Baldur’s Gate 2 paved the way for the digital D&D renaissance

The beloved Baldur’s Gate series of digital Dungeons & Dragons games is finally getting a third numbered entry thanks to Divinity: Original Sin developer Larian Studios, continuing a trend of immersive isometric gameplay and storytelling which began over two decades ago. Larian’s upcoming Baldur’s Gate 3 will hedge a bit closer to the studio’s established Divinity wheelhouse when it comes to gameplay, but the story will once again bring players back into the familiar D&D setting of the Forgotten Realms.

Younger RPG fans might be curious as to why Baldur’s Gate 3’s initial unveiling was greeted with such furious excitement, and why the previous two numbered entries aren’t part of Larian’s portfolio. To answer both those questions, we have to venture 20 years into the past when a then scrappy little studio called BioWare, riding high off the successful 1998 launch of the original Baldur’s Gate, was already putting together a sequel. 

This sequel, 2000’s Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, would not only improve upon every aspect of its predecessor, it would also usher in a golden age of isometric D&D games that would last for many years to come.

Humble Beginnings

The original Baldur’s Gate, the second game BioWare ever produced, was a resounding success, selling many more copies than publisher Interplay Entertainment had anticipated. However, despite its successful translation of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition rule set into a digital format, Baldur’s Gate wasn’t without its issues. 

Since BioWare had developed both Baldur’s Gate and the engine that powered it, the Infinity Engine, in tandem, certain gameplay and story elements wound up feeling underbaked. Pathfinding algorithms for NPC companions were notoriously spotty and unreliable, and the game’s story, while memorable, also wasn’t very expansive. For Baldur’s Gate 2, BioWare knew it had to up its game, both figuratively and literally. As became evident once Baldur’s Gate 2 launched in late 2000, the studio was more than up to the task.

A World Reborn

Looking back on it now, it’s not too surprising that Baldur’s Gate 2 wound up being such a massive success since BioWare was technically playing with a stacked deck from the start. The studio had taken the feedback it received for Baldur’s Gate, both the good and the bad, and distilled it down into a list of key features and improvements that would be added into the sequel.

This list of features included, among other things, support for higher screen resolutions, non-pausing multiplayer dialogue, romance options for NPC’s, dual wielding of weapons, specialized kits (sub-classes) for all of the game’s character classes, and the presence of iconic AD&D monsters such as dragons. Along with the eight D&D character classes from the original Baldur’s Gate (fighter, paladin, ranger, thief, druid, mage, cleric, and bard), three additional classes (sorcerer, barbarian, and monk) were also added in. These new classes and kits meshed perfectly with the sequel’s expanded alignment system, affording players more leeway in how they roleplayed their characters.

The sequel’s story, while functioning as a continuation of events from the first game, also introduced enough original elements that those who hadn’t played the original Baldur’s Gate didn’t feel like they were missing critical information. Existing fans, meanwhile, appreciated the many upgrades BioWare had made to Baldur’s Gate 2’s gameplay and story. If Baldur’s Gate was BioWare’s proof-of-concept for how a digital D&D game might work, Baldur’s Gate 2 was the best possible representation of the studio hitting its stride.

Black Isle, Obsidian, and BioWare

As a self-contained experience, Baldur’s Gate 2 was already jam-packed with thrilling adventures and abundant opportunities for players to leave their own personal mark on the Forgotten Realms. The sequel’s story focused on the player’s dual plight of coming to grips with their character’s heritage as a child of the murderous god Bhaal and having to fight a dangerous elven sorcerer named Jon Irenicus who wants to steal the power of Bhaal for himself. 

A subsequently-launched expansion, 2001’s Throne of Bhaal, helped to bring the entire ‘Child of Bhaal’ saga to an appropriately thrilling close, and even brought back the player’s half-brother Sarevok, the main antagonist from the original Baldur’s Gate, as an unlikely ally. The Child of Bhaal campaign, however, would be just one component of Baldur’s Gate 2’s long-spanning legacy.

