Trying to Understand Baldur’s GateGate: The Controversy Explained

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Baldur’s Gate
was released in December 1998. It was an instant classic. The success of the title spawned an entire genre of RPGs and helped pave the way for expansions, a sequel, and remakes, to update the experience for modern audiences. Starting in 2012, the gaming studio known as Beamdog started to publish “Enhanced Editions” of Baldur’s Gate games. This was a focus primarily due to Beamdog having former Bioware staff onboard.

On March 31st, Beamdog decided to expand by developing and publishing Siege of Dragonspear – an expansion for Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition that bridges events between Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II.

There’s two sides to every controversy, and this Baldur’s Gate situation is no different. A portion of the gaming community has expressed concerns about the functionality of the game. Reports indicate mod incompatibility, in-game bugs being fairly common, and overall a loss of confidence that the game was properly tested before releasing. The other side of the issues surrounding the Baldur’s Gate expansion are politically charged and center around the writing of Siege of Dragonspear itself.

Looking at it from a gameplay perspective, there are signs that is a buggy experience. On the official subreddit, a thread about bug reporting is stickied to the top of the site, acknowledgement by the mods that it is a prominent issue.

Steam and GoG are the places where the public’s reviews of the game come from. Since the public is hyper focused on talking about the game’s flaws, reviews are heavily curated and hard to come by. One popular top review on the page manages to go into detail about gameplay issues.

“I’m a huge fan of the Baldur’s Gate franchise and, over the years, have played through the campaigns more times than I can count. That said, I would urge fans of the series to hold off on purchasing this DLC for the moment. Here are a few of the issues I experienced in SoD. Attempting to import my protagonist via save file or character import results in him being stripped of all equipment. This gear is permanently lost. (If you have an endgame save from the main campaign this doesn’t occur, but I don’t have that luxury.) Game difficulty settings are broken and can retroactively corrupt save files if you’re attempting to play on the highest difficulty. Multiplayer is in an unusable state. Although I have some minor grievances with the UI updating, there is one particular change I find rather immersion breaking. If you scroll towards the edge of the map, nearly half the screen will be blanketed in darkness. This was not present in previous versions.”

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A second negative Steam review shares similar concerns.

“Do not buy this game in its current state. The entire expansion is plagued with technical issues including (but not limited to) corruption of previous single-player save files, randomly changing game difficulty, inaccessible online multiplayer, and inescapable dialogue loops. While some of these problems might be the product of the v1.3 to v2.0 update, several game-breaking issues are already easily reproducible in the expansion’s content alone. Had I known on launch day just how poorly programmed this expansion was, I would have waited for Beamdog to iron out all of the kinks (a process which they seem rather lackadaisical about) and not purchased this product.”

The heavy moderation is confirmed by a comment from the Siege of Dragonspear Steam developer on site. “The accounts that have been banned were banned for perpetuating a false narrative and engaging in a campaign of harassment that is being coordinated externally. Personal attacks against individual developers are also potential reasons for forum bans. Don’t think we don’t see what’s happening. Are there worthwhile criticisms of the game to be had and discussed? Sure. But let’s have that discussion. If you’re only here to hop on the GamerGate/KotakuInAction bandwagon, or to spout abuses at the LGBTQ community or one of our writers, you’re not welcome here; don’t be surprised if your posting privileges get revoked.”

The story of GoG’s reviews paints a different picture than the curation of the Steam page does:

“While the mechanics of the game are in line with the originals, the story falls short. It sacrifices the narrative and world building of the original Baldur’s Gate in order to break the 4th wall and beat players over the head with messages about social issues with the grace and subtlety of a Saturday morning cartoon from the 90’s.There is no problem with having messages about social issues in a game. The problem comes when one hijacks another franchise, gut out its soul and fill it with vapid maxims and fables in its place. That is one of the surest ways to kill off a franchise, and it is especially odious when it happens to a well-loved franchise. Want social justice? Sure, but stop hijacking the industry and make your own games. You’re not going to improve the industry, you’re just going to kill it from the inside out.”

According to the game developer, that GoG reviewer would have what they see as a “wrong opinion”. If you read this wanting to know actual problems with Siege of Dragonspear in terms of gameplay, then you’ve read as much as you need to. The rest of the problems are about personal opinions and gaming community discussions more focused on the medium in general.

In terms of general opinion when it comes to video game writing criticism, Siege of Dragonspear is in a rare position where certain consistency is expected. They advertised the game as “adding a new chapter to the Bhaalspawn saga. The events occurring between Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate II are at last revealed,” according to their website. It’s a part of a series of stories already told. The Baldur’s Gate world was first created in 1998 when the original game came out. Making too many changes to how that fictional society expressed itself will seem unusual to anyone who goes into this with previous experiences with the series.

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Jeff Grubb of VentureBeat says something to a similar effect in his piece. “Some gamers are angry that it features a transgendered cleric as well as three-dimensional women characters. You can read about some of these themes in our positive review for the add-on, which is the first new content for the original Baldur’s Gate since 1999. But some fans of that original game are furious that Beamdog would expand the beloved role-playing world to feature more inclusive writing and characterizations, this has led to dozens of heated threads on Baldur’s Gate’s forums and a deluge of negative user scores on the review-aggregation site Metacritic and the Steam PC gaming portal.”

