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The Power of Trusting The Player

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Image Source: GGRECON

In an era where the boundaries of technology and artistry continually expand, the gaming industry finds itself in a unique position, merging imagination with groundbreaking technological innovations. While many have nostalgia for the classics, revisiting previous eras of games showcases incremental advancements in mechanics and technology. Creators have spent decades figuring out their relationship with the player, how to guide them, nurture their experience, and find the balance between freedom of exploration and telling a complete story. As we’ve veered further into the trend of open-world games, player agency has become a key discussion point for players and creators. After all, agency separates games from most other art forms; interactivity and decision-making are at the heart of what brings games to life. 

As sensibilities have advanced, games do astounding, often impossible feeling things. It’s safe to say that 2023 is one of the most impactful years for gaming in a long time, packed with too many incredible releases to count. There have been several significant contenders for Game of the Year, and predictions were all over the place for a while. Then…Baldur’s Gate 3 released out of early access. A traditional, old-school RPG has dominated the charts and smashed records, becoming the highest-rated PC game of all time on Metacritic and one of the top 10 most-played games ever on Steam.

The game relies heavily on traditional old-school design, with a top-down view, point-and-click mechanics, and turn-based combat. It also represents the culmination of everything interactive media can be and provides the player with limitless freedom. Baldur’s Gate 3 is arguably one of the greatest games ever made, and can teach us quite a bit about what the medium is capable of, despite playing mechanically like a game from 20 years ago. How did they do it?

Baldur’s Gate 3: A Tapestry of Choices

Dungeons and Dragons, for those familiar with its magic, is not just a game; it’s a universe where boundaries fade, and players dive deep into roles crafted by them. The concept is relatively simple. You and your buddies sit at a table and weave a story; led by a Dungeon Master and explored by players. You can effectively do anything you put your mind to. The only tools you need are your imagination and a couple of dice. D&D is notoriously about freedom; simply say any action you’d like to take and roll a die to see if you’re successful. By dealing only with humans, the barriers to what’s possible become effectively eliminated, and all narrative power is in the hands of the players. They decide where to go, how to get there, what to do once there, who they want to interact with, which stories they want to tell…everything.

Translating such depth into a digital medium, where the constraints of programming and linear game design often curtail creativity, is daunting. How could you take a concept as significant as “your entire imagination” and put it into code, with every option accounted for, every line of dialogue spoken by a voice actor, and stories that can be approached from dozens of different ways? The developers over at Larian Studios have made several games exploring this level of freedom and reached critical success with a previous project named Divinity Original Sin 2. Yet, Baldur’s Gate 3 has managed to top all other attempts and successfully captures and enriches this essence.

The streets of Baldur’s Gate, the lore, the hidden corners, and the political intricacies are brought to life in stunning detail. Players aren’t just participants; they’re co-authors. With myriad choices impacting outcomes and relationships, every action and dialogue choice feels consequential. For example, at the top of the game, you are presented with a choice; two groups are at each other’s throats while being pressured by goblins outside their town walls. Both groups want the other to leave, but the goblins will kill anyone who tries. “Please help.”

It seems simple enough, but the moment you examine the options, it spirals into a complex web of choices. Do you want to fight either group, choosing a side and damning the other? Would it be wiser to try to play politics, encouraging the groups to get along? Maybe it’s wiser to head to the goblins, clear them out yourself, and leave the two factions to their politics while eliminating the threat. Not only are all of these options possible in a game, they lead to drastically different outcomes, with other allegiances, enemies, rewards, and impacts on the world. Some people even chose to side with the goblins, killing both groups and finding favor with the evil factions in the game. It feels impossible to include so many choices in one package, but Larian not only provides it but encourages the player to poke, prod, experiment, and try their unique solution. Unsurprisingly, such depth has propelled it to the zenith of PC gaming charts.

So, what sets Baldur’s Gate 3 apart from its predecessors and other titles in the RPG genre? The answer lies in its respect for player autonomy. Every quest can be approached in numerous ways, every character interaction can lead to varied outcomes, and every battle can be a unique blend of tactics and brute force. Whether you’re using diplomacy to defuse tense situations or going in swords and arrows style, the key is that the game will never tell the player what they should do and never say to the player they cannot do something. Even in combat, the choices feel immense. Spill a barrel of water and freeze it with an ice spell, push three enemies together, summon a cloud of daggers, cook a quick meal, and spill the grease onto the floor so enemies slip and fall! The choices aren’t superficial; they deeply impact the world. Larian Studios trusts players immensely, allowing them to interact with the game however they please, ultimately prioritizing agency and self-expression. 

The Open World Exploration: Tears of the Kingdom

While Baldur’s Gate 3 reigns supreme in narrative depth, other games have recently been released to similar critical acclaim, and a common thread is this respect for player agency. Tears of the Kingdom offers a different allure than Baldur’s Gate, but one just as freeing. Where Baldur’s Gate 3 is a richly woven tapestry of narrative threads, Tears of the Kingdom is an expansive canvas waiting for players to paint their journey. Eschewing a heavy focus on narrative, Tears of the Kingdom positions the landscape as a massive and sprawling puzzle bolstered by an approachable and consistent physics system. Players can reverse an object through time, fuse objects, or climb through ceilings and surfaces.

