I realize I’m dating myself here—and also fingering myself as a dyed-in-the-wool total nerd—but one of the more profoundly shaping experiences of my childhood was Richard Garriott’s Enlightenment series of games (Ultima IV and forward). Though the series decayed somewhat over time, IV and V at least were transcendent. The use of the second person tense was nothing new to either gamers or veterans of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series, but this was different; beginning with Ultima IV, the character creation process was entirely devoid of stats to assign. Instead, “you” were asked a number of probing questions about semi-complex moral choices and encouraged to respond how you yourself would actually respond, and you were assigned a class based on those choices. For the first time in gaming history, the second person tense wasn’t just a quirk of the narrative. Your hero was you, encoded however fuzzily into the game’s fantasy world by numeric abstraction.
Let us ignore for a moment the fact that any fantasy realm with me as its savior is probably totally boned. A tangent for another day.
“You” began the game walking up over a slope and looking down into a green valley at an otherworldly Renaissance Faire (Garriott flies his SCA freak flag pretty darn high); the character creation process as described above begins at a fortune-teller’s wagon therein, and this is where the technical magic described above begins, but the part that really stuck with me was the moment that came right beforehand. There’s nothing new about “child discovers fantasy world” as a narrative trope. The literary canon is full of rabbit holes to Wonderland and tornadoes to Oz and phantom tollbooths to the Lands Beyond. But perhaps as a twin function of the fact that I was already being encouraged to imagine myself there and the utter simplicity of merely walking over a hill, this one gateway to the Magical Kingdom has always stuck with me.
On my farm, there is a point near the lowland where, if you hold your head just right, a great rise of rutted earth fills your entire vision. You are so low, and the land so high next to you, that nothing is visible beyond it. No trees or buildings or silos or whatever. The hill appears to open out into the sky. Once a year, before the lowland gets too swampy to traverse and before there are crops to be messed up with my boots, I go down to that point, look up at that hill, and believe.
Once a year, I let myself believe—just for a moment—that there is something over that hill. I’m not sure in my mind if it’s Garriott’s Sosaria, or Faust’s Equestria, or what. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Standing there, in the grim gray Wisconsin winter surrounded by a waste of stiff, blunted corn stumps, I imagine that just a few steps away is a warm, green valley just like the one in Ultima, a border-town to some magical world beyond.
I climb, and am always disappointed.
Here is the inspirational point where I look out over the farmland from the top of the rise and determine that I Actually Am In A Magical World After All Here On My Farm. A nice feel-good moral. But it never quite happens. I never quite escape that little pang that comes from having hopes dashed that you knew were laughably unrealistic in the first place.
But still, every year, I keep believing, and I keep climbing. And every year I worry about the day when I will no longer bother.
I was disappointed again today. But I guess I’d rather that than the alternative.