Boss Fight Books (#8): Baldur’s Gate II – Matt Bell

2 out of 5

Author Matt Bell and I are different people. Different people, with different paths that’ve led to different personalities. While this is related to something expressed in Bell’s Boss Fight Books entry on RPG Baldur’s Gate II – a game that offers choices which impact the flow for any given player – it’s more relevant to how Bell writes the book: as a person who doesn’t want to admit he’s writing a book about Baldur’s Gate II. He fesses up to this, and, somewhere in the middle of its 100 pages, admits that he’s hoping to use the text as a way to overcome his self-consciousness regarding his past, “geeky,” D&D playing self – which is a potentially interesting tact to take – it nonetheless comes across as something of a faux apology, the way one owns up to bad behaviors in words only, but not action. This is in giant opposition to the way I prefer to live – I wouldn’t want to hide my enjoyment of anything, the way Bell still, at book’s end, stashes some of his RPG stuff in a closet – and though I have to acknowledge that maybe I have the “benefit” of not having had a stereotypical bullied childhood, to which Bell alludes, this difference in the way we live our lives cast a bias upon my read that I struggled against.

In trying to remain more impartial for a review, I stepped back to consider the mission-ish statement on the back cover: “Bell’s book explores BG2’s immersive narrative and complex mechanics, unpacks how RPG systems enable our emotional investment in characters, investigates the game’s non-linear story, and relates his own struggle to reconcile being a “serious” adult with his love of D&D and video games.” When it comes to the opening chapters of the book, I’m not sure there’s a clear thesis; the remainder of the book covers those points mentioned on the cover blurb, but not with any real sense of flow or intention. So my feelings about Bell’s approach to life tie in to my feelings about the way he approached his Baldur’s Gate II coverage, which is where I started: it’s like reading a book written by someone who doesn’t want to be writing it. It fills up space by doing some of the drudge work – recounting BGII plot details – and barely makes it to the 100-page mark. Explorations of the “immersive narrative and complex mechanics” are far and few between, extending to maybe four or five quotes on the game’s development. I like the throughline about growing up and wanting to hide / rewrite elements from one’s past, but again, it isn’t actually used to evolve on that: Bell punctuates a chapter with a joke from his wife about him being unfuckable due to seeing him play an RPG. I’m down with playful bashing between partners, but I was more annoyed that he hadn’t told her about this stuff already, and I guess that’s what I was looking for: some kind of growth. Instead, the games and fantasy books remain hidden so Bell can remain fuckable.

I haven’t liked all of the Boss Fight Books entries, and the more an author disassociates themselves from their gaming habits with cool, hipster banter, the less I’ve generally liked their books. Bell is an accomplished writer, technically, and it works against him here, as you can sense his search for some kind of structure to hang this thing on, and then he goes through the paces of hitting those marks. It’s appreciatively lacking in cool, hipster banter, but it’s still a giganto exercise in disassociating oneself from what they’re supposed to be writing about, with an almost absolute lack of any interesting factoids, and a notable stamping on the emotional connections one might have with the game to boot.