Once upon a time, I adored the Baldur's Gate series. After hundreds of hours of play and analysis, I can't stand it any more.
Image courtesy Beamdog
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
What happens when a longform video game experience goes wrong? I don’t mean when it becomes less fun, like a clunky midpoint in a grindy open world game, but when the very idea of playing something becomes sickening and without pleasure. What do you do when a game you love becomes a game you don’t ever want to return to?
I’m not thinking about this in the abstract. I recently finished a playthrough of the Baldur’s Gate franchise that took 86 weeks to complete. My YouTube show about the franchise, Mages & Murderdads, ended last week. It began in June of 2016 with a clunky, sort-of-bad sounding episode that had a lot of enthusiasm and incorrect information in it. My co-host Danni and I thought that our enthusiasm for the tactical combat of Baldur’s Gate and its sequels would see us through to the end of the series without much pause. We thought it would be enjoyable.We made it. I learned a lot about video games and epic video game narratives along the way.
The Baldur’s Gate games are structured like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. You start as a lowly level 1 character within a species and class that you have chosen, and eventually you rise to the might of a titan who can kick ass across the region, the world, and even the planes themselves.
This is the classic RPG structure done, possibly, as well as it ever has been. You leave your childhood home of Candlekeep, discover that you have been caught up in a massive conspiratorial plot that spans the entire Sword Coast, and eventually go to meet your destiny in the city of Baldur’s Gate. You make narrative choices, you choose the way that your character develops, and you ultimately determine how you want that character to fit into the giant fantasy world that they are a part of.
Above: the bitter end.
None of this is new for RPG fans, and it wasn’t even new back in 1998 when Baldur’s Gate was originally released. The arc of power and skill point choice curves upward, and the same set of choices that led to people later having such intense connections with “their Shepherd” in Mass Effect is clearly operating here in this earlier game, and that connective power only strengthened as I made my way through Siege of Dragonspear, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadow of Amn, and Throne of Bhaal.
We also experienced this connection in our respective playthroughs. Ticklevarr, my government-loving sorcerer, and Balthazar, Danni’s chaos-reaving independent spirit barbarian, had vastly different experiences in their game worlds. We compared and contrasted how we experienced the plot and the battles. We developed strong attachments to figures like Duke Belt, one of the random governmental figures in the city. We did all the things that most people do when they get deep in a RPG.
What most people don’t do is play these games slowly and methodically, moving a couple hours every two weeks. Most people don’t record an hour show that digs deep into the story, the themes, and combat design. What started as a fun thing to do with a game that we really enjoyed turned into an informal research project that had us puzzling over single lines of text or talking about specific encounters within the game. We were doing outside research about the game’s fictional setting.
We committed to this universe.
I did not anticipate that the intensive focus that I was putting into Baldur’s Gate and its sequels would eventually sap me of my ability to enjoy. Thinking intently about the combat design only helped me understand the places where it falls apart. Paying close attention to the plots, subplots, and grand arcs of the franchise gave me the ability to eagle-eye in on the places where it fumbles, mismanaged itself, or seemed to give up in frustration. The deeper my knowledge of the games became, the unhappier I was, and by the end I was both infuriated by the game’s design and by my own reactions to that design.
Since finishing these games, I’ve been wondering if this is the same root that leads to those screencap tweets that you see of negative Steam reviews where the reviewer has 200+ hours in a game. I wonder if there is something about the things that games ask of us that primes us for going sour.
Back when Mass Effect Andromeda released, Patrick Klepek said that he found it strange how gleefully people celebrated its broken animations, strange models, and general glitchy weirdness. It was like they were happy that something had gone horribly wrong.
I think I get it. After all, games demand that we beat our minds and bodies up against them until they give, and that can make us start to think about their defeat as an act of revenge. “Beating” (!) a game is this monstrous combat between us and a machine. Two antagonists, locked in struggle. Video games, after all, are experiences that are constantly trying to drive us out of them; to kill our avatars and heroes. It is only our focus, our tenacity, and our drive to interact with them that keeps us in close contact with them. Familiarity breeds contempt.
Despite how much I love them, or at least loved them, I don’t think I can ever bring myself to boot them back up again.
A hundred or so combined hours of avid questioning and intensive attention rewarded me with the reality that I will probably never play any of the Baldur’s Gate games again. Despite how much I love them, or at least loved them, I don’t think I can ever bring myself to boot them back up again. In chasing the epic quest and squeezing all of the conversation topics that we could out of them, I think it might be impossible to ever enjoy them. They are not puzzles I get a thrill out of solving or stories that I can’t help but immerse myself in. They’re one big, cracked facade.
And at the end, with my feelings laid bare, I’m still not sure what happened. Was it the game design that created these emotions? Was it the way I was playing them? Did all of this happen because of a mode of interaction, of trying to get “more” out of the game than it could realistically deliver?
I don’t have an answer for it. It’s produced out of this weird space, the place between the objective hardware and the subjective experience, the indeterminate zone where all games really live. And maybe our next game, Planescape: Torment, will help me find some answers.
You can follow Cameron on Twitter.