Armagideon Time

My first “real” PC was a Celeron II eMachine purchased during the wild and wooly dot-com salad days of 1999. It was sold as part of a incredibly cheap bundle (including monitor, scanner, and printer) by Value America, who subsidized the too-good-to-be-true sale price with its rapidly shrinking pool of investor capital. (This was probably the only time in my life where I got a windfall and venture capitalists got the shaft.)

The desktop was a modest low end model with a whopping 4 GB hard drive and 16 MB of RAM, pitched as a starter box for average schmoes looking to cruise the INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY. Under the tutelage of Southie Dave (who’d resurfaced as a tech wunderkind half a decade after dropping out of UMB) and my former boss, I quickly learned how to upgrade and finetune the stock chassis into a lean, mean, adequate gaming and media machine.

The archeological record of those days is currently scattered across the floor of my grandmother attic — a receipt for a Voodoo2 graphics card from some long defunct online retailer, a stack of dead secondary hard drives and a quad-speed CD-RW burner, plus countless diskettes, CD-ROMs and user manuals. I had justified buying the computer by telling myself it would be the first step in my creative rebirth. I’d return to my writing. I’d learn how to compose my own sonic loop collages. I’d use graphics editing software to hone my atrophied artistic skills.

Or I’d promptly forget all those lofty goals and just spend my time burning mix CDs and playing games.

Not to excuse my inveterate laziness, but it was hard to resist the allure of the computer gaming scene. It had been a few years since I dabbled with that stuff on Maura’s old Packard Bell, and PC gaming realm had undergone multiple geometric leaps since then. Not only was there a vast trove of retrogaming treasures available through the emulation scene, but there was also a sizable roster of quality offerings which had passed my console-centric self by and were now available at a discount.

The original isometric Fallout game was at the top of list, as it combined my adoration for nuclear armageddon, retro-aesthetics, and role-playing games in one very affordable package. It had been one of the few games that made me want a PC when it hit the selves, and was one of the first games I bought when that finally happened. The free-roaming post-nuclear adventure was more than worth the wait, and I played and replayed it at least a dozen times over the following months. (It was the first program I installed on the machine, even before I had proper workdesk to house it. The beginning of my initial playthrough was done while sitting on the floor of my room with the monitor precariously perched on a rolling chair.)

Soon after, I obtained a copy of Fallout 2, which was had a much larger scope than its predecessor yet lacked much of its charm. It was enjoyable enough and I beat it a couple of times, but felt unfocused and spent too much time trying to push the “mature audiences” envelope with a lot of adolescent potty humor and other performatively transgressive nonsense. The first game had its share of goofy in-jokes, but the sequel overplayed that angle to an embarrassing degree.

The two Fallout games did leave me with a hunger for this new generation of computer-based RPGs, one that kept steering me towards the then-current apex of the genre, the much ballyhooed Baldur’s Gate.

I actually held off on buying Baldur’s Gate for months, despite recommendations from multiple friends and creepy-looking game store clerks. Even though I knew it shared kinship with the Fallout games through Black Isle Studios, I wasn’t clear exactly what the heck the game was. Descriptions of the game weren’t exactly helpful (and I’d already learned to mistrust such hype by then) and the frequent comparisons to the Warcraft strategy series made me wary about whether it actually was a role-playing game or not. This was, after all, still an era where anything featuring elves and axes was tagged as an RPG by lazy default.

Baldur’s Gate was also tagged as an “authentic adaptation of the 2nd edition AD&D rules,” which also gave me pause. I’d played — and enjoyed — the “Gold Box” PC games on Maura’s computer and the handful of licensed D&D RPGs that had managed to make it onto the console scene, but still suffered the old biases that had driven me from the system’s stodginess and into the flexibly visceral realm of Warhammer Fantasy Role Play. The official TSR stamp wasn’t a kiss of death, but did heighten my reluctance when added to the existing vagueness I’d encountered about the game.

