It’s no secret that the fantasy role-playing games we all love today owe their entire concept to Dungeons & Dragons. Way back in 1974, these tabletop games established a model that has evolved in an innumerable amount of ways. Most of the time, this influence isn’t felt in the gameplay anymore as it is with the theme and setting. That’s okay though because D&D is still going strong. A brand new 5th edition of the franchise was released as recently as last year. It’s also completely unnecessary for current games to fully model off D&D too. That role was filled way back in 1998 with Baldur’s Gate.
Baldur’s Gate isn’t a game that’s in focus very often anymore, which is just one of the many similarities it shares with D&D. It doesn’t have to be either. This high fantasy hit has amassed an enormous and dedicated fan base over the years. Even as other companies like Blizzard dished out more Warcraft and Diablo games, Baldur’s Gate has remained steadfast in its place as an RPG icon. This is why, despite 17 years passing between Baldur’s first release and now, and brand new expansion called Siege of Dragonspear was announced. It’s set to take place between Baldur’s Gate I and Baldur’s Gate II and will presumably come out in the near future. There’s little information about it right now, which unfortunately is causing some fan hesitation, but you can bet more will come closer to release which will (hopefully) lead to some exciting buzz.
To understand why Baldur’s Gate still persists to this day, you need to look back at what the industry was like when it first hit the market. As Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy rose to prominence in the mid-90s, reaching a major turning point thanks to Final Fantasy VII, Western PC RPGs suffered a major blow to sales. Developers couldn’t keep up with evolving technology like the PlayStation and people became actively more interested in what was coming from the East. Companies in North America were in dire need of some hits if they wanted to stop this alarming decline. Fortunately Blizzard came along with Diablo which showed everyone that, yes, there still was plenty to come from this part of the world.
Baldur’s Gate capitalized on the renewed interest from Diablo to deliver an entirely new high fantasy experience. Seeing as D&D was already exceptionally popular with aficionados, BioWare, then an upstart developer, used the D&D world Forgotten Realms as a setting. From then the game was modeled very intimately to the rules dictated in the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. You could craft your character from scratch, determining their class, race, abilities, etc., and send them out into a world filled with collectible lore. Experience points are gathered to make your character stronger. Other characters are picked up to fight alongside you. Side missions are done as you make a name for yourself throughout the region. All of these features are pretty common now in an RPG, but Baldur’s Gate presented it early in a very detailed fantasy format.
There’s also an interesting bit of history between Baldur’s Gate and early Fallout games. When game publisher Interplay wanted to grow in the RPG market, they brought on two different developers to create games. One was Black Isle Studios which gave the world Fallout, and as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, the other was BioWare, the company behind Baldur’s Gate. These two franchises were essentially siblings in this expanding field and boasted several similarities. The most noticeable comparison is with the gameplay. Both Baldur’s Gate and Fallout featured a top-down isometric perspective where you character was just a tiny part of a larger map, and combat was done entirely in real time. This naturally meant that if you were capable of playing one game, you were more than prepared to try the other. You just had to decide if you preferred a medieval setting or a post-apocalyptic world.
Eventually these two groundbreaking franchises grew apart, largely because Interplay went bankrupt. Black Isle Studios had planned to create a third Baldur’s Gate game, just like they intended to make a third main Fallout game, but those plans were ultimately scrapped. Unsurprisingly both series’ were picked up by new developers, which is where their diversions came in. Bethesda Softworks picked up Fallout to completely revolutionize the brand with a massive open world environment very similar to The Elder Scrolls. They have found immense success with this, but there are purists who prefer the isometric style. Baldur’s Gate, however, didn’t change nearly as much. Instead of brand new games, publisher Beamdog released enhanced editions of Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II. Both were very well received and maintained the exact gameplay that made these games so popular many years ago. So while Bethesda moved Fallout beyond its roots, Beamdog firmly kept Baldur’s Gate the way it was.
As someone who grew up preferring consoles to PCs, my experience with Baldur’s Gate is absolutely non-existent. Granted the Dark Alliance spin-offs came to home systems, but I never made a point to try them out. I honestly don’t know how good I could have been at these games too. Playing from a top-down perspective didn’t feel comfortable to me, and it resulted in me passing over many big names, including the original Warcraft games. It wasn’t until after college that I gave the original Fallout a legitimate shot, though it took me quite a while to get used to its style (I still prefer what Bethesda did). My brother, however, was a massive fan of Baldur’s Gate. He’d play this game for hours in between his time with Diablo II and Warcraft. I was always curious about what exactly Baldur’s Gate was about since he played it so often, but then I’d move my attention elsewhere. Clearly I need play this series.
What’s fascinating about Siege of Dragonspear is that it’s not a brand new, standalone game in the Baldur’s Gate universe. It’s a totally new addition that will bring the enhanced version of the first game to new heights. Almost two decades separated and developers are still working with a game that BioWare, now a major success thanks to Mass Effect and Dragon Age, created back in the late 90s. Say what you will about the staying power of major icons, Baldur’s Gate puts them all to shame. It’s still rocking the appearance and gameplay from the past century, and people absolutely adore it. Sometimes you don’t need to make something new. You just have to make the old better.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television editor. Every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.