Skyrim's former design lead tips his hat to Baldur's Gate 3: 'Very few of the decisions in a Bethesda game feel highly meaningful, you get maybe three or four'

Minthara from Baldur's Gate 3, a stern looking drow woman, and Commander Kibwe Ikabe from Starfield, a resolute member of the UC.
(Image credit: Larian Studios / Bethesda Game Studios)

In Starfield, there's a quest where you get to betray a major player. I'm going to keep the details vague to avoid spoilers, but in a lot of other RPGs this would be a massive story moment. If you walk down this path, you'll never be able to interact with that faction again. You're signing up for this life over that one.

Ultimately, bar losing access to said faction's mission board, nothing really happens. You can still do quests for them, and only the chunk of the faction related to that questline really cares. Granted, this is borderline Bethesda tradition. In Oblivion for example you could be a master thief, head of the fighter's guild, top of the mage's guild, and a renowned assassin for the Dark Brotherhood, all at once.

That's something that Bruce Nesmith, a former Bethesda developer and lead director on Skyrim, acknowledges as one of the key differences between Bethesda RPGs and Baldur's Gate 3. In an interview with MinnMax, Nesmith is asked about his thoughts on Larian's RPG: "I love Baldur's Gate, I'm a huge Dungeons & Dragons fan," he says, before rotating his camera around to his shelves and shelves of RPG books and modules.

"Fan" seems like an understatement. Nesmith actually worked at TSR for some time. TSR was the original publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, though it would later be sold to Wizards of the Coast in 1997. While he was there Nesmith wrote a ton, including content for the Dragonlance, Greyhawk, and Ravenloft settings. "I think [Baldur's Gate 3] is a triumph of making the tabletop experience actually happen right there in the computer. My hat's off to Larian and the groups there."

He then reflects on Bethesda games, and how every hero becomes a multitasking polymath—good at everything, questioned by no one. He talks about Larian's attitude, one that's happy to shut off entire storylines, as something "we could never get ourselves to do—[Larian] poked into all the darkest corners. They've come out and said, quite bluntly, 'we don't care if only 1% of the players will ever see this.'"

That's not something he feels Bethesda was ever able to afford—and if Starfield's any indication, not much has changed. "At Bethesda, the games we were making were so big that we had to take the approach of 'well, everybody's got to be able to do this at some point' … you can get to be the heads of all the guilds, you can be friends with all the companions, you can go to all the places. Nothing is off-limits.

"When you play Baldur's Gate 3 you get the impression, rightly so, that this decision I'm about to make will close off parts of the game and open up others. It's meaningful … very few of the decisions in a Bethesda game feel highly meaningful, you get maybe three or four of those."

What I'm seeing here is a branch in design philosophy. Baldur's Gate 3 is a 100 plus hour experience, but it has a definitive beginning, middle, and end—even dividing its story into three acts like a play. Bethesda games are more like a soap opera, designed to be taken in as seasons—characters and plot lines come and go, but they rarely weave into each other.

What's interesting to me is that Nesmith has had experience with both tactics. When you're designing D&D modules, you have absolutely no idea what the players are going to do—you have to focus entirely on building blocks that the GM might need, and guidance for specific scenarios, but at a certain point you have to hold your hands up and say 'you're on your own'.

Designing things like Larian, Nesmith says, "you have to acknowledge that (I'm just gonna pull numbers out of my ass here) any one player is only gonna see 50% of the game. The work that I do as an individual developer may only be seen by 5% of the people out there … [Bethesda was] in the business of making games that people would play for hundreds of hours. If you cut out 50% of your game, they're not gonna play for hundreds of hours now."

He's not entirely wrong. One huge example of work falling by the wayside is Baldur's Gate 3's companion Minthara. Aside from the fact she initially had a bug that nixed over 1,000 lines of her dialogue, Minthara's a character I never got to experience on my first playthrough. But she's just as well written and in depth as the rest of the crew. Her one tragedy is that she's supremely easy to kill. 

That's definitely a downside. The upside, however, means you'll never be sat at the end of a quest chain, after betraying a faction, wondering why you can still mosey on into their capital as if it were business-as-usual. You never think 'none of that really mattered'. Everyone has different tastes, and game design is a complex problem to solve, but I'd personally take the 'one door closes, another door opens' games over Bethesda's forever sandboxes any day.

Harvey Randall
Staff Writer

Harvey's history with games started when he first begged his parents for a World of Warcraft subscription aged 12, though he's since been cursed with Final Fantasy 14-brain and a huge crush on G'raha Tia. He made his start as a freelancer, writing for websites like Techradar, The Escapist, Dicebreaker, The Gamer, Into the Spine—and of course, PC Gamer. He'll sink his teeth into anything that looks interesting, though he has a soft spot for RPGs, soulslikes, roguelikes, deckbuilders, MMOs, and weird indie titles. He also plays a shelf load of TTRPGs in his offline time. Don't ask him what his favourite system is, he has too many.

With contributions from