While Baldur’s Gate’s game play is still clunky — I can’t count the number of times I yelled at my party: “You can’t walk through walls, goddammit!” – the themes it engages with are still worthy of attention, nearly a decade and a half later. I’m not going to drone on about the game play mechanics and how it revolutionized the arena of PC gaming or how the Dungeons and Dragon RPG style is or is not stale. Instead, I want to get at an issue that is important to me as an adult feminist, and how Baldur’s Gate functions as a beautiful example of this: that is, the identity politics at the forefront of the narrative.
When Baldur’s Gate was first released in 1998 by BioWare, I was immediately hooked. My only experience with character customization at this point had been with the Sega Genesis (please don’t hate me NESers, we can all be friends, right?!) game Shining Force, where you name the hero whatever you so chose. But that was it. Enter Baldur’s Gate, where I get to pick everything — and to a 10 year-old girl who grew up playing Final Fantasy games and one-man shooters like Quake and Unreal, being able to make my character look like myself was the coolest thing possible.
I still remember my Baldur’s Gate heroine: a barbarian looking woman, a human fighter, alignment neutral. Fourteen years later, I made almost the exact same character, with the exception that I changed my alignment to chaotic good (I got a little bit more tough as I grew up, seemingly).
What I find interesting about this little dip into my psychology is with Baldur’s Gate I felt a particular need to recreate the exact same character my 10 year-old-self created. Yet with Mass Effect 2, there was no doubt I wanted to play Shepherd as a male. Even in Pathfinder, I allowed myself more room to explore various classes and abilities — although not a hobbit (being only five foot nothing in real life, being an elf/human is the only chance I‘ll ever get to be tall).
So what is it about Baldur’s Gate that compelled me to play the same character, a character I initially created out of a need to legitimize myself as a gamer girl?
My answer? The identity politics at play in both games are vastly different and invoke different implications, depending on the identity politics in your own life.
ME2 on the PS3 has a far deeper range of character-customization. But this extreme in-depth customization is tied to the literal reconstruction of self: you “died” and are being rebuilt, essentially from the ground-up. This allows for a complete free pass at re-creating who you want to be, what you want your history to be, what do you want to stand for and so forth. There are no rules to play by, except whatever you want, completely unbound by an implicit narrative.
But in Baldur’s Gate, the identity politics are much more contentious and narrative driven: you are the offspring of the Lord of Murder, Bhaal (affectionately referred to as Bhaalspawn), and learning about this and accepting it is the driving narrative arc of the entire game. Baldur’s Gate is about coming to terms with an illegitimate side of yourself, the identity that is cast off from society and viewed as not only unworthy, but deserving of disdain and disgust. While as a kid, the appeal was getting to see myself, as a woman, kick some serious ass, the appeal as an adult was the clear feminist implications to such an identity politic. It’s Kristeva’s abjection theory at play. And women are always the abject subject, pushed to margins of society, because they are integral to society’s health, but often viewed as less or a subject identity to be ignored. For Kristeva, because women represent something unaccounted for in patriarchal society – something uncomfortably alien to the male perspective – they are ignored in much the same way death is. This coincidence of the disdained child of death and my own experience as a feminist work well together, and they defined the way I would interact with the game through the character I created.
So, for me, it was much more important to play Baldur’s Gate as a character representative of myself (if I were proficient in Bastard Swords and trained by an infamous mage named Gorion). As a feminist, this issue of reconciling conflicting selves (more importantly, selves that society deems as inappropriate, such as “the slut”), and getting to take this frustration out on some orcs in Baldur’s Gate is fantastic therapy. And you can choose to accept it fully and become pure evil, or you can integrate it into yourself and still serve the greater good. But that’s what’s fantastic about playing through identity politics in Baldur’s Gate: you work through the identity politics while playing through the game.