Larian’s worlds offer meaning in a way few others can

“This step will follow that step will follow this step will follow that step.”



Exchanging magical fisticuffs with a teleporting crocodile on a trip to the beach is, if nothing else, a potent but unsophisticated crash course in consequence. It was in this raw and tender moment — as this non-verbal, non-physics-understanding reptile gently abused my succulent ego — that Larian’s Divinity revealed itself to be game about consequence.

Those crocodiles, whose seminal spell is aptly named Scale-portation, set the scene for the perilous road ahead. It was a journey that made me realise why Divinity and games of its ilk work as well as they do.

Simply put: Divinity’s road is a different journey than many of its peers, whose checklists speak to the inevitability of success. This step will follow that step will follow this step will follow that step. Your story, then, the same as everyone else’s: you won, and you were always going to. The script written, events set.

You can do everything but irrevocably fail.

In the days when we could count our age with our fingers, reaching that designed destiny was more than enough. Employing agency of any kind back then was a thrilling and novel experience — to be able to reach the end of the tracks the designer set for us meant we could actually do something. It was better than nothing, and it was a fantastic better than nothing.

But now, my so-called adult ego — the one watching a supernatural reptile devour my digital avatar — doesn’t care about that inevitable success. My actions had little effect on that designed outcome. It’s pointless. Those checklists and their near-certain win states are a gazillion dollar take on the daily grind: breakfast, commute, work, commute, dinner, sleep.

That happened today, and will probably happen tomorrow.

In most games that tout so-called freedom, we’re paying 70 big ones to simulate the daily grind sans meaning: climb that, kill this, collect that. As I lurch towards the age of 40, that last bit is a biggie. Fun as a singular pursuit in a world with mortgage statements and utility bills isn’t possible like it was for me two decades ago. Now that pursuit has been supplanted by a need for meaning: to be a good partner, to have a competency, to contribute to society.

Meaningful, but not always fun.

Divinity — and Baldur’s Gate before and after it — is not all about funsies, either. In Larian’s worlds, those on-screen checkboxes warp and shift and change, emerging and dispersing around things you do and don’t do, and how you do and don’t do them. They feel life-like in their pursuit of meaningful decisions whose consequences you don’t always intend. Other games, though, have conditioned us to expect obvious and predictable outcomes.

In Larian’s worlds, that conditioning fails you. And that’s why they’re so brilliant.

You wouldn’t expect that dropping trow in the middle of a friendly town would drive its inhabitants to murder you. You wouldn’t expect that healing a dying person tied to a cross would kill them. You wouldn’t expect that pushing a button would send someone to hell in an escape pod.

You also wouldn’t expect magical reptiles at your local sandy, either.

Those consequences are sometimes silly, sometimes serious — but often true to life in how they feel: brutally unfair.

And like life, where consequences are real, being able to play adult in the safety of a make-believe world is a genuine pleasure. It’s a gamble, a literal roll of the dice as the road chosen doesn’t always take you to the destination you expect. It’s a thrill. Larian’s worlds offer the illusion that we’re free from the designer’s intended destiny — all while letting us wade knee-deep into consequence wrapped in cotton wool.

We get to retain the agency of our adult lives without feeling the real consequences of misapplying that agency. We get to enjoy the illusion of playing God in Larian’s worlds, of playing so-called CEO, without the burdens of real responsibility. Here, those pesky teleporting crocs can’t actually hurt us.

But those make-believe people can be hurt. To do anything in Larian’s worlds is to invite the deadly spectre of consequence round for a brew and a plate of ginger nut biscuits. Thing happens then other thing happens, then somebody probably dies. We go to work each day, crafting our own story with all the stresses and strains and rewards that entails. Larian empowers us to come home and do it all again — to make so-called life-changing decisions without ruining our actual lives.

A matured whiskey or a fine wine without the hangover.

In Larian’s worlds, making a life-changing decision often means making a life-ending one. Death looms over us, imbuing those worlds with a tension that you might make the wrong decision. You can affect the world and its digital denizens in awful and terrible ways, and it’s the studio’s ability to craft connections between us and those denizens that makes those consequences feel so consequential. They convince us the likes of Astarion and Gale are real people, bringing any associated consequences along for the ride.

They create meaning in other ways, too. Said consequences create actual, real-world meaning through conversation and community. You did something that someone else didn’t do, and people talk about it. It’s the weekly TV serial or the monthly comic book drop in digital form, except we have a say in how it all turns out. Friends and fellow explorers become a gateway into all the things you didn’t do.

That might be why Baldur’s Gate 3 proved to be a sleeper hit: word of mouth. People talked about what they did and didn’t do, who died and didn’t die. Each of our playthroughs a game unto themselves. Those ten million sales are ten million stories that played out in their own way, all backed by stellar visuals, cracking voice acting, and world-beating dialogue.

All this, then, is a welcome reprieve from what can only be described as the traditional model, where games are designed to be the antidote to the consequential tension of the real world. They’re made to ease us the burden of consequence in our daily lives. And that’s fine — those games have a place, and often provide some of the best experiences put to pixels.

But as I age, that’s not quite enough anymore. I want worlds where my choices reflect my morality and my prejudices, worlds where I can fail and have that failure persist until the credits role. One day, long gone will be games in which you can only do or not do something — replaced by games where you’re able do something badly, and absolutely love it.

And somebody dies.

Image credit: Tenor

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