With guest co-host Andy Kelly!
The parasites are here, and 50% of the global population is already infected. That’s the bad news. The good news is that this parasite seems to be a quiet one… mostly. In this episode we speak to Joanne Webster, a professor of infectious diseases, about the microscopic cat-borne organism Toxoplasma Gondii – the closest thing humans have to the mind-altering brain tadpoles of Baldur’s Gate 3.
Click “more” for links and full episode transcription.
SFX from game opening and Baldur’s Gate 3 intellect devourer gameplay (IGN)
Music: Stalker by Alexis Ortiz Sofield, from Pixabay
Joanne Webster (professor of infectious disease): About 50% of the population has been infected with toxoplasma. I mean, it’s a beautiful parasite. It very subtly changes behavior in many ways, but it does seem to explain some cases of schizophrenia.
Brendan Caldwell: Hi there, and welcome to Hey Lesson, the podcast where we underhandedly teach you things using popular video games as an excuse. Today, that game is the long-awaited fantasy role-playing game Baldur’s Gate 3, a world in which creepy tadpoles can slither into your brain and slowly take control of your thoughts. With that in mind, we will be asking another very smart person another bunch of stupid questions. So keep listening if you want to hear what a professor of infectious diseases thinks about these horrible mind worms in the game. And if you want to know about the real brain parasites of the world that could be living in your head right now, I suggest you keep your ears open. Uh, but first let me introduce our guest co-host for this episode. It is PC Gamer journalist, and generally quite talented person, Andy Kelly. Hello! How are you?
Andy Kelly: Very well, thank you very well. My head’s full of information about disgusting brand parasites. So that’s always nice.
Brendan: It’s good that it is because we’re going to be talking a lot about this. For anyone who doesn’t know, Andy, you work at PC gamer and you have a lot of, like, side projects as well.
Andy: Yeah, just a dabbler, an eternal dabbler on various things. But most of my time is talking about PC games for PC Gamer.
Brendan: Balur’s Gate 3 came out in early access this month. You’ve played a bit of it.
Brendan: But you’re also quite fond of the older games in a series, right?
Andy: Yeah. I’m kind of a, I guess a superfan of the first two and that whole era of CRPGs.
Brendan: Can you tell the uninitiated though, what is Baldur’s Gate 3? Like, what is the player doing in it, what’s it all about?
Andy: Well, Baldur’s Gate 3 is an RPG set in the “Forgotten Realms”, which is a setting, I guess you’d say a Dungeons and Dragons setting. And it’s in name a sequel to two old games by BioWare, but it’s kind of its own thing. It tells a new story, but just within the same setting, it’s not a direct continuation, but the basic gist is you go on adventures, uh, whilst struggling with a small tadpole lodged in your brain that, uh, threatens to turn you into a “mind flayer”.
Brendan: A mind flayer… what, what does a mind flayer look like?
Andy: A mind flayer is like a classic D ‘n’ D creature. And they’re in the other games, but they never really got a starring role, but here they come to the forefront. And it’s basically a kind of wizard with tentacles for a face who is really good at corrupting people’s minds. And we learn about that process in this new game first-hand because your character is the victim of one of these mind flayers and their method for basically reproducing, which involves brain parasites. It’s very gross.
Brendan: Before… we go into that very deeply, the game itself, what does it look like? Is it like a third-person Dragon Age thing or what?
Andy: Well, you can pull the camera right up into the air and kind of replicate the look of the old games, but you can swing it down behind the character. And it kind of does look like the first Dragon Age. So it’s a… kind of both. It also has a lot in common with the Divinity series because it’s developed by the same people who made that. So it’s, in some ways, not like the old games. In most ways, not like the old games, but there are traces of those old games. So it’s kind of like a new generation of Baldur’s Gate.
Brendan: So you don’t need to have played the previous games to understand this one?
Andy: There’s sure to be references. But yeah, this is a whole new story set a hundred years after the events of the first two games. The first two games were very closely linked. The second game basically continued the story directly. Yeah. This is a fresh start and a new entry point into the series.
Brendan: You say, as well… it uses a setting from Dungeons and Dragons. Is Dungeons and dragons something people need to understand before they play?
Andy: I don’t think so. I mean, if you’re into D ‘n’ D, you probably know loads about the mind flayers and things like that, but the game, it throws exposition at you quite readily. So you can, with no experience of either Boulder Gate or D ‘n’ D, you can just play this. And it’s a, just a fantasy world with kind of… I mean, so much stuff is cribbed from Dungeons and Dragons that if you’ve seen any kind of fantasy in any genre, you’ll probably feel a bit comfortable.
