Larian Studios is best known for its Divinity: Original Sin titles. These beloved games successfully blend classic computer RPG mechanics with modern-day presentation and gameplay. Many praise them as spiritual successors of the old Baldur’s Gate games. It is fortunate then that Larian is now in charge of resurrecting the long-dormant franchise with Baldur’s Gate III.
Revealed at PAX East 2020, Baldur’s Gate III returns players to the Forgotten Realms and the titular city of Baldur’s Gate. An evil force called the cult of the Absolute seeks to destroy the Forgotten Realms and install a new order. The player-character and their companions must traverse the Forgotten Realms and beyond to stop the Absolute’s quest for world domination. Along the way, they must also find a cure for an affliction placed on them by the Absolute. If they fail in that endeavor, they will become beings called Mind Flayers and forever be thralls to the Absolute.
Baldur’s Gate III is all about giving players a multitude of choices. The game has so many permutations that it is almost impossible for any two players to have the same exact experience. Players can approach combat in a number of ways. They can go straight into a fight or use the environment to their advantage. Sneaking up on enemies, using campfires to ignite arrows, or even persuading foes to lay down their arms are all viable options. Choice also extends to dialogue; some of which can impact the narrative profoundly. If one wishes to, they can spend hundreds of hours on a single playthrough simply exploring the world and seeing what they can discover.
During a recent Baldur’s Gate III event here in New York City, I had the chance to interview David Walgrave, who is the Senior Producer of the game. During our extensive chat, we discussed a wide variety of topics. This includes how Larian became the developer of Baldur’s Gate III and how it tackled producing a new entry in the series. We also delved into how modern audiences perceive computer RPGs and how Larian is keeping the genre alive in 2020.
What does it feel like resurrecting Baldur’s Gate? What challenges did you face developing a new entry in the classic franchise?
It’s amazing to be working on it. Sometimes I still can’t believe it. Every time we hit an important milestone I have to pinch myself. For instance, this press tour made me realize we have a lot riding on this. This is a big thing we’re doing. When [Larian Founder] Swen Vincke told me we were going to do it I was very happy I was sitting down because I knew he had something major to tell me. I thought he was going to fire me or something [laughs]. It’s been an amazing ride.
The way we’re making sure everyone will like it is by approaching it as a big production. We’re trying not to think too much about the shoes we need to fill or what came before. We’re only thinking about the audience we need to reach and the story we need to tell with the technology of 2020.
Bioware developed the first two Baldur’s Gates games. How did you come about developing Baldur’s Gate III?
If you’re an RPG developer, Baldur’s Gate is like the holy grail. Swen visited Wizards of the Coast after we did Original Sin 1. He showed it to them and said we wanted to do Baldur’s Gate III. Swen tried to sell them on what a modern computer RPG is. He explained our design philosophies, what gameplay means to us, and our ideas for RPGs. They said no. I don’t know whether they thought we couldn’t pull it off because we (were) a small-time Belgian developer or if they didn’t want to do a sequel.
A year later when we were working on Original Sin II they actually got in touch with us. They said they were still thinking about the presentation Swen gave them talking about how we’d do a Baldur’s Gate III. Wizards of the Coast became more interested in getting back into computer games and thought of that crazy guy from Belgium. So that’s how it happened.
We told about a dozen people at Larian Studios and started thinking about how we’d do the story and gameplay for Baldur’s Gate III. We talked with Wizards of the Coast and hit it off. There’s a lot of things we have in common in terms of gameplay and storytelling. During one of the first meetings, we were sitting around a table with their Dungeon Masters. That was a nice compliment and I knew we were going to make a good game together.
It makes sense for you guys to make Baldur’s Gate III considering how many folks see the Original Sin games as spiritual successors of Baldur’s Gate.
That was always the intent — to make a kind of old-school computer RPG but with modern technology. We wanted to make Baldur’s Gate 3D and we wanted to make sure it was not just a nostalgia trip.
There’s a whole new audience out there and they don’t want to play stuff made in the 80s and 90s. They want to play modern stuff that appeals to them. But in the meantime, we’re using all the tricks used in the 80s and 90s. We’re using systemics and we’re using the story. If you’re not into certain RPG stats and this and that, you don’t need to dive into it. But if you want to, there’s a hardcore version waiting there for you.
