Of Cults, Cures, and Ceremorphosis: Landscaping Religion in Baldur’s Gate 3

Worshipper of Umberlee, the Wavemother, BG3 2023. Larian Studios.

In the summer of this year (2023), Belgian developer and publisher Larian Studios released the well-received[1] video game “Baldur’s Gate 3” (BG3). Based on the Tabletop-Roleplaying Game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D)[2] and following the first two Baldur’s Gate-video games (Baldur’s Gate from 1998, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn from 2000), BG3 has quickly grown in popularity, with an all-time peak of over 870.000 simultaneously active players on the PC-platform Steam.[3] Many fans post their self-made characters, play-throughs and favourite game scenes on platforms like Twitch, Instagram, TikTok and Youtube, while actors, producers and directors of the game join the discussion on social media to give background information on the game, the characters and the development process.[4]

In this essay, I will give a quick overview of how BG3 landscapes religion from a narratological and visual perspective. After a short summary of the game, I will introduce what I mean by landscaping religion in video games and how that works in BG3. Then, the “Cult of the Absolute” will be introduced as an example of how that landscaping takes place. My essay is a brief sketch of ideas that arose when considering the game and its usage of religion from the perspective of the study of religion.[5]

Baldur’s Gate: Find a Cure or Ceremorph

The game is a classical role-playing game (RPG) that puts the player in the center of the decision-making. Starting with a cutscene that introduces the plot of BG3 to the player, it becomes apparent right away that you’ve been infected with a “Tadpole”, a small leech-like creature that would turn you into a Mind flayer or Illithid. Illithids are wicked, evil creatures that plan to dominate the world of Faerûn (the continent on which BG3 takes place) through mind control.[6] The task at hand is clear: find a cure or you’ll undergo the irreversible transformation, also known as ceremorphosis.[7] The player can venture through the video game as either one of the origin characters, who all have backstories that you can later uncover, or as a custom character (including the joyous task of character creation determining one’s looks, class, skills, and so on). With the Tadpole in their mind, the player character soon realises that they can telepathically communicate with others who are infected, and at times dominate other creature’s minds.

BG3’s success is strongly connected to its characters, the game mechanics (turn-based combat, decision-heavy narration), audio-visual design and its complex and fun story including the many encounters with magic, history, curses, and companions. As is typical for D&D (first published in 1974 in the US as the first table-top roleplaying game situated in a fantastical world), religion plays a central role in the world of BG3.[8] Both creators of D&D were “devout Christians”,[9] one belonging to the nondenominational “The Way International”, the other was a Jehova’s Witness. Their religious education and identity clearly shaped their world building of D&D. Funnily enough, D&D would later be in the middle of the “moral panic”, deemed as anti-Christian, dangerous and somewhat satanic.[10] While the religious lore of D&D has changed quite a bit over the last few decades, religions still feature heavily in the diverse adventures and official publication of D&D.[11] Larian Studios obviously borrows from this broad pool of religious elements in their world building and turns them into an interactive, digital world to explore for the players. Religion is a prevalent theme of the story and of the environment in which it takes place.

Landscaping Religion in BG3

Video games like BG3 are great examples of how religion is incorporated into game worlds to authentically tell historical, fantastical, or close-to-life stories. A lot of researchers have already analysed the ways in which religion and video games are intertwined.[12] From religious games published by religious groups to games that draw on religion as game mechanic – religion can be seen as a widely used resource of inspiration for video game content. In the case of BG3, religion plays an important part in the story, as part of the game mechanics, and as a generally visible feature of life in Faerûn. Religious elements such as temples of gods and goddesses, images of druidic deities, rituals performed by believers, prayer sheets, religious books, or the “Cult of the Absolute” are amongst the first encounters players have in BG3 and its rich world. The first one is meeting the companions Lae’zel, a firm believer in her people’s Queen and god Vlaakith, and Shadowheart, a cleric of the deity Shar, right at the beginning of the adventure.[13]

I call the way in which religious elements, concepts, characters, powers, and places are productively and decisively visualised in BG3 landscaping religion.[14] Landscaping initially describes a process in which land is visually transformed through gardening actives (implementing e.g., flora and fauna), terraforming and the use of decorative elements. When transferred to the realm of religion in video games, by landscaping religion I mean the narrative and visual creation and usage of religion(s) and religious elements in the digital world[15] of a video game with the goal of constructing a believable religious landscape through careful transmission and intentional modification of real-world religions and religious ideas. In other words: Landscaping religion in video games serves the purpose of sculpting and curating religious stories, visuals that depict religion or religious elements, and the transcendent. Especially in games like BG3 which is based on D&D, deities are not always transcendent as they directly interact with the world.[16] In consequence, BG3 can easily draw on immanent portrayals, and by that, I mean the visual representation, of divine concepts such as superhuman powers, beauty, magic, and wisdom to depict the religious.

