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Player Agency in Baldur’s Gate 3 and the Increasing Popularity of Exploration and Choice

Karlach from Baldur's Gate 3
Karlach, the internet's favourite companion

Following on the back of 2022 in which Elden Ring swept almost of every Game of the Year award available, players are now fawning over Baldur’s Gate 3, Larian Studios’ new release. Social media is awash with people sharing their builds, story choices and creative ways in which they are tackling the games abundant quests and challenges and showcasing the phenomenal levels of player freedom it offers. It’s truly remarkable seeing the possibilities. It may also mark the current peak of what is a growing trend in AAA open world games, player agency.

Giving players freedom is far from a new phenomena. For years, dating back as far as the Atari, countless genres have found ways to give players more choice in how they approach games. In particular in Role-playing games, where freedom to play the way you want to is at the core of the genre’s appeal. PC being the most common home for that variety of game in more recent times. Developers such as BioWare, with Mass Affect and Dragon Age, and Bethesda, with the elder scrolls and Fallout series, have been standouts for their ability to incorporate player freedom in narrative focused games.

Player agency can be offered in many different forms. Branching dialogue and quest paths, which allow the player to determine the direction of the story, often leading to one of multiple endings. Character creation and levelling up, with customisation on appearance, class, play styles, and the ability to level up your character and specialise them with different skills giving the potential for multiple play throughs if so desired. A map and combat scenarios that can be tackled however the player wishes an in any order. Baldur's gate 3, just like the tabletop dungeon & dragons which it is based on, offers players all of the above.

Cutscene from Baldur's Gate 3 of a female elf in dialogue
Larian Studios have stated there are more than 170 hours of cutscenes in the game

What makes Baldurs Gate such an interesting case, is the sheer popularity and publicity it has received upon launch. At the time of writing, it has hit a peak of 814,666 concurrent players on Steam, the ninth highest ever recorded. Rarely does a CRGP get this level of mainstream appeal. Some of this attention could well be down to clever marketing, with their showcase of letting players have sex with a druid in their bear form going viral. As well as their decision to allow full nudity. As the old adage goes, sex sells, and the reaction to this games bountiful sex and romance options proves it. However it also indicates an interesting potential shift in what players are looking for out of their games, particularly in the AAA market.

Whilst Indie games have and will hopefully always be home to a wide variety of interesting concepts and game designs, the AAA market tends to be dominated by publishers looking to follow the money. It’s why so many big releases are filled with micro transactions, seemingly every online multiplayer game must come with near monthly battle passes, and every sports game has to have an ultimate team style card buying mode. Money is King. For single player games, more and more developers are leaning into cinematic storytelling, naughty dog paving the way with releases such as Uncharted and The Last of Us, which have since been made into a Movie and TV show respectively. Until recently, most open world games had been locked into a similar template too, dominated by Ubisoft games and Rockstar. The classic, ‘look at that mountain, you can go there’ formula. With sandbox areas, featuring clusters of combat areas that can be tackled either stealthily or all guns blazing, maps that need to be revealed by climbing a tower, and linear missions linked between an abundance of side quests and often a sickly amount of collectibles.

Recently though, more and more games are using greater player freedom as a way to stand out from the pack. From Software determined the next evolution of their dark souls formula was to open up their game, as shown in Elden Ring. In which they broke from their linear world and level design to allow players to tackle their open world in any way they desired, to huge success and popularity. Nintendo took the same approach for Legend of Zelda with Breath of the Wild. Praised highly for how the game allows players total freedom and room to express themselves through how they choose to tackle any task. Both also offer excellent exploration, with the secret sauce to both being the rewards given to the player from deviating from the path and seeing what secrets are hidden around. It creates a highly rewarding experience. Zelda took this a step further with Tears of the Kingdom, offering a Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts level of crafting and toolsets for players to see what unbelievably clever solutions they can find to a myriad of unique puzzles and battles.

