Derek and I have been spending an awful lot of time in Glitch, the free-to-play MMO that launched, finally, last month. (And when I saw “an awful lot of time,” I mean it. I’ve gained noticeable weight in the last three days. I’ve practically forgotten to keep eating, breathing, pooping, et cetera.)
Gameplay is ostensibly based on, of all things, the theory of ‘infinite play’ as outlined in this ultra-slim work of philosophy. The real point of Glitch, then, is “to continue the game for continuing-the-game’s sake.” There are gods and cities and objectives, sure, but there is no win: there is only forward.
In the earliest portions of Glitch, the dreaded ‘tutorial’ phase is scuttled in lieu of a long, unslodgy process of exploration. Your “Familiar”—he’s a google-eyed rock at the top of the screen, with occasional speech bubbles blooming from his sweet, mouthless little face—will give you small, achievable quest missions, which are less ‘go fetch’ and more ‘go discover!’ Your Familiar also helps you learn different “skills,” which open doors, in turn, to other skills. (When the Familiar is “studying,” his blank visage assumes a pair of reading glasses, adorably.)
Your autodidacticism is always and invariably rewarded with a triumphant trill, maybe even a badge or trophy, but then there’s that terrible carrot—there’s always more. And here is the truth about Glitch: the tutorial never ends. Because you’re always learning. That’s the game. And this could make you feel tired, but instead, it makes you feel awake.
But, but! Learning about what? Well. Your avatar has much to learn, say, about mining different rocks in search of certain elements. He might use those elements in all sorts of alchemical configurations, which he himself must discover (with or without the help of a user-edited Wiki, ahem). He might farm crops, clear-cut trees, cook, feed his piglets, buy a little house…! So Glitch combines the verdant charm of Harvest Moon with the hocus-pocus of Atelier Iris with the proceduralism of Cooking Mama. Worse yet, the game is every bit as infuriatingly addictive as some terrible Facebook time-suck, thanks to the constant momentum of unlocking-and-achieving. Other aspects—among them, Glitch’s coyly crass wordplay and emphasis on pasta sauces—are lifted directly from Kingdom of Loathing. And most horrendously of all, Glitch has a lot in common with Terraria, which is to say that it has well enough in common with Minecraft, which is to say that you’re royally boned if you’d ever planned to sleep again.
Glitch is no action game, though. Despite its tight controls and ‘platforming’ potential, it is a game about gardening. And I mean this in the pleasantest sense, because real-life gardening is a type of endless level-grinding that yields literal fruits, so that grinding can become its own reward. This is admittedly a simple synopsis of the game—it is so much more than gardening!—because there is also, yes yes I haven’t forgotten, the ‘social-ness’ of the game, which I am only beginning to explore.
And! There is even death! And when you die, passers-by can see a gravestone marking where you met your end, while you in the meantime are temporarily trapped in the bowels of Hell. To return topside, your avatar must crush a certain number of grapes underfoot. Really. And I know this all reads as a quirky aside, this whole bit about circumventing death itself, but it really isn’t. Here is my very favorite thing about Glitch’s idea of play: you won’t be punished. You don’t ‘drop’ all your hard-earned goods when you die. There is no lasting failure; quests are only left incomplete, waiting. Maybe certain creative acts demand an unseemly number of resources, but for the happy wanderer, the only thing separating him from his goal is Time. So there are no setbacks; again, there is only forward.
And then, of course, there is that inexorable endlessness, a quality that Glitch shares with other MMOs, but also with life.
Earlier this week, in our actual daily lives, Derek and I decided to look at an apartment together. Our decision hinged on a few shared priorities: affordability, of course, although we aren’t shy of spending the money, if that’s what it takes. Accessibility is another; is the apartment near a Blue Line train stop? A highway? Is it easy to get to a hardware store, a grocery? Would we each have enough space to work alone? (Because, while we have certain shared goals, we treasure time apart. We are good at different things, and very few of our hobbies intersect.) Is there an available practice space for a heavy metal band? (See also: Derek’s hobbies.) We looked at a beautiful building with a garden in back—the landlady, a middle-aged schoolteacher in a pop band of her own, was more roommate than landlady—but the building was so remote, located in a hard-to-get-to, run-down part of town. We passed on it. It broke my heart.
Then, in Groddle Forest, Derek and I took our meager savings and purchased two small apartments in-world. Derek found two vacancies nestled side-by-side, located in a residential area just off a major thoroughfare. We each have space enough for our separate gardens and chickens. I marveled aloud at Derek’s in-game apartment-hunting skills. And then I teased him: “Don’t break up with me,” I told him, “because then you’ll run into my avatar when she’s going into her apartment with her groceries. It could be awkward for you.” (That happened to me once, with an old boyfriend, in life.)
But also, not aloud, We will be OK, I thought.
Then the parallels between Glitch and our real routines became more insidiously palpable. “Can we really make egg muffin sandwiches?” I asked Derek.
“Well, we have English muffins,” Derek replied. “So check the fridge for turkey bacon. And see if there’s any cheese. And see how we’re doing on eggs. See what we need.”
“Oh, no,” I groaned, “it’s all a video game.”
And then I thought about how in Glitch I’m always rooting around for onions or bugging Derek for bubbles or butterfly milk while, in daily life, I’m always checking to see whether Green Grocer has shallots and mushrooms. Then, too, there is the sense of accomplishment I always feel, well before I actually ever get down to cookin’ something fancy. I stop and stare in wonder at what weird things I’ve managed to cram into a shopping bag. Because I don’t always find shallots; I am not always victorious.
So in its quest to eliminate concrete, legitimate, stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks failure, Glitch has struck on something remarkable. By taking punishments away—by letting the player explore, free of negative repercussions—Glitch becomes nicer than life. It becomes real play, the kind of play that helps grown-ups rediscover what it feels like to again approach all things in earnest. What could you achieve if there were nothing to lose?
“You see, I want this poem to be nicer than life,” Stephen Dunn wrote in a poem once. The poem goes on: “I want you to look at it / when anxiety zigzags your stomach / and the last tranquilizer is gone / and you need someone to tell you / I’ll be here when you want me / like the sound inside a shell.”
The poet then describes “what poetry can do” (“make you beautiful”), but he really didn’t have to explain it, did he? We already know what real, playful poetry can do. Poetry teaches without teaching; it preaches without preaching. It re-trains the brain—as cognitive behavioral therapy might—to acknowledge our own constraints without really respecting the limits, to marvel at possibility, to be guileless and fearless.