The Cult of the Absolute: The Development of a New Religious Movement

Amongst the many religious aspects present in BG3, one of the most prominently featured religions is the “Cult of the Absolute” (CotA).[17] Referred to with female pronouns, the “Absolute” is introduced to the story as some sort of personified “divine” entity that can telepathically speak to their (most special) followers, called “True Souls”. These “True Souls”, as one learns during the adventure, are those who are infected by the Tadpole. This allows the player character to (at least initially) identify as a follower of the Absolute, reject it, or deceivingly use their telepathic connection to others to their own benefit.

At different stages of the adventure, the CotA and its followers, among them the character Minthara who can be recruited in the middle of the game (if the player chooses to go down a darker path), become central plot points. Hence, the development of the CotA as a social phenomenon recognised, commented on, and feared by Faerûn folks runs parallel to the player’s storyline in BG3. Regarding my idea of landscaping religion, the CotA is presented as a typical New Religious Movement (NRM) in the game[18], which shows how Larian effectively creates a minority religion that draws upon our understanding of ‘cults’ and slightly modifies it to fit the universe of D&D. Through their visual and narratological implementation of the CotA as NRM, the religious landscape of BG3 becomes more believable. The reception of the CotA in Faerûn society as somewhat fearsome and dangerous is likely inspired by the debates about ‘cults’ and ‘sects’ in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.[19] By incorporating not only this social dimension of the CotA, but also visually implementing dark spaces, marks with skulls, or an old sanctuary of another deity as the ‘cultists’ base, BG3 landscapes the CotA as a religion that mirrors the pop cultural stereotypes of ‘cults’ of the past in a fantastical world. For instance, the CotA’s most basic principle is that of mind control exerted by True Souls over the cultists through the Tadpole, which obviously refers to stereotypes around psychological control (often called brainwashing). While in academia, scholars of religion and sociologists have long rejected the theory of brainwashing, it is still very much part of the portrayal of NRMs in media, popular culture and in games, as BG3 vividly shows.[20] In BG3, this is visualised through purple swirls and the usage of a specific soundscape.[21]

CotA is only one example of religion in BG3 that joins the ranks of other religions devoted to deities like Selûne (goddess of the moon and stars), Umberlee (the “Wavemother”, the sea deity), Baal (god of murder), or Bahamut (god of mercy and justice). BG3 offers a rich and diverse religious landscape that builds upon D&D lore and combines it with visual elements that are not unique to this game, but often used in the video game industry to display religion. This includes portrayals of the divine with light, glowing colours such as white or yellow, celestial beings with angelic wings, hellfire, or displays of religious architecture, paraphernalia etc. While this short essay could only brush over a lot of the religious elements in BG3, it is intended as a first approach to understanding religion in video games as landscaped, thus carefully created and constructed on a narrative and visual level to build a game world with believable religion. In BG3, religion permeates the life in Faerûn so vividly that players will need to recognise the utmost salience of religion in order to convey the story Larian Studios wants to tell.

– Dunja Sharbat Dar

[1] The game on PC scored 96 out of 100 at Metacritic,  https://www.metacritic.com/game/baldurs-gate-3/ [last accessed: Oct. 31, 2023] and got 96% from 100% on OpenCitic. https://opencritic.com/game/9136/baldurs-gate-3/charts.

[2] D&D is a table-top roleplaying game. TTRPGs such as D&D are usually played in a group of several people, one person is the “dungeon master” or “game master”, who plans out an adventure story for the players, called party. Over the past five decades, many storylines, updated versions, background information and artwork have been published for D&D. These materials serve as guides and resources for players on both sides of the table.

[3] Baldur’s Gate 3 on Steam Charts on Oct. 31, 2023: https://steamcharts.com/app/1086940 [last accessed: Oct. 31, 2023].

[4] See e.g., Beth Park or Devora Wilde on TikTok, Neil Newbon and Jennifer J. English on Youtube and Twitch.

[5] I played BG3 after its full release in August 2023. I played both a custom character and the origin character “The Dark Urge”, which means I did not encounter all religion-related elements Larian Studios introduces in this game. However, I watched videos by online creators in order to get a more complete picture. For a full study, one would need to do a digital ethnography.

[6] Baker et al. 2005, 61.

[7] Cagle et al. 2003, 90.

[8] Aside from “alignment” deciding a being’s morality, there are “fantasy religions” that were historically derived from actual religions and mythology (see Laycock 2015, 61ff).

[9] Laycock 2015, 53.

[10] See Laycock 2015, 55; see also Martin & Fine 2017.

[11] Over the course of time, religions in D&D have become more abstract and nowadays almost completely avoid referencing this-worldly religions. Adrian Hermann spoke about this during a presentation at the DVRW conference in 2023 in Bayreuth. His publication of the history of religion in D&D is forthcoming.

