Well, I've had the new color and placement theme for this blog up for 10 days now, and no complaints so far, so I'm gonna assume that it's good to stay.
I know it was a big hit with PC RPG gamers back in the day...but in all honesty, I didn’t really think much of Icewind Dale 1. In fact...well...I think it was actually kind of a bad RPG. Not very bad, but a little bad.
ID1 has a cookie-cutter western fantasy plot, the villains are undeveloped and uninteresting, and since the entire main cast are silent protagonists with no distinguishing traits whatever, there is seriously just nothing whatsoever in the game to catch and hold your interest besides exceptionally generic tabletop-to-video-game RPG gameplay, some kind of nice backgrounds, and a couple of nice background tunes.
If I had to take a guess as to how this came to pass, it’d be that the game’s developers were trying to bring the Dungeons and Dragons experience from your basement or the back room of the local comics shop as faithfully as possible. And in a sense, they succeeded.* With ID1, you’ve got the basics of a long-term campaign plot in a classic Dungeons and Dragons land, starring an adventuring group who kinda just rolled into town out of nowhere. They're a group of characters whose every trait is determined by the player at the character’s creation, and who are given no personality whatsoever by the game itself so as to have no impediment to the player’s ability to imagine the characters however the player wishes. That’s a pretty basic start to a D + D campaign, right there.
The problem is that there are certain elements of a tabletop game that you can’t imitate in a game like Icewind Dale 1--those featuring human interaction. The reason that a basic and unimaginative plot maintains one’s interest over a lengthy set of D + D sessions, the reason that empty characters who have no personality thrust upon them by the story’s narrative don’t get boring, is that D + D has human interaction helping it along. It’s the social aspect that gives the game most of the fun, ultimately. The way you and your friends work together to solve the conflicts thrown at you by the Dungeon Master makes those conflicts more interesting, the way that every step of your journey is narrated by your DM and your group forces you to employ your imagination to see it all (and it’s hard to be bored by one’s own imagination; your mind instinctively tries to interest itself, provided it’s given some leeway to do so), the way your characters are given personal shape both by their players and by their companions’ players’ actions...it all adds up to a good time, if you’ve got fun, imaginative people to play with.
But you see, that’s it right there--empty characters and basic plots work for a tabletop game because the social and imagination factors enhance them, fill them in (in fact, it wouldn’t work with more concrete plots and characters), but when you take those same factors and transfer them into a video game RPG, a more or less solo activity where the world and story are concretely displayed and told, and imagination’s ability to make positive adjustments is very limited, all you have is a bland game with empty characters. To make a Dungeons and Dragons video game right, one must go further, take steps in the storytelling process that wouldn’t normally be necessary. That’s why RPGs like Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2 are good--they take the normal D + D foundations, and build off of them with well-defined (and well-written) support characters, and a more detailed plot. Icewind Dale 1 does not.
Now, Icewind Dale 2 is interesting, because even though ID1 was, so far as I’m aware, a commercial success and lauded by many players, ID2’s writers seem to have gone out of their way to try to improve several of the shortcomings of the first game.
For starters, there’s the plot. Now, I wouldn’t call Icewind Dale 2’s plot amazing or anything, but there’s definitely a stronger effort to have the plot maintain its hold over all the game’s events than there was in ID1. The events the lead into one another seem more clearly defined, and the reasons and goals of each step of the campaign feel more present--there’s considerably fewer times in ID2 where it feels like you’re kind of just vaguely wandering around, hoping to stumble over the next part of the story by accident. The plot is also better in general--it has better twists, exploration, and narration, and there’s some human depth to it this time around, aspects of it that warrant appreciation and even consideration. At its heart is the question of the treatment of half breeds in the Dungeons and Dragons setting, and even if it doesn’t exactly explore that question in depth, it at least gives us a glimpse at this deeper cause. And in doing so, we get a game that more solidly ties itself to the D + D lore and culture than ID1 did. ID1 basically was just its own bare-bones story taking place in a Dungeons and Dragons setting; ID2 takes the interesting issue of prejudice against half breeds, which is, from what little I’ve seen of the Dungeons and Dragons lore, an intrinsic element of the D + D universe. ID2 even references one of the most major overlying plot points of the setting through this theme, the Blood War. So ID2 not only has a better, fuller plot, but it endeavors to tie that plot more significantly to the series in which it takes place, and doing so makes this game all the better, makes it seem a relevant, important piece of the overall D + D picture.
The cast of ID2 is also much improved. Granted, the major flaw of the first Icewind Dale cast has not been improved upon--we’re still being saddled with not 1, but a full party of 6 voiceless, personality-less characters. Sigh. As I said earlier, I understand the reasoning behind it, but I still think that reasoning just makes for a less interesting game. Even your standard Silent Protagonist in a JRPG gives more color to his game than all 6 of these “characters” do.
Still, the rest of the casting in ID2 is very much better than its predecessor. The game’s plot-important NPCs have more personality, and actually seem to have some decent relevance to the game’s events. This time around, the narrator seems like someone actually telling a story, not just blandly reporting facts as seemed the case with ID1’s narrator, and she and her uncle are fun and engaging characters in their own right. And best of all, Icewind Dale 2 actually has a couple of decent villains. While I think that Isair and Madae had much more potential as villains than the game tried to realize, they nonetheless have some depth and background to them, with understandable motivations and emotions, and goals whose motives were good. In fact, if their actions had only been a bit less extreme, I’d actually say their villainy was justified. As with any good villain, having Isair and Madae as the game’s antagonists elevates ID2’s quality as an RPG quite a bit.
In the end, Icewind Dale 2 still isn’t much more than just an okay RPG. Its plot is fine, but not amazing, its cast is decent where it can be, but severely lacking in its most important aspects (the actual party members), and the theme of half-breed prejudice is interesting and worth exploration, but isn’t actually delved into all that much after all is said and done. Still, ID2’s a huge leap forward from the bland time-waster that was Icewind Dale 1, even though ID1’s sales meant that it really didn’t have to be, and I credit it for that.
* I only ever played a couple of sessions of Dungeons and Dragons in my youth, so I do have to admit that my familiarity with and perceptions of its universe and the general playing of the game are not too experienced. So just bear that in mind if I go in the wrong direction here.