There is however, one truth to all these Baldur’s Gate 2 memories. The truth is, I haven’t played Baldur’s Gate 2 as she is coded, for much more than one or two years. What kept me coming back, what kept me playing this game over and over again was the modding community – which saw the vast scale of the game, and still looked at places where it was incomplete, where the sheer scope of the project had failed, and looked into adding to the game what had been begun and not finished, what had been tried and not done, and what was needed but never realised.
Baldur’s Gate 2 is a pretty decent game. But to make it a great game took people who loved it.
The first major development in this modding space isn’t really the first, but it’s the one that made a lot of the elements possible. One dude, Wesley Weimer, developed a tool that meant he could use all his mods he made concurrently – it was a tool that could identify base game assets, and modded assets, and just sort them so they reference the right things in the right way. I made a few assets for the game and they were quite complex from an outsider perspective, so I kind of can only hint at understanding what this tool did.
The basic thing though that this tool, named WeiDu did, was, from a user’s perspective, was launch and manage mods in a simple, understandable way. You wanted these things on and these things off? Okay, it can do that. You want to try this mod out, then uninstall it? We can do that too. It was spartan, certainly as a text prompt, but it worked and it did its job really well. I never had a game crash because of WeiDu, and when something worked oddly, I could consistantly find out why.
Wesley developed a handful of mods that used his tool and showed it off. One of them was Solaufein, a mod that let you add the most almost-an-NPC character the game had into your party, and as a romance option no less. Solaufein was a fan favourite, and Wesley added him to your story.
To talk about Solaufein, however, we first must talk about Anomen. Anomen was a whiny douche, an entitled boy who thought he was entitled to your attention, and who, without your direct intervention, would become a total asshole. There was a sort of fundamental brokenness to the story of Anomen; there was almost nothing to his character beyond being a bit of a dick who you had to fix to make into something tolerable and then when you did, he was still a bit of a dick.
Anomen was the only romanceable man in the base game of Baldur’s Gate. He was a perfectly reasonable character – a fighter/cleric – but he was also a bit redundant with some other character types, not especially good compared to them, and following his plot to the end introduced some dialogues and some minor combat encounters.
At his best, Anomen as a romance option is serviceable. It exists, it doesn’t break, and the character he presents fills space. On every other level it’s pretty awful; his romance is entirely about his self esteem, it’s mostly about his feelings of inadequacy, and worst of all, the actual story is one of those ones where doing things makes them worse.
Anomen’s story sucks, but that’s okay, because Anomen sucks, and romancing Anomen sucks.
Solaufein had a powerful advantage over Anomen. He got to come into existence from an author who had already seen and absorbed the howling bollocking that Anomen got. Oh, he also had a good place to start for – the NPC Solaufein was desireable and interesting to a lot of people, and that meant that when he got upgraded by Wesley, there was already some there there. But Solaufein being a popular NPC gave him some unique problems too – because now people had expectations, had hopes, and t here was only so much that Wesley could do to match that.
What then, was Solaufein?
He was a kind, thoughtful man, scholarly, bisexual, polyamrous, and interested in talking to you, the player, about what interested you. His plot was already in place as an escape from the Underdark, a defector from the brutally decadent matriarchy, so the story didn’t need to do much.
There was more, of course – there were extra combat encounters, mods to add to limited weapon types’ pools, and another NPC, Valen, a vampire. The items patch was a real prize, though – it made every weapon type have something about on par with the Celestial Fury, and those weapons existed in places that were interesting, scattered through the game in places that made it more rewarding to visit. By putting treasure in places that recontextualised them, Wesley breathed into the world a new life. I wanted to talk to Wesley Weimer, to get his view of this little slice of history. I wasn’t able to do so without being kind of intrusive – I never want to do things like try and contact people who can try and contact, that kind of thing. But Wesley is a Professor at the University of Michigan. He’s rated as being very funny, and very likeable. Students state how tough the course is, but they also state how fun he makes them, with such tags as ‘Amazing Professor.’
I’m glad he’s doing well.
Okay, so there’s this guy, his name is David Gaider. Odds are good you know him from his work on Dragon Age, or his writing about what it’s like to be ‘a game developer who happens to be gay.’ David also wrote, in part, the conclusion of the Throne of Bhaal, and when that game launched, he continued to work on it as a third party mod.
The thing with the conclusion of Throne of Bhaal – which is enormous – is that there are a lot of fights that were designed as an end point for players who had kind of flown through BG2 by the seat of their pants. It wasn’t primed for real squirrels, people who got the best stuff and gear and learned how their spells worked and taken time to really steep in the power the game let you have access to. Simply put, the end game was… a bit limp.
