And all that could have been...
Finally, we have the early access release of Baldur’s Gate III from the incomparable Larian Studios in our hands. Their incredible world-building skills, along with distinct blend of humour and more serious tones, enabled them to become the only right choice to develop this game and bring the series forward into a new generation—and that is not even to mention their transparent love of the source material, Dungeons & Dragons.
It has been 19 years since the release of Throne of Bhaal (the expansion to the second game), which was the last true word in the saga. In the time since, what has happened with this once-popular franchise?
We’ve seen lovingly-crafted remasters with a multitude of quality of life improvements, a large, original expansion and even releases on Android and iOS devices.
But what happened when the series first tried to count to 3?
“You cannot kill guilt”
Back in 2002, Baldur’s Gate III: The Black Hound was announced to absolutely no one's surprise. After the previous successes enjoyed by the series, it was bound to happen. For this new entry, Black Isle Studios were to develop. This team had been publishers for the series so far and had developed the Icewind Dale games, so while it was not to be BioWare, this was most certainly the next best thing. Black Isle Studios proved their ability to handle the engine and assets and craft a wonderful game with them, so the IP was certainly in safe hands.
Along with this new development team, there was to be a successor to the Infinity Engine—which was used for the series so far—based on BioWare’s Aurora engine. Using this brand new engine, the franchise was set to be launched into the realms of 3D, which would help modernise the now-outdated looks of the prior entries. Additionally, the plan was to use Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition ruleset, which was new at the time. This new edition of rules was far more streamlined and in this writer’s opinion, would have been much easier to translate to the video game world than its predecessors.
So far it sounds pretty good, right?
In addition to the aforementioned bells and whistles, The Black Hound would boast a new story, unrelated to what had come before. Now this may sound disappointing that it would not be a continuation, however the story had reached it’s ceiling with Throne of Bhaal. There was a satisfying ending found there, and in terms of gameplay it had hit it’s limit—you were essentially an unstoppable force of nature by the time the credits rolled back in 2001.
The details around the story are out there, and it was certainly a bit different than what has come before. The eponymous Black Hound was devised as a manifestation of the misdeeds of the main antagonist, and would interact with your protagonist throughout the story. This idea seems a bit more abstract on paper compared to the thematic dealings of the previous games but nonetheless intriguing.
Due to some strange licensing issues at the time, Black Isle were mostly only able to use characters who had appeared in the Icewind Dale series—another Infinity Engine game set in the same world. It’s hard to imagine how this could have panned out, but then again the story was set to be completely new with no connections to the prior entries. It’s anyone’s guess how these characters would have been integrated, but remains a curious loose thread as to how this would have been worked. Could it have been a true sequel in some respect to the sister series, Icewind Dale as well?
Sword, meet evil!
Outside of a brand new story, there were plans to introduce some new gameplay elements which would have gone to great lengths to add some more role playing elements.
The plan was for the game to be completely non-linear, you would have been granted the ability to go to any location in the world map, in any order you wished. A karma system was said to be included as well, to bring proper weight to the choices you make and the consequences of them. This would have been tied directly to reputations, where certain actions would positively contribute to reputation with certain groups and more negatively with others.
For the time, these mechanics would have been reasonably forward thinking for the series and would once again add a layer of role playing potential for any prospective players. For me personally, this would have been welcomed with open arms at the time. Throne of Bhaal was very combat-heavy, and far more of a dungeon crawler so this return to a more “honest” roleplaying style would have been more to my taste.
My experience as a Dungeons & Dragons player, particularly the 3rd Edition of rules, informs me a bit about how the game would have played. One aspect of combat and abilities was the introduction of what are called Feats. Feats are special abilities that give you extra-per round and per-encounter abilities, or passive bonuses. This would have opened up many doors for customisation, to truly make your hero your own. These talents allow you to cleave through enemy after enemy, cast extra spells and even score critical hits more easily, along with countless other benefits that can be reaped.
Once again, this all sounds pretty good doesn’t it?!
Truly forgotten realms
And then in 2003, the game was seemingly cancelled, never to see the light of day.
In a bid to extend their license to develop games on consoles based on Dungeons & Dragons, all signs point to The Black Hound being cancelled as a financial sacrifice of sorts. The most unfortunate aspect of this change in direction, was that The Black Hound (codenamed Jefferson) was roughly 80% developed at that point.
