I just completed my playthrough of Baldur's Gate 3 (BG3), clocking in at just shy of 70 hours, which is a solid but nowhere near completionist level run-through of the game. So, if all you care about is what I thought, it's near certainly going to be the PC Game of the Year on pretty much every list and will likely beat out Zelda for overall Game of the Year on many lists.
Meet Pretty Ok Alex, he's alright. No spoilers on the final location though!
That isn't to say the game is perfect, it's got plenty of flaws, warts, bugs, and pathing issues that will make you rage. However, this is not a review of the game, so I am not going to dwell on the gigantic list of pros and cons (or how the game froze about two turns from my victory against the end boss). Instead I will dive into the game design elements that stand out to me in hopes that you, my reader, will think about game design a little differently.
Today I want to talk about the "Single Player Experience" and how BG3 hits all the boxes, turning a turn-based strategy game into something far more. This is in stark contrast to an article I wrote a few years ago about Multiplayer Game Balance.
A Little Something For Everyone
At the core of a single player experience, or even a co-op player vs. environment (PvE) experience, is one simple rule to make a good game. The player has to have fun. I know, what a concept! But stay with me a second, this is more complicated than it seems.
The problem is there's a lot of ways to have fun in a game and every player has different priorities of what makes a game fun to play. What BG3 does exceptionally well is carefully addressing most of these player types. That is a monumental achievement for a game. Most games focus on one or two design elements and build around it. You like building broken characters? Diablo 4 was probably a welcome release this year. Do you enjoy technical mastery and building muscle memory? Street Fighter 6 may be your game of the year., because, let's be honest, few to zero people play D4 for technical mastery and zero to negative people play Street Fighter for the plot.
Below we're going to break down some of these primary archetypes of game design and discuss how BG3 directly addresses their audience, and we'll start with the biggie: Story.
A Tale as Old As Time
The BG3 story is, in my opinion, well written. It pays attention to the source material, creates large amounts of its own material, and most importantly to me: Gives you interactive decisions that change the game and world in a meaningful way through storytelling.
To build a game with branching stories that change future events is incredibly difficult. Consider that every change you make to the world essentially exponentially increases the amount of content you need later and then put that into a game as long as Baldur's Gate and you can start to understand why it took so long to make. After 70 hours of play there are multiple NPCs I never got any story from, areas of the map I totally missed or skipped, and many decisions I made that locked me down a path that I could only revisit and change in a future playthrough.
In short: If you are the type of gamer who enjoys a good story, doesn't skip dialogue to get to the fight, you are in luck here. BG3 is a masterclass in storytelling and it is the strongest facet of the design. This makes complete sense given D&D as a franchise is mostly about telling a story.
Give me Something to Break
There's a subset of gamers out there, and I am one of them, who really love breaking the underlying mechanics of a game. This isn't the same as cheating, but rather using the rules within the game to create something that pushes those rules to their absolute breaking point. D&D is famous for having a variety of ways to "break" the game, usually ending with your DM ruling "You just can't do that." But in BG3? No DM means the doors are wide open and Larian Studios lets you run with those scissors.
It starts with basically being able to respec your AND every NPC/hireling as much as you want. This lets mechanics driven gamers like me play with all the toys in the toybox before determining which path will be the most fun to break... and boy can you break things.
For reasons I can't get into for fear of this section being a full essay, BG3 is pretty liberal with its interpretations of D&D rules. I believe they do this on purpose, in part to make the user interactions more obvious vs. the tabletop counterpart, but in part to appeal directly to game breakers.
Because you can change things at anytime (other than your race), this lets you continue to evolve your methods as you learn new mechanics, find new items, etc. I probably spent a good 5-10 hours on TOP of the 70 hour play time just making characters and testing mechanics. For instance: Did you know there's damage modifiers based on the distance an object falls? This means you can kill someone with a shoe if you stack a hundred boxes up, climb to the top, and lob it downward.
Credit: Proxy Gate Tactician
Exploring mechanics to break them is my idea of fun, and BG3 hits that D&D sweet spot super hard.
Mazes and Monsters
Another cornerstone of fun is exploration. All of you who are still angry that I suggested Baldur's Gate over Zelda for GOTY are probably bigger fans of exploration than I am. Don't get me wrong, I like it, it's just not as important as the first two sections are to me, but BG3 will not disappoint you intrepid adventurers.
For players to enjoy exploration you need a few key ingredients: A large amount of content to explore, a wide variety of hidden things to find, and some motive to go into that world to find them.
The first and last items on that list are relatively easy, but that middle one is what separates the good from the bad exploration games in my mind. A large amount of content could be a dense area with lots of hidden stuff or a massive open world with small content scattered throughout, and a reason to do it can be as dumb as "Because the guy in the village told me to."
