~ Tyler Boyce
A very surprising announcement was made last Thursday when Larian Studios (best known for the Divinity series of video games) posted an uncut trailer for Baldur’s Gate III. The game has been announced as one of many launch titles for the upcoming Stadia cloud gaming service from Google. For fans of the venerable Baldur’s Gate series, this has been a game they have been eagerly awaiting for almost seventeen years.
In the trailer, we see a human mercenary, wounded from battle, as he stumbles through the corpse-strewn streets of Baldur’s Gate. He suddenly doubles over and starts vomiting blood, beginning a grotesque transformation known as “ceremorphosis”. A sort of tadpole was implanted into this victim (usually through a nostril or an ear canal). The tadpole then devoured the host’s brain until it finally merges with the host body. The horrific result of which can be seen in the trailer: a purple-skinned entity with a cephalopod-like head. It’s a malevolent brain-eating “mind flayer” (now world-famous from its reference in the acclaimed Netflix show Stranger Things). But what are the mind flayers? What are they doing in Baldur’s Gate? More importantly, why did it take so long to get this sequel?!? Well, I will try to answer these questions as best as I can.
The story of Baldur’s Gate begins in 1998, when the first Baldur’s Gate was developed by BioWare and published by Interplay Entertainment (best known as the creators of the Fallout series). Set in the canon Forgotten Realms world of Faerûn, Baldur’s Gate and its sequel Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn in 2000 are often credited as reviving the role-playing video game (RPG) genre. They are also regarded as two of the greatest RPGs of all time. A third game was planned but Interplay was forced to cancel Baldur’s Gate III: The Black Hound and various other projects in 2003 to save their company from financial woes. Though the game was about 80% done according to a developer, Interplay was recovering for years and Interplay’s Dungeons & Dragons license from Wizards of the Coast was allowed to expire in 2008.
Though taking up the mantle of Baldur’s Gate III was briefly considered by Obsidian Entertainment in 2008 and Overhaul Games in 2012, it seemed unlikely by 2016 that anyone would be able to afford the IP and develop the game. Which is why Larian’s announcement trailer seemed out-of-nowhere. As revealed on YouTube Live at E3 this year, Larian approached Wizards of the Coast in 2014 after the release of the first Divinity: Original Sin about acquiring the Baldur’s Gate IP. Wizards didn’t say yes, but they did have a long conversation about what Larian’s vision for the game would be. In 2015, after the successful crowdfunding campaign for Divinity: Original Sin II, Swen Vincke (CEO of Larian Studios) got a call from Nathan Stewart (Senior Director of Dungeons & Dragons): if Larian was still interested in making Baldur’s Gate III, Swen had to fly to Seattle…right now! When Swen arrived, he had dinner with Nathan and was immediately handed a big stack of papers, with Nathan saying, “I want to present this to the board [of directors], and you have to tell me that you still want to do it.” To which Swen replied of course and here we are now.
While Larian has yet to reveal any major details about the story for Baldur’s Gate III (we’re not even sure if the mind flayers will appear towards the beginning or end of the game), the threat is obvious. The mind flayers have invaded the city-state of Baldur’s Gate, devouring the brains of its inhabitants and corrupting what remains. As Larian said it: “the fate of the Forgotten Realms lies in your hands”. The mind flayers threaten the entire world, and your player-character must stop them! But how can you accomplish this?
Whether you are new to D&D or an old-school geek who has been playing since 2nd edition, you ought to know your enemy. Unfortunately, no knows much about the mind flayers (or “illithid”, as they are called in the Undercommon language). Even other aberrations from the Far Realm (such as the aboleths) do not know what plane they are originally from. According to most myths and lore, the mind flayers came to the Inner Planes millennia ago. They dominated the Astral Sea and the Ethereal Plane ruling vast empires across multiple worlds. The gith, the most prominent slave race of the mind flayers, rebelled and brought down the mind flayer empires. Over 12,000 years before the Baldur’s Gate games, the first mind flayers appeared in the Underdark: the vast cavern and tunnels under the earth. These mind flayers were survivors that continue to be mercilessly hunted down by gith raiding parties to this day, and the mind flayers were a race on the brink of extinction. The mind flayers spent millennia invading dwarven cities, enslaving and experimenting on captured dwarves (resulting in the creation of the “duergar”, or “dark dwarves”). At one point, the mind flayers planned to invade and enslave the city of Waterdeep on the surface, but they were attacked by githyanki and their invasion plans were derailed.
In their quest to survive, one thing is clear: the mind flayers are tyrants. Though paranoid and fearful from millennia of being hunted by the gith, mind flayers are aggressive and elitist. They have attempted to mentally dominate any non-flayer they have ever encountered. They show no emotions, and even apparent bouts of anger may be mere display to incur submission from thralls. If a mind flayer is even capable of feeling happiness, it is likely only when feeling pride…or when consuming a victim’s brain. Mind flayers feed on not just the hormones and enzymes found in brain tissue, but also the very psychic energy from a victim’s memories, personality, and fears. A mind flayer must eat at least one humanoid brain per month to remain healthy. After four months without eating a brain, the mind flayer will starve to death. If the mind flayers have finally come to the surface in Baldur’s Gate III, then the threat cannot be understated. Throughout the Underdark, the mind flayers are respected and feared for their psionic abilities. A powerful Mind Blast can stun anyone within 60 feet and they are then dragged away to feed on. Mind flayers have a natural ability to Levitate at will. In battle, they can either enslave minions by charming them, or damage them with remarkable feats of telekinesis. What they lack in physical abilities or numbers, they more than make up for in their psionic powers. Being the largest metropolis on the Sword Coast, the mind flayers will find in Baldur’s Gate more than enough victims to enslave and convert.
An interesting bit of information is that the upcoming Descent Into Avernus adventure (previewed at last month’s D&D Live 2019) is intended as a prequel to Baldur’s Gate III, which creates all sorts of intriguing possibilities. The Descent Into Avernus deals primarily with the Blood War: the ongoing war between devils and demons in Avernus, the first of the Nine Hells. Baldur’s Gate is the location from which many adventuring parties will get sucked into the middle of this conflict. It’s possible that Baldur’s Gate III might even feature some of the Blood War in its story and gameplay. But how do the mind flayers and factor into all this? Could there be an attack by either or both fiendish faction on Baldur’s Gate, leaving the city vulnerable to the mind flayers’ invasion? Or perhaps the mind flayers have some yet-to-be-revealed role to play in the Blood War? D&D canon is silent on any interaction between mind flayers and fiends, other than to state that many demons were driven underground into the Underdark ages past. Perhaps the demons made an alliance with their mind flayer neighbors, hoping to use mind flayer psionics to tip the scales of the Blood War in their favor? All this is speculation, but hopefully we will get answers to these questions as we get closer to the yet-to-be-announced release date. One thing is for sure: if the mind flayers are indeed the Big Bad your character must face in Baldur’s Gate III, then you will need to bring your best and be ready to sacrifice everything to stop some of Dungeons & Dragons’ most terrifying and iconic villains.