The Inverse Awards

Baldur’s Gate 3 Is the Best Game of the Year

And it could change the industry forever.

Originally Published: 
Baldur’s Gate 3
Lais Borges/Inverse; Larian Studios
The Inverse Awards 2023

When Baldur’s Gate 3 was still in Early Access, back in 2020, the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired game asked players to create two characters at the start of their adventures. The first was the protagonist. The second was the “Dream Lover,” who appears to the protagonist while they’re sleeping and exists somewhere within the game’s massive fantasy world. But as those early test players gave their feedback (all while paying full price), Belgian developer Larian Studios realized something wasn’t working.

“As time went on, we rolled out more and more dream encounters between this seductive version of the character and the player,” principal narrative designer Lawrence Schick tells Inverse. “It became clear that it just wasn’t connecting. It wasn’t conveying what we wanted it to convey. Players were just confused.”

“Players were just confused.”

Larian Studios

In the final version of Baldur’s Gate 3 (released for Windows in August 2023, followed by versions on PS5, Mac, and Xbox), the Dream Lover is replaced with a drastically different type of character.

“We changed it to what is now the Guardian,” Schick says, “which connects much more clearly to the story function and the mechanical function in the game of protecting you from being taken over by the Absolute. Some people were surprised. Some people missed the seductive character. But by and large, it told the story much more clearly and without emotionally muddying the waters of your relationship with that imaginary character.”

This transformation encapsulates exactly what fans love about Baldur’s Gate 3. Unlike most big-budget games, which arrive fully formed (at least, one would hope), Larian’s role-playing epic feels like a living document, reacting and responding to player feedback. This unusual development cycle gave BG3 an edge, and it could mark a major change in the way video games get made in the future.

An Infinite World

If you want a game that captures the joy of being newly born into a world, Baldur’s Gate 3 does that.

Larian Studios

Long before Timothée Chalamet graced the Game Awards stage on Dec. 7 to crown Baldur’s Gate 3 as Game of the Year, everyone knew it was going to win. It was palpable. You could tell. When BG3 launched this summer, it quickly leapfrogged most people’s backlogs, soaking up their valuable playtime. It left Bethesda’s once-in-a-decade RPG Starfield in the dust among the stars. Developers who spoke to Inverse in interviews didn’t even plug their own games as game of the year, they willingly and humbly conceded to Larian and Baldur’s Gate 3.

Video games have long aimed to give players a sense of choice and agency, even if the playgrounds are man-made. They want you to load up a game and feel like you can go anywhere in the world, be anyone you want to be, take action and experience the consequences, whether good or bad. You can talk to the trash cans in Honkai Star Rail; they might shame you for doing so. You can pick up all the tissues and ballpoint pens you want in Starfield; they’re worth very little.

Still, in most games, you can reach out and feel the seams. You’ll swim too far and hit an invisible wall in the water (The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom). In more than one instance, the literal ground underneath you could be missing, and your character might fall into oblivion (Mass Effect, Watchdogs: Legion, Starfield).

“Every stone will not be turned for years because so much of the game is a concatenation of unlikely variables.”

Baldur’s Gate 3 achieves a sense of total player agency on a scale that’s arguably larger than any other game in recent history. Other games tout hundreds of procedurally generated worlds. BG3 executes on a single one. You can zoom in to see the details on a glowing magic-negating flower, examine an enemy for weaknesses and extra dialogue options, or zoom out and strategically scout ahead for threats. At one absolutely horrifying moment, I Jedi mind-tricked a hyena-like Gnoll creature into eating itself. In my defense, the narrator prompted me by suggesting the Gnoll was willing: “She is still ravenous, her mind a hungry pit.” If you’re a dirty save scum player, you’ll notice that even each load of the same save file of a game plays out a little differently each time. Perhaps the companion standing behind you will make an unexpected quip, or a dice roll will win some welcomed prize.

“She is still ravenous, her mind a hungry pit.”

Larian Studios

“Every stone will not be turned for years because so much of the game is a concatenation of unlikely variables,” Schick says. “There’s stuff that people will be discovering, including us, because of the way it was built, with synergies, and layers, and interacting reactivity. It astounds us, the stuff that comes up.”

Hundreds of Larian workers chipped in on the narrative, embroidering and embellishing general plot points brainstormed by upper management, Schick says.

If you want a game that captures the joy of being newly born into a world, delighted with mundane items and magical creatures alike, Baldur’s Gate 3 does that. There are flashes of whimsy to experience at every point in the game. I once allowed an ogre to taste my arm, in hopes of convincing a trio of ogres to stay and do my bidding. The ploy didn’t work, but it still made me laugh.

Lump The Enlightened tells the player he wants a taste.