The devil in the detail is how you go about finding those hidden items and what happens when you get there. In BG3's case you may learn of something from a book you find, a conversation with an NPC (humanoid or animal), or even sometimes just stumbling around the wilderness. Those first two are the real gems, it makes you feel like an explorer piecing together clues, though the third is always a confusing delight as well at times. Most important is to do more than just hand out some magical sword for following the directions in the book, but rather have something unexpected happen when you get there. Maybe the item is gone and a note is left inside, maybe it was all a clever trap for your party, either way the payoff is the experience of the resolution and NOT in the items you find... though that magic sword sure is nice.
I smell a secret...
Either way, if exploring is your thing, while the world isn't QUITE as vast as some open world games, it is incredibly dense and there's plenty to find.
It may come as a surprise that the part of the game where you'll spend the most amount of time, combat, is in the middle of this article. That's because it's exactly where it belongs. The strategy for most of the combat is relatively light, there's usually a clear "this is your best move" and little else to consider.
I think that is ok. BG3 isn't a hardcore strategy game, if it were it would scare away too large an audience. It's certainly going to require more thinking from players who are not used to turn based combat, but anyone who has played a tabletop RPG or tactical RPG will feel right at home even on max difficulty. To challenge myself I made it my mission to short rest as little as possible, otherwise I simply had "too many" resources to spend and the strategic layer decreased too far.
That said, sometimes you do get to use your noggin and a few clever spells to do some fun and unexpected things, and rarely, once in a while, you get to push someone into lava. 10 out of 10.
Someone's going for a swim!
A Game of Character
Some players love, absolutely love, character development. This is similar but not the same as story, though one can certainly change the other. Character development is about exploring the interpersonal relationships between main characters. My wife's favorite game series is Dragon Age for their excellent character development writing, as an example. She couldn't care less about the combat. Whether it is a sprawling RPG or Stardew Valley, building complex character interactions and relationships can be the driving force behind some gamers.
BG3 addresses this with each NPC having a complex and branching line of story quests and interactions (usually during a long rest) with the player. On top of that they borrow a little from Dragon Age and allow certain NPCs to have dialogue as you move around the map. This makes them feel far more alive and part of the world and boy does BG3 deliver.
Remember my wife? She despises turn based strategy games, it just isn't her genre. However, her best friend told her the character development was so good she's literally suffering through BG3s combat to get more of that juicy character arc. And yes, this category does include romance. In my opinion the BG3 "romance" is a bit superficial, but the character stories make up for it.
Clever as a Fox or HULK SMASH?
Another core concept of game design is the level of linear thinking for conflict. In BG3s case this is turn based combat, but conflict can be more than murder. It could be dialogue, it could be real-time, it could be puzzles. As a general rule the more ways you can solve conflict the better.
BG3 hits the mark, but let's not oversell it here: Not every problem can be solved by being clever. Sometimes, to quote the game it's self, "The only way out is through." Still, the fact that you can solve many fights by thinking through the problem, talking your way around it, or just using your spells and abilities to turn a difficult fight into a breeze is a big win for those who derive joy from analyzing situations.
That's right, come closer to that vat of lava...
Or you could be like me and send your OP squad of murder-hobos directly into the meat grinder. HULK SMASH BABY!
In short: Choices are good and BG3 has enough of them that it should tick the box of you analytical minded players.
Can We Build It?
No we can't! There's joy in creating, whether it is a sprawling metropolis, a sim, or a virtual island filled with furry friends, creating is part of the human DNA. While BG3 does have a crafting (Alchemy) system and a few items you can forge, it is... well, shallow and too straight forward to derive much joy. You don't have a home base to operate out of, you can't upgrade or improve your camp, and other than finding some new clothes / editing your appearance there's not much you can do to "create."
If you're the type whose primary joy is to build a base, create a home, and let your imagination take flight in the form of some voxel masterpiece: Look elsewhere. For the first time in this list BG3 rolls a nat 1 (That's bad for you non-D&D players).
But Wait, There's More....
No game can check every box for everyone. For instance there's no muscle memory or reaction time skills (other than trying to get your characters to not path themselves off a roof) to be had in BG3. It just isn't that genre of game and that's ok! This insanely long post about the various ways we, as humans, derive joy from play is still only the tip of the iceberg. The fact that a game can encompass so many facets and do most of them incredibly well is what makes BG3 a once in a decade kind of product, not the least of reasons being it practically took a decade to make.
Will BG3 be the start of a trend of super-mega-sized cRPGs? We will see, but my expectation is no. This is the kind of game that doesn't create whole new genres, but rather delivers the kind of product people will still talk about decades later as a genre defining game rather than a genre inventing one. Basically, we'll probably talk about it in the same way we talk about Fallout 2, Half-life 2, or Cities Skylines (Hopefully 2, but for now, the original). None of those games invented their genre, they simply are the ones often referenced as the best examples and Baldur's Gate 3 is without a doubt, a cRPG masterpiece, bad pathfinding and all.