Author’s Note: From February to April, 2015, I played through Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, and its subsequent expansion, Baldur’s Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal (via the relatively new Enhanced Edition release). This was the first time I played through the game since 2001-2002, and this was by far a much more inquisitive, intellectual, and thorough experience compared to my earlier experience as an older child. The notes below explore some of the thoughts I had as I created and existed as Natasha. Natasha, who happens to be named after my current IRL partner, opened me up to new ways of experiencing the game, as an inverted constraint: a limiter that in turn improves and creates new understanding, in the same way Oulipian writers take value in their own constraints. Each entry below was written after reviewing selected screenshots. For the sake of brevity, I only chose one screenshot from each day I played, and each day I played is represented by one screenshot and written response below. You can buy the game here. More screenshots are available upon request.
Who does deserve power and to feel the volition: the stranger says it’s untapped and I haven’t even found myself, my friends, speaking of me, to me, for me. His hands: his arms. Always his. I chose her for the reason of Herness. It is not for the feeble, though perhaps I dichotomize. Perhaps these cages are slightly less bleak before an aura cast out of my knowing how this ends. That he will become the obliterated structure everyone’s been rooting for. Cackles and mania. Emptiness and pink bones beyond the fall of thick shadows.
I needed her because of frailty. Or was it fragility? Or proving everything wrong, including my own sentiments of the Wish. Knowing chance and retrofitted glance. She proved her worth through the moments of in-between. When upon seeing her knowledgeable that fear I once shared dissipated. I channel her energy knowing truth is exhibited in the layers that follow. Blanket stealing: have I done this? Have I slept? Have I rested when telling us all to rest? I don’t know. Everything before the digital gamma of transience. Elves and other companions to steer the way, to make me think sentience is served super sweet and the rush to be present is somehow related to happiness.
Meaning and knowing and truth. Imoen, bearer in the dream scape of the propositions. The proposed and propped: a sister this is for? This behavior sisterly, though I know myself could just as easily have loved, appreciated intimately and retroactively, brotherly love too. But we will seek that and find that. Such transitions and diversions always come about. I am reminded of Wittgenstein. Or perhaps it was Rilke I was thinking of. Spaces of the ethereal: dreams outlining an epistemological structure. Six sleeping babes and yet I am awake, I am present: it is you, Imoen, and it is me: but who am I and why “friends and family”?
This not the first nor the last time. I reflecting as I write this, I as she, she as her to them. The ghosts and demons and anonymously incarcerated to the isometric doom (though joyful it may seem) of the landscape of 2000. Trax and what kind of name is Trax if not evil and foreboding? Tracks marks my way from asylum to conversation, and I have begun to grow into my name, or the name, that which they call me, call us: Natasha. Who I named after knowing names could mean anything you want them to. Before the adventure started and this is what I’m faced with: yet still, adventure imitates the meaning of potential, where potential exists in seeking. Curiosity. Definitions so similar in their activity. My mind reels. The pitiful pit of conversation that may or may not be explored, arranged in loops one may install and explore on millions of computing devices. Yet only one Natasha, like this.
Man. Woman. Symbolic. Symbolism. That which means what to you? I chose her for she is that which I cannot be. Let this be truth. Let this be the knowing found within the other. Is this the closest other I can creep to? So often have I as me told myself the stories through the simulacra. Of the simulacra. Is this different? I am no man, but I am woman. I am investigating. I am fulfilling. I become the simulation through actively understanding the simulated environs surrounding as a member of the simulated environs. And yes, I do fear: what of the objectification? Objectify? Zaviak, like Natasha: character standing here and here. I am here. I am standing here. I am as Natasha and Natasha is me, in this space: Ouroboros. We eat our own throats, bodies stuffing bodies. Soft caress rather than the deep sexualization. Or do you see something we don’t see, in knowing the constraints of limited autonomy?