Brendan: And one other important thing to mention as well. It’s not finished is it? It’s in early access. How much of the game is there to see so far?
Andy: There’s like… it’s the first act kind of thing. So I think there is about 20 hours in there. I mean, yeah, this all depends on how thorough you are with looking for secrets and the choices you make and the paths you take through mission quests and stuff. But it’s a small chunk, a very small chunk of the game. And it’s, it’s very technically quite shaky at the moment.
Brendan: Let’s talk about these mind flayers for a second. On the tadpole that goes into your brain… how does that get in there?
Andy: Um, you see this happening from the first person in, uh, a very lovingly rendered CG cut scene. At the beginning of the game, you’re kind of strapped to some biomechanical device in the mind flayer’s star ship – not a star ship, whatever – a ship which is like a giant shell with tentacles coming out of it. And you see the mind flayer approach and pluck one of these tadpoles from something and basically holds it towards your eye and you see its mouth open and a sort of circle of sharp teeth, and the screen goes black. So it goes into your eye, which is like… one of the worst places for a parasite to enter anything.
Brendan: Before we go too deep into the tadpole’s influence, we’re going to talk to somebody now who might be a bit more knowledgeable about these things. In reality, we wanted to know, is it possible to be manipulated by brain parasites in real life? So I chatted to professor Joanne Webster, a professor of infectious diseases at Imperial College in London to see if she could give us a, uh, a diagnosis of sorts. Here is what she had to say.
Brendan: Joanne Webster, can you briefly introduce yourself to our listeners?
Joanne Webster: Hello, I’m John Webster, professor Joanne Webster, and I am a professor of infectious diseases.
Brendan: At the Imperial College London, right?
Joanne Webster: Imperial College London, and also now the Royal Veterinary College.
Brendan: So to explain some things about this video game, it’s called Baldur’s Gate 3. The characters in this game have a problem that you, as an expert of parasites might be familiar with. They have got a brain parasite. What I want to know is, is this something that actually happens to humans?
Joanne Webster: Yes. There’s lots of parasites, which quite clearly change the behavior to look like manipulation in invertebrates. There’s not many in humans. There’s some such as, you know, rabies, of course it will change behavior, increase aggression, but there’s of course some more subtle parasites, like toxoplasma gondii, which does indeed appear to change behavior to make you do what the parasite wants you to do, rather than what you want to do.
Narrator (soundbite): Something behind your eyes sees this and recognition.
Brendan: So this parasite that you’ve mentioned, toxoplasma gondii. I could you explain a little bit about it… what is that?
Joanne Webster: It’s a protozoan. And it causes toxoplasmosis in people and animals. It’s very, very prevalent. About 50% of the population will have antibodies to toxoplasma in their blood. So most of us will actually get it. And we won’t know we’ve got it, we may feel a little bit poorly for a few days. And then it will go into what is called the latent stage, where it creates cysts in the brain. So of course that’s hidden away from the immune system, but it’s an ideal position for the parasite to actually change our behavior.
Narrator (soundbite): The creature seems unaware of your interference, it relaxes in your hands.
Brendan: Uh, and we get it from cats, right?
Joanne Webster: You can get it from cats. Cats shed the oocysts with their fece, so you can get it from cats and people are most worried about getting it for the first time when they’re pregnant, because it’s, it’s the thing that, you know… they tell you to keep away from kitty litter, careful what you eat, because if you get it for the first time when you’re pregnant, you’re likely to have very severe birth defects – congenital toxoplasmosis, or spontaneous abortions in humans and domestic livestock alike. But… a lot of people will get it from the other route. And that will be from undercooked meat.
Devil (soundbite): Go on, partake! Enjoy your supper.
Brendan: You said it creates cysts in our brains. And I’ve read that there are reports that there might be a link between this parasite, toxoplasma gondii, and schizophrenia in humans. Is there evidence of that?
Joanne Webster: Yes. I mean, for years they’ve been looking at infectious causation of schizophrenia, and they’ve been looking at a number of different pathogens, which, you know, some hold up, some less. So toxoplasma seems to be a sort of a beautiful example. It’s obviously not all cases of schizophrenia, particularly if you look at, you know, about 50% of the population has been infected with toxoplasma [but] about one in a hundred developed schizophrenia. But it does seem to explain some cases of schizophrenia. We don’t know exactly how, I mean, it’s a beautiful parasite. It very subtly changes behavior in many ways, but also we don’t understand fully the mechanism of action. Some clues, for example: the fact that the parasite can produce its own dopamine, which is identical to our dopamine, which again, places it in an ideal position to change behavior. And altered dopamine is associated in patients with schizophrenia. There’s just, there’s actually a stronger association between toxoplasma infection and schizophrenia than any current gene for schizophrenia. I could talk for hours, or at least a very long time, on all the evidence suggesting a link with some cases of schizophrenia, but it’s really quite convincing.
