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While I personally have become very jaded, as many people have, over the pomp and empty ceremony of E3, the reveal of a third installment in the incredibly famous and massively popular Baldur’s Gate RPG series certainly caught my attention. Sure, I’d heard rumours here and there beforehand of the game being worked on, but I’d been hearing those rumours on and off for the last decade, so the reality – pre-rendered trailer that shows nothing of the game aside – still felt like someone had plucked it right out of 15-year-old me’s errant daydreams.
So, why then, instead of whooping with dorky glee like 15-year-old me would have been, am I instead introspective and a bit nervous?
Part of it, I suppose, is the simple fact that we, as consumers, have been shown several times that a revival of a long-forgotten IP isn’t protected from being one of the many cheap or cynical cash grabs aimed at our nostalgia seen countless times from both AAA developers and suspiciously vague kickstarters. Past me certainly would’ve been mortified that the game’s being produced by Larian Studios of Divinity fame, rather than Bioware, but as has been firmly established, Bioware’s time as a pioneer of gaming has most certainly come to an end, so that, if anything, is good news to me. If anything, given that the Divinity series itself clearly wears it’s inspiration from Baldur’s Gate on it’s sleeve, I could certainly concede that Larian Studios are probably one of the best for the job.
Honestly however, I think the main concern I have about this new addition in one of my favourite series is the simple question of whether digging up Baldur’s Gate after all these years is ultimately worth the effort? Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly all for any efforts to revive the classic style of RPGs that Baldur’s Gate popularised to begin with, but to some extent, I wonder how well such a game will do nowadays.
To put it simply, the gaming culture these days has, in many respects, moved past this earlier style of RPG games, in favour of more action-oriented RPGs, such as Dark Souls, Monster Hunter and similar titles. These titles focus less on the extensive dialogue trees and branching narratives of their more thoughtful cousins in favour of focusing largely on direct, combat based approaches.
To be clear, these games are not necessarily less complex or require less thought than classic RPGs, but it would be fair to say that they prioritise action over dialogue, hence the term Action RPG. But, on the whole, even those modern RPGs which do tap into this dialogue and plot approach still tend to have said elements take a backseat to the combat and other action-based elements. To see what I mean, just compare how dialogue options are presented in, say, Planescape Torment as opposed to Fallout 4.
I’m not saying any of this to try and smear these more action-based RPGs as being in some way a less ‘pure’ expression of the RPG genre than their ancestors. In fact, I would say that these modern RPGs definitely have much more enjoyable combat than any of the isometric RPGs that are my bread and butter (I can tell you right now, no one ever played Planescape Torment for the combat system).
However, the success of these games, and the comparatively more niche appeal of ‘classic’ RPGs, is that over time, the gaming market has increasingly favoured Action RPGs over the last couple of decades as a result, partly of being generally more accessible to the typical gamer, and also because they make better use of all the pretty graphics and effects that AAA game developers pride themselves on developing, and are usually one of their big selling points.
Additionally, the reduced focus on dialogue options likely also comes from general cost effectiveness. The main reasons Classic RPGs can get away with having so much dialogue is because they are often under much less pressure to pay someone to voice all of that dialogue. At the very least, most such games don’t give any voice acting to the player character, and in many cases only give voices to important characters, which ironically means dialogue trees can be as long as they want.
Of course, this isn’t an option most AAA companies would take kindly to, since one of their priorities is making the game as aesthetically pleasing as possible, which a lack of voice acting is rarely conducive to. So, dialogue heavy games have fallen to the wayside, as voice acting has become more of a requirement for bigger games, due to the practical limits of hiring voice actors to read reams of tertiary and side dialogue when every character must have a voice.
In short, the market has changed quite a bit since the heyday of the classic RPG, and to some extent, it would be justified to contemplate how the development of Baldur’s Gate 3 is in turn going to be affected by this trend. Certainly, given the hands holding the series at the moment, it’s unlikely that the newest installment’s going to go full Action RPG with limited dialogue and an almost purely combat focus.
That said, we are at a point now where many of Baldur’s Gate’s peers such as the Fallout series have had to compromise their original design in order to better achieve mass appeal. While, of course, no sensible person would say that Fallout New Vegas is inferior to Fallout 2 when it provides better graphics and gameplay mechanics, with only a relative small hit to story (though the less said about Fallout 4, the better), what this shows is that the general audience prefer Action RPGs to their slower, classic cousins.
So, it would seem that the developers of Baldur’s Gate 3 have a choice set out for them. Do they attempt to stay faithful to the original design of previous games, with a strong emphasis on storytelling and allowing players to shape the narrative? Or do they trim the fat and focus the game more on direct action, sacrificing choice in the narrative for choice in the gameplay? Certainly, the market would seem to favour the latter, but I admit to hoping that they intend to keep the focus on narrative. While taking this choice would appear to pretty much limit the game to niche appeal with nostalgia nerds like myself, you could argue that there is something to be said for taking advantage of an enthusiastic niche over the larger, but shorter-lived interest of the general public.
In the case of Larian Studios especially, they seem to have picked on this with many of the instalments of their earlier Divinity series. Though the Action RPG has proven its mass appeal over recent years, I still hope that a place can still be found for the classic style of RPGs, because while it may lack the mainstream interest it once had, interest in a more narrative-driven experience has definitely not disappeared.