That is what we’re trying to do with Baldur’s Gate III. If you played the original ones we hope you’re going to play this one and appreciate what we did even though it doesn’t look exactly like the old ones. I don’t think you can release something like that in 2020 as a sequel.
What kind of research did you do when making Baldur’s Gate III? Did you go back and play the older entries and dissect their mechanics?
We have a dozen or so writers working on Baldur’s Gate III and they started something they call “D&D University.” They forced themselves to read all sorts of documents like the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Player’s Guide to Faerûn. They read a lot of Forgotten Realms stuff — a lot of D&D stuff in general. I can’t tell you all the stuff they read but they’re writers so they need to read a lot [laughs]. The writers really brushed up on their lore.
All of the designers almost need to know the Player’s Handbook by heart. We all have a copy laying on our table because it’s so important to us. In the beginning, a couple of the designers were afraid it would be a bit limiting. Like, this is the ruleset and that’s it. But actually it’s very inspiring. For instance, the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, they’re not always so strict. They say this is how you do things but you’re the Dungeon Master. Then we realized you need to implement a certain ruleset but you also have a lot of freedom because you’re turning it into a computer game. The only thing that’s limiting us is the fact it needs to run on a computer.
You mentioned how this game uses the same tricks as computer RPGs of the past. How did you balance classic and modern mechanics that would satisfy both younger and older players?
I don’t know how we keep old-school fans happy [laughs]. They’re hard to please. We noticed a lot of our player-base is people in their teens and 20s. But they keep on discovering it because for them it’s a big playground to play in. But the playground is possible because we’re working with systemics.
It’s a trick they pulled in the 80s because they didn’t have a lot of memory, time, or personnel. They made a thing work as a simulation and got a lot of gameplay for free out of that. That gives players freedom or at least the idea of freedom. This is also what sold it to Wizards of the Coast. They said that what we built on a computer feels very much like a board game or a tabletop version of D&D because of the freedom. If you think of it, it’s probably possible in the engine we built. But the engine uses all the tricks they pulled back in the day to create the simulation.
That’s what will keep old-school players happy if they’re expecting hardcore stuff and simulation stuff. It’s also keeping young people happy because they can mess around and glitch it and cheese it every way they can.
How long after the second game does this take place? Do people need to have played the previous installments to understand the story?
It’s based on Fifth Edition D&D. That and Forgotten Realms takes place in the 15th century (in the world of D&D). The original Baldur’s Gate games took place in the 14th century, so there’s a hundred years in-between. But you will see characters from the previous games. There are tricks you can pull in Forgotten Realms. Elves live longer, certain people fall into time prisons. There will be things you recognize. If you know the original games or if you’re a fan of the novels then you will recognize places and characters.
Graphically, Baldur’s Gate III looks incredible. What was your philosophy with regard to the graphic style you wanted to present?
We didn’t want people to say this is just Original Sin with different characters. There’s about 20-30% of the Original Sin engine left and we rewrote so many systems and so many things.
The renderer has become much more realistic. We support photogrammetry right now. There are realistic textures you can zoom in on endlessly but it’ll still look like a rock or tree or sand. We want to make it realistic so you believe in the story and characters. We want their personalities to become real so the interactions and the relationships between you and your companions mean something to you.
If you talked to people that played the original games, they always talk about all the companions you could pick up and how much they love or hate them. That is something we also wanted to do. You can increase the relationship people have with characters by showing them. Showing their emotions, zooming in on their faces. They make dialogue come alive and that was one of the things we wanted. We wanted to create a D&D world you recognize as D&D. This has nothing to do with Larian or Divinity. This is very D&D.
When Swen was rehearsing the presentation, he rehearsed it a million times and it always went completely different each time. But he needed to know whether or not he could do all of these things because there is so much that can go wrong. I was sitting in one of these presentations and it was also the first time I saw the game from a different point of view. When you’re a developer, you’re working on the game and you only seem to see the mistakes and everything that’s still going wrong. But when Swen was presenting it I saw everything come together. I had goosebumps because I knew the way we’re now doing dialogue works. These people are coming alive. I also got goosebumps because I thought this is D&D. This is not Divinity anymore.
