Matt Bell’s newest book, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn is at once a memoir, a lecture on storycraft, an apology, and a love letter to the classic Dungeons & Dragons video game. It comes to us from Boss Fight Books, which specializes in “great books about classic video games.” So if the names Imoen, Jaheria, Aerie, Viconia, Korgan Bloodaxe, Minsc and Boo the miniature giant space hamster mean anything to you, you’ve come to the right place.
We are said to be living in the new golden age of literary science fiction. Video games are supposed to be fine art now. Dungeon masters are our new literary celebrities. These days, you can go to any MFA program in the country and hear people drop references to Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood and even Robert fucking Jordan. So why do I still feel a twinge of embarrassment at the mention of D&D?
The question of shame lies at the heart of this book. Bell chronicles not only his most recent playthrough of the game—a task that takes him 100+ hours and gives the book its structure—but also the shame he remembers of being a D&D kid:
When I was growing up, almost everything I loved was deeply uncool and embarrassing, and so I learned, year by year, to hide more of that part of me away. To pretend I was not into fantasy and science fiction and Dungeons & Dragons. To never talk about computer games in class or on the school bus.
Bell isn’t alone in this. When I told my wife last week that I was reviewing a new book, she asked what it was about. I told her it was about a D&D video game, and I didn’t get much farther before she told me to stop talking. My wife is cool—she’s high school cool. I wouldn’t trade our marriage for anything, but I think she is secretly pleased that I gave away my D&D books long ago, that I threw away my video games and sold my Magic the Gathering cards. I have tried to pretend, at times, that I spent my youth reading Chekhov and Proust instead of Dragonlance novels.
About halfway through the book, Bell describes a time when his own wife caught him in the middle of a D&D session with his brother, “speaking in character, standing excitedly.” After a long car ride, she turns to him and says: “You know this is going to make you unfuckable for a few weeks, right?”
But to call this book a memoir about a nerdy teenage misfit falls short of the mark. Fans of BGII will appreciate the care and sensitivity with which Bell dissects the game’s many plotlines, often scene by scene. Early in the book, for example, Bell carefully explores the existential problem of character death, what he calls the hero’s “Beckettian existence: You die, you reload, you fail again, fail better.” Bell points out that the low stakes death in videogames contrast sharply with the high-stakes, double-down scenarios that readers crave in novels. This doesn’t mean videogames are bad or lazy. Just that they tell stories in a fundamentally different way from books.
Some sections read more like a lecture on storycraft. Bell references Milan Kundera, Kate Bernheimer and Gordon Lish, and his insights make BGII feel profound—they examine the game as if it were a classic work of literature.
The last pages of the book are earnest, personal and unguarded. It is clear that BGII is a way for Matt Bell to reconcile with the kid he abandoned somewhere in his early adult life, and in this exchange lies the book’s final meditation on authenticity.
We all struggle, in some way, to square with our past selves. We have had many lives, and as we grow older our identities become more and more numerous. In the process of living, we abandon our old selves, we give up on those people, we dismantle them, we regret them. But we are not reptiles—we cannot leave our old skins behind. We carry these old selves with us, whether we like it or not.
Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn illustrates the way in which a writer’s life, identity, and personal pursuits are inextricably linked. Bell reminds us that to write well—and to live well—we must remain true to our hidden, buried selves.
– Kaj Tanaka’s stories have been published in PANK, Juked, and The Butter. His work has appeared on Wigleaf’s (very) short fictions list. Kaj is the nonfiction editor at BULL. Tweet him @othrrealppl.