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2011-02-03

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A decade later, 'Baldur's Gate II' still a pleasure

Courtesy of BioWare

By Teddy Papes, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 1, 2011

When a genre is first established, it’s hard to recognize it. It takes time to explore and tweak it before its full potential can be realized. As time passes, it's slowly accepted until it becomes a given part of public consciousness.

Role-playing, for instance, has come to define so many video games, but it wasn't initially created for video games. Both role-playing and video games took time to grow, and it wasn’t until “Baldur’s Gate II” that they were flawlessly fused into one of the best games of our generation.

In a time when games and media are becoming more shallow and ephemeral, it’s important to understand the history of “BGII” and its connections to “Dungeons & Dragons,” which are as extensive as the games themselves. In the early ’70s, board game designers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were experimenting with various game styles that were the precursors to “Dungeons & Dragons.” Gygax was working on board-driven war games, while Arneson conceived of the concept of controlling a single character rather than entire armies. The two joined forces and together published “Dungeons & Dragons,” and the first RPG was created.

As fantastic and complex as “Dungeons & Dragons” was, its potential was hardly tapped. Once it had been thoroughly played and scrutinized, potential for improvement was uncovered. To address the necessary changes, a reworking of “D&D” was published by Gygax. But even the reworked game, “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” was still far from complete.

Intrinsic to the imaginative and limitless world of “Dungeons & Dragons” was a lack of concrete presentation. It wasn’t until technology caught up with Gygax and Arneson’s evolving ingenuity that “Dungeons & Dragons” could take on a new form altogether. BioWare sought to render “D&D” on the computer and did so with the first installment of “Baldur’s Gate,” using “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” as the basis for character classes and combat. And even though “Baldur’s Gate” was based on such a well established fantasy system, the transition into a new format was much like “Dungeons & Dragons” at its inception — visionary, but with potential left untapped. As these separate but intertwined games evolved, they coalesced as “Baldur’s Gate II.” It was everything that an RPG couldn’t have been until the separate maturations united.

“BGII” opens the way many “D&D” adventures begin: waking in a dark, decrepit prison, escaping from captors and gathering together a party along the way. After this destitute beginning, the player escapes into a fully fleshed-out world in which the volume of content is unmatched in modern gaming. The story follows the player’s character, the son of the Lord of Murder, through the grapples of an insidious wizard who seeks to awaken the evil in the protagonist. The unfolding story is nothing short of epic, but the greatest asset of “BGII” is the world that this story exists in. The main city has so many characters to be helped and quests to accomplish that it creates a world as real and intricate as any of today’s games. The amount of content is nearly overwhelming at times, but the risk is for better, as it gives a sense that only the player can forestall the world’s descent into chaos.

Its easy to see how quickly games become outdated in terms of story, voice acting and script, but the only thing about “Baldur’s Gate II” that recalls the past is its technological limitations. The voice acting and deep characterization are totally ahead of their time and make the characters really feel alive. Other games that came out around the release of “BGII,” like “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask,” are enjoyable, but have vacuous characters. The “Final Fantasy” games, while appreciated for their deep storylines and fleshed-out characters, had linear stories that allowed for little deviation. In “BGII,” characters band and disband, progress and even die.