Devil (soundbite): One skull, two tenants, and no solution in sight.
Brendan: When you say, you know, you said this was a “beautiful” parasite, I assume you mean it’s a hugely interesting parasite. But what does that parasite actually look like? I mean, in the video game, the parasite they get, it’s called a mind flayer and it’s a horrible little tadpole creature that slithers into your brain. I’m guessing toxoplasma gondii is not like that.
Joanne Webster: No. I mean, it’s just a little protozoan, but actually if you saw photographs of them – and I can send some to you later – it is actually quite beautiful in some of it stages. But yes, it’s a little single-celled organism and yes, you’ll get these sort of lumps where it forms a cyst in the brain. And if anybody’s immunosuppressed, they’ll tend to reactivate and spread. So yes, it can cause quite a mess in your brain. But as an organism on its own, it’s yeah, it’s superbly sophisticated but also really quite beautiful.
Narrator (soundbite): The exposed brain quivers in expectation.
Brendan: Are there any other parasites that might change the way that we act?
Joanne Webster: Yeah, I think toxoplasma is neat because it seems to change the mind. It’s not actually selected to change the behavior of humans. It’s actually selected to change the behavior of, like, a mouse or a rat likely to be eaten by the predatory cat. So there’s lots of parasites that change behavior, but it’s… it’s a little bit more difficult when it comes to humans. There’s lots of ones which can change behavior, but it’s not so clear cut whether it’s actually for the benefit of the parasite – would it be actually selected to change behavior? Rabies is a good one in many mammals as well because it’s transmitted through blood and saliva. So making you really aggressive, and likely to fight and bite another organism, that seems to be clear cut manipulation too. But in human cases and mammals in general, there’s very few [parasites that] have these sort of subtle manipulation changing… the mind, the desire.
Narrator (soundbite): You realize, you’re talking to an intellect devourer a minion of the mind flayers who abducted you.
Brendan: So it’s more the case that the parasite, it isn’t consciously acting in this way. Presumably they don’t know what’s happening outside the host. There’s no malice in them. They’re not like a mind flayer.
Joanne Webster: Yeah, no, exactly. I mean, it’s so easy to think of this. You know, the parasite’s doing it for its benefit. It’s selection again. So the parasites in us is not going to know it’s in a human being. So it’s going to change the behavior in whatever host it’s in, whether it’s, you know, to its selective benefit or not. So yeah, there is no will in these little single-celled organisms. Though, of course, you know, in terms of the computer games… you can see the attraction. It does seem to be making you behave as the parasite wants. And why the toxoplasma is also a very nice parasite to work with is because it doesn’t make the host ill. You know, if you have a rat with toxoplasma, it’s going to be just as apparently healthy and interact with others, [it’ll have] the same weights, the same other factors as an uninfected [rat]. It seems to specifically manipulate those behaviors likely to enhance transmission. And we don’t see that in, for example, a rat infected with any other directly transmitted life cycle parasites.
Narrator (soundbite): The tadpole squirms in your mind, it seems sated.
Brendan: So to be clear, this toxoplasma gondii, it would infect a rat and it would bascially make the rat more brave? Like, less afraid of being in the presence of a cat?
Joanne Webster: Yeah. I mean, it’s a whole change of… a repertoire of subtle changes. Yes. They seem to be more exploratory, more brave. They tend to be more active. Rats and mice have this very, very strong innate fear response to the presence of cats and cat urine in particular. I mean, this has been… this is thousands of generations of lab rats and mice who have never seen a cat for all this time. It is such a strong, innate behavior we were interested to see could the toxoplasma even override or manipulate this? Dampen down this very strong, innate response? And what we found in the rats, it didn’t simply dampen it down. They actually were attracted to the areas of cat presence. What we call the “fatal feline attraction”. And this study has been replicated by many, many groups now. And then again, Jaroslav Flegr [Czech parasitologist] has studied with his students and found that [those who were] toxoplasma zero positive seem to be attracted to the smell of cat urine. And again, it’s very specific. You don’t get this change to any other odor, be it another predator, from mink or dog. It does seem to be very specific. There’s something in the cat urine, if you’re infected, you really like.
Devil (soundbite): The mouse smiled brightly, it outfoxed the cat. Then down came the claw, and that, love, was that.
