I’ve been a bit under the weather recently, which means that amongst other things my gaming preferences have temporarily shifted from my usual fare – probably involving intense action whack-’em-ups or diving head-first into weird obscurities that occasionally require a serious amount of effort just to get the damned things running – to games that are a little more sedate and forgiving; games that don’t relish crushing me underfoot for needing to take a quick break so I can readjust my taped-together self, games that actually start the first time I click on their .exe and don’t crash once they hit the title screen, that sort of thing. During times like these when I’m largely spurred into action by vast mugs of tea and filled with so many pills I must sound like a lonely maraca as I shuffle about my disorganised home I tend to fall back on old favourites – a bit of Sonic, a few credits on Galaga, a quick Ridge Racer race – anything familiar and easy to get going usually does the trick. I didn’t do too badly living off those games for a short while but we all know who the crown of ill-gaming really belongs to – puzzlers. They’re the perfect genre for those blargh days, especially the ones that allow you to melt into a zen-like state as you marathon through some gem-shattering, bubble-popping, line-clearing action…
…Unfortunately it turns out there really is only so much Columns, Puzzle Bobble 2, and Tetris I can take before I really do have to find something a little more in-depth to play but I hadn’t got a clue what that “something else” would be – in my befuddled state everything felt like it was either too much hassle to set up, too long (you may think several weeks with nothing on your to-do list beyond “Get better” would be the perfect time for a lengthy adventure – you’d be wrong), or too fast-paced to be worth spending anything more than a shallow five minute’s fiddle with before turning off in a fuzzy huff.
So why not ditch games entirely? Why not… read a book? I did try that but books are surprisingly unwieldy when you’re feeling a bit off, and that’s before you start worrying about the whole “being able to concentrate on the plot” business. TV then? I struggle to have any real interest in TV at the best of times, and I probably shouldn’t watch Good Omens and/or a bunch of The Real Ghostbusters episodes again. How about mindlessly scrolling through internet pages on some handy device to quietly pass the time because it’s less frightening for those around me than watching me blankly staring at the walls for a few weeks? It can be done but… perhaps best to leave that one alone.
I really was stuck until a thoughtful friend popped up out of the internet-blue bearing the greatest gift of all –
a bath filled with Nutella Steam store credit – which I then used to buy the Infinity Engine classic and more than likely one of only two games to ever feature recruitable miniature giant space hamsters, Baldur’s Gate II.
I sort of know why I did that, I think. Maybe. I like Dungeons & Dragons. I like CRPGs in general. I like clicking on things and then clicking on other things to make the things move towards the other things, then watching them get stuck on other other things in the scenery along the way. Baldur’s Gate II has all of those features in abundance so it should have been a safe bet for someone like me.
You’d think so, anyway. The only problem was before this point not a single one of these games or any of the similar titles under that play-n-pause RPG umbrella had ever really clicked into place for me, and I’ve been trying to make them work for so long I once owned Planescape: Torment in the sort of big cardboard box only software that comes with a hefty dose of nonsensical Windows backwards compatibility issues came in. Later on I had one of those budget Baldur’s Gate double packs too, bought back in the distant past when PC games used to come on actual CDs that you had to place within your computer like some sort of fire-worshipping caveperson and most recently I purchased Icewind Dale for my phone after a very enjoyable run through both mobile Shadowrun Returns ports (I have an enormous phone and a jabby stylus to prod icons with so it’s fine) and I did manage to play it for a while… but I knew I wasn’t really seeing what made it so special, and it didn’t help that the game starts by offering you a full pre-made party with proper names, portraits, and a little note telling you how these people you’ve never heard of can definitely get the game done. It all made me feel like my chaotic-good sorcerer was treading on somebody else’s digital toes before I’d even done anything, and who wants to feel like the odd one out on their own adventure?
There was no real indication that things would be any different this time around either – I hadn’t got some burning desire to prove myself wrong or felt any need to force myself through to the end come what may, I just thought it might be a nice way to pass the time (three cheers for that “Story mode” button!) without putting any real pressure on myself.
It was even better than that – the game was exactly what I needed.
