Lauded for its story, characters, and density of quality fantasy narrative, BioWare’s 2000 RPG Baldur’s Gate II is one of the most celebrated computer games of all time. An adaptation of the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, it aspired to digitize the rich experience of playing at a table among friends, dice and character sheets in hand. But while D&D is often a wellspring of inspiration for deep narrative and rich characters, it turns out a certain Japanese RPG’s late ‘90s crew of misfit environmentalist rebels provided the necessary inspiration to take BG2’s characters to the next level.
In a recent interview, James Ohlen, BG2’s director of writing, said that Square’s Final Fantasy VII served as the inspiration for his game’s now-iconic characters. The experience, as he describes it, sounds rather intimidating, but it sparked his competitive nature.
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“I went and played Final Fantasy VII,” Ohlen told Rock Paper Shotgun, “and was like, ‘Oh my good god, these character’s make ours look like a bunch of cardboard cutouts.” Ohlen was encouraged to check out Square’s generation-defining PlayStation exclusive after hearing about it from a producer at Interplay and was immediately blown away by the depth of the characters.
To anyone who’s played the original FFVII, this is probably of no surprise. Despite a lackluster language translation here in the west and dialogue that amounted to little more than short sentences in tiny blue boxes, FFVII’s protagonists are a group of troubled people struggling under the weight of a complicated world history, forced to navigate delicate interpersonal relationships. It may be a story about super soldiers, magic orbs, and a dying planet, but FFVII’s characters often contend with relatable human emotions like regret, loss, and love.
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In the same interview, Ohlen recalled his “20,000 hours of dungeon mastering” as an essential foundation of his work in video games. He ran multiple gaming groups while working at a comic shop. “I didn’t really have much of a life outside of Dungeons & Dragons,” he told Rock Paper Shotgun.
The rest of the interview makes for a great read if you’re interested in the inner workings of some classic BioWare titles, which has some anecdotes about how Ohlen “actually totally, entirely ripped off The Empire Strikes Back” when writing the story for Knights of the Old Republic.