Stashed away at the back of my TV cabinet is a special stack of games. Each tells an epic tale of adventure that promises to cast me as the naive assistant-to-the-regional-stablehand who’s suddenly thrust into danger and revealed as the one man (or sometimes woman) chosen by prophecy to stop an overwhelming evil. Each title takes upward of 100 hours to play—and that’s if you’re rushing. I doubt I’ll ever finish them all.
It’s not that I don’t want to. Okami, Dragon Quest VIII, Neverwinter Nights 2, Final Fantasy XII—these are best-of-the-year titles, but beyond that, I’m a total sucker for a good saga. I want quick fights and gigantic gauntlets-off knockdowns, I want to be surprised and betrayed, and I don’t mind a little romance. (Annah, you prickly thief with your Scottish accent and your long rat-like tail, I’ll never forget our time together.)
“Destiny” plays a big part in these games. It explains why you can show up and sucker-punch dragons 10 times your size, while all the knights and mercenaries and ninjas in the land, with their years and years of training and experience, get lit up like kindling. But more than that, you’re “destined” to win. Role-playing games are the easiest games in the world. The puzzles are simple, the tactics are light, and best of all for spazzes like myself, they take zero hand-eye coordination. They only ask for one thing: persistence. If you master every finger-bending move in Ninja Gaiden, your friends will offer a low whistle; but if you finish Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, all they’ll ask is, “Damn, how long did that take?”
And the endings are rarely worth it. The story always builds to the giant, climactic fight where you throw everything you have at the biggest, rankest villain in the game. You kill him. He comes back to life. You kill him again. He morphs into a giant fire lizard. Kill that, and finally you’re done—and then you watch a little movie, and the credits roll. You’re a champion for a split second, and then the game is done with you.
So why do I squeeze out the hours to play these games? I think the point isn’t to beat them, but simply to step in and start exploring them. Zelda designer Shigeru Miyamoto credits his boyhood walks through the woods around his house as his biggest inspiration, and that’s what the best adventures feel like. There’s always a new corner to turn or bridge to cross, and along the way, you grow up from the clumsy knuckle-dragger you create at the game’s outset to the wizened traveler you’ve become by the end. The pivotal scenes are milestones, like the armor-clad equivalent of your first day at college or last day at a job. And all the while you’re becoming stronger, more capable—and more cynical.
Because by the end, you realize there’s nothing left. You’ve seen and done it all. Beating that last villain isn’t a triumph: it’s the end of the line, and you can’t do anything but start over somewhere else. What’s worse than going from zero to hero, and then back again?