Larian Studios

To deliver on this vision, Larian had to relinquish control. The studio let players into Baldur’s Gate 3 early on and have been fine-tuning and tweaking the game’s experience based on feedback for years. Schick says that having hundreds of thousands of players gain early access was more effective than hiring loads of quality assurance testers to test bugs.

“We pay really close attention to them because we’re giving the story away,” Schick says. “And so they got to be happy with it. They don’t have to admire it as an elegant piece of slick storytelling. They need to inhabit it. They need to live in it.”

Admirable But Risky

“It’s a great strategy for Baldur’s Gate, but not everyone can do this.”

Larian Studios

But even as we laud Baldur’s Gate 3, it’s important to keep in mind that the conditions under which it was created are hard to replicate. There’s a reason it’s the best role-playing game in a decade.

Before Baldur’s Gate 3, Larian spent decades working on its Divinity series, which started as an almost-clone of Diablo and other role-playing games with a top-down point of view. Eventually, Larian was able to scale up to something as massive as BG3 while staying independent in a landscape full of corporate mergers.

Other indie developers view Larian’s journey as aspirational — if not exactly within reach.

Baldur’s Gate 3 was released in early access for three years at full price before coming out in as polished a state as it did. It’s a great strategy for Baldur’s Gate, but not everyone can do this,” Brandon Sheffield tells Inverse.

Sheffield is the director of indie developer Necrosoft Games, but he adds that even major studios like Electronic Arts or Bethesda likely wouldn’t allow a massive role-playing game like Dragon Age or Starfield to launch in an unfinished state in an environment they can’t control.

Necrosoft’s Demonschool is an RPG like Baldur’s Gate 3... with some differences.

Necrosoft Games

Larger companies also have publicly announced release dates and investors they are beholden to and can’t easily delay a game indefinitely, even if it needs more polish.

“Investors do not care whether the game is done, they care whether it is out in fiscal 2023,” Sheffield says. “They care whether it can help bump up Q2 numbers, which are flagging for whatever reason. Because of this, games — triple-A games especially, because of the large amount of money involved — often have to release before the people working on them would like to release them.”

“Almost no developer has the same resources.”

Larian may be an independent studio unbeholden to corporate overlords, but it also had the benefit of working on a beloved franchise like Baldur’s Gate (along with the Dungeons & Dragons IP that inspired it). That makes it a lot easier to convince players to pay $60 for what was essentially a work in progress.

Even landing a well-known franchise may not be enough. Take Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, a turn-based RPG based on the popular tabletop miniature wargame and developed by the Cyprus-based studio Owlcat. Creative director Alexander Mishulin says expecting the same success as Baldur’s Gate 3 would be foolish — but he still hopes gamers will check out Rogue Trader once they're done with BG3.

“Almost no developer has the same resources,” Mishulin tells Inverse.

Doing Away with a Culture of Secrecy

“Can we create that rabid fan base while we’re maybe a little uglier than we anticipated, as we build?”

Larian Studios

Some other developers are already following in the footsteps of Baldur’s Gate 3 by cultivating direct relationships with players and being explicit about how the sausage gets made in a radical show of transparency. Some are even live-streaming prototypes of half-built games or launching Kickstarters with daily updates on what gamers’ dollars are going toward. That includes the team at Frost Giant, a game studio founded by Blizzard veteran Tim Morten.

“The way we used to build games when we were at Blizzard was a lot more siloed,” Morten tells Inverse. “A lot of development would happen before players got a peek at what was being built. In those circumstances, you’ve tried to make the best decisions that you can, but they don’t really get validated until late in the process. A lot of newer companies — Frost Giant being one of them — are trying to develop with a tighter feedback loop with the community.”

Frost Giant has raised $1.5 million on Kickstarter (and $35 million in venture capital) in exchange for special features in its upcoming real-time strategy game Stormgate.

Unleashed Games, a studio helmed by former World of Warcraft and Diablo developers, has similar plans for its in-development cooperative fantasy role-playing game codenamed Project: Haven.

“The community wants to be part of the development and feel like they’re there from day one,” Unleashed CEO Irena Pereira tells Inverse, adding that she and her co-workers regularly livestream their partially built world to show players updates like crafting and character models. “Can we create that rabid fan base while we’re maybe a little uglier than we anticipated, as we build?”

If studios like Larian, Frost Giant, and Unleashed have their way, then the days of video game secrecy may be over. Keeping concept art and new features locked under nondisclosure-agreement-enforced lock and key might have worked in the past, but these days, getting live feedback is far more valuable.

Baldur’s Gate 3 just might be the start of something new.

Or, as Pereira puts it: “There’s something magical about a grassroots community that grows up with a title.”

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