Brendan: It does this to a rat’s brain. And it does other things presumably to our brains, but how does that functionally even happen? You know, in terms of our body, what is the parasite doing there? You said it’s creating cysts, but how is that making such specific changes to our behavior? What’s going on, is it eating our brain?
Joanne Webster: Yeah, no… that is the ultimate question. You know, when it comes to something like us, we really don’t know. We thought we’d found the answer when we found it produces its own dopamine. We thought we’d found the answer when you think they go to specific tropisms, specific parts of the brain, like the amygdala, the nucleus accumbens… We basically don’t know. This is evolution. So there’s probably multiple mechanisms going on. Some of the studies are saying [there are] changes in testosterone going on. So we really don’t know, and this is, you know… how can a parasite be so neat?
Narrator (soundbite): You notice edema, a swelling of the brain causing pressure where it strains against the shell of the skull.
Brendan: I have a cat, um, who I adore. She is my absolute best mate.
Joanne Webster: Yup.
Brendan: Is it… do I have a brain worm that makes me love my cat?
Joanne Webster: Yes, well it’s not a worm but you could have a brain parasite. But again yes, when we do these sort of interviews and when papers come out, we sometimes get the sort of “is this the cause of the, sort of the mad cat lady syndrome”? And likewise, it’s a difficult one because again, it’s cause and effect. If you have a cat, you’re more likely to become infected if you’re touching, you know, the cat litter. But also, you know, and if you then become attracted to cats, then you get a cat. So it’s very difficult to disentangle cause and effect. Are we going to blame our pet cats for everything? And absolutely not, because they tend to just become infected, as I said, when they’re kittens, they shed lots of oocysts, and then they tend to become immune themselves. So, it’s possible. It’s possible we’re being manipulated by our cats, but you know, we had to get infected in the first place. So…
Intellect devourer (soundbite): Yes, you’ve come to save us from this place. From this place, you’ll free us!
Brendan: Are there any other animals who can be infected by a parasite or where the parasite has very clear control?
Joanne Webster: With the toxoplasma again, it infects… everything. It’s a very, very successful parasite. And we were having these beautiful sea otters off the coast in California [which] were all being killed by sharks because they were doing these very odd behaviors, and they were being more attractive and more noticed by the shark predation. They were being killed off. And again, this is potentially a side effect of this behavior selected in a different host because it’s dead end, if ends up in the shark. We just completed a recent study on these lovely foxes in the UK. People were finding these ultra friendly, adorable foxes, and they thought, you know, people had been hand rearing them and then releasing them because they were super friendly and have these strange behaviors. And it turns out that indeed, a lot of these [foxes with] what we call the sort of “dopey fox syndrome” are toxoplasma infected.
Brendan: I’ve seen as well, documentaries about insects where they get a fungal parasite and it makes them act differently. It makes them climb high things and stuff.
Joanne Webster: Yeah. Most of the most beautiful studies are in, as I said, the invertebrates, you have the ones that… in some of the other video games and books are these ones, these fungal infections that do you know, make [the insect] climb up places, and then sort of basically sort of die hanging off. You have these, again, lovely studies with a nematode on grasshoppers in the South of France, which makes them all just, you know, jump into these swimming pools because the nematode has to, you know, get through its next transmission stage in water. You have these suicidal, uh, caterpillars. In the invertebrate system the list is long.
Brendan: In the video game. Uh, this tadpole looking parasite eventually totally transforms its host, the human, into another kind of creature entirely. It’s like the adult form of the parasite. It’s very gruesome. Are there any real parasites that change the physical appearance or the body of their hosts?
Joanne Webster: Again, some of the ant fungal ones that go in the trees that come down again, they look like some sort of huge fungal mass at the end. Um, the ones that are infect [snails], uh, for birds, eating snails, for example… they turn their poor antenna entities like huge pulsating brightly colored radars, which look like walking-along caterpillars, to make the birds come along and eat them. So, so yeah, we are on the spectrum to that. It can change, particularly again in the invertebrates, to something looking really quite different.
Brendan: A lot of people might be grossed out by the idea of parasites, but here you are often saying that they’re beautiful, they’re hugely interesting. Why is it important to study them and to understand them?
Joanne Webster: Of course, you know, parasites cause disease. And in terms of illness, you know, in protecting and human and animal health, you’ve got to understand these organisms and don’t underestimate how sophisticated they can be. And we know… my sort of real job is disease control in people. And you know, whatever we throw at these parasites and the importance of selection, they will change, from drug resistant to different transmission to different behaviors. They’re very, very sophisticated. So they can’t be underestimated.
Shadowheart (soundbite): Come daybreak. Finding a healer is our first priority.
