This week's Friday Five features James Long, iron-stomached Oreo-addict, hard-nosed editor, and tender-hearted cat lover, as well as the co-founder of J for Jetpack, the glorious new geekery website that has sworn to bury us all in its enthusiasm. Amongst his many virtues (kind to animals, buys me beer), James is a shameless fan of that great - nay, greatest - of fantasy RPGs.
I'll let him take it from here...
Baldur’s Gate (1998) and Baldur’s Gate 2 (2000) remain two of the most influential RPGs ever released. Both games were critically acclaimed and praised for revitalising the RPG genre at a time when most video gamers were busy blowing shit up with big guns. The games had many strengths: excellent writing, atmospheric visuals, absorbing gameplay and . . . memorable characters. Long after you’ve finished the games, many of the characters – and lines of their dialogue – stay with you.
Here are my top five memorable Baldur’s Gate characters:
It’s a widely accepted fact that no D&D campaign is complete without a batshit-crazy gnome (why is it always the gnomes? Perhaps the constant disappointment of not being as cool as a dwarf or as useful as a halfling finally wears them down and makes them lose their marbles). Anyway, Tiax is both a gnome and completely nuts, thus fulfilling the crazy gnome quota for Baldur’s Gate 1. He’s somehow got it into his head that he is one day going to rule the world, despite being a) insane, b) severely vertically-challenged, and c) having a name that sounds like washing powder. Or engine oil.
You don’t have Tiax in your party for his skills (nerd interlude: his wisdom score of 13 makes him a laughably terrible cleric, and there’s far better thieves around). Instead, you have him along for the comedy value. The scriptwriters clearly had a lot of fun with Tiax:
“Ya lil' monkey-spanker!”
“When Tiax rules, breeches shall not ride up so wedge-like!”
“Eh... it would appear that... the great and... mighty Tiax... has shrunk his undergarments... three sizes this day.”
And so on.
Tiax also makes an appearance in Baldur’s Gate 2, where we learn that (unsurprisingly) he’s been locked away in Spellhold, a sort of Azkaban-before-Azkaban-existed place. By this point his craziness has developed into a full-blown god-complex, and he’s started doing that infuriating thing that certain high-flying business types do where they talk about themselves in the third person: “The heavens move because he waves his hand! The waters stir as he twiddles his toes! The wind blow as he passes! And on a whim he can break them all!” As it happens, the only thing that gets broken is Tiax’s skull, as he has his brains blown out in the ensuing magical battle. Which is probably for the best.
Jon Irenicus is the antagonist of Baldur’s Gate 2 and is a total badass. You learn pretty swiftly that he’s not a man, well an elf, to be trifled with, as the game opens with you and what’s left of your party locked up in his dungeon, with no memory of how you got there. Any hope you have that maybe this is just a stag-night-gone-wrong and that you’ve merely ended up in some S&M nightclub is quickly extinguished when he begins magically experimenting on you. Once you’ve escaped his clutches, Irenicus levels half of Athkatla’s market district in an uber-strop, before turning several powerful wizards into dog chum with a flick of his wrist. As entrances go, it’s pretty impressive.
Irenicus is simply a wonderful bad guy. For a start, he’s deeply intimidating – largely because of the superb voice acting by David Warner, which lends Irenicus such a presence and helps him to steal every scene he’s in. He’s also a complex individual – as the story progresses, we learn that Irenicus was stripped of his very soul and exiled from the elven city of Suldanessellar for trying to obtain godhood and join the elven pantheon, which understandably turned him into a bitter recluse with anger management issues and a fondness for keeping creepy things in jars. Lastly, he’s hard as nails. The wizards-into-dog-chum trick at the start of the game is but a hint of his true power – later on he takes on all the imprisoned mages at Spellhold at the same time and still manages to systematically annihilate them.
Every bad guy has an off-day though, and Irenicus’s eventual defeat leaves him literally burning in hell, which is probably not quite the ending he had in mind.
Ah, Minsc. Minsc and Boo. Boo and Minsc. They say a dog is a man’s best friend, and maybe in our world that’s true. In the Forgotten Realms however, a man’s best friend is his Miniature Giant Space Hamster. Especially if it has a funny name.
