These days, game engines are all about flashy graphics and eyepopping, shallow feature sets. GDC was a fine example of this in phenomenon in action, with Epic, Crytek and DICE facing off to see who could deliver the most ridiculously shiny trailers imaginable. That's great, we said...but in our humble opinion, the best engines allow their developers to create entire worlds with relative ease whilst allowing them to concentrate on massive scope, exceptional writing and truly memorable character design.
Style over substance is also becoming the unwritten rule for roleplaying games. BioWare, once the undisputed kings of the Western RPG, are now churning out shallow, lazy experiences that are worlds apart from their earlier masterpieces. More and more corners end up being cut with every release - and part of that is down to the smaller levels and restrictions forced upon them by modern game engines.
No, this isn't going to be an article about Gamebryo. In fact, we hate Bethesda's buggy glitch-o-rama with the passion of a thousand borked save files. Instead we're going to talk about an engine that delivered arguably the best RPGs of all time and what ultimately made it so iconic.
This is why we love the Infinity Engine.
BioWare created the Infinity Engine back in the late nineties as part of a prototype project that soon blossomed into a little game called Baldur's Gate. It's a quirky isometric affair that runs on the wonderfully obtuse D&D second edition ruleset, but its simplicity allowed both Black Isle and BioWare to create enormous sprawling worlds that were only limited by their imagination. Sumptuous hand-drawn artwork provided the background to the action, and stellar writing made its characters seem more real than any modern collection of polygons.
We'll get onto the mechanics later on, but for now, just look at these games. Look at them!
- Baldur's Gate (1998)
- Planescape: Torment (1999)
- Icewind Dale (2000)
- Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter (2001)
- Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000)
- Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal (2001)
- Icewind Dale II (2002)
Masterful Writing By Necessity
When you can't rely on flashy cutscenes or celebrity voice actors to tell your story, you only have words to work with. They say that a picture is worth a thousand of them... and since you've got far less than that to work with in each text box, BioWare and Black Isle had to get every single one of them exactly right.
And they did. This focus on tight scripts provided us with the best dialogue, the most memorable characters and some of the most heartbreaking, thought-provoking decisions that have ever featured in a game. The fact that the writers had to think about every single word meant that every single word meant something.
Without exception, the Infinity Engine games also utilised one of the best - and hence most difficult - ways to get your players to invest in its characters. Your character was you: right down to his (or her) name, background, skills, specialisations and decisions. Players could completely read themselves into their character, making every character interaction and plot point personal and powerful.
I'm not some guy called Hawke or Shepard. My name is Jonathan Lester. I've got high dexterity but low endurance. And I had a child with Aerie, sacrificed my mortality and brought the fires of hell to the Spine of the World. The Infinity Engine let me do that. Not some random proxy.
Modern RPGs keep getting more visceral, and we're not sure that we like it. In fact, many of them feel like action games rather than roleplaying experiences... but the Infinity Engine games played out like a mix of cerebral real-time strategy and classic turn-based shenanigans. Players could pause the game at any time, queue up devastating combinations of attacks and set clever formations; pressing the attack or luring their enemies into satisying traps. It was a cross between roleplaying, character investment and being an armchair general all in one game.
The Icewind Dale series took this to the next level. Players could create their entire party from scratch and customise every detail of their stats, classes, skills and even biographies. This was a chance for fan fiction writers to go absolutely bananas, but seasoned strategy veterans were able to tailor-make their very own fantasy killteam. Wanted to deploy five mages and a single priest for healing purposes? A stonewall of fighters to engage the enemy head on, a spellslinging sorcerer and a skirmishing rogue out on the wings? It's all good. Using our heads is becoming less and less relevant to modern RPGs, which now usually demand grinding or playing an entirely different genre such as third person shooting or hack & slash swordplay.
In an age where even the last bastions, nay, the inventors of in-depth roleplaying games are dumbing down with merry abandon, we miss the Infinity Engine more than ever. We miss the writing and the character investment. We miss the stories. We miss the tactics. And whilst we know that it'll never make a full return, we hope that its lofty values of substance over style will start to trickle back into the genre. That's why we loved it.