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In Defense of Video Game Jank

From Baldur’s Gate 3 to Starfield, maybe polish isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Baldur's Gate 3
Larian Studios

Gamers have had enough. They’re tired of seeing big-budget games like Diablo 4 nickel and dime them via microtransactions. They’re heartbroken to see franchises like Overwatch become a shadow of their former selves. They’re disappointed to know hyped games like Cyberpunk 2077 often don’t resemble what they were pitched in trailers. Blockbuster games on the whole seem to be in a crisis, but few are feeling the casualties as much as PC gamers. 2023 has seen a slew of high-profile yet barely playable games like The Last of Us 2 and Star Wars: Jedi Survivor released on PC. Baldur’s Gate 3, the dense new RPG by Larian Studios, isn’t just bucking the trend for PC games: it’s being hailed as an all-time classic, a seminal moment for the medium that everyone should learn from.

Reviews on Steam laud the game not just on its own merits, but in comparison to the industry. One popular review on the platform isn’t even directed at players, but rather at game developers who, in their estimation, aren’t giving fans what they actually want. “Just a polished game with unlimited hours of fun,” the Steam user declares after denouncing the evils of battle passes, microtransactions, and DLCs.

“Polish” is the hilt of the sword that’s being waved around right now, as fans turn Baldur’s Gate 3 into a weapon of discourse. The controversy was ignited by an IGN video that misrepresented the thoughts of a video game developer, interpreting a Twitter post to say players shouldn’t expect their games to be this excellent. While the video has reached over 1.7 million views and amassed a ton of criticism from game developers, it also started a fire between fans, developers, and critics regarding the importance of polish. What’s lost amid the ruckus is the reality that polish doesn’t make or break a game, and it’s certainly not what’s made Baldur’s Gate 3 so successful.

Baldur’s Gate 3 isn’t actually the halcyon of polish some people claim.

Larian Studios

The reason it’s proven so caustic is that players don’t understand why developers, who also want to release the best possible game for their audiences, appear to be defending the depressing state of big-budget games. Developers are doing no such thing, of course. Most are trying to get across that something like Baldur’s Gate 3 may be impossible to replicate, even if they tried. The game is what it is because it spent years in early access, meaning that it was initially sold with bugs and unfinished content — the very thing people are disavowing. It’s self-published, so Larian isn’t beholden to the needs of shareholders who want games to be released on their schedule, no matter what state it’s in. Baldur’s Gate 3 was also released during the resurgence of Dungeons & Dragons, which has been vaulted into the mainstream via things like Critical Role and Hollywood.

Larian is reaping the benefits of sticking with its existing technology, which is specialized for the specific games the developer makes. Meanwhile, other high-profile games are often pressured to adopt new methods as publishers try to push things like new consoles or proprietary engines. The expectations are also drastically different. Where some gamers might hyper-fixate on whether a new triple-A game properly reflects the correct way puddles work in real life, super-high-fidelity graphics aren’t the point in Baldur’s Gate 3.

That’s what happens when a developer amasses enough goodwill: fans cut them some slack.

Larian Studios

Then again, the premise of the whole kerfuffle isn’t true at all. Baldur’s Gate 3 isn’t a halcyon of polish, though it might appear to be at first. During my playtime, I’ve encountered a staggering number of bugs and issues that disrupted my gameplay, ranging from entire towns becoming hostile for no reason to cutscenes that will suddenly start playing at triple the speed. I’ve had non-key items glued to my inventory, unable to be sold or dropped. Characters will get stuck in geometry. I’ve missed out on big story beats for seemingly no reason.

And my issues with the game have been minor compared to what others experienced. I’ve known some people who gave up on the game altogether because the third act falls apart performance-wise. It seems Baldur’s Gate 3 can’t handle the complexities of the large city you explore during this act, with players reporting issues like frame-rate spikes. Multiple quests become impossible to complete for seemingly no reason and at least one major character stops providing much interaction for the player altogether.

