Role-Playing and Life: A review of Baldur’s Gate II by Matt Bell

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Baldur’s Gate II
by Matt Bell
Boss Fight Books, 2015
140 pp, $14.95
Reviewed by Daniel Miller

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One-third memoir, one-third video game theory, and one-third writing theory, Matt Bell takes on thieves, mages, and warriors in the 8th installment from Boss Fight Books. Bell is the first in the series to tackle a western role-playing game and, in selecting Baldur’s Gate II, has set the bar high for those to come. Very high.

Split into five chapters, Bell weaves from game theory to writing theory to his own life and coming to terms with his inner nerd, and back again. He does this flawlessly. There are no clear partitions between the three focuses and oftentimes one bleeds into another which bleeds into another, ad infinitum. Baldur’s Gate II is brief, but Bell’s weaving of this narrative, like all good video games, packs more content than the package suggests, and while a decent portion of Bell’s writing is dedicated to describing Bell’s play-through of the game from start to finish—no easy feat considering the game’s length, something Bell counters by talking about the game’s plot generally, leaving only select moments to be discussed specifically—the book offers much, much more. Whether Bell is discussing his childhood playing early Dungeons & Dragons computer games, or writing a Dungeons & Dragons novel under the pen-name Matthew Beard[1], or even taking a workshop with Gordon Lish, Baldur’s Gate II is as much about the world of influences that have led Bell to be the writer, and person, for that matter, he is today, as it is about Gorion’s Ward, the ambiguously androgynous protagonist of the 2001 D&D PC game, Baldur’s Gate II.

“In a role-playing game, you start life already a hero.” This is how Bell begins chapter one of Baldur’s Gate II, and while it is true for video games, it is the opposite in reality. Perhaps the most captivating of Bell’s narratives in the book is that which focuses on his own life. Bell recalls his childhood experiences with the Dungeons & Dragons franchise, recounting early teacher’s giving him copies of PC games; stumbling upon his father’s own collection of D & D tabletop games and books; of the connection that the series and other fantasy books and games brought to Bell’s relationship with his brother. And while these may all seem like experiences one might consider nostalgic, they are, for Bell, symbolic of immaturity. Or, they were, rather. In Baldur’s Gate II, Bell confronts the isolation he once felt regarding his interest in fantasies like Dungeons & Dragons. It is the author learning to embrace an important element of his own writing, of his childhood, of his entire life. And while Bell notes the difficulty of this, it is clear that his insecurities are no longer insecurities, but rather facets of himself as a character, as a hero.

While the brevity of Baldur’s Gate II is a great success of the book, it’s also where the book struggles, for while such a tiny book is packed full of content, it still isn’t enough. It would, of course, be impossible for Bell to recount every second of his hundred or so hours replaying Baldur’s Gate, but there are topics he raises that leave the reader wanting more, more, more. The most notable example of this can be found in Bell’s discussion of video game theory as applied to Baldur’s Gate. Take, for example, Bell’s discussion of character hit-points in chapter II, and specifically his discussion of the possible sexual assault of one character, Imoen. “If Irenicus raped Imoen or otherwise sexually assaulted her…,” Bell asks, “…how can game mechanics possibly account for such an atrocity?” The question is a difficult one, and Bell answers with more questions and, finally, with the succinct point that “whatever has happened to her, it will not prevent her from joining your party or from killing the countless enemies you will encounter together, just as she did in the first Baldur’s Gate.”

This point, along with other philosophical thoughts regarding a handful of hand-drawn sprites and their controller, the ambiguous “you,” skim the surface of an ocean’s worth of discussion and whether or not Baldur’s Gate II should be the venue for that discussion, the reader is definitely left wanting it. Does Bell have answers to these questions? And if he does, what are they? With the recent finishing of his new novel, Scrapper, with book tours and teaching and a family, Bell is obviously a busy man, but had he the time, a much longer book would have offered that additional satisfaction. And, like the expansions of Baldur’s Gate II, like the recently announced third full game in the Baldur’s Gate series, to be released fifteen years after the game that so shaped Bell’s own life, there is time. Time for Bell to make these observations and to, if he’d like, answer them.

Baldur’s Gate II is successful in nearly all aspects. It’s a book that offers something for every kind of reader—whether they write or whether they play role-playing games, or whether they are interested in both. 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. In Bell’s other works of prose it is easy to see fantastical elements seeping in, and like Baldur’s Gate II, it works. It works really, really well.

Late in the book, Bell offers a bit of pedagogical advice for the creative writing workshop:

“When I teach younger writers,” he says, “one of the things I try to stress is how to not give up what’s weird or quirky or strange about yourself, about the way your mind works.”

But this is more than advice. Like role-playing games, Bell is offering his student a quest, a quest that he is only just finishing, as he embraces who he really is. The quest seems simple but is, in actuality, a challenge for most of us: Don’t lose sight of the things you love, of what shaped you as the person you now are, and through finishing this quest, through embracing your own weirdness and quirks, you will be one step closer—one mouse-click closer, perhaps—to becoming a hero.

[1] The Last Garrison: A Dungeons & Dragons Novel, Wizards of the Coast (2011), 322 pp

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Atticus Review is a weekly online journal that publishes stories, poems, flash prose, creative nonfiction, mixed media, book reviews, and other genre-busting words of wisdom and interactive literary whimsy.

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