One of the characters is transgender, and that’s been a huge talking point of the discussion when it comes to the game’s writing. Let’s see what the gamers are actually saying about the issue. I don’t claim to understand the perspective of transgender people, but the community is free to express themselves on that. One person’s twitlonger goes into detail about this transgender aspect.

“So why is the character in this game highly offensive? Simple, because the character was clearly not written by someone who is familiar with issues of transgender as if they were they would have known that a transgender person would never and I repeat NEVER reveal their secret to a person who they have only just met as though the person they were speaking to would immediately accept them and be indifferent to their gender. As I just previously pointed out many transgender people are fearful to how people will react if they revealed their secret and as such would not reveal it until they are familiar with the person, I should remind you that some countries do actually stone transgender people or in their view homosexual people to death.”

Someone else on the Baldur’s Gate official subreddit shared similar sentiments on the topic. “Don’t even get me started on how offended I am to have someone to have someone insert a TOKEN trans character into the game that’s meant to represent us??? I’d rather not be represented in a game AT ALL than have a characters opening lines be “Hi I’m trans”, christ almighty, being trans should be a minor aspect of them, not the whole character, let alone in a setting where it makes very little sense and has no explanation!”

“Really it’s all about ethics in heroic adventuring” is a line said by Minsc, a popular companion character, in the game itself. In general, the overall concerns appear to be: tying a game with a long legacy and fond memories in the gaming community, into a controversy of the industry these past few years, was bound to divide the Baldur’s Gate fan base. People may agree or disagree with GamerGate itself, but regardless of that both sides can still be upset about the fact that this writing choice was made, and implemented poorly.

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The controversy came to involve people who developed the expansion itself. One of the writers, Amber Scott, stated their writing intentions in August 2015 that people referred to in the discussion surrounding Siege of Dragonspear:

“I’m the writer and creator. I get to make decisions about who I write about and why. I don’t like writing about straight/white/cis people all the time. It’s not reflective of the real world, it sets up s/w/c as the “normal” baseline from which “other” characters must be added, and it’s boring. I consciously add as much diversity as I can to my writing and I don’t care if people think that’s “forced” or fake. I find choosing to write from a straight default just as artificial. I’m happy to be an SJW and I hope to write many Social Justice Games in the future that reach as many different types of people as possible. Everyone should get a chance to see themselves reflected in pop culture.”

In a Kotaku interview, Amber made it clear that she had implemented changes for Siege of Dragonspear.

“If there was something for the original Baldur’s Gate that just doesn’t mesh for modern day gamers like the sexism, [we tried to address that],” said writer Amber Scott. “In the original there’s a lot of jokes at women’s expense. Or if not a lot, there’s a couple, like Safana was just a sex object in BG 1, and Jaheira was the nagging wife and that was played for comedy. We were able to say, ‘No, that’s not really the kind of story we want to make.’ In Siege of Dragonspear, Safana gets her own little storyline, she got a way better personality upgrade. If people don’t like that, then too bad.”

Beamdog President Trent Oster caused further controversy due to his post on Beamdog forums.

“I’d like to ask a favour. It appears that having a transgendered cleric and a joke line by Minsc has greatly offended the sensibilities of some people. This has spurred these people into action, causing them to decide this is the worst game of all time and give it a zero review score on Steam, GoG and meta critic. Now, I’d like to ask for that favour. If you are playing the game and having a good time, please consider posting a positive review to balance out the loud minority which is currently painting a dark picture for new players.”

Any game developer that requests positive reviews as a result of negative criticism should be a red flag for anyone. Asking for positive reviews as a game developer is just as bad as people “review bombing” it for their own reasons. Not only did Oster acknowledge the issue, but he supported giving it attention and making it a bigger problem than it was.

Trent elaborated on his position with criticism surrounding the game to TechRaptor: “I find the controversy ridiculous. Yes, we have a transgendered character. I know a number of transgendered people and they are genuine, wonderful humans. Yes, we also have a character who cracks a joke about ethics. The original Baldur’s Gate had a whole sequence about the Bob Newhart show. If this generates controversy it makes a sad statement about the world we live in. As for my post on the forums, I merely asked people who were enjoying the game to share their positive feedback. I know our fans can become engrossed in their enjoyment and I really don’t want potential fans to miss out on the series because of protest reviews by small minded individuals.”

Dee Pennyway, assistant producer at Beamdog, decided to involve Feminist Frequency. Pennyway wrote on Twitter: “These are not real #BaldursGate fans. GamerGate launching a negative review campaign for a game that includes one line about a transgender character.”

The best solution for the developers would be to take a step back and let the community debate amongst themselves. By making a statement as a Beamdog employee, it makes it harder for a fair discussion to be had in the community. By making a comparison to Bob Newhart, Trent makes it seem like the GamerGate controversy is just a big joke.

People are free to defend the developers statements as much as they want, but it should be acknowledged that the developers made their own choice to involve themselves in the discussion, thus opening themselves up to public scrutiny.