By Benjamin Fitzgerald
Stop for a moment.
Breathe it in.
Imagine the possibilities.
Revel in it.
BioWare developed the Infinity Engine for a planned real-time strategy game that never came to fruition. Instead, they re-tooled the engine for isometric role-playing games and released Baldur’s Gate in 1998.
Only five games were made with the Infinity Engine: two by BioWare itself, and three others by Black Isle Studios, a division of Interplay. The results, in every incarnation, were incredible. The storytelling, the combat, the character interaction and the diversity present in three different worlds herald the strengths of a nearly 20-year-old engine.
By today’s standards, the graphics of the old Infinity games are outdated, although the games themselves have aged very well in comparison to most other games from the same era. However, these games did not stand on the merits of graphics engines alone. The combat in them is party-based; instead of controlling a single hero, you simultaneously control an entire party of adventurers, and your ability to utilize their strengths and special abilities will determine your success.
There is no grinding, no carefully aimed headshots. The games do not become easier as you progress. These games are not about a single god-like hero conquering unbeatable odds single-handedly. Even where Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment focus on the stories of a single individual, their successes would be impossible without the support of their allies. This isn’t Skyrim, where your henchman gets in your way more than s/he helps. This isn’t Mass Effect, where your companions are a nice addition but not integral to your success in combat. Combat is strategic, dynamic and utterly satisfying.
But combat is not the only source of joy these games bring. Dynamic, living characters; breathing, breathtaking environments; heartbreaking narratives; immersive dialogue…Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment redefined expectations for an entire genre, and the Icewind Dale series allowed for the creation of the ultimate party of heroes with intense customization and a gripping narrative in addition to the most epic strategic battles in the history of RPGs.
Perhaps I sound like a zealous fan-boy living in the past, basking in the “glory days” of PC gaming. Perhaps you doubt the influence and imagination of the games powered by the ancient Infinity Engine. If you do, let the crowd-funding Kickstarter campaigns speak for themselves. Pillars of Eternity, released by Obsidian Entertainment, was heralded as a spiritual successor to the Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale series of games. In September 2012, it raised a record-breaking $4,163,208. This astounding record was broken less than a year later by another game hearkening back to Planescape: Torment. Torment: Tides of Numenera, currently in development by inXile Entertainment, crowd-funded a total of $4,188,927.
Numbers speak for themselves. The last original game developed on the Infinity Engine may have been released 13 years ago, but tens of thousands of gamers remain in awe at their contributions.