Today in our interview series, Chrono Trigger author Michael P. Williams asks Matt Bell some questions about D&D and his forthcoming book, Baldur's Gate II.
Michael P. Williams: I've got to tell you up front: I'm a Dungeons & Dragons nerd who has never roleplayed in real life, but I read almost every Dragonlance novel published through the mid-1990s, and I adored the “Monstrous Compendia” published by TSR. What has your history with D&D and roleplaying games in general been like?
Matt Bell: My D&D history begins with the computer games, not the pen and paper game, although the timing of getting into both modes was pretty close. As far as I can remember, the first D&D experience I had was SSI's extraordinarily difficult Heroes of the Lance, adapted from Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Dragons of Autumn Twilight, which I didn't read until years later. Shortly after, I found my dad's copies of the Basic and Expert box sets hidden high in a closet in our spare room, which introduced my brother and I to the original game. In the following years, we played nearly every D&D game that came out for the PC, and we bought and read and planned from many of the second edition AD&D rule books and campaign settings. Despite how much time and money we invested in the game materials, I don't think we actually played very often, or at least not until we were much older. (My brothers still play, and when I was writing The Last Garrison I rejoined them, but by then we were playing fourth edition.) At the time, we just couldn't find enough other people to play with, and it's very hard to play a two-person game. I think that was one of the alluring aspects to most video game versions of D&D: They simulate what is essentially a social experience, translating it for a single player.
As a novelist and an RPGer, you've had the power to create characters in a variety of settings. What similarities and differences have you experienced with creating characters for novels, for customizable computer RPGs, and for tabletop RPGs?
One of the things I talk about in the book is about how Gorion's Ward, the protagonist of the Baldur's Gate saga, is presented to the player in a very similar way to how fairy tale characters are constructed. Rather than the kind of fleshed-out round characters we're used to in most novels, where characters come with explicit full psychological motivations and backstories and so on, Gorion's Ward is given very few traits when the story opens, just a sketch of a past and a handful of starting statistics and skills that do not by themselves create character. Instead, the player is tasked with interpreting these mechanical aspects of the game into a person they can invest in emotionally, which occurs through character choices in response to the puzzles and story decisions of the game, and through character customization when you gain new levels or equipment. In a novel, you're usually given quite a bit more about the character, and of course you don't usually get to chart the course of the action. But in my own work, it's still important to leave some blanks in the character's makeup that the reader will have to fill themselves. That's part of what allows a reader to become invested in the character and his or her story, this sense that they're the ones who actually created the character, by imaginatively investing so much of themselves.
Your book is centered around Baldur's Gate II, a game that is a sequel to Baldur's Gate, and with its expansion pack Throne of Bhaal considered, is also a sequel to itself. What makes this a standout game compared to other video games in the larger Baldur's Gate series?
I think Baldur's Gate II is the heart of the series. The first Baldur's Gate was a revolutionary advance in D&D gaming, but its story is much thinner than BG2's. Because it deals with lower level characters, the gameplay in BG1 isn't nearly as difficult or as interesting, and it also has a more generic fantasy art style than BG2. As for Throne of Bhaal, it's a great expansion—really almost a true sequel—but it's so reliant on an understanding of Baldur's Gate II that it would have been hard to write about on its own. Despite being the middle of what is essentially a trilogy of games, Baldur's Gate II is probably the best vantage point from which to discuss the whole.
Baldur's Gate II is set within the context of the D&D campaign setting, Forgotten Realms, while your own D&D novel, The Last Garrison, is not set within any particular campaign. How important is the Forgotten Realms brand name to Baldur's Gate II? How might the game look if it were set in another D&D campaign, like highly polytheistic Dragonlance universe, or the very gothic Ravenloft setting?
It's an interesting question, because Baldur's Gate II is set in a part of the Forgotten Realms I hadn't read much about at the time, in the setting's novels or rule books. I think that was probably by design, as Bioware has made a similar smart decision with other licensed worlds, like not setting their Star Wars RPGs in the same time period as the movies. BG2 definitely has the Forgotten Realms in its DNA, and your quest takes you to some of the most famous places in that world, like a drow city in the Underdark, which must have pleased fans. At the same time, I think the designers had a lot of room to make their corner of the Forgotten Realms their own, for the purposes of the game. The other games built on the Infinity Engine that powers Baldur's Gate are probably more tied to their respective settings: The Icewind Dale games are set in the titular location, made famous by R.A. Salvatore's bestselling Drizzt Do'Urden series of novels, and Planescape: Torment—maybe my favorite of these games, despite writing about BG2—is absolutely integrated into its campaign setting, and probably couldn't exist without it.
