LOS ANGELES - Eighteen years ago this month, Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal debuted on PC, bringing one of gaming’s greatest RPG sagas to a satisfying conclusion. And yet, it was hard to shake the feeling that there were still more adventures to be had in the city of Baldur’s Gate. The Dungeons & Dragons tabletop ruleset evolved, paving the way for even more intricate gameplay and deeper customization options. Video games got enough horsepower to convincingly create entire fantasy worlds. Baldur’s Gate III was never a sure thing — and yet it always seemed like a pretty good idea.
That good idea will soon come to fruition at long last. Baldur’s Gate III is finally in development, courtesy of Larian Studios, the masterminds behind the beloved Divinity series of RPGs. During E3, I met with representatives from both Larian and Wizards of the Coast (D&D’s parent company) to discuss why now is the right time to continue the saga of Baldur’s Gate, and what Larian might bring to the table to honor the legacy of the BioWare days.
Breaking the game
“Baldur’s Gate III will be the kind of big, meaty RPG you’d expect from Larian,” Kieron Kelly told me. Kelly is a producer and product manager at Larian, which has created deep, inventive, popular RPGs such as Divinity: Original Sin and its sequel, Original Sin 2. “If you can imagine the progression of Original Sin 1 to 2, we have been trying to create these immersive experiences. Let the player really explore the world, and enjoy that world.”
Mike Mearls, the creative director behind Dungeons & Dragons, added what he called “The D&D Perspective.”
“It’s really about taking the legacy of Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2, and bringing it to a new generation of players,” Mearls said. “They were revolutionary.” For Mearls, Baldur’s Gate was not the first excellent D&D video game, but it was the first D&D video game that really felt like a tabletop experience. He could create his own character, choose to be good or evil, recruit whichever party members he wanted, talk his way out of situations rather than fighting and so forth.
“Good RPGs give you a sense of, ‘I’m going to break the game,” he said. “As a designer, you say, ‘you can’t break it; you can do whatever you want.’ That’s the feel of a tabletop game. Where in other genres, you might feel like you’re breaking out of the game’s borders, that border area is where the play needs to be. That’s classic tabletop.”
The right time
I asked Kelly and Mearls why 2019 was the right time to announce a Baldur’s Gate sequel. After all, the series has been (mostly) dormant for almost 20 years. Tabletop D&D is more popular than it’s ever been, and Larian already has a series of respected RPGs under its belt.
“It’s Baldur’s Gate III,” Kelly replied matter-of-factly. “Do I need to give a bigger answer than that?”
I had to acknowledge, it was a good point.
“From the D&D standpoint, [Baldur’s Gate] is the game that’s loomed large over D&D video games,” Mearls explained. “It’s something that people have a lot of anticipation for. It had to be at the right time. Having the right partner, having the right narrative base, having the right audience.”
For Mearls, the perfect storm of D&D’s rising popularity, coupled with the overall accessibility of video games meant it was time to bring the Baldur’s Gate franchise to a whole new audience. At the same time, the developers wanted to reward longtime fans.
“Larian’s approach is really what we’re looking for in terms of getting that tabletop feel,” he continued. “[RPGs] need the right entry point. Gamers have the sense that RPGs are dense and difficult-to-master. Yes, we could make a Baldur’s Gate III that was filled with in-jokes and references and endless lore. But you want to be lore that’s ‘there’ – not required.”
Mearls compared continuing Baldur’s Gate to watching a well-made superhero movie.
“When you watch a well-made superhero movie … [you] can just see a great action/adventure movie. I can see that, plus I’m getting all the references and history. We’re giving you an extra layer to enjoy, rather than a requirement.”
The tabletop connection
Since it’s connected to the larger Forgotten Realms setting, Baldur’s Gate has never been a completely standalone series. The events in the Baldur’s Gate game have always reflected what was going on in the D&D tabletop game, to some extent. A recent pencil-and-paper adventure called Murder in Baldur’s Gate demonstrated that the fallout from Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 is still present in the Forgotten Realms. An adventure called Descent Into Avernus will come out on Sept. 17, and act as sort of a prequel to BGIII. Video games and tabletop games, as is often the case, can exist symbiotically
“RPGs are really interesting,” Mearls said. “As far as I know … tabletop RPGs and computer RPGs are the only genres where you keep so much of that identity across platforms.” He pointed out that there’s really no board game equivalent to a first-person shooter, for example, but we expect computer RPGs to faithfully recreate the experience of playing on a tabletop.
I mentioned that tabletop war games and computer strategy games also bear considerable similarity to each other. Mearls agreed, but pointed out that the duty of a Dungeon Master is much more open-ended than that of a wargame opponent. While a wargame player can be strategic and creative, a DM must make open-ended decisions as well.
“[BGIII] is a continuation of the lore of Baldur’s Gate as well,” Kelly said. “Go and play Descent Into Avernus. But there’s a difference between the story of the city itself, and the player’s individual story. When you join the game, you’re Level 1.
“Your world is enriched because there’s history there, and characters. If you know those characters, you’re going to get a lot out of it. If you’re just coming in as a new character to Baldur’s Gate, that’s OK, too.”
The Divinity: Original Sin titles take a lot of inspiration from classic BioWare games, but Larian doesn’t want to simply recreate the gameplay from the first two titles. For one thing, Dungeons & Dragons is currently on its 5th Edition; a far cry from the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rule set that the first two games used. But Baldur’s Gate is also starting to show its age.
“We love those games, but they were made 20 years ago,” Kelly said. “I’d like to believe we’ve done our best to not just rely on older design choices. We’ve been able to expand the computer RPG genre to try to experiment with new ideas. A lot of innovations have come from different genres. We’re trying not to limit ourselves.”
“[Baldur’s Gate] was revolutionary for its time,” Mearls added. “But if you just copy what it did, it won’t have the same effect. What’s important to me is that it has the same effect on players. They look at this game and go, ‘Wow, this isn’t like any other RPG I’ve played before.’”
“I’m delighted, but don’t mess it up,” Kelly said.
“We’re delighted with Larian, and that this partnership is very much mutual,” Mearls concluded. “We’re glad that we’re working together.”
Baldur’s Gate III doesn’t have a release date yet – in fact, we haven’t seen any gameplay, or learned any salient story details. But it’s finally going to happen, and for a whole generation of D&D fans reared on the originals, that’s more than enough for now.
Be sure to follow our E3 2019 news hub all week long for the biggest reveals and impressions out of Los Angeles.