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The Encounter With Dracula Is Terminated: Baldur’s Gate Part 1

Oh this old chestnut. If anyone would like to draw me a tag that isnt a monkey with a gun, tweet at me

The Encounter With Dracula Is Terminated is a long running and sporadically deployed series of articles about the gaming universe by long time Mode 7 community person Alex ‘malakian’ Hayes. Follow him at www.twitter.com/inspectorvector

Lock up your daughters! Please; there’s no way I can get a voluntary female readership. Yes, unavoidably, inescapably, incorrigibly, The Encounter With Dracula is back, ready to take the Sledgehammer of Analysis (+7 analysing) to the Walnut of Isometric Gaming (weakness to analysing). So, with plenty of further ado, let me cordially invite you to join me on my greatest blogging odyssey yet, as I play through Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition with a hope to experience the ups and downs (while everything around me curiously remains the exact same size) of playing a classic fixed perspective RPG in the mobile generation.

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As I was watching an episode of Michael Portillo’s ace railways programme, I had the idea of a sequel to my award-deserving sojourn through might and magic I-VI. Something in the bold, adventurous pastels of Portillo’s jackets stirred a sense of adventure in me. The thing is, like the union of a pressed salmon trouser and a sky blue blazer, the stars in the heavens seem to have aligned for this one. After already doing so for Wasteland 2, Inxile have run another speedily successful Kickstarter campaign for a spiritual successor to Planescape: Torment, an Infinity Engine-based cult classic that I’ve hitherto ignored. Similarly, Shroud of the Avatar: Something Something, a new IP by the Ultima guy who spent all the money he could have used to make it going to space, will have left the orbit of its Kickstarter goal by the time this is finished. Shadowrun Returns has shown off some alpha footage, and of course Project Eternity, which, until the aforementioned Torment sequel, had raised the most money by any game on Kickstarter. Personally, I’ve just finished my second play of Dragon Age: Origins and am well into my eighth (really) time through Star Wars: KOTOR, both being games with many of the genes of their isometric D&D predecessors still intact. More importantly, I’ve also been kindly gifted Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition[1], a re-release of the RPG classic that apparently saved computer RPGs from the clutches of fearsome dark lord Economically Unviable, the ultimate threat to the world of [insert your favourite fictional elf/pixie land in gaming’s oeuvre]. He’s intangible, which makes him worse. This seems the ideal journey to take to continue my quest for existential enlightenment through dated CRPGs. So that’s the world we live in, and this is what we’re doing. To readers who are perhaps concerned about a change in the quality you’ve come to expect, I say simply this: The previous paragraph is not the only part you’ll read and be left thinking “this article is the product of a lot of colons”.

Long-time readers of The Encounter With Dracula – yes, all both of you[2] – will know that it is a reliable bet that each article will start from a position of total, unassailable knowledge on each and every subject discussed. What shut up it is, you’re remembering it improperly with your brain. So, you’ll be amazed to learn that, in a TEWDIT first, I start from a position of total ignorance. The first order of business is to own up and say it: I’ve never played an isometric RPG. With the exception of StarCraft, I’ve never played an isometric game. I thought to suppose my five minutes watching Diablo 2 at age 13 qualified me as a seasoned veteran, but further research has informed me that while it used a fixed isometric perspective, it had some sprite perspective scaling magic that might mean it doesn’t quite count. Discussing this recently, I was met with disbelieving surprise, and then was dished the question “so isometric isn’t as popular as I thought?”. I realised I was inadequately equipped to put forward an opinion, so immediately killed ten giant rats in a neighbouring peasant’s basement in order to develop as a person and hopefully loot an equippable opinion from a felled rat’s internal cavity in the process. Strange that, despite the rows of visible houses, hers was the only door that could open, but I did not dwell. After a fine rat vichyssoise, I realised that the question of isometric’s popularity and endurance is an interesting one, especially in light of Kickstarter’s inexorable rise. A cursory look at the gaming release landscape of the past few years might well indicate that mainstream gaming’s interest in isometry is now a rigid body[3]. Aside from the strategy genre, where a 3d semi-fixed perspective (the isometric view’s rotatable destiny) is a revered utilitarian ruler, I can really only think of Diablo 3 successfully championing the lofty angles of isometric gaming’s golden age. Titan Quest was similarly aerial in view but wasn’t really a huge hitter, and Dragon Age allowed players to pull the camera up to that position too, but…Well let’s be real, you just didn’t. I KNOW some goblins somewhere probably had to be heel-diggingly old school or found it tactically advantageous or something, so if you are thinking “I’m going to comment and say I did” then, as ever, you can send your comment right here: Yes that’s right. To your colon.[4] My dizzyingly digressed-from point is that it’s a sign of the times that even Syndicate and Shadowrun’s recent middling reboots deserted, abandoning the third person entirely. The iso perspective in RPG, action and adventure games has been largely forgotten as the technological situation that constrained developers to it has been left behind. That is, until the sands were shifted by the recent trend of vintage developers keen to re-energize the old shit they made that people liked more than the things they’ve gone on to do. Kickstarter certainly proved itself to have a secondary and more profitable function as Kickperpetuator, and many of these projects, including those already mentioned, are now coming to fruition. It seems that, at least for many pre-existing developers, isometric RPGs are still very much a going concern in financial terms.

