My Favourite Art Style: Baldur’s Gate

RPS has sealed itself inside a chocolate egg for the duration of the UK’s long holiday weekend, to emerge only when the reign of Mr Hops The Doom Rabbit has run its dread course. While we slumber, enjoy these fine words previously published as part of our Supporter program. More to come.

I will never shut up about Baldur’s Gate.

I’ll still be talking about the series when (if) I’m eighty. I don’t know why RPS offered me money to write about it, because I would do so for free at any time, constantly and forever, if given enough opportunity.

The series did a number of very special things for me, including firing my imagination and inspiring much of my creative output during a very stale period of my life. Frequently lauded for their design and their ambition, the games were also beautiful to me in how they sounded and how they looked. Nobody had made a world like this before. With Baldur’s Gate, high fantasy had truly come to life.

And it was romantic, certainly in the academic sense of the phrase, with beautifully rendered landscapes lush with colour, the verdant wilderness hiding forgotten ruins as full of danger as they were treasure. Adventure was as much about the the lure of the beaten track as it was defeating evil. Its pastoral, Constable-like hamlets were twee havens amongst the sprawling plains or suffocating forests. It was a game that knew how to represent a world that was grand, old and deadly.

I never learned about art from formal education, but I came to love the work of Caspar David Friedrich and it’s easy for me to now see those themes echoed. There’s the same jagged coastlines, thick forests, and brooding ruins, as well the feeling of being so tiny and lonely against the might of nature.

Baldur’s Gate 2 brought a different palette. Its russet-coloured cities were as crowded as many classic cityscapes, but these neighbourhoods were as worn as its aging, cynical cast. While other locations grew increasingly mysterious or fantastic, the earthly realm was pale and muted. It was my first example of a game whose art direction reflected its themes.

It’s not hard for me to see why so many fans missed the Infinity Engine RPGs and hurled millions at Pillars of Eternity. The things I saw in these games, half a lifetime ago, remain with me. They resurface all the time. Just the day before I sat down to write this, I found myself suddenly in a passionate discussion about Baldur’s Gate at a party. All those images came back to me. The way they always will.

From this site

62 Comments

  1. Aerothorn says:

    I also feel that the Baldur’s Gate music is sorely underappreciated, and was really delighted to find that Pillars of Eternity’s soundtrack contained some pretty overt references to it.

    • Premium User Badge

      caff says:

      The taverns had the most RPG-y inn music of any game, ever.

      • Premium User Badge

        DelrueOfDetroit says:

        If we are still talking about Pillars, the ambient tavern noise was soooo distracting. It was completely obvious that they were talking about a movie when you heard a man say “I’ve only seen it the one time.” about 300 times while trying to find the NPCs that aren’t poorly written Kickstarter rewards.

    • Michael Fogg says:

      Safe In Beregost is my all-time game music favourite and it illustrates the adventurous mood of Forgotten Realms so greatly!

      • Press X to Gary Busey says:

        Thanks! That was quite a brick wall of nostalgia at 88 mph from my teen years.

        I think I’m some sort of RPG poser. Play everything. Tons of re-rolls. Finish nothing, not even Fallout 2…

        • klops says:

          You concentrate on what’s good. End game of Fallouts 1 and 2 or Baldur’s Gate 2 wasn’t good. I could even call it bad even though I liked all those games (have to say that I don’t remember BG2’s end that well, though).

          • Archonsod says:

            Depends on whether you mean BGII or Throne of Bhaal. Usually it’s ToB that’s forgettable, not so much because of the quality, more because the various antagonists get a lot less characterisation and screen time than Irenicus or Sarevok did so it tends to feel like a couple of generic boss fights loosely strung together as you clobber your way up through the Bhaalspawn wars. It’s a bit of a shame really – there’s some brilliant bits in there, but you inevitably end up talking about the cool thing that happened during ‘fire giant bloke’s quest’.

        • Hidden Thousand says:

          Same here! It’s good ot know I’m not alone.
          I love playing Fallout 2 and Icewind Dale (1 and 2), but I’m still a long way away from finishing them. I’ve been meaning to continue playing Baldur’s Gate, which I’ve started twice or thrice so far, but, I guess, I’ll wait a bit more to simply start the game again. Oh, the joys of early levels.

