Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn by Matt Bell

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Genre fiction and literary fiction have made an uneasy alliance over the last decade. The literary establishment has discovered the usefulness of speculative fiction. Well-regarded literary authors have seized upon the precepts of genres that for so long were labeled inconsequential; in the last year, for example, we’ve witnessed Kazuo Ishiguro’s brilliant take on Arthurian fantasy, Emily St. John Mandel’s elegant dabbling in post-apocalypse, and the announcement of a science-fiction television drama to be pioneered by Zadie Smith. With the floodgates easing open, literary authors are herding toward the pariah genres that they avoided for so many years.

Enter Matt Bell. With his new memoir/exploration of the classic D&D fantasy game Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, which is also the title of the book, he takes an obsession from his youth and applies it to the embattled topic of genre and literary convention.

Bell has come to be known as a literary author, and his recent fiction has veered toward a sort of spooky, transubstantiated naturalism. If you follow Bell on Facebook, or read deeply into his work, you find his enthusiasm for genre, not just in fiction, but in the vastly imperfect world of games, both traditional and digital. His love of swords and sorcery is woven into the fabric of his being, in the same way that people remember foods from their childhood with various degrees of desire and disgust.

Like the source material it explores, Baldur’s Gate II is fricative. We are introduced to a narrator somewhat unsure of why he has decided to embark on his enterprise. He understands the subject matter well—it’s a fragment of his adolescence. The game was an early model of what would become the choose-your-own-alignment style of play, in which character avatars can make moral/ethical decisions that, in theory, alter the outcome of the quest. This appealed to a generation of young gamers, many of whom were engaging with fraught personal decisions themselves, and were agog at the possibility of choice-based interfaces.

Each section of Bell’s book is preceded by a character quote from the game. The first quote, uttered by a barbarian ranger called Minsc, is telling in its excess. “Go for the eyes Boo, GO FOR THE EYES!! RrraaAAGHGHH!!!” we read, before going on to receive a brief note about the game version. The second quote, also by Minsc (“Will you help me? We must join together once more, and our fury will be such that bards will run their quills dry! Yes, ink will be scarce where e’er we go.”), implies that we should prepare for what’s to come—a look at the relationship between the aesthetic status of video games and the writer himself, who has come to leave behind and/or conceal his geek persona in favor of cultural acceptance. Baldur’s Gate II feels in many ways like a coming out tale. Bell, queasy about how he should reconcile his love for gaming and fantasy with an old guard literary establishment that is selective about who can include speculative elements in fiction and how, attempts to break free from a mold of his own making.

Bell doesn’t spend too much time or energy expounding on the design elements of Baldur’s Gate II. Though it would have certainly been an appealing choice for many authors to wax poetic on the Infinity Engine (the software used to generate the game’s revolutionary isometric structure), or the country of Amn in which BGII is set, Bell resists the temptation, preferring instead to concentrate on whether or not the game reflects the experience it promises and, more interestingly, the experience of writing and reading fiction. In chapter 2, for instance, foreshadowing many more such instances to come, Bell veers into a discussion of ethics in gaming, as it pertains to violence.

In Baldur’s Gate II, you are both the victim of great acts of violence and also violence’s greatest perpetrator, killing your way across every realm you roam. How does the game’s story account for the tension between the atrocities it claims its villains have perpetrated and the incredible numbers of violent acts the player is asked to commit? Mostly by pretending there is no conflict, no dissonance, no contradiction.

Over and over again, Bell asks us to think of games as they might translate to prose; perhaps as a way for the author to explore his own sense of accountability as it relates to media consumption, or perhaps as a wider critique—common these days—of accepted micro-notions of race, gender, and violence, in pop culture. His sword, as a writer, cuts both ways, carving into an ambivalence that many consumers of genre fiction tend to glaze over.

Bell juxtaposes the axiological elements of Baldur’s Gate II with scenes from his own youth. He recalls his childhood as happy and mostly uncontroversial, with a large, stable, supportive family. Bell’s father introduced him to Dungeons & Dragons indirectly, after passing along a stack of his old books. Bell started playing it with his older brother, who was even more enthused about it. What is fascinating is not how Bell came to become interested in role playing games, but in how it leads him to a candid discussion of his own writing and, by extension, literary convention as a whole.

At one time Bell wrote a book set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe called The Last Garrison. Co-authored with Matthew Simmons, it was eventually published by Wizard’s of the Coast under the penname Matthew Beard. Bell wasn’t especially serious about writing the novel when he and Simmons starting kicking around the idea, but when Simmons informed Bell of the possibility of getting an editorial contact, the two decided to embark. They drafted up a story reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and the pitch was approved. Bell thought it would be a fun, silly project that he would look back on with fondness. But as he continued to work on the book, Bell became disillusioned.

Despite how much of my life I’ve spent with D&D, there was still a big part of me that felt dumb working on a D&D book. As much as I liked geeking out in bars with friends about our good old days playing D&D or our current video game obsessions, I found that the thrill of actually writing this novel wasn’t sustainable for me. Months into the project, I still frequently felt like I was just filling out an outline, and writing game mechanics into the prose felt like the worst kind of fan fiction.

This is one of the most fascinating conundrums in the book. Can genre conventions truly mesh with a literary author’s ambition to be taken seriously? What does it mean “to be taken seriously” anyway?

Another wound I continue to carry is the deep shame I sometimes feel about who I was and what I was interested in when I was a child, as a teenager, as an adult: how the fantasy novels and the role-playing and the video games don’t match cleanly to the image I’ve tried to cultivate as a “serious” man, as a writer of fiction, a professor, and an editor.

From chapter four on, Bell gets to the theme at the heart of Baldurs Gate II: perceptions of success in the literary community, where smoke and mirrors abound. Bell is honest about his fears of being seen as inconsequential, and this is a breath of fresh air, since so many authors are loath to admit to being unsure about their vision. Bell’s ambivalence toward genre isn’t just something he discusses openly. It’s something you can feel as a reader throughout this book.

Authors are far from free to write what they want, regardless of how much they may be convinced otherwise. Baldurs Gate II is about exactly that. It’s an uneasy, courageous, and ultimately vulnerable attempt to bridge a divide most of us are unwilling to admit exists. Bell’s book succeeds because it lays this conflict bare. Anything less would have been yet another eruption of nostalgia, a piecemeal expression of the kind of postmodern decadence that we’ve seen too much of in recent years.

Samuel Sattin is a novelist, comics-creator, essayist, and teacher. He is the author of comic series Legend (May 2016) The Silent End, and League of Somebodies. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon Magazine, io9, Kotaku, The Fiction Advocate, Publishing Perspectives, The Weeklings, The Rumpus, The Good Men Project, Litreactor,  Buffalo Almanack, SF Signal, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in Comics from California College of the Arts and has a creative writing MFA from Mills College. He teaches at the California College of the Arts, and lives in Oakland, California. More from this author →