We’ve all heard of Baldur’s gate. But what is Baldur’s gender? Male? Female? SUMMONED_DEMON?
In November 2016, the comics artist Amika gave the world this gift — the list of all permitted genders in Baldur’s Gate II, the classic role-playing game set in the Dungeons & Dragons universe:
“The list I put on Twitter is a screencap from NearInfinity, which is a program that lets you open up and look at game files,” Amika told me. “I think I came across it either when I was modding in an NPC whose gimmick is she has a devil companion, or when I was trying to add to the half-orc romance subplot that involves demons — it’s fine, I own my shame.”
As a taxonomy of gender, this list is spectacularly esoteric, bordering on absurd poetry — a piece video game engine code Borges wishes he scripted. The list is on the one hand almost brutally unambiguous: There are precisely nineteen genders. On the other hand, every entry here raises new questions: What’s the difference between EXTRA2 and EXTRA 3? Why is being imprisoned a gender? Are there 46 missing genders? What happened to them?
I couldn’t leave these questions be, so I asked the Canadian video game developer Beamdog — which has produced “Enhanced Edition” restorations of both Baldur’s Gate games, as well as Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale, which also use the Infinity Engine — to explain to me, basically, how gender works in Baldur’s Gate.
Amazingly, Beamdog made its chief technology officer, Scott Brooks, available for this. Not only did Brooks answer my questions, he provided me with this complete gender identity census for the Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition:
• there are 2856 creatures marked Male
• 883 marked Female
• 1 Other (A Statue)
• 735 marked Neither (Skeletons, Mephitis, Slimes, etc.)
• 4 Both (Deva/Planetar)
• 157 Summoned (Sprits, Astral entities, Elementals)
• 13 Illusionary
• 24 Extra (Some commoners, etc.)
• 20 Summoned Demons
• 11 EXTRA2
• 7 EXTRA3
“Most of the time [in the Infinity Engine games, creatures’] gender is one of the common Male/Female/Neither,” Brooks told me. As Baldur’s Gate is based on Dungeons & Dragons, most of its elaborate bestiary has its gender stipulated in D&D handbooks. For instance, creatures having no gender include shadows, fungi, gibbering mouthers, oozes, and the shambling mound. A helmed horror also has no gender, but a hook horror can be male or female.
As a player of Baldur’s Gate, though, you don’t have the run of all 19 genders, let alone the 46 lost genders. Your character can be male or female, which is consistent with the D&D rules on which the game is based. “Your character can be of the same sex as yourself or of the opposite sex,” allows the 1989 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition player handbook. The most ink that this edition spends on either sex or gender is this defensive qualification: “The male pronoun… is used exclusively throughout the second edition…. We hope this won’t be construed by anyone to be an attempt to exclude females from the game or imply their exclusion. Centuries of use have neutered the male pronoun. In written material it is clear, concise, and familiar. Nothing else is.” (In fairness, the current 5th Edition is considerably more open-minded: “Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender and sexual behaviour…. You don’t need to be confined to binary notions”.)
Baldur’s Gate does depart from its 2nd Edition source insofar as it considers being summoned a gender, albeit for technical reasons. Brooks explained that the Infinity Engine can search more efficiently for creatures in the game who are summoned (by, e.g., a wizard) if they’re explicitly tagged as such. OK, but why list it with genders?
“Chances are,” Brooks suggested, “it came from someone asking the question ‘When I cast Project Image, and an illusionary copy is made of me, what gender is it?’ and in an effort to get back to work, they decided to add ILLUSIONARY to the list of genders. Then in this imaginary scenario someone asked ‘What gender is a Skeleton? If it’s animated bones of the dead, could it be made up of multiple people’s bones, [and] then what gender would it be?’ I’m guessing about now a producer would have dropped by [and] said ‘Just add it to the list and get back to work.’”
Which means in Infinity Engine games, you can’t, for example, be both illusionary and female. And you can tell that this is really a fantasy world because it is literally impossible to be both unimportant and male.
“These decisions would usually fall to the Technical Designers,” Brooks said. “Every creature in the game has a file that defines all of their stats, which includes their gender. In a lot of cases, the Technical Designer would have to pick some value from a list, and may not do it consistently. [For example,] when looking into Icewind Dale, I found that the Bombardier Beetle and Boring Beetle are both Neither gender, but the generic Beetle has a gender of Female. All of the Bears in Icewind Dale are set to Male, but that distinction doesn’t affect the gameplay.”
As for the EXTRA genders, Brooks says they’re kind of like extras in a movie. “If you have a big scene with a battle going on with many creatures potentially dying, [those creatures] could be assigned to EXTRA3, and then in scripting you could see when 30 EXTRA3 creatures have died.” So, in the Baldur’s Gate pocket of the D&D world, if you are so unimportant in the grand design that your highest purpose is to be one of 30 anonymous villagers wiped off the map by a fireball, then that is your gender.
At the end of my conversation with Brooks, I felt like I understood pretty well how gender is constructed in the world of Baldur’s Gate: The core genders are set down in a Dungeons & Dragons handbook, but the list can be surreptitiously expanded by Technical Designers, especially if a Producer is mad at them.
Only one question remained, to my mind: What is Baldur’s Gender??
Baldur — actually, Balduran — never appeared in a Baldur’s Gate game. According to the lore, Balduran died many years before, and left behind mostly just a sick gate. In the games, Balduran is referred to by the masculine pronoun — like in an encyclopedia entry for something called “the Butter Knife of Balduran”. Furthermore, this anonymous comment on the Baldur’s Gate Wikia identifies Balduran as a “man-crush”:
“Based off that info,” Brooks said, “it looks like Balduran is a he.” But are we sure? And what if Balduran showed up in any future Baldur’s Gate content as an illusion, or a demon? Does being a demon supplant being a man?
It is probably, I think, better not to assume.
With special thanks to dungeon master Claire Hummel and true neutral wizard Ben Burbank.