Having just recently completed the original games again, the subject of this title’s cancellation has been weighing heavily on my mind. As much as I am very much looking forward to spending plenty of time with Larian Studio’s Baldur’s Gate III, the fan of the classic games within me wants to see what could have been. As someone who is extremely experienced with the original games, I can easily see the direction that was sought after, based on publicly available information. I’m a huge fan of Pillars of Eternity for this reason—it’s a true spiritual successor in nearly every way.
A bit of trivia—the tavern you come across in the first town in Pillars of Eternity is called The Black Hound, complete with a pet you can recruit who will join you on your adventures. He is the best boy.
I can understand Interplay’s decision from a business/financial perspective. They were reportedly in unfortunate financial circumstances around this time, and they likely just followed the money to consoles. It’s simply a shame to think, considering the time that went into the project, that it was for naught. Based on some of the concept art, which you’ve been seeing throughout the article, we were in store for some wonderful, varied environments, no doubt on a par with what we have seen previously.
After the cancellation, the previously mentioned new game engine (the Jefferson Engine) was migrated to the Fallout 3 (not the existing Fallout 3) project, codenamed Van Buren… which was later cancelled. These cancellations and wasted development would be a sign of things to come for Interplay, who would be involved in a series of lawsuits and legal action for a variety of reasons throughout the next couple of years.
The Beamdog equation
For the next decade or so, the Baldur’s Gate franchise would lay dormant—save for a pair of spin off games for console.
This is where Beamdog comes in.
Beamdog is a development and publishing house, founded by former BioWare team members, Trent Oster and Cameron Tofer. This team tasked themselves with bringing Baldur’s Gate into a more modern age, and give it a fighting chance at relevance in the 21st century. A subsidiary called Overhaul games developed the games, with Beamdog publishing them. Beginning in 2012, the Enhanced Editions of the old Infinity Engine games started rolling out, and they were mostly excellent revisions of what had come before. The most interesting aspect of this was there was new content created for the classic games as well.
There were new characters, quests, NPCs, items and everything in between to be found. The new content was (mostly) well-received and was faithful in terms of writing, albeit the quality was definitely not on the same level. The success of the new content paved the way for Siege of Dragonspear, released in 2016. Siege was touted as an expansion to the original game, however I felt it worked better as an interquel, being largely successful in bridging the gap between the two main games.
All of this was great, but were we about to see the venerable series (try) to learn to count to 3 once again?
Yes. Just not with Beamdog.
Questions naturally started circulating again around a fully-fledged sequel, with the company commenting that if they were to do a brand new, original game, that it would not have anything to do with The Black Hound. Unfortunate but also completely understandable—this team wanted to test their mettle on a larger scale, but not with another studio’s sloppy seconds. Beamdog would never have this chance, but they continue to work on improving their Enhanced Edition releases, remaining a reliable hand in ensuring the legacy of the classic games.
I’m not relieved, but partly happy that Beamdog was not given the keys to the kingdom entirely. They would have undoubtedly made a competent sequel, but the original content they had created was a bit too bloated for my liking personally, and on a technical level there were some major hiccups, which has to be partly attributed to using the old Infinity Engine. Part of me feels as though if this version did come to fruition, we would see a love letter of fan service and not a more creative endeavour, based on the original material the team created before. Pure conjecture, but it’s an educated guess.
The Black Hound at this point, had officially been put down, and we will likely never see what could have been.
Three is dead, long live three
The Black Hound will never truly fade from my consciousness. In concept, I’m not sure if anything else can occupy the space I’ve reserved in my mind for the 3 that never was. It was set to be an evolution of my favourite series in gaming, and now the reality is I will never get to play it—no one will—but that is also okay. The creative side of my brain can fill in the gaps and always wonder how it might have turned out, without any possibility of being disappointed.
S**t happens in the gaming industry. Games are cancelled, games are reborn, and some never see the light of day in any way, shape or form. On this occasion, I and a lot of other fans can count ourselves lucky that a studio of Larian’s calibre is working on Baldur’s Gate III.
With Larian Studios’ work now out in the world, we can expect a whole new generation of fans to embrace the franchise. The torch has been officially passed to this team of amazingly talented people, and I for one cannot wait to spend endless hours on it
RIP The Black Hound. You’ve earned your rest.
All images used were sourced from Reddit user DonutsAreTheEnemy here
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