So far, Boss Fight Books has tackled three very different RPGs: Earthbound, a Japanese RPG set in a modern world; Chrono Trigger, another JRPG set in a fantasy world; and finally Jagged Alliance 2, a Western RPG set in modern times. Baldur's Gate II, a fantasy WRPG, completes this matrix. What similarities and differences do you see among Baldur's Gate II and these other games? Also, how will BG2 the book differ from these previous Boss Fight installments?
To be honest, I haven't played more than an hour or so of both Earthbound and Chrono Trigger, so I can't speak to them too much. My instinct is to say that Baldur's Gate II is less whimsical than those games, but BG2 has its moments of whimsy and humor too, and I know both Earthbound and Chrono Trigger are very serious in their own ways. I do think Jagged Alliance 2 and Baldur's Gate II share a lot in the ways that players interact and come to care for their characters, as that was the most memorable part of Jagged Alliance 2 for me. As for how my book will differ from the earlier books: I'm sure there's some crossover, but one unique thing I'm trying to do is to explicitly explore how different game systems work from a novelist's perspective. For instance, Baldur's Gate II is such a story-driven game, but how do narratives work to create tension and conflict when the character isn't bound to follow any particular storyline at any time? Or how does character development work, compared to how it works in a novel? There will also be critical discussions of the game's depictions of violence and morality and romance and gender, subjects I don't think have been covered in the same way in earlier books. It's an incredibly rich game, and its ambition means there's a lot of material to explore.
I'd like to say I'm chaotic neutral, but I'm probably just a boring ol' neutral good. What is your favorite of the nine D&D alignments, and where do you think you'd fit into this scheme?
In pen-and-paper D&D, I pretty solidly played chaotic good characters, which seems about where I'd categorize myself in real life, although I probably lean more lawful these days too. In novels, I like a character who's willing to bend the rules for the greater good, and in my own writing I perhaps especially like characters whose belief in their own goodness compromises them morally, by allowing them to take actions that without that self-justification would be clearly wrong. I think most otherwise good people compromise themselves morally in many small ways, and I'm always interested in the stories we tell ourselves to get away with those compromises. That seems like the province of the chaotic good, and it's probably one of the more interesting spaces in D&D's alignment system.
Since I started Boss Fight Books last summer, one of the biggest pleasures of running/editing “the 33 ⅓ of video games” was discovering Michael P. Williams. Boss Fight’s Kickstarter backers selected Chrono Trigger as the game they most wanted to read a book about, and when I put out a call to writers for Chrono pitches, it was Michael’s that blew me away.
What sealed it was a three-hour phone “interview” about Chrono Trigger, Dragonball Z, Secret of Mana, Japanese culture, and I think maybe the Star Wars prequels. My question, “Could this guy I’ve never met write a whole book about Chrono Trigger?” was more than answered. Michael’s writing is energized by a deep curiosity, a willingness to delve into his subject, to take Chrono Trigger as seriously as possible, and have a blast while doing it.
Case in point: In this interview, I asked him a dumb question about Spekkio, one of Chrono Trigger’s minor NPCs, and found, to my delight, that he had plenty of thoughtful Spekkio commentary ready to go. When I emailed him, “That’s a better answer than I deserved,” he replied, “It's an answer I'd thought about too! I didn't get to do nearly enough NPC analysis but there was just no room. I could have written a whole chapter about them. Ah well! This'll have to do, in the expanded gaiden of my book.” I need to go look up gaiden, but already I’m into the idea.
Now that his book is written, edited, and published, I thought I’d interview Michael again--this time not for his job, but just for the fun of picking his brain one more time. - Gabe Durham
Gabe Durham: In what could be the most controversial part of the book, you DARE to criticize the game's time travel mechanics. What--in movies, games, books, pop culture, whatever--is an example of a time travel plot that really gets it right? And what's a time travel plot that is just garbage?
Time travel is general is always going to involve a bit of bullshitting! Stories that get too hung up on paradoxes end up being really cumbersome, smarmy, and sometimes plain old unfun. One of my favorite masterfully handled time travel stories has to be 12 Monkeys (I haven’t seen La Jetée, on which it was based). The finality of time, the merciless grip of causality—it just gets so much right. But it’s a dark movie. And as you approach the ending you feel the noose of the time loop tightening around you. It’s a really tense movie. But it’s not fun.
If I want to go with fun, I’d go with Futurama. While the show does have its share of flub-ups in continuity, it does treat time travel with both irreverence for its conventions and with respect for its possibilities. As the series progresses, for instance, we continually learn more about the 1999 life of protagonist Philip J. Fry, and the circumstances surrounding his importance to the space-time continuum. At first Fry’s coming to the 31st century is a bit of a comedic fluke, but later it seems that many events have conspired to make this happen. The most vulgarly amusing of these is Fry’s having sex with his own grandmother to become his own grand-father/son—a special kind of incest that renders his brain “special” (read: “often stupid”), making it the most powerful counterweapon in the universe against a species of intergalactic brains that want to destroy all of existence. While autograndparenting is only hinted at in Chrono Trigger, Futurama provides a hilarious parody of the classic Grandfather Paradox that cripples many other time travel stories.
