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Player Choice in Baldur's Gate 3
How BG3 reimagines encounter design to create a game fully committed to the theme of freedom
This is a companion piece to the August free episode of the Furidashi Podcast. If you want to hear a more detailed discussion of Larian’s colossal achievement, you can find the pod on iTunes, Spotify, and Google. If that’s still not enough for you, you can sign up for our Patreon for even more, in depth discussions. No pressure, though. We’re glad you’re here in whatever capacity you choose!
The Game of Freedom
Baldur’s Gate 3 is something of a rarity in modern mainstream video games: a game where everything, from combat to narrative to progression design all point to a singular theme and purpose.
That theme is freedom—more specifically, the tension between liberation and self-determination.
To see how this works, at one point, while speaking to Astarion, it seems as if his solution to the problem of his nature is to become exactly like the person who made him that way. You can point out the contradiction to him, how freedom and power are not necessarily the same thing, but no matter what you say, he just breezes past the argument, too obsessed with the possibility of escaping the conundrum of his existence. Nevertheless, the critique hangs there. It is possible to turn him away from his… well… strange plan, but you have to convince him to do it.
In philosophical terms, we can think of this tension as a balancing act between negative and positive freedoms: freedom from something (i.e. the domination of one’s vampiric sire) vs. freedom to do something (i.e. to walk again in the sunlight). Negative freedom in this context means a denial or negation of something that harms or restrains you. Freedom from enslavement, freedom from hunger, freedom from pain.
We generally regard negative freedom as a good thing, but there’s a dark side to it as well. Kierkegaard in particular often theorized true freedom as a burden one accepts responsibility for, and as a result it means becoming untethered from the social conditions that surround and support you. Lae’zel’s rather peculiar sense of freedom, without spoiling it too much, means losing much of what defined her existence up to that point. So it comes with a feeling of melancholy and grief, for what she loses as a result of becoming detached from the ties that once bound her.
You can experience this same sense of melancholy and loss at the most fundamental levels of gameplay. Because choices in the game are so incredibly stark and take you along wildly diverging paths, the player is always left wondering what might have happened, and the urge to save scum is real.
Choosing to side with Minthara in Act One, makes it so that at least three companions become permanently hostile toward you. Freedom from moral constraints, to choose a companion who, to my mind, is the most compelling, despite being “evil,” means becoming partially untethered from the game’s underlying social system, the full range of companions. What’s more, not having access to these characters also means losing access to certain major narrative threads in subsequent chapters, since they are the ones to initiate it.
The rather brutal way in which BG3 opens and forecloses possibilities might seem unnecessarily harsh, but it’s reflective of a more honest and thorough appreciation of the ramifications of being able to freely choose.
Kierkegaard’s christianizing notion of freedom as imposition goes back at least as far as Augustine of Hippo, who, when trying to grapple with the reality of evil when your religion posits an all powerful, perfectly good deity, located the origins of evil in a human being’s capacity to choose. At the same time, that very freedom is both vital and necessary. If you were constrained to always make good choices in life, the very goodness of those choices would be rendered meaningless. So what Augustine is saying is not that you can’t have good without evil, in some trite, dualistic way, but rather you can’t have good without freedom.
Curiously, it’s the “evil” companion, Minthara, who openly questions the reflexive dualism that ostensibly “good” forces in the world enact. She is unique among the companions in that you can solicit her opinions of the others. In one such conversation, discussion turns to the Harpers, the Baldur’s Gate world’s equivalent of “good” guys, whose goodness is manifest in how they maintain an arbitrary sense of balance in the world by checking the power of those who rise to dominance and try to upset the order of things. In Minthara’s idiosyncratic worldview, this obsession with balance is, in fact, an acquiescence to stagnation and the status quo. And despite her unsavory solution to the problem of stagnation, it’s hard not to be taken in by the truth of what she says. The status quo of Faerun is demonstrably terrible, so why would you want to preserve it?
The ideology that Minthara represents and the relationship to freedom she espouses are appealing precisely because they represent a fundamentally progressive worldview. She openly acknowledges that the established order is a shitty one, that the ability to change things requires power, so doing what one must to become more powerful is not a necessary evil but, in fact, a good thing!
It’s too easy to write off her obsession with domination as evil, because she serves as a stark reminder that everything we as players do in game, good or bad, is an implicit assertion of dominance. Intervening to protect a child from racist druids is categorically an imposition in the same way Aunt Ethel imposes upon Mayrina to take care of her unborn child. What Minthara’s existence proposes—not to mention her snarky assessment of others—is that domination and oppression are not the same thing. To be sure, this logic leads her to a rather loopy solution to the problem of Faerun’s status quo, but the critique is, frankly, a sound one.
A problem that games typically gloss over is the way in which the player is functionally a murder hobo. Encounters generally mean combat encounters, and when you discuss encounter design in games, combat is usually implied. But BG3’s approach to encounter design is much broader, and a number of tense, even combative situations can be resolved purely through persuasion, coercion, or deception. Charismatic characters—and I don’t just mean those with a high charisma stat—are extremely powerful in BG3. You can talk your way out of things. You can also very badly talk your way into them, so dialogue interactions become about much more than just the optimized through lines of a branching narrative sequence. They give the player the freedom of personal expression and the ability to build their character and party in such a way as to be able to manipulate various dialogue based skill checks.
I’ve always considered it rather odd how video game RPGs mostly constitute “roleplay” as a confluence of progression systems. Your role and your character are primarily a function of gear and stats and talents and skills. But in their tabletop counterpart, all of these things are the scaffolding for what roleplay actually is: the persona you adopt and perform for others in the moment of gameplay. Roleplay at the table is theater, not a spreadsheet. Sure, you can power game RPG sessions like anything else, but you don’t have to, and many players and GMs bristle at “play to win” attitudes in a tabletop environment.
