I need a new BioWare.
Perhaps I should explain. Back in the day, when videogaming – specifically, PC gaming – was young and fresh (as was I, more or less), I was something of what you might call an Electronic Arts fanboy. In my eyes, EA held the same sort of heroic stature that other people would ascribe to musicians or movie stars. They were rebels and trailblazers, out on the edge of the art, not only promising great new things to the hinterland gamers in the world, but delivering beyond our expectations.
They were even bold enough to declare their vision and intent to the world. “We’re an association of electronic artists who share a common goal,” they said. “We want to fulfill the potential of personal computer.” It’s not at all an exaggeration to say that when I read those words, I felt a surge of pride at having some kind of ephemeral connection to this new revolution. Powered by the belief that EA’s unbeatable mix of creative and technical prowess would bring legitimacy to what at that point was still very much a fringe hobby, I felt like I was witness to the early stages of a phenomenon that would soon sweep the world, like seeing the Beatles play the Cavern Club.
But time passed, as it has a way of doing, and the innovative brilliance behind games like Starflight and The Bard’s Tale soon gave way to higher volume and lower standards. As the company expanded and the number of titles it released grew accordingly, looking forward to a new EA game became an exercise in futility. In fact, before long there was no such thing as an “EA game,” just games that EA published.
Fortunately, the disappointing void left by EA’s descent into conventionality was filled by the glory days of Microprose, whose roots as a renowned simulation developer would eventually grow to include highlight-reel games like Pirates!, Darklands, X-Com: UFO Defense and the wildly successful Sid Meier’s Civilization. Microprose in those days was especially notable for its uniquely personal touch, putting the names of company luminaries “Wild” Bill Stealey, Andy Hollis and of course the aforementioned Mr. Meier at the head of its marketing efforts. My attachment to Microprose grew largely because I felt, in some vague sense, that I could trust these three to put out consistently high-quality games. And for awhile, that’s how it went.
Of course, nothing lasts forever, not even hero worship. And while Microprose didn’t really tank until the mid-’90s, in 1993 it stopped mattering much what they did. With their release of the spectacular and unprecedented Doom, id Software changed the world. I was no longer just a nerd; I was a nerd with a shotgun (sort of), and for better or worse – I didn’t much care at the time, which in retrospect was remarkably short-sighted – the world was paying attention to me and my kind.
Single-handedly, id dragged videogaming into what at that time appeared to be the mainstream, fulfilling the promise of all those EA titles from years past. And not only had they made the greatest game of all time, but they actively embraced the rock star lifestyle that had previously existed only in the minds of the most dedicated gamers. They grew their hair, drove Ferraris and flaunted their newfound fame and fortune with abandon. More than anyone else, id made gaming cool.
And while the deal-with-the-devil perfection of Doom led me to swear that I would never under any circumstances criticize anything done by id no matter how awful or evil it was (an oath I came to regret following the release of Doom 3), five years later, I was on my own again. Quake, while surpassing Doom technologically in virtually every way, never quite met up to it in terms of sheer gameplay, and John Romero’s departure from id signaled a shift in the company’s makeup and stability that would leave it irreparably lessened.
And then came BioWare.
In the mid-’90s, the RPG genre was dead. Developers weren’t interested, and gamers didn’t care. But despite that hostile climate, BioWare produced and released their ground-breaking Baldur’s Gate, an isometric fantasy RPG based on the Forgotten Realms setting of Dungeons & Dragons. To call it a phenomenon would be an understatement; single-handedly, the studio brought fantasy roleplaying games back to prominence and demonstrated that a very real D&D experience could be had through a single-player computer game. Its sequel, Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, both expanded upon and refined the concepts of the original, resulting in what is possibly the ultimate Dungeons & Dragons videogame ever created and taking Baldur’s Gate from an immensely enjoyable game to a uniquely epic franchise.
Neverwinter Nights, in contrast, was a fairly flat, pedestrian experience (although it did make for the finest Collector’s Edition videogame ever released), somewhat counterbalanced by the enthusiasm with which BioWare and the community supported the game. But there was an undeniable change of focus away from the single-player experience as the company strove to create a more “realistic” D&D environment with a toolset that could be used to create multiplayer games online. More recently, BioWare’s move into MMOG and console-focused development has tarnished their crown in my eyes. Like id, nothing can undo the greatness they’ve accomplished, but we’ve left each other behind. I need a new hero.
It goes without saying that the mystique and wonder of the early days are irretrievably lost to me. Everything has changed. Both the industry and I have grown older and more cynical, and like an old married couple, we don’t seem to have as much interest in impressing each other as we used to. But maybe, at this point, actually knocking my socks off with unmitigated genius has become less important than an honest attempt at doing so. Heroism comes from the effort, not the result.
And I want my hero. GSC Game World shows some promise. Arkane Studios has an outside shot, assuming their continuing failure to make commercially successful games doesn’t result in their unfortunate demise. Or maybe it will be someone else entirely, an unheralded studio who steps up and shows the world that game design is not stagnant and that risk is meant to be embraced. Like the primary elections in the U.S., it’s impossible to say what will happen next, but the years are rolling by and I’m craving to dedicate my gamer’s heart to someone. My hero worship is out there, free and easy for any developer with the stones to take it. Who wants to step up?