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‘Baldur’s Gate III’ proves inclusivity matters, even in video games

Since their inception in the 1950s, video games have cemented themselves as a mainstay of pop culture, rivaling and often surpassing the impact and popularity of other forms of media such as television and movies. Though their original purpose was merely to entertain, more recent years have seen video games become an instrument of insightful and powerful storytelling.

Growing up an only child with admittedly few friends, I found solace in pixelated worlds. As embarrassing as that may sound, mine was hardly an uncommon experience. I can remember vividly the excitement eight, nine, 10-year-old me would feel when the school day was finally drawing to an end and I knew “Skyrim,” “Minecraft” or “Destiny” was waiting for me at home. Through these games I found myself transported into worlds beyond my wildest imaginings. I was empowered to place myself at the center of stories so grandiose they would make J. R. R. Tolkien blush. And yet, I would frequently encounter a single, prominent problem. I was once an adolescent, tween, then teenage girl—hardly the market demographic for AAA game developers. Time and time again I found myself frustrated with a game for cramming me into some beefy man’s digital body, with few or no options to customize my play experience. Ironic, considering fantasy frequently allows characters to be anything from a dragon-human hybrid to a bird man—yet a male character with a vagina would be too far. Though I was young and did not yet possess the vernacular to express these feelings, I was still distinctly aware of being somehow “othered.” Given my youth, the culmination of these feelings was typically nothing more than me choosing against purchasing a certain title because I knew I would not be able to play as a woman.

As I matured, I came to grips with other aspects of my personality. I am a queer woman, and one who likely should have guessed as much far sooner than I did when at the age of nine all I wanted to do was have my Dragonborn marry Aela and adopt children upon the release of the “Hearthfire” expansion for “Skyrim.” My own propensity towards fantasy and escapism meant that from an early age role-playing games (RPGs) were my best friend. Such games are, necessarily, heavily lore-driven, and oftentimes involve a great deal of character development on the part of the player. There is perhaps no other genre that relies more on immersion and a believable, sympathetic main character (MC) than RPGs—and here is where my disconnect was felt most strongly.

Whether it was being called misogynistic and homophobic slurs whenever I dared to enter a game’s voice-chat or lobby, or simply not being able to play as a character I could genuinely relate to, video games began to lose much of their charm. Sure, they remained a great way to kill time on a slow afternoon, but I no longer felt their stories resonated with me in the same way—I wasn’t moved by them. That was, until I finally caved and bought the latest and greatest “Game of the Year” contender—“Baldur’s Gate III” (BG3). 

Ultimately what sold me was my boyfriend recounting the many hours he had already poured into it within the first few days of its release. I downloaded it expecting another “Elden Ring”—excellently crafted, fun combat, but no particular depth—and instead found myself swept away amongst beautifully interwoven stories of family, self-discovery, forgiveness and healing. 

What makes this game so special is twofold. First, from a technical standpoint, it is damn near flawless—there is little if anything I would change about the mechanics of this game. Staying true to its roots, it plays like an actual Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) session, reliant upon the roll of the dice to succeed in everything from speaking with animals to dancing and combat. Like D&D characters and the campaigns they are a part of, the mechanics of BG3 are easily tailored to fit just about any desired playstyle and difficulty, lending it a wide appeal beyond hardcore RPG and fantasy nerds. What few bugs and glitches do exist, like those found in many Bethesda titles (*cough* ”Skyrim” *cough*), have become part of the game’s appeal rather than detracted from it. Many jokes have been made at the expense of one of its main characters, Gale, who—thanks to a glitch that skyrockets his approval rating of the character, making him seem overly-eager to romance them—players have affectionately deemed a “pick-me.” 

Mechanics aside, and perhaps more importantly, BG3 tells a story that is entirely shaped by the player’s own choices and desires. From the outset, the game does what “Cyberpunk 2077” could not despite its best efforts: BG3 gives players a character customization menu that is both inclusive and easily navigable. When I told friends of mine I would finally be purchasing the game, they cracked a few jokes about how most of my time would be spent on character customization. At the time, I laughed—what a fool I was. I quite literally spent the better part of two hours on my first character alone. I was absolutely blown away by the array of customizations presented to me- down to vitiligo pigmentation and genitalia. I wasn’t faced with the ubiquitous “are you a boy, or are you a girl?” question popularized by “Pokémon” back in the day. No, I could actually mix and match my body type, musculature, chest, genitals, voice and facial structure, all the while never once needing to specify the sex of my character. I could make a character, any character, that I saw myself in, and that genuinely excited me. For the first time in years I was gearing up to play a story-intensive RPG where I felt completely comfortable with the avatar I would be controlling. I will admit, that may not seem like much, but for many, myself included, it means feeling as if you are finally welcome in a space that has been (and often continues to be) at odds with, if not outright hostile to identities that you represent.

Delving into the story itself, without sharing any spoilers I will say that a main questline certainly exists, though it is nearly overshadowed by the myriad sidequests and stories made available to the player through their own exploration. The game itself is so densely packed with lore and player-triggered events that no two playthroughs are ever alike—with each new character you will surely encounter scenarios, characters, items and lore that you had previously overlooked or willfully avoided. I myself am in the midst of three main playthroughs, and every single one of them has felt almost entirely separate from the rest thanks to the drastically different paths one can take at various junctures in the game. On the topic of sidequests, one cannot discuss “Baldur’s Gate” without mentioning its numerous romance story arcs. Romances between players and NPCs (non-player characters) are hardly a new concept, but never before have I seen them be so thoughtfully executed. For starters, a MCs gender or sex is of no consequence when it comes to romancing characters. Unlike games with similar approval-based romance mechanics such as “Dragon Age” and “Mass Effect,” any romanceable character can be romanced by the MC if said character’s approval rating is high enough and if the MC makes the proper in-game choices. This fact alone demonstrates just how welcoming this game is of all players, regardless of how they wish to identify themselves, both in-game and out. By incorporating these non-gendered mechanics, Larian Studios, the developers behind “Baldur’s Gate,” opened the door for a community of gamers that had previously been neglected almost entirely by other AAA developers. BG3 elevates these topics of gender, sexuality, race and physicality from mere footnotes to central facets of players’ in-game identities, allowing them to hold sway over certain aspects of the story, and refusing to employ any of them as barriers that would bar players from an experience of their choice—be it playing as a hulking, muscle-bound barbarian and a woman, or romancing a male NPC while playing as a man oneself.

I cannot fully convey the magnitude of the effect this game has had on many marginalized players, myself included, nor the effect it will likely continue to have on the industry as a whole. The standards it has set in regards to inclusivity, depth, replayability and, above all, heart, are sure to be lasting ones. Already, studio heads from other AAA publishers have come out with statements decrying “Baldur’s Gate” as setting unrealistic expectations for what video games should be. Many industry powerhouses are clearly threatened by Larian Studios and the strides they have made toward cultivating a more welcoming, equitable community for all. In response to that, all this humble “gamer” has to say is that if creating media catering to demographics outside of this monolithic norm is a “threat to the industry,” then maybe the fault lies with the industry, rather than the publisher. Perhaps it is time to reexamine what we as players consider adequate when it comes to AAA titles, and when we find those titles to be lacking, urge that something be done about it. In the meantime, however, BG3 is a victory—for all those players who never got to see their gender, their sexuality, their skin color or their body type in a story they otherwise held dear, this one’s for you—let’s celebrate that.

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