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Freedom and Flayers: Baldur’s Gate 3 and Player Interaction

Despite being in beta for a few years, Baldur’s Gate 3 ripped into 2023 as a supremely

successful jaunt into the world of Dungeons and Dragons. From battling devils in Avernus to plumbing the depths of the Underdark, the game sees players exploring a rich world of lore and handing them the reins in determining just how they want to interact with that world. Indeed, players can expect that the studio behind the game, Larian, allows for much more interaction with the world and characters than one might typically find in games similar to it. It’s precisely this core concept of interaction that one finds the true allure of the game.

Before getting too ahead of myself, I’ve only made it to the beginning of Act 2 in my most advanced playthrough so far. However, watching my boyfriend play, or in our co-op file, I have spent over 20-30 hours playing and observing the game. I mention this to say that what I have observed is already incredibly richly detailed and permissive. I intend to return to this game as a writing topic, for it is an excellent study of game design and development. What might strike readers and friends of mine as unbelievable: I didn’t originally want to play this game!

Historically, I’ve been a huge RPG fan, so I’m sure folks reading this and knowing me would take pause at me admitting I hadn’t wanted to play BG3. The truth of it is that I typically find turn-based combat frustrating and slow, and isometric style games tend to take my immersion away. However in recent years I had cultivated a love for D&D in real life, playing with various groups of friends and colleagues. It came to a head when the game was finally being released on the Xbox that I broke, and acquired the game. I am glad that I did, for this game has consumed my attention and been an exciting foray that I had nearly denied myself!

An aspect of the game that myself and surely many other players learn early on is the range of actions that the player can take.While of course there is the story and character aspects that make for a rich world, gamers often engage with a game in a much more visceral and frankly simplistic way first: figuring out what you can actually do! How many games have we all played where we moved around and jumped just to see roughly what our capabilities are, intuitively internalizing that data. I mean, it’s actually important to know how far you can jump in Mario, so why wouldn’t it be second nature to do some test jumps.

What we learn quickly in many games though is the limitations of what we can do. This isn’t necessarily a negative, just that we must learn what our character can do so we understand how to perform and what’s more: to win! However, Larian Studios takes the idea and runs so much further with this. To illustrate this point, I recall a moment after facing down a fearsome horde of Gnolls when I was presented with the task of returning some lost merchandise to a faction I won’t name for spoiler reasons. In any other game, I’d likely have a chest set to open and retrieve the loot. In Skyrim, for example, it would just be a matter of unlocking it and getting the package out… but in BG3 you could do that, or you could pick up the entire chest. And there’s no explicit instructions saying “hey, instead of picking the lock and looting it, try picking the whole chest up!” it’s just an option that exists. That’s not even the end of it, too! You could just smash it with your weapon if you really wanted to. How many times in Skyrim did a player trying to seriously role-play a warrior of some sort with no skill points invested in lockpicking just want to smash the chest open? I know I have, because sometimes the limitations seem arbitrary!

To lean further into the Elder Scrolls example, I linger around this idea of interacting with locked items, be it chests or doors etc. In Oblivion, you had access to a school of magic that featured a very useful spell: Open! These spells are quite straightforward, but a wizard or other hero capable of casting spells could unlock doors with a spellcast. The strongest could unlock locks of all difficulties, except for unique doors. Failing that, thieves had their lockpicks, giving way to a mini-game that would allow them to unlock pretty much anything provided they had the skill or luck. Again, warriors or other martial characters who did not want to invest in the skills one might associate with a thief or a wizard, are left with nothing. It seems trivial, but it is in these details that I think we often find inspiration or frustration. In games that purport to let you play in a variety of ways, gatekeeping certain experiences can feel unfair or even unfun.

I think a subset of gamers, at least I would consider myself this way, dream of a game so realistic and so free that you might be able to do literally anything. Consider it like shows where the main characters are thrust into a video game, via their consciousnesses or even their physical forms. A form of virtual reality where instead of simply wearing goggles and looking at a game, we are actually inserted into a fully realized game world, and interaction triggers our mind to feel the world, even smell it. Obviously this is not the Matrix, we can’t jack into the world of Faerun. But I can say last night when I played BG3 there was a room full of toxic gas that, when I cast a spell creating a gust of wind, blew the gas away and cleared the space of the poison.

This is the game for the people who see that their character can jump, but want to see just how much more they can squeeze out of it. Some gamers might see that an action is sufficient to complete the level, to accomplish the basic tasks needed to progress the game. But BG3 opens the way for players to truly realize their characters abilities, and to feel a freedom of choice not often afforded to players. These may still come with consequences but you can do the action. That highlights the important distinction, not allowing something because the game simply doesn’t have the ability to do it is a strict limitation, but allowing your character to attack anyone, even in the middle of a dialogue, is freedom of choice. Even if that leads to the entire settlement turning aggressive, or cutting off all sorts of quests and objectives because you’ve slaughtered every critical individual.

I understand some people think video game NPC’s (non-player characters) should function like dolls, reacting in ways that seem favorable to the player. My boyfriend was confused why a thief was able to pick his pocket in the middle of a dialogue because his character failed a perception roll. But the consequences of game actions are a fundamental component of choice. There are times when it is fun to commit crimes in a video game and then undo them by loading a save, but in general the lasting entertainment comes from the certainty of causality. That our actions have a reaction, and although many players of Skyrim have shifted into a Werewolf in the middle of Whiterun, most people acknowledge slaughtering a town has lasting consequences that could alter their gameplay later… so rolling back to the quicksave before wolfing out is typically the next move taken.

Circling back to my boyfriend's failed perception roll- this actually reinforces the notion that choice matters. While there is always a current of “RNG” in games like Dungeons & Dragons, even the tides of chaos are mitigated somewhat by decisions made at every step of the way in developing and playing a character. These early stat choices and background selections can have a heavier impact than one might anticipate. And rolling a character like a street-savvy rogue, able to steal in broad daylight with dextrous sleight-of-hand feats, might mean they utterly fail to interpret any arcana related checks. Even at high-levels, players can expect they won’t be masters of all skills- unlike games like Skyrim where one can become a master of every form of magic, multiple weapons, and then deftly pick locks too.

Don’t get me wrong, I utterly adore the Elder Scrolls games. I think the series' lore is fascinating, and the gameplay is fun in its own way. However, the choices afforded in Baldur’s Gate 3 are simply unmatched in games like Skyrim. Even the Dragon Age games fall somewhere between those experiences. Still, I needn’t necessarily heap more praise on the game considering all its awards received this past year. I hope that other studios take notice, especially Bethesda Game Studios. Perhaps Starfield will warrant its own article in the future, but I can’t help but find the comparison of BG3 and Starfield easy to conjure when they both released (in their final iteration) in the same year. Suffice it to say that a game like Baldur’s Gate 3 is the kind of video game that highlights the flaws in other games. When a year of exquisite games like 2023 occurs, a Triple A game that was already lackluster is given absolutely no room to squirm out of it’s problems, even Bethesda’s work.

I wrap this up to bring us back to what matters, which is that Baldur’s Gate 3 respects the player. It honors the D&D intellectual property and presents us with some of the best characters and story from a video game we’ve seen in years. Player’s will experience a dynamic adventure that presents many options, and what’s more: commits to making them happen. The shape of your journey will be yours to mold, and even the less-savory, evil options are open to those who would plumb the darkest, edgiest choices. If you haven’t given it a try, this is my earnest advice: play it!

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