Yesterday it was announced that BioWare co-founders and the bane of gaming journalist spell checkers everywhere, Doctors Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk were retiring and not just retiring from BioWare but retiring from gaming altogether.
To be honest, this comes as no surprise to me, although I am saddened to see it happen. I work for a small company that was bought out by a very large company and the person who built our company lasted about as long under the new company as the doctors lasted under EA. That’s not to say that EA is the cause, or that EA is a horrible company to work for, but it’s been my experience that people who build companies traditionally want to keep building or rather than maintain that which got them bought out.
I’m having a hard time coming up with a gaming company that has provided me with as much enjoyment and number of excellent gaming hours as BioWare. Maybe Nintendo, but seeing how I was playing BioWare games for years before ever picking up a GameBoy or GameCube, I think our Canadian friends deserve the win. If this were a poorly written tv show, we’d be treated to a maudlin montage of the actors’ key scenes before they walk off set. As this is a poorly written column, please allow me to talk a little about BioWare’s games and the gaming joy that they have brought me over the years.
Baldur’s Gate & Baldur’s Gate: Tales of the Sword Coast
At the time that Baldur’s Gate came out, I wasn’t all that much into RPGs. I had played Fallout 2 and loved it, but much of what I loved about it came from the fact that it wasn’t mired in fantasy tropes. It was, instead, mired in post-apocalyptic tropes. My boss, the beautiful and talented Mr. Andy Smith, bought Baldur’s Gate and I had to hear about how awesome it was every morning. Eventually, I found an extra fifty bucks lying around and bought the game. To say that I was hooked is an understatement. Baldur’s Gate and Fallout are responsible for elevating the RPG to my absolute favorite game genre and my character from Baldur’s Gate went on to become one of my favorite gaming characters of all time, but we’ll get to that in a minute. On a wacky side note, there was some battle in BG with, like, a billion gnolls and it totally tanked my PC. Good times!
Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn & Baldur’s Gate II: Throne of Bhaal
Right before the release of BG2, my wife and I took a vacation to Disney World. I hung out on the BG2 forums a lot those days, and not a day went by when I didn’t stop by and check in. Upon returning from vacation, I unpacked, went downstairs, logged online (this was pre-broadband) and saw that BG2 had released early. I ran upstairs and joyously broke the news to my wife. She stopped, vacation laundry in her hand and said “You’re going to pick it up now, aren’t you.” Once I explained that I wanted to spend the evening assigning character points and getting all of the pre-game stuff out of the way, she understood and off I went. She also understood that I was insane.
BG2 would go on to become my favorite RPG ever. My character, Tipsy McSwagger, the drunken thief, stands as my single favorite gaming character, ever. Ever. I gave him a backstory, I roleplayed as him in the BG2 forums, I knew what he would do, I understood how he thought, I gave him a life and a set of motivations and failures and weaknesses as if I were writing him into a movie or a book. And, like any good character, there were times when Tipsy did things that I would not have expected.
There are so many battles from BG2 that I remember, so many awesome moments, so many character moments and community moments and bits of world building that I will never forget. I think that we all have games that act as a catalyst for discovering what the medium is capable of and for me, that game was Baldur’s Gate II. Maybe some time I’ll tell you how Tipsy single-handedly killed the half-dragon Bhaal-spawn from Throne of Bhaal. It was epic.
I never used the DM tools or looked at NWN as a toolset for creating other adventures. I just wanted to play more PC D&D. I didn’t get the same thrill as I did with BG and BG2, but I still enjoyed the game quite a bit. NWN also was the game in which I rolled my first female character and my first monk. Picking a gender and a class that was completely unknown was liberating and pretty damn exciting. I have rolled female characters ever since, even if I tend to stick to more familiar classes.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
As much as the GameCube was responsible for me heading down the path of becoming a console gamer, Knights of the Old Republic is the game that pushed me firmly over the edge. I was heartbroken when I learned the the game wouldn’t come out on the PC first, as originally planned, instead choosing the Xbox as the platform of choice. I didn’t have an Xbox but the aforementioned Mr. Smith had two of them. I made a deal with him. If I could borrow one of his Xboxes, I would buy KOTOR and then let Andy borrow the game once I was done with it. He was game, and so it happened.
