The learning curve of a game can color a gamer’s experience. Even Elden Ring eases players into the adventure with the Cave of Knowledge, which teaches them the basics of parrying, weapon skills, and stealth. After clearing the cave, players have to find their own paths and learn the hard way which enemies to avoid until they level up. Yet, Steam’s latest hot item, Baldur’s Gate 3, just tosses gamers into the deep end and hopes they know how to swim. However, that’s one of the title’s best features.
Baldur’s Gate 3 is based on the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. However, the game doesn’t stop at translating locations, races, spells, and mechanics from the source material. It also transcribes the feeling of playing a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, right down to the way that the tabletop game’s open-ended nature lets you (if not encourages you to) make mistakes.
For instance, the first hurdle you’ll encounter during your Baldur’s Gate 3 adventure is creating a character. You can always roll out with one of the pre-made origin characters (which are designed to ease you into the different classes), but where’s the fun in that? Those looking to embrace Baldur’s Gate 3’s daunting nature will likely choose to create a custom character.
The character creation system of Baldur’s Gate 3 recreates all the fun and stress that goes into crafting a character for a live Dungeons & Dragons campaign. So many classes, subclasses, races, and backgrounds, but which to pick? Thankfully, the game is balanced to ensure that no class will excel in every situation. Some encounters call for bardic negotiation, while others require a huge axe.
That approach is often the source of the game’s challenges and fun, though it also makes stressing over the “optimal builds” other RPGs emphasize rather futile. Instead, Baldur’s Gate 3 knows how to make you stress over every smaller aspect of the character-creation process. Do you go with a race that increases stats and skill checks, such as Dwarves and Half-Orcs, or would you rather use a race that adds a few extra spells to your toolkit, such as Drow or Tiefling? Then you have to do the same thing all over again with your stats, skill proficiencies, classes, and subclasses.
The sheer number of possible combinations makes it unlikely you will find the perfect build right off the bat. You might (and probably will) discover that you get very little use out of spells you thought would be invaluable. You could even realize that your preferred tactics are better suited for other classes and races. Such mistakes are nearly inevitable but also half the fun. Sure you could start over, but Baldur’s Gate 3 is designed with class freedom in mind.
The reason the game allows you to “mess up” early on is that the game also lets you fix those mistakes by reaching new levels, acquiring special gear, respeccing, or even eventually learning abilities from other classes. By enabling you to make the wrong decision, developer Larian Studios also had to ensure that you were able to adjust your experience based on new needs and wants that may emerge. If Baldur’s Gate 3 held your hand more, the game likely wouldn’t be as open-ended or reflect the D&D experience less accurately.
Even your character’s appearance options exemplify the benefits of that design approach. Those options are purely cosmetic, but they are surprisingly open-ended (barring some race restrictions). You are free to mix and match skin tones, eye colors, hairstyles, and even genitalia to your heart’s content. It’s easy to lose hours mixing and matching those choices. This freeform character creation system mirrors the openness of Baldur’s Gate 3’s class and stat systems, and while the character creator might seem overwhelming at first, once you’re finished, you say that you crafted a character who is wholly yours.
That feeling carries over to the rest of Baldur Gate 3‘s 100+ hour adventure. For instance, fairly early on, you’ll encounter a newborn Intellect Devourer, which essentially acts like a bloodhound for Mind Flayers. Do you kill the creature, lobotomize it so it becomes weaker (but more subservient), or let it grow as normal? There’s no right answer, though the choice you make will impact future scenarios. Crucially, though, you may not understand the full impact of your decision the moment you make it. Consequences for your choices often come more organically (if they come at all).
As you wander the ship, you will eventually encounter a full of zonked-out cultists. Interacting with the NPCs does nothing, but you can go poking around and find some nearby consoles…that have instructions you can’t read. So what do you do? Do you push buttons? If you do, one button makes the cultists exude psychic energy, and another makes them attack you. I have no idea what the third button does since I had to kill the cultists I turned rabid, and that was all on me. I could have avoided that fight if I had just done the smart thing and not messed around with lab equipment designed by and for psychic squid people, but Baldur’s Gate 3 gave me the option, and having the option makes all of the difference.
Oftentimes, such options are available even when it doesn’t seem like they are. For instance, the opening level culminates in a duel between a Mind Flayer and a Cambion (basically a Tiefling but with fewer generations between them and their demonic ancestor). Common sense says that this fight is unwinnable and that you should let these two end-game enemies settle their differences. However, you can actually participate in this clash of titans. It’s a horrible decision in many cases, but the game lets you make it. You will probably die, but if manage to defy all laws of probability and kill the Cambion, he drops one of the most powerful weapons in the early game. Were Baldur’s Gate 3 less open-ended, you wouldn’t even get the option to fail in the fight against the Cambion. Or maybe the game would force you into a battle you have to lose to progress the story. Instead, you’re given a seemingly impossible task and rewarded appropriately for daring to explore what is actually possible and not what you assume is possible.
These are only a few examples of just how open-ended Baldur’s Gate 3 can be. Later on, you can pull a Matthew Mercer and sneak into a castle by building a tower out of boxes and firing a teleportation arrow. Not even the developers considered that Fortnite-esque tactic.
Baldur’s Gate 3’s freeform nature ensures players are able to create characters, make mistakes, and think up solutions that would otherwise be impossible in other games. It’s no coincidence that one of the other best games of 2023, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, emphasized a similar level of freedom by allowing players to craft wacky contraptions and solve puzzles using their own imagination (and rockets). The critical and commercial successes of these games make it obvious that gamers want more titles that not only give them the tools needed to experiment but the freedom to make mistakes along the way.