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Baldur's Gate 3 and Starfield could be a Barbenheimer moment, but gamers demand blood

Also you can’t call it Stargate

Pop culture loves mashing two things together. Usually in memes or on t-shirts. Hey look, it’s the Village People but instead of spelling out YMCA they’re doing Loss.jpg or something. Yo, what if Pikachu was Darth Vader. Here’s Picard ripping a phat bong. Etcetera etcetera. Endless. Mind numbing. The death throes of a civilisation ready to burn.

Still, one genuinely nice thing to come out of a meme borne of the sheer juxtaposition between two tonally disparate things is Barbenheimer: the cultural phenomenon of marathoning both Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie on the same day. The order you do it in has been the subject of much debate, but the idea is to embrace the tonal whiplash and just have a great time taking in the latest works of two respected auteurs.

Starfield might be a spacebound epic, but it's still very in touch with Bethesda's fantasy roots.Watch on YouTube

They are wildly different films, of course. Well, so I’m told, I had a baby six weeks ago so by the time I next have a free afternoon we’ll be on Barbie: Endgame (I just did the thing I moaned about earlier, but with a knowing irony so as to pre-empt criticism). But it’s been interesting, and perhaps inevitable, to see people comparing their themes. Though they have been thrust together as an unlikely pairing precisely because of how unlikely a pair they make, people have been finding all sorts of intellectual commonalities between them. Many articles have been written about how Barbie and Oppenheimer are both fundamentally about the same thing – though nobody can agree on what the ‘thing’ is, with candidates including death, love, parenting, forgiveness, confronting regret, or the importance of impeccable tailoring.

Cillian Murphy knows how to wear a hat. | Image credit: Universal Pictures

And though there are some voices out there (stupid ones, obviously) who have railed against the Barbie movie in particular for the sorts of reasons you would correctly guess as to why anyone would rail against the Barbie movie, Barbenheimer has generally been a tonic for the modern age. It might be a cliche to find some quantum of solace in people coming together over a pop culture fad in an era that has been defined by polarisation and division, but it’s a cliche one should happily embrace.

It’s a pity that its spirit – the gleefulness of celebrating two wildly different things and finding the things that bridge them, purely because they’re releasing on the same day – won’t carry over to the big showdown that’s brewing over here in the land of video games. You know exactly what I’m talking about because I called it a “showdown”, and the perception is that these two things are on a collision course, with full detonation planned on the 6th of September.

Yes, Baldur's Gate 3 is already out, but only on the platform for reprobates and poindexters (I have it on Steam, thank you). Next month, it becomes one of the two highly anticipated full-fat single player RPGs to hit current gen consoles, and there is a real sense that in a console cycle that has felt like a massive non-starter so far, the arrival of Baldur’s Gate 3 on PS5 and Starfield on Xbox Series X|S will finally give everyone a good reason to own these idle heaps of silicon, or buy them in the first place.

Can't wait to play Starfield on my Barbie Xbox.

Baldur’s Gate 3 isn’t actually a PS5 exclusive, it’s just not been officially announced for Xbox yet – for reasons that feed annoyingly into the base tribalism that drives online games discourse – but the optics here are that these games going head-to-head is a proxy clash between Sony and Microsoft. They both have distinguished pedigree: Starfield is, of course, Skyrim in Space from the Skyrim people, and Baldur’s Gate 3 is an officially licensed Dungeons & Dragons sandbox from the Divinity: Original Sin people, namely Larian Studios.

It has long been my belief that Baldur’s Gate 3 could be Larian’s Witcher 3 moment. That is, the game that makes a respected but niche RPG production house go stratospheric. This sort of paradigm shift only happens when certain stars align, and the tectonic plates upon which we base all of our current assumptions about what’s a big game and what isn’t are getting very twitchy. In addition to the fact that, as mentioned, Gen Nine has been a bit barren for Big Hitters, Baldur’s Gate 3 finds itself accidentally (and reluctantly) becoming the champion of the PS5, while Starfield, as the result of a very high profile corporate acquisition that annoyed a lot of people who like both Sony consoles and Bethesda Studios games, is the only machine under your telly that’s getting Starfield (unless you have a high-end PC under your telly, sure, don’t split hairs).

A group of characters in Baldur's Gate 3 stand together side-by-side, on a grassy patch near a rock face.
Ain't no party like a D&D party. | Image credit: Larian Studios

There is no cultural drive to blend appreciation for the two things. There is no BaldField, or, uh, StarGate (no) movement poised to celebrate both games for their wildly different approaches to some of the same broad ideas. In fact, according to some very vocal sects of the gaming audience, whether you like one or the other means you’re either an undiscerning fool or a paragon of Good Taste who knows what a proper RPG is. Or, you’re a fan of the wrong console doing a Big Cope. Etcetera etcetera. Endless. Mind numbing. The death throes of a civilisation ready to burn.

There’s any number of reasons for this, of course. You could say it’s cultural. Gaming is, after all, the younger and less mature medium – in every sense of the word. It has a predilection for conflict, given that the majority of its major works are conflict simulations, or means by which people can themselves compete. There are also the sheer cost barriers involved. Most people don’t have every games machine in the house, or a beefy PC that can run the latest games properly. Anyone can rock up to a cinema and buy two tickets, and it doesn’t cost a week’s wages simply to gain access to the venue. And so, there is little prospect for most people of enjoying both things at the same time. You can’t marathon no-life RPGs like you can inhale a couple of movies and a tray of cheesy crisps.

But the common ground between Baldur’s Gate 3 and Starfield is much vaster and more verdant than anything that ties Barbie and Oppenheimer together. Though their settings represent an age old clash of styles (high fantasy vs spacebound scifi) and their approaches to storytelling and player interaction are wildly different (world simulation vs tabletop simulation), they are fruits of the same tree, and both the product of large teams of people who love role-playing games of all kinds, and who want to make the best possible game they can. And they’ll probably each be excited about trying the other team’s game, too.

If Barbie and Oppenheimer can meld together to form a joint cultural phenomenon, then surely we can all find it within ourselves to just appreciate the simple fact that September 6th is a damn good time to love RPGs.

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