KOTOR was a fantastic Star Wars game when the Star Wars universe was in the death grip of the prequels. I loved every minute of it, from being able to dual wield custom lightsabers to HK-47’s hilarious dialog to the big reveal that completely took me by surprise. Yeah, doing the end game as a pure light side Jedi sucked, but it was worth it just to have had the experience of all of the previous hours. For better or worse, you can see the beginning of BioWare’s love affair with morality choices in this game, which makes sense, given how silly the morality rules of the Star Wars universe are.
One of the first games I played upon moving to Atlanta and one of the last games I played on the original Xbox, Jade Empire was a hell of a lot more fun than I think people gave it credit for. I may be remembering it wrong, but I don’t feel like it was received well. This is one of those games that I wish they’d revisit, but am also glad that they didn’t. Nowadays, it feels like publishers aren’t happy unless they run a property into the ground and I enjoyed Jade Empire too much to see that happen.
Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3
Forgive me for listing all of these together, but I, personally, can’t separate them. If BG and BG2 are my favorite “classical” RPGs of all time, Mass Effect is probably my favorite space RPG of all time. I had issues with the ending of ME3, more with the lack of impact from your choices and the need to grind for galactic readiness, but over the course of the three games, I felt connected to this universe like I have in no other game. I played Mass Effect to completion three times and every time, I was so pumped by the end game that I jumped right back in. Mass Effect 2 gave me supporting characters that I wanted to see live, not just because an achievement was involved and Mass Effect 3 gave a hero I had built from the ground up the rest she deserved.
I know that BioWare is working on a new ME property, and that’s great, but I hope that whatever it is, it doesn’t take away from the work they did with the original games. I know that those games aren’t going anywhere and my memories of them aren’t either, but I also know that current failures have a way of tainting past successes, so I hope BioWare keeps this in mind and doesn’t screw anything up. Fingers crossed.
Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood
Sometimes, an idea like a handheld, turn based RPG set in the Sonic universe is so crazy that it all comes together wonderfully. This was not one of those times.
Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II
Want to hear a funny story? I managed to score Dragon Age for something like $35 during some Black Friday sale. I had absolutely no intention of playing it on tag as I did not want to be bothered with buying DLC and getting all of the achievements. The problem is that some times, I forget to sign out before firing up a game and signing in with my alternate tag. That’s what happened when I started playing my city elf, or whatever race it was called. Oh well, no problem, I thought. As long as I stop playing before the prologue ended, I’d be achievement free and could play the other prologues on my other tag to see which race I wanted to play for the full game. As I was adventuring through the castle the night of the wedding massacre, I found a skill book, picked it up and read it. Just like that, the “Educated” achievement and the corresponding 15 points were mine. Well, crap. Seven months and 1735 points later, every point in Dragon Age: Origins was had, including all points from the DLC and the expansion pack. Now, it wasn’t just because I have a thing for achievements, I genuinely liked the game, but at the same time, if I had not gotten that achievement, I can’t guarantee that I would have played it for as long as I did.
Dragon Age II, on the other hand, got played entirely off tag. I enjoyed the game quite a bit, right up until the ending where my enjoyment turned into white hot hatred. I won’t go into why I hated it so much, but if ever there was a game that proved the notion that a terrible ending can ruin a great game, Dragon Age II is it. I’ll keep my eye on Dragon Age III, but I think I’ll have to do a fair amount of review research before I take the plunge to play it.
I have no idea what, if anything, will change at BioWare now that the doctors are out of the picture. Truth be told, I have no idea how much they had to do with any of the day to day stuff prior to their retirement. I do know that under the steady hand of the doctors, BioWare has consistently given me hundreds of hours of gaming entertainment like no other company making games today. In their games, I have killed gods, taken down eaters of worlds and rocked a badass purple and yellow lightsaber combo. For these memories, and so many more, I am eternally grateful to the doctors and everyone at BioWare who worked so hard to get these games into my hands.
Best of luck, gentlemen. You will be missed.