Why I probably won't beat Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear

The nearly 18-years-old fantasy series based on Dungeons & Dragons has an all-new story campaign out today, and it looks wonderful -- it just also has News Editor Kris Ligman ruminating on how certain games stick in one's memory.

Listen. I need to tell you something about Baldur's Gate.

Baldur's Gate is a game that appeared at a critical juncture in my life. By that I mean, it found me like a dagger slotting itself between two of my ribs. I was 14 and it was a problem I couldn't solve. Already several years old at that point and discovered in a toy store bargain bin, it ate my life and did things I couldn't understand or compensate for. I've never beaten it, nor its sequel or expansions, and if I'm going to be realistic, I won't beat Siege of Dragonspear -- which is out today -- either.

Despite that, it's still the game I've logged the most hours in over the past 15 years. I've installed it on every computer I've ever owned. When I lost the disc, I bought it on GOG. When Beamdog rolled out the Enhanced Editions, I didn't hesitate in snapping them up on Steam. Even if I never got much further than reaching the titular Baldur's Gate for the first time. Even if I spent hours lost in Candlekeep, the very first map in the game.

I thought if I wandered enough, clicked on enough, I would develop some sort of mastery for Baldur's Gate. It never came. Coming off a diet of Japanese RPGs with bottomless inventory systems and high level caps, nothing in the game's rules made any sense. I would have actual nightmares about the game's cheapest leather armor, pulled off the bodies of those pesky kobolds, and stuffing them into large wooden barrels -- believing in vain that I could return for them later when I wanted to unload them on the nearest merchant. I thought that's how it worked. Even in the dream, the leather jerkins didn't fit: they spilled over the lip of the barrel and I had to force them down harder, while behind me my party members moaned over how much time I was wasting. They had things to do which couldn't wait on me and my offensively amateurish play style.

Eventually, yes, I learned not to pick up every last piece of near-worthless loot my character came across. Eventually I figured out how to make it past that mage outside the Friendly Arm Inn. I even finally, after several straight days of planning and countless failed attempts, managed to beat that asshole in the Nashkel mines. I was so captivated by the promise of more that I rarely minded my own fumbling or interminable lack of progress. Whenever I hit a wall too steep for my shitty brute-force methods to overcome, I just went back and rolled a new character. Back to Candlekeep. Back to clicking on every barrel and picking every lock.

I rolled another character in the Enhanced Edition the other night. For the first time, I noticed a button on the right-hand side of the screen to reveal outlines of objects I could interact with. Was that even in the original? Probably not. I clicked it, and one of the objects to light up was a knot in a tree trunk, just a few pixels wide. I had never seen this before. I had chosen to master Baldur's Gate not in scope but on a fine, granular level, and still in 15 years -- literally half my life -- of playing, there were things I didn't know about. I still didn't understand this game at all.

This is the essence of Baldur's Gate for me: it's mysterious, inscrutable, and I am bad at it. Yes, it's also charming and funny and there's a muscly strongman who talks to his pet hamster, but more than anything else, Baldur's Gate is a labyrinth. My labyrinth. 

So let's talk about Siege of Dragonspear.

This is a new expansion for a 18-year-old game. Not many titles can boast that kind of legacy, and the people behind it -- chiefly former Bioware employees and a younger set who grew up with the game -- seem personally invested in their project in a way I've rarely seen out of a game studio. Visiting with the Beamdog crew a couple weeks ago at the Game Developers Conference, it's clear that Dragonspear is a particular badge of pride for them. They spoke of reverse-engineering the original to remake and update the graphics. They spoke of bringing back the original voice cast and being starstruck by David Warner, who played Irenicus in Baldur's Gate II. They spoke of uncovering a sort of 'time capsule' in Bioware's old documents, a wishlist of things for the future of the series. Dragonspear, they said, is about making good on some of the items on that wishlist.

Nostalgia is a trap. I know this. It's the kind of trap with tripwires and pressure plates, with poison darts hiding in the walls waiting for some incautious left mouse button click to seriously ruin your day. It's not an instant death, but a thing that eats away at you slowly, leaving you hollow; vulnerable. Nostalgia is a thing I should have fucking spot-checked before I filed my whole party down a tight corridor. It is the reason I've recused myself from any sort of in-depth coverage for Siege of Dragonspear: there is subjectivity, and there is bias, and I readily admit I've fallen into the latter when it comes to this game.

I probably won't beat Dragonspear -- at this point, not finishing a Baldur's Gate is a matter of principle; I don't want this open wound in my side to heal -- but I'm happy to get lost in it again. There is nothing cynical about what Beamdog have done with this expansion. You hear a lot about how game developers do what they do out of buzzwords like passion but in this case, I really believe it. No one makes a sequel to a 18-year-old game based on an obsolete engine because they like to coast.

They still wouldn't tell me if they're planning a Baldur's Gate III after this, but come on. They even have David Gaider working with them now.

Kris Ligman is the News Editor for ZAM. The leather armor barrel nightmares continue to this day, any time Kris goes to bed with a migraine. It's probably a coincidence. Share your favorite Minsc quotes with Kris on Twitter @KrisLigman.