Paper Dolls

An excerpt from Baldur’s Gate II

Baldur’s Gate II’s Infinity Engine portrays the player character and each additional party member with a hand-painted portrait, which is used in the sidebar of the user interface, in dialogue windows, and in the character record screen. It also provides a pixelated sprite, which represents the character during gameplay and ingame cinematics, and in the inventory screen, where a slightly more detailed version can be dressed in equipment found in dungeons or shops. Character sprites are essentially undifferentiated: There are default sprites for each player race and class combination, and without weaponry or armor most characters look more or less like any other, except for minor customizations available for the color of skin, hair, and clothing.

Every character of the same race and class has the same haircut, the same blank facial expression too small to see outside of the inventory screen, and as the game progresses, other sprites repeat too. For every enemy type, there is a single sprite, meaning you’re frequently ambushed by a set of identical gnolls, hobgoblins, or soldiers. Elsewhere, unique demons get their own names but then walk and talk and fight and die like any other, and by the time the game ends you will have been attacked by dozens of interchangeable elementals, trolls, beholders, mind flayers, and so on. Variations within a type of enemy are at best depicted by color-swapped sprites, with uniforms on a more dangerous breed of hobgoblin appearing green instead of red.

Back in 2000, I’m not sure how obvious it was to me that I found the roughness of sprites more inviting than fully realized 3D models, but in the years since I’ve often felt a creeping nostalgia for sprite-based games, as year after year we move slowly across the uncanny valley toward fully convincing photorealistic characters. Given the number of retro-styled games coming out from indie game developers, I know I’m not alone in desiring the deceptively simple graphics of earlier games. I can still remember the outsized investment of imagination that went into my characters in RPGs like Pools of Radiance or tactical games like X-COM: UFO Defense and Jagged Alliance 2, all of which had relatively simplistic sprite-based characters and enemies. Each of the sprites in these games took up precious memory, and had to be drawn by hand, pixel by pixel, one variation for every frame of movement, so what makes your enemies unique is not graphical differentiation but context and imagination.

Despite the lengthy story and the deliberate character-building present in BG2, most of your time in-game is spent not in dialogue or active role-playing but in watching your party’s sprites walking from one edge of the screen to the next, doing your will with only minor exclamations, and frequently engaging in miniature battles with other similarly-sized sprites. For the game to be emotionally engaging—instead of simply a puzzle to be solved—the player must imbue these sprites with additional purpose and interest, going beyond what is given. But how exactly does this work? How do these barely-defined characters spur our imaginations to earn our affection?

Much to the benefit of the simulation in Baldur’s Gate II, I rarely think of the characters on the screen as “sprites.” Deep in a play session, I interpret the hobgoblin sprites as actual hobgoblins, filling in from imagination and experiences with D&D novels and game materials the requisite details, the yellowish eyes, the goblinoid features, the growled mish-mash of human and goblin languages, the brutality and aggression.

Part of what created this investment was a precise lack of detail writers call “flatness,” a way of making room for the reader to fill in motivations, psychology, physical details, or other attributes of characters and settings: As you make the characters yours, equipping weapons and divvying up treasure and choosing color schemes for armor, or even just trying to imagine why your character might be doing the things the game asks him or her to do, you’re also subconsciously thinking about the kind of person those choices might represent. And when certain traits seem to exhibit themselves during gameplay—for instance, in my playthrough, Minsc dies more than any other character, because he’s my frontline fighter—you begin to fashion explanations for this behavior, imagining its effects on the character you’ve conjured in collaboration with the game.

In her essay “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” the writer Kate Bernheimer describes flat characters as “silhouettes,” saying they “are not given many emotions—perhaps one, such as happy or sad—and that they are not in psychological conflict.” Bernheimer praises flatness because “it allows depth and response in the reader,” an effect which occurs in part because the writer has minimized the amount of psychological insight offered for the actions of characters, leaving room for the reader to create what wasn’t given. In the most successful examples, this creates a striking effect, because readers will provide whatever the story does not, filling in the blank side of the silhouette with the best material they have to offer: their own imaginations, emotions, and worldviews.

