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Infinity Engine: The Retrospective

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With games like Divinity: Original Sin, Lords of Xulima (although that’s a borderline case given its Wizardry-like first-person perspective battles), Wasteland 2 released in 2014, and big titles like Pillars of Eternity and Torment: Tides of Numenera announced for 2015, one thing becomes obvious: isometric RPGs are making a return.

As AAA developers tried to make RPGs more cinematic with epic cutscenes, fully voiced dialog and action oriented gameplay, the subgenre was mostly forgotten by the mainstream (aside from the Neverwinter Nights series) but it’s obvious that the cult following was much bigger than expected by those who considered dialog trees, turn-based or real-time with pause-battles and a huge number of statistics to be relics of the past.

It’s hard to believe now but there used to be a time when games like that were extremely popular – Baldur’s Gate and Fallout (before Bethesda took it over) series were expensive mainstream titles in the late 1990s. The former was also the first game developed using an engine that would later become synonymous with isometric RPGs: Bioware’s (yes, the same Bioware that makes all those cinematic action-RPGs now) Infinity Engine.

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D&D meets RTS

Infinity Engine was not originally supposed to be used for role-playing games. The original project for which it was developed was a multiplayer RTS game called Battleground Infinity. Over time, the focus slowly shifted towards single player gameplay and the game caught the eye of Interplay who held the license for releasing Dungeons & Dragons video games and suggested placing the game in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. Thus, Baldur’s Gate was born.

The D&D setting influenced the gameplay of Baldur’s Gate and other games that used Infinity Engine. The characters are created by the player choosing a class, a race, an alignment and starting skills while the game rolled virtual dice to determine the stats. The dice are also used for most of the actions, especially combat-oriented (the fights use old D&D rules so noobs can expect to get confused by armor class which gives you better defense the lower it gets, and everyone’s favorite, THAC0 stat), there are even critical hits and critical failures caused by rolling a natural 20 and natural 1 respectively. Also, the magical spells need to be prepared beforehand and there’s a limit of how many of them you can have memorized. Basically, the Infinity Engine features probably the most accurate video game adaptation of D&D ruleset.

The RTS element is less obvious today but in 1998 the idea of a real-time, mouse-controlled RPG was actually pretty new. It was pioneered a year before by the original Diablo (which also took inspiration from strategy games as the idea to eschew turn-based gameplay was influenced by some of the developers’ work on the first Warcraft) – but Baldur’s Gate added controllable party members moving in different formations, a feature absent from Diablo in which everyone controlled a single character.

Infinity games

Character creation in Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition
Character creation in Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition

Infinity Engine did not power many games, but all the titles that used it were notable in one way or another. Baldur’s Gate was a complex, open-world game with a strong narrative and memorable characters that was also so fun to play that it became one of the most important titles in the late 1990s cRPG revival. It was a great game – but not as great as its sequel which streamlined the gameplay, improved the interface and made the narrative even more prominent by focusing on personalities and backstories of the characters, as well as the relationships between them.

The other well-known game using Infinity Engine was Black Isle’s legendary Planescape: Torment, one of the best and most unusual RPGs ever created. In this game, the players control an immortal Nameless One as he reunites with his old companions (a rather unique bunch which includes, among others, a floating skull, an insane wizard who is constantly on fire and a celibate succubus) and attempts to find out why exactly he can’t die. It’s a clever and very well written game that combines the non-linearity of computer RPGs with the dramatic, emotionally resonant narrative of the console ones (the developers even acknowledge the influence by mentioning Final Fantasy games in the credits).

Black Isle studios also used Infinity Engine to create an Icewind Dale duology. Those games are not as original as Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment – they’re notable simply for being extremely fun and well-made. Also unlike other Infinity Engine titles, they’re not really focused on a narrative. Icewind Dale is more of a traditional dungeon crawler made in an isometric engine instead of a first-person one – the player creates a party and goes on to fight against hordes of enemies. It’s not as good as other Infinity Engine games but it’s still a very good game.

Infinity mods

If you don’t believe how strong the cult following of Infinity Engine games is, you probably don’t know about the strong modding community they have. Yes, have, not had. Even today there are mods for the first Baldur’s Gate still in active development.

Those mods are not just simple sprite swaps either. They range from resolution mods allowing the game to be played on widescreen monitors to completely new quests to adding tons of NPC dialog to the existing game. My favourite one has to be Baldur’s Gate Trilogy though – a mod that allows for playing all the Baldur’s Gate games and expansions as a one big game.

The modding community keeps changing the games in creative ways and developing tools that allow for easier mod creation – save editors, item creators, script compilers and many more can be found on the modders’ websites. There’s even a database of basically everything in Infinity Engine and an attempt at a cross-platform, free and open-source engine recreation that would be compatible with all IE games. It’s all more impressive when you realize that it all comes from the countless hours of reverse engineering as Bioware never released their source codes.

