WARNING: SPOILER ALERTS FOR BALDUR’s GATE BELOW
Every few years, computer game fans get excited as a new movie based on one of our beloved games comes out. And every few years, we get disappointed and bitter. Some movies refuse to remain faithful to the games they’re based on, changing everything that made them great and leaving a mess. Others try to be faithful, but come off as more of an inside joke than a coherent storyline. Either way, non-gamers continue to not understand what makes computer games so great, and gamers continue to wait for a faithful adaptation to arise.
This problem could be solved, though, by turning to the excellent Baldur’s Gate series. Set in the D&D world of Forgotten Realms, this game was released in 1998, and was followed by a sequel and an expansion that was basically a third act. It is still widely-loved, and was released in an updated version in 2012. It is widely considered one of the greater computer role-playing games, for its innovative mechanics and story alike.
Baldur’s Gate tells the tale of a young orphan (players pick the name, race, gender, and class-I usually played a male so I will use male pronouns, but others can be used in its place) raised in the library-city of Candlekeep. His guardian, the wizard Gorion, tells him they must flee, and mysterious assasins try to kill the hero as he prepares for his journey. Shortly after leaving Candlekeep, Gorion and his ward are attacked. The young hero flees, but not before seeing Gorion killed by a sinister figure.
The hero makes his way to an inn where Gorion said his friends were waiting. There, after escaping additional assassins and discovering his childhood friend followed him from Candlekeep, he meets Gorion’s friends and they join him in his quest. They had heard of unrest far to the south in the iron mines of Nashkel, and want to investigate. In the course of investigating, the hero and his allies discover a massive, complicated plot by evil forces to seize control of the city of Baldur’s Gate. The hero also discovers he is actually the child of the god of Murder.
Two other games (really a sequel and an expansion) continue this story, expanding the mythology and significance of the hero’s lineage before bringing it to a spectacular conclusion.
So why would Baldur’s Gate make for the first great video game movie?
First, I need to discuss why existing movies have failed. Directors of video game movies have to strike a balance between gamer fans and the broader audience. Gamers want to see their experiences translated onto the screen, while the broader audience wants something they can enjoy without having played the game. This is especially difficult with relatively recent games that have rabid fan bases, like World of Warcraft or Assassin’s Creed.
Additionally, a lot of the fun of video games is the immersive experience. It’s fun to wander around and discover a new world. It’s satisfying to fulfill random side quests like killing wolves threatening a farmer. Neither of these would make for a good movie, though. I’ve spent hours trekking through the forests and mountains of Cyrodiil in Elder Scolls: Oblivion, but would be really bored to watch someone do that.
So how could Baldur’s Gate surmount these problems?
First, the game is nearly twenty years old, so there is less of the pressure surrounding adaptations of current hit games. The people who came to love this game in its prime are in their 30’s or older. So there will be fewer angry tweets from fans if the movie doesn’t recreate the game frame by frame. It will also be easier for non-gamers to relate to the movie, as it’s more removed from current discourse. Granted, this means there may be less apparent commercial appeal, but it’s not like the fan base of any other video game movie turned it into a hit.
Second, the graphics are pretty bad by today’s standards, so there will be no temptation to recreate the visuals of the game on the screen. Baldur’s Gate was a top-down experience, in which characters and enemies were portrayed with minimal details. As a result, a director would have the freedom to create any sort of visual experience they wanted. The movie could include one top down scene—maybe during a battle—out of deference to the game, but beyond that there’s a lot of flexibility.
Third, the nature of the story would lend itself to a movie. Many video games have a plot structure built around completing a series of quests. In the classic Knights of the Old Republic, the heroes must visit several planets before finding the clue to the evil Sith forces’ strength. In Mass Effect 2, Shepard must recruit and gain the trust of his allies before moving on to defeat the Collectors. Neither of these would do well as a movie, as they’d basically be a series of episodes.
The story of Baldur’s Gate is different. It’s a mystery. When you start the game, all you know is that someone is trying to kill you. Your first major quest—saving the iron mines of Naskhel—is just a rumor you stumbled upon. You get bits and pieces of information as the story progresses. And there’s dramatic turnarounds that would fit well as the “Act 2 reversal” in a movie; after uncovering the plot against Baldur’s Gate, you are framed for the murder of the city’s leaders. You must escape from prison, and evade guards as you clear your name and save the city. This would be perfect as a movie script.
Moreover, the second two games could easily be adapted to create a blockbuster fantasy trilogy.
Even as I write this, I am cringing at the thought of a cheesy, overwrought Baldur’s Gate movie adaptation. But I do believe the challenges complicating adaptation of other video games are absent here. If we’re ever going to have a truly great video game movie, this could be it.
UPDATED to edit some typos and clarify pronouns.