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

By | 13 May 2024

The reason that the story of Baldur’s Gate 2 can encompass this broad spectrum of tone so easily is because of the commitment to character in this narrative. At the heart of the gameplay is an ensemble type story, a scrappy adventuring party of diverse weirdos. Choosing your party is a game-long affair, with dozens of beautifully fleshed out characters with unique backstories, side quests and brilliantly acted voice dialogue. You could stick with the first people you meet, track down certain qualities or skills you need to round out your party, or just follow the vibes. I, for example, am incapable of not choosing Viconia, a sexy amoral Drow woman who has some of the best written dialogue in literature.

By imbuing these characters with the full gamete of human emotion – stressed when they should be stressed, sad when they’re sad, and being goofy nerds when occasion calls for it. Even the inherently ‘serious’ characters are utilised in this way – if you take a pious prig like Keldorn the paladin or Anomen the cleric, and pair them up with almost any other character, you’ll be treated to moments of spontaneous dialogue where they are ruthlessly mocked for being so humourless.

Likewise, there’s no character too comedic to not be touched by some kind of tragedy – even Minsc, seemingly oblivious teflon to most darker emotions, must mourn the loss of a companion he’d sworn to protect. As you explore the character’s side quests, and adventure with them longer, you eventually discover that none of them are immune to change, to development – and sometimes extremely to their detriment. This is because Baldur’s Gate 2 is committed to narrative consequence.

Much of the way you as the player engage with the party characters is through the option of a romance quest, where over days of gameplay you will have the opportunity to do unique dialogue and quests that could lead to love with that character. A choice always occurs – do you help Anomen get revenge and betray his priestly vows? Do you push Jaheira to forget about her newly dead husband and shack up with you? Do you become Viconia’s sex slave? Your decisions not only affect gameplay – what quests you get, what unique loot you might have – but set yourself down an ethical path. Ethical choices are a mainstay in RPGs these days, usually leading yourself to evil or good playthroughs. In Baldur’s Gate 2, this kind of narrative technology is incredibly basic compared to games today – expressed mostly through a reputation mechanic that can be easily gamed, and doesn’t lead to much concrete change, unless you become a truly reprehensible monster, or accidentally set off a fireball in a busy town square.

But these romantic ethical choices have huge narrative consequence – if you don’t romance your henchmen correctly, there’s a high chance they’ll leave you, potentially shutting you off from certain quests, certain storylines – or even just ruining your party balance. This commitment to narrative consequence is reflected all through the game – your decisions, often spur of the moment, often ethical in nature, will usually change how the story ends, how the quest is resolved, or what kind of cool sword you’ll get. In a climactic fight, the player is forced to go through several doors in a kind of pocket hell-dimension, and choose to sacrifice something to gain entrance. It could be something personal that you’re losing – your strength or intelligence stats, your health – something that will make you less proficient, less able to fight. Or you can choose the less ethical route and sacrifice your followers instead.

Both are viable, and neither will cripple your ability to win inherently – but it forces you to tell a new story each time, to commit to a kind of character. The consequences hard-built into this game are what keeps you roleplaying – my do-gooder hero type barbarian would never sacrifice a companion for his goals. But my power-hungry necromancer lady absolutely would … and by making these decisions throughout the game, and knowing that each one brings a narrative consequence, you’re basically crafting a different tale each time: the rise of a tyrant or the birth of a hero, or sometimes even some scrappy weirdos who love money. The forgotten realms are your oyster.

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