Narrative consequence in Baldur’s Gate 2: A game to play on repeat for 24 years

By | 13 May 2024

Baldur’s Gate 2 opens with you, the player character, waking up in a mysterious dungeon, taunted by a sinister figure who is later revealed as the game’s big bad, a mage named Irenicus. The setup of the game is foundational to what we recognise in RPGs today – a ‘chosen one’ style character who is the avatar of the player, able to be customised in terms of class, race, playing style and aesthetics. It’s incredibly basic compared to what we are used to now, because it’s the blueprint that modern RPGs are based on.

Much of the game is outdated – the graphics and play style certainly belong to a bygone era, the turn-based click and play somewhat clunky, especially in comparison to the recent release of Baldur’s Gate 3. I’d hazard a guess that if your introduction to Baldur’s Gate is from the latest release, you would struggle going back to 2. It’s also based on an older version of Dungeons and Dragons, both in terms of lore (it’s set in classic D&D settings, with some great cameos like Drizzt Do’Urden and the wizard Elminster), and the rules. For example, you need to understand the complicated THACO armour class system, which I’ve always navigated from more of a vibe-based strategy.

But one thing that hasn’t suffered from age is how this game tells a story – even though I’ve played it dozens of times through, the music and the dialogue from these opening dungeon scenes still gives me a chill. From the portentous music, to the creepy dungeon sound effects like dripping water and the distant sound of screams, to Imoen’s (an NPC who sets you free) creepy dialogue about our captor cutting and cutting into her skin … Baldur’s Gate 2 understands how to create the mood for the story they are telling.

But it goes beyond creating a mood – it’s a showcase of how the game prioritises narrative worldbuilding. In 2000, the idea of video games as art was still debated, and I think I fell in love with BG2 because the game and its writers essentially set out to write a novel – but unlike a regular book, it’s a story that is able to adapt and change because of your choices. It’s interactive, and the narrative chops needed to adhere to incredibly strong storytelling principles and create an enjoyable playing experience. The world needs to feel malleable, able to be changed by your actions – but all the payoffs need to be tactical, planned by brilliant writers. It’s an alchemy, and a literary achievement.

After you’re freed from the cage, you immediately find some other companions shackled near you, including the ranger Minsc, and his pet ‘giant space hamster’ Boo. If you choose to let Minsc join your party, get ready to hear him yell ‘go for the eyes, Boo, raaa!’ at least seven times per battle. You are able to free him by insulting his hamster, and tricking him into a barbarian rage which allows him to break the cage down.

Next to him is Jaheira, another companion who can join your party. All these characters are introduced in Baldurs Gate 1, but you don’t need to have played it to enjoy BG2. Trust me, I never finished it. As you advance into the dungeon, you find the body of Jaheira’s husband, tortured to death and left like carrion.

How to reconcile the shift in tone from giant hamster man to genuinely affecting grief and loss as exhibited by Jaheira? Shouldn’t Minsc and his tomfoolery somehow invalidate an attempt at incorporating tragedy into the story? Minsc is only one of many ‘comedic’ character choices – from an eccentric gnome tinkerer who loves turnips to a talking sword who just yells stuff, there is a deep commitment to silliness and humour in the game. But it’s never prioritised over the narrative. In fact, that comedy only helps create the stakes that the game does so well. The tone of the story – grand, cinematic, operatic sword and sorcery epic fantasy is only made stronger by the fact that the writers are able to combine multiple narrative genres. The writers take every part of this story seriously, even the commitment to showcase silly characters and absurd little jokes.

The idea that juxtaposition often reinforces the stakes of a narrative is a brilliant lesson, and one that we see reflected in the success of something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer – a high stakes story of world-ending villains and horror and bloodshed, populated by quippy one liners and comedic characters.

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