Meanwhile, there are far too many time travel flops to list, but Martin Lawrence’s Black Knight strikes me as one that is potentially offensive on any number of levels. Its worst sin, however, is its predictable fish-out-of-water storyline, and it’s a stark contrast to Futurama’s successes with the same trope.
Your book pokes at Chrono Trigger from just about every angle you could think of: The Hero's Journey, gender, physics, translation, etc. Why do you think CT is so ripe for this approach? And were there other angles that you tried to pursue that didn't work out?
Michael P. Williams: Since Chrono Trigger was a game designed by the collective input of a huge team, it felt right to take an unapologetically “kitchen sink” approach to never analyzing and critiquing it. It didn’t feel like bad form to mix and match approaches—critical race theory, queer studies, traditional literary criticism, and whatever else I smushed in there—though this would have passed muster as a “research book.” I also knew this was going to be a grab bag of topics—the game is just too multifaceted and too diffusively authored to articulate a single auteur-like vision.
I originally did have the idea of making this more academic than it ended up being—using words like auteur, for example. But then I got both intimidated by what I didn’t know and by what I’d have to learn just to start the process of learning more. I didn’t want to get paralyzed by unknowledge, so I just dove in at a certain point, leaving many sources unchecked. I had to remind myself that I was emphatically not writing a dissertation on Chrono Trigger, and that therefore I didn’t need a thesis. When I tossed out trying to find a unifying principle to rectify the disparate content of the game, I was actually able to start really writing.
I had had the serendipitous foresight to pack the prospectus I originally pitched to Boss Fight Books with tons of topics. Then again, I had also had the dedicated madness to watching ten straight hours of Chrono Trigger playback videos on YouTube while scribbling down notes. Of the 70% or so that was legible, I ended up with a huge, messy list of potential ideas. This very loose collection of talking points eventually was reshaped into many of the final chapters of the book.
One of the pleasures of editing this book was watching your balance of lucidity and generosity as a critic. Who are some arts critics you admire? What are some venues/websites that are really killing it?
I have to admit I approached this with some virgin eyes. I am not a huge follower of criticism. In fact, I’m poorly read when it comes to current culture. I read the Onion A.V. Club sometimes, or maybe a book review now and then, but in general I try to experience the original and don’t often look for critical consensus, or outliers.
It’s funny to me, though, that I tend to only seek out reviews when I loathe something—I want to feel vindicated. Many of my Google searches have been formatted as “___ is terrible” or “I hate ___.” I’ve had many things to fill in those blanks, often TV shows and movies. I will list three for you: The Gilmore Girls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV series), and Sideways. I have always found at least one excoriating review to justify my viewerly ire.
Something you don't get into in the book: What do you make of Spekkio? It always feels like a weird power play when Spekkio, before gifting the power of magic to the Future Saviors of the Earth, makes them walk around the room three times. Also, if his level of power matches whomever is in the room with him, what does he look like when alone?
Spekkio is a unique character in that, we have no idea what he really looks like. He's sort of like the lightbulb in the fridge, or the tree falling in the unheard woods—we can only guess what face he shows when he is showing anyone his face. Skilled players might be able to meet Spekkio in his weakest form, a small froggy. Most players will first encounter him as a furry kilwala, a kind of rabbit-ape. And as your party's lead character gets stronger, so do Spekkio's six distinct forms. His final form might be the toughest enemy in the entire game.
I think his major function is to serve as a friendly foe, a kind of constantly upgrading Gato—the karaoke battlebot that you can fight early on in the game. He's a way to test your skills in a relatively risk-free place, and if you can best him, you can earn limited-supply power-ups. Spekkio then fulfills a limited "coliseum" function—a feature which was never fully integrated into Chrono Trigger except by hackers.
As a character, Spekkio's major contribution is to unlock our characters' latent magic talents, and to hint at the development of magic in the world. Since he tells us prehistoric Ayla cannot use magic, we can make some guesses that magic was an invention of the Zeal Kingdom siphoning off Lavos's powers, else it was a wild card that Lavos introduced into the human population and that Zeal learned to exploit. We also know from Spekkio's housemate Gaspar that other visitors had been popping up in the End of Time, so whether these people got powers unlocked is an open question for fanfic writers to answer.
