July 15, 2024

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Baldur’s Gate 3, the video game where you can do (almost) anything | Games

Baldur’s Gate 3, the video game where you can do (almost) anything | Games

“A scripter was convinced that it would make the scene complete if you could be turned into a wheel of cheese,” Larian Studios’ lead systems designer Nick Pechenin tells me. The main story of Baldur’s Gate 3 is about an invasion of tentacle-mouthed creatures that wouldn’t look out of place in one of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu horror stories, so a sidequest where a disgruntled wizard transforms you into cheese may seem out of place. But moments like this encapsulate why Larian is the game developer that comes closest to capturing the anarchic freedom of real-world sessions of Dungeons & Dragons.

More than 20 years ago, before Mass Effect and Dragon Age, before even Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, much-loved developer BioWare made its name with Baldur’s Gate and its sequel. “When the original games came out, they were the bleeding edge of what was possible technologically, visually, and story-wise,” says Pechenin. “BioWare was trying to release a game that was as beautiful and as technologically powerful as could be humanly achieved at that stage; that’s what we are trying to do.”

Character creation in Baldur’s Gate 3
Character creation in Baldur’s Gate 3. Photograph: Larian Studios

Video game developers have often set adventures in the fantasy worlds of Dungeons & Dragons, but have struggled to compete with the tabletop game’s freedom. Around a table, when an adventurer unexpectedly says they’d like to burn down the friendly looking inn instead of asking if the bartender knows of any local gossip, the player in the role of Dungeon Master – who is equal parts writer, director and storyteller – can improvise and respond, narrating what happens next, whereas video games can only accommodate the behaviours that game designers have predicted from players.

Baldur’s Gate was one of the first games to reach for the freedom of a tabletop D&D session. You could talk your way out of fights, smash locks instead of searching out keys, and your quest choices would send your party of adventurers down dramatically different story branches. The possibilities weren’t endless, but Baldur’s Gate suggested flexibility many games hadn’t offered before, and certainly not with such detailed art (for the time).

Larian’s take on the series, however, is on another level; the team has built a world that appears to respond to your every choice. If you play as a druid, you can transform yourself into a bear and speak with any animal you find, learning clues from a chatty squirrel that a player without that skill couldn’t access. Play as a wizard, instead, and you can turn into a cloud of gas and pass through the narrow grates of a prison cell, bypassing the challenges of breaking out of your room and overcoming the guards that other characters will face. And depending on your race, gender, class and decisions you’ve made in the story, the characters in the world talk to you in radically different ways. At times, it can feel as though the game has been purpose-built to reflect everything you’ve chosen to do. Much of this interaction is scripted and voice-acted, playing out in cinema-like sequences.

Screengrab Baldur’s gate 3
Outside cutscenes, you guide your party of adventurers around and command them through fights Photograph: Larian

There’s not some magical technology beneath Baldur’s Gate 3 making this possible: 400 developers in studios worldwide have spent six years adding layer after layer of possible actions and tailored responses; the secret is time and resources. “The scope of what needed to be done was just massive,” Pechenin says. The developer developed a tool that generated a first draft of conversation cinematics, each of which still needed to be hand-tweaked by a cinematic director. And for three years, the game has been in early access, with thousands of players offering feedback on what they would like to do in a scene, pushing the developers to add more possibilities to encounters.

It was essential to Larian to craft such a variety of content, to make it impossible for a player to see everything in one, two, or even a hundred playthroughs, so that the world felt like their own. This huge team of writers, artists, coders, and designers has lavished extravagant care on hours of scenes that many players will never see, with the aim of making an imaginary world that you can believe is as free and flexible as the ones that players create around a D&D table. And that’s how you end up spending valuable, expensive development time creating a sentient wheel of cheese that can bounce around, emitting smelly clouds of gas.

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When you achieve that density of possibilities, believes Pechenin, players trust that anything they try will work – and the strictures of the game world fall away, leaving the player with a fantasy world they can believe in.