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Pushing Buttons: Will Baldur’s Gate 3 be the game where we can truly be whoever we want?

Aug 04, 2023

In this week’s newsletter: the D&D-inspired RPG is an almost bottomless sandbox, and represents a new frontier for the genre

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This week brings a preposterously generous gift for lovers of timesink role-playing games: Larian Studios’s Baldur’s Gate 3. Depending on your level of engagement with Dungeon and Dragons-inspired RPGs, you will know it either as the unlikely and long-awaited follow-up to 2000’s Baldur’s Gate 2 – one of the great computer RPGs of its era – or as the game where you can have sex with a bear.

Look, technically it’s not a bear – it’s a shapeshifting druid in bear form. But still, the scene inevitably went viral when Larian showed it off during a livestream last month. It is the tip of the iceberg: you can romance pretty much any available character in this role-playing game, or several of them at once. You can try to steal almost anything, or throw it at an enemy as a makeshift weapon. You can be good, or creatively, grotesquely evil. It is indicative of Larian’s approach to the genre, which is that if the player can imagine it and it can be determined by a dice roll, you should be able to do it. The studio wants to capture some of the unpredictable, anarchic spirit that players of real-life D&D adore about their hobby.

Games are ill-equipped to replicate the spontaneity and creativity that arises from in-person role playing, or at least they have been. It is technologically impossible for a game’s systems to allow a player to do anything they want, but good lord, we’re getting closer. Usually developers can only offer us a selection of curated options – this piece of dialogue or that, this route or the other – and must do a lot of work to make us as players feel like we are forging our own way. But Larian – also the makers of Divinity: Original Sin 2, a seemingly bottomless role-playing sandbox – is a rare developer with the time and resources to create hundreds of hours of content that no individual player will ever see, accounting for all the different choices they may make.

When you play your typical mid-to-high-end video game, every area you come across has typically been designed for gameplay. This cave complex is an excellent place to kill monsters. This series of mountain hideouts works for shooting. Story scenes must fit into these environments, because creating new places just for a narrative moment would cost too much time and money. On top of that, often the engine and the tech infrastructure of a game must also be used to make several other games – such as Ubisoft’s engine, used in Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and more – so it is difficult to create specific systems to serve what players might choose to do.

Larian does not work under these constraints. As independent developer Xalavier Nelson Jr pointed out on Twitter, Larian has spent more than six years and probably around $200m making this specific game, with hundreds of people. These are not normal development conditions, and that is why Baldur’s Gate 3 is reportedly able to have 174 hours of cinematic content alone, and 17,000 possible variations of its ending. This isn’t a new standard-setter for RPGs, because almost no other studio would be able to operate like it has done. It’s not dissimilar to CD Projekt’s The Witcher 3: because that was (at the time) a one-game studio that had made a lot of money, The Witcher 3 was able to do things that no other game at the time was able to do, including constructing fully-drawn quests with their own characters and monsters and environments that over 90% of its players would never actually see.

Speaking of cinematic content: I can’t believe how good this game looks. As someone who remembers Planescape Torment and the original Baldur’s Gate (and indeed that whole era of muddy, pixellated computer RPG worlds), I can’t get my head around this. Actors and writers have scripted, performed and motion capped enough scenes to make, what, a hundred films? They even hired intimacy co-ordinators for the sexy ones. I interviewed two stars of the game last week, Jennifer English and Devora Wilde, and they told me they’d spent four years working on this game. (English even met her girlfriend on-set.) “I don’t know how they’ve done it,” English said. “This world is so expansive … it feels limitless in a way.”

Every one of those scenes also adapts to the player, as well. “We rerecorded so many lines with every pronoun, including gender neutral pronouns, so that however the player identifies, the scene fits,” English told me. That’s the kind of effort that very, very few developers are able to afford.

Baldur’s Gate 3 is a mega-game in every sense of the term: expensive, copious and extensively replayable. A single playthrough will take 75 to 100 hours, and you can multiply that for players keen to explore more of its permutations, with all of its different characters. It’s so big that it can’t fail: its studio will not survive if it does. Given how well it’s been received in its three years of early access, though, and how keen players have been to push its limits – “They’re all horny,”, says Larian studio head Sven Vincke, who has all the data on what players have done in the name of romancing evil dark elves – it doesn’t seem as if it will struggle to find an audience. And for those of us who don’t have 100 spare hours to invest in a game, rest assured all those outlandish romance scenes will soon make their way on to YouTube.