Joanne Webster: For so long, they were just dismissed. You have something… you know, “oh 50% of the population has a cyst in its brain. Totally fine. Nothing to worry about.” I think as we start having better mechanisms, better mechanisms of detection, for monitoring the change we realize many of these organisms are much more sophisticated than we think. So if we really want to understand, in this case we can say to the extreme, if we really want to understand human behavior, we have to understand the behavior of the organisms that live within us.
Brendan: Joanne Webster. Thank you very much for talking to us about this subject. We’ve learned a lot.
Joanne Webster: Yes, no… as you can tell, I love parasites, so yeah.
Brendan: [laughter] Thank you very much!
Joanne Webster: Okay. Thank you.
Intellect devourer (soundbite): We must go to the helm! At the helm we are needed.
Brendan: That was Joanne Webster professor of infectious diseases from Imperial College and the Royal Veterinary College. If you want to hear a longer unabridged version of that chat in which she went into some more depth on the cat-borne parasite toxoplasma gondii, you can subscribe to our podcast on Patreon for $2. Our supporters will get full uncut interviews with the experts and there are some other goodies as well for anyone who pledges at higher levels, including behind the scenes video updates, bonus episodes and stuff like that. Go to patreon.com/heylesson to find out more or click the more link in the show notes below. Uh, okay. I’m done with the shilling. Andy. A bit of a personal question, but do you reckon you have any microscopic protozoa in your blood?
Andy: Um, well, you know, sometimes you question decisions you’ve made and you think: was that me? Or was that some small single celled organism piloting me like a mech suit? But yeah, I don’t… I don’t think so.
Brendan: You don’t reckon. Out of curiosity, have you got a cat?
Andy: I do not have a cat.
Brendan: Okay. Do you see a cat? Every once in a while?
Andy: I do. Yeah. My Girlfriend’s parents cat I see, well, used to see him more often before all this business happening in the world, but yeah, I used to hang out with that cat quite a lot. So this interview got me thinking about all the times that I was close to that cat.
Brendan: How does that cat smell to you? Do you know?
Andy: No… identifiable odor really.
Brendan: Yeah? I like the smell of my cat. It’s… it’s worrying. Not it’s pee, you know, but her furr. I think it smells nice. Is that odd?
Andy: I don’t think so. I can’t say I’ve ever noticed that cats have an odor, but you know, it’s nice that yours has.
Brendan: I think maybe that means you’re just… not getting as close as I have.
Andy: Well, it’s not my cat, you know? You’ve got to keep a bit of respectful distance for someone else’s cat.
Brendan: That’s very fair. Joanne Webster, our professor of parasites, she gave a statistic that said 50% of the population will get this parasite, toxoplasma. That means statistically one of us has cysts in our brain.
Brendan: Does this make the mind flayer tadpole of Baldur’s Gate 3 feel a little bit closer to home?
Andy: Well, I mean the one in the game is like quite audaciously horrific, whereas, you know, if there’s something just chilling out my brain and it doesn’t know it’s there and it won’t affect me, then I’m cool with it. You know?
Brendan: So your character has it in the game. But you’re not the only character who has this tadpole. Right? Other people have it.
Andy: Yeah. There was a bunch of people on the, on the, uh, mind flayer’s crazy shell ship that also got a parasite in the old eye. So that when you hook up with these people again, there’s a kind of purple, magical resonance emanating from your head, which I think is just for the player’s benefit. But it basically says that all these people now share a kind of twisted connection. Not only are they dealing with this parasite, but they’re also… it seems to sort of create some kind of mind-meld or mindful link between them, which I don’t fully understand. I’ve not played enough of the game to know what’s going on there. But I imagine that will be like a big part of the mythology and stuff of the mind flayers.
Brendan: You do get, like, special dialogue options and stuff when you talk to people, right?
Andy: Yeah. You get a thing called “illithid persuasion”. I think a mind flayer is an illithid, which I think is…
Brendan: Is that, ha, the Latin name for the parasite?
Andy: Yeah. So you get… [checking] … Oh, so, okay. I thought a mind flayer was an illithid but it’s the parasite is an illithid. But yeah, whilst the thing is quite clearly a curse because you might at any moment turn into a mind flayer, you also get some kind of powers of persuasion from it. So it’s a bit of a blessing and a curse, a very small blessing and a massive curse. But there’s elements of both.
Brendan: From what I’ve read, it seems like getting this thing out of your brain is the sort of driving force of the story of the game.
Andy: Yeah. Fairly early on there’s a few possible options for getting rid of it. Um, one character says her people know of a… cure or “remedy” as she puts it… but some of the other characters doubt her because I think she belongs to a race of… a kind of shunned race by some of the other races in this fantasy world. So I think people don’t trust her, but my gut feeling, I think, is to go with her. So when I was playing it, I was very much on her side.
