2023 delivered us the ultimate gamer’s dilemma: smooch or spaceship?
At its core, this might be the fundamental difference between Baldur’s Gate 3 and Starfield, the two much-anticipated role-playing games that were released this year. The former, made by a studio paying off a more than 20-year-old franchise, and the latter, building on Bethesda’s reputation for ever-expansive worlds that’s been accruing for the same amount of time, each offered a different way of thinking about what an RPG is in the modern era.
For those of us who have been tinkering in the genre across those 20 years, 2023 felt like a bit of deja vu. Black Isle’s Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn has spent the years since its 2000 release lingering in the top rungs of many “greatest role-playing games of all time” lists, often alongside its fellow traveler Planescape: Torment. BG2 gave you a tightly controlled narrative as the Bhaalspawn, a child of the god of murder, and asked you to navigate a complex narrative in a semi-open world to discover, and determine, your fate. Bethesda’s games, which have spiraled into world-dominating popularity since the titanic release of The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind in 2002, did something similar while widening the scope of possible action: A 3D world coupled with radical character customization through skills and spells allowed it to truly engulf players in a freeform fantasy.
The Bethesda brand somehow managed to keep getting both bigger and more personal, culminating in the fantasy shout-’em-up The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim and the similarly compelling legacy act Fallout 4. Bethesda’s games kept a tight core narrative but wrapped boundless play around it, producing a situation where you might start one of the games and just never get back around to learning about your status as a Chosen One. Build whoever you want to be, live in a world, and turn it into your playground.
Baldur’s Gate, however, mostly languished until Larian’s recent sequel (outside of the compelling Siege of Dragonspear, which was developed by Beamdog). The late 1980s through the early 2000s saw a wide array of RPGs in both the PC and space. Franchises like Ultima, Might and Magic, and Wizardry were profitable and constant pillars throughout the decade alongside many, many other titles. As Matt Barton extensively charts in Dungeons & Desktops, there was variety and widespread popularity in the computer RPG (CRPG) genre throughout that period. Barton refers to the late 1990s and the early 2000s as the Platinum Age of CRPGs, counting these games, the Diablo franchise, and the early Fallout games as high-water marks in the development of the genre. After that point, the video game market expanded and fragmented, and the rise of the Japanese RPG on consoles, often seen as a threat and treated as such by the American games industry, put pressure on the CRPG market. Looking back, you can feel it in the game design of the time — Baldur’s Gate 2 has romance options precisely because Black Isle was trying to compete with Final Fantasy.
That massive economic pressure, combined with the increased competitiveness in the RPG space from MMOs and Diablo-likes, spun the CRPG down into one player in a genre subordinated by the then (and now) dominant first-person shooter.
In short, Baldur’s Gate 2 was left as a singular adventure for quite a while, with very little building upon its legacy. As Bioware formed and transformed, it tripled down on the cinematic role-playing of the Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises, pulling more deeply from science fiction and traditional high fantasy, and moving away from the big political machinery and nightmarishly large scope of BG2. This particular brand of RPG laid fallow until the recent “resurgence” of CRPGs with franchises like Pillars of Eternity.
On the other hand, the Bethesda RPG became one of the default pillars of what an RPG “is” within the broader video game field. It’s workable with a controller, set in an open world that can be explored from tip to tail, and invites deep connection to its world. You can become the greatest wizard who ever lived and the sneakiest thief. You can complete every quest and build a hoard of apocalyptic weapons and cheese wheels. No time limits, no trade-offs. As the BG2 mode of RPG transformed into the Mass Effect industrial model, it left many of us wondering if we would ever get to read an absolute shitload of text in an RPG ever again.
