Weapons drawn, we prepare to fight the goblin horde. It feels less like a confrontation and more like a last stand. That’s when it hits me: several hours ago, I’d made friends with a group of ogres halfway across the map. I’d persuaded them to fight for me in exchange for the spoils of the dead. All I had to do was blow a magic horn, and my enormous buddies would come running – at least, that’s what they told me.
I sound the horn and hope for the best. Three lumbering ogres smash into the battle, the immense creatures making good on their word. With gleeful abandon, the monsters turn the enemy horde to paste as my party focuses on their leader. As the smoke clears, we are surrounded by the dead.
Unlike what you might see in a more formulaic, modern RPG, the ogres’ arrival wasn’t a scripted event. The bargain I struck with them resulted from an unrelated side quest. The choice of when and where to call in my towering allies was entirely my own. My battle with the goblin warlord could have been settled in dozens of ways – heck, I was even presented with a chance to side with the warlord against the settlement I was trying to protect. Though I went for a very traditional, “lawful good” route, the story felt entirely my own. This is the magic of Larian Studios’ Baldur’s Gate 3 and the wider CRPG genre.
It's all ogre
A Computer Roleplaying Game, or CRPG, is an isometric game in which you control a party of characters as they make their way through the world, battle enemies, and make tough choices. Crucially the CRPG aims to emulate the experience of a tabletop role-playing game, like pen-and-paper Dungeons and Dragons.
RPGs in the modern mold, like Mass Effect and Fallout 4 can trace their lineage back to CRPGs like the original Baldur’s Gate and Fallout. They are all about interlocking story-driven experiences where player choice is king. Fortunately, for fans of rich, customizable, story-driven experiences, 2023 is set to be full of them.
Baldur’s Gate 3 stands on the shoulders of giants. The title alone writes big cheques. Larian Studios is seeking to make a worthy successor to Baldur’s Gates 1 and 2, released in 1998 and 2000, respectively. The original Baldur’s Gate was my first RPG of any kind. It introduced awkward teenage Cat to what would become her favorite genre of video games. Baldur’s Gate 3 certainly has some big shoes to fill.
Fortunately, the title’s early access offering bodes extremely well for the finished product. Not only are the individual threads of Baldur’s Gate 3’s plotlines compelling in and of themselves, like the titles’ predecessors, but the plotlines also interlock in various fascinating and unpredictable ways. We need look no further than the tale of the ogres to know that Baldur’s Gate 3 offers true dynamism when it comes to the stories it tells.
Sky's the limit
Baldur’s Gate 3 is not the only promising title set to release this year. Owlcat Games’ Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader looms large on the horizon. Though not as ubiquitous as Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer 40,000 has its own range of tabletop roleplaying games. Rogue Trader is, perhaps, the most famous and has you take on the role of a space privateer.
It spins darker, more repressive tales than its fantasy counterpart, but is no less capable of delivering the narrative magic at the core of the CRPG. Having played Owlcat’s alpha build of the game, it’s clear that the developers take this idea to heart to the same extent as Larian Studios.
Though Owlcat’s alpha is limited, the build shows off the cascading narrative design. Choose to arrive at Footfall space station with pomp and circumstance, and NPCs will react accordingly. Some dialogue options will change or close off entirely. Arrive incognito and you’ll interact with the station’s criminal underbelly earlier on as a local gang mistakes you for easy prey. However, more clandestine options will be available during the quests. It’s a small detail, but it indicates the kind of storytelling that makes CRPGs so memorable.
With Rogue Trader set to release in Q3 this year and Baldur’s Gate 3 due to come out of early access in August, the second half of 2023 looks to be a halcyon time for the CRPG. It is heartening to see a return to this more traditional style of storytelling, where increased player agency is accommodated through narrative versatility.