So much so that once I realised – fifteen hours in – how much of an idiot I’d been by permanently missing out on recruiting Minsc and Boo (even though they’re literally on screen when you start the game – in my defence I was heavily medicated at the time) I happily restarted the whole adventure, immediately snapped up the adorable berserker/hamster combo (voiced by none other than Darkwing Duck himself, as if I needed any further encouragement), and merrily sailed through everything I’d already done and far beyond without feeling like I’d wasted a single second of my time.
This is down to me spending my whole life until that moment completely misunderstanding the point of these overwhelming webs of plots within plots within side stories within optional book-delivered lore, and that Boo-related restart ended up being the most accidentally enlightening thing I could have possibly done. The story soon took me to completely different places with absolutely no effort on my part, previously missed companions passed comment on what I’d assumed to be random bits of dungeon-dressing the first time through, and I even got to hear brand new things being said by characters I’d teamed up with before even if it was only something as simple as mentioning the sunrise or complaining when they got tired of heroically traipsing around the countryside and getting ambushed by thieves.
And because of this I could finally see that I didn’t have any reason to worry about missing out on the “right” events or keeping track of everywhere I’d been and when because the world you’re given to play in is so vast and so detailed it can bend to whatever activities you choose to pursue (within reason, of course – you can’t open up a shop selling mind flayer plushies or forget the whole “Child of Bhaal” business and become a famous tavern singer in a sparkly frock). I was a single character (and friends) in my own right and given permission to bravely stomp around this incredible living city, one where I couldn’t possibly be privy to every last piece of information all the time and sometimes simply had no choice but to go with my Chaotic Good gut and hope for the best. It all felt a bit disorienting at first – I’m used to choices in RPGs meaning “Hoovering up all the extra bits” (like… let’s say, Suikoden’s recruitment system), or being faced with soul-searching morality conundrums as deep as “Rush into the burning orphanage and save the children” or “Cackle loudly throughout the blaze then feast on their roasted remains”. Baldur’s Gate II isn’t like that at all, and I understand now the density of all those sidequests upon sidequests isn’t to keep me preoccupied with tedious busywork – I always thought “playing properly” was about clearing out my real-life schedule so I could carefully check bookcases and barrels just in case they had important items in them only to end up with a bit of pocket change and some regional
fanfiction lore yet again, or wasting time running around every tavern and sewer and temple to find the one person who would graciously give me a plot-progressing thread to follow – but that wasn’t the case at all. It’s more like.. oh! Like Final Fantasy XI, in that you are one person in a place filled with people who almost certainly have better things to do than be a sub-plot in someone else’s story, and all of these “hidden” quests exist to allow me to stumble across evil cults, ghost children, and gruesome murderers in a more organic fashion – I can choose what I trouble I get in to… unless trouble finds me first. The last time I felt like this was playing the steampunk-themed eldritch sail ’em up Sunless Sea: That’s another game where getting lost or poking around without being sure what’s going on isn’t a problem to be fixed with detailed quest notes and thorough reminders of what’s happened before but something to be enjoyed for its own sake (which is just as well considering Sea’s admittedly terrible journal system) – you can trust the imagined world you slipped in to to be so carefully crafted your real-world curiosity will always be rewarded… or at the very least you’ll get to die in an interesting way.
Of course none of this is news to anyone but me – all of the games in this series are ridiculously old by now and have been praised since roughly forever, but it was great to finally experience first-hand what made them so special after failing for so very long. This is also why I feel it’s important to – within reason – keep going back to games and genres you’ve tried before and not got on with, even the ones you’ve put down swearing you’ll never go near them again. It’s not about forcibly “correcting” your own tastes until they align with the general consensus but just being aware that personal tastes can change depending on our moods or the weather outside (I’m a big fan of curling up with Zwei!! and Boku no Natsuyasumi in winter for no deeper reason than “They feel like snuggly games”), or shift around based on the last great game we played or our current favourite format. Sometimes we simply end up with the right game at the wrong time, and there’s nothing wrong with that either.
Thanks to an act of kindness I can finally see the appeal of – and greatly enjoy – these Infinity Engine games (and similar titles) without needing to have it explained to me, I got my own little fantasy bolthole of caves, graves, and planeswalking theatre troupes exactly when I needed somewhere to mentally slink off to, and best of all – and no I’m not sorry for this (OK I am a little bit sorry) (But not sorry enough to close with a different line) – I learned that the real heroes are the friends we make along the way. Brilliant.