    • Ansob says:

      Everyone I know who binged on BG still remembers the main menu themes by heart. I personally find myself with the BG2 theme stuck in my head out of nowhere on a regular basis.

    • Cinek says:

      PoE definitely felt like going back to the old good years of Baldurs Gate. It got pretty much all the best elements of the classic nailed just right. It was truly a pleasure to play.

  2. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    I loved the Mediterranean style of Athkatla, full of frescoes and mosaics. In a setting that is meant to be “default” D&D, it really felt like its own place, and not just another gray-cobblestone fantasy town.

    • Minglefingler says:

      Completely agree, it was a fantastic city and a welcome surprise when I started playing Baldur’s Gate II having read nothing about the game.

  3. 9of9 says:

    No no no no nooooo.

    I mean, look, I’m the last person to diss on isometric RPGs. I think it’s a great idea and I’ve even poured a fair bit of work into trying to revitalise the graphical style and improve it with modern tech ( link to youtu.be ).

    But artistically, those old Infinity Engine games? They’re awful! All the backgrounds have aged so very, very badly. It’s an illegible, flat, noisy, muddy mess. It looks bad and it plays bad.

    Some of the fault lies just with the reality of 90s rendering technology, before global illumination became something you could reliably do. That’s a very dry and technical term, but it has a very real impact on the readability of Infinity Engine backgrounds. The ambient lighting is completely flat which makes larger, complicated shapes very difficult to interpret. Sure there is some shading from the key lights and there are some shadows rendered into the scene, but the overall tonal variance is low and blocky. It makes the scenes look unnatural and does little to convey any sense of space.

    Can’t blame them for that, since it’s a tech problem, but the art style does nothing to alleviate this. It’s noisy, low-contrast, using very murky and muddy colours and lots of tiling, repeating textures. I’m sure some of the actual geometry is pretty and could be pulled out and rendered into some picturesque locations if supplied with vastly better texturing, but it’s an absolute mess. The tiny, low-res characters easily get lost in the noise and a big battle quickly just becomes a soup of pixels.

    It could have been done a lot better, is what I’m saying. They could have used the detail more sparingly, used a wider range of colours… anything, really.

    • FreshHands says:

      Hmm, don’t want to come across as rude, but what are you comparing these games against? I mean they basically symbolize what we are talking about when the topic arises.

      Totally with you on the (player)character models though – they are one reason I cannot return to Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale anymore.

      In general: Still love the perspective and tiny details of games like these. I would really love to see more games/genres going isometric again.

      • 9of9 says:

        Not rude at all! It’s a good question.

        I can’t really say there were any examples of a similar rendered isometric 3d style being done well at the time for comparison. Back then this may well have been graphically impressive, perhaps, my opinion is just that the style is artistically weak and doesn’t serve the gameplay well. I can’t really say “Oh, they should have done this and it would have looked better” – perhaps they couldn’t. I could say it would look better with hand-drawn backgrounds, but maybe they didn’t have the budget for it. So I can’t really judge them by what they could have done, I can just say it doesn’t hold up at all when looked outside of the lens of ‘Oooh, fancy new 90s graphics!’.

        I remember I was impressed by the Commandos games at the time and they look pretty ugly these days too.

        The Diablo 3 approach for isometric-ish 3d with lots of hand-painted pseudo-3d features is probably the best in my opinion for isometric-ish approaches. Overall I would argue that isometric views need some degree of stylisation to help legibility and so I’d suggest that other games at the time that used hand-drawn isometric backgrounds stand up artistically much better. More modern games like Pillars look a lot nicer while keeping to a similar style, just through better graphics techniques, which make the rendered backgrounds stand up better (though probably also better use of colours and tone, as well).

        Maybe it’s just that I feel rendered CGI with that particular sort of rendering tech just wasn’t good enough to stand up artistically and shouldn’t have been used. Like the original Myst, which was graphically impressive at the time, but hardly stands up as a good-looking game by any stretch of the imagination. It’s fine, sometimes you just need to push the tech. By the time Riven came out, either the tech got better or their art improved, so a lot of the backgrounds of that game do stand up even now, looking damned pretty in my opinion.

