In the film The Matrix Reloaded, cyber-messiah Neo (Keanu Reeves) is trying to meet with the all-knowing Oracle (Gloria Harris) for advice. Unfortunately, he has to meet her bodyguard, Seraph (Collin Chou) first, who insists that Neo fight him to prove that he is who he says he is. When Neo tells him he could have just asked, Seraph wryly states that “you do not truly know someone until you fight them.”
You could also say the same thing about role-playing games like Baldur’s Gate 3: You can’t really understand them until they’ve kicked your ass in one way or another. This can be literal, like when you discover your lovingly crafted avatar possesses a shocking lack of combat finesse. Or this can be a little more abstract, as your choices come around to bite you in the ass when it comes to love or the moral balance of the universe. Things will likely go awry in a way that stems from an incomplete understanding of the game, rather than direct consequences of your intended choices. This is all part of the fun, sure — but it’s also fun to then roll a new character, so your real playthrough can begin.
It’s important for you to understand that I am not usually like this. I don’t make a habit of restarting or replaying video games. This is partly because I don’t like repeating myself and partly because it’s hard enough to finish a game once. Baldur’s Gate 3, however, is a damn good RPG, and like a good RPG, it’s as collaborative with the player as an elaborate computer program can be.
For me, this has meant that I have found within myself a stronger urge to actually role-play, far more than I usually do. In a lot of games, I am content to treat the player avatar as a thinly veiled version of myself, responding roughly how I would to any decisions presented, within reason. When I began Baldur’s Gate 3, however, I tried to step out of that lane, assuming the role of Astarion, the vampire Rogue who’s one of the game’s main characters.
After a few hours of this, however, I felt a little too removed from a game that seemed to demand more investment — so I rolled my own guy: Tav, a drow Warlock, pledged to a Cthulu-like deity he did not understand. Now this, I thought, was role-playing. I came up with a whole backstory for Tav in my head, where he was a fantasy John Constantine type that was probably damned but resigned about it. Look at that! Me! Role-playing!
Then, with the PS5 version of the game, I decided to roll a third character, a tiefling Bard, Mezcal. I didn’t really intend to play much of the game with this character. I just wanted to compare the opening of the game on console and see how it felt and maybe mess around with character creation options I didn’t touch the first time around. Then a funny thing happened: I just wanted to keep playing as Mezcal.
It’s not that I suddenly found Tav boring, but I also wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend the whole game in his boots. Better to break things off now, before getting too invested, you know?
After a dozen or so hours with Tav, I also knew a few things that would make a playthrough with Mezcal a more interesting one. Like the fact that Baldur’s Gate 3 is pretty stacked in the spellcaster department, and doesn’t really have any Bards or Monks among recruitable companions. Or that tieflings, at least in the first act, play a big part in the game’s central cultural conflict, and playing as a tiefling might make that more compelling.
I think of it like writing, or other creative work. Making something usually involves a lot of throat-clearing, rough drafts that can take a good amount of work before you even know what it is you’re trying to do. Baldur’s Gate 3 has its limits — significant ones, even — but even within them, it’s a terrific introduction to the appeal and player expression possible in a traditional tabletop role-playing game. While I don’t believe you have to re-roll characters to see every possible permutation of the game, I do think there’s a lot to be gained by restarting as many times as it takes for you to figure out exactly how you want to engage in its world. And you can’t really know that until you’re in it — and it kicks your ass.