Magic Missile

I recently started re-playing the Baldur’s Gate games – the originals, for the PC – as well as the somewhat newer Icewind Dale II.

What motivated this was a little bit of hackery over at the Pocket Plane Group called bg1tutu. Put simply, this is a project which takes the Baldur’s Gate data files and converts them so they can be played with the Baldur’s Gate II engine. It’s a neat hack. There’s a similar mod which lets you play BG II with the Icewind Dale II engine, but it seems to have been abandoned midway through implementation, so I haven’t tried that yet. bg1tutu is still being actively developed.

What you “win” by playing Baldur’s Gate 1 in the BG2 engine is a slightly more sophisticated, but less well-balanced game. You have access to the “prestige” classes out of the starting gate, so you can play the original Baldur’s Gate as a Kensai, or an Assassin, or what have you. And of course you get a number of the interface enhancements – you can browse your inventory and remain paused, for example. Or travel while looking at the map.

There are also a number of modifications to BG1 made specifically to be run in the “tutu” version, which adds some interest to the game as well.

The install procedure is hairy, and the wrong combination of mods can send you scampering back to the very beginning; I eventually settled on keeping a “virgin” BGII install on my drive so I could revert and start over without too much pain. Is it worth the hassle? Well, probably not. But I’m a sucker for a neat hack, and I had fun playing around with it.

I also finally tried Icewind Dale II. This brings D&D 3rd edition rules to the Infinity Engine. So far – I’m still in the prologue – I’m unimpressed. The palette is dull and uninteresting – even compared to similar locales in similar games – and 90% of the prologue is spent doing boring FedEx quests.

What is amazing to me is how well the Infinity Engine holds up nearly ten years later. The great rush to 3d, as epitomized in Neverwinter Nights, has added precisely nothing interesting to the genre of dungeon games – it’s the same game, only now the user has the hassle of having to also manipulate the camera. It reminds me of the Great Leap Backwards that Monkey Island 4 was, with its hideously ugly and hard to control “true 3d nature.” Graphically intensive, ugly to look at, and more poorly written than the first two Monkey Island games. Congratulations, guys! You hit the Trifecta!

A construction kit that let users create their own Infinity Engine scenarios would produce more playable and fun games than what we have in Neverwinter Nights. When I played the tactically brilliant but flawed Temple of Elemental Evil I thought to myself “Once I’m done playing this game, I’m done with it forever. If there was a construction kit, other freaks could make scenarios that I could play.” Time and again, this has proven to be true – you can still find scenarios for Warlords II on the net, for example.

But it’s hard to make money off of empowering the users. So it is the exception, and not the rule.

Every so often, I imagine a project to make a clean-room, free library implementing the D20 tactical combat rules. The whole shebang: spec out a high-level API, crank out implementation specs for at least two different languages, recruit some people who are willing to spend too much time doing the implementation, and have a small team that does the simplest possible complete application using that library (think a single “rogue” level with preset starting characters and monsters).

Manipulation and display of graphic and sound assets, scripting NPCs and encounters, plot – none of that would be part of this library. Basically, this would be a little nugget to give away to game developers – corporate or independent – to use to make D20/D&D type games for me, er excuse me, I mean “for the public,” to play. What percentage of the development of D20 videogames is spent debugging the rules, combat resolution, and spell effects? Use this hypothetical nonexistent library. How much complexity did you just remove from your product? (Since my library is hypothetical and nonexistent, I get to assume that it doesn’t have any bugs.)

I think about this sometimes. And then I wake up, and I go into work, and instead of writing libraries for games that will never get written, I do what I’m getting paid to do, instead.