If you play Baldur’s Gate 3 as the Dark Urge, there comes a time when you’re possessed in the middle of your sleep by the spirit of Bhaal, which compels you to kill the one you love. You may be able to resist, but you’ll need a companion to keep you restrained and calm through the long night before the urge passes.
“It’s always your romantic partner who comes along and spends the whole night watching over you, like Odysseus tied to the mast,” says Baudelaire Welch, lead designer for the companion character and romance quests in Baldur’s Gate 3. “Showing these sorts of moments of a character being inherently supportive towards you, because that’s what they feel they want to do, is something I’ve not seen that much in video games.”
These are the kinds of scenes that set Baldur’s Gate 3 apart. There’s a lot to praise in the game’s story, but the way it handles romance is the most compelling part. Each relationship feels more realistic, more satisfying, and more complicated than what we’ve seen before. And the game’s creators tell Inverse that’s exactly what keeps players coming back for more.
“I’ve spent years working for American publishers, trying to grab them by the lapels and say, ‘You know what this RPG needs? It needs romance. It will be so engaging that it will stick players to this, and they won’t be able to get away,’” says principal narrative designer Lawrence Schick. “And the American publishers are like, ‘Ew, no. We don’t do that. That could be strange.’”
There’s no denying that BG3 developer Larian Studios is on the cutting edge of role-playing game romance, but how did they get there? Inverse spoke to Welch and Schick to break down exactly how they turned 2023’s game of the year into one of the steamiest video games in recent memory.
Baudelaire Welch cites Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and the previous Baldur’s Gate entries as inspirations for BG3’s romance. But in so many games, romance feels like passing a test. Choose the right answers and your partner will love you, rewarding you with a sex scene that quickly fades to black. The actual romance often feels like an afterthought.
“If it feels emotionally powerful, we’re gonna go there.”
In contrast, romance was baked into Baldur’s Gate 3 from the beginning, and Larian developed its dynamic animation system to account for characters having to hug and kiss.
“People sometimes say, ‘Oh this game is really horny, because you can start a relationship with the characters straight away. Or you can even spend the night with them straightaway,’” Welch says, “We were interested in exploring what it looks like if you can start a relationship with a character toward the beginning of the game, and then see it progress and evolve. We’re asking, how can I stay with this person as they grow and things become different between the two of us?”
Where sex is often the end of a romance arc in video games, it’s just the beginning in Baldur’s Gate 3. That leaves a lot more room for relationships to get more interesting, which usually means messier.
“There are no limits as to what a game can address,” Schick says, “If it feels emotionally powerful, we’re gonna go there.”
Welch says it was a challenging decision to show Astarion in early access as a character who is “very light-hearted, very attractive, very playful” for two years, only to reveal when the full game came out that he had a history of sexual trauma and needed to take a step back from having sex with the player. “That was definitely an example of, we’re trying to go closer to the bone and hopefully meaningfully explore something that is quite close to a lot of people’s real-world experiences.”
Larian initially had apprehensions about how fans would react to this character’s about-face, but players ultimately embraced the vampire’s complexities.
Welch was a fan of the series who was playing Baldur’s Gate 3 in early access while writing fanfiction on the side before Larian hired them to start writing romance. Fanfiction often imagines new lives for beloved characters, expanding on the not-so-glamorous aspects of dating. Inspired by the Baldur’s Gate modding community, Welch says fanfiction writers’ willingness to get into the weeds has lent the relationships in Baldur’s Gate 3 a dimension of realism.
“People often write fanfiction that is deeply about conflict, about angst, about actual challenges that are being overcome in a relationship,” Welch says. “There are quite a lot of really heartbreaking break-up scenes that happen in Baldur’s Gate 3. That’s the thing that people don’t necessarily consider being an important part of romance.”
A big part of what makes Baldur’s Gate 3’s relationships fulfilling is that its characters are nuanced individuals in their own right, not just prizes to be won. That means their relationships to sex and sexuality are as complicated as those in the real world.
“Karlach is framed as someone who has issues with physical touch,” Welch says. “Even though that's taken to a really extreme fantasy level where she literally catches on fire if her emotions are overwhelming. I think that it's meaningful when people with sensory overload issues see that.”
“I’m Sorry, My Hand Slipped”
As intense as it can be, Baldur’s Gate 3 isn’t all doom and gloom. In its romance and elsewhere, it doesn’t shy away from silliness, either.
