The Short Version: In 2002, BioWare released Baldur’s Gate II – sequel to the terrific Baldur’s Gate and one of the best videogame RPGs ever made. Matt Bell, critically lauded author, was a fan even at the outset – and he returns to the game in an attempt to make peace with his geeky upbringing.
The Review: I played Baldur’s Gate II. I played it a fair amount, although never beat it; I was always more a fan of the turn-based strategy games like Heroes of Might and Magic III. But I think the CD-ROM is probably still somewhere around the computer-desk of my parents’ house, although lord knows what computer I could play it on. I guess I could find a Windows emulator for my Mac, but why go to all the work?
Still, Matt Bell’s wonderful ode to the joys of gameplay – and the joys of playing this game – make me think I might want to try it again.
I’m only familiar with Bell’s debut novel, the complex and beautifully complicated In the House Upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods – although I have his follow-up, Scratcher, on my to-read stack right now. I was curious about what this book would be like: Bell’s writing, in my experience, can be at once dense and sparse, beautiful and crafted and reliant very much upon the reader to fill in the blanks. Would that translate to a streamlined non-fiction setting?
Happily, it does – and you know why? Matt Bell grew up playing video games. Not only that, he co-wrote a Dungeons & Dragons novel in 2011. I won’t tell you which one, only that it’s under a pseudonym and that I plan to pick it up as soon as I can. He talks about his growth as a writer in this book, including taking a class with the famed editor Gordon Lish on the advance from that D&D novel – and it’s interesting to see how the author whose prose made me struggle at times in …House… is the same one as the one writing here, simply playing up different strengths – a cleric/warrior, leveling up one area at a time.
The book, as with all BFB installments, switches back and forth between details of the game/its story and the author’s own interactions with the game/their lives. Bell’s blurs a little more than some others, drawing deeply on the memory of playing both this game as a younger man and other games of yore while also recounting the more recent experience – setting up the idea of several shadow games all occurring together, in a way. This is fitting for a game like BG2, where every individual player will have a different experience – whether via party configuration, quests undertaken, decisions made here or there, the game is unique for everyone, even as it leads you to an ultimately scripted showdown. Bell’s commentary on this game as a precursor of better things while also still being one of the best of its kind ever made is fascinating – he’s done his research and earns his gaming stripes several times over.
His depictions of the game itself are engrossing too. The best games, for my money, have always come with storylines that I wanted to lose myself in (see, again: the HoMM and M&M series, with the battles between the Ironfist brothers and the well-crafted high fantasy surrounding them. It comes as no surprise, thinking back, that I abandoned that multi-game series when it came under new ownership and dropped those storylines for something altogether more rote and boring [the decline in actual game-quality also mattered]) and Bell’s recounting of the story of Gorion’s Ward is all the more gripping under his skillful (if concise) delivery. His talk of sprites, gameplay mechanics, and the save/reload skills one needs to truly play this kind of game well… I smiled, because for the first time with one of these Boss Fight Books, I knew the game he was describing very well and I found myself smiling with a sort of shared-geek-knowledge smile as I read.
Speaking of geekdom, the best moment in this book is not about the game but about Bell himself and it comes near the end, when he writes “There’s no reason for me to hide anymore.” He asks what it is he was hiding and answers “that I believe deeply that I am the person my teenage bullies long ago accused me of being: a geek, a nerd, a freak, a weirdo.” Bell’s embracing, even as an adult, of his geekdom is important – because even as sci-fi, fantasy, videogames, and all the other formerly stigmatic icons of geekdom become increasingly less geeky and more mainstream… there’s still a lot of stigma associated with what we broadly call “genre” – SF/F and others. It came up in this past year’s Tournament of Books, in one of the more vicious comment-section debates I’ve seen, and it surprised me to see that those who feel or felt diminished because of their love for anything non-mainstream were still having to battle for acceptance, I myself being one of them. Bell writes of having his D&D novels tucked away, out of sight, off the shelves of his house – and I winced, because I know that impulse. But I’ve got mine out, and proudly. And I’m going to put [REDACTED D&D NOVEL TITLE] out on those shelves too, right across the room from the latest Jonathan Franzen and Hilary Mantel. Bell’s book shows that it’s okay to embrace the things you love because they’re what make you who you are. We wouldn’t have the wonderful novelist if it weren’t for the pulpy D&D of his youth – and the bullies can get stuffed.
Rating: 5 out of 5. As ever, this might not be the sort of book that appeals to you if you don’t know the game – but, also as ever, I’d encourage readers who are even a little curious (because they’re intrigued by the hamster and armored man on the cover [Minsc! and Boo!], because they like Bell’s work, because of something else entirely) to pick this up and give it a try. It’s about a videogame, yes – but it’s also about a writer coming to terms with his love of fantasy, of geekery, of the things that formed and molded him into the writer he is today. There’s no shame in writing something fantastical or set in space or full of robots – something it took me quite a while to learn, too. Something I’m maybe still learning. It was nice to see that an author I respect quite a bit is still learning it too and willing to be so honest about it.
Now, about finding a CD-ROM drive…
Also, your moment of Minsc zen:
“What? Boo is outraged! See his fury! It’s small, so look close. Trust me, it’s there.” – Minsc