“A metal slime draws near.”
If you scrubbed off his goofy grin, he’d be indistinguishable from a silver foil-wrapped Hershey’s Kiss. His buggy round eyes gleam like a pair of tadpole eggs. As far as monsters go, he’s about as unthreatening as they come. But anybody who’s played an installment of Square-Enix’s Dragon Quest RPG franchise, understands that the metal slime is not meant to inspire fear. The metal slime is purely an object of desire. Toppling one of these gelatinous buggers awards your band of adventurers a truckload of experience points, fast-tracking your stat boosting and potentially shaving hours off your level-grinding efforts.
Ok, find and kill a few metal slimes. Sounds simple enough. Not so fast: even if you know which cave they hang around, you rarely encounter one. And, even though they might only have a paltry three or four hit points, they typically run away before you’ve dispensed the requisite damage. If you’re able to get off an attack before the metal slime flees, he dances nimbly about, dodging your blows like some voodoo prankster piñata.
The fact that the metal slime is nearly identical to the regular slime, the feeblest enemy in the entire game, merely compounds player frustration. It’s a recipe for a projectile videogame controller, if ever there was one. Though it doesn’t happen very often, every once in a while you deliver a critical hit, sending the metal slime into the great beyond. These occasional victories trigger a slot-machine jackpot of endorphins and experience points, cha ching.
The metal slime and I have faced off countless times over the years, going all the way back to my childhood. We have history, the two of us. But I’ve only recently started viewing him as something more than a videogame nemesis. While plowing through Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies, the metal slime began to take on a metaphorical weight that he hadn’t before. Possibly because I’m more self-aware when I play games these days. I have to mulch games for column fodder. Because I need to figure out which critical stance I’m going to fortify. I find it increasingly difficult to submerge myself fully in a game’s fiction because my notebook of critical observations always beckons from outside the fantasy.
Documenting the experience of art involves waking yourself repeatedly. When you do this long enough, you start to become a shallow sleeper. It’s the curse of being a critic, but necessary if you hope to illuminate the experience for others. Occasionally a game weaves such a strong spell that you can’t help but fall deeply under its hypnosis. That’s why my level of delight in a game is always inversely proportional to the volume of relevant notes scribbled in my Moleskine notebook, always.
Lately when I’m not playing DQIX and my DS is tucked away, the metal slime creeps into my thoughts. His mocking grin. His slippery disposition, always just out of reach, scampering away just before I deliver the finishing blow. The feeling he evokes is just a bit too familiar to shrug off easily.
The metal slime is every good thing in life that doesn’t come easy, if it comes at all.
The metal slime is contentment, which always seems close enough to grab but dances away with each attempt to grab hold.
The metal slime is vocational calling and sense of purpose, which we spend so much of our lives wandering in circles trying to find, only to lose track of it again each time we have it squarely in our sights.
The metal slime is our shadow self—the part of us that simmers with envy, pettiness and myopic ambition—the self we long to squash but mocks our repeated stabs at subjugation.
Still we punish ourselves chasing after these squidgy metallic dollops, both in and out of the game. We crave the promise of growth. We cling to the notion that we might one day evolve beyond the struggle and flailing. The very act of persisting feels like a worthwhile discipline. And on some foundational level, we understand that the real reward of any quest is simply the experience itself.
Jason Killingsworth is Paste’s games editor. He is based in Dublin, Ireland, and writes about music, film, tech and games for a handful of outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @jasonkill or drop him a line at jason [at] pastemagazine.com.