Feline as atrocity, as giving in to a personality entirely unknown to me. I would not be speaking to Rasaad if not situated between the walls of this space, open doors to one side, and gated spires to another. I would not make the choice to “Mee-ow!” from her to him, from the she to the he, from me to it, were I not embodied, fully invested, finger clicking mouse, finger tapping key, her key, our key, together. Things like choices, Choice, comes naturally the more I remove my own mind. In going on the jaunt of expression I express that which allows me to funnel, knowing full well the constraints made obvious through blunt interaction, but not questioning them, not caring to approach the verisimilitude of control, constraint, seduction, bondage. There is an intertwining here primal in its lack of dialogue. I plug into her and let her exist. I follow her path as I would follow my own mind, but I have forgiven my mind for a moment: take a break, stake out a stance, but elsewhere. As I don as her as Natasha, as I place myself into her arms, I am giving over powers and certainties otherwise splendid and tinted in the color of obstruction, the texture of aroused fear. I am trying to be new this time.
Time for otherliness despite the Other and its bearing down concept (let us think of Roubaud and London’s fire, for a brief twitch of a moment) defining itself as a third, and then the expanded influence outward still: other upon other, a layer cake of construction. Still the fracturing influence of other characters, other spaces, other hollows relieving us and ensuring our disruption is succinct and never less than full: as in, above the brim, cascading down the pillar of surface we crafted to contain. When I think of meat and think of the sizzled grease of humanity, it is hard to think of metaphors. What is the troll? As a symbol? As a creature of the dungeon, a denizen of the dark? I will not willingly step forward to prove further otherness. Natasha is other enough: there is no need to be pricelessly exuberant about further definition. Let this be and let it be naturally. Following all manner of conversation where coercion is being attempted, integrated subtly and through the mechanisms of the game space, there is always the potential to suffer the death blow. And for that I find my ghostly self, my pre self, my “before Natasha” self, waiting patiently, trigger finger triggered into fingering that physical hardware that will bring the corpse to its own fry of regenerative flesh.
Beneath the light of two dimensions stacked atop each other: simulation of world simulated for the original being, there is the movement shuddering around. Stop and think: characters in a party form a group of six. These friends and enemies bickering as I click around, take time and enjoy the sights. Move from point to point. Who is doing the ordering? Can’t we all just move freely, but together? Cohesion. The stick. Where have we bonded and at what point does bonding become bondage? Are you enslaved to be with me: or is there love? Bataille echoes from a past life. He would have something to say. There is an element of Nietzschean fumbling as well: there is leadership and with leadership there is me. But is there leadership in being the Viewer? As I observe I am disassociated from self, but only if I call myself disassociated. But still there is the effect of control that beckons me to disassociate. Become the One. The man over the others. I am physically looking into a screen as women and men and self, and my own interaction is the dimension I am curious about: knowing the connection has created meaning between pawn (myself, in front of a screen) and pawns (their selves, inside the screen). At what point does the agreement get made? At what point does the gift to touch, to form memories through autonomous action, form?
Korgan: you are so true and yet so confusing. To think! I was not going to talk about life and death before your inquisitive philosophical quandary set forth the idea in motion to me. To me the Writer. To me the Viewer. To me the observing kind who wishes only to fully be within, to be Natasha, yet cannot: there is the separation. It is built about hesitancy and questioning. And rightfully so: we think of so many ways to feel, to fuel ourselves, channel our energies, and then we must think about the binary of existence, time and time again, built and flowing all around us (from the plants alive and dead in my garden, to the matter of presence or absence of dust on my laptop). But put forth is the point of “understanding” and then “there are to.” I am bombarded with thoughts and ideas, flooded in the soul, for I grow confused and confused more still by how we exist with knowing or at least trying to know (I have proven here at the very least that I am trying to know, though I have proven at the greatest that I fail to know), and then we go about taking chance of knowledge, that we have the needed knowledge, to make the dive into the decision. Would you go about maintaining or ending life, your own or someone else’s? I do wonder how Natasha would go about it. She goes go about it but does she go about what I want or do I go about what she wants? How to figure this out? I detest killing at some point and in theory but out of what theoretical frame has that “in theory” been built? Still I obliterate, disintegrate those disagreeable paths for the sake of extending my own. I have that action. That privilege. As a partnership, we explore the extension of our life together, and that extension has led us to kill so many beings, creatures, objects that are bent upon killing us. But we do not have to. We could simply sit in a corner of the simulated environs and waste away together, in beauty, together. But could we continue to know more and more of each other, but limiting or constraining our narrative path to that choice, to that space of pacific inquiry? Or would a time arrive where our love was put at risk by a lack of expansion? What would the Buddha say about action in this space? Unlike my tangible, physical self, this digital universe requires no food, and rest is unlimited. But what of time? How long can a person exist in the simulation, and would that be enough for physical me to be satisfied with us?
