Why Baldur’s Gate 3 Deserved to Win Game of The Year

Why Baldur’s Gate 3 Deserved to Win Game of The Year

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2023 offered us an incredible ballot of games, including Alan Wake 2, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, and Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. For the Super Mario fans out there, it was a year of excess. A hit movie released in April, along with its hit song, was followed up by an October release of a new Mario game where “every frame oozes joy” according to one reviewer at IGN. Each of these games were nominated for Game of the Year at the Game Awards, as well as being in contention for numerous other game achievement lists in various gaming publications.

So how did Baldur’s Gate 3, a game about Dungeons and Dragons developed by an independent, family-owned Belgian game take down arguably the biggest game development award of the year over these masterfully produced AAA titles? Let’s clear something up first. It’s absolutely not because those other games aren’t deserving of praise. Alan Wake 2, which one reviewer at PC Gamer called “enthrallingly brilliant” won Best Game Direction, Best Narrative, and Best Art Direction. The new tale in the Zelda franchise won best action/adventure game, and its building system is nothing short of spectacular. Mario Wonder took home the Best Family Game award, and for good reason. If the Game of the Year award was strictly for graphics or visual wow-factor, there’s no question that Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 would have won in a landslide. It has some of the most smooth and visually appealing gameplay of any game I’ve seen, and it did justice to how a Spider-Man game should feel. 

The reality is, that much like the Best Picture category at the Oscars, Game of the Year is about more than the sum of a game’s parts, however stunning or creative. The Game Awards’ official site clarifies that Game of the Year is awarded each year to the game that “delivers the absolute best experience across all creative and technical fields.” 

The award was not without controversy either, from the stringent time limit set on the speeches which prompted Larian Studios’ owner to release his full speech post-ceremony, to the complete snub of Spider-Man 2, which took home no awards at all, despite seven nominations. As with the other games on this list, Baldur’s Gate 3 was fun, engaging, graphically captivating, and memorable. However, there are a multitude of reasons why this game, in my opinion, stood out from the rest, and why it deserves not only this award, but also deserves the overwhelmingly positive reviews it has gotten. On Steam, one of its main PC Platforms, the game recently passed 500,000 overall reviews, over 95% of which are positive, and still has 6-digit active player counts long after its release.

The first reason it deserves the award is the writing in this game. It has some of the best dialogue I’ve seen in a video game. It is rich, human, and meaningful, while also being overwhelmingly massive, intricate, and flexible, enabling you to have multiple playthroughs of the game that each feel like an entirely new game. Both the characters' personal stories and the big picture story were immersive, entertaining, and emotionally complex, and at no point did the personal stories undermine the scope of the larger plot. In fact, they added to the richness of each other. I have never played a game that was so dedicated to making a rich story experience, not just for the main character, but for the bevy of recruitable companions you can pick up along the way. Each has a rich, meaningful story that can play out in different ways depending on how the player decides to influence them. One of the characters that I hated when I first met, Lae’Zel, ended up being one of my favorite story arcs, but this is because the game let me decide if I wanted to give her a chance, and I did.

I found myself feeling connected to my digital companions by the end of the game, and found myself rooting for them and their stories, not just my own. Lae'Zel the Githyanki

Larian Studios has begun to make a name for itself in this regard. Divinity Original Sin: 2 was by no means as large in scope as this game, but its writing felt similarly deep and immersive. Baldur’s Gate 3 has over 17,000 potential combinations of endings and approximately 2 million individual lines of dialogue spanning across over 1,800 characters. It is massive, but it is also flexible. If a player wants to tell a story of redemption or sacrifice, they can do so, and the game gives you options to do that. If they want to side with a different set of characters in the game and tell a story of nuanced evil or just go on a murder spree, they can do that as well. Larian Studios lets you do it and lets the consequences of your actions, for better or worse, play out in the form of a fully fleshed out story. 

The game also weaves back and forth beautifully from epic battles set against the panorama of a world on fire to intimate, touching scenes in the quiet of an evening between friends, lovers, or people you just met. In this aspect it is in many ways a perfect exploration of the human experience, even though many of the characters you meet are not human.

The second reason I believe this game deserved to win this award is that Larian Studios did an incredible job of creatively translating D&D (specifically its Fifth Edition), a very intricate and expansive system, into a tightly polished video game in a way that still did it justice.  D&D has had a big year, including a blockbuster movie, the continued rise in visibility of actual play streaming personalities such as Critical Role’s Matt Mercer (who voices one of the characters in Baldur’s Gate 3), and the announcement of major changes to its core product. 

Swen Vincke, the Owner of Larian Studios, hoists the Game of the Year trophy after Baldur's Gate 3 wins big at the Game Awards.However, the studio was clearly filled with people who have a great passion for this style of tabletop game and were not simply capitalizing on a trend. This passion is shown in every way. I don’t think someone who doesn’t have a true passion for the source material would show up to the Game Awards in a full cuirass, just saying. 

The rolling system is streamlined, giving focus to important rolls and resolving other minor checks automatically, the classes and character creation are user-friendly, and the gameplay itself encapsulates a core idea of D&D, that there are hundreds of ways to play and a thousand people to be. Even the camp sessions where the party conducts its long rests felt like good old D&D, talking about your adventures in between combats, restoring spell slots, getting your companions’ opinions on how to proceed (or even what they think of the other people in your camp) and getting to know new people you pick up along the way. Creatively speaking, Baldur’s Gate 3 remains true to the game system upon which it is based, while also translating it masterfully to the interactive visual medium. This is a feat I have not seen accomplished to this level up until this point.

Lastly, how a company handles development, early access, and post-release support can speak volumes about the studio and the quality of the game. Recent video game history is full of cautionary tales of how not to release a game, including Cyberpunk 2077’s buggy and glitchy release that led to removal of the game and refunds, or more recently the release of Cities Skylines 2, a much anticipated follow-up to one of the best city builders of all time, which had such significant performance and foundational mechanics issues that it arguably should have been labeled early access but wasn’t. 

Larian Studios conducted a masterclass in how to handle development and avoid these pitfalls. It took its time in development, beginning the early stages in 2016 and announcing the game in 2019. It entered early access in 2020 and spent three years there while the studio built out the finer points of the game, fixed bugs, and crowd-sourced a cutting-edge data-reliant play-testing system. Despite the community eagerly anticipating the release of the game, the studio wanted it to be right and was willing to take a hit from the impatient masses to ensure that they put out a product that they could be proud of. This process continued after release with multiple major patches, content additions, and graphics optimization.

When the game later walked away from the DICE awards with another handful of achievements, the director of publishing took his speech time to talk about the state of the industry, and what made Larian different. “We don’t have shareholders” were his words, which speaks to why the studio was able to spend eight years making a game and making it the right way. Regarding the massive layoffs in the game development industry, he went out of his way to say that “many, many people were let go at the start of this year. I want you to know that you are all talented, and that you matter, and that you are the future of this industry.” 

The party's camp at nightfall.Perhaps it is this top to bottom human approach that sets this game apart, from the family-run studio that somehow pulled off one of the most massive games in recent history to the time and dedication that the writers put into every narrative detail. This attitude, worldview, or whatever word you choose for it, bleeds through into the game itself, which is written thoughtfully and with a focus on the characters, even in a fantasy world where there are things you could argue are much more urgent or important than spending an evening talking with your friends around a campfire. 

Perhaps what the voters saw in 2023’s Game of the Year winner was just that. It was an experience that allowed the players to experience something touching and personal, and maybe a bit surprising, in the midst of the chaos of the world around them.

-Stephen Corell

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