        Secretly though, I do think they could have done better. Bioware had really weak art direction/execution for a long time and there are later examples of others using their tech to make much, much prettier games later on (like the Witcher 1, that used the much uglier Neverwinter Nights 2’s engine).

        Either way, my mind boggles that anyone could appreciate it as an art style =D

        Oh and also, what was up with the closest walls in rooms being opaque, rather than cut-away? There were so many corridors in the BG dungeons that, when narrow and running horizontal meant the characters were completely obscured except the tops of their heads, as if they were in a trench.

        • Cybernetic Barry says:

          Just a note, The Witcher ran on a heavily modified version of the Aurora engine from the first Neverwinter Nights, not the second. I believe they wrote an entirely new renderer for it.

          • Zekiel says:

            Also, it was really, really ugly, which somewhat undermines the whole point. Oh and Neverwinter Nights 2 wasn’t a Bioware game (and I don’t think used a Bioware engine did it?)

            Witcher 2 on the other hand looked amazing.

          • malkav11 says:

            NWN2 was Obsidian. But as far as I know it was using a heavily modified version of the Aurora engine from NWN1 as well. Both Witcher 1 and NWN2 look a million times better than NWN1, incidentally.

        • Turkey says:

          Not an rpg, but Commandos 2 still holds up pretty well imo. They used low-poly 3d models instead of pre rendered characters, though.

    • GameCat says:

      Same here (although I wouldn’t ever call myself an old iso RPG fan).
      These graphics aged very badly. I think devs tried to put too many little details in rendered models, so some of them are just a blobs made from few pixels. Everything is grainy mess and in forest areas readibility of the terrain is so low.

      PSX era games with prerendered backgrounds like Resident Evil 1-3 or Final Fantasy 9 did it much better.

    • Eight Rooks says:

      Again, it’s not just me, then? I mean I don’t like Baldur’s Gate at all, but it isn’t that – I adore Planescape Torment, I think it’s a work of absolute genius, but that game, too, is ugly as sin. The Infinity Engine always was aesthetically awful – not the worst of the early isometric visuals, but never particularly special. Flat, dull, and lifeless, with no artistic content worth talking about. None of the games ever looked like anything other than a tabletop vignette hastily pasted together from crude 3D models, because that’s exactly what they were – and that’s not hindsight talking, I can still remember thinking at the time “…but why do people keep going misty-eyed over something this ghastly?“. None of them had the artistry of the most generic second-string JRPG on the SNES, higher resolutions or whatever be damned.

      • GameCat says:

        The lower res of SNES games was just an advantage.
        Skilled pixel artist knows that he can draw only limited amount of details in 16x16px tile. Infinity Engine games artists wanted to shove All The Details on screen.
        Lots of classic JRPGs have really clean look and maps aren’t cluttered with various stuff.

      • Michael Fogg says:

        Well, at least the character portraits had plety of personality, still rank among the best IMO

        • Turkey says:

          I dunno. They’ve still got that ugly pre-rendered look to them. Icewind Dale’s character portraits still hold up amazingly well, though.

          • FreshHands says:

            Absolutely! BG’s had a certain personality, but looked a little too generic photoshop model to me. Icewind Dale’s kind of blured style still is one of my favourite artistic decisions in character portraits.

      • JFS says:

        You know, not everyone “gets” each and every existing artstyle. Doesn’t mean it’s bad, just that you or I don’t understand it. It doesn’t speak to you, okay, but why call it ghastly? Same as with other art, literary genres, music, different styles of poetry.

      • hyzhenhok says:

        Yep. The Infinity engine games weren’t perfect–the art/graphics is just one area where that is true. I think evangelicals of these games who intimate that they were perfect are doing us all a disservice.

        I’d love to see a series of articles on Baldur’s Gate about why the game is actually great. Like all great RPGs, it’s because there are a handful of core RPG elements that the game does so exceptionally well at that made it worth putting up with the flaws. One of the great things about the RPG genre is there are so many games doing so many different things very well that we certainly don’t have just one or two “greatest RPGs” — we have a score of them.