Going through this hall of madness, where those imprisoned present to us a range of possibilities with how to behave in a world that is normalized into a monoculture. There is insanity on every doorstep, so it has seemed, and Natasha has, through the compliance of her “other” self (me) maintained a sense of stability. I have not gone around murdering villagers or killing my friends. I have not fooled around senselessly. But I could. I, and by I, I mean we, could just as easily have spent these many hours doing that which is not desired of us. By wearing the faces of others. By becoming mad. By donning the persona that disrupts that game universe. The simulation, like the best simulations, allow for those possibilities. Am I (myself) so secure in society and socialized norms that I prohibit Natasha from her future? I do not want this! I want Natasha to be who she is, for me to be her, to be as she wants to be, as she has to be, but I fear my own background is limiting us far more than I initially thought. I cannot divorce myself from the life I live the majority of: to do so would be an exquisite power both resilient and fantastically insane. Is this what “multiple personality disorder” really means? Is it thus so bad? Dili makes it seem so: she has been caged in the simulacra the same way those in the tangible world would be thrown in cages, or forced to ingest their pills, to keep their schizophrenic desires at bay. And yet: representation. I think of this word like I own it, like it is a value to me. We all represent ourselves in so many ways, from that which we appear to that which we believe, information we share actively and directly, or ambiently, it is all shared outward. Is there ownership in representation? What control do we have and what value do we have in being able to own our “self”? Is the desire to get rid of the self by embodying the other (as I have tried and try to do with Natasha) as much a question of control by reduction, redaction, as attempting to maintain the originality of the self in other contexts?
Control and power. What we are: both outwardly and inwardly. The “demon” as a space of great symbolic properties. One that is beyond this simulation, this experience, writing this, being Natasha, allowing Natasha to let me in: there are demons beyond all of it. I am reminded of the demons of Dante, an Inferno made of human creatures. Getting to the greatest of them all we find a frozen sculpture of Satan. What will we find when we find Bhaal, the God of Murder, the father of Natasha, the father of so many, in this game? What will Bhaal look like? How will I look? How will my actions represent the representation of me as an entity within the space, within all realities? Can I continue to love Natasha as she breaks down, transforms into the “Slayer” (the demon) and runs around attacking everything without my permission? And yet I give “permission” as I allow the game to continue, the space to persist. I am, without a doubt, powerfully entranced and allowing of even the most chaotic, unpredictable, and frightening elements of reality in this simulation to exist. Because there is more knowledge in overcoming different instances of time, regardless of what fills those instances of time. Be they good or bad, knowing more, collecting more experience, understanding identity slowly and surely, despite the outrage, despite the emotional bursts, instills pride. A sense of ownership is always aligned with achievement. A sense of existence is always aligned with achievement. Because achievement is the representative element behind power. And power demonstrates worth, even if power is to be given away, or exchanged, or devalued.
Where is foil? Where is contradiction? Where is the force that keeps you from pursuing your agency? Irenicus. If I didn’t type that name, I would have been holding myself back. But I acknowledge you like you acknowledge me. Every step of the way. The best heroes are only such by their villains. The mixture of the grey buzz the equality of the dark and the light. I feign when it feels like an assortment. I quiver when I know there must be an “us.” I think of N and I think of the modulation of “other.” You want power so much and I want to give it to you. You, fallen away from where you once stood. I understand. I know what it’s like to figure out how to belong. Your stare and your beloved passion: you want, you want, and you want. And I want too. And that’s why this will only come to end in spells thrown and blood sucked up, to be shed. You will have your demon spawn: you will plunge into it. Who comes out of me, who finally appears, will allow you to proceed, though I fear it may be in a digital death (for isn’t that what I’ve proven I’m going for: transience, constancy, and, ultimately, dreadfully success?) you wished would be my own.