Aside from Baldur’s Gate, another interesting indie game I’ve mentioned a few times in this newsletter is finally out this week: Venba, a narrative cooking game about an Indian family emigrating to Canada, piecing together old recipes from scraps of grandma’s cookbooks.

Our critic Malindy Hetfeld enjoyed it, but was left hungry: “Whether it’s announcing her pregnancy or teaching her son about his home, everything leads Venba back to the kitchen. The game’s story is inspired by creative director Abhi’s real experiences as a second-generation immigrant – experiences that will feel highly familiar to anyone with a similar background. It’s a great example of much-needed representation in games and yet, Venba could have benefited from a longer playtime.”

Available on: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, Xbox, PCApproximate playtime: 1 hour

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The best video games to help you – and the kids – survive the summer holidays

‘A dance with the mountain’: can Jusant take video game climbing to new heights?

We’ve published several more of our summer games previews, picking out the most interesting games from the crowd: Flock is kind of like Flower, but with birds and creatures following you around; Pacific Drive (above) is a supernatural road trip inspired by weird fiction; Tom Regan spoke to the developers reviving Dragon’s Dogma, a forgotten but brilliant fantasy game; Ultros is a psychedelic action game featuring gardening in deep space; and Jusant casts you as a kid exploring a mountain, and hopes to take the sensation of climbing in a video game to new heights.

The PlayStation 5 has now sold 40m units – slightly short of what the PlayStation 4 had achieved by this point in its lifecycle, but then the PS4 didn’t launch during a pandemic and a cost of living crisis, and you didn’t have to set up 14 different stock alerts to find one to buy.

Meanwhile, the follow-up to the Nintendo Switch may arrive in 2024, according to VGC, who claims that sources already have development kits.

Two of the most interesting and least-appreciated games in the Legend of Zelda are now available on Switch: Oracle of Ages/Seasons, two interconnected adventures originally released for the Game Boy Color in 2001. Zelda nerds, these are the games that gave Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom director Hidemaro Fujibayashi his start on the series.

I am amused and intrigued by Pokémon Sleep, a game that sounds like an April Fools’ joke but is an actual thing: a sleep-tracking app that rewards you for going to bed on time by gifting you snoozing Pokémon. If you don’t get enough sleep, exhausted Pikachu will be super mad at you. Another Pokémon game I didn’t know existed until recently: Pokémon Smile, which similarly rewards kids for brushing their teeth properly.

A question this week from reader Leigh:

“I don’t get as much time for gaming as I’d like to, so podcasts such as Simon Parkin’s My Perfect Console that can be nicely combo-ed with a dog walk or attempt at exercise are vital for keeping the spirit alive. I particularly enjoy gaming music podcasts but sadly one of the best examples of this, Sound of Play, is on indefinite hiatus. There are others that strike a similar balance – Forever Sound Version, Very Good Music: a VGM Podcast, VGMpire (all sadly discontinued) and Voltz supreme’s Synth VGM Dream Stream Machine (ongoing but intermittent) – so my question is , does anyone have other podcast recommendations, please?”

Listening to video game podcasts is a bit of a busman’s holiday for me (I’ve been involved in several over the years), so I’ll throw this out to the readership: what video game podcasts do you enjoy, and why? Reply to this email with your suggestions.

I second the rec for My Perfect Console, the video game version of Desert Island Discs. I’m also gonna plug the comedy podcast I made with Ellie Gibson a few years back, Extra Life, in which we interviewed comedians about their lives in games – we only got one season but we were proud of it. I also enjoy The Back Page, made by former games magazine journalists Samuel Roberts and Matthew Castle and occasional guests – ideal for millennial gamers who grew up riffling through the newsstands.

If you’ve got a question for Question Block – or anything else to say about the newsletter – hit reply or email us on [email protected]

Don’t get Pushing Buttons delivered to your inbox? Sign up hereVenbaAvailable on:Approximate playtime:Privacy Notice: our summer games previewsPlayStation 5Nintendo SwitchOracle of Ages/SeasonsPokémon SleepLeigh