Brendan: Is there any sense of you getting sicker as you go on, does the parasite start to take control at any point or make your character worse at what they do?
Andy: I don’t think there’s enough of the game in this build to really see the long term effects of it. But there are moments where you kind of, you’re frozen… you stop and your brain is flooded with like images of stuff that you don’t quite understand. And it often happens when you’re in the presence of another “parasitees”. I don’t know if that’s a word, but let’s say it is. And we see in this early build the beginnings of what it’s doing to your brain. I imagine it’d be interesting if you did start to really suffer. And as a result of you not making certain decisions that might’ve led to you getting rid of it earlier. Like, I liked the idea of keeping it in my head and I feel like Larian’s quest designers would allow you to just keep it in your head as long as possible. So I think I’d like to do that, just for drama’s sake, even though my character will be clearly suffering.
Brendan: So It’s not like a symptomless thing. Like toxoplasma.
Andy: No. As Joanne said… the defining quote of that interview for me is when she said “it can cause quite a mess in your brain”, which was one of the most harrowing sentences I’ve ever heard. Um, so I think, yeah, I think that is definitely happening to the protagonist of Baldur’s Gate 3, whoever you decided they are. But it’s not just happening inside their heads. You’re actually seeing some kind of outward effects of it as well. Although I don’t, I mean, I wonder if later in the game you start sprouting like mind flayer tentacles out of parts of your body, or whatever. I don’t know if there’s any kind of body horror of physical transformation to come. Like someone transforms early in the game into a mind flare, but I kinda, I laughed because the camera – this could be because they haven’t done the animation yet and maybe it’s just too complicated to animate – but the camera basically moves away as someone’s writhing in pain. And when it pans back to them, they’re suddenly a mind flayer. That felt quite janky in early access. There’s a lot of that in the game, where you feel like “maybe that’s not being polished”, but I would like to see some like gross David Cronenberg type transformation sequence, but currently the camera just pans away, like a cheap sixties TV show.
Brendan: It’s a bit Dr Who, I was gonna say. Um, so it feels like the special dialogue choices are probably going to have some consequence. If you keep relying on this worm in your head to read minds or whatever.
Andy: Yeah. I think from what I’ve read, um, I’ve not experienced this myself, but I think the more you use the illthid persuasion system, I think that there’s obvious benefits because you can – if you don’t have the stats to pass like a dice roll to convince someone to do something – you can rely on the parasite to cheat for you. But I think as you use that, it does have some negative impacts. I think. I don’t know how much of a system in the game that has, or if it just affects the story things, but it sort of makes you think twice about relying on this thing in your head to talk you out of tricky situations.
Brendan: Baldur’s Gate 3 isn’t the first game to feature parasites in this kind of a way. Like, in Dark Souls, you can get an egg that latches on your head, the later Resident Evil games feature parasites quite a lot. In Metal Gear Solid 5, there’s a parasite that targets you based on the language that you speak, for some reason. Um, why do you think the video games industry loves to use parasites as a problem for players?
Andy: Yeah. I mean, I guess it’s… I think people have become kind of numb to villains with cartoonish Bond villain-esque plots. I think maybe it’s more interesting that the problem you’re facing is – whether it’s a long term problem or just a temporary like gameplay problem – I think it’s just interesting if your own body’s turning on you. And I guess, you know, when people watch nature documentaries, and there’s a bit about parasites making ants jump off trees and stuff, I think there’s just a morbid fascination there. And I think developers just like taking stuff that we find gross and offputting and gamifying it because, of course, especially in horror games and stuff, it’s pretty effective.
Brendan: So you reckon it’s just a… it makes us kind of offended and repelled by it, but also quite fascinated by it. So the game developers just stick it in. It’ll get some sales.
Andy: Yeah, I think so
Brendan: You mentioned some of the other characters who like… I don’t know if they crash with you or they they end up with you… because this is a role playing game before anything else. So I know you have some companions, some mates with you. Can you tell us a bit about those, those companions?
Andy: Well, I’ve not played it enough to remember the names yet, so I don’t know if that’s a failure… I know their faces and how they sound, but the names have not bled through into my brain yet. So I don’t know if that’s a failing of the writers or I’m at that early stage where you’re just not fully familiar with the cast, especially when they all have, um, confusing fantasy names.
Brendan: We can just make up some names if you want. Krog.
Andy: Krog. Ook.
Andy: Filipina. Yeah. Morduucch.
Andy: You’ve got to pronounce it like that at the end because it’s like an Orc name or something.
