Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
No matter what happens, I always come back to the Baldur's Gate franchise. Baldur's Gate, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn, and Throne of Bhaal are the classics, with Beamdog's Siege of Dragonspear rounding the series out in the contemporary setting. During my recent year-long-plus playthrough, I've come to the conclusion that there are some quests in Baldur's Gate II in particular that have managed to not only withstand the test of time, but more than that, might speak more to the current period than they did with the one they were released into. The quest to capture the Planar Sphere in BG2 is one of those, and it's all because of Lavok.
The slums district of the city of Athkatla is bustling. The Coppor Coronet, one of the most famous taverns in all of gaming, is there, as well as several side quests and steps along the way of larger quests. The structure that dominates the slums, though, is the Planar Sphere. It covers the upper left of the map, a giant orb that has "warped" into the buildings next to it, neatly cutting into the structures and doorways as it suddenly appeared in the city from whatever other plane it had been in previously.
It's a sealed structure, however, the work of the game's quest around the orb is centered on a potential party member named Valygar Corthala. Valygar is a ranger, but his distant ancestor is a necromancer named Lavok, and Lavok is the wizard who originally built the Planar Sphere itself. When the traveling machine reappeared in the city, Valygar fled, and the steps of the quest take the player from his home to the foothills of a monster-infested wilderness.
The relationship between the ranger and the sphere is tied to hereditary traits. Lavok's seal on the sphere means that only people with Corthala blood can enter it. And theoretically that's fine; Valygar could go to the sphere, everyone could enter it to investigate, and then he could go along his merry way. This is complicated by Lavok being a necromancer, or a wizard whose work centers on life, the living, the dead, and the undead. Valygar explains multiple times that Lavok is notorious for appearing, stealing a Corthala, and then tapping their life force as a way of unnaturally extending his own. He's a vampire who eats his own progeny to stay alive, and entering into his Planar Sphere spells doom for any Corthala.
Brilliantly, Baldur's Gate II gives the player several options for "solving" the Planar Sphere. One is to simply take Valygar's hesitation to encounter his deadly ancestor and walk away, going about your life and doing some other quests. Another is to convince him that it is his duty to avenge all of the deaths that have happened at Lavok's hands. Yet another is to simply slay him and use his body to open the door.
Each of these aligns the player with a certain set of ideals and beliefs. There is no may to make a decision in this quest without making an ethical choice about whose lives matter and whose do not. Many quests in RPGs proclaim to be about justice, but there are very few that take justice to be a bigger question than "who gets killed today?" Baldur's Gate II takes seriously that justice is built out of acts that rarely rise to the level of intention.
The "call to adventure" that the player enacts for Valygar is unjust in that it puts him in far more danger than if he had just continued to live his life far from the Planar Sphere. The very act of interacting, the game suggests, is as important as swinging a sword or slinging a spell.
If the player can get Valygar (or his dead body) to the Planar Sphere, then a classic dungeon crawl ensues. Extra-planar creatures from worlds beyond the one the player came from appear: knights from another campaign setting, murderous halflings, and engine-like golems interact with the player in various ways. The Planar Sphere even bounces around some planes, demanding that the player and their party adventure out into the Abyss to retrieve a power source. It is not complicated, and that makes the final encounter with Lavok land that much harder.
When the dungeon crawling is done and the power source is placed in the sphere, we finally meet Lavok. He's angry, he's a wizard, and a classic boss battle occurs. Instead of merely dying after the battle is finished, however, he lingers. He explains what happened: Lavok was not doing all of this murder and family vampirism because he wanted to. He was possessed by a malevolent spirit that had inhabited his body, draining his family of their life force, and traveling the planes as a monstrous being of pure will and evil.
Justice reigns its head again in the quest. A force of ancient evil has literally come back to haunt Valygar (and by extension, the player) from the past, and that evil is defeated. What remains in the vessel through which that evil was done. What, then, to do with Lavok?
Shadows of Amn forces us to ask questions about where justice emanates from and what forgiveness looks like. The player could have left Valygar in his home and never started down this path, but now that they have, they have to deal with even bigger questions. Accepting responsibility for violence and for setting things into motion is an ethical question, and Lavok forces the player to grapple with what to do now.
Crucially, Lavok's dialogue at the end of the quest does not absolve him of evil. He doesn't say that it wasn't his fault or that he wasn't to blame. He accepts, calmly, that it was he who did all of the heinous things that Valygar mentions. Fully accepting and owning up to all the violence he's done, he fully passes judgment into the player's hands. The choice is heavy and real, and there is no easy color-coded response that responds to a karma system. What can the player live with?
What can the player live with?
Lavok's final request doesn't center on life or death. Instead, he wants to see the sun a final time before he truly perishes. The player has to make a choice: Does an agent of great evil deserve kindness? What can be forgiven? Is it just to force him to die in the dark?
Baldur's Gate II isn't interested in giving the player any kind of answer to the dilemma. No matter what you choose, the game continues on. It is yet another step in a heroic journey. Unlike so many choices, though, the right choice is never disclosed to us.
There was no way to find justice here, just like there was no way to find justice calling Valygar to the quest at the very beginning. Instead, there is merely looking an agent of evil in the eye, and then determining where you stand. Every moment after that is just about living with yourself after the choice has been made.
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