Best Of 2023: Baldur’s Gate 3’s Best Set Piece Reaches Into Its Dungeon-Delving Roots

Best Of 2023: Baldur’s Gate 3’s Best Set Piece Reaches Into Its Dungeon-Delving Roots

  29 Dec 2023

A lot of airtime and screen-space has been spent talking about just how big Baldur’s Gate 3 is. And it’s massive, even growing bigger consistently as the game gets an array of foundation-altering patches. However, Baldur’s Gate 3 best sings in its relentless commitment to careful combat and dungeon design. Rosemyrn Monastery is RPG level design at its most straightforward and its most dazzling.

In its overall structure, Rosemyrn sharply inverts the typical dungeon: Above is the dungeon, below the town. The space-faring warriors, the Githyanki, have taken the area below the monastery as their Créche, but most of the monastery itself–the above-ground areas that were once overflowing with clergy, pilgrims, and other guests–is almost entirely abandoned. Rosemyrn was dedicated to the god of dawn, Lithander, and many ventured there to ask his favor.

Once-lively ruins are classic video game (and tabletop RPG) fodder for good reason. It’s a simple way to build out pathos and history, even among regular-old video game nonsense like puzzles and battles. Rosemyrn is far from unique in this regard, even within Baldur’s Gate 3, but it is an especially honed version of it. Its power is reducible to a few fantastical images: An enchanted suit of armor guards abandoned treasure. A magical alarm system speaks a warning over and over again, which no one living can hear. Remnants of the pilgrims’ devotions and wishes remain rotting in the sun. The Githyanki who invaded didn’t care to empty its halls of treasure; the space was enough. It is melancholic, perhaps meant to recall the holy grove that you either protected or razed in Act 1. It is another sacred space, against which another threat completely succeeded.

It also sets up some of the more emotional stakes of the dungeon. The warrior culture to whom party member Lae’zel belongs wrought this death. A community of Githyanki awaits the protagonist and Lae’zel below. It’s a stark reminder of the harm her empire can do.

Although Rosemyrn’s design has a melancholic edge, that does not mean it cannot be fun or silly. One of the initial encounters of the dungeon is against kobolds who have raided the Firewine stores. Drunk to bursting, you can explode them with fire attacks. That absurdity shows off the game’s fantasy logic. Rosemyrn Monastery may be something of a vertical slice, but it’s so successful because it embraces a variety of tones. In her review at Eurogamer, Ruth Cassidy wrote, “[The] breadth of possibility in Baldur’s Gate 3 is really an illusion–but one that’s closer to excellent stagecraft than a distracting wizard spell, and it’s meticulously done.” The tonal shifts are part of the trick, a move that shapes each encounter into significant beats in a broader story.

After solving the puzzles and braving the battles above ground, you can descend below to find a small, though militarized, settlement. Though you can, and may be forced to, fight the Githyanki, the game goes to great pains to render many of the individuals sympathetic. Githyanki teenagers bristle against unfair, strict authority and trade whispers of revolution. An overseer seeks to protect an unhatched Githyanki egg, which he should have abandoned long ago, according to the rules. A few of the Githyanki, especially the dungeon’s unavoidable fights, stand in for the broader empire, but most of them are individuals, part of a system they contribute to but cannot fully control.

This humanization (for lack of a better term) is inconsistently applied across the rest of the game. For example, Act 1 makes clear that the goblins in the villain’s camp are being manipulated, often into killing themselves, for a god that will not grant them any glory or favor. Many of them have names and individual perspectives. But if you are doing a “good” playthrough, there’s really nothing for it but to kill all of them. BG3 does not have the flexibility of a tabletop game. Still, Rosemyrn is an example of the game’s strengths in this regard, giving you a picture into a culture that exists beyond your gaze.

Rosemyrn Monestary is a point of no return for many of Baldur’s Gate 3’s characters. Lae’zel believes the Githyanki hold the key to being free from the parasites, only to discover that the supposed cure will murder her, stealing her memories to make the Githyanki queen Vlaakith reach closer to godhood. Shortly after, Vlaakith promises the position and power that Lae’zel longs for. The Githyanki rulers also seek the device that you carry, which protects your party from becoming mind flayers. Shadowheart’s patron goddess Shar gave her this device to aid her mysterious mission. It also houses a mysterious being who aids you and who pleads for your assistance in turn. In short, Rosemyrn Monastery tests the loyalties of the party in multiple conflicting directions, leading toward some of the game’s most compelling drama.

To be clear, this is all shaped by BG3’s straightforward fantasy tenor. Vlaakith is a cartoonish evil, a massive witch given over to unholy power. What makes it special is the emphasis it places on regular, human feelings. Lae’zel is characterized as brash and proud, uncaring what other people think and unflagging in her principles. One could mistake her for the proud daughter of a noble general, but the first encounter with the Githyanki reveals Lae’zel to be just a soldier. Her sense of pride is not granted from a position in the hierarchy, but is a posture that exposes insecurity in the right context. Before Vlaakith’s image, she is simply devotional. She does not presume what she deserves, but is dazzled by what Vlaakith promises. The question is simply whether she will let her proud doubts carry her forward.

Frankly, part of the reason I enjoy this so much is my own predilections. Lae’zel and Shadowheart are both women trapped in hierarchies which use them, to which they are also supremely devoted. Shadowheart’s reckoning is yet to come, but the monastery forces Lae’zel to confront her dedication. As a formerly religious person who is now probably best described as a reluctant atheist, this is my shit. Lae’zel crying out to the stars to make sense of Vlaakith’s betrayal is one of the most emotionally resonant moments of the year in games, easily.

It’s incredibly impressive how Rosemyrn moves from a fun dungeon crawl to a miniature town to massive emotional catharsis. Though it is a big set piece, the game doesn’t even really feel like it’s showing off. It’s just confident, admittedly a confidence earned through years of early access and extensive testing. Much has been made of what BG3 will mean for games in the future. It’s a massive release that is (for the most part) a single purchase. It’s a big-scale game that takes dozens of hours to hit true jank (which is being rapidly patched). But I think the lesson is pretty simple: People respond to strong, considered level design. Rosemyrn Monastery is among the greats.

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