Once a year, I drive an hour and a half to get pictures with some old wrestlers in Waterloo, Iowa. Danny Hodge, a retired boxer and wrestler with double tendons in his wrists that allow him to pop apples and break pliers, is always there. Jim Ross is there, too. Aside from his time in the Universal Wrestling Federation and the National Wrestling Alliance, Ross was the WWE’s off-and-on play-by-play announcer for over fifteen years and for men and women of a certain age, is professional wrestling’s most recognizable and nostalgic voice.
Those are only two of many. Baron Von Raschke, with his gruff Russian accent still, decades after its necessity, covering up the fact that he’s just “Jimmy Raschke from Nebraske.” Larry “The Ax” Hennig, with his twenty-two-inch neck, quiet voice, and overwhelming pride at being the first of three generations of successful wrestlers in front of his son, Mr. Perfect, and nephew, Curtis Axel.
For years, the once unpredictably violent Mad Dog Vachon showed up in his wheelchair and smiled gently at those who remembered him terrorizing the American Wrestling Alliance. Since his passing in 2013, his wife, Kathy, takes his place at the roundtable, remarking how Maurice always loved this.
So, while I know next to nothing about computer role-playing games, I can sympathize with Matt Bell as he works his way through Baldur’s Gate II and explains to us not only what it takes to make it to the final confrontation, but what it takes to live with the unwarranted burden of knowing the subculture you love so much is one of eye-rolling and condescension from those not involved.
Bell does what I do with wrestling, what most nerds do with the things they hyperfocus on, and gives it a cerebral twist. This book about Baldur’s Gate II is an apt mix of recapping the game itself and dissecting it in a way that justifies an interest that has continued beyond, through puberty and adulthood and Rush albums both good and bad.
Bell shows the humanity that lies between the lines of any RPG. The actions of our character, Gorion’s Ward, are set up as a series of choices in a system that, regardless of who the player being the character is, eventually brings us all to the same outcome. Birth, middle stuff (food, sex, etc.), death. This should sound familiar.
It’s not quite anthropomorphizing, but these characters aren’t quite human, either. Your Gorion’s Ward is not much more than an empty canvas to be loaded up with weapons and spells and, yes, a personality you project onto it. Your wholly unique quest is a representation of your decisions, wrong or right. We must balance good and evil, we must balance our desire to wander with our need to progress. In this way, we tie our world to the fantasy world with a string and then miraculously walk across it.
Damage is measured in hit points, not leaving any room or acknowledgement for a character to suffer the trauma of rape or the neuroses of being reincarnated. The pain is pass/fail: you are fine until you are dead. This assessment and observation explains so much about the pull of D&D and RPGs. As Bell recounts co-writing a fantasy novel while taking Gordon Lish’s famous fiction workshop or explains having his wife show up early to pick him up from a D&D game with his brother, we learn to adapt this idea of damage to our own lives, to not fight against the positive, idiosyncratic forces that make us better.
In this way, Bell paints another dimension of the fantasy world, one that allows us to not only live through what another character may die from, but to live vicariously through a character’s ability to forget, to stay hopelessly dedicated to their essence. There’s no need to cast off the joys of childhood in order to rage clean into adulthood. The acceptance is two-way. If we expect others to not degrade our nerd fascination, we must also realize that there’s nothing wrong with carrying pieces of yourself from adolescence.
In comparing this book to the cult of personality that is Matt Bell, I think there’s a softening of the edges. His fandom for gaming explains his fandom for literature and narrative craft. Of course the man who spends hundreds of hours playing and comparing different versions of a computer game from fifteen years ago is the same one who makes detailed annotations and takes pull-quotes from the entire history of The Paris Review’s historic interview series. It makes total sense, and in this way, Bell’s first journey into nonfiction succeeds wonderfully. I feel like I understand him, and though it’s been years since I was ashamed of how much I love wrestling, I feel like I understand myself more correctly, too.
Though RPG/D&D fans will get the most out of this book, Bell’s grasp on and deep understanding of the basic elements of storytelling greatly broaden the scope of enjoyment. While I won’t be downloading the game myself anytime in the future, I’m glad Bell’s tale was told. Gorion’s Ward himself would be proud of such a warrior, if only he weren’t a manifestation of you, of me.
Baldur’s Gate II, by Matt Bell. Los Angeles, California: Boss Fight Books, June 2015. 140 pages. $14.95, paper.
Ryan Werner is a cook at a preschool in the Midwest. He plays a Gibson Corvus and an old Ampeg VT-22 in a loud instrumental rock band called Young Indian. You can find him online at ryanwernerwritesstuff.com and also @YeahWerner on Instagram, where you will be inundated with picture of comic books, indie lit releases/excerpts, professional wrestlers, and 1980s guitar ads.