I am so glad that after all these years, Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn still holds up because the first time I ever played it, I got everything wrong.
See, the problem was, when I first got the game, I was under the mistaken impression that games where things you were meant to win. I couldn’t have been much older than ten years old when I first got it, only allowed two hours of computer time on the family computer every weekend, but a truly glorious hour a day during summer, winter and other school holidays – more, if I got up extra early to play it, which you can be completely assured I did. I was fascinated with the idea of the game from the moment I first heard of it. I get to choose what happens in the game? I get to choose what to say, who to talk to, what approach to take, and whether I wanted to be good or evil?
It was an entirely alien concept to me. But as someone who desperately wished he could fall into the fantasy worlds he read about and adventure with Rand Al Thor, the Famous Five, the Hardy Boys, or the Animorphs, the idea of calling the shots in a fantasy world that was mine to explore? There was nothing more thrilling. And what a world it was. I wouldn’t even find out what Dungeons and Dragons was for a good many years, so my first introduction to the Forgotten Realms was the game’s manual. That little lost art of a booklet that used to come with every game and gave you every reason to be excited about it because it could be hours before you got the game from the store back to a laptop. That manual is a GREAT read – information about the world, the monsters you can find (mind flayers sounded terrifying. I both dreaded and was dying to meet one in-game), and special spells – all commented on by the mysterious and delightful Volo and Elminster.
After months of bugging him about the game, my friend finally got me a copy. Four CDs (indicating an ASTONISHING size for a game) were handed to me loose, not even in a CD case. We made the transaction like it was an illicit drug deal – we weren’t really doing anything wrong, but Having Money on school grounds was definitely cause for suspicion amongst teachers. I bought the CDs home, went home, installed the game, and was changed forever.
To Live or Die by the THAC0 Score
For those who are unaware, the original Baldur’s Gate series is an isometric computer RPG created to simulate the experience of playing a game of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, all from the comfort of your home and with none of the inconvenience of having your dice fall off the table. I cannot begin to explain to you how much D&D wasn’t a thing in the small hill station of Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, so my closest frame of reference was that it was a choose-your-own-adventure game writ large.
When you’re in a small enough town, you don’t always have the luxury of playing games in order, which is why I started with the second game in the series. Bit of a lucky break there, as BG2 is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. Update a whole lot from BG1, and was a lot less exhausting than the endless hordes of enemies from the third game, The Throne of Bhaal, which was fresh out of creative ways to challenge your by-then Level 20 players.
BG2 has you — the child of the God of Murder — awakening to a mad wizard torturing you to try and unlock some hidden power deep inside you. You begin the game in his dungeon, filled with strange creatures and the results of twisted experiments, escaping with your allies who have all suffered at his inquisitive, twisted, relentless researches. It’s a hell of a note to start the game on — it feels like a bad dream once you find daylight for the first time, but a dream that haunts you right up until the end.
Nowadays, with open world games everywhere and more sidequests than most players even think of finishing (be honest. How many of you still haven’t finished the main Skyrim storyline?), BG2 may not be so revolutionary. Back then, however, it changed the way I looked at storytelling forever. To get to have a voice in a game through the dialogue choices I made. To see my choices bear fruit down the line. To see how my choices unlocked secrets, to know that those secrets would have remained hidden but for my cleverness and sense of exploration.
I wish I’d played it straight.
Are Cheatcodes Chaotic Evil?
“More. Intruders. Have entered. The complex. Master.”
“They act sooner than I had anticipated!”
I have started up that game so many times that those words are burned into my brain. The series’ main villain, Jon Irenicus, was voiced by David Warner. Warner brought his full theatrical training into the role, and I’ve yet to see a villain portrayed as dramatically as Irenicus was. But it wasn’t just his voice that made him — indeed, like the best villains, he did most of his work behind the scenes, only showing up in the most dramatic, terrifying moments possible.
Baldur’s Gate excelled at letting its setting do the storytelling for it. Irenicus’ dungeon did more to reveal his character than a dozen expertly written monologues ever could. The strange creature who would only help you escape if you helped him die. The desperate science experiments, desperate to escape. The fear, pain, and wretchedness in your companions’ voices as they talked about what he did to them. The strange, ridiculously trapped room was held in homage to some lost love from a man who seemingly had no soul.
Much of the game was like this. There wasn’t much in the way of handholding. There were secrets to uncover around every corner, another layer of story to unlock, supremely useful objects to discover, but only to those smart enough to pay attention and put the pieces together. The city of Amn was especially well done — I have walked up and down its streets so often, I know it better than I do my own hometown.
In short, it was all a bit much for a ten year old.
I downloaded a walkthrough from ye olde cheatcodes.com. It was thorough – every room, every locked chest, every possible interaction you can have, all laid out, with actual game-hacking cheat codes besides. Overuse of it all had the game glitch, I somehow accidentally skipped through big chunks of the later game, and the end was a lot less satisfying than it could have been.
I still had a ball. The writing, the music, the voice acting — all of it, top-tier stuff. Old school fantasy with more nuance and depth than anything I’d ever encountered before. Creative encounters, unique NPCs, and magic items that to this day have not been matched by any game in terms of how entertaining they were to find.
Nostalgia; Enhanced Edition
CRPGs remain my favorite kind of game. Pillars of Eternity, which is Baldur’s Gate’s spiritual successor, ticked a lot of boxes for me. Torment: Tides of Numenera were a revelation. Planescape: Torment is a masterpiece. I’ve talked here about what Disco Elysium has meant to me, and all of these games owe some thanks for their creation to Baldur’s Gate.
The game certainly shaped my love for good worldbuilding and well-written companion characters. For choice & consequence in gaming, and for valuing story above the need to beat the game. The satisfaction of discovering the unexplored.
I got to play through the entire Baldur’s Gate series again when the Enhanced Editions were released, and the games hold up. They’re still some of the best games out there, and this time, I went through the whole series, beginning to end, with no cheats, and gained an additional appreciation for how well it was all put together — and be able to see the parts of it that were less than perfect. The good overwhelmingly overshadows the bad, though.
Now with Baldur’s Gate 3 on the way, I get to marvel at just how far games have come. Still, every now and again, I’m going to reload Shadows of Amn on Steam to play through again and thank the gods that I no longer have to swap out CDs when I enter a new area.