Baldur’s Gate is, to me, the classic isometric role-playing game. No game quite hit the nail on the head in the way that it did, and in celebration of the game’s 20th anniversary this week, I wanted to talk about what makes the game so special to me: the encounters.
1998 was a time before the standardization of level scaling. It was a time when tutorials were largely relegated to the physical manual that came in the giant box that your PC games were sold in. It was a time when an open world was thirty different map nodes on a region map. It was the time of Baldur’s Gate, and while I didn’t get a chance to dig into it until the early 2000s, when I did get it I really committed to it.
At the time, the only role-playing games I had experienced were the original Dragon Warrior for the NES and the demos for the Exile series on PC. The back of the Baldur’s Gate box clearly signaled that it was something like those games. I purchased because of my love for the Dungeons & Dragons novels centered on the big fantasy world of the Forgotten Realms, which makes for the setting of Baldur’s Gate. I kept playing it because of the weird things I could encounter.
I think my attachment to the game probably comes from Shoal the Nereid. After your protagonist makes their way out from Candlekeep, sees their adopted father Gorion struck down by evil warriors and wizards, and starts kicking around the world, you can basically go anywhere you want. And when I played the game for the first time, it took me a long time to get the plot going. Instead, I traveled the world, and in doing so I encountered Shoal.
Shoal’s entire deal is that she talks to the party. In her dialogue, she explains that she is lost, and the player has a few options to offer her aid or reject her. No matter what you choose, she gives the character who initiated dialogue a kiss, and that kiss kills them. Was that character your main character? If so, then you get a game over. Good luck partner. I hope you saved your progress.
That’s the kind of encounter I like in a game. A complete brick wall that you smash into, the perfect Gygaxian simulation of an ecosystem in which you have entered and were not prepared for. I wouldn’t say that this encounter is good (it’s worth noting that the recent Enhanced Edition of the game makes this encounter much less lethal), but I will say that it is interesting, and that’t the kind of thing I like in my RPGs.
Another excellent encounter are the wolves in the first screen of the Lion’s Way, the path that you follow immediately after seeing Gorion die. You’re a little first level character, and these wolves can roll up and absolutely eat you alive. They just completely wreck you. It’s a fast lesson in how life works here for low-level characters, and despite not being a scripted narrative event, it sticks out as an encounter that demonstrates that life is nasty, brutish, and short outside of the walls of the monastery where your character grew up.
Then there’s the basilisks that live under the giant library compound, and the military commander with the cursed helm, the man who needs you to collect things for his experiments, the “witch” that lives outside the walls of the city, the elf who is captured deep in the mines, the bandits who can waylay you with their dozens of bows that produce a hail or arrows, and all of the other concise story moments that bleed into each other.
The people and creatures that you encounter make the world of Baldur’s Gate feel dense with connections, danger, and stories. It feels like there’s someone in need behind every unlocked door and a nefarious criminal or curious wizard behind every locked one. The world feels full of other people and creatures with stories and lives of their own, and to my mind that’s what makes for a good RPG. It isn’t just about me. It’s about the world.
That might be why the encounters that stick out in my mind, like Shoal and the wolves, are such punishing ones. It’s because those are moments where it is clear that this world has other things going on in it, and your character is no more or less important than any of those things. That’s a feeling that is rare for me in contemporary games, and it’s a feeling that even the latter-day spiritual sequels to Baldur’s Gate, like Pillars of Eternity, can’t quite capture for me.
Baldur’s Gate was my first experience of what a computer role-playing game can do when it comes to creating a certain feel for a world. It is the first game where I was invested in trying to work through all the subplots and side quests so that I could experience everything the story had to offer. It is the kind of experience that remains rare, even today. Here’s to 20 more years of playing Baldur’s Gate.