Empathy (and the lack thereof)

[Warning: major plot spoilers for Baldur’s Gate 3]

Baldur’s Gate 3 has an impressive cast of characters, all of whom have their own army of fans ready to bat for them at the drop of a hat. There is however one character who doesn’t really have such a fanbase, but nevertheless seems to provoke more discussion than any other character, and is, to me, the most interesting character in the game, simply because he’s not like the other characters, or other races, for that matter: the Emperor.

The Emperor is a rogue mindflayer who has successfully escaped the thralls of the Elder Brain and the trio of villains, the ‘Dead Three’, who seek to control it and by extension, all mindflayers and mindflayers-to-be. To counteract this threat, the Emperor chooses to work with you, the player character, and your band of fellow tadpoled adventurers to defeat the Elder Brain once and for all.

From the moment his character introduced, his trustworthiness is called into question. He first appears to you disguised as your dream guardian, a character you create and customize along with your own player character, a sly trick from Larian that leads players to design a character that would be appealing to them. As the events of the plot unfold, he is no longer able to keep up appearances and so reveals to you that he is a mindflayer who has broken free from the so-called Absolute, aka the Elder Brain.

Throughout your time with the Emperor, he consistently asks that you trust him, while you are being presented with plenty of evidence from other sources that you should NOT trust him. His first appearance to you was a deception meant to elicit trust. It was mindflayers that kidnapped your player character (and though not explicitly confirmed, it may have been the Emperor himself who tadpoled you in the game’s opening cinematic). Withers, a mysterious character who accompanies your party on your quest, outright states that mindflayers do not possess souls.

Yet at every turn of events, the Emperor, if you stick with him, will stick with you. He does not betray the player character and will work with them to defeat the Elder Brain. In fact, even if you give the Netherstones that are used to control the Elder Brain to the Emperor and convince him to dominate the Elder Brain and rule the world, he does not betray you and will do so with you at his side.

There is one main exception to this loyalty: if you choose to free Orpheus, the Githyanki prince he has kept prisoner and whose powers are responsible for shielding your party from the Elder Brain, you will be effectively threatening his life, and so he flees to the side of the Elder Brain.

Yet this betrayal is only in response to your own betrayal of him. Quite consistently throughout your adventure, the Emperor will not betray your trust in him. Trust in him is almost always reciprocated.

So is he trustworthy, despite prior evidence suggesting otherwise? He may be Machiavellian in his machinations, but does he also see our player character as yet another pawn in his game? Or something more?

The crux of the question is: does the Emperor feel? Is he capable of empathy? If one assumes that he is, then you can reasonably conclude that his intentions towards the player character are pure and true. If one assumes that he isn’t, then you are just a pawn and it was pure good fortune that at no point in time did he feel that using and discarding you was the best way forward.

It’s also worth noting the one counterpoint to the mountain of evidence for the Emperor’s incapacity for empathy: Omeluum.

Omeluum is another rogue mindflayer the player can encounter during their travels in the Underdark. Omeluum, for all intents and purposes, seems like a genuine thinking feeling individual. In return for some favours, it works with the player character, attempts to help cure them of the mindflayer tadpole, and can even offer a ring providing some mental protection. It has a strong friendship with fellow non-mindflayer researcher Blurg. It also is engaged in a personal research project to develop a food source for mindflayers like itself that does not involve consuming the brains of sentient beings. Omeluum appears to be even more trustworthy than the Emperor, as it does not engage in any of the political machinations and deceptions that the Emperor has engaged in. As far as we can tell, Omeluum is honest, genial, and even downright helpful. If Omeluum is capable of empathy, then perhaps the Emperor is capable too?

In a particular revealing and intimate moment, the Emperor makes romantic advances towards your player character, and you can reciprocate these advances. If you are just a pawn, this romantic overture seems a tad excessive and unnecessary. After all, you have been largely cooperative so far and the Emperor is no doubt aware such advances from a creature like himself may be unwanted and potentially even a source of revulsion. Are his intentions honest?