I have never heard of anything. Or, at least, that which I’ve heard of has been new and false every time. And yet I continue, I go on. I have purpose. Don’t you? I know you do, for you have opened yourself up, admitted that right and wrong can exist. Mistakes can be made. You are forgiven. I knew, through some seed of my nether, my unconscious, that choosing “female wizard” and labeling her “Natasha” would be everything I needed in this existence. Somehow there was an understanding that “fulfillment” was around the corner if I made those three simple choices. Simple they were to make, though the output of them, the results, were far from simple. But wouldn’t it have been just as difficult? I could have, perhaps, been a male wizard. I could have been an elf, instead of the human that I am. Instead of the human that I am and love being. Being. To define how you exist within any given parameter, any given constraint. To know your place in the world. The “glimmer of Art” is perhaps stronger in its nature than imagined through these dialogue boxes. The glimmer does not “seem” to be, either: it truly is. You plant even more seeds through your suggestion, and I must run around, chicken with head cut off, human with mind plucked out, running around thinking: where am I going, and for what am I actually doing this? Why? To know thyself becomes an easier, played answer with each and every passing click. To create art: that is something entirely different. Is my world, as Natasha, a world of wondrous art, and if so, for whom? Are my best patrons only a handful of pixels wide by a handful of pixels taller? And by hand I do mean mouse-click.
Dorn reeks of the truth. He beckons me to not contribute though I do contribute: the Power matched by Death and by Madness, a stinking trail Dorn drags me through. And I let him. I like him. I like his power and his obsidian skin and his uncontrollable rage. At one point he fled my party and started attacking, because he did not like the way things were headed. He did not like my style, my beliefs, my path. I let him attack me: I attacked back. We all did. Don’t you remember? The five of us, together, plus me, Natasha’s “other,” creating the commands, removing all sense of autonomy from you, my friends. I made you contribute even more to the death and the madness. How it must feel to be called upon fatalistically by me, the God that your gods are not. The God that can never be known, but must be believed. It is madness. And if only there was a new way to escape, to be part of the screen. To not be without or within, but to be on the edge: to be both present and untouchable. How I would love to be the sunlight that highlights your words, your images, the actions. Rather than control, let me be a passive viewer. The maddening lack of influence would surely be preferable.
Choice. We are faced with it in every moment. Most of the choices I make feel small, infinitesimal, minute: of no consequence, in the grand scheme of things. In this world, this lifetime which lasts approximately 200 hours (more or less), time must move faster. For you, for she, for I: but that may or may not make the decisions made any different from those that otherly, ghostly I make outside, in the world I know, the world of decisions of my physical self. Still, the basic idea, the basic root in action is still there: who do I keep in the spotlight? Myself or that which is not myself? In this case, what defines myself? I cannot “control” every character in this world, though I may kill them all. Though I may spare them all. Those that I do not have to vanquish to move the plot forward. I can spare many people. I cannot get through the game without committing murder. The game, the plot, would end before then. I would be slain and the “Load” screen would appear and I would be wracked with a damning sense of failure. I do not do well with failure. I suck it until it’s dry. I keep going. I push forth. I play until exhausted. Until my eyes clamp shut in abjection. In mania. Is this what sacrifice is all about? Have I already sacrificed myself, or do I need to commit to it in words, to exert a conscious, mindful effort in order to seal the deal? These are the games demons play when they are forced to play these games. I wonder if myself, if Natasha and me, if we are closer to demons than I ever thought before.
