My reasons for liking Baldur’s Gate are very much personal ones. I totally get why most people consider it to be the inferior game; it doesn’t have quite the same level of polish, focus or epic feeling as its sequel. It’s a rougher experience that sprawls more and arguably does less. The player character is a poor schlub who has lived in a library their entire life rather than a world-bestriding colossus. There are twice as many NPCs but they’re all one-dimensional. The early battles are notoriously unforgiving and you always have to be on your toes. But you know what? This is exactly why I like it.
Baldur’s Gate is the last game I can remember that cast you as just An Adventurer. You’re not the last scion of an ancient bloodline (yet) or a member of a secret order, you don’t have any special forces training or secret mystical knowledge. If you pick a mage character, the pinnacle of your magical ability will be the Grease spell. As far as the mechanics and much of the game world is concerned there is very little that is special about you at all. I find this remarkably freeing. It means that the story of Baldur’s Gate is, to a large degree, the player’s own; there’s much less of a feeling that you’re running along well-greased narrative rails laid down in advance and you’re free to explore and uncover the weird and wonderful encounters that await you in the countryside. And you can explore in Baldur’s Gate; you don’t need to be told about a location in order to visit it, you just go off the edge of the map and bam, new area. Baldur’s Gate 2, great as it is, was the beginning of Bioware’s slide towards the infamous narrative constraints of their later games. By contrast Baldur’s Gate is almost the ideal of what D&D should be: an open world of exploration and true adventure.
Venturing off the beaten track does have consequences, though. Everyone who has played Baldur’s Gate has a story about how they strayed from the road barely seconds after starting the game and got eaten by a wolf. Not a dire wolf, or a winter wolf, or a shadow wolf. Just a regular wolf. Your character starts at level one and is hilariously inept as a result; even being armoured in chainmail from head to toe won’t stop a lucky hit from prematurely ending your adventure. Wolves are dangerous. Ogres seem like insurmountable threats. Even the genuinely weak creatures like gibberlings and xvarts tend to turn up in vast hordes that overwhelm your tiny adventuring party. When you run into one of the assassins the game scatters in your path as part of the main plotline, it’s you that needs to use weight of numbers to split their skull with a lucky sword blow before they annihilate your party with powerful magic.
Being so weak at the start of the game puts a lot of people off, but I’d argue that it makes your subsequent character improvement mean something. There comes a point around level four or five where your party is now strong enough to see off some legitimately tough monsters. Killing a sword spider is a real achievement that would have meant nothing if you hadn’t soiled yourself with terror upon encountering one for the first time. It’s a sense of progression that I really feel was missing from the sequel, where you level up so much that it ceases to really register past some numbers being slightly bigger. And of course there’s the fights with other groups of characters similar to your own; the assassins outside the Cloakwood mines is one that’ll always stick in my mind because it’s the first time you fight a thief with Boots of Speed, an item that was practically standard equipment in BG2 but which gave that one guy what seems like a terrifying advantage over you. Later on you can start barfights with rival adventuring parties where broken furniture is the least of the landlord’s worries compared to the Fireball spells being thrown around the room. You go from being a couple of chumps ejected into the wilderness to fend for themselves to a seasoned party of adventurers, and while it’s tricky to bludgeon your way past the difficulty level to get that far it’s feels like it’s genuinely been worth the effort once you’re there.
Finally there’s the plot, which is decidedly low-key in comparison with what usually passes for RPG plots these days because the stakes are so small. Sarevok isn’t some ultimate evil overlord, he is (like you) just a guy. His goal isn’t to take over the world (yet), it’s to inveigle himself onto the ruling council of Baldur’s Gate using a combination of political intrigue and mercantile pressure. Sarevok’s organisation, the Iron Throne, is a merchant house, not some shadowy league of assassins. It’s the sort of plot one group of adventurers could conceivably foil and entirely appropriate for a novice party’s first foray into the world of DnD; I actually regret that the Bhaalspawn stuff is shoehorned in at the end of the game because it makes the whole thing seem so much more clichéd than it otherwise is.
Sadly Baldur’s Gate doesn’t do itself many favours with the early quests you’re called upon to fulfil. The assassin at the Friendly Arm inn pisses a lot of people off because he can one-shot your entire party. If he doesn’t, then the assassin at the Nashkel inn will. If she doesn’t, you then have to clear the Nashkel mines of kobolds which is one of the worst dungeons in RPG history, just below Irenicus’ dungeon and Fallout 2’s Temple of Trials. Most players – certainly most players playing the game for the first time today – would justifiably give up there and go on to the sequel, which I think is a bit of a shame. As computer RPGs go Baldur’s Gate is the one which is truest to its DnD roots, and this actually makes it quite unusual in its general aims and the overall tone of the thing. When I was a kid imagining the kind of fantasy computer game I’d like to play I imagined something much like Baldur’s Gate. It’s a very traditional, old school interpretation of fantasy, and this is what I find so appealing about it. Baldur’s Gate 2 might be superior in terms of characters and writing and dungeon design, but I’d argue that Baldur’s Gate is the better game of the two.