Baldur’s Gate III director Swen Vincke doesn’t think the sprawling fantasy role-playing game would exist if the team behind it, Larian Studios, had been gobbled up by another game company. “It would have been canned, guaranteed,” he told me during a recent interview. “There’s no way that a big publisher would have allowed us to do what we’ve done because it’s crazy.”
The blockbuster RPG attempts to take the dense turn-based combat and branching choices Larian is known for from hits like Divinity: Original Sin 2 and wrap them around the world and rules of Dungeons & Dragons brought to life by cutscenes that include the voice talents of actors like J.K. Simmons (Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films) and Jason Isaacs (the Harry Potter movies). Mind flayers—octopus-like humanoids with psychic powers—are invading the land, and have infected several heroes with parasites that can transform them into mind flayers as well. The titular metropolis of Baldur’s Gate then serves as a staging ground for adventures and intrigue as the heroes try to remove the parasites as war threatens the land once again.
It sounds simple enough but Larian doesn’t do simple. Divinity: Original Sin 2 took just two to three years to make, and Larian thought it might be similar this time around. “We figured it out, how to make this type of RPG, so let’s just do it again with Baldur’s Gate III, we’ll just add cinematics to it, right?” Vincke said. “And then we’ll just convert the [D&D] Player’s Handbook, let’s do that too. And then we’ve got to have all these narratives and all these permutations and all these long-term choices, let’s do everything bigger and better. So it grew exponentially.”
Originally teased at E3 2019, the game’s first act eventually came out on PC in early access in 2020. While just one small part of the game, it represents over two dozen hours of gameplay, and fans have been pushing its limits for years now. That collaboration has helped Larian with testing out certain ideas and balancing them in real time as if the game was already out, but most of Baldur’s Gate III’s campaign has actually remained under wraps. And even now, just a month before launch, Larian is still revealing new content.
A community update published today confirmed a level cap of 12 (which is high in D&D terms), a new “Origin” character named Karlach—one of the heroes players can choose to play as if they decide to forgo making a custom character—as well as additional races (Dragonborn and Half-Orc) and more classes and subclasses. As Larian is quick to point out, there are double the number of races, classes, player spells, and passive talents here than those found in Divinity: Original Sin 2. And on top of balancing all of those abilities and nuances for combat and in-game player choice, Baldur’s Gate III apparently features three times as much dialogue as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and cinematic scenes that, in total, run twice the length of the entirety of Game of Thrones.
But the key to a Larian RPG, and what made people fall in love with Divinity: Original Sin 2, is that the studio doesn’t just add stuff for the sake of adding stuff. Each addition feels curated and considered so as to create a world that feels reactive to players choices and overwhelming in its depth and detail. Often this means anticipating what a player might want to do and then figuring out a way to actually deliver on the promise of that possibility.
“It’s possible to be turned into a cheese wheel in this game,” Vincke said. “And so you are going to travel as a cheese wheel and it looks like you’re playing Pac-Man. So we’re just gonna go through the game and you will 100 percent accept and you will 100 percent understand why you became a cheese wheel and it will be your agency that causes you to become a cheese wheel, right? But it will still surprise you that that’s what happens.”
He elaborated that the same situation could also go another way and transport players to Chult, a D&D realm populated by dinosaurs. “[Players] will have figured out the cheese then and say, ‘I wonder what happens if I do this [other thing]?’” he continued. “And then they’ll go and do it? And then they’ll say, ‘Now I’ve got you Larian,’ and they’ll do it, and then ‘Fuck?!’ And it’s beautiful and it’s that level of development—we had that in the previous games also—that’s the first thing that gets caught.”
Vinke, who cofounded Larian back in 1996, said this is what staying independent has allowed the studio to do. With a team of over 200 people across half a dozen offices, it’s no small startup anymore. Larian was even included on a recently disclosed list of possible acquisition targets by Microsoft, which Vincke called “flattering.” But if Larian ever did get bought, it probably wouldn’t still be able to make games like Baldur’s Gate III. “A publisher would probably call [the cheese wheel] feature creep and I will say, ‘Hey, well done scripter.’”
Vinke estimates that only 0.1 percent of players would naturally end up in Baldur’s Gate III’s version of Jurassic Park via the cheese wheel moment. And when pressed about the total amount of the game players might experience in their first playthrough, he suggested maybe only 30 percent or less. Most players don’t even finish the games they start, let alone beat them multiple times to experience all of the alternate paths and roads not taken. This is part of what makes Baldur’s Gate III such an absurd business proposition but also such a tantalizing prospect for fans who have been waiting for it for years now.
“I like the city [of Baldur’s Gate], I really do,” Vinke said, despite calling RPG cities “bloody hard” to make. “In every single house I enter there’s an adventure waiting for me. They’re all different.” He said with the PC version of the game basically ready, the team has just been going over it with a final pass of polish, adding small details here and there to the citizens’ tables and cupboards for an extra little bit of environmental storytelling. “I expect plenty of people to launch fireballs in Baldur’s Gate from a rooftop just to see what’s going to happen,” Vinke said.