By Guy Rainey / February 21st, 2014
The Pretentious Opinionist is a column dedicated to my opinion and speculation. It does not represent oprainfall as a whole, nor the opinions of other staff members, nor does it necessarily have any basis in fact. It merely represents my possibly naive notion that people might be interested in what I have to say.
I recently wrote a scathing review of Baldur’s Gate II, scoring it a rather low 2/5. I was almost scared to look at the comments. I always read comments to anything I write, as I’m fascinated by opinion (especially respectful disagreement), and am always seeking to learn something new. But giving a game many consider an all-time classic a 2/5, was, I thought, sure to bring out angry comments. That didn’t happen. Actually, it prompted really good comments from readers, and I encourage you to read them. I almost posted a comment in reply to each of them, but I realized what I had to say applied to both of them. And when I started writing a comment, it quickly proved to be quite long. Then I remembered that I hadn’t done a Pretentious Opinionist in quite some time (I have a hard time finding topics to fill a whole article), so it seemed like a good opportunity.
The one idea that filtered through every comment I received, whether that was through the comments or from other members of the staff, was that I unfairly compared Baldur’s Gate II to JRPGs. That wasn’t my intention, and that so many thought it was, was a failure of communication on my part. I brought up my experience with JRPGs to give readers an idea of where I was coming from. However, I did not expect Baldur’s Gate II would be a JRPG. That would be ridiculous; it’s a Western RPG, therefore it has completely different goals. What I did expect was that it would follow some of the same underlying rules. For instance, if you are having trouble with a boss, go back out, get a few levels, and come back. I also expected it to have a fair difficulty level, but I’ll get to that later.
I didn’t come into this game expecting to hate it. Actually, I was excited to play a revered Western RPG. I also hoped that it would introduce me to Dungeons & Dragons. I’m a nerd, and I would like to get into and understand this section of nerd culture. However, rather than being an introduction to D&D, this game felt as though it was built for experienced D&D players. I felt like I would need to go buy a D&D rulebook and study all the rules before I began playing. Perhaps I’m too used to newer games, but I understand rules better when I play with them. I was hoping that this game would give me a basis of understanding, so that if I was to go further with D&D, I would understand the rules and their applications better. Needless to say, that wasn’t my experience.
Now, in our staff discussions, Hailee mentioned that this isn’t unique to D&D; lots of classic RPGs (indeed, lots of classic games) ask the player to read the instructions before they play. That’s true. However, we can see with a genre that still requires that level of upfront dedication where that leads.
If you are an old PC gamer, you may remember the grand strategy genre. If you aren’t, grand strategy games are a little like RISK. You know that game, right? At the beginning of the game, you and friends claim a certain number of territories, then you build up armies, and try to take over the whole world. Now, grand strategy games are more complex than that. A lot more complex. Each unit has strengths and weaknesses, and if you want to beat the computer, you need to know all these strengths and weaknesses before you begin playing. Grand strategy games are still being made today, in a pretty decent number. However, you often don’t hear about them. Why? Because most people don’t have the time or patience to learn how to play a game before they begin playing. There’s a niche of players who keep the games profitable, but grand strategy games will never be mainstream successes in their current state.
“But,” I hear some of you saying, “that sounds a lot like Civilization, and that series is quite popular.” Yes, Civilization is a grand strategy game, but has a key difference: it teaches players as it goes along. Think about it. When someone starts a game of Civilization, they start the game at the beginning of human civilization. Players start with two bare bones units, one settler to start a city and one warrior to either explore or defend that city. By giving the players a settler instead of a city, players learn exactly what a settler does, so they know what to do once they make another one. Players then get a small number of things to do with a city, with recent installments recommending certain things. Meanwhile, if you sent your warrior out to explore, he comes across barbarians to teach players about fighting. And further complexity is added with progression in technology. It’s a brilliant design, as it gives new players the chance to jump in without requiring foreknowledge of the game. And in mulitplayer, it doesn’t give advanced players much of an edge on newer ones. I, a relatively inexperienced Civ player, can have just a good of a chance of victory as my Dad, who has played more games of Civilization of over the years than anyone can count.
