Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance

by Tom Ingram

It gets cold here. I know what you’re thinking. Maybe it gets cold where you live, too. But not like here. I live in the coldest city in the world with a population over 600000. In some years, we would have had the first major snowfall by now. On particularly bad years, there would be a string of two or three days when you could hardly get out of your driveway and there was no point going anywhere. On these days, there was really only one thing to do as a young ~9-year-old: play video games.

One game in particular was reserved for these days, because if you were careful, it was possible to start it first thing in the morning right after shovelling the driveway and be finished before five. It was Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance.

In the early days of the Gamecube, we borrowed a couple of games from family, most of which we had never heard of before. Dark Alliance was one of them. For the longest time, it was a source of endless amusement because if you unequipped all your armour, your character would end up fighting through the sewers of Baldur’s Gate in their underwear. With hours of entertainment packed in right there, it was months before I bothered to go past the first level.

Once I did, though, I discovered a fast-paced, tightly plotted story-driven experience with entertaining gameplay and excellent visuals. It’s the kind of thing you could play through in a day and not feel the least bit cheated. When I heard there was a sequel, I sought it out only to find that it was (a) only available on the PS2, which I didn’t have at the time, (b) somewhere in the neighbourhood of $50 for a used copy, and (c) no longer available new. Since then, it seems the price has gone up. You can find it (relatively) cheaply for the Xbox, but I don’t have an Xbox and otherwise have no use for one.

Anyway, another thing I learned quite a few years after first unequipping my armour is that Dark Alliance wasn’t the first Baldur’s Gate game, and while it has almost no connection to the others, it’s still part of a larger world that includes five other games and is tangentially connected to the world of Dungeons & Dragons.

D&D is the kind of thing I thought I’d like. After all, you’re essentially creating a story collaboratively with your friends. The problem is, the more you hear about it, the more pathetic it sounds. It’s like theatre, only fatter and a lot more difficult to explain to your grandparents. There are long turns with a lot of recordkeeping and dice-rolling, which is the antithesis of fun. That’s the reason nobody plays Axis & Allies: the only ones who would want to don’t have any friends, because their idea of fun is playing Axis & Allies.

The connection between Dark Alliance and D&D is very tenuous. The other, more RPGish Baldur’s Gate games were based on modified D&D rules. Dark Alliance uses the same setting as those games, but with completely different mechanics. With only three characters to choose from and not much customization beyond choosing your weapons and spells, role-playing is relegated to the background, playing, ha ha, a smaller role than in the other games. Whoever wrote Dark Alliance was concerned with telling you their story the way they wanted it and doesn’t particularly care what you think of that. And it works.

Contrasted with the “make it up as you go” approach of D&D, Dark Alliance‘s ultra-linear gameplay is a much more satisfying experience. There’s a coherent beginning, middle, and end with well-placed high points and low points, a shadowy conspiracy, a clear goal, and just enough exploration to keep you from losing your mind. They even manage to work in optional quests that tie in to the main storyline. The structure of this game is ideal for experiencing in one go. It’s almost cinematic, more so than the flashy games that usually get that label. It’s structured as a short, self-contained unit just like a movie, with the obligatory sequel hook at the end.

I don’t necessarily hate sandbox games. Fallout 3, despite its flaws, is one of the best games to come out in a long time. But there’s something relieving about playing through to the end, beating the final boss, and being done. Like a good book or movie, I will come back to a good game months or years later, but in order to do that I have to be definitively finished with it first.

With many modern games, that’s just not possible. I suppose I’ve technically beaten Fallout 3, but it still doesn’t feel that way. Quests have been left dangling. Even if I’d finished them all, something would still seem out of place. Crap I haven’t collected. Places I haven’t fully explored. Just like real life, Fallout 3 presents a wonderfully fleshed-out world, but an unsatisfying narrative.

Chalk this one up as another issue in the games as art thing, which I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Dark Alliance is Lord of the Rings, Fallout 3 is volume 6. The appendices describe a world in psychotic detail, down to the grammar and etymology of the languages spoken there. A dozen fragments of stories unfold, but nothing nearly as satisfying as the grand, overarching narrative of the previous five books. Sure, it’s neat to look at, but is it art?