Boss Fight Books does for video games what Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series does for albums: Make space for sustained, thoughtful criticism in a slim, standalone paperback. Video game writing, however, has none of the romanticized patina that music criticism has (hello, Almost Famous). And so perhaps the Kickstarter-funded Boss Fight Books is trying to do something a little more—not just make space for a serious consideration of video games, but argue for that criticism’s very existence.
Boss Fight Book’s latest offering, novelist Matt Bell’s treatment of the celebrated 2000 Dungeons and Dragons-based computer RPG, Baldur’s Gate II, considers similar questions: What does it mean to love a video game? And why does it matter?
Matt Bell, a fixture of the indie publishing world, was about eighteen when the first Baldur’s Gate arrived and twenty when its highly anticipated sequel followed. Now, at thirty four, and as the author of four books of fiction (short story collections How They Were Found and Cataclysm Baby, novels In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods and Scrapper, the last forthcoming from Soho Press in September) and as professor at Arizona State University, he wrestles with his past and present selves, blending video game criticism with memoir.
He talks about “the deep shame I sometimes feel about who I was and what I was interested in as a child, as a teenager, as an adult: how the fantasy novels and the role-playing and the video games don’t match cleanly to the image I’ve tried to cultivate as a ‘serious’ man, as a writer of fiction, a professor, and an editor.”
In the book, this conflict comes to a head in 2010 while Bell attends a class taught by legendary and brutal editor Gordon Lish at the Center for Fiction, a class paid for by an advance Bell received to co-author a novel for D&D publishers Wizards of the Coast. (This is the literary fiction equivalent of robbing Peter to pay Paul.) Once, Lish finds Bell before class at work at his laptop in a restaurant nearby the Center for Fiction. Lish asks to see what Bell is writing and—it’s his D&D novel, The Last Garrison. In a movie, Bell would show Lish the manuscript and, like the prickly food critic in Ratatouille, the editor would experience a flashback to the joy he found in storytelling as a child and offer his warm approval. In real life, Bell (wisely I think) demurred. Lish, at least for the duration of the class, knew nothing of the other kind of fiction Bell was writing.
The Baldur’s Gate series forms a perfect backdrop for this conflict, of present and past selves, of the search for a true self. In the first installment, users play as Gorion’s Ward (aka [your name here]) and discover that they are a child of Bhaal, a deposed god of murder. Most people play as good-aligned characters, and the game itself subtlety nudges you in that direction—though it’s both possible and common to play as a neutral or evil character. For the majority of users who play Baldur’s Gate I and II, reconciling a good nature with a murderous heritage becomes one of the game’s central themes. Who are you if not who you are at this very moment? But also, who are you if not where you came from?
I had just started playing Baldur’s Gate II again when I picked up Bell’s book. It was a happy accident: I had never completed the Throne of Bhaal expansion pack when I first played the game in 2009 and decided this summer to try to make it through again. During that first run through, I had left the game in its final chapters, when I couldn’t decide whether my character should dump her truly awful and boring in-game boyfriend, the brattish class-snob Anomen, and become a god, or renounce immortality and like “get married.” I knew then what the right decision was (hint: it wasn’t Anomen) but I felt too much pity for him to carry it out. This time around I flirted with possibility of not starting the relationship with Anomen at all: all you have to do is answer his sappy and ignorant questions to you in a rude, i.e., honest manner. Instead I’ve decided that my character will date him, just so that she can dump him later on her way to glory. This is one of the perks of role playing.
Because I can’t spend all of my time playing videos games (alas), I’m stuck in the interminable second chapter of Baldur’s Gate II, a stage where my character and her companions wander around the city of Athkatla, picking up and trying to complete nearly every quest they can find. Depending on your speed and thoroughness, it can take potentially 60 to 100 hours to complete. Bell calls this “the most memorable part of Baldur’s Gate II, when the game is most alive with surprise and possibility, when there is the most to do, when your progress through the game is most directed by your own decisions.”
A similar section dominates, in my mind, the first game in the series, though it takes place at end of the game rather than its beginning. When, after ranging up and down the Sword Coast in search of her foster father’s murderer, Gorion’s Ward and her companions finally enter the city of Baldur’s Gate itself, and the shrapnel from a thousand different quests seems to explode on them at once. You cannot turn a corner, illuminate an unknown area, or enter a new building without being flagged down by a crying child or a panicked man. The screen is thick with life. Though I didn’t play Baldur’s Gate II until after college, the first Baldur’s Gate, when it came out, was a text my twelve-year-old self studied with fierce attention and infinite patience. It’s moments like these, Bell says, when “the game feels almost limitless.”
But there are limits. Baldur’s Gate II, Bell observes, brought to the series and to the broader field of RPGs the option of romantic storylines. He also notices something I never consciously did—that all four of the potential love interests are elves or humans or a combination of the two. Also that these four can only fall in love with avatars on the human-elf continuum. Halflings, dwarves, gnomes, and half-orcs are out of luck, which says a lot about how beauty, humanity, and YES race (real world, not D&D) affect the kind of romantic stories mainstream white American culture is willing to tell. Don’t even get me started on the drow: D&D’s only elves of color and subsequently only population of straight-up evil elves. (Drizzt Do’Urden is like D&D’s one black friend.) Bell also rightfully points out the lack of queer romances here, unsurprising and disappointing in equal measure. Even in this alternative space, where—thrillingly—the powerless became empowered, we were bound by the limitations we carried with us.