So, why the sidebar on Civilization? It’s to show the difference in popularity between a game that teaches its players, and one that expects its player’s to have understanding before they play. You may not have a problem sitting down to learn the basics of play, but you are in the minority. And that’s not a bad thing, I stress! Seriously, without people like you, we probably wouldn’t have games today period. People like you allowed creators to make a profit off of certain games that allowed thoughtful designers to ask questions like, “why does this system have to work that way?” If D&D wasn’t popular enough to be profitable, the designers that worked to design simpler, better systems wouldn’t have bothered. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Dragon Quest today if it weren’t for D&D. That said, if someone like me reviews a game like this, I’m going to be lost and not enjoy the experience. Thus, my low score.
Just because something is important and innovative, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have problems. One of the comments was: “I have to admit, I’m a little confused that we’re complaining about a D&D game having D&D mechanics.” I don’t think it’s correct to ignore Baldur’s Gate‘s design problems, because it is based on D&D‘s design problems. That would be like excusing problems with a remake because the problems existed in the original game. If problems exist, they should be fixed; and if they aren’t fixed, they need to be called out.
In my review, I called out one such problem: the spell system. One commenter took issue with that. He said, “the spells per day system isn’t a negative aspect at all- it forces you to use your noggin with spell memorization and usage instead of just spamming lightning bolts when it suits you.” You know, I can actually understand that. I’m sure in the designer’s mind, forcing players to chose what spells they were going to use, and limiting their use in that way, would force players to be strategic, choosing only the spells they’d need, and be careful with their use. My point is, in practice, the system is broken. It punishes players who don’t know the enemies they will face and, in light of that, don’t prepare for them properly. After the player fails, they’ll have the knowledge necessary to properly prepare, but that is bad design. It makes the player feel cheated. It should be possible to win every encounter the first time, without having to come back better prepared.
Think about games like Dark Souls and Shin Megami Tensei. Both games are incredibly challenging. Yet, both games use a magic meter. You might think that in games where challenge is a core part of the experience, that they would welcome a system that forces players to properly prepare. So, why don’t they?
The designers of these games realized that every spell a player knows is a tool. When a carpenter comes to do some work, he shouldn’t pick and choose only the tools he thinks he’ll need; rather he should bring the whole tool box. If he doesn’t need a tool, it’s okay not to use it. By putting these games on a magic meter system, the designers have given players every tool in their toolboxes. It is now up to the player to decide how to use them.
There’s one other statement that was made that I’d like to touch on. The commenter said, “It also confuses me as to why grinding your way to victory is considered superior to working out how to achieve tactical success. I was under the impression that most games are a lot better when they legitimately challenge you instead of processing you to a point where losing is not a threat.” That’s certainly a valid statement. Let me be clear, I love challenging games, like Dark Souls, Monster Hunter, the Mega Man series, old-school Castlevania, the list goes on.
However, there’s a difference between challenging and punishing. A challenging game is one that doesn’t tolerate mistakes, but ensures that the player is able to complete any challenge that’s thrown at them on their first try if they’re good enough. A punishing game is a game that relies on memorization rather than skill. A punishing game never tells its players ahead of time what curve-balls it’s going to throw, forcing the player to retry with new foreknowledge. And Baldur’s Gate II is punishing, not challenging.
Now, RPG is the one genre capable of recovering from a punishing difficulty, since it should give the player the ability to become nearly invincible with enough dedication. But Baldur’s Gate doesn’t even give players that option, since enemies you’ve killed never respawn. Even Dark Souls has respawning enemies, so level grinding is an option for the less skilled. It’s another example of poor design choices that permeate D&D, and by proxy Baldur’s Gate II.
Look, Baldur’s Gate II is an important game. It’s an early example of the the player-influenced stories that BioWare would become known for in games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. However, in my opinion, this game does not hold up well, nor is it a game for the mass market. That was my point.
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