That’s true. During the presentation, Swen made some bad dice rolls. That felt like D&D. When things go wrong, they really go wrong. It’s cool to see that replicated in Baldur’s Gate III.
I hope people realize even if a roll goes wrong there’s something you’ll unlock that other players won’t because their roll was successful. It’s basically the same when you play D&D and the Dungeon Master is rolling stuff behind the scenes. You can’t go: “I want to load a save game.” You can’t do that. That’s the big fun of D&D. We made sure every path you take is as interesting as the other one.
There’s a ton going on in the game with dialogue, combat, and exploration. If a player decides to only do the critical path, would they have a lesser experience than someone who checks every single corner?
We want to support each playstyle as much as we can. If you just want to experience the story and you’re not into finding secrets or whatever, maybe the normal difficulty setting is not going to be your setting. You may want to try an easier one. You can say there is a lot you will miss out on, but there are so many choices. Even not checking out something around the corner is a choice.
If you’re interested in finding every secret, you’re going to play on hardcore mode, or whatever we’re going to call it. Providing all of these different paths and options is a lot of work. But our team is very big. We now have the manpower to take all of those things into account. It’s also something we’ve been doing for over a decade. We have the technology for all those different dialogues, all those different options and consequences.
It also supports multiple playthroughs. I can imagine some players replaying Baldur’s Gate III to see all of the different available paths.
That’s what’s cool about the origin characters. We all used to have our favorite origin character in Original Sin II and now it’s becoming hard to have one in Baldur’s Gate III. There’s enough developers that want to play through it multiple times because every origin character has a completely different story.
Jumping back to dialogue, one of the things I don’t like in some RPGs is characters that don’t talk. They speak in Baldur’s Gate III but I noticed they don’t voice their dialogue choices. Was this done as a way to give the character a personality while also retaining many dialogue choices?
With Original Sin 1, we introduced a tag system. If you’re playing a fighter, you’ll have dialogue options specific to a fighter. In Original Sin II, we kept on adding more and more tags. You made a choice and it has ripple effects. Here, we’re using these things more and more. There are many dialogue choices that are custom-built for origin characters.
This comes down to budget and manpower. If you don’t have enough writers to come up with all of that stuff, you can’t do it. Without the money to voice record all of it, you can’t do it. If you don’t have the scripters to script all of those different things you can’t do it. We identified the strengths of Original Sin, improved on them, and made them even stronger in Baldur’s Gate III.
If you’re an Original Sin player, how much of that series will you see and recognize in Baldur’s Gate III?
You’ll recognize the systemics, the interactivity, and the item interaction. As I said, there’s only maybe 20-30% left of the engine. And because it’s a D&D game, it feels completely different from Divinity. It’s also more serious and harsh than a Divinity game. But I still think you will try to find ways of finishing it that you don’t have in other games. This is typical for Larian so I would not call that a Divinity thing. It’s more of a Larian thing.
Last question, what do you want people to take away from Baldur’s Gate III? What do you want them to feel and think about during or after they’ve played it?
From my point of view, they need to be able to talk about it to their friends. They need to one-up all of their friends and say: “I did it like that and I experienced this.” The cool thing about Original Sin was people were trying to write a walkthrough but they couldn’t do it. There’s so much that can go wrong as you saw during the presentation. Everyone thinks presentations aren’t real but you can’t stage that type of chaos.
I want people to feel this is a unique experience. No two people will experience Baldur’s Gate III exactly the same way. This is different from other games because there, you can talk to your friends about how you did specific things. If you talk about Baldur’s Gate III to people, they may say: “What? I’ve never been to a goblin camp. Oh, that town? I killed everyone there. It had a quest?” I want people to think they had something that was custom for them because they made certain choices. Also, I hope that they had a lot of fun. That it was not a waste of time.
Baldur’s Gate III has no definitive release date at this time. It is expected to hit Steam Early Access later this year. Make sure to come back for any further updates regarding the release date and platforms.