[12] See e.g., Steffen, Oliver, et al. (eds.) 2014; Šisler et al. (Des) 2017, amongst many other works.

[13] Shar is a deity that is associated with darkness, night, and loss.

[14] This idea is still raw and not completely thought out, and I conceptualise it in slight reference to the concept of linguistic landscaping, which is used to analyse and determine the visibility and salience of different languages in public places of multilingual or metropolitan areas, e.g., Tokyo or Jerusalem (see e.g., Backhaus 2006; Blommaert 2013 & Ben-Rafael et al. 2010).

[15] Including the technological background, the modelling, the graphics, the music, and so on.

[16] In general, it is questionable how useful it is to apply a systems theoretical understanding of religion to religions in BG3 or D&D, because the main function of making the transcendent available in the immanent isn’t that necessary in a world where gods can literally appear, and deaths can be reversed with magic.

[17] The CotA first appeared in comics in 2021 as a prelude to BG3 (cf. Zub 2021).

[18] Barker 1999; Bainbridge 2021.

[19] Barker 2014.

[20] See Barker 2011; Melton 2000; Beckford 1978; see also Neal 2011 for a discussion of these stereotypes perpetuated in fictional television.

[21] See for more on soundscapes in videogames Ribeiro et al. 2022; Garner 2016.


References

Backhaus, Peter. Linguistic Landscapes. Multilingual Matters 2006. https://doi.org/10.21832/9781853599484.

Bainbridge, William Sims. The sociology of religious movements. Routledge, 2021.

Barker, Eileen. New religious movements. Farmington Institute for Christian Studies, 1999.

Barker, Eileen (2010) The cult as a social problem. In: Hjem, Titus, (ed.) Religion and social problems. Routledge Advances in Sociology . Routledge, New York, USA, pp. 198-212.

Barker, Eileen. “The not-so-new religious movements: Changes in ‘the cult scene’over the past forty years.” Temenos-Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion 50.2 (2014): 235-256.

Baker, Richard, James Jacobs, and Steve Winter. Lords of Madness: The Book of Aberrations. Wizards of the Coast: 2005.

Beckford, James A. “Sociological stereotypes of the religious sect. The Sociological Review 26.1 (1978): 109-123.

Ben-Rafael, E., E. Shohamy, and M. Barni (eds), Linguistic Landscape in the City. E. Shohamy, E. Ben-Rafael, and M. Barni (eds), xi–xxviii. Bristol/Buffalo/Toronto: Multilingual Matters 2010.

Blommaert, J. Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscape. Bristol/Buffalo/Toronto: Multilingual Matters 2013.

Cagle, Eric, Jesse Decker, James Jacobs, Erik Mona, Matthew Sernett, Chris Thomasson, and James Wyatt. Fiend Folio. Wizards of the Coast: 2013.

Garner, T.A. From Sinewaves to Physiologically-Adaptive Soundscapes: The Evolving Relationship Between Sound and Emotion in Video Games. In: Karpouzis, K., Yannakakis, G. (eds) Emotion in Games. Socio-Affective Computing, vol 4. Springer, Cham 2016. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-41316-7_12.

Laycock, Joseph P. Dangerous games: what the moral panic over role-playing games says about play, religion, and imagined worlds. University of California Press, 2015.

Martin, Daniel, and Gary Alan Fine. “Satanic cults, satanic play: Is “Dungeons & Dragons” a breeding ground for the devil?.” In: Best, Joel (ed.) The satanism scare. New York: Routledge 2017. 107-124.

Melton, J. Gordon. “Emerging religious movements in North America: Some missiological reflections.” Missiology 28.1 (2000): 85-98.

Neal, Lynn S.“They’re Freaks!”: The Cult Stereotype in Fictional Television Shows, 1958–2008.” Nova Religio 14.3 (2011): 81-107.

Ribeiro, J.P., Carvalhais, M., Cardoso, P. Categorising the Sonic Experience in the Soundscapes of Videogames. In: Raposo, D., Neves, J., Silva, J. (eds) Perspectives on Design II. Springer Series in Design and Innovation, vol 16. Springer, Cham 2022. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-79879-6_20.

Steffen, Oliver, et al. (eds.): Playing with religion in digital games. Indiana University Press, 2014.

Šisler, Vít, Kerstin Radde-Antweiler, and Xenia Zeiler, eds. Methods for studying video games and religion. Routledge 2017.

Zub, Jim. Mindbreaker #1. IDW Publishing: San Diego 2021.



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Redaktion (2023, 28. November). Of Cults, Cures, and Ceremorphosis: Landscaping Religion in Baldur’s Gate 3. |Marginalien. Abgerufen am 12. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/r8se

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