I remember you. I remember defeating you in combat. This fight was not of this journal. I was still Natasha, but a different Natasha. I was still me, but a different me. It was before. It was before I was attuned. I physically sat in air-conditioned rooms in Cambodia, and would play when I needed a break. I found you, Sarevok, you who killed my stepfather, you who took my life away from me in all of your power. I obliterated you. I sent you to the abyss, the abyss you craved and knew so much. I knew so little then. And perhaps you tell me I know little now and it’s true. Isn’t that always the case? Don’t we always know little? I believe power is the damning element in this. For power is like the Fibonacci Sequence. Power grows exponentially. And with its growth—which is a requirement—there is the need to understand it. But the need to understand is a need of desire, not a requirement. One might not know their self and their self’s power in order to gain more of it. A strange conundrum, one that only those damned to hell, those faced with countless opponents to their nature, will notice. You are such a figment and I know you mean well, if only you mean well for yourself. That is fine. I accept you. And in doing so, I allow you, openly, to open up to me. Tell me everything. Give me the information that has kept you confident of your own energy, your own power. I sit here, weak, ignorant, blind: but faithful, and enduring.
Throughout the meandering and the mumbling, stumbling, bumbling existence as an adventurer, there are those moments of interjection that take the world, piece by piece, and fulfill it. Life is more about those around you than you, is it not? In this case, I sit and watch the fate of my “friend” (my companion, Dorn) unravel and pull me into it. Sometimes that is what must happen. I am always choosing, always in control. And yet I appreciate not asking for anything. I appreciate its coming to me. Is this laziness? Is this the mark of a true champion? The archetype of the knight rushing to the cave to defeat the dragon: the knight needed the dragon to exist to kill, needed the cave to exist to rush to, and needed the kingdom to save. These things were not all created by the knight: the knight was not the god. But perhaps there was a god that created this scenario. I do not know. I know that in my position here, as Natasha, I invite the scenarios created by others, gods of the screen, the game developers, to pull me in. I appreciate them, their art, and their liveliness. I will fight for and against accordingly. I will make note of the procedures and how they align or diverge from my morality. I will insert the appropriate level of humor. I will feel the happiness and loss I need to in order to feel accepted into this world: this world is a community of comfort in its channels, its overall texture. Fulfillment rises and falls into a compressed rhythm that even I can believe in.
I only write this because I must. I only write this because I see the Chromatic Demon of Watcher’s Tower and I am slightly angry at it. It is a stupid beast, a creature of the nether plane that was kept imprisoned because of its stupidity, then through its own hijinks convinced me to free it: but of course I was the smarter, knowing well that I would defeat it upon its attack and its release. I knew what was coming, because its existence was stupidly predictable. Ultimately, though, the rabbit hole: all of our existences, and the summation of existence, is stupidly predictable. What should be branded upon everyone’s vision and acceptance of the world: the icon of the witches sitting, cackling around their cauldron. They were always satisfied, in all those stories, hanging out for eternity, because they knew everything that would happen. They took a moment and thought about what would come. And they felt calmed by that knowledge, even encouraged to impart the information to the adventurers, those who were new to thinking and knowing the world. Perhaps that is the platitude of the Chromatic Demon, then: in all its color, it remains the same. In all its shape forms, it stays the same. It knows what’s coming the same way I knew what was coming. It attacked because it knew I would kill. Is this as Schopenhauer says? Is this system, then, as worthy of life as it is death? Is the Chromatic Demon an element of suicide? I think of Hume’s writings on existence, as well, and dealing with reality. An objectification necessary to create action. I am wondering, too, if the Chromatic Demon would do otherwise if given a chance. Of course it is beyond my power to provide otherwise, and so too am I constricted to the system like it is. I have not had the urge to kill myself in the game. I have loved Natasha too much. I think Natasha has loved me back. She has been obedient, docile, and, despite some pathfinding issues, remained faithful to my commands. And yet the irony is that my commands are through my own chains to her. I would not direct were it not asked of me to do so. How Chromatic of me.
