This is a story about a girl.
No, not in the way you’re thinking. Not really, anyway. I’m not talking about the girl next door or the redhead behind the counter at the coffee shop. The girl this story is about is a videogame character. Not just any character – my character. My alt, in an MMO.
She was a thing of beauty, this alt of mine. Lithe and sinewy, bright eyes and a hard line of a mouth. She wasn’t born, she was built – built feverishly, though not casually. She was fresh and exciting, bursting with possibilities and power, the feeling you only get from beginning a brand new roll. She was a break from the worn monogamy of my main character, a strapping lad of a totally different class and alignment on a whole other server. Sometimes I wondered if our nights out were viewed as a slight, some kind of digital infidelity.
Reflecting back, I wonder what it was that drove me there in the first place. Was I unhappy with my main? I didn’t think I was. And yet here I was, with an exciting new character on a brand new server, of my own accord. As though I had gravitated, unbidden and undirected, towards this new roll, fresh with possibility. It wasn’t until later that I realized just how complacent I had grown with my main back on my home server. Or maybe I knew all along. Maybe that’s why our trysts took place on another server – maybe I was trying, even then, to hide from that uncomfortable truth.
Don’t get me wrong – my main was special, deeply connected to me on a personal level. But eventually it reached a point where it seemed I was no longer playing just to play. More and more it had started to seem like I needed to have a plan. I felt like I should be pushing to reach a certain level, complete specific faction quests, level my skills in accordance with my “role” in the fabled MMO “trinity” rather than based on what I thought would be fun. With my main, the magic of the game had become obscured by the minutiae of actually playing it. The game had simply become a grind.
We stepped into this new world, this new server together, this alt and I. At first it was slow and awkward – her floundering about at her low level while I awkwardly tested out an unfamiliar class. Like her, I was just finding my footing in a brand new world. I was nervous, tentative – she was weak, and small mistakes were would often yield costly deaths and awkward respawn timers. It being awkward was always my greatest fear.
As she grew stronger and more familiar with the game world, so too did I grow more comfortable and confident with her. We became more in sync. Not only did I start to better understand mechanical things like her skills and attacks, but I also started to connect with her as a character. Her literal empowerment mirrored my own; as she grew stronger and gained more powerful attacks, I too grew, as my initial hesitation wore away. I, an eternal creature of habit and subject of complacency, was doing something new and exciting. She became my mouthpiece and my sounding board, metaphor and mascot for my own personal growth and exploration that I felt for whatever reason I couldn’t achieve through my main. Through her intervention, I became open and unfettered. We grew together.
It’s true that we were never actually “together” in the traditional sense. We never even occupied the same physical space. We kept each other company, like two cars pacing each other on a highway at night, windows down and radios tuned to the same station. There were no complications, no guilds to coordinate with, no expectations to reach a certain level. I would just sign on to that server and there she would be, waiting for me, waiting to explore new and increasingly interesting areas. No grind, just the pure joy of play. I realized I was simply having fun for the first time in a while.
And as we played, we leveled. It started off slowly, and quickly gained momentum. The more time I spent leveling, the higher I wanted to go. It gained momentum, until soon I found myself playing just to level. It was no longer a happy side effect of our interaction: it became the sole reason for it. I began wondering if it was wrong. Wondered if, like before, the leveling had replaced play as the central focus. Was anything really different, or had I just swapped one character for another?. Worse, I had started to feel guilty. My thoughts had begun to drift back to my main, who I was inadvertently estranging. But I was too far in, intoxicated on the high of the New and Exciting this alt provided. Try as I might, I couldn’t tear myself away. And so we leveled.
And that’s when I realized what had happened.. The thing that I knew was bound to happen from Day One; the grind set in. The more we leveled, the more I knew that ultimately it was fruitless. She was, after all, my alt. Each new level gained announced itself with fanfare, dripping with possibility and excitement and the hope of many grand adventures yet to come. A hope turned sour for me by the knowledge that I had my main waiting for me on another server, and that as exciting as discovering more of her potential was, my efforts were needed elsewhere.
As the levels grew further and further apart, it became harder and harder to ignore the fact that we were just spinning the grind wheel. Grinding my main was one thing – I was working towards a future, a well-built character with a role in a guild. Respectability. Thoughts of abandoning my main for this alt, exciting as she was, were unfathomable to the point of silliness. Yes, we were leveling, and it was alluring in its own way. But we were leveling towards nothing.
So, I did the only thing I could do. I left. I had gotten too sidetracked – I hadn’t even been on my main server in quite some time. I steeled myself and bid a hard farewell. As far as I know, she sits there today still, idle and unchanging, simply waiting for me to return. Sometimes I think that were I to log in again, she’d be there, exactly where I left her, and we could just pick up where we left off and keep going. But then I remember, she was an alt – a social diversion that got out of hand, one had become too invested in. It is an experience I’ll remember fondly, and I’d never felt more in tune with the game. It simply wasn’t a foray worth sacrificing my main for. And so we parted ways. We both know deep down that we were just wistfully spinning the wheel, leveling towards nothing, that in the end it would all prove ultimately pointless. That doesn’t mean that we both don’t miss the grind.