Friday, September 24, 2010

Epic Villains in Video Game Lore: Baldur's Gate II

Next up we have a villain whose skill at manipulation is matched by his power, a man ravaged by hatred who yet has the intellect and foresight to toy with the player and much of the game world as if they were mere marionettes.

Jon Irenicus
"I cannot be caged. I cannot be controlled. Understand this as you die, ever pathetic, ever fools!"

In Baldur's Gate II: The Shadows of Amn, the player is brought into the game with a jolt. The first thing you notice is that you are stuck in a dark and disturbing prison, trapped in individual cages along with your companions from the first game. Immediately, a man walks into the room, imperious and cold. Without warning, he tortures you, probing with one element of magic after another, unwilling to listen to any demands for an explanation. He references you as a "Child of Bhaal". Those familiar with the first game know that the main character is the progeny of a deceased god of murder, and that the spark of immortal power that lies within the player makes him the target of one scheme after another. On surface level, this looks like another plan to manipulate the powers given by your birthright. But it turns out that this man, Jon Irenicus, is a foe beyond anything the player has ever seen before.

What is immediately apparent about Irenicus is his power, his dominating presence, and his ability to force events into his favor. His personality is that of the self-absorbed god-king; his power is beyond reckoning, and he regards everyone else as 'mere mortals' before his might. Thus, to him, people merely serve as pieces upon a chessboard; and he is the distant, ephemeral controller from on high. His motives are murky for most of the game, and this only serves to cast his actions into shadow. Unable to comprehend why Irenicus does what he does, he is given a mythical quality. When he appears, he is instantly the center of attention as he seizes the initiative so as to further his own inscrutable goals.

As you escape from Irenicus' prison at the start of the game, it becomes clear that Irenicus is perhaps as insane as he is powerful. He holds two effete creatures captive, creatures that, when freed, explain in hushed whispers how they reminded Irenicus of her. Further exploration reveals a beautiful room dedicated to this unknown woman, a shrine that engenders as much sympathy in Irenicus as it does revulsion. For Irenicus' interest in this woman is not so much romantic as it is obsessive; he even has laboratories dedicated to cloning her, for some dark purpose.

Yet this indication of insanity does not cripple his ability to manipulate events and overcome them with an incredibly hardened will, and indescribable power to match. When he discovers your escape, he goes to the surface to stop you; a surface that happens to be within a crowded city district defended by hundreds of magical police. Why he chose to build his dungeon underneath a city of all places is beyond me, but Irenicus doesn't seem to care. You flee to the police, but Irenicus falls into an unstoppable rage, cutting them down like wheat before his awesome magical power. With one hand, he turns a man to stone, squeezing a fist to smash him into fragments and dust. With another, he rips a man through the very fabric of reality, leaving nothing but dust after a long, shattered scream. Finally, after a jaw-dropping massacre, the magical police shout that, though many of them will die, they will get him in the end. Irenicus replies with characteristic hauteur that he is bored, and that he'll go with them just because he feels like it.

Usurper of Power
"I wonder if you are destined to be forgotten. Will your life fade in the shadow of greater beings?"

As you quest onward, hoping to save up enough money to free a companion who went to prison as well, you hope that you've seen the last of Irenicus. You hope that you won't ever have to feel those cold, steel eyes bearing down upon you. Sadly, events work against you. Your character experiences horrible dreams where Irenicus explains to you the draws of your god-derived power, and how you can utilize it, reach out, and grasp the world in the palm of your hand. The dreams are detailed, with ethical dilemmas prompting you to choose between your friends or unlimited power. Echoes resonate throughout. Follow, if only to protect the weak that fell because of you. In the dreamscape, Irenicus coaxes you down a path of his own making, although that path's end is cloaked in shadow and uncertainty.

Eventually, you gather enough money to go to the maximum-security prison where your companion is held. As it so happens, this is where Irenicus is held as well. And, as you enter, it becomes clear that perhaps his capture was part of the plan all along. The magical stronghold has been subverted from the inside out. Previously contained asylum inmates are free to roam as they will. The entire purpose of the keep is twisted into a mockery of itself, and you are inevitably faced with Irenicus himself, who tortures you and forces you to go through the labyrinthine corridors until finally he manages to steal the player's very soul. His plan becomes clearer; Irenicus wants to use the splinter of power derived from the god in order to empower himself. But to what end?

The explanation lies with the woman whom Irenicus has obsessed over. As you manage to weakly escape from the terrible stronghold and start to pursue, it is evident that Irenicus is taking this additional power and using it to confront his tragic love, the very Queen of the Elves herself. After manipulating an entire nation of dark elves to weaken the good elven nation, Irenicus confronts the elvish matriarch. He announces in deep, haughty tones that he plans to become a god himself, utilizing the splinter of power to supplant a member of the Elvish Pantheon. With the memory of all the events he has controlled and coldly utilized to his advantage, it looks as if he is perfectly capable of accomplishing this goal.

"Do you cling to the past or can you see through the pain?"

The Queen of the Elves tries to dissuade him, trying to appeal to some part of himself that still holds to love, a powerful evidence of some remaining good. His reply is as arrogant as it is hollow. Irenicus states that he has long forgotten love, and that nothing is left but his hatred and desire for revenge. It is at this crucial moment, where it seems that Irenicus is about to become a god, that the player charges forth, an unexpected spanner in the works, to face Irenicus in an explosive face-off that ends up taking you into the very pits of hell, thus fighting him on multiple planes of reality. In the end, you declare him to be empty of feeling and thus empty of life, qualities not lacking from you and your companions. Irenicus is left to face the demons of hell alone, which he tries to do with growling confidence and cold, raging intellect. Doomed to fail, yet fighting to the last.

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