Video Game: Baldur’s Gate 3

A couple of newsletters ago, I mentioned Baldur’s Gate 3 was “threatening to swallow January.” Well, now huge chunks of February have fallen into its clutches. So far, my only major complaint about the game is how ruthlessly it consumes time—although, to be honest, it’s also been kind of intoxicating to sink so thoroughly into a gaming obsession.

Baldur’s Gate 3 is an extremely immersive video-game adaption of Dungeons and Dragons, the classic roleplaying game. I haven’t rolled a D&D character since 1994, so this marks a thirty-year reunion for me with the franchise. Originally, Jenn and I played together in co-op mode; it was fun, but the character interactions and cut-scene logistics made for janky gameplay. It wasn’t until I rolled a solo character—resurrecting a dwarf fighter, Lulbrock, who I used to play back in college—that I got swept away by the game’s mix of compelling narrative and robust, multifaceted game design.

The baddies of BG3 are the mindflayers, a devious species who, as the game begins, are in the process of capturing and infecting individuals in an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-like takeover plan against the Sword Coast. Your character is one of the many who have been afflicted with a tadpole parasite, an infection that typically results in the victim’s transformation into a mindflayer. For some reason, though, your character—along with the other adventurers you meet during your travels—hasn’t undergone “ceremorphosis.” Instead, the tadpole creates a psychic connection between you and your fellow adventurers, and may also unlock psionic powers. Initially, as your party forms, the primary motivation is to find a cure for this potentially fatal condition, but as you navigate a vibrant, robust open-world environment, the quest escalates into a high-stakes, world-saving battle, one with seemingly infinite choices—noble, self-interested, mischievous, evil—to render the adventure unique to your character.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been so thoroughly addicted to an open-world fantasy game. World of Warcraft was the most recent. But with WoW, which I shook off several expansions ago, the allure was more social and spread out. Here, it’s more focused and intense, reminding me of the first time I was ever transported into a game so thoroughly: Final Fantasy VII, way back in the initial PlayStation days. Baldur’s Gate 3 combines the turn-based combat, world-exploring adventure, and party-builing of that game with the more sophisticated graphics of modern games and the elaborate rules and mechanics of D&D.

There’s also a dash of Mass Effect influence to Baldur’s Gate 3, given its focus on decision trees, romance options, and epic cut scenes. But compared to the ME series, BG3 feels mindbogglingly more complex. The choose-your-own-adventure permutations that determine your path through BG3 make the Mass Effect series look like repeated coin flip. Here, you can befriend, alienate, ignore, or kill just about everyone you meet. There are multiple paths one can follow to approach the central dilemma, including throwing in with the villains in an attempt to take over the world. And you can romance one or more of your fellow adventurers, or none, and the quests and adventures can still play out to a resolution. These elements would be impressive enough in a text-based game, but BG3 ups the ante with legitimate performance elements. The voice actors are excellent, bringing convincing dialogue to characters across the multitude of conversational paths players can take. The music, graphics, and writing are all up to the task of accommodating the game’s ambitious, multifaceted scope, as are the game mechanics, which can be leveraged in inventive ways to warp the landscape, creatively solve problems, or open up unexpected subplots.

Intentionally, my initial run was extremely uninformed. It was rife with mistakes, mishaps, and overlooked adventures. Ultimately, Lulbrock managed to save the day anyway, without even recruiting one major companion, while a second flounced out of the party never to return. Even after finishing that run, the game felt incomplete, and I immediately rolled a new character—Quinne, a slightly disreputable bard—to uncover more secrets and make different decisions. It’s very rare that I ever finish an open-world narrative adventure game, let alone replay one; it’s a testament to Baldur’s Gate 3’s rich, expansive design that I was already planning a second run before I’d even finished the first. Indeed, I’ve uncovered vast swathes of content I missed the first time around, and my choices have made for a fresh experience. Every video game has its finicky quibbles, of course, and this one is no different; inventory management is a mess, for example, and the turn-based combat can sometimes be buggy. But overall, Baldur’s Gate 3 is an incredible game, compelling, loads of fun, and impressively repayable.

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