As a girl and then a woman who has played this series, I grappled with how women were portrayed on screen. At twelve, I invested a lot into how my avatar looked, both in the detailed character portrait and in the abstracted sprite that moved around on screen. In the first Baldur’s Gate, female fighters, when they first appear on the character generation screen, wear only bikinis. (Worst clothes to fight in.) Even female mages, who are wearing breezy, comfortable, and utilitarian robes, must suffer a long slit, a la Angelia Jolie at the 2012 Oscars, up to the hip. In both games, there’s much about your character’s appearance you can customize with armor and helmets and magical cloaks, but the slit always remained, unalterable. Shuffling through the illustrated close-up portraits available, my younger self faced a minefield of heavy-lidded women with come-hither looks or women who look like they answered a casting call for a Viking movie. Neither were particularly appealing to me at the time—I usually settled on a picture of a woman who looks like she just poisoned someone. Male characters portraits, zero surprise at all, were decided less sexualized and also offered more variety in mood, age, expression. In Baldur’s Gate II, you could even play (basically) as Vin Diesel!
Even though on the surface these kinds of details don’t seem like they should matter, they do. Bell writes about the strange investment players often place in these small, featureless sprites. “There is probably a way to play BG2 where you accept the permadeath of characters and move on,” he writes. Instead, “I’m willing to push through difficulty, fighting battles over and over until they come out right. I’m not willing to watch my investment in a character get lost because of an errant dice roll.” I hated to watch my character’s companions die—I almost always reloaded, even though I could resurrect them with priest spells within the game. Worst of all was when a party member burst, on screen, into a shower of disparate body parts. Bell too writes of the guilt he felt when he was forced to leave a companion, Nalia, behind in a magical island prison. A party can have only six members (including your own character) at any given point. Nalia’s slot had to be relinquished to a more important character, the one he had gone to the prison to save in the first place. In the book he goes as far as to apologize directly to her. “Sorry friend,” he writes.
In an email conversation with me, Bell also talked a little bit about Khalid, a character from the first Baldur’s Gate whose dead body Gorion’s Ward discovers soon upon beginning Baldur’s Gate II. I always kept Khalid alive and well through the trials of the first game all for reasons of narrative: he was married to the smart and sensible Jaheria, they were both Gorion’s friends. Bell opted for a more strategic path: “if Khalid leaves by your request, he takes Jaheira with him. So instead I left him to die, weaponless and unarmored and surrounded by gnolls, all so I could use his spot in the party without giving up his wife, one of the best party members in the game.” It feels tragic to me. I think it felt tragic to Bell too. But we, and everyone who has loved these games, take what we can get—even my character’s terrible boyfriend Anomen—and put it to our own uses.
“I have never been truly able to stomach any version of myself except the most present,” Bell writes. The shame he recounts as he navigated life shielding one portion from the other is palpable: denying Gordon Lish a look at his D&D novel, ignoring a former, fellow-nerdy friend from high school at a buffet so Bell’s wife wouldn’t meet him and see “in him the kind of person I might have turned into,” even sheepishly admitting to fellow faculty the number and variety of video games he owns. Once, while playing a tabletop D&D game with his family, his wife arrived early to pick him up—witnessing “each of us speaking in character, standing excitedly as we spoke, then diving back to the coffee table to roll dice.” Occasionally Bell would see “my wife watching aghast from across the room” and, on the car ride home afterwards, she teases him “You know this is going to make you unfuckable for a few weeks, right?”
The manner in which Bell writes about these events feels so surprising to me: with straightforward clarity, full of anxious prevarication. The Bell I know, and by this I mean the prose rather than the person, is tightly wound, elaborately flourished, gorgeous and dense. This voice is altogether a different thing, more conventionally “normal” but also 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.
“There’s no reason for me to hide anymore,” he writes. “Much of our popular culture is based in science fiction, comic books, and fantasy, with many of the biggest movies every year being set in future dystopias or fantastical worlds, and video games are widely enjoyed by a huge portion of the population.” He mentions writers Junot Díaz, China Miéville, Cory Doctorow, and Sherman Alexie who openly admit the influence of D&D. “What, exactly, is it that I’m hiding?”
He already knows the answer to that question: “That I am still, in my heart of hearts, that younger person,” he writes. “That I believe deeply that I am the person my teenage bullies long ago accused me of being: a geek, a nerd, a freak, a weirdo.”
Bell faces a process rather than a decision, a reintegration rather than a revelation. He cannot flip an internal switch and forget everything he’s been taught about the cultural value of books versus games or literary fiction versus genre. He must unlearn it, or learn new things. And while this reconciliation between nerdy youth and literary adult has been long and uncomfortable, but it’s also yielded incredible fruits: Bell’s surreal and assured fiction.
“When I let back in the kind of fantastic and fabulist stories I’d grown up on, it almost immediately resulted in more lively fiction than I’d been making in the years before,” he writes. “I was using all of my imagination instead of just the portion I thought would be acceptable to others.”
He still faces misgivings—about his D&D novel, The Last Garrison; about the very book I write about now, Baldur’s Gate II. But he doesn’t turn away anymore: “I now suspect that one way to end the injury I did to myself by hiding what I loved is to reveal the shame I felt publicly, to put that admission into writing and to make it public.”
“This book you’re holding is one way for me to say, This is who I was,” he writes. “It is also, in almost every important way, still who I am.”
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