It’s a game that constantly invokes the spirit of exploration. From vast landscapes to intricate mechanics like elemental reactions, it embodies the mantra of “show, don’t tell.” Every mountain peak in the distance is reachable, every mysterious ruin holds secrets, and every interaction with the world yields surprises. What’s remarkable about Tears of the Kingdom is that every player will inevitably find a different way of reaching the destinations. Some may make flying contraptions; some will climb the mountain, and others may look for a tunnel and bore to the top. The choice is yours. The sense of wonder and the thrill of discovery drive players forward, making it a remarkable counterpart to Baldur’s Gate 3.

Customization and Player Persona: Elden Ring

On the spectrum of player agency, Elden Ring carves a unique niche. Its open world, lore-rich environment, and flexibility in combat styles and character customization have resonated with gamers worldwide. It’s not just about choosing a class but refining and adapting one’s playstyle. Each player will likely fight the same bosses, explore the same caves, and find the same weapons. There is little control over the narrative outcomes. Choice-making exists purely on a character’s mechanical level.

Whether you’re a sorcerer harnessing arcane energies, a rogue relying on agility and deception, or a knight clad in armor, every battle feels personal. It’s a testament to the game’s design that two players with similar character builds can have vastly different experiences based on their choices and strategies. Accomplished with tightly budgeted level-up rewards and limiting stat choices, players are forced early on to pick a combat focus and stick with it. If I find a cool sword that uses magic beams or a massive hammer that takes strength to wield, I’ll have to pick one, not the other. This creates a beautiful sense of ownership over the adventure, encouraging attachment to everything. Players remember where they found their cool helmets and which boss they had to kill to get their fire-spitting bow and arrow. 

The Evolution of Player Agency

Reflecting on these titles, it becomes evident that modern AAA games are finding success by leaning into prioritizing player agency. Of course, highly scripted set pieces, wow, games without choice-making are still entertaining, and players still clamor for inclusive and kinetic online experiences. However, more games that present complex exploration, profound and potentially confusing mechanics, and low levels of guidance are beginning to find massive critical success. Where Dark Souls was once a niche title reserved for hardcore masochists, Elden Ring became a household name, selling over 20 million copies within a year, compared to Dark Souls, which hovered around 2 million. Tears of the Kingdom is considered a must-own switch title. As stated, Baldur’s Gate 3 has entered the top 10 most-played games of all time on Steam in two weeks, something once considered unthinkable for an old-school turn-based CRPG.

Games like this have always had their audience, but to see such large numbers embracing these complex experiences is fascinating. Games that don’t have clear-cut objectives, paths, or solutions, games that put the reigns into the hands of the players and allow them to dictate their own experience. Elden Ring is full of optional battles for the player to ignore or tackle, Tears of the Kingdom lets the players attempt the final challenge at any point after leaving the tutorial, and Blaudr’s Gate doesn’t even tell you who you have to fight - be a bad guy if you want! This trust fosters a deeper connection between the player and the game, making every playthrough personal and memorable. Players are growing excited and passionate about experiences where they have a hand in shaping the story, a prospect uniquely unavailable in most other media. 

It’s a shift from storytelling to story crafting. Instead of being mere consumers of tales crafted by developers, players are now collaborators. Players enjoy a range of experiences, of course, and for every hour I have in Baldur’s Gate, I have in other less mentally demanding online games. Still, where competitive online experiences once dominated the playtime statistics on Steam, we see more and more they bring their interpretations, choices, and creativity to the table. This collaboration breathes life into the game world, making it dynamic and ever-evolving. This has always been lurking behind the surface of interactive media. Still, it feels like we’re finally starting to consistently tap into a brilliant formula that allows this level of creation. Game developers are starting to take larger and larger leaps in terms of pushing what’s possible. 

Challenges and the Road Ahead

With this freedom comes challenges. Balancing player agency with narrative coherence is an immense balancing act that can likely be accomplished with massive budgets, expert teams, and years of labor. How do you ensure player choices matter while offering a compelling and cohesive narrative? How do you design open-ended mechanics without being overwhelming? 

There’s a misguided rumor going around right now that game developers are angry at Baldur’s Gate 3 for being so good. The suggestion is, “We’re scared this will set a new bar for player expectations.” While this is generally far from reality, there is something to be acknowledged there. Making a game of such massive scope is a Herculean task that takes decades of honing in on specific game design. Larian has made several titles in the same genre before their magnum opus, Nintendo has spent decades perfecting Zelda, and FromSoftware invented the entire genre of SoulsBornes before unleashing Elden Ring on the world. They are pros with extensive knowledge of building veteran teams, utilizing every penny of their budget, and ultimately displaying a lifetime of work in a singular experience.

Baldur’s Gate 3, with its record-breaking acclaim, is not just a game; it’s a milestone, a showcase of what’s possible when all cylinders are firing, focused on a complex and complete vision. It and its peers have set the stage for a future where AAA games are authentic, collaborative art pieces and experiences where developers and players come together to craft individual tales of wonder, adventure, and personal growth. Judging by the success these games have recently found compared to how similar experiences fared, players are embracing broader genres throughout the medium. Players are ready to face these challenges, delve deep into exciting systems, and participate in games.