The Mage Who Couldn’t Be Caged

Controversy! Chaos and malcontent!

The final days of the EDR List of the Decade are nearly upon us, and EDR struggles within itself to pick the BEST OF THE BEST. What a ride it’s been. Over the next day or so, and assuming we manage to reach some decisions, we should be revealing our final two – the games, if you will, of the decade. Eight games are happily inside the hallowed enclosure, sipping on the finest EDR brandy and flaring up our specially imported Habanos while the EDR slave goblins tend to their every whim, no matter how decadent (and believe me, beneath the innocent exterior of Super Mario Galaxy lies a jaded fiend, sickeningly corrupted by the filthy excesses of his massive fame and glory).

But right now, that’s not what occuppies the EDR Combi-Brain. No, instead we are off for a quick delve into another mind. The mind…. of a monster.

Ladies & Gentlemen, we present the greatest villain of them all:

THE FACE OF FEAR

… Jon Irenicus.

Jon Irenicus is a heroic achievement. He ranks as some of BioWare’s finest work, even in this age of Allistairs, Shales, and HK-47s. This is a particularly impressive achievement when you consider the relative crudity of the presentation back in The Year 2,000. Or 2,001. Who’s counting? These days, the RPG is full of animation and cinematic flourishes but all those years ago we looked down, fixed-perspective and fixed-distance. There was none of this zooming in malarky. There was precious little voice acting. All we had were sprites, painted backgrounds and colossal writing.

Planescape: Torment has cropped up a few times here over the last few days, and with good reason – it’s an impressive game, and wonderfully written. But it never caught me the way Baldur’s Gate II caught me. In Torment, I played an extremely interesting man – but he was powerful, terribly dangerous and never really me (which was really the point of the game). In Baldur’s Gate II, I played the man I wanted to be. I played myself, but with a sword and a girlfriend who’d had her wings lopped off, and crucially I was opposed by Jon Irenicus.

When it comes to epic, heroic stories, two things matter – making the story personal, and having a villain worth opposing. BG2 played them both with style, with flair. The story revolves around you, what you are, but in some ways you are only really a prop to the story’s real protagonist, the villain and anti-hero. Jon Irenicus looms titanically over the game. To find out about yourself and the people close to you, to be in with a chance of protecting them, you must seek out Irenicus’ story, and follow him through Amn, the Underdark, the city of Suldanessular and eventually into Hell itself. Irenicus’ actions drive the game. It’s his story.

In most games, this would be a horrible mistake. Let’s face it; in most games, we just want our ego stroked, to be told how wonderful and important we are. BG2, though, makes the character important, but only as important as they are to Irenicus, the main character. He needs the player character, tempting and manipulating you into giving him the power he craves to enact his plan. His manipulations give the player the vengeful urge to press on, even once Irenicus has what he needs from you. You carry on because you want your soul back, natch, but that isn’t the real reason. The real reason you chase Irenicus through the city, the oceans and the Planes is because by this time, you hate him.

Irenicus is the Hamlet of videogames. He is bigger than the game that contains him, genuinely scary and genuinely hateful. His insanity is drawn deftly and with a maturity that most games still fall short of. This isn’t the googly eyed whispering giggling psychopath that bores you to tears in every other videogame to feature a mad person – he doesn’t froth, or fall back into any of the other tedious stereotypes which denote “crazy evil baddie”. He is calm and cold. His attacks (nearly all of which are limited to dialogue) feel truly threatening, and for most of the game the player is itching for a tiny chance to kill the vicious bastard stone cold dead. But Irenicus is entirely in control – and yet he is believably deranged, an angry vengeful maniac prepared to tear the cosmic order of the world down around his ears to get what he wants.

…which turns out to be love. Irenicus is an outcast, desperately in love with the elven Queen who exiled him from his city, and suddenly little things from earlier in the game begin to make sense and Irenicus changes. He is still a monster, a vile terrible man imprisoning and transforming nymphs and dryads into the image of the Queen in his stronghold, but the revelation of his motivation adds humanity to him. He begins to make sense. He becomes an unexpectedly tragic figure – lost, broken, robbed of his soul and elven immortality for crimes committed long ago. Suddenly, the monster is understandable, and even sympathetic.

Baldur’s Gate II was an unexpectedly powerful game, and for most of the last decade it was my favourite game. A large part of that is Irenicus, undoubtedly one of the greatest characters in games. He is terrifying without ever being cheap, instead relying only on words (and David Warner’s magnificent voice performance, I admit) to convey the cold savage evil he represents. But he is also human, understandable, and magnificent.

Jon Irenicus, EDR salutes you.

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One Comment on “The Mage Who Couldn’t Be Caged”

  1. Joe Says:

    I resent several things in this article. Firstly, where’s my creative credit? As the muse who inspired this ode to evil, I demand recognition. Or a cheque, either will do. Secondly, comparing Irenicus to the whining manchild that is Hamlet is a great injustice. At no point did I want to give Irenicus a slap and tell him to grow up and get over himself.

    I think what really made me hate Irenicus was that he didn’t view me as a threat or a challenge, at least at first. He put me in a cage not because he feared me, but because he wanted to experiment on me like a hamster. I was just…convenient, a tool to be used. And I didn’t like it one bit! I was the Hero of the Sword Coast, why didn’t he fear me? His contempt made me want to stab him until he recognised me as his equal! (Albeit an equal who needed five friends to help me beat him up.)

    I wouldn’t agree that he had any humanity, though. Even his love for Ellesime was cold and creepy and twisted beyond recognition. He may have thought he loved her, but it was more a memory than an actual emotion, since I don’t believe he really had many emotions left when I encountered him. He was a monster, although not in the same way as Sarevok. Irenicus didn’t slaughter people for the sake of it, he only killed you if he felt you had wronged him or were in his way. And you were lucky if he only killed you.

    I will admit to a brief moment of terror when I heard his voice actor on the radio years ago. Either he’d finally found me, or it was another of those nasty dream sequences and he was going to start blowing up statues of people I’d never met.


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