When Jay asked me to write a “Best Game Ever” entry for Baldur’s Gate 2, my first instinct was to refuse the offer. Why? Because I love the game too much and I feared that nothing I could write would do it justice. It would be like trying to write a review for New York City. I mean where would you even begin something like that? How would you dissect something so steeped in its own mythology? Would you even want to? And just because here I am writing, does not mean that sentiment has changed. Whatever ideas I might express here will ultimately fall short of accurately encompassing the experience of playing Baldur’s Gate 2. However strong my control over language might be, it will ultimately prove woefully inadequate in approximating for you, the reader, the overall feeling I had as a player of Baldur’s Gate 2. So, now that I have promised you a complete and total failure let me follow through on that promise.
I first played the game in 2001, my sophomore year of college; same year I met Jay. Since then I have also played Baldur’s Gate I, Icewind Dale I and II, and even a bit of Jay’s favorite game: Torment, multiple times (it insists on crashing on my PC). I group these all together because all of these games share the Infinity Engine and all of them are set in the D&D world. And yet, all of these games pale in comparison to BG2. (I have also played both Dark Alliance games, Arcanum and both Champion’s of Norath games; – just in case you doubt my contextual cred.)
Baldur’s Gate 2 is the richest and the deepest game I have ever played. It is the quintessential D&D based videogame. And yes, the D&D aspect has a lot to do with the games appeal. Before I played BG2 I knew nothing about D&D (I’m not from here, you see). I knew nothing about the social stigmas associated with it; I did not even get the Futurama joke about Gary Gygax until years later. But as I started playing BG 2, I enjoyed it so much that it actually led me to table-topping; as opposed to the other way around, I guess. I did not hide this fact from people, as some of my brothers in D20 awesomeness did. (You know who you are.) I had no shame. Perhaps this was the reason why I even continued to have sex with actual, tangible, women through this period of my life. I had discovered D&D at 21 and I was born again. Jesus had saved and taken half damage.
This game is so great even looking at the manual makes my nipples scream.
All of the above makes it sound like Baldur’s Gate 2 is a niche game and perhaps it even sold as one. But the truth is that the supreme quality of BG2 actually transcends D&D. As big a nerd as I am about Dungeons and Dragons, I know that what makes BG2 great ultimately has little to do with either dungeons or dragons. If it did, then the Icewind Dale games would be equally potent. And they are not. There is something going on with BG2 that those other games lack.
Here I could list a number of obviously outstanding qualities of the game, such as: a genuinely literary narrative; an intuitive and easy to use interface; great battle engine; amazing depth of character development; endlessly entertaining, complex and human side quests; rewarding tactical battles; scores of feats, spells and abilities; engrossing voice acting; amazing equipment selection; a fantastic, identifiable villain; a huge verity of truly memorable PC’s and NPC’s; complex and rewarding hidden quests and items; evocative hand-drawn environments; endless replayability; Minsc and Boo. These things all make Badur’s Gate 2 great, but, in some configuration or other, all of these things can be found in many other games, especially those that spawned from the BG series. But, what I think makes Baldur’s Gate – Shadows of Amn the greatest game ever, is the combination of all the above aspects with the tremendous sense of urbanism it exudes.
Amn is a real city. It has the size of a real city, the population dynamics of a real city, the problems of a real city and the people of a real city. Even when you venture outside of it, the city acts as a center around which everything else, the periphery, is organized. I love Baldur’s Gate because I love Amn, and I love Amn for the same reason I love New York City: it is diverse, it is vibrant and it is alive. Alive in the sense that Iowa and Icewind Dale are not. Why? Because, both Iowa and Icewind Dale lack a vital center. It’s all peripheral with nothing holding it together. They’re soft and spread out. Amn on the other hand, like New York, is hard and concentrated. It’s full of possibility. It draws you into itself and makes you simultaneously curious and happy to be there. It is an infectious place.
Tomas Wolfe said that “one belongs to New York instantly; one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” With complete sincerity, I would say: he may as well have been talking about Amn. You belong to it as much after the first play-through as after the twelfth one. And if you are thinking of talking to me about how there are other games that have other ‘real’ cities like Amn, you may as well tell me that there are other cities besides New York and show your true plebeian colors.
If all the videogames of the world were burning in a giant apocalyptic pyre and I could only pull out one, it would be Baldur’s Gate 2; because, just like New York City, it has given me more hours of pure pleasure then any other game. Ever! And as we know from W.H. Auden: “Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible.”