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Baldur’s Gate and History: Race and Alignment in Digital Role-Playing Games

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This paper, part of a wider study of the connections between romance, fantasy and political rhetoric in the twenty-first century, seeks to historicise some of the defining features of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D)-based role playing games, using as examples the Bioware games, Baldur’s Gate I and II and Neverwinter Nights. The starting point of the paper is that technical, procedural and aesthetic innovations in gaming arise from contexts given by history, and by social and cultural processes. While D&D may appear to be nothing more than escapist fantasy, at the heart of the genre lie questions profoundly related to history: issues to do with temporality, race, class, gender and morality. The paper argues that there are pressing reasons why digital culture’s reinvention of romance (and its representations of Empire-making and management in the case of strategy games like Civilisations, and the Total War series) must be understood not just formally, or structurally, or narratologically or post-structurally, but politically, in the context of the disturbing signs of our times. In return, such analysis promises to illuminate far more than its immediate objects of study. The genealogy of the D&D concept is, in one sense, relatively clear: tabletop wargames focussing on medieval battles were individualised to allow for character advancement and more sophisticated plots, and infused with elements from fantasy (derived from Vance, Moorcock and, unavoidably, Tolkien). D&D was then translated successfully into digital format, with the Bioware games representing a high point of digital versions of the genre. In another, more theoretical sense, there is nothing clear about this process. Why does the medieval period continue to have such a hold over intelligent, commercially-focussed forms of cultural production? If the Bioware games are viewed as representing a refined point of conjunction between technology and romantic nostalgia, then is it not a paradox deserving of lengthy reflection that every last technical resource of the most advanced commonly available machines of the digital age have been made to strain towards the re-creation of the pre-industrial, the medieval, the magical? Ever since the events of September 11th, 2001, it has been clear that, as medieval scholar Geraldine Heng puts it, "history and the Middle Ages have returned with a vengeance" (12). The most dramatic and important expression of this shift is the blurring of politics and religion currently taking place in the United States. For an emblem of the process one has to look no further than the cross of twisted steel rising as if naturally out the devastated remains of the north tower of the World Trade Centre in New York. The multiple significations of this space – ‘Ground Zero’ - are now compacted into the most loaded sign of the religious/imperial ideology of ‘crusade’. The recurrence of this very term in the language of Bush, Rumsfeld and Powell serves to confirm the point. Critical discourse is far from understanding the nature of the link between historical crusades, their contemporary incarnations (Afghanistan, Iraq, but also as ‘jihad’) and the choices game designers make, and by contrast squabbles between narratologists and luddologists should seem somewhat trivial. A focus on ‘the politics of re-enchantment’ (McClure) provides the necessary context for this investigation. To understand the nature of digital romance we need to understand the historical reasons behind the rise of romance, and those moments and movements by which it has been revived. According to Heng, the example of Geoffrey of Monmouth shows how romance developed "as a form of cultural rescue in the aftermath of the First Crusade, a transnational militant pilgrimage during which Latin Christian crusaders did the unthinkable – committing acts of cannibalism on infidel Turkish cadavers in Syria, in 1098" (2). Heng’s analysis makes clear that cultural fantasy, at one of its most important points of origin, is linked to issues of race, to transnational militancy, and to the need to deal with cultural trauma. These three aspects of medieval romance’s genesis provide a useful starting point for a properly historicised understanding of what lies behind fantasy’s open embrace of escapism. A second context that provides telling evidence of fantasy’s debt to history concerns that genre of Victorian adventure tales now identified by critics as ‘imperial romance’. By means of a contrast between the characters of Gagool in King Solomon’s Mines, and Ayesha in She, it is possible to show how the example of Sir Henry Rider Haggard illuminates D&D’s crucial insistence on race as determinant of character. At the founding moment of this strand of fantasy questions of race, intimately related to the experience of colonialism in South Africa, surface as problems – perhaps traumas – from which fantasy proposes cultural rescue. From Haggard to Edgar Rice Burroughs to Tolkien and on to the Bioware games, race, like setting, is represented as innocently escapist, harmlessly entertaining. But properly historicised, elves, dark elves, gnolls, dwarves, halflings, gnomes and so on can be seen to depend for their fictional existences on cultural conditions of possibility enabled by colonial encounters with otherness. The transference of race from the realm of the real to that of the imaginary is part of the "apparatus" of romance identified by Heng, causing to surface in mediated and consoling ways difficult questions about race and history, to say nothing of ongoing oppression and inequality. There is another aspect of the D&D games that intersects yet more dramatically with history, one that is particularly relevant at the present moment. Characters in D&D must choose an alignment: good, neutral, or evil. This principle works well within the games, and serves as a basis for considerable narrative complexity. But what kind of a world view does it reflect and support? My answer is one very similar to that of George W. Bush, who, on September 12th, 2001 expressed his understanding of the geopolitical consequences of the bombing as follows: "This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil. But good will prevail". It would be naïve to claim that, like the adventure stories of an earlier Empire, computer games prepare the youth of the West to go out and conquer, rule and reproduce the cultural values of the Imperium. It is unlikely that many players of games of this level of complexity actively uphold such morally simplistic world views. However, it takes a naivety of a different kind to assume that no link exists between these varied contexts. The task for criticism is to elaborate the nature of such discursive continuities, thereby granting us a better understanding of the relationships between economic and political power and the digital tools we use to console ourselves and to escape our tortured present.
Contact: Christopher Warnes, English Department, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa,
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