Really it’s very fitting that someone building a long-lasting 2ed campaign had the end game power level go off the rails, especially when they didn’t have some of the tech we now take for granted, like subtle level scaling. What’s more, David had a pretty solid handle on all the things the game was going to do, that they wanted to do, and without crunch time and with an already-extant engine in place to do it in, he was able to dedicate months of his own time to the task of rounding out all the odd bits, hammering down proud nails, worked his way through a wish-list, and in the end gave us Ascension.
You can call Ascension a sort of ‘true ending’ to the game. It brings some elements back, adds dialogue, changes some of the more hastily-written components of the game that existed, and expands immensely upon the actual themes of the game. It’s also one of the most startlingly successful mods in that there’s a lot of folk who consider it the ‘proper’ ending, rather than an ending penned by a dedicated fan (who also had the experience of making the game under his belt).
Some of the smaller details I liked in this expansion were the small, meaningless additions – the way you could convince Sarevok, over time, to become Chaotic Good, or pull Viconia away from her Lawful Evil prediliction.
This is in addition to the sheer bonkers scale of power stuff you get in the game. The monstrous power level you could reach in Throne of Bhaal was met with equally monstrous opposition. Lots of common dirty tricks became unavailable, in the same way you made yourself immune to various dirty tricks of your opponents. Ascension is definitely a power gamer’s addition, but it’s hardly the only expansion that does something like that.
Gebhard is more of a mystery to me than the others. The only thing I really know about the dude is that I don’t know much. I remember interacting with Gebhard. I barely remember what we said, what we talked about, but I do absolutely remember having an impression of who he was as a person. And this is a period of history when you didn’t use your name on the internet, so it always struck me as kind of impressively formal that he did. I figured he was a programmer or worked for a university, someone who could make some formal, public value out of attaching his online work to his digital identity.
Gebhard was, as I understood it, a Dutch dude. He liked the game, but he was interested in 2ed D&D as a system, and he had the rulebooks. Rulebooks that he also pointed out were full of pish and tosh – and his initial interest in adjusting the rules was just that, an interest in fixing the game to include things the rules said they should include. The hypothetical problem was that the videogame didn’t include things in the rulebooks as a balance decision (in which case he disagreed with it), or as a mistake (in which case they were bugs, that should be fixed).
So my memory of the man was severe, thoughtful, and interesting, and holding to a public persona that reflected on him powerfully, and I like to imagine it was part of what helped reinforce to me that if I was going to have an online identity, it should be sincere and as me as possible.
Anyway, this is Gebhard Blucher, a famous Prussian general and none of what I remember about Gebhard’s identity is true, and I can’t find him anywhere on the internet now. Oh well!
After Gebhard started fixing things, he moved on to rebalancing things. Part of what he rebalanced was the infamously easy Thieves’ stronghold – finding one of those many places where the game had some ideas started on, but never followed through. The head of the Thieves’ guild, Mae’Var, was a thief-mage – and yet, he was wearing armour that kept him from casting spells, and he didn’t have any spells memorised. There was an unfinishedness to all of the game, and Gebhard’s work was as much in finding these things, and addressing them in ways that were obvious not to someone who had been slogging through a thousand iterations of every single component of this game. Gebhard got to take the game from the perspective of someone who had already found the busted tricks and wanted to make sure they didn’t work but didn’t want to cheat to do it.
And The Others
The real MVP of the modding set, though, is the person who devised the edit that got rid of that sound effect, You must Gather Your Party Before Venturing Forthi. It isn’t just that that mod was useful and good – because it was – it was because that mod opened up to a lot of us the idea this game was moddable, and with that, we were then introduced to the sheer wealth of things that the Infinity Engine can be induced to include.
If you play a fully modded Baldur’s Gate 2, there’s really no limit to what you might have. The original plot might be a vague deep thread underneath the rolling ride of stuff you’re doing to hang out with the characters and people you care about. You may operate under some rules about what is or isn’t allowed, like pickpocketing completely snapping the economy of the game early on. Is fakecasting too far? Is a convenience potion stacking mod too far? What about the romance compatability mods?
And, if you’re only going to play this game once, why would you bother to do this?
The thing is, Baldur’s Gate 2 is at this point basically an MMO-scale experience with no loading time and internet connection problems. But if you never played the game before, I don’t know if I’d ever bother to recommend mods to you, because they’re expansions to something you already enjoy, fixing problems you only notice if you’ve already played it one extra time.
But at the same time, these mods, these creators, guided the work I love and made it my second-favourite Infinity Engine game, as a communal creation, which was informed, in some small part, by my values.
… Well, c’mon, you can tell where I was going with this.