Eventually, though, my boredom and curiosity (and a sale at Electronics Boutique) got the better of me, and I took the plunge. After undertaking the long, multi-CD installation process (which filled most of my primary HD), I booted up the game and discovered it was indeed a genuine RPG — albeit one with some RTS mechanics married to the AD&D core rules. It was rough in places and downright brutal until your character had a couple of levels under their belt, but it was utterly engrossing. There’s an incredible thrill to shepherding a freshly-rolled neophyte through a realm of extremely fatal hazards, surviving by the skin of your teeth until you get the first taste of actual power via a certain spell or enchanted item. It spurs you on to greater risks and greater rewards, taking chances and basking the satisfaction of pulling off the near-impossible.

It’s the “new car smell” that wafts forth the first time you crack open the D&D Basic Set box, but fades over time as players immerse themselves in the deaded “meta.” A good group can revive some of that excitement, but rarely to the extend where it blots out the probability analysis streaming through one’s skull. The first half-dozen hours of Baldur’s Gate, however, manages to emulate that old magic perfectly. By hiding all the number-crunching behind the hood and turning it over to a pitiless AI dungeonmaster, it evoked my favorite parts of the old D&D experience while minimizing the stuff that chased me away from the system.

Well, most of those irritations. The game’s selection of playable classes was pretty thin and the initial round of stat-rolling could be tedious for folks unwilling to settle for subpar scores. It’s easy to say you’d run with a negative ability bonus, but not as easy to accept when that perfect 18 STR/DEX/CON combo might be just ONE. MORE. CLICK. AWAY. The scattershot utility of recruitable party members could also be frustrating — especially since a good percentage could only be taken on as paired companions — but it did replicate the tabletop experience of having to deal with whatever goofy characters your campaign pals happened to roll up.

A decade of dedicated Warhammer fandom couldn’t erase the nostalgic thrill of reconnecting with coveted treasures and dreaded beasties. Stumbling upon a cave of carrion crawlers or unearthing a pair of Gauntlets of Ogre Power in Baldur’s Gate would trigger a flood of stats and strategies from the darkest recesses of my brain. The D&D system was my first proper role-playing game. It had been an all-consuming passion during my junior high years, and Baldur’s Gate rekindle a bit of that old affection in digital form and appreciate the system for what it was.

It was enough to convince me to make a day-one purchase of Baldur’s Gate 2, a sequel that truly realized the rough promise of its predecessor with countless refinements, new character classes (including my beloved Monk and Cavalier), and a tighter narrative flow. It established the template for “Bioware RPGs,” the emphasis on compelling character interactions and high-stakes melodrama which the current incarnation of the developer seems hellbent on whizzing down their leg.

I spent more time plumbing its depths than I had with the original game, mastering the buff/debuff/counterspell intricacies of its combat system, seeking out hidden treasures, and working my way through every possible sidequest. Baldur’s Gate 2 is reason I’m more fluent with Paint Shop Pro than with Photoshop, because PSP’s compression/resizing presets worked better for creating custom character portraits from MAME and ZINC emulator screencaps. (Gato from Mark of the Wolves as male monk, Blair from Street Fighter EX as female monk, and Siegfried from a Soul Calibur fan page as male cavalier, if you were curious.) Funny how passing obsessions can have long-term impacts.

The games have been mandatory installs on every PC I’ve owned since, from the Pentium III Dell (what a gloriously customizable machine) which replaced the eMachine through the Acer Aspire laptop I currently use at home. Both Baldur’s Gate titles have been since been given “enhanced editions”, but I’ve opted for digital downloads of the original versions along with a fan mod that imports the entirety of the first game into its sequel to provide a mostly seamless experience (with the additional character classes, an improved interface, and higher resolution options). It lacks the additional bells and whistles of the enhanced versions, but I prefer how it feels whenever the inevitable urge resurfaces to boot it up and gather my party like it’s 1986 by way of 1999.

Related posts:

  1. Role-Playing with the Changes: Peak experience
  2. Role-Playing with the Changes: By any other name
  3. Role-Playing with the Changes: Third time’s the smarm

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