The strangeness of the Baldur’s Gate 3 and Starfield double whammy of 2023 was even further amplified by the tight proximity of their releases. Their predecessors are, in retrospect, signs of a shift in taste alongside new priorities for publishers and console-based developers. Morrowind landed on the original Xbox, while the Baldur’s Gate franchise had to Diablo-ify itself with Dark Alliance to get a slice of that same console generation. To that end, it sacrificed its Dungeons & Dragons core engine on the altar of simplicity. In the early 2000s, for all its weirdness, Morrowind was of the times and foundational — which Bethesda further proved with The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, its Eurofantasy revision of Cyrodiil that wrapped itself around the player with a unique leveling system and adaptive difficulty.
Baldur’s Gate 2 is written into the firmament because of its rarity — its peanut of Dungeons & Dragons gameplay is surrounded by thick chocolate layer of excellent fantasy storytelling, creating the ideal gaming M&M. By contrast, Morrowind is the Lay’s potato chip, with its economic juggernaut of Bethesda asserting to us that we could not eat just one. People are still buying new ports of Skyrim, after all.
My big wonder, here at the end of 2023, is if we still want these flavors in the same way. You’re reading this in the wake of The Game Awards, Geoff Keighley’s annual ode to advertising and celebrity, where Baldur’s Gate 3 was crowned Game of the Year. Starfield arrived with only one nomination (Best RPG) and went home with nothing.
We might chalk that up to an aging formula. Bethesda defined our modern era of RPGs with a very specific formula: make a character, exist in a world, forget about your real life. Starfield takes that to space and then blows it up to epic proportions, giving you the capability to pursue the galaxy at your leisure; to do basically any kind of puttering around or murdering that you want. It is vastly unguided, and that is meant to be a selling point.
By contrast, Larian’s innervation of the Baldur’s Gate brand takes the width of Dungeons & Dragons’ 5th edition and crams it into a very narrow narrative pathway and world. You are a specific person, with a specific tadpole in your head, who is meeting specific people in extremely specific (sometimes cursed) places. You’re getting funneled into Baldur’s Gate, a city steeped in lore and history that is overwhelmingly not about you, and yet your destiny brings you into conflict with and for it. And, of course, the smooching — BG2 looked at Final Fantasy 7 and tried to get some of the will-they-won’t-they market share, and Baldur’s Gate 3 looked at the history of RPGs and said “Hold my beer.” It is post-Bioware, post-Witcher investment, and it takes for granted that players are enraptured just as much by the depth of character relations as they are by the breadth of an open world.
I am not holding these games up against each other to say one is better than the other, or to get into some franchise warrior nonsense. I just think it’s worth thinking about whether or not this is an indicator of tastes and flavors to come — more of this kind of chocolate treat, less of that kind of salty snack. From the vantage of Morrowind, I don’t think it was easy to see the future of gaming — IGN’s review at the time was so attached to Baldur’s Gate 2 that it’s mentioned in the first sentence for Bethesda’s RPG, but it quickly claimed that Morrowind could “haul” you into another universe.
With Baldur’s Gate 3’s massive success, Starfield’s apparent falter at the starting line, and a massive macroeconomic crunch that might produce more risk-averse products in the next several years, it might be possible that Baldur’s Gate 3 becomes a stand-in for player desires: deeper character connections, crafted stories treated as the primary draw rather than an obligation, and less investment in the ever-promoted player freedom. The game’s sheer explosion of popularity seems to suggest that players have felt underserved in these arenas.
Baldur’s Gate 3, like Larian’s efforts before it, is too weird and ambitious to be replicated by just any random team. It works in part because of the strange moves it makes that no one else would, and I have little fear that the praise it’s garnered will lead to expectations for the same depth and breadth that it provides. However, much like Disco Elysium before it, its popularity demonstrates a desire and a need in the player base, and those people are going to be looking for new maneuvers in this same space — a thrill that the Bethesda formula and its imitators simply cannot, by virtue of design ethic, replicate.
The past is not a blueprint for what comes after, and what happened 20 years ago isn’t a preview of our future. Instead, it is an opportunity to reflect on changing values as players and developers, both of which get to choose what they see in the games of the future. Smooch or space, chocolate or chips.