There are several moments in the game Baldur’s Gate II where you have to make a choice. These are all, by definition, “Bioware choices,” and what I mean by that is that they are black and white choices that seem to have very clear outcomes. One is bad, the other is good, and you are making an arbitrary choice at the outset about what kind of person you want to be in the constraints of the game’s fiction. These choices proliferate, and they mark every encounter in the game because you know that they’re going to be coming on down the pipeline. You begin to anticipate them because they set the parameters of the story that you’re creating, and by the end your understanding of the broad motions of that story is so interweaved with the microchoices you made along the way that they’re inseparable.
Matt Bell’s Baldur’s Gate II, the latest Boss Fight book, dwells on decision. As is the strategy of most of Boss Fight’s offerings, the book is really about the author and how the author finds themselves reflected within the game. While this definitely isn’t my preferred way of talking or writing about games, it certainly is a strategy, and it is one that has sometimes been successful in their previous offerings.
The decisions that Bell is writing about are varied and take place at many different times in his life. His decision to re-enter his childhood excitement around Dungeons & Dragons is explained multiple times. His decision to co-write a novel in a Wizards of the Coast gameworld is neatly unpacked in several places, and his following choice to spend the advance for that novel on classes with Gordon Lish takes a prime spotlight for much of the book.
In the game, you make decisions and you live with them and they become the tapestry of life. As Bell so accurately points out, their modularity does not really allow for much reflection. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Bell’s book cannot help but continually scratch and worry at the decisions he has made, returning to them over and over again.
The core of the book is not a reflection on the game Baldur’s Gate II, or at least it isn’t a coherent reflection. Anyone who has played the game can intuit every point Bell makes about the game itself, and there’s much more summary of dialogue and setpiece than there is any actual reading of those elements. So, to be clear, if you’re looking for a meditation on the game, I would (sadly) say to try to find that elsewhere.
What we have in Baldur’s Gate II is the story of someone who is intensely ashamed with fantasy itself. Bell writes over and over again about how the things he associates with childhood are a source of confusion and disavowal for him. At the same time, he returns to the joy he felt playing Gold Box classics or reading through Dungeons & Dragons manuals and you can tell that there’s genuine love there. There’s an oscillation of confession and exuberance that Bell certainly delivers on, but to what end?
I think it all comes down to Gordon Lish. In the middle of the book, Bell writes about traveling to fiction writing workshops with the hyperfamous Lish. He writes about the commanding attitudes and dismissals that Lish hands out, and Bell lumps it all under the trait of “charisma.” Despite what Lish is saying, and how brutal Lish can apparently be, Bell can’t help but respect him and admit to loving him, explaining that for the first time he really understood what it means to be taught.
It’s distressing to read someone clearly outline someone who is being a bully and then proclaim how great that bullying was to their life. It genuinely bothers me to see one more self-proclaimed writer of literary fiction propping up a legend by explaining how valuable emotional abuse is as a critical mode of engagement and education.
The advice that Lish hands out is all over the book. Sections of explanation from the game are minimal, and vast swaths of the game are ignored or quickly written about. Bell is more interested in telling us that the game is big and that we will all have different experiences than he is in explaining what those experiences might be, or why they might be different, or why that even matters. It’s a punchy way of writing about a game, and a genre, that Bell is clear to mark as languid and florid, and it feels like a mismatch to try to pare all of that down into a neat package with a bow on it.
Like all writing, Bell is designing. His choice to valorize the (from an outsider perspective) abusive relationship that Lish has with students is designed. His decision to cut down on actual readings of the game is design. His continual dwelling on his nerdy shame, what Lish calls “the wound,” is clearly design.
When reading the game and the player’s relationship to the game, Bell puts a lot of thought into design. He wants to understand the narrative structure on some level, and quotations about the design of the game are peppered throughout the book—he wants us to know that he’s done his homework when it comes to how Baldur’s Gate II came into its particular being. In the relatively few places where he is reading the game, Bell pays particular attention to how all of its parts both cohere and fail to cohere into a singular media object. He points out that side quests, character deaths in combat, and many game events seemingly never “register” with the grand narrative of the game, leaving the game feeling fragmented anywhere other than the mind of the player.
The singular moments that Bell describes as being important or formative for him are functionally held together with duct tape. He writes a lot of words that attempt to pick at “the wound,” his shame at his childhood objects of fascination, and despite Lish’s advice about doing that, it doesn’t make for great reading. The grand design of the book, much like the grand design of the game it is ostensibly about, seems to be running several parallel processes that are never reconciled with one another. Bell is clear that the player-centered nature of a game can make that coherence work in some strange way, but sadly this book is not able to function in the same way. It leaves me with very little other than the knowledge that Matt Bell has a wound that he can’t stop picking at.
And maybe that’s the point. We can imagine a world, or a reader, who finds this brand of writing more engaging than I do. I can imagine a short review blurb feeling very in-its-place in the middle sections of an issue of Bookforum, and despite all of my unhappiness at the end of things, the book is actually a pleasure to read. Bell clearly has skill as a writer, and this is as fine a work in this genre and theme that you’re likely to find. Bell made some decisions, and he designed a work that fits those decisions in a very particular form. To evaluate it like Roger Ebert would have, I can say that it succeeds and excels at what it wanted to do; I would have preferred that Baldur’s Gate II did something else.
Baldur’s Gate II was written by Matt Bell and published by Boss Fight Books.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.