What makes Baldur’s Gate 3 exceptional is how it captures precisely this sense of roleplay. You can, if you want, adopt a persona for your character, make choices in accordance with that persona, and the game will be responsive to them.
The positive freedom to do, then, also implies a freedom to be. Sure, many games have systems that allow you to create unique character models or have queer romances, but I can’t think of another game where I have felt seduced by a character’s perspective and demeanor to quite this extent. And the responsiveness of the game’s systems is key to that.
BG3 can, at times, feel a lot like playing a visual novel with occasional XCOM interludes. I mean that as a compliment, because it means narrative and combat design haven’t been siloed off from one another. They are integrated in the best way possible, such that, as you play, you feel like you’re inhabiting an identity, not just pulling the strings on a pre-fashioned puppet. More often than not, even when a game permits the player to “create their own character,” it remains within certain limited parameters. The choice between one kind of Commander Shepard or another is largely a superficial one.
Of course, BG3 has its own limitations. You can’t do anything and everything in the same way as, say, a DND or Pathfinder session, but the parameters are flexible enough as to give a similar feel in a domain where the nature of software and code is generally working against flexibility. This means BG3, as software, is incredibly complex, and since its release, Larian has been putting out patch after patch, each of which seeks to fix hundreds of in game bugs. But that complexity pays off, because it manifests not just as a garden of many forking paths but as something that feels motivated and purposeful.
Without getting too much into it, a lot of mainstream releases, even games I otherwise like, are a bit of a turn off, because of the way in which they feel as if they’re mostly composed of distractions. This is how I felt about Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. Yes, it’s really fun to make go-karts or drones that nuke enemies from orbit, but I can’t for the life of me explain why I’m doing any of that in the game. It feels purposeless—fun in and of itself, but without any lasting sensation. It’s fun the same way playing Minecraft is fun, but that game never claims to have an underlying narrative motivation the way TOTK does. Its toylike nature is the point, whereas playing Lego in TOTK feels like a distraction—or maybe the story is the distraction. I don’t know. It’s hard to say.
So, BG3’s approach to freedom is very different from the two most recent “open world” Zelda games, precisely because it recognizes how a laissez faire, “do whatever” understanding of freedom and liberation is an incredibly shallow one. More than that, it seems—to me, at least—to reject a libertarian, “don’t tread on me” mindset.
It would be easy to see Minthara’s obsession with dominance as a reflection of a certain dudebro mindset all too common in the world of tech, but if you make that comparison, you’re not actually paying close attention to what she says and how she responds to the player’s choices. Rarely does she conform to an easy caricature of evil. She recognizes injustice, the folly of her pride, and even seeks to rectify both. Her ultimate solution to injustice is… well… questionable, to say the least, but her character arc places her as one of the few companions to truly question the wisdom of the life they’ve lived so far.
And that really is the crux of it. Past misdeeds, while never truly past, due to their lingering ramifications, are not prologue to some destined downfall. This is why it’s important to understand something Augustine did about the nature of freedom and choice that, frankly, most contemporary Americans do not.
Freedom is not a precondition of choice, the circumstances that surround it, but rather something that manifests within the will to act, in choosing to do one thing over another. As such, freedom is coexistent with sacrifice. In Augustine’s Christian context, choosing to be good, in accordance with god’s law, means abdicating, or at least avoiding, the pleasures of the flesh. But as I noted earlier, in order for the goodness of the good to have any meaning, they have to have the will to do the evil thing. Minthara could be understood as the flipside of this. In order to recognize her prior actions as evil, we have to recognize in her the will to do good. And that will is made apparent on several occasions, when her actions seem to contradict the caricature of an “evil” Drow.
I have yet to finish BG3—omg, it’s SOOO LOOONG—so I can’t say for certain whether it’s possible for Minthara to be fully redeemed. In many ways, it’d be less interesting if she were, because then you’d have an ordinary, rather tedious redemption arc that seems to be all too common in media these days. So many seem to want to morally “fix” unsavory, even murderous villains, so that they don’t have to feel so icky about finding them and their worldview seductive. But as a living, constant contradiction, a character like Minthara serves as a useful foil for the player character themself, whose actions the game facilitates but cannot fully determine.
So, the situation the player finds themself in while playing BG3 is a perfect analogue to what Augustine is trying to say about the relationship between freedom and the will. Now, I’m not trying to suggest you abandon sensual pleasures—far from it! In fact, my own BG3 would probably make Augustine himself, a notoriously horny guy in his youth, blush. But the idea that free choice of the will entails sacrifice is right there. Making certain choices over others, choosing to deceive someone rather than fight them, will make you as many enemies as friends. In some cases more enemies than friends, but it remains your choice as a player to inhabit the identity you choose, to play a particular role in that world. It is a manifestation of this truer, more messy notion of freedom.
To make clear what an achievement this is, I want to note that most games, even ones focused on so-called meaningful gameplay decisions, do not conceive of freedom in this way. In fact most games, while allowing for the possibility of many paths, clearly push you toward one or two over the others. Frankly, that’s an easier, less complicated game to design, where narrative means moving the player from one story beat to another, from one encounter to the next, in a more or less linear fashion. Variety can be introduced in other ways—random enemy stats and abilities, for instance, the roguelike approach—but those variations put the player in a mostly reactive position.
The flexibility that BG3 affords, much harder to pull off, softwarewise, puts the player in a much more proactive position, to choose who and how they want to be at any given inflection point. That’s what true freedom in player experience design means.