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  • Andreas Inderwildi

The Existential Dread of Baldur’s Gate III, Part I: In Defense of Darkness

This is the 5th article in the Video Game Cosmology series. Read the intro here. If you like my work, consider supporting me on Patreon!

Content note: This article touches on issues like depression, nihilism and self-destructive urges. It also contains major spoilers for Baldur’s Gate III.

After several hundred hours with Baldur’s Gate III, there is one thing my mind keeps coming back to: Shar, the Lady of Loss, goddess of darkness and sister of Selûne, the goddess of light and the moon. The Sharrans, her cruel adherents, are a major presence throughout the game. At a first glance, they are your stereotypical, ready-made villain: twisted zealots and enemies of all life and light who thrive on torture and manipulation.

But even in these statements, complexities emerge, because when I say “at first glance”, that is only partially true, and only in hindsight. Throughout the entirety of the game’s first act, our main point of contact with Sharran beliefs is everyone’s favourite amnesiac companion and cleric of Shar, Shadowheart. To those who are open-minded, Shadowheart makes a surprisingly convincing case for her Lady of Loss, especially if your main character happens to be a cleric of Selûne:

"The night brings comfort. Through loss, we find acceptance. In the arms of the Dark Mother we find peace. Most fear the dark, like children, because in darkness they see their fears reflected. But Shar teaches us to step beyond fear. Beyond loss. In darkness we do not hide - we act. We tear down the lies the world is drunk on: the institutions they trust, the so-called gods they worship. The lives they cling to."

The texts and inscriptions we encounter in the first act paint a similar picture of an eccentric yet understandable path to comfort. The Sharrans’ belief system seems internally consistent, logical, almost common sense: We all are confronted with the question of how to deal with loss, grief and pain, and no one could deny that darkness and silence – at the very least in their literal sense – are not only integral to the balance of our existence, but also to our mental health and wellbeing. After all, every human being spends roughly one third of their lives in the tranquil comfort of sleep.

At its heart, the Sharrans’ world view seems to share Gnosticism’s disdain for a world that is perceived as an illusion and a prison that keeps its inhabitants in a perpetual state of muddled delusion. It also shares with Gnosticism a longing for a return to a true home beyond the corrupt physical world. As Lady Shar herself puts it: “There was no pain before my sister set the sun aflame. Now you exist to suffer, until you find your way back to my embrace.” It’s an expression of existential pain and alienation that may be dark and troubling, but neither evil nor harmful. It’s a recognition that life is often painful and confusing, and that humans tend to seek comfort and ways to understand and deal with this uncomfortable reality.

The Sharrans take things quite a bit further, but at first, it’s easy to see their ideology as divisive, but ultimately ambiguous, maybe even seductive. It’s not until the 2nd act when we arrive in the Shadow-Cursed Lands and meet Ketheric Thorm and his family that we finally come face to face with the cruelty and destructive power of the Sharrans. Any illusions regarding the nature of Shar’s followers finds a permanent resting ground.

Our encounter with Malus Thorm at the so-called House of Healing makes one thing clear: Sharrans do not simply propose a philosophy that offers a somewhat nihilistic personal path to solace. Rather, they are totalitarian dogmatists who force their war against existence itself on everyone around them – with torture and manipulation being their first choice in pursuing this goal. Malus sees himself as a physician curing his patients. The symptom is light, existence, the world itself, and his cure is the infliction of pain and the destruction of sensory organs. In his own words:

“Absence. No other word captures the heart of Shar so very perfectly. If light is the symptom, then darkness is the cure, for in light there is presence, but in darkness there is absence.”

By removing the eyes of his 'patients', Malus not only destroys their sight, but also creates pain so intense that they come to see the release of death as preferable to continued suffering. Hence, he 'cures' them not only of the 'symptom', but also the underlying causes: namely the desire to live, and life itself.

Even later in the game, in the city of Baldur’s Gate, we plumb further depths of maliciousness and deception: The House of Loss, where Sharrans trick people in pain into erasing their memories, is run essentially like a cult complete with its own toxic self-help literature publishing house preying on the fears, insecurities and grief of people who are at their most vulnerable.

