.

Again, not a problem–actual violence doesn’t fit with the aesthetic of Day of the Tentacle or Sam and Max–but games like Dragonsphere manage to split the difference. Sierra’s own King’s Quest VII was released the same year, and both games tie death to a “try again” button. A monster is blocking the path; if you go through, it eats you, a small hint is displayed, and you reappear as if nothing had happened. It’s not uncommon, and a lot of games continue to do that to good effect–Resonance’s staticky rewinds were a particularly striking example–but it’s not the kind of thing you think of a game doing in 1994. Dragonsphere even goes one step further: You begin the game with a ring which immediately transports you to the castle. At first, the game’s stages seem self-contained, but there is an order you’re intended to go through them. The game does not penalize you for trying out different areas before you’re ready. In one notable moment–one of the few one-time areas in the game–if you leave before picking everything up, the game will let you know you notice “something”, and refuse to let you leave until you’ve gotten everything. It’s nice. It’s forgiving.

There’s a twist; the game fucks with player character identity, and somehow manages to do so without the assistance of the Grand Poobah of Twists, Ken Levine! You’re not actually the King; you’re a shapeshifter who’s been enchanted with the King’s form and memories. You’ve been sent to fight the sorcerer as part of a plot by the real King’s brother–using the sorcerer as a way to kill the fake king and take the throne himself. It’s a well-justified twist: There’s enough odd things found here and there that the twist puts in context, and it’s unusual enough that I’m good with it.

What I’m not good with is–well, ultimately, the slow pace and the backtracking just GOT to me. There’s too much in other regions, and it’s too tedious to go from one to the other. There are a few mazes and solving them is too annoying. Ultimately, I got too tired of figuring things out on my own and grabbed a walkthrough; my general rule is if I’m playing from a walkthrough before the halfway mark, and I’m not loving the experience, then it’s time to give up. The art might be gorgeous, but I’d rather look through an art book than play some obscure puzzles.

And yet it was a nice contrast. I’ve been playing a lot of indie adventures later–Wadjet Eye stuff mostly, and while the backgrounds are no less pretty, their games tend to be much more compact, much fewer locations. There used to be a trend towards advertising your game based on how many rooms it had. Painting and scanning backgrounds, Sierra-style, might not be the most expensive thing in the world, but you DO need to pay people to do it, and if you’re doing small teams on a short deadline, well, it’s understandable–and it does avoid Traipsing Syndrome. Still, I miss epic adventure games. There haven’t been that many of those.