“We still have a lot of romance aspects that feel like we’re playing with the concept of game design on the polar opposite end. There’s a moment where you can use elemental effects to freeze Karlach so that you can briefly kiss her. Those things are what’s so fun about working on a fantasy video game. You can have moments that are so closely relatable to the real world, but you can also have, ‘I froze this girl that I like because she catches on fire,’” Welch says, bursting out laughing.
One of the tensest moments Welch worked into the game is the moment when, if you play as a Dark Urge character, the only way to stop yourself from becoming fully possessed and killing your romantic partner is by succeeding on a dice roll.
“The dice roll is an emotional intensifier,” Schick says, “and it suddenly makes the stakes really important. It’s like, the dungeon master gets right in your face and says, ‘You got to roll the D20 on this one, pal.’”
Besides unexpected skill checks and nail-biting dice rolls, the developers have also built in unlikely dialogue choices that can lead to ridiculous outcomes. They say players are unlikely to discover every bit of story for years to come. That adds emotional depth to characters as well, as each playthrough will uncover a different side to a person who at first appeared to be a clear archetype.
At the end of the game, for example, if the player sides with the villain Lord Enver Gortash but still decides to attack him, they’re given a few dialogue choices. If they choose to say, “I’m sorry, my hand slipped,” Gortash will respond by kicking the player in the shin and saying, “What a coincidence, so did my foot.”
“After you’ve seen him in all of these grandiose ceremonial scenes in the past, you’ve never seen a moment that that character has had with that really down-to-the-bone camp pettiness before,” Welch says.
Endless Thirsty Fan Art
Like Larian’s previous games, Baldur’s Gate 3 first launched in Early Access, giving players the ability to shape how it eventually turned out.
“Early access is an extraordinarily effective way to engage with your players and community,” Schick says. “But it's not the right thing for everybody. What is the right thing for every game is to find those ways to engage with your players and bring them in and have a dialogue.”
In the case of Baldur’s Gate 3, that dialogue led to big changes in how characters’ relationships play out.
“It used to be set up so that the only way that romances could begin was this one night in the party, where you could only pick one character,” Welch says, “And then basically, that character would end up being your love interest for the whole rest of the game.”
This locked fans into dating the same character simply due to a few choices made toward the start of the game. As a fan before coming to work at Larian, though, Welch wished players could experience love triangles and multiple partners.
So Larian tweaked the system to let players romance some characters at the party while wooing others out in the world. It also adds drama, like characters gossiping about your romances behind your back.
The tone of Gale’s and Wyll’s romances also changed substantially between early access and final launch — they’ve stopped talking about their exes quite as much as they used to.
“You may have noticed that, previously, Gale and Wyll talked quite a bit about their ex-partners in the middle of their romance scenes,” Welch says, laughing. “That was something that players definitely pointed out.”
Larian intended for these moments to serve as backstory and exposition, but players found the dialogue quite intrusive. Ultimately, Gale and Wyll stopped bringing up Mystra and Mizora quite so much in the middle of dates.
Larian is just as open to handing players the reins post-launch as it was to taking feedback during Early Access. Baldur’s Gate 3 is a living and breathing game where players’ interactions and interpretations can add new shades of meaning to the story. Because everyone is coming to it with a different lived experience, it can also work the other way, with the game teaching players something about the real world.
According to Welch, some who had never been approached by men in real-life sexual advances began posting online, “‘Oh, I’ve never had someone not see a friendship as friendship. And I feel like I understand more about human life, from the way that Gale read too much into our interactions.’”
As to how they feel about seeing the characters they’ve carefully crafted become the subjects of endless thirsty fan art, Welch says, “Players enjoy the fan service, and we enjoy watching them enjoy the fan service. We want to give them more opportunities to express creativity like that.”
That extends even to one of the strangest corners of Baldur’s Gate 3 fandom — sex speedruns. The term refers to speedruns where players compete to see who can reach a sex scene fastest, typically with Lae’zel, the game’s most up-for-it companion.
“They're deconstructing the idea of the way romance is presented in the game by abstracting it into something ridiculous,” Welch says. “I welcome that. It makes those scenes seem even more ridiculous and that’s just grand to me.”
With how much care Welch and Schick put into making BG3’s characters feel like real people, it might seem strange that they’re so happy to see players strip the nuance from them in that way. But as they see it, that just means they’ve done a good job of making characters that players feel connected to.
“They're not our characters anymore,” Schick says. “They belong to the players. So we're thrilled to see what they do with them. We’re proud of you.”