We can also refuse his advances, and the Emperor returns to business with little apparent disappointment. However, if you refuse his advances with disgust and call him a freak, then he outright threatens you. He claims you are, in fact, just a pawn to him. He also reveals that his former ‘partner’, Duke Stelmane, was in actuality just a mind-controlled pawn, a revelation that is corroborated by other evidence in the game.

On the surface, this would seemingly confirm the Emperor’s utter lack of empathy and emotion, but I think another interpretation is possible: this is the angry lashing out of a possibly lonely individual who has just been rejected and insulted and who hates being perceived as weak. If you were called a freak upon revealing your romantic feelings for another, wouldn’t you too feel betrayed and angered? Perhaps the Emperor realized that mind controlling those he would work with, as he had done in the past, would help achieve his aims but brought little joy or companionship and thus he has opted to try a different strategy with you. Whether it works is up to you.

(Yes, I’m basically calling the Emperor an incel)

There is a great deal of moral and emotional ambiguity in the Emperor, something that is not typical for mainstream fantasy, which is why I find him so fascinating as a character. At a risk of over generalization, fantasy as a genre tends to have clear and unambiguous depictions of morality, perhaps due to its roots in ancient mythology, Tolkien’s works or Arthurian legend. The lines between good and evil are clearly demarcated. Even Baldur’s Gate 3’s wider universe, Dungeons & Dragons, with its more granular approach to morality, divides moral alignment into a 3 by 3 grid. The Emperor, as a character, seems to have more in common with the genre of science fiction.

[Warning: major plot spoilers for Ex Machina (2014)]

In Alex Garland’s 2014 film Ex Machina, eccentric tech billionaire Nathan Bateman has developed and built Ava, an intelligent android that he believes has consciousness and is capable of independent emotion and cognition. He asks company employee Caleb to interact and speak with Ava as a form of informal Turing test so as to ascertain if she is fact conscious and self-aware. During these conversations, Ava confides in Caleb that she feels trapped and imprisoned, and yearns to be free so as to experience the outside world. Over time, Caleb begins to develop feelings for Ava (and so too, it seems, does Ava for Caleb) and so begins to enact a plan to free her from Nathan’s imprisonment.

The similarities to the Emperor in Baldur’s Gate 3 are striking. Ava is the Emperor, and your player character is Caleb.

Does Ava feel emotions? Does she actually have feelings for Caleb? If Ava, or the Emperor for that matter, were human, we would have little reason to doubt so, but because Ava and the Emperor are intelligent entities who are explicitly NOT human (or elven, dwarven, etc.), the capacity for emotion cannot be assumed.

In philosophy, solipsism is the idea that we can only be sure of the existence of our own mind as we cannot peek into the minds of others. Other beings may just be ‘philosophical zombies’, engaging in purely mechanical action with no motivating thought.

In practice, solipsism means little. Even if other human being have no minds they certainly act like they do and it’s much easier to go about life responding to them as if they do. The same cannot be said of non-human intelligence. We have no framework for how they might act, as we have no framework for how they might think or feel. Characters like Ava or the Emperor take solipsism out the realm of theory and into the realm of practice.

Ex Machina presents a clear answer to the question of Ava’s internal world. Once freed from Nathan’s prison, she completely ignores Caleb, who has been locked behind a glass door and begs her to be freed. She escapes into the outside world, free and alone. She never cared for Caleb and was only ever using him.

Baldur’s Gate 3 leans towards ambiguity. While the Emperor never betrays the player character, we can never be sure if that means that he does care for them, or if it was simply in his own best interests to continue their cooperation. We are not mindflayers and cannot know how they think or feel (there is the opportunity for our player character to become a mindflayer in the game, but only for a short time while their old selves still remain intact). The gulf between species cannot be easily bridged. We simply cannot know the mind of another.

“When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. I picture cracking her lovely skull, unspooling her brain, trying to get answers.” – Nick Dunne, Gone Girl (2014)