Like all the best Baldur’s Gate characters, Minsc is more than a little unhinged. After taking a heavy blow to the head, he’s convinced himself that his pet hamster is in fact one of the aforementioned Miniature Giant Space Hamsters (which incidentally became a thing over the following years, cropping up as Easter eggs in various places – that Space Hamster you can buy in Mass Effect 2 & 3? Yup, exactly). For the record, Boo is apparently just a normal hamster.
Yet that didn’t stop Minsc and Boo from winning the hearts of D&D-obsessed gamers the world over. Their popularity was helped by yet more amusing dialogue: "Make way evil, I'm armed to the teeth, and packing a hamster!" (honestly, the scriptwriters working on Baldur’s Gate must have had a field day).
What also makes Minsc memorable is that he’s possibly the worst ranger in the history of D&D, since he’s a) a huge muscular bald dude, b) prone to attacking first and asking questions later, and c) about as subtle as a nun in a brothel.
He’s good at killing things with a sword though. Plus, hamster.
Crazy gnome alert! Jan Jansen (pronounced Yawn Yawnsen, which I’ve literally just realised – fifteen years after playing the game – is probably a direct reference to his tiresome stories) [Editor's note: also the crazy American children's song] fulfils the role of crazy gnome party member in Baldur’s Gate 2. While not as out-and-out crazy as Tiax, he’s still pretty nuts. Bring him along for the ride and you’ll get bizarre quotes about turnips (turnip beer is a thing, apparently) and plenty of aimless stories about his extended family that meander around without ever getting to the point.
Jan also has some of the best inter-party dialogue in the entire game, like this line which he delivers upon dying and being resurrected:
“Greetings, everyone. Sorry, no gifts or souvenirs this time but I'll keep you all in mind the next time I'm gone. Oh, Keldorn: the gods say 'hi' and that you should wash your underwear more thoroughly. Everyone ready? Let's go adventuring.”
If this wasn’t enough to make Jan memorable, his crossbow is called the Master Flasher Bruiser. Which makes Jan both nuts and cool.
Sarevok is the antagonist of Baldur’s Gate 1 and, just like Irenicus in the second game, makes a pretty grand entrance. In the game’s amusingly dated opening sequence, Sarevok crashes through a tower door, delivers a pitch-perfect Hollywood Bad Guy Laugh™ and then crushes a man’s throat before chucking him over the side. Thunder rolls and lightning flashes at the same time, which would be horribly cheesy, except this was the 1990s and it was totally ok back then.
You don’t actually see much of Sarevok in the game, save for the odd moments when he pops up and delivers his lines in a gravelly I-smoke-100-marlboros-a-day-and-eat-puppies-for-breakfast voice. Fat lot of good having a scary voice does him when you kick his spiky ass at the end of the game.
Sarevok turns up again in Baldur’s Gate 2, partly because he’s too cool to leave out but also because no one important in the Forgotten Realms ever seems to die properly. Anyway, Sarevok wants to be returned to life (even mass murderers deserve a second chance, right?) and so you have to grant his wish by giving him a piece of your soul, or a piece of Imoen’s (your sister – and oh boy, how disappointing that must have been for your character, when he realised that the hot girl he’d fantasised over for the better part of ten years turns out to be family). Giving Sarevok a bit of Imoen’s soul results in the following amusing exchange:
Imoen: So... Sarevok. You've had an itty-bitty piece of my soul in there for quite a while now. What's it been like?
Sarevok Anchev: Well, other than a slight obsession with my weight and the resurgence of a few pimples, it's been simply grand.
He also has some entertaining dialogue if you happen to have Minsc and Boo in your party:
Sarevok Anchev: Ranger, turn your rodent's gaze another direction! I will not be scrutinised as though by some ridiculous divining rod!
Minsc: Boo has an uncanny judge of character, but you... you give him trouble.
Sarevok Anchev: I'll give him more than that if this continues! I nearly conquered a nation! I will not be judged by a creature that stores nuts in its cheeks!
Interestingly, if you set a good example and forgive Sarevok for previously being an epic douchebag, it’s possible to change him from an evil character to a good one. Even though he’s the son of the God of Murder and thinks nothing of crushing people’s throats and throwing them off buildings. Still, perhaps he spent his years in hell thinking about fluffy kittens and rainbows, so anything’s possible.