Brendan: Have any of them stood out to you? Like, who are you most fond of so far?
Andy: Well, there’s the aforementioned warrior woman who claims that there’s a remedy for the thing, I think she is a Githyanki warrior. So I think I remember her race, but I don’t remember her name, but I mean she immediately stands out as probably the most interesting companion. There’s a wizard (possibly a wizard) half-elf lady called Shadowheart. I remembered the name! Shadowheart. Um, and there’s like a guy who’s called “the Sword of the Frontiers”. Who’s like really good at stabbing people in a theatrical manner. So like, none of them have, I feel… like in something like Mass Effect, which is one of my favorite series, I instantly latch onto a character. But none of these people… I don’t think I’ve fully fallen in love with any of them yet. And they’re all quite cranky as well. A lot of the people you meet, especially this Githyanki warrior, they’re all kind of – probably understandably so because of what’s going on in their brains – but they’re quite unpleasant, but I guess you’ve got to hang out with them and warm to them, which is like a very RPG thing.
Brendan: Maybe that’s one of the symptoms of having a mind flayer tadpole in your brain, just irritability.
Andy: Yeah, it seems so. I feel like in a lot of modern games writing it seems like characters are really irritable to begin with, and it’s supposed to make you like a bit standoffish. And then the idea is that you warm to them over time. I feel like that’s what they’re going for.
Brendan: Yeah. They are also infected with this parasite. Do you meet any quote unquote “normal” people along the way?
Andy: Yeah… you’re you and [with] the people that were on the mind flayer ship, which was called the Nautilus, I think. You’re in like a little group who have been kind of brought together by this misfortune currently playing out in their minds. So like, you feel like a little bubble of your own. And the wider world, it seems completely oblivious to what’s going on. But I think you probably get the chance to tell people what’s going on or keep it secret. I guess if someone found out that you were potentially being puppeteered by a parasite, you wouldn’t… you would not be a person they want to hang out with. So that’d be cool to see how the writers play with that. I like the idea of being banished from a town or something, because you accidentally told the, you know, the elder that you had a brain parasite. I don’t know how far they’ll go with that stuff.
Brendan: You get put in quarantine for 14 days.
Brendan: You can create your own character as well. Right at the start. Isn’t that right?
Andy: Yeah. It’s got a really good character creator. I think someone pointed out that it’s impossible to create a character in it that’s not hot. It’s even… even if you’re making a, you know, a big bearded dwarf, you know, who’s like 80 years old, there’s still a bit of like, “damn he looks cool.” They’ve done a really good job. I was kind of trying to break it and make something hideous, but they ended up looking really cool. I thought it was interesting that the developer looked at the data generated by the game and… generated a character that was like the “average” character, based on all the decisions people made on how the character looked. And it was basically just the most generic looking man with brown hair. So people aren’t going mad enough for the character creator. I think we need to start pushing the boat out and giving characters, horns, and tails and stuff. But yeah, you can make… you choose who you want to be, you know, your representative in this world. And there’s a huge amount of freedom and with like any Dungeons and Dragons based RPG or inspired RPG, there’s a ton of stuff. Like your race can affect certain things. So if you’re an elf, you get “infra-vision”, so you can see in the dark and stuff like that. So theses are decisions you make that are more than just aesthetic.
Brendan: You talk about races and the world that you’re in. The world building is often praised in Baldur’s Gate, uh, the places and the different types of people and the cultures that you meet. What’s been the highlight for you so far and in terms of your adventure?
Andy: So I think quite early on… I mean, when I say “early on” this all depends on which direction you choose to go, it’s fairly open ended. But there’s a kind of town built inside an old Druid grove and it’s… that’s classic fantasy for me, the idea of people building a new settlement on top of like really ancient exotic ruins. So that I think, of all the locations in the alpha or whatever you want to call it, that’s the most interesting. But it’s kind of… for me, Baldur’s Gate is really trad fantasy, like towns with cozy taverns and stuff like that. There’s like, none of that, it’s all quite wild. Like you’re out in the forest and away from civilization in this part of the game. So I’m interested to see, in future builds, some of the more built up parts of this world, but yeah, this town-slash-Druid grove is like a really cool, cool area.
Brendan: Because Baldur’s Gate is the name of a city in the video game and the series. Right? But that’s not there in the current build. Right?
