I used to write about games. Years ago, this blog was dedicated to writing about video games as a way of trying to “break in” to games criticism. And, while I wrote for a few sites for a couple years, others things got in the way (read: I had to pay my way through my Computer Science degree, finished a MA in English, and am now getting a PhD in what is basically Digital Humanities by a different name).
I’d like to return to writing about games I’ve played. First, because I need to write about games on a more regular basis. (I write pedagogically materials on a daily basis, and it rarely has to do with the thing I actually study, narrative games.) Second, because when I did some research for the A Quick Visual History of CRPGs post, I realized I have literally dozens of games I own but have played very little.
While my free time is not what it once was years ago, I’m slowly working through games in that queue that catch my attention or are notable. The first of these is, in many ways, the start of a entirely different visual branch for role-playing games: Baldur’s Gate (1998).
This post is a collection of thoughts, observations, and general musings. It’s “academic,” in that I am one and am writing these words, but it is not aimed at being at being anything in a formal genre.
Diegetic “I” and “You”
“I cannot write for long, for I am faced with a pressing emergency…” starts one of the stranger moments of Baldur’s Gate (1998). The Quest log, labelled “Journal” in the game, keeps track of events and helps the player, to some degree, to know what they have done and where to go next. As events unfold, it updates and keeps a “journal,” with timestamps using the in-game day and time, to log when things happen. As part of the log, it uses a curious pronoun: “I.”
As the start of the entry quoted above shows, the quest log is supposed to be written in the hand of the protagonist, noting their own accomplishments. Such positioning, of course, makes it part of the in-game, diegetic. The protagonist is supposedly writing all of these things and the player, as the audience, reads them. This creates a strange narrative friction between the audience (player) directing the protagonist to to both do the actions and then write about them at the same time.
Added to this strangeness is something else: its timing. As the above entry shows with it starting “I cannot write for long,” the narrative framing of the entries are that they happen in real-time. For a game to be revealing information to the player, this makes perfect sense. The game is using a non-diegetic method to remind the player of things. Yet, the “I” and timing of the posts is a curious thing. It puts in mind of the player, as it did mine, of the protagonist pausing during different moments to write things down: “Just a moment. Yes, yes, we killed all these people and were removing their clothing, but I need to note it down in my journal before we continue here. Just a moment — just a moment.”
The “I” that appears in the journal is also in narrative conflict with the “you” of the cut scenes. As the game moves between chapters, it explains what has been going on previously and setups the exposition for the next part of the game. Yet, unlike the “I” of the journal, this uses a different pronoun: “you.”
“You have been accused,” starts the second sentence of the above screenshot. The “you,” of course, is the protagonist. The game is pointing at the protagonist, but is actually indirectly informing the player in the same way the quest log and journal does with “I.” This breaks with the convention of the protagonist writing and speaks with a “dungeon master” voice of what must happen next. You, the player behind the protagonist, must now do something else because “I” have told you to, as I am the voice of the game and a new chapter of this story has now opened. Go and do my bidding!
The World Is Enough. Honestly, It’s Too Much
Before playing Baldur’s Gate (1998), the two games of this visual style I had played the most of were Pillars of Eternity (2015) and its sequel, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire (2018), with around 60+ hours in each. For me, in looking at Baldur’s Gate (1998), I was seeing echoes of those games, even though the lineage is, in fact, reversed. The developers of Pillars of Eternity (2015) purposely re-created the style and many of the same mechanics of the Infinity Engine games. They played directly into the existing visual language, and, yes, nostalgia, of people who loved those games. Yet, in having that knowledge, the one thing that kept occurring to me was the following: this game is way too empty.