Let’s have a brief, shallow and probably unnecessary explanation of isometric in gaming. While it is a specific type of parallel projection, it’s basically become a byword for the half way point between a side on view and a top down view to project an almost 3d look for the player. Like the cubes everyone drew at school, it’s obviously limited by the fact it is actually 2d – everything remains the same size while you shuffle about on a pre rendered backdrop, for instance – but it’s a pretty cool technique considering the tech it emerged on in the early 80s. More than many genres, the RPG requires a world with some immersive depth, so the isometric view became a huge boon for 90s CRPGs such as Fallout, Diablo and of course, Baldur’s Gate. So it’s obvious why then, but why now? When fantastically detailed full 3d worlds are possible, do people really want this? The huge amount of monetary backing would suggest so, but I decided to do a little digging beyond the dollar signs and set out googling for the opinions of the dribbling masses in the wider internet world. Predictably, there were plenty of forums with a back and forth on the subject of how disgusting it is when someone uses the term isometric when they mean dimetric projection and so forth, but I wanted to get to the crux of how much people actually want iso games now. I finally found a few topics that were useful. One on the escapist forums in particular had a well attended poll, in which just under 200 respondents voted “yes” by a 8:1 majority in response to the question “do you think that isometric games have a place in modern gaming?”. I’m not purporting to have drawn too much from this statistic, as those with an enchanted axe to grind about something are always keener to respond to internet polls like this, so people who don’t care may have largely passed over it. Still, it’s a resounding result in and of itself. I don’t usually resort to vox pops, but some choice opinions from said poll were enlightening as to the gamut of grammatically poor opinions on the subject:

A self-confessed fan of isometric RPGs lamented “If someone put the money into making these games, it’s likely it wouldn’t sell”, quite a reasonable conclusion I thought, showing that absence from mainstream gaming has made even the faithful doubt their viability prior to the crowd funding frenzy.

Someone by the username totallyheterosexual aptly refused to entertain grey areas in the debate. Not so placid about judgements of decline, they exclaimed “Jesus fuck. Do you people honestly think that the camera view of the games defines its gameplay?”, overlooking in his excited rhetoric that the answer is actually “yes, most of the time it really does loads”.

A personal favourite was also proffered:“You can change the camera angles in chess, but the most popular one is isometric. So yeah, I think isometric is here to stay.”. A truly incredible way to justify the place of something in modern gaming. If it were true; it sadly isn’t. As the slew of green-lit IPs all seem to be setting up new universes where sequels are almost inevitable, what he has got right is that it seems isometric is, for a while at least, here to stay.

So the signs point quite convincingly to a substantial niche very happy to pay for the isometric experience. The fact that a deep isometric RPG is going to be a lot cheaper to make than the next Elder Scrolls or Witcher game might go some way to explaining why this essentially regressive game design is desirable. When I read the reviews, it became clear that character interactions, moral choices and plot progression were pillars of the nostalgic feelings that these games inspire, and if more of this kind of content can be delivered without having to get a 120 person team to head for the new unreal or frostbite engine, it’s certainly a boon for players who are focussed on that side of things. That the successful projects are so often from veteran developers is both reassuring and potentially creatively stifling, as although these new games have what can be presumed to be a firm hand on the tiller[5], they are certainly far outperforming any funding drives by new independent developers in the field. It’ll remain to be seen whether they can deliver fresh and interesting writing or expansive exercises in laurel-resting, facilitated by more route-one lore for the player to try and parse about how you must rise from rags to assorted-barrel-and-sack-found riches to defeat the worst Gandalf to ever comminate the Outer Hebrides.

What’s to come from this new generation remains to be seen, but Baldur’s Gate has long since been judged, and is seen as an important classic quite unanimously. So, perhaps I should actually launch it, two thousand words later. Journalism! I’m doing it wrong.

Tune in next week for a psychological examination of why I’m an idiot, some reluctant cows, summer dresses, gutternapping and more!



[1] Thanks to mode 7 friend Sid!

[2] Just found out this joke happened in an episode of This Week in Politics. For people not from the UK: This programme doesn’t achieve any deliberate humour.

[3] Any physicist worth his salt will confirm this is in fact hilarious and you didn’t realise.

[4] As per the introduction’s colon profuseness alert. It all dovetails together. For pedants who are thinking “The joke doesn’t work as actually you put that punctuation there, so it’s your colon” let me stop you right there. You are reading a local copy downloaded to your computer, so it’s yours, and I forego all copyright on that sentence. Thus we see further elaboration has confirmed another joke to be funny. It definitely has.

[5] This short phrase is what I always put forward to describe Tory chancellor George Osborne in any conversation where he is mentioned. It receives mixed reactions.

One Response to “The Encounter With Dracula Is Terminated: Baldur’s Gate Part 1”

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