Infinite cycle of RPG resurrection

Torment: Tides of Numenera alpha screenshot
Torment: Tides of Numenera alpha screenshot

The impact of Infinity Engine on the RPG scene cannot be overstated. The games it powered are still being played and modded and they’re still an inspiration for many developers. In fact, the sequels to Planescape: Torment and Baldur’s Gate are being developed right now (although the latter might be a big failure given that it’s made by the creators of the ill-fated Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition).

The early days of Infinity Engine are, in a way, similar to how the gaming world looks today. Role-playing games were not popular in 1998 and Baldur’s Gate (along with earlier Fallout and Diablo) changed that by modernizing the formula of older titles like the later games from Ultima series, without sacrificing their depth. If all goes well, modern RPGs inspired by Infinity Engine games will do the same thing today.

After all, there are still many gamers out there that like the mixture of complexity and great storytelling who can’t wait to see this kind of experience created with modern technology. Contrary to what AAA developers will tell you, there’s nothing wrong with learning the intricate rulesets and stopping the action once in a while to read some dialog or narration. As long as the more patient gamers exist, the oldschool RPGs will keep coming back.

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Maciej Miszczyk

About

I play games (I have a preference for old, weird and difficult ones but that's not the rule) and write articles about them that are sometimes a bit too long. Sometimes I also do things other than gaming, I swear.



27 comments
  1. DynastyStar
    DynastyStar
    January 14, 2015 at 9:27 pm

    Is this a new writer? o.o I’ve never seen him on the site before, and he doesn’t even have a bio in the “About” section for him on here(just belong the article)?

  2. Domhnall
    Domhnall
    January 14, 2015 at 9:28 pm

    I’ve found the best interpretation of the DnD ruleset to be Temple of Elemental Evil, which, according to Wikipedia, used a modified Arcanum engine. It was properly turn-based, had 5′ movement, and even included rushing and things of that nature. However, ToEE was also quite often unbearably slow – at least it was to me – and I did enjoy the IE games considerably more than ToEE.

  3. Brandon Orselli
    Brandon Orselli
    January 14, 2015 at 10:47 pm

    Maciej is a newer writer, and the about portion of our articles is newer – I forgot to nag him to write a short bio about himself :) It’ll come soon!

  4. DynastyStar
    DynastyStar
    January 14, 2015 at 10:56 pm

    sweet :)

  5. Siveon
    Siveon
    January 14, 2015 at 11:41 pm

    I still think the combat/path-finding was way too wonky for their own good. That said, I still want to do a fully-modded and SCS-enhanced Baldur’s Gate run one of these days.nnnGreat series of games, probably the only one’s where I’ll swallow real-time-with-pause combat.

  6. AsatorPrime
    AsatorPrime
    January 15, 2015 at 12:08 am

    Great article, Baldur’s Gate 2 and Planescape: Torment are two of my favourite games, I’m loving the resurgence of these CRPG games, I just wish I could return to my High school/Uni years where I actually had time to play them. Wasteland 2 and Divinity Original Sin are taking me months to get through.

  7. Misogynerd
    Misogynerd
    January 15, 2015 at 12:23 am

    Remember when RPGs used engines that included elements of RPGs instead of just being another graphics based engine?nFinal Fantasy 16 should be a Infinity Engine Game for example.

  8. JackDandy
    JackDandy
    January 15, 2015 at 2:52 am

    ToEE and Knights of the Chalice feature a more faithful interpretation of D&D rules, as they are turn based.nnnAlso, I’m pretty sure Darklands used the RTwP style combat system years before Infinity Engine!nnnBut still, very interesting article.

  9. Maciej Miszczyk
    Maciej Miszczyk
    January 15, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    FF and most of other console games never really used D&D rules though. I’m fine with ATB or whatever weird variation of it they’ll come up with for jRPGs, a bigger problem with modern FFs is that they’re too linear (they always had linear plot but at least the world was much more open) and that they’re rehashing old plots too much. still, I have some hope for XV (too bad it won’t be on PC)

  10. Maciej Miszczyk
    Maciej Miszczyk
    January 15, 2015 at 12:23 pm

    combat in BG and IWD is pretty fun when you get used to pausing and have ways of countering statuses. it’s not too good in Torment but then again, it itsn’t the focus here. pathfinding is annoying though, I’ll give you that

  11. Carl B.
    Carl B.
    January 15, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    I used to write for an RPG site back in 2001. I made an article there that basically said that Interplay should have licensed out the Infinity engine the same way Epic does with the Unreal engine, and have others make games with it. I truly felt it should have never died.nnNaturally, I was laughed out of the article. “Why would anyone want to play that old crap?” “You mean this old ass engine? LOLOLOL”nnNow shoot ahead 14 years and guess what? Everyone is making games like this.nnI consider myself vindicated.

