Upon its release in 2000, BioWare's PC role-playing epic Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn was hailed as a paragon of its genre and named "RPG of the Year" by IGN, GameSpy, and GameSpot. A game like Baldur's Gate II requires not just a master wordsmith but a dungeon master. Enter award-winning novelist Matt Bell, author of four works of fiction and co-author of the Dungeons & Dragons novel The Last Garrison.
Bell's book explores BG2's immersive narrative and complex mechanics, unpacks how RPG systems enable our emotional investment in characters, investigates the game's non-linear story, and relates his own struggle to reconcile being a "serious" adult with his love of D&D and video games. Dig in, geek out, and go for the eyes, Boo!
Everything cut from Matt's book could fill a larger book — a detailed playthrough of the entire game, an essay about a road trip in the worst year of the author's life, a catalogue of all the Bioware games — but I think that what actually made it into the book is solid gold. As Matt plays a game he's loved for a long time, he observes it anew through the eyes of a novelist, while also reckoning with the part of himself that has always been ashamed of his nerdy D&D side. The source of this kind of shame is different for all of us (me, I grew up loving ska music) but I suspect most of us can relate to the shame itself. – Gabe Durham
"I simply plowed through this book in two sittings. Baldur's Gate II is a great read [...] I highly recommend you don't avoid it."– Dan Wickett, editor and publisher of Dzanc Books
"The manner in which Bell writes about these events feels so surprising to me: with straightforward clarity, full of anxious prevarication. This voice is [...] disturbingly open and honest. And disturbing in a good way: Bell clearly still struggles to reconcile these two selves—writer and gamer—and struggles too to figure out why it's so hard for him."– Brooklyn Magazine
"Authors are far from free to write what they want [...] Baldur's Gate II is about exactly that. It's an uneasy, courageous, and ultimately vulnerable attempt to bridge a divide [between literary fiction and genre fiction] most of us are unwilling to admit exists. Bell's book succeeds because it lays this conflict bare."– The Rumpus
"At once a memoir, a lecture on storycraft, an apology, and a love letter to the classic Dungeons & Dragons video game. [...] Bell reminds us that to write well—and to live well—we must remain true to our hidden, buried selves."– Fiction Advocate
"Baldur's Gate II is successful in nearly all aspects. It's a book that offers something for every kind of reader [...] It is a book that comes from the heart, the story of becoming comfortable in your own skin, of embracing the things you once loved and probably, if you tried again, would probably still love."– Atticus Review
"A pleasure to read. [...] [T]his is as fine a work in this genre and theme that you're likely to find."– Paste
"Baldur's Gate II (the book) is the best sort of writing, and an exemplary of the essay form: it enlivens the subject at hand, it places it in a broader context (here, the place of games in culture, and it gives insight into the mind of the gamer), makes creative analogies (writing as analogy to character creation in gaming), and, most importantly, it is reflexive, it gives insight into the author and invites our own reflection."– Mike Woods
In a role-playing game, you start life already a hero. Or at least a hero in the making, guaranteed only to improve. Every scenario is designed and structured with your eventual success in mind, every storyline shaped to match your character arc. Everywhere you go there are obstacles, but they are all intended to be overcome. None of your failures will be permanent, and unlimited second chances are always only a reload away.
The hero you play throughout the Baldur's Gate saga is known generically as Gorion's Ward, named for his or her—and therefore your—adopted father Gorion, the wizard who raised you in the library-fortress of Candlekeep on the Sword Coast of Faerûn, part of a world better known as the Forgotten Realms, the most famous campaign setting in Dungeons & Dragons. Unlike most of the other characters who will join your party, you begin Baldur's Gate as a 1st-level character, a fragile and barely skilled neophyte in whatever class you've chosen. If you play as a fighter, then by the time you leave Candlekeep to embark upon the proper adventure, you might have nine or ten hit points, a mundane sword, and a suit of chainmail. Meanwhile, a mage could have only a single spell memorized, almost certainly Magic Missile with its guaranteed hit and reliable damage.
When your father Gorion dies—murdered in front of you by an evil warrior named Sarevok as you flee Candlekeep—then true agency arrives. For at least a little longer, you are completely alone in this newfound adulthood, where even the slightest difficulty might be your undoing. Wandering the wilderness, you flee Gorion's murder only to find new enemies waiting everywhere: a wolf attacks from the trees; a blue-skinned, sword-wielding xvart charges across the screen; a gang of half-ogres repeatedly destroys whatever party of beginning adventurers you may have managed to gather.
For the first few levels of character progression, many player characters and potential party members can be killed with a single sword blow or spell. A 1st-level wizard might have just a single hit point, which means every wound will prove fatal, leaving you no option but to reload and try again. Even after you grow stronger, the life of a video game protagonist remains a Beckettian existence: You die, you reload, you fail again, fail better.
In the first Baldur's Gate, Sarevok, your father's killer, is revealed as one of the Bhaalspawn, mortal offspring of the dead god Bhaal, whose titles include Lord of Murder and God of Death. After Gorion's death, you set out into the world to gather a party of adventurers including the thief Imoen, your foster sister from Candlekeep; the druid Jaheira and her husband Khalid; the barbarian ranger Minsc, a mentally addled warrior who keeps a "miniature giant space hamster" named Boo as a pet; as well as the witch Dynaheir, who Minsc was sworn to protect. With these allies and others, you eventually discover the many schemes Sarevok has put in place to upend the Sword Coast and to ascend to godhood in Bhaal's place. You also learn that you, Gorion's Ward, are another of the Bhaalspawn, with the same divine blood flowing through your veins as Sarevok. Baldur's Gate ends with the death of Sarevok—your half-brother—and Baldur's Gate II opens a short while later with your capture and captivity in the dungeons of the mysterious mage Jon Irenicus.