Perhaps the narrative around Baldur’s Gate 3’s polish simply reflects that most players haven’t gotten to the last act: there’s so much to do that you can easily spend dozens of hours in a single area. I’ve been borderline glued to the game and am barely at the start of Act 2. But my guess is that most people are overlooking the issues, even if they experience them. That’s what happens when a developer amasses enough goodwill: fans cut them some slack.

There’s a palpable sense that, if Baldur’s Gate 3 has issues, it’s not because of something like greed or malicious oversight. At best, hiccups are the natural result of creating an ambitious, story-rich game that’s full of unexpected choices that make players feel special, rather than another number on a spreadsheet. A necromancer’s playthrough is vastly different from that of a druid who makes friends with every animal, never mind a character with the ominous-sounding “dark urge” trait. It’s impossible to see everything in a single playthrough, meaning Larian made the conscious choice to include things even if it was likely most people would never see it.

With a game this massive, it’s a miracle it exists at all. Larian is also working dutifully to fix as much as it can. Already, there’s been a giant patch for the game that fixes over 1,000 issues, big and small, while also incorporating requests from fans. There are things you would expect from an update like this, such as tweaks that make it more functional and allow characters to behave properly. There are also plenty of things that could have been ignored altogether, like ensuring that short characters get better kissing animations.

That’s just the start. Larian has outlined aims for upcoming patches that sound extensive, tackling both late-game content and, shockingly, expansions to the story itself. Fans complained that one character didn’t get a proper sendoff at the end, so Larian wants to change it so she gets the ending she “deserves.” This is above and beyond stuff because it’s less about having a working game than delivering an experience that makes people happier.

Bethesda’s games are known for a certain... lack of polish.

Bethesda Softworks

Even if this weren’t the case, though, “polish” is a trap. Yes, we’re seeing an increase in games that aren’t releasing the way they should be, but it’s a mistake to assume fans will always be satisfied with cutting-edge games that are perfect and realistic. Fans don’t remember games like Red Dead Redemption 2 because of its infamous horse balls that react to the weather, they remember it because it’s a damn good story.

Bethesda is a great example. Here’s a developer famed for jank, yet its deeply imperfect games are regarded as classics. Glitches are part of what makes Bethesda games so memorable in the first place. Who wasn’t trying to fling their characters into the stratosphere using wonky physics? I can’t be the only one who has put a basket over a character’s head only to rob them blind. By now, awkward Bethesda animations have become nostalgic, something that’s part and parcel of the charm.

Whether or not Starfield will follow suit remains to be seen. Bethesda already wants to get ahead of its reputation, with early claims that this will be the developer’s least buggy game ever. Let’s hope that “polish” doesn’t sand away the things that make Bethesda games so charming in the first place. There’s got to be a healthy medium between getting a game that works, and getting a game that’s good.

As for Baldur’s Gate 3, despite spending an entire paragraph detailing issues I’ve experienced, I’m only mentioning them to prove a point.

"Most of the discourse that's coming from the game dev side is trying to say, 'This is why this is this way, this is why you aren't necessarily going to see this immediately spread across the industry,” BioWare veteran Mark Darrah, who worked on the original Baldur’s Gate games, remarked on YouTube. “But what the gamers are hearing is a bunch of excuses.”

Darrah goes on to say that devs asking fans to keep their expectations in check aren’t trying to be lazy, they’re just being honest about game development constraints imposed on them. That, and people aren’t acknowledging all the smart corners that Baldur’s Gate 3 cuts, like not having a voiced protagonist, canned animations, and funneling the staggering number of choices into having the same outcome for the player.

You don’t notice these shortcuts — the things that betray a lack of “polish” — because polish isn’t what makes Baldur’s Gate 3 an all-time great. The things that don’t matter are simply good enough, not best-in-class. Most people won’t even realize that Larian simplified its previous art style. Baldur’s Gate’s legacy may not be defined by whether or not it raises standards, but by whether or not it lowers expectations around polish and graphical fidelity.

Or as Darrah puts it: “It opens up the space of what a triple-A game can look like.”

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