Fighting a Refreshingly Honest Evil in ‘Baldur’s Gate’
The baddest villain in ‘Baldur’s Gate’ didn’t need to be anything more or less than a total, murderous jerk.
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
The opening thirty minutes of Baldur's Gate are some of the strangest in the history of role-playing games. You don't begin as a dirt farmer or a chosen one (although we do get there). Instead, it all starts in Candlekeep, a giant library that contains thousands of volumes of arcane knowledge, pulled from every corner of the Forgotten Realms.
Whether the character you have just created is a level 1 paladin, sorcerer, or a thief, it becomes apparent immediately that you have grown up surrounded by the biggest nerds in this entire branch of the Dungeons & Dragons multiverse. You've lived in this monastery-slash-megalibrary for your entire life. You were raised by a man named Gorion. The game really starts when you're forced to flee this place in the middle of the night.
It is during this midnight journey that you first encounter Sarevok. He's a horrifying figure in spiked armor, and he stops both the player and their adoptive father in their tracks with his small band of adventurers who are dead-set on making the player, well, dead. An epic fight ensues, or at least an epic fight in terms of what the Infinity Engine could do in 1998, and the adoptive father lies dead on the ground. Sarevok has slewn him—although you don't quite know who Sarevok is yet—and the player is left to wander around this weird world.
I love Baldur's Gate (I've been doing a show about it for almost a year), but what's wonderful about Sarevok's story is that it has almost nothing to do with the player.
There are lots of standard ways of writing plots. There is the "ten page rule" of plotting in which something exciting happens every few minutes at a predictable timing. There are "save the cat" and "kick the dog" concepts that help the audience ally with or side against your protagonists and antagonists based on how they treat the world around them.
One of the most widely-spread ideas for writing stories is about how antagonists are written. The general advice is a variation on this idea: A good antagonist is the protagonist of their own story. That is to say that a good "bad guy" has to see what they are doing as right, and they pursue their vision of the world with the same determination as the protagonist does. The purpose of this form of storytelling has to do with conflict. When two worldviews that cannot coincide come into contact with one another, you can't help but watch sparks fly.
The beauty of Sarevok's character is that there is very little of this traditional storytelling around him. In fact, Sarevok's main interest in the player emanates from their shared heritage. Late in the game, it is revealed that both the player and Sarevok are siblings, and that their father was the god Bhaal (who walked Faerun during the Time of Troubles and ultimately died there).
While the player was being raised by Gorion in Candlekeep, Sarevok was being reared by a captain of industry during a decades-long plan to usurp power in an entire region of the world. During this time, Sarevok realized who his real father was, and he went into the wilderness to find temples dedicated to the dead god.
The parallel between the player and the ultimate antagonist seems to hold here. While our young hero was in Candlekeep becoming a generalist nerd, Sarevok was out in the world learning about his heritage as a son of the god of murder. Both characters experienced a kind of contemplative, lesson-filled life, but the player's assumed past is one of education about how to live in the world and make it better. Sarevok, we learn, was mostly committed to figuring out how to take his father's place as the patron god of killing, murdering, and generally being the worst.
Sarevok ends up short-circuiting a lot of traditional antagonist writing because he isn't really the hero of his own story. Instead, he wants two things: To start a war and to kill his own siblings. He believes that each of these things will help him absorb something akin to "murder energy," and he hopes that that murder energy will allow him to ascend to godhood.
Sarevok doesn't believe that he's going to make the world a better place. He doesn't believe that his ideas about the world are "better" and that the protagonist needs to be taken out in a contest of ideas of will. He just wants to kill as many people as possible, and he wants to make sure that the player dies in that big bundle of murder.
I find it very hard to humanize Sarevok in the way that I can a villain in a Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed game. He has his own story, but it's one that I can't ever really empathize with. Baldur's Gate doesn't seem to care if I think that the clash of protagonist and antagonist stories is well-grounded or driven. It simply wants to present me with an existential threat, and it assumes that I will try to fight for my life and the lives of others.
The finale of the game is all about the player and Sarevok. After you've prevented his war plot, he runs deep beneath Baldur's Gate. You discover a small, ruined city full of monsters, and in that city is a temple dedicated to your father-god, Bhaal. It is unclear if Sarevok runs here out of fear, desperation, or a desire to die closer to the throne that he wished to take. Yet another epic fight takes place, and Sarevok's closest allies combat the player and their party members in a tough-as-nails conflict.
If things go right for the player, Sarevok dies there. He bleeds on the floor of the temple, his life-blood running out, his life given over to murder, the very thing he sought to master. The world is not changed for his appearance or his passing, and that might be Baldur's Gate's most profound argument.
This character came, a strange mirror of the protagonist, and the Forgotten Realms ultimately remain unchanged for his existence. There was no clashing of ideologies or of ideas about how the world should be. There was merely someone who sought to do a great evil, and he was defeated at great cost to very few. He did not need the player, and the player did not need Sarevok to generate this conflict. They merely happened to come into contact, and in that contact, one faded from life.
Nothing greater is learned.