Aetolia: A Retrospective Pt. 2
This is the second half of a two-part essay examining ways in which games can reveal things about their players – sometimes even things that players hide from themselves. If you haven’t yet read it, start with part one, which can be found here, before reading further.
There are times in our lives when we can’t imagine being anywhere else, any thing else, than what and where we are in the moment. And then one day we wake up and find ourselves altered, and look back on that earlier time in wonder at the thought that we could never change.
My change came suddenly. I had a meeting in Aetolia with a few high-ranking political figures that loathed each other, but because of alliances had to work together. I was acting as a moderator between the two, and it turns out that they both thought I favored the other, since one was my guildmaster and the other was the leader of the city upon whose council I sat. The whole thing was a complete disaster – it lasted all night, some nine hours, and got us nowhere. The next day was my birthday, and I spent my twenty-third completely exhausted and miserable, all because of some bad personalities in a game.
I found myself whinging about the whole thing to a friend in Aetolia, and at the end of it she told me simply, “David, there’s something people forget when playing Aetolia: it’s just a game. It’s all a made-up story we’re telling each other, and in the end it doesn’t matter because it was never real anyway.”
That was the truest thing anyone had ever told me. Aetolia wasn’t life; it was all a story that we had become part of to hide from ourselves, and from each other. We were all guilty of it, and in the end it didn’t matter. All my guilt, all my regret, any sorrow I felt for this thing was a fiction. I was free to do whatever I wanted, because I wasn’t who I used to be, if I ever was. An invisible bond between my character and I snapped forever, and three days later I logged off for the last time.
Some time later it occurred to me that Aetolia is a sort of microcosm of human existence, turned up to light speed. The unique nature of a game where consequences are player-driven, player-created and player-sanctioned gives rise to an alternate reality, a world-next-door, where all the pain and anguish and love and triumph and failure of the human experience can be recreated and fully experienced, felt, digested in the blink of an eye. Political machinations that would take years to come to fruition in the real world flowered in a matter of weeks in Aetolia. Love stories that span generations play out in a matter of months or perhaps a year. One could live their entire lives across the span from one birthday to the next.
At its heart that’s Aetolia’s greatest triumph. If all games are about the stories we tell ourselves then Aetolia is the ultimate game. This is a place where people come together and tell each other their own stories, and then watch as these stories are understood and built upon by others. These stories are often magnificent, grandiose and tragic. People are kings there, and just like in the real world, they rise and fall. Aetolia is a world where men can (pretend) to do great things.
But they’re just as often small, quiet, insignificant to anyone but the few involved in them. These are the stories that are hidden beneath the game, like a love letter folded and refolded a hundred times until the paper becomes brittle and then tucked safely away in some forgotten dresser. The jilted lover. The betrayed father. The spurned son or daughter. The drifting apart of once-close friends. They are hidden from the larger world of Aetolia not because they’re small, but because they’re painful. Like all stories these are a part of us, and when we act them out instead of read them on the page or watch them on the screen, they become intimately, scarringly real.
How human must we be to want to re-create the stories of our lives, if only for a few hours a day in programmer’s dream? And how lonely must we also be to transpose the characters we create onto ourselves, to feel the pain they feel, to make their stories our own? Like the characters in the play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, we fear ourselves and so create other selves to hide behind, never realizing that we’re revealing our true faces the whole time.
A few days ago I went to the Aetolia homepage, just to see what had changed. For years I stayed away from even the front page for fear of relogging, but the game had long ceased to have its black hole-like gravitational pull on me. A “real-time” game tracker had been added to the home page, that scrolled with a list of names and achievements as people accomplish them. Level ups, player kills and I assume other things. And despite myself, I genuinely ached as I watched it. “There they are!” I thought. “There’s my life.” Names I hadn’t seen in years but still recognized, names that I could absurdly put faces and voices and emotions to, scrolling past my eyes. Friends and enemies and lovers and brothers. It was like peering into a window from the outside of a familiar pub. In there was warmth, the ease of familiarity and the promise of understanding, the people you used to know holding toasts and drinking and sharing the great sadness of their lives through this thing that bound them all together.
I watched for a while, counting the names as they scrolled, listing them and loving them all over again, even the ones that I used to hate. In that moment I was there again, going through that monumental metamorphosis that defined my life, becoming the man I am despite my best efforts. Finally I looked away. I teared up, and I was ashamed. I closed the screen, and that was that. I would never visit that place again. That place was no longer home.
How fragile are these dream worlds we create! And how easily they shatter as they fall, dropped from our fumbling hands to the dust where the grit of life and time wear away at their pristine perfection. No man can sustain a lie forever. And we can never sustain a story, no matter how believable and desirable. In the end it’s all dust, a magic trick which twinkles and fades with the turning of the stars, and we become the people we always were but never wanted to be. We love and we hate and we war and we kill, and when it’s over we fall into each others arms asking forgiveness, kindness if there can be any, and we weep, knowing that the greatest lies we’ve ever told were the ones we told ourselves.