2023 game of the year: Baldur’s Gate 3

By Cameron Rasmusson
Reader Contributor

I never played any Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, but I always wished I did.

When I rolled that famous 20-sided die for the first time, I was already in my 20s, and D&D was on its now-famous fifth edition — the world’s most popular tabletop roleplaying game. But that was hardly my first adventure using the iconic game system. A full decade earlier, I learned the rules, concepts, races and classes of D&D  — then still running its Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition system — through BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate trilogy of PC games.

One of the most acclaimed and influential role-playing video game series of all time, Baldur’s Gate set a high bar following the release of its climactic third chapter, Throne of Bhaal, in 2001. Critics praised the trilogy for its exceptional writing, compelling storytelling and clever adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons rules. And it’s easy to underestimate the difficulty of that last achievement. How do you take a game system as big as the human imagination, with the potential to tell any story and accommodate any player choice, and impose the limitations of a video game on it?

Screenshot from ‘Baldur’s Gate 3.’ Courtesy image.

As it turned out, BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate trilogy pulled it off quite well. So it’s all the more remarkable that Baldur’s Gate 3 — released 22 years later by a different development team at Larian Studios — does it even better. Who would have thought that a classic computer RPG, played primarily from an isometric top-down perspective with turn-based combat, would be rightly acclaimed as the best video game in the Year of Our Lord 2023 — a year packed with excellent titles, no less? 

So what makes Baldur’s Gate 3 so extraordinary? For starters, it ditches the cumbersome real-time combat system of the original trilogy, which often devolved into a chaotic mess despite the ability to pause the action and issue orders to your party. In its place is an elegant turn-based system rich with tactical possibilities. It also represents Larian’s commitment to its game design vision. 

Turn-based gameplay, with player and enemy action order determined by initiative dice rolls, is truer to the Dungeons & Dragons experience, but it’s a design choice most corporate game studios have rejected as commercially unpopular. 

But the simple replacement of a combat system wouldn’t be enough to explain why Baldur’s Gate 3 is an unparalleled success. Hell, Baldur’s Gate 3 offers options to avoid many of its fights. And that is a part of why Baldur’s Gate 3 is such an achievement. Put simply: It’s a role-player’s dream. 

To date, I’ve played three Baldur’s Gate 3 campaigns: one with a single-player party, a multiplayer party with my friends, and another single-player party built with different characters and classes. Every one of those three campaigns has played out in remarkably different ways. Baldur’s Gate 3 might be the most reactive game to player choice I’ve ever played. Nearly every story beat, whether integral to the main plot or not, permutates based on decisions both big and small. And nearly every obstacle or challenge permits several ways to overcome it. 

Maybe a good persuasion skill and a lucky D20 roll will help you talk your way out of it. Or use the robust stealth system to sneak your way around it. Have a high strength ability score or a spell that improves your jumping ability? Perhaps you can avoid the situation entirely with one titanic leap. Failing all that, you can always carve through it with cold steel. 

It’s impossible to capture the labor of love that is Baldur’s Gate 3 in 600 words. I haven’t even touched on the magnificent writing, storytelling, characterization or faithful recreation of D&D 5th Edition’s primary races and classes, all of which change your characters’ appearances, dialogue options, and capabilities and are reflected in the game’s innumerable cutscenes and dialogue sequences. 

Baldur’s Gate 3 is the ultimate adaptation of the tabletop role-playing experience, and that’s probably the highest praise one can give it. The game might not be as infinite as the human imagination, but it feels like it could be.

Cameron Rasmusson is editor emeritus of the Sandpoint Reader.

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