The wiki says there are 54 named locations in Baldur’s Gate (1998). I saw, I think, maybe a third of them during my fairly quick play-through using Story Mode. (My total time was around nine hours out of what is advertised as “75+ hours of content.”) As I wandered around in often large areas, I would slowly see more of the map. As the screenshot above shows, you can only “see” parts that your party has explored. Yet, in re-creating what was no doubt a remediation of a party of players exploring parts of a table-top map when playing Dungeons & Dragons together, I kept getting frustrated when trying to find things. I would often have to clear most of a map to find the one person or thing I needed to see, kill, or get before then telling my party to run to the edge of the screen in order to get back to the World Map.
Many of the locations, and the sewers in the city of Baldur’s Gate are a great example, are very hard to navigate. The isomorphic view means that parts of doors, walls, and even walkways are hard to see and the player sometimes needs to move the cursor around to find the exact spot to click next to direct the party to move to next. (The Thief’s Maze at the end of the game is extremely annoying in that regard.) Combined with needing to “explore” in order to find doors, I lost much more time than I liked simply walking around trying to find where to go next. The occasional fight broke up this up, but of all of the improvements found in games following in this model, I am glad that navigating tight hallways is mostly gone from the genre.
Dead Men and Female Courtesans
When I finally finished a playthrough of Planescape: Torment (1999) last year, I noticed something I meant to write about at the time that appears again — well, for the first time, I guess — in Baldur’s Gate (1998). Let’s call it The Troubling Gender Politics of Dungeons & Dragons.
During a quest in the city of Baldur’s Gate, I ventured into the sewers of the city. Navigating the tight spaces, I came across multiple dead bodies and various creatures feasting on them. Upon clicking on the bodies in a few places, a theme quickly developed: all of the corpses are male. In fact, in anther unusual moment in the game, the party can, in fact, pick up and walk around with “Male Body,” one of many items to be found in the piles. Continuing through the sewers leads to another location past all the piles of bodies: the Underceller.
The Underceller is a brothel of sorts under the city of Baldur’s Gate. I note “of sorts,” because it caters to a very specific audience: heterosexual men. Now, of course, queer women and nonbinary pals may find the women attractive, but in the Underceller all of the women — and they are all women — are only in their rooms with Noblemen, the generic title for non-player characters. In fact, in exploring around the docks of Baldur’s Gate, the player may run into other “Courtesan” characters as well. All of them, well, the screenshot above gives a great example: they speak in inuendo.
The more heterosexual nature of the Courtesan characters could be explained, in part, with some hand-waving of perhaps queer characters not hanging out at this particular place. Maybe, after all, it is “hetero night” or some other event where the couples are women and men. Or, of course, perhaps there are multiple trans characters or others using magic to present themselves in different ways. In a world of portals and multiple dimensions, and most importantly spells that can transform people into other shapes, types, and bodies through simply uttering a few phrases, lots of things are possible.
There is a succubus in Durlag’s Tower. Upon meeting her, when playing as a woman in Baldur’s Gate (1998), some dialogue gets changed. Kirinhale, the succubus, replies in part: “A female? After all this time, and I am found by a female? Leave me, I cannot afford to waste my charms on you.” As the game goes out of its way to point out in this dialogue, a succubus cannot tempt a woman. After all, charms would be wasted. It’s not like women, trans men, and nonbinary people can find women attractive. That’s only for cis-het men, right?
In Planescape: Torment (1999) there is another succubus. When I ran into Kirinhale and saw her dialogue Baldur’s Gate (1998), I immediately remembered the other succubus, Fall-From-Grace. The connection between Kirinhale and Fall-From-Grace deals directly with the sexual politics of both games, released around a year from each other. On the character screen for Fall-From-Grace, it describes her in the following way: “her body and mind the perfect template to tempt a man of any species, any age.”
If there was any doubt about either game, Fall-From-Grace’s equipment double-downs on the yuck fest. Her earrings have an in-game description that “they look really good on her” and, of course, her chastity bodice, well, the writers of Planescape: Torment (1999) decided this was a great place to get extra gross: “Despite its prim and proper appearance, it does little to detract from Grace’s sensuality.”