The Baldur’s Gate games, with their NPC party members that come complete with their own preexisting personalities and their own quests to complete, break away from the older D&D games like the 1988 Gold Box title, Pool of Radiance, which required you to create your entire party of adventurers. But even with their recorded dialogue and personal storylines, the characters in BG2 still seem flatter than the characters in later, more cinematic BioWare games, where character models become more realistic with each game and where stories are fleshed out over dozens of hours of fully-voiced and lip-synched dialogue.

The most memorable BG2 characters each have fascinating backstories that lead to quests you’ll need to undertake to keep them in your party, but much of this content is restricted to a very narrow part of the overall game experience. Across hundreds of hours of gameplay, you might spend little more than an hour or two taking care of each of their individual wants. For the rest of your time together, they will want what you want, go where you point, and do what you command. When they speak, it will appear as if they are interjecting of their own volition, but their interjections are triggered by your actions: If Aerie is not there to cheer your good deeds, then one of the other good-aligned party members interjects instead, Keldorn or Valygar or Mazzy or Nalia or whoever happens to be with you at the moment. Same goes for an evil decision, a betrayal or extortion or some unnecessary bit of violence causing Korgan or Edwin or Viconia to express their approval, often in exactly the same places.

Interestingly, most of the characters do have a kind of morality threshold, where they will refuse to join your party (or will leave it) if you become too good or too evil. This creates an appearance of complexity, but it’s merely numerical. Their morality threshold is usually a hardcoded number, and as long as you stay one point of goodness or evil above or below, their final moral objection will not occur. These characters are only moral agents when the story calls upon them to be, and any additional depth they appear to possess is something the player has added. For example, if you’ve ever refused to betray someone in BG2 because it wouldn’t be true to your character or because you think Jaheira or Minsc would disapprove, then you’ve experienced the personal investment in character this system can create—your behavior is shaped even without a specific gameplay reward to drive your decision.

Another of Muzyka and Zeschuk’s design guidelines that shaped the development of Baldur’s Gate II was the idea that “it is important that the player is able to personalize his or her character. This means that they should feel that the characters they are playing as are their own.” And so as the game begins, your player character is little more than one of Bernheimer’s silhouettes, a blank ready to be filled in with your choices during character creation, where you choose your own race, gender, and class, plus your starting abilities, like weapon proficiencies and beginning spells.

At first, even your inventory screen contains only what amounts to a paper doll, a flat representation of your character waiting to be dressed up with +1 long swords and magic wands and suits of enchanted mail. Dressing up this paper doll is a big part of forming an attachment to the character: As you gain new equipment, you will of course give your character the equipment best suiting his or her abilities, but more than likely you also make aesthetic choices fitting the kind of character you’ve imagined as you played.

Gorion’s Ward is the only character you create almost entirely yourself, and so paradoxically it’s the protagonist of the game who ends up being the flattest character. We learn about him or her only through our actions and dialogue choices, and Gorion’s Ward’s speech is never voiced except for a few exclamations. However you end up feeling about the story’s protagonist, most likely he or she is a character you’ve imagined yourself, spun out of the often-limited tools the game provides.

This effect is where the game most closely simulates playing pen-and-paper D&D, translating a series of statistics and an inventory into what feels like a living breathing person, a person whose life you have inhabited since the moment of their creation, an event occurring simultaneously in your mind and upon the character sheet or the computer screen.

A D&D character begins not with birth but with the first choice we make for them once they’re let loose into the game world, or the first request we make of the dungeon master, or the first click of the mouse toward some destination on the other side of the screen. Go here, we say. Do this. Fight this monster. Cast this spell. Open this chest. Repeat. Hours pass. Days and weeks and months pass, command after command filling the empty vessel of the player character. Experience is acquired, levels are earned, new spells are scribbled into spellbooks, mundane swords and axes are replaced with deadlier magical weapons, and basic sets of chainmail are exchanged for ornate suits of enchanted plate mail. And then one day playing dress-up becomes something else. What is it you see when you turn the paper doll around in your imagination? Not an empty silhouette but a character coming alive, a container filled with you.