I like to think of Spekkio as more a trickster than an asshole, and his little game of walking his chamber thrice-deasil is a way to humble the characters rather than humiliate them—sort of like a Zen master making students sweep floors, maybe? Maybe also helps prepare the characters to accept the absurdity of magic. Even Hogwarts kids probably laughed the first time they said some Latinish gibberish and a spirit animal appeared. Without a sense of humor, ultimate power can lead people down a dark path.
By the way, according to the Japanese guide Chrono Trigger: Ultimania, you can actually trick Spekkio into believing you've traveled the room three times by following a weird, zigzag path. I admit I accidentally exited the room a few times trying to hug the walls, but this frustration of having to start over again can generously be read as an extension of the Zen analogy. Try, try again! And curse at the screen a bit too.
You successfully tracked down both Chrono Trigger's SNES translator/localizer Ted Woolsey and DS retranslator Tom Slattery for the book, and you read up on countless interviews in both Japanese and English with the game's developers. What about the game's creation surprised you? Did anything ever burst the bubble of what you'd assumed the creation of CT must have been like?
Oh, yeah! I’m like a bloodhound with these things. I was surprised how accessible both Ted and Tom were, and so willing to answer my questions. I even tracked down the only copy of Ted’s master’s thesis, and found it had surprising connections to Chrono Trigger. It was like experiencing my own personal synchronicity, and it was incredibly inspiring. I’m sure Ted was a bit spooked by my stalkiness there, but I think he was also glad to receive a PDF scan of an early opus.
As far as the creation of the game, I was surprised by how little the “Dream Team”—the three major producers and creators of the game—had to do with the game. The sheer amount of uncredited effort by people like Masato Katō—who wrote a good chunk of the game—and Yasunori Mitsuda—whose music many of us can still hum in the shower—was astounding. Granted, both guys’ names appear in the credits, but Mitsuda got totally snubbed in the so called “Developer’s Ending”—instead of him, it’s Nobuo Uematsu, who barely scored half a track for the game. I call bullshit on Japan’s hierarchical respect there.
Disappointments like these, however, were strongly offset by gems of esoterica, like the fact that Frog would probably have originally been “Spider,” or that the game was sort of the best leftovers of a failed Secret of Mana prototype. In the end, it’s always good to take a peek behind the curtain—even the humbug Wizard of Oz had plenty of cool shit to give away, floating head or not.
You wrote this book pretty quickly! I had this unique experience of getting to serialize your first draft as you were writing it, getting a new chapter every few weeks. What was your regimen like? And did we awaken a bookwriting beast that lurked within you all along?
The beast had always been lurking, and he was hungry! You just gave it something else to eat—though I assure you, many a cookie was consumed during the writing process.
After the initial research phase—which was a whirlwind two month process of gathering and compiling sources in English and Japanese—I started trying to flesh out the outline I had had in mind since the initial pitch. I started writing these chapters in book outline order, thinking I could keep the running train of thought on track. It became clear to me soon, though, that I was actually writing not a continuous narrative, but rather a series of interdependent chapters that could each be individual essays, if not for some transitioning thoughts that I later inserted to make the book flow more naturally. So, I’d have an idea for a theme, start taking notes. The notes would become a chapter outline, and then finally feel structured.
My library was a great place to work. It’s so quiet there—but not deathly quiet! The ambient soundtrack of shoes on the hard linoleum; soft, insistent coughing in the distance; the sound of dry, hushed laughter in a seminar room—all of these were incredibly relaxing. Often I would just sip my coffee and start pounding the keyboard, connecting the dots of the outline basically. There were some points when I was so in the zone that I would finish a whole subchapter in less than an hour. So, I guess part of my speed was having the right writing environment. Plus, being surrounded by knowledge was not just gratifying, it was incredibly useful! Articles and books for reference were often literally at my fingertips, so I didn’t really need to put many things on hold while I waited for sources to back up my writing.
More practically: as the bookwriting beast had just emerged, it needed some training. I really wanted to make this book good. I have to say, as fueled as I was by Ken’s EarthBound excerpt on Kotaku, I was also intimidated by the skill of his wordsmithing. Writing something both longform and creatively scholarly was a foreign concept to me, so following the deadline of having a first draft by Spring 2014—we originally had aimed for a Summer 2014 release—I created my own “halfth draft” deadline of Christmas 2013. I just wanted to get everything I had in for an initial pass through before even attempting a solid “first draft,” which was completed much sooner than anticipated. Looking back, these fractional draft numbers were probably confusing—I did call my individual chapter submissions “zeroth drafts”!—but this was also a manifestation of my fear of “this isn’t good enough yet.”
I still feel this a bit. In fact, I’m sure I will never not find a fault with any edition of Chrono Trigger—or anything else I write—but at some point you have to let these things go out into the world and succeed and/or fail! I’m confident that after all the hard work we’ve put into Chrono Trigger—and despite any typos or omissions— it’s exactly the kind of book I wanted it to become.