The Death of Baldur's Gate: An End to Conservative Video Game DesignDecember's editorial: does Kyle have a chip on his shoulder or is he just plain right?12.30.10 - 12:15 PM
Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn is generally considered one of the best and most beloved RPGs ever made. Thus, when Dragon Age: Origins was announced as something of a spiritual successor to the aforementioned best RPG ever made, gamers were excited. Despite the lack of the standardized Dungeons and Dragons setting, Dragon Age: Origins basically succeeded as the spiritual sequel everyone had been waiting for, especially on the PC. So when Bioware presented a first look at Dragon Age II, a certain group of gamers was outraged at the few, yet significant changes apparent from even a brief look: a voiced protagonist, a strange graphical style, and a faster combat that possibly hinted at action over strategy. These were the few details readily visible; more and even larger changes were in store for sure, and this group of gamers could not have been less pleased. Forums exploded with negativity.
This example illustrates a common reaction to new video games – be they RPGs or not – from a particular sector of gamerdom. This same outcry has accompanied other games, such as Final Fantasy XII and XIII, Fallout 3, and the Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. Enflamed forum discussions and anger-blind gamer rants like those arriving with Dragon Age II typically follow announcements for new games that look to take already beloved franchises in new directions. Those outside the group may look on in amusement, frustration, or even disbelief at the limitless censorious comments spewed from the collective mouth of the angry gamer beast.
What's going on?
Let me tell you, and tell you I can, because I was one of those people until quite recently. I was mercifully nonvocal about my concerns, but they were with me all the same. I was one of those people who felt betrayed upon first seeing a few ugly Dragon Age II screenshots and hearing what sounded like a hint at action-based combat. I was a "purist," who wanted Final Fantasy to forever remain static and Bioware games to be as much like Baldur's Gate II as is possible. And why all the worry? Doubt and fear, to put it simply.
This conservative approach to game design – that franchises should continue to mimic themselves ad nauseum with only minimal changes – speaks of a lack of confidence in today's developers. Today's games must be like yesterday's games because there are no good ideas that have not already been discovered. I admit that some old games have something special that many new games lack, and that recent trends in the gaming world have produced loads of schlock. Yet I cannot ignore that some of my favorite games, and some of the best ever made, have come out in the past few years. I may not have much confidence in developers today, but does that mean the present is entirely rotten and the future entirely bleak? The past often looks brighter, particularly with video games, since the past contains many more games than the present. Upon examination, however, I doubt that the years were filled with nothing but gems.
There's doubt of today's developers, and then there's fear. Not only fear of something different from Dragon Age: Origins, but something different from Baldur's Gate II. Nothing new could possibly be better than Baldur's Gate II. But why this intensely pessimistic approach? Even in a year of vast disappointments like 2010, some of the best RPGs ever created were released, some of which took the genre in surprising new directions. Why should anyone ever think that video games won't keep getting better? If any art form will improve – out of books, film, music, and video games – should it not be video games that does so most noticeably?
The fear seems unfounded when closely examined. A lack of imagination, perhaps; a failure to imagine new and better designs, stories, characters, and settings. A general pessimism, perhaps, or a kind of swampy nostalgia, stagnant and full of quicksand, ready to trap and kill anything that moves or changes. I don't know the precise reasons for the fear. There may be none. All the better to toss it away.
Just think about what would happen if developers thought the way this type of gamer does. There would be no innovation, something other gamers often complain about today. Developers aren't allowed to think in this way, and gamers shouldn't be either. Furthermore, while I may be discriminating in which developers I place my confidence, gamers should not be so selfish and arrogant as to determine what kind of games developers make. Bioware: make games you want to play. If you don't want to be shackled by the confines of yesteryear's RPGs, then don't be. Make something you think is amazing, and we'll likely agree.
And anyone can benefit from releasing a bit of fear from oneself. It frees the mind.
One day, I actually stopped myself for a moment and analyzed my thoughts. I asked myself why I would be upset if Dragon Age II was a full-on action RPG, if it was still an amazing game. At that moment, I changed. I will no longer care what bits of a franchise change and what bits stay the same. If Square-Enix wants to change the Final Fantasy series so that Cid is a robot and chocobos are spaceships, so be it, as long as the quality remains. If Bioware wants to make Dragon Age II or III an action game, so be it, as long as they deliver a fantastic experience. We might not get another Baldur's Gate II, but then again, we might get something better.
Besides, doesn't the fact that there is hardly another game like Baldur's Gate II and Dragon Age: Origins make those games all the more delightful? Let the old classics rest. They still exist and can be brought to life any time. But for now, let's embrace the new, examine the continued evolution of our favorite series and genres, and be enthusiastic for what is yet to come. After all, Dragon Age II might soon be the game you wish other games were like.