BioWare, the developer of the Baldur's Gate games, was founded in 1995 by three medical doctors, Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk, and Augustine Yip; but by the time Baldur's Gate was complete, Yip had left the company to return to his medical practice, leaving Muzyka and Zeschuk to become the best-known founders of BioWare. Baldur's Gate sold extraordinarily well, becoming what GameSpy called "a triumph [that] single-handedly revived the CRPG."Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn appeared just two years later, handily answering the high expectations of BG1's fans with a game that was in every way grander in scope and ambition than its predecessor. With a score of 95 on Metacritic, Baldur's Gate II remains one of the best-reviewed games of all time and won multiple Game of the Year awards upon its release. In its review, IGN said that "[t]he comparison between Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II is astounding—like looking at a still oil painting, and then turning to see the scene in living motion on a big screen TV," adding that there was nothing to compare the game to because "Baldur's Gate II has no peers." GameSpot similarly noted that the game had been "designed to be the ultimate AD&D role-playing experience—it features the most powerful monsters, the strongest artifacts, and the huge variety of characters, places, and situations that makeAdvanced Dungeons & Dragons so prevailing. […] It's a definitive role-playing experience, and the only reason it can't be called the best game in its class is because in a sense there's nothing available that compares to it."
If Baldur's Gate II was the "definitive role-playing experience" up to that point, so far ahead of everything else that reviewers couldn't even find a suitable point of comparison, then it was up to BioWare to continue to try to raise the bar for the genre. In 2001, BioWare releasedThrone of Bhaal, the well-received sequel-sized expansion that finished the Baldur's Gate saga by bringing the story of Gorion's Ward and the Bhaalspawn to a close. In the following two years, they returned one more time to the Forgotten Realms with Neverwinter Nights and its expansions. Afterward, the D&D license passed from Interplay to Atari, ending any chance for a Baldur's Gate III but freeing BioWare to work on other projects, eventually creating worlds all their own.
When I was a kid, I had little money of my own, nowhere I needed to be outside of school and sports, and no access to the broader distractions of the internet, which meant that, left to my own devices, I could easily play one game for months. Or listen to one album over and over. Or read the same books year after year.
My first Stephen King novel was The Eyes of the Dragon, a perfect crossover into horror from the fantasy my brother and I had been reading. And then came It. And The Stand. And TheGunslinger. I was hooked, binge-reading King and Dean Koontz and Clive Barker, intoxicated by their dangerous-seeming fare. Reading horror novels, creating D&D campaigns, and playing video games about dark magic and murder was something my mother absolutely didn't want me to do—but she also never completely forbade it. When I first played throughLeisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards—sometime around the age of eleven—I didn't understand much of what was happening, but I knew I was getting away with something. As strict as my parents could be about certain things, they rarely denied us imaginative experiences. Even as a senior in high school, I had a very early curfew, but I could go anywhere I wanted in books or games.
As much as anything else, this was how I became a writer: reading, writing, playing, imagining, and inventing, often returning to the same stories again and again. In these stories I found I could have experiences other people did not have to know about, experiences they could not forbid or control. Books and role-playing games were a way to be somewhere else, to be someone else: As a teenager, I discovered how you could be surrounded by your parents and your brothers and sisters, covertly thinking thoughts you were not supposed to have, safely having experiences so far beyond what anyone else expected for you they were not explicitly forbidden.
It is sometimes difficult to determine correct pronouns when discussing an RPG like Baldur's Gate II, where Gorion's Ward—the player character—can be of variable gender, race, and occupation. Who is the character, and who am I? How separate are these entities? When writing about in-game experiences, are they happening to my version of Gorion's Ward, or are they happening to me, the player? What should we call the character at the heart of our story? Sometimes I will say I and mean either the character or me. Sometimes I will say you and mean either my character, your character, myself, yourself, or some generalized ideal player. Sometimes I will speak of Gorion's Ward in the general sense, rather than in my specific case. There is no one right answer, and all these modes have their own nuances useful for the purposes of discussing the "role-playing" part of an RPG: Who are we when we begin such a game, and who do we become as the game proceeds?
What is it that forces us to venture out alone from our safe places, into the danger of the world? For me, it was at first a barely understood, barely developed desire for more. By my senior year of high school, I knew I was sheltered, restricted, kept safe, a kid of chaotic good alignment not because I had chosen to be good but because I hadn't been given much room to be bad. But later, I decided I didn't want to be good anymore, or at least not only good, and I also didn't want to live like the other teenagers I'd grown up among, who had by then mostly made it clear that I wasn't ever going to really be one of them.
Now, half a lifetime later, I understand that there are many different kinds of experience, and most of my own experiences can be organized into the broad categories of lived life and art life—and if I have spent more of my time in the second realm than in the first, this didn't make my experiences less valuable. The person I've become has been formed not just by direct experience but by the books I've read and the movies I've watched and the albums I've listened to and the games I've played. And then there are the books I've written, where I found that the time spent imagining my own stories was one way to live inside an experience of my own making.
Our lives are nothing more nor less than the sum of the activities we've given our time and attention, and for the next hundred hours, I am choosing to once more live my life insideBaldur's Gate II, moving through its rendering of the Forgotten Realms, into the simulation of that world powered by BioWare's Infinity Engine. I press a button. The world begins, and I am there too, a flicker of life inhabited by a tiny sprite in the center of the screen, waiting for me to move.