Mage, vagabond, or prophet: How easy do I want my life to be?

I haven’t even begun the game yet and I’ve already spent hours researching character builds. As nervous as a highschooler choosing a university, I’ve been anguishing over the complicated menu of talents, abilities, and equipment that will fundamentally shape who I will be and how I will play in this vast RPG. My dilemma is straightforward: I need to choose a build that will make me strong and resilient enough to avoid getting the shit beat out me so badly that I’ll want to parachute out mid-story. But (I reluctantly admit that) I must also avoid stacking the deck too much in my favor — making myself too overpowered too soon — or risk missing out on the satisfying challenge of the game.

If I were a different kind of person— in real life, I mean — I’d slap together a character build based mainly on aesthetic and gut level considerations. I’d choose the iridescent armor because of how cool it looks and the stealth spell simply because I like how it sounds: “stealth spell.” Then I’d leap recklessly into the virtual open world, willing (if unprepared) to handle the puzzles, traps, and enemies as they came along. If I were more like that person — instead of this increasingly comfort-oriented, middle-aged me, I would surely not still be sitting here researching “just one more thing.” I would accept not only that there’s no way to avoid the discomfort of embracing new unknowns, but that it would be self-defeating for me to try to do so. Am I not investing time and energy into this notoriously challenging game, in part, to experience the rich satisfaction and self-knowledge that come from reinventing myself in difficult new worlds?

There are some who believe that our souls have encarnated into our current lives only after having gone through some of these same kinds of deliberations. From that esoteric point of view, while still in some ethereal pre-birth realm, I myself selected my parents, my home town, my level of physical ability, my talents, my weaknesses, my life challenges, all of it. Of course, the theory usually includes the caveat that our memory of having made such formative choices has been washed away during incarnation.

Although I find myself almost constitutionally unable to commit to such speculative postulates, I don’t at all mind playing with the notion from a hypothetical point of view. Sitting where I am now, with most of my life behind me, why would I have chosen this particular earthly “character build”? Why might I have selected this strength or that personal demon? Why would I have scripted the demolition of that set of life circumstances and the coalescing of this new one? What over-arching narrative might that transcendent Super-Me have had in mind that she would toss in this particularly nasty challenge or the appearance of that totally unexpected new co-conspirator?

To be clear, I do get that, from another point of view, the mere suggestion of this sort framework is offensive. Wouldn’t this perspective make me at least partly responsible for the bad things that happen to me as a result of my birth and initial life circumstances? And would it follow from it that we need not concern ourselves much with persecuted individuals or oppressed groups since they too supposedly chose their life experiences at some level? As I said, I can’t accept this metaphysical hypothesis in any serious way. But I also know that my fascination with it helps explain why I’ve been laboring so earnestly over who I will be in this damn video game.

In any case, I can feel that I’m getting awfully close to jumping in. This is because it’s becoming uncomfortably clear to me that my endless noodling around in the pre-game menus is mainly a way of stalling. I have, in fact, grown complacent over the past few years from grinding away diligently in more familiar, less demanding games. I have become practiced, if not necessarily adept, at managing their predictable rhythms and mechanics. I know what those worlds are like and who I am supposed to be in them. In those known landscapes, I am, if not in control, at least not far from it.

But I have peered far enough into this new game be unnerved by its layers, scope, and lack of a linear storyline. It is not like any other I have encountered. My motivational balance is gradually shifting from fear to curiosity, though, and so there is no longer any real question about whether or not I will answer its call. And although there remains some uncertainty about who exactly I will be when I begin my new life, I already know for sure that she will be braver, bolder and wiser than any me I have ever been before. For that is the expanded version of me I create as soon as I leap from the safety of this ledge and into the next mystery.

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