        But no. Instead we get tortured explanations about why flat graphics or a clunky, horribly unbalanced combat system were somehow perfect. It’s really part of a wider part of how broken discourse about RPGs is online. The idea that there is a single, platonic ideal of an RPG–usually identified as Infinity engine games from the 90s, and The Witcher 3 for modern games–is poison for such a diverse and varied genre.

        • Archonsod says:

          I think you’re misinterpreting why they’re considered perfect. BG is a perfect computer translation of D&D – right down to the clunky THAC0 combat system. Aesthetically it managed to nail the look it was going for – it looks like a bunch of miniatures come to life in an illustration right out of a mid nineties edition of Dragon magazine.
          I suspect the reason they’re brought up as examples so much has more to do with them being the last prominent examples of ‘pure’ RPG’s in the classical sense. Bioware veered off into MMO territory with their later releases (Neverwinter Nights to Dragon Age) while other attempts failed to find the same widespread audience (The Dark Eye series, although it’s questionable whether that’s down to the relative obscurity of the license or the games themselves). I don’t think they’re held up as a paragon for the CRPG genre as a whole – certainly I can’t see the sense of comparing the BG series to say Alpha Protocol – but for those which are at least attempting to cover similar ground (Bioware again would be the most prominent example) they’re a pretty good touch stone.

    • waltC says:

      The fact that you disagree with the author so intrinsically says it all…beauty really is 100% in the eye of the beholder. It’s art, which means all appreciation and criticism is entirely subjective. One person will look at the Mona Lisa and walk away thinking “Pew-wwww, don’t care for it”…while someone else will stare, transfixed, in awe at the sublime painting. In both instances it will never cross either mind that the Mona Lisa was painted centuries before DirectX/OpenGL hit the scene. It’s OK not to like the style of art used in the games…no problem. But it’s not OK to pretend that your dislike is somehow objective–because it isn’t.

  4. Arglebargle says:

    Bad user interface and murky D&D-style rules were enough to bounce me off the series. Of course, I tried to play them well after their glory days. Despite the tales of their deep story, the mechanical aspects of the games were too much for me.

    Bad interface crushes all.

  5. electroLux says:

    I was about 10 when I pretended to be sick so that I could stay at home and finish Baldur’s Gate. Both Baldur’s Gates are somehow still more important to me than I would have thought a video game could be. The art looks beautiful to me even today.

    • Zekiel says:

      I agree. I was 19 when I played BG1 and had just finished some uni exams so had about a week of having nothing to do before the next semester’s lectures started. It was an amazing experience that I still remember extremely fondly.

  6. Dezmiatu says:

    I’m going to have to dive back into the game. I’ll use the game engine merger on the games so I can convert every recruitable NPC into the worst kits of their given classes.

    Can you help me identify which class kits were the worst?

    • Horg says:

      Bard – Jester
      Cleric – Priest of Talos
      Druid – Shapeshifter
      Mage – Necromancer
      Paladin – Inquisitor
      Fighter – Kensai (NPCs only)
      Ranger – Beastmaster
      Thief – Swashbuckler

      • Zekiel says:

        Agree apart from Paladin – the Inquisitor is amazing! Dispel Magic which hardly ever fails… the worst type of Paladin, hands down, is the basic, non-kit version.

        • Horg says:

          I’m ignoring non-kit so it was between Cavalier and Inquisitor for the worst Paladin (Undead Hunter with level drain immunity hands down best pick). Once you get Holy Avenger for your Paladin, which can be done in act 2, you get 3 casts of Dispel from your weapon on any Paladin kit. I feel that makes the best perk of the Iquisitor a bit redundant, and you lose all of your inherent Paladin skills with that kit, where as Cavaliers only lose access to missile weapons.

          • Zekiel says:

            Fair enough. I always felt Cavaliars made non-kit Paladins really pointless! Inquisitors are definitely the least like normal paladins.

      • Premium User Badge

        gritz says:

        Yeesh, Inquisitor is one of the best kits in the game.

      • Asurmen says:

        Wizard Slayer is the worst Fighter kit.

        • Horg says:

          For any of the NPC Fighters in BG2 it’s Kensai because none of them are human, therefore you can’t dual class, so you get stuck with a character that can’t wear any armour or gain any magic.

      • stkaye says:

        Pffft, nothing wrong with the Swashie. A really great kit.