Andy: Yeah. In the first game, you can play like 60 hours of the first Baldur’s Gate and never even set foot through the front gate of the actual city the game is named after. And after going through like three towns and like a million dungeons, you’re suddenly presented with a massive capital city, absolutely heaving with quests. Which is a very, like, that’s a very late nineties way of designing a game. A developer today would never spend a fortune building a city and then leave it till the end where most people won’t see it. And in Baldur’s Gate 2 you’re in a completely different part of the world. And it’s a direct continuation of the story but Baldur’s Gate itself is not in Baldur’s Gate 2. You’re in another city called Athkatla, which is a more Eastern kind of capital with a very different feel. But I think in Baldur’s Gate 3, you will go back to the city the series gets its name from, and from a kind of CG trailer they released, it seems like Baldur’s Gate is going to get like attacked by mind flayer’s and bombed by one of the big floating shell ships. So, I mean, that’ll be cool.
Brendan: You’ve already written an article, which I’ll link to in the show notes, about how the game is different to the Baldur’s Gate games of long ago. So for loyal fans of the series, how does this game feel different? Is the combat different? Is the storytelling different?
Andy: I’d have to say it’s not very Baldur’s Gatey. Like, if you really adore the first two games, this doesn’t really feel like it. It’s very different in a lot of ways. And I mean, the main thing is that the combat system is completely different. In the originals, it was what’s called “real time with pause”, which is where you can freely move around and attack, almost like an RTS, dragging a selection box around your characters, clicking on an enemy and they’ll go and kill them. Whereas now, this is turn based. So when you get into a fight, everything stops and your freedom, freedom of movement, is taken away and you take back-and-forth turns with the enemy to strategically defeat them or get defeated, depending on how badly you do. So, that’s really a big difference. But just in general, like the tone is very different. The story is completely different. Obviously it’s a hundred years later. But there’s some connective tissue. Like there’s the fog of war when you’re exploring the world, it’s obscured until you walk through it and it’s revealed slowly on the map. Little stuff like that harks back to the old games. But yeah, I think it’s… it feels like a totally different thing to me. And, like, I mean, that’s fine. There’s plenty of other RPGs that have mimicked the style of Baldur’s Gate, whether it’s Pillars of Eternity, stuff like that. So it’s different, but it’s its own thing. So I think anyone who’s expecting a very modern take on the first two games might be a bit disappointed.
Brendan: It sounds like it’s darker.
Andy: Well, definitely. I mean, there’s some gross stuff in the old games, but nothing on the level of worms eating their way into your eyeball and turning you into a squid man.
Brendan: Uh, finally, it’s still on early access, as we mentioned. Are you going to play through more with each update or are you going to recommend people wait until the whole thing is finished?
Andy: Yeah. I think like at this early stage you do feel that you’re taking part in like a development process and that the developers are really going to be listening to people. And I’m kind of burned out on early access games and being a part of the dev team, essentially. So I’m going to leave it until it’s either in a more complete state or it’s just finished. I just want to play the finished thing. I don’t want to get to the end of the first act and feel like I have to wait another six months to continue the story. It’s a hard call to make, but I’m going to be hanging back till the things are finished, I think.
Brendan: All right, we’re going to have to wind down now, I’m afraid. You’ve been listening to Hey Lesson with me, Brendan Caldwell and our guest co-host this time, Andy Kelly. Thank you very much for chatting with me, Andy.
Andy: Thanks for having me.
Brendan: Um, where can people find you on the internet? If they’ve, if they’ve listened to you and thought “he seems to know things” where can people find you?
Andy: Probably the easiest thing is just to go on my Twitter, where I constantly post links to the various things I do, which is @ultrabrilliant on Twitter.
Brendan: Okay. Thank you. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, listener, please help us by giving us a star rating on iTunes. If you’re using iTunes, I mean. Or otherwise you can share the show with your friends. We’re still very young. We’ve got to get this ball rolling. If you want to help us even more, you can support us on Patreon, like I’ve mentioned. We don’t have any ads. We don’t have any sponsors on the show. And I’d really like to keep it that way. But for that to be sustainable, we need good people to throw some money in the tin at our feet. People like Alex, who is our very first top tier supporter or – as we call these supporters according to an animal themed tier listing I made up – he is our first “questionably wealthy porpoise”. So thank you very much, Alex. Does it sound like I’m making Alex up? I’m only giving people his forename, you know, um, but he said that would be okay, that’s what would work for him. If your name is also Alex, you can thank this Alex for effectively giving all Alex’s a shoutout. So thank you Alex. For all non-Alex’s, if you have some change rattling in your pocket and you want to help, please visit patreon.com/heyesson, or check our website heylesson.net for more information. Or you can, again, click the “show more” link in the show notes on your podcast app. Andy, it’s been great having you on. Thanks once again.
Andy: No problem.
Brendan: And to everyone listening, let’s say goodbye. Goodbye.