Black Isle Studios, a subsidiary which was spun out of Interplay Entertainment and which helped BioWare make Baldur’s Gate 2, used the Infinity Engine to make other memorable isometric RPGs, including fellow Forgotten Realms entries Icewind Dale and Icewind Dale 2 as well as the lauded 1999 title Planescape: Torment. When Interplay filed for bankruptcy in 2003 and wound up shuttering Black Isle as a result, several members of the former studio founded a new company called Obsidian Entertainment, best known today as the studio behind critically acclaimed games such as Fallout: New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity.

As for BioWare, it went on to develop a successor to the Infinity Engine called the Aurora Engine. The Aurora Engine helped BioWare bring to life its next major isometric RPG following Baldur’s Gate 2; 2002’s Neverwinter Nights (yet another Forgotten Realms game). BioWare and Obsidian worked closely together over the following years, with Obsidian developing not only a proper sequel for Neverwinter Nights (2006’s Neverwinter Nights 2) but also 2004’s Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords, a sequel to BioWare’s other major hit of the early aughts: 2003’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

Larian Studios, meanwhile, might not have directly crossed paths with BioWare as Obsidian did, but much like BioWare it was also dedicated to the ongoing development and refinement of digital roleplaying games. Larian spent the early aughts building up its in-house Divinity series across multiple game releases before striking it big in 2014 with the launch of Divinity: Original Sin. The even more successful launch of the 2017 sequel, Divinity: Original Sin 2, helped convince D&D rights holder Wizards of the Coast that Larian was the perfect studio to help revive the Baldur’s Gate name, and so a deal was struck.

The other Baldur’s Gate 3

The upcoming Baldur’s Gate 3 from Larian also isn’t technically the first time a third numbered Baldur’s Gate game has been in the works. Back in 2002, Black Isle announced it was working on a game called Baldur’s Gate 3: The Black Hound, a game which would be built using BioWare’s Aurora Engine. Aside from being set in the Forgotten Realms universe, The Black Hound wouldn’t have anything to do with the story or characters from the previous Baldur’s Gate games, a concept that didn’t sit well with some of Black Isle’s designers.

Roughly a year after its announcement, The Black Hound was quietly cancelled when Interplay and Wizards of the Coast ended their licensing deal. However, BioWare saw potential in what Black Isle had attempted with The Black Hound and would go on to weave elements from the Baldur’s Gate series (including The Black Hound) and Neverwinter Nights into an entirely original fantasy property: 2009’s Dragon Age: Origins which, as fans already know, spawned multiple sequels of its own.

We’d also be remiss if we didn’t mention the excellent ‘Enhanced Edition’ ports of both the original Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate 2 developed by Beamdog. Over the past few years Beamdog has produced high-quality re-releases of many classic isometric D&D games including not just the original Baldur’s Gate titles but also Neverwinter Nights, Planescape: Torment, and Icewind Dale

In every case Beamdog managed to port each game over to new platforms such as mobile devices and consoles, and for Baldur’s Gate it even created an entire new expansion pack called Siege of Dragonspear. If you’re looking to catch up on the originals ahead of Baldur’s Gate 3’s launch (which is supposedly coming later this year), you really can’t do better than Beamdog’s Enhanced Edition ports. 

So there you have it. The upcoming Baldur’s Gate 3 may not have the influences of BioWare, Black Isle, or Obsidian Entertainment to guide it, but Larian’s track record proves the game is in good hands nonetheless. There’s a lot of history and meaning behind the Baldur’s Game moniker, and thus no small amount of pressure that Larian is operating under. Still, given what we’ve already seen of the upcoming Baldur’s Gate 3, it looks like Larian’s latest title will pay proper homage to its Infinity Engine forbearers while also helping newer gamers embrace the full potential of the digital D&D format.

Sources and further reading

RPGamer Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn Retroview

Gamasutra – Baldur’s Gate 2: The Anatomy of a Sequel

PC Gamer – The History of Baldur’s Gate – The Good and Questionable about Baldur’s Gate 3