  12. Carl B.
    Carl B.
    January 15, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    It is. Nothing beats ToEE. As a hardcore tabletop D&D player, it’s the only game that managed to get the closest to a true interpretation of the rules. I still play it to this day.

  13. Misogynerd
    Misogynerd
    January 15, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    FFXV is not coming to PC?nIf I’m not mistaken FF was inspired by DQ, which was inspired bu Ultima which are directly based on the original D&D. Some mechanics like multiple hits in the first FF seem similar to D&D.nI think the problem is that Square is too reactionary and concentrates on being cutting edge.nnnFFX: Critcized for being too linear.nthey make a huge ass world in FFXII that gets criticized for being to large. So they make FFXIII a fucking hallway.nnnThey also spend way too much time on their graphics, if I’m not mistaken they made the Ebony engine for FFXV and now they’re porting the game to the Luminous Engine. Not sure also if they’ve lost the staff that made the first 10 Final Fantasies the great games they are, similar to Capcom.nNo wonder their best RPGs have been on handhelds these last generations (TWEWY and Bravely Default).

  14. Maciej Miszczyk
    Maciej Miszczyk
    January 15, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    DQ combined Ultima-style overworld with Wizardry-style battles and older FF games followed this gameplay style. All those games were loosely inspired by D&D but didn’t follow the ruleset too closely – I don’t remember any of them having, for example, THAC0 or magic system where you had to memorize spells and rest (Ultima games had spell preparation but that was done by mixing items)nnAlso, from announcements it looks like 15 will be PS4 exclusive, at least for now. still, 13 took quite some time to arrive on PCs so maybe 15 will be ported too.

  15. Misogynerd
    Misogynerd
    January 15, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    The original magic system is inspired by Dungeons & Dragons as well, with a “Vancian” spells-per-day system, and with many spells and their effects, and even “spell levels” mapping directly to counterparts in theDungeons & Dragons spell list.nnnnFrom the FF wiki.nnnStill, FFXV is for Xbox One and PS4. Versus was PS3 exclusively, but they changed to PS4 and Xbox One, let’s hope Microsoft helps us get a PC version. Since Japanese games have seen success lately on Steam.

  16. Maciej Miszczyk
    Maciej Miszczyk
    January 15, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    Oh yeah, totally forgot about FF1 magic system. Maybe because I’ve never got around to completing it :<nnI hope they make a PC port. I feel this game can eithernnsave the series or kill them for good. Some ideas are nice and I think the road-trip atmosphere they're going for is pretty nice.

  17. Matt McCoy
    Matt McCoy
    January 15, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    It’s just too bad that game was glitched out the ass. I could barely play it from how poor it was.

  18. Maciej Miszczyk
    Maciej Miszczyk
    January 15, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    Troika had serious problems with bugs. I love them anyway, Arcanum was amazaing

  19. Matt McCoy
    Matt McCoy
    January 15, 2015 at 5:01 pm

    I tried to play Arcanum from GOG but that game is barely playable on new computers, the blur was hard for me to read the text…

  20. Thanatos2k
    Thanatos2k
    January 15, 2015 at 6:52 pm

    Arcanum was buggy beyond all hell as well. I never finished it because a bug somehow infected all of my save games which caused the entire population of NPCs around the world to gradually disappear and never return. It’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen in any game, but it was completely game breaking.

  21. Thanatos2k
    Thanatos2k
    January 15, 2015 at 6:54 pm

    Planescape Torment is undoubtedly the best RPG of all time, and Baldur’s Gate 2 is top 5.

  22. Thanatos2k
    Thanatos2k
    January 15, 2015 at 6:59 pm

    Interplay made a lot of very, very bad decisions.nnScrew Interplay. They destroyed Black Isle and to this day they still try to sabotage people’s attempts to secure licenses for things they at one time touched.

  23. Siveon
    Siveon
    January 15, 2015 at 8:53 pm

    To Darklands dismay. It would’ve been way better with a combat system more like the Gold Box games.nnnHmm, imagining Baldur’s Gate in such an engine. RTwP was such a misguided decision imo.

  24. JackDandy
    JackDandy
    January 16, 2015 at 3:33 am

    Definitely. TB > RTwP any day of the week.

  25. Ryan Mo
    Ryan Mo
    January 16, 2015 at 6:08 am

    Minsc+Boo 5eva

  26. Maciej Miszczyk
    Maciej Miszczyk
    January 16, 2015 at 10:26 am

    Never encountered this one but yeah, the game was quite buggy. It was also pretty unbalanced and combat sucked. It’s one of those games that were extremely flawed but I just can’t not love them – like, for example, Xenogears.

  27. donovank2
    donovank2
    April 30, 2017 at 11:44 am

    a nice history article, really torment was a great and legendary game ,and yes, baldurs gate like games are back in this era with the biggest success of pillars to prove that.