Part of what makes this kind of game so successful in modern games, is just how sharable and streamable it is. Platforms like Twitch and YouTube have never been more popular and games designed to be tackled in both ingenious and hilarious ways are the perfect way to get people on these platforms playing it. Especially as they are so easy to clip up and post on social media, generating much more interest and appeal. It allows players to market the games for them. Another way in which Baldur’s Gate 3 has also managed to achieve such widespread appeal. With clips of people finding bizarre ways to reach locations or deal with encounters that go viral, and encourage more people to purchase the game and try it out.

Screenshot from The Witcher 3 showing Geralt riding his horse Roach
Witcher 3 is largely regarded as one of the benchmarks for open world storytelling

An alternative way games have offered players freedom to huge success recently is narratively. Games such as Witcher 3 and Read Dead Redemption 2, allow players to influence how the story plays out through decisions in both the main and side quests. How these games aimed to push the boundaries of this further than those which came before it though, was in how alive they made the world feel. Packing their maps full of random encounters you can stumble upon which activate quests that can have consequences on the plot. This helps create the feeling of player agency, as it is the players own exploration and choices which leads to these quests, rather than been pointed towards a side quest or seeing a question mark on the map. The perfect example of this is one random side quest in Witcher which asks you to determine the fate of a character you may meet. Your choice can lead to this NPC’s demise, something you don’t learn till later in the game as you sail past an island and see his corpse on the shore. Something every game mentioned till now has in common, is that small enriching details can go a long way.

Baldur’s Gate, encapsulates all of these types of elements and ideas into one game. Creating the feeling that the players have total control over how they play the game and what will happen. While no game could ever truly offer complete player agency whilst still trying to tell a narrative as it would be simply impossible to offer enough permutations, the closer they get to creating that illusion, the more immersed players become into the story. With so many different ways people can choose to play and form different relationships and make different choices, Baldur’s gate comes very close to the appearance of full player agency, whilst not sacrificing on narrative quality. A truly impressive and praise-worthy feat that is rightfully earning them a lot of plaudits.

Do other games need the same level of player agency as Baldur's Gate 3?

3 characters from Baldur's gate in turn-based combat against one of the games bosses with UI displayed
Baldur's Gate 3 features turn-based squad combat and multiple boss battles

One caveat to all this remains though, CRPG’s are not to everyone’s taste. There will still be a large amount of gamers who this simply doesn’t appeal to, or they bounce off it quickly as it just doesn’t connect with them. That is true of every genre of course, but the denseness and time commitment required to get the most out of a game of Baldur’s gate’s scope, gives it a more niche appeal than some others. The turn-based combat could also be a potential turn off for some, as it can be more decisive than real-time action. The Final Fantasy series appears to be leaving behind it’s turn based routes in favour of combat more akin to Devil May Cry, presumably part of this decision is to create a broader appeal.

The volume of things to do in BG3, and subsequently how long it would take to play till completion, will also limit how many people are prepared to tackle such a content-rich title. Not everyone has the time or desire to devote so much to games which give this level of open freedom. All of the side quests and additional places to explore which allow for so much agency, means these games are not as accessible to those who many only be able to spend 30 mins a night or a couple of hours a week playing. As such, more linear, tighter experiences such as Resident Evil 4 Remake, which can be completed in a fraction of the time and is easily broken down into chapters and shorter sequences, will always have their place in the market. Ubisoft have clearly recognised this as well, and are set to release multiple Assassins Creed’s, one an open world RPG following on in the same mould as Valhalla, another a more linear release in homage to the original AC’s.

Not every game will be required to provide the freedom and player agency of Baldur’s Gate 3. But given just how popular and successful it and other games offering similar player-driven experiences have been recently, we may now see more and more AAA games adopting ideas from Larian Studios. Especially when it comes to open world releases. In order to receive the highest levels of success going forward, high-end graphics, strong gameplay and a great narrative will still be a must, but now developers may just have to ensure they give players enough freedom to explore and express themselves too.


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