Baldur’s Gate II was cool. Didn't have Counter-Strike's unpredictable humans, firing off semi-predictable TMPs, AK47s, flash bangs and AWPs. Rather, in BG II’s land of Amn, every forest, city, or sewer that you explored felt hand-painted. Every character hand-written, and lovingly, thoughtfully developed. The game was unique, involving, magic. It was the Dungeons & Dragons system, no dice required – just jump in, point, and click – but beautiful in a way I'd never experienced before.
In Amn, there lives a gnomish illusionist named Jan Jansen. In the wealthier districts of Amn’s capital, Athkatla, one finds Jan peddling a hodgepodge of questionably legal wares, explosive inventions, and turnips. My love for this gnome, from the programming that went into generating him, to the voice acting and writing that gave him life, I guess the word love is enough. It'll do.
So it's with a pinch in my chest that I admit Jan's illusions will always disappoint me. Just a little. It’s not that his long-winded tales in Baldur’s Gate II weren’t up to muster (it could never be that), nor was it anything that more or better 3-D graphics, sound design or writing will solve any time soon. But my nerdy little panties are all up in a twist. Jan only creates a handful of unique “illusions.” There’s no imagination. The player can't decide to whip up whatever they want: wisecracking black dragons, farting trolls, or whatever bauble that privileged noblewoman can’t live without (joke's on you, lady!). Jan just isn’t a great illusionist. He’s not programmed to be. And lest Jansen fanatics in the audience find themselves tempted to throw this book hard and fast into the nearest trash bin, let me explain with another gnome.
Me and five friends sit in a basement with concrete flooring and fire-retardant sheeting on the walls. We've resorted to dice, paper, and stacks of cheap neon mechanical pencils for summer entertainments. Poor bastards, right? We’ve adopted the new hybrid D&D system used by Baldur’s Gate II, and I’m dungeon mastering this weird experiment. These are the nerds from my home town. Four guys, one lady, all hilarious – all bringing a hodgepodge of gas station candy, off-color mini pizzas, and baser staples of the junk food pyramid (all requirements for afternoons of gaming, of course).
For the next two to three hours, everything I tell them is a lie. Not just The Essential Lie. The geography, the castle they’re visiting, it’s all a lie, run 24-7 by their new “gnomish peasant” guide: Goobie. He’s custom created rooms, lords, ladies, fine dining... All of it reacting as objects and people would and should to my players: these real, intelligent, inquisitive human beings. But they’re not idiots. They know that something is off, that this is all to camouflage what is, in point of fact, a more sinister kind of defunct fortress. Goobie ultimately wins the battle, locks them in a cellar with some variety of ancient beast, so they can distract it while he plunders the fort’s choicer treasures.
And they never played with me again.
Computer programming can transform staggering systems into easy, inviting experiences. But it's the living, breathing humans who make them less predictable, more diverse.
You can program Jan Jansen with clever scripts, a quirky voice, and the ability to summon the same mirror image of himself, every time. But a real-deal illusionist? Paint your car like an ambulance during rush hour, have your boss’ boss suggest a tidy raise, make unpalatable, cruelty-free foods taste like ortolan and fois gras? There's a lot Jan can do with the same pall mall invisibility spell, and his small stature gets him, pretty effectively, around.
But until he can muster a flying demon pony with zebra stripes, who farts pink sparkles and Nerdstank, Jan Jansen is a failure of an illusionist. Just doesn't measure up.
In or out of games, there's always room for live creativity. A conversation that reaches out through the ether and, for whatever reason, taps at your heart. Experiences that capture even shades of it – from the high-speed click-matches of StarCraft and Counter-Strike – to donut and licorice fueled D&D play-acting – they create a place. Sometimes spectacular enough that it's worth the smell.