Melissan: you’re lucky I don’t remember you from the previous time I played through your spatter. Years ago. More than a decade. Thirteen years ago! And I don’t remember you well enough to counter, to perceive how much I should know and how much you know of me. But still I appreciate your compliments. I appreciate them even if they are false. You acknowledge my power as though it creates elements of fear and hope. Because I do not remember your intentions, fear and hope are equivalent. This idea is interesting to me. That, depending on future actions, I could be afraid, or I could be optimistic about everything you have to offer. You could betray me. You could need my help. You could do both, and so all the emotional offspring to be born feels “correct.” Feels powerful enough, legitimate, and true. And yet: “could” is how you frame this. As though there were multiple ways. Is it a challenge, a task brought forth? Of course, that is your nature. You put the greatest task of the game into play. A task we know as a whole will further solve further meanings (but not all meanings). I do not know how to feel about your ambivalence. And your confidence in me. I need you to believe in me. I need you to believe in me so that I may believe in myself.
Ah yes, pretentious guts. The tom foolery of dialogue. If only Balthazar knew how pretentious I am. How I play with my mind for the sake of playing. How I do not turn off. How I do not under-analyze. Everything is part of a greater whole for me. Everything every time. Is it the same way with Natasha, I wonder. Does she think? Does she question? I suppose she must, for she is I. I am her. We are she and he. To ask if she is intellectual and thoroughly examining of existence is to presume that I know nothing of the reality between her and me. Where she goes and thinks, so do I, and everything we create is a result of us, of our being. There would be no thinking without her, as there would be no playing. Which brings us back to Balthazar. The man who will kill himself after he is sure that he is the only last spawn of our father, dead god Bhaal. Would we be so lucky to know that someone with the greatest power would remove their self from reality with it? As previously inferred, power grows exponentially. Almost like a tumor, the growth is “beyond” its host. Power is parasitical. We believe in it the same way we believe in anything existing outside of us: we know of it, so it exists (in some way), and thus we treat it, we acknowledge it, classify it, handle it, and manage it. The self is, however, different. The self cannot be so easily diffused. And that, Balthazar, is why you are to be cut down where you stand. I am doing you a favor, for I know you will not be able to exert your will when the time has come. I know, for I would not be able to exert my own will, and all I know is that which I am by that which is around me, the environment that has created me.
We come to the close. The close of many hours, many late nights being Natasha, being myself, being us, together. At this final moment, this final stand, there is no dialogue, there is only a flutter of blades as the final opposition is taken down, sent spinning into nonexistence. I will have to answer a question: do I take over, as the final of the dead god’s children, as a god, or do I maintain my mortal self? My biggest response: does it matter? In the nature of the game, returning to “normal” (mortal) life means as much and as little as becoming a god. The game ends regardless. But this question and its resulting decision is less about the game and more about satisfaction, as augmented by, argued about by, my companions. There are those who say: choose “god” as it gives more power. There are others who, in the wet gleam of their eye, would prefer I choose mortality, so I may be their friend, know them, continue adventuring with them. Oddly, the former are the men, and the latter the women. I am woman, I notice, and perhaps somewhere within Natasha’s algorithmic DNA she is sending Rosicrucian vibes up into the pixelated sky, but I do feel the need to be mortal. To allow the nonexistent future (for me) to be one that is short lived, that has an ending. I need the end. The end, thus, is comfortable. The game kills me after I make the decision. It is not a suicide. Though perhaps by making the decision, by completing the game, by having the game roll credits and return to the main screen: perhaps that decision-making, that agency is a form of suicide. I do not know. Whatever the result, there is a comfort. A life was led. An identity existed, was shared by two different elements of this reality that I know. I hope Natasha felt like the sharing was mutual, that there was a partnership. For all I know, she felt stronger chains, more limited autonomy, than I could ever imagine. Alas, these are the existential struggles we face, and her burden is as heavy and as light as mine. For now, I rest. But I know she and I will meet again, in new forms, new places, new spaces, and new games.
Greg Bem has been writing about and through digital gaming for years, and has been writing with, about, and for Pulse for months. His current gaming obsessions include watching YouTube walk-throughs of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, finishing Dead Space 3, and playing and writing through Pillars of Eternity. With the publication of this post, Greg has become addicted to the idea of "being" a female wizard in digital RPGs and is currently contemplating a permanent identity change.