      • disperse says:

        Inquisitor, Kensai, and Swashbuckler are all good kits.

        Try dual-classing Kensai to Mage, as soon as you get the stone skin spell, you’re unstoppable.

      • disperse says:

        A friend and I tried a game with a custom party with two damage-dealers and four jesters who just sat around spamming their confuse spell, it was game-breaking.

  7. Zekiel says:

    Lovely post! I too lovely the art style and ambience of Baldur’s Gate. Just wandering through the woods listening to birds tweeting was a superb experience.

  8. kfcnearby says:

    Oh, you made me register now! Let me say, how I love the first BG. The brightest reminiscences is when you trying to get to the Friendly arm inn, unarmed and frightened. There’re friends, Gorion said, you only need to get there and there’s help. But that help, as you will learn soon is hard to achieve. And all that made you feel adventuring, finding opportunities and friends, who will help to discover the hidden truth. That was awesome.

  9. Gibs says:

    yes I also like BG a lot, it was my first real rpg and it blew my mind

  10. Reapy says:

    I know some people said these games haven’t aged well, and, well, yeah, but, at the time of release were just really were amazing. I remember downloading little gifts of all the guys in the game, I was just really in love with the world.

    I think I secretly hate talking to people in games though, I played icewind dale 1 and 2 a lot more than baldurs gate.

    Still they were little miniatures come to life. I was really happy to see pillars of eternity go back to the style and make it look better. Things like that and broken age that sort of revitalize ‘lost’ game styles are pretty special to me for the way they take me back, regardless of how the games stand independently.

    The music is taking me back too, damn you all.

    • JFS says:

      Above, a lot of people say the graphics have aged badly. Not at all! While they sure may be pixelly, they are the most evocative graphics of any PC game I can remember. And they’re close to 20 years old! They’re timeless, and technical fidelity isn’t the relevant measure for art. The whole art package of BG , graphics, sound, the models, the paperdolls, all that makes the Forgotten Realms come aliver than alive, and I genuinely can’t name a game that delivered such a package ever again. I think the problem actually lies with mounting technical quality, it doesn’t leave anything to your imagination anymore. Fine for a shooter, but terrible for adventure games.

      • RED says:

        I agree so much!

        People say that BG did not age well but I think there would be a difficulties in pointing out old isometric RPG which looks better. Sure, those graphic are not what they used to be from plenty of reason but it does not mean they aged badly. That was the greatest strength of 2D graphics, 3D was the new cool but with every year it look worse and worse, just google old 3D games and tell me they did a better job than BG.

        As far as I am concerned BG is still beautiful.

  11. Premium User Badge

    Minsc_N_Boo says:

    Baldurs Gate was the first crpg I played on PC. As you can tell by my user name, I am still a big fan. Personally I think the game still looks great. The character sprites are a bit ugly now, but the backdrops are still beautiful to look at.

    Obsidian did a great job at recreating the look of the infinity engine with Pillars.

  12. JFS says:

    Yes yes yes yes yes.

    haven’t even read the article yet but yessssss. Baldur’s Gate is still my favourite game, from 1998 up to now. Don’t think that’ll ever change.

  13. ishumar says:

    So we are not supposed to talk about “gameplay”, but “art style” is ok?

  14. racccoon says:

    This is more like it..one thee…great games! :) Please no VR.. lol

  15. thekelvingreen says:

    You must gather your party before venturing forth.

    Just saying.

    • Soulfly620 says:

      thekelvingreen says:

      You must gather your party before venturing forth.

      oh i remember this over and over.

  16. RED says:

    Ah, Baldur’s Gate… the magic time I spent with that game, that sense of adventure, beautiful graphics and absolutely wonderful music. Best RPG ever created ;)

  17. PancakeWizard says:

    With you all the way, Paul.

  18. WillyOD says:

    I’ll have to agree with 9of9.

    Something about the art style made this/these games almost unplayable for me, and I’m really into RPGs.

    I’ve felt so alone in the past. It’s good to know that I’m not alone.

  19. p4cm4n says:

    I really loved those games (I own all of them in GOG.com), but, sincerely D&D 2º ed. is what’s keeping me away from repeting them :(

    • Timechef says:

      I remember having so much trouble wrapping my head around THAC0 at the time…