This is the point where the internal consistency of the Sharrans’ world view begins to break down. The question is: What is the purpose of Sharran cruelty? Within their world view, the answer seems clear enough: To manipulate and torture people to turn away from this world and life in general and to seek comfort in Lady Shar’s embrace. But in the context of the world of Baldur’s Gate (or our own, for that matter), the idea that the Sharrans would need to resort to torture and the infliction of pain to successfully seduce people seems far-fetched. After all, Faerun is consistently shown as a brutal place dominated by the whims and pettiness of gods and lords and already produces a surplus of physical, psychological and spiritual suffering. But even that is kind of beside the point for one simply reason: Death. Any world similar to ours plays straight into Shar’s hands, because sooner rather than later, everything will return to nothingness. Shar only needs to sit back and wait.

So why doesn’t she?

One possible explanation is that Shar’s cruelty may be less about achieving strategic goals and more an expression of her nature as an embodiment of absence and darkness. If this is the case, Shar has deluded even her most ardent chosen ones, because the infliction of pain doesn’t fulfil any real purpose besides sating a lust for cruelty. But this interpretation too isn’t very convincing or satisfying: Why would sadism be in the nature of an embodiment of absence? If anything, Shar should be motivated by apathy and the lack of any emotion, whether pleasurable or painful.

At least since the dualistic belief system of Manichaeism, the association of darkness with evil and of light with good has become so firmly entrenched in our metaphors and thinking that we barely notice it anymore. In following this metaphor, however, BGIII conflates two very different sets of dichotomies: presence versus absence on the one hand, and good versus evil on the other. The former is essentially without a moral dimension. It is, in D&D parlance, ‘true neutral’. Yes, absence can mean the negation of light, life or happiness. But it is also the absence of pain, sickness, or confusion. Nevertheless, by conflating the two, BGIII infuses the value neutral dichotomy of ‘presence vs. absence’ with the ethical judgement inherent in the ‘good vs. evil’ dichotomy.

So is the conflation of darkness with evil based on nothing else than ancient dualist prejudices and ready-made metaphors? For most of pop culture, the answer is a clear yes, but in the case of BGIII, it is more complicated. We have already seen that for most of the first act, the game flirts with an ambiguous view of Sharranism before exposing its true nature. Even long after this point, the game retains an empathic view of the desire to escape pain and grief through oblivion, even as it shows how this desire steers people like Ketheric Thorm towards evil and destructive pathways.

In other words, the game paradoxically condemns Shar even as it affirms the graveness of the affliction (i.e. suffering) to which Shar is the most definitive cure (i.e. the end of suffering through oblivion or death). The very extremeness of the cure also highlights an uncomfortable truth: That there really is no objective or unbiased reason to favour existence over non-existence. The hopeless view of, say, a person suffering from depression is no more and no less subjective than the life-affirming view of the world around them.

This is a scary thought. We understand, both as individuals and as members of societies and communities, that in order to function, we at least need to act as if existence is objectively preferable to non-existence. Preserving and creating life is treated as a positive so absolute and self-evident that questioning it becomes almost impossible. If we come to see the world as perhaps not hostile, but indifferent, a thing of no intrinsic purpose, a place full of blind luck and injustices, then the foundational myth our lives and societies are built on is in danger of being revealed as a convenient fiction, and must be reaffirmed by rejecting this ‘revelation’ as a lie.

But in order to reject this revelation, it must first be dragged into the light. This is exactly what BGIII does: It flirts with Sharran beliefs to invoke the spectres of existential dread and nihilist doubts, only to then banish them in a kind of exorcism.

This exorcism serves as a life-affirming act: The struggle against inner demons is projected outward and reframed – in the spirit of D&D – as a heroic battle against the flesh-and-blood enemies of light and life and everything good. And we know that in the end, it’s a battle that promises victory against all odds, and a renewed affirmation of life – at least for the time being. This framing remains intact even if we choose to play as a murderous villain ourselves, with the distinction that we get to enjoy the subversive act of standing on the ‘wrong’ side of the conflict. The game’s value judgement remains intact: We can play as many kinds of heroes and villains, and even as something in between, but we cannot question the moral good of existence without also becoming a villain.

Conversely, if we want to be heroes, there’s only one way forward: To celebrate life in spite of its ‘darkness’, not in ignorance or denial of it. To throw the cruelty of this world back at its face and live life for life’s sake. To drown out all nagging doubts in the pageantry of heroic struggle, self-sacrifice and camaraderie. From most angles, this seems vastly preferable to the silent solace of Lady Shar. From others, it may appear like just the kind of pretty lie the Sharrans have been trying to warn us against.


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