I’ll risk sounding silly, but getting Baldur’s Gate II as a Christmas present when I was 12 years old was one of the seminal events of my life. I’d been playing adventure games and RPGs before, my favourites being The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Icewind Dale. Neither these games nor the hype in magazines, however, could prepare me for the richness and freedom of Baldur’s Gate II. Everything that came before seemed like child’s play, everything that came after had to endure usually unfavourable comparisons to The Best Thing That Ever Was.
Baldur’s Gate II was the first game I played that really convinced me that its world extended beyond the limits of the screen. Its scope, length and diversity meant that even after several playthroughs over the course of years, a vestige of its deep magic stubbornly refused to vanish. Eventually, my grown up self respectfully lifted BGII from its pedestal in favour of games that I felt (and still feel) were more interesting or mature. But now that I haven’t played this relic of my past for so long and have started to forget many specifics of it, the magic of it creeps back and tempts me to dig it up (actually, it’s been living on my desktop for a very long time, always installed, never played). And after reading Matt Bell’s book, I think I have a pretty good impression of what I can expect if I do.
Picking up Boss Fight Books: Baldur’s Gate II, I was expecting a light read about the brilliance, importance or even timelessness of a classic game. I’m very glad my expectations weren’t met. At first, the autobiographical accounts about the author’s life, writing career and childhood that ‘interrupt’ his impressions of replaying the game confused me slightly; what was their relevance with regards to the game? It doesn’t take long, however, until the point of it all becomes abundantly clear, and it is the same reason I chose to write the introduction of this article about what BGII meant to me at various points in my life. Despite its name, this book is less about BGII itself than about the way we perceive or remember it – or any other artefact, game or not, that was important at a time in one’s past. Bell illustrates his conflicted view on BGII, which he presents as a sort of epitome of all the games and fantasy novels he adored in his youth. BGII is a beloved memory of his, but it is also an actual program that will repeatedly fail to live up to those memories. It is a part of his identity, but it is also a threatening source of shame and embarrassment in the company of ‘serious’ people.
Matt Bell doesn’t paint over tensions and ambivalences. His book is an exploration of being torn: between past love and present disenchantment and detachment; between one’s own memories and what others tell you really happened; between wanting to acknowledge one’s roots and individuality in the face of potential ridicule of peers, and feeling compelled to distance oneself from one’s past in order to fit in and be ‘respectable’. I suspect that any person, geek/gamer or not, can relate in some form or other with the complex, complicated thoughts and feelings that naturally arise from discrepancies in (self-)perception. How do we reconcile these conflicting perspectives? Can we? Do we want to?
Matt Bell navigates the uncomfortable depths of these gaps expertly and honestly throughout his book, without, however, losing sight of his subject matter. Boss Fight Books: Baldur’s Gate II is after all not ‘only’ a relatable and thought-provoking investigation of a writer/gamer’s perception of his life, but also an insightful game critique. And again, this critique reveals gaps; namely the gaps between a game’s fiction and mechanics, what it says and what it does. BGII tells you that you are a victim and avenger of cruelty, only to compel you to kill thousands of creatures in your path. It encourages you to picture yourself as a hero and paragon, but your main way of interacting with this world is violence. It wants you to see its world as a living place teeming with life and beings with wants and agendas, but as long as the player-character doesn’t act, the world remains sterile and unmoving. It gives the illusion that your companions are people that you can befriend or even romance, but these ‘people’ are a loose association of rough sprites, character portraits, dialogue text and numbers both on and behind the screen. In other words, it demands quite an enormous feat of suspending one’s disbelief: a task that may be far easier for a wide-eyed child than a sceptical adult.
Some of these issues could be considered problems; others are merely valid observations. But all illustrate real gaps that are, of course, not only discernible in BGII or similar RPGs, but in many other games as well, and which are revealed between innocent enjoyment and critical re-evaluation. This does not mean that these games are bad; merely that some struggle to keep up with us as we grow up. And neither does it mean that we must distance ourselves from happy memories or shouldn’t enjoy playing these games now. Rather, it suggests that before we can try to reconcile the gaps, we must acknowledge them first.
The book’s writing and structure mirrors these gaps nicely, oscillating between nostalgia and youthful enthusiasm on the one hand, and honest introspection and critical examination on the other. It manages to do this without ever feeling at odds with itself. Its innocent half is critical to the book as a whole, as the stark contrast allows its surprising earnestness to pack quite a punch.
Matt Bell’s book is an autobiography that grows around Baldur’s Gate II, as well as a thorough examination of that game as seen through a very personal lens. It depends on a specific game for its meaning, but what it says is relevant not ‘just’ to fans of that particular game, but to anyone who has ever confronted a beloved thing from the past and stumbled over a gap.