Save Point: The Blacksmith’s Wife
There are very few video games my husband and I can play together. While we both like games, we have completely different tastes. With few exceptions, I will always choose a turn-based RPG set in a fantasy world. With few exceptions, he will always choose a first-person shooter set in an apocalyptic wasteland. When we stumbled upon Diablo III, we finally found something that scratched both our itches.
The first time we played, I was a female monk (Claire) and he was a male demon hunter (buttons). The lower-case B was intentional. My husband also does things like set his alarm for 7:48, while I stick to increments of five. He laughs when I grab at his phone, trying to punch the numbers up or down to 7:45 or 7:50.
I liked Diablo III because it featured an epic quest and NPCs with backstories. My husband liked these things too, but buttons had a tendency to practice somersaulting and dodging around the room while Claire stood stoically and scrolled through window after window of characters’ sorrowful monologues, ones that spoke of farms torched, families stolen, and dreams obliterated. Sometimes I took too long equipping armor. Sometimes he teased me about the fact that, until several hours into the game, my character had no pants. We each brought a different style to the table, but each time we made it through.
And each time we played, we learned a little more. Once, I was a male wizard (Raul). My husband was a female paladin (stickers). We chuckled at the fact that Raul was written as cocky—a far cry from the capable but ever gracious Claire—though the heroes could have just as easily been left silent for all the development they’re given. We eventually played all the character classes, enjoying the variation in skills learned, weapons found and forged, and dungeons randomly generated by code, never the same floorplan twice. Even minor monsters shifted with each play—Claire and buttons tangled with The Devourer of Princes, Raul and stickers The Breaker of Spines, and so on. We discovered new strategies and refined our teamwork as we wound our way through marshes and caverns, donning gloves that dripped with mysterious fluid or maces that shone with blue light. Diablo III has high replay value because so much is unfixed. So much changes every time.
Yet not all changes. This is a role-playing game with set plot points, and you must clear certain hurdles to progress. One of these, which disturbs me every time, is the slaying of Mira Eamon, wife of Haedrig the Blacksmith. Early in the game, the blacksmith explains that his wife has been infected and will soon become a member of the undead. He begs for your help, asking you to share the burden of a terrible task: putting her out of her misery. The first time we played this I rolled my eyes. Great. Another woman fridged. And it’s true: in a game where things like magic healing potions exist, where players can set off traps mid-fight to defeat several enemies at once, where certain skills can even slow time, there is no way to save this woman. There is, to my knowledge, no cheat code, no hidden talisman, nothing to sway this fate. You have no choice but to accompany the blacksmith into the Cellar of the Damned, watch Mira belch up putrescence and transform into a demon, and cut her down. You push the buttons yourself. You choose the skills to make her die.
Though I enjoy this game enough to have played it several times, this scene always ties an uncomfortable knot in my stomach. And it’s not necessarily the killing of a woman—sadly, that’s nothing unique in pop culture. It’s not even that the game presents the opportunity to kill an unfortunately cursed innocent. What gets me every time is that there is no alternative. There is no way to sidestep it.
In a class I teach, there’s a unit where students explore different genres of storytelling. We spend a day on video games. Rereading one of the assigned articles last week, I paused on a section I hadn’t before that helped me make sense of all this. In “How Video Games Express Ideas,” Matthew Weise explores the type of sequence Mira is involved in—one where, in order to advance the story, a player must do something they may not wish to do. He uses scenes from Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid 2 as examples, describing the feelings of impotence that come with being forced to attack “enemies” he’d rather not attack. He writes, “To the player this seems frustrating, like a violation of his/her agency since all efforts to go against the will of the game designer/government have been overwritten.” He adds, “But this is obviously the point.” What he means is that in both Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid 2, these specific scenes are focusing on the lack of the characters’ agency. Cloud is under mind control. Jack is the pawn of a scheme larger than himself. The player feels frustration on the character’s behalf because the player is invested in the character, identifies with the character. So, in what Weise calls a “very meta” way, character and player alike have their agency challenged—even suppressed—through scenes like this.
We have killed Mira as Claire and buttons. We have killed her as Raul and stickers. We have killed her with magic and with arrows, with blades and bare fists. We have to, in order to progress. We can change our armor, our names, and our methods, but we can’t change the one thing that matters most. And yet, we continue to play. We play this sequence on repeat, knowing it will come each time we choose “New Game.” Knowing there is nothing we can do.
To me, this doesn’t so much invite the question of whether there is fate or free will. It invites the question of what is fated and how much—what the ratio is. Whether I am Claire or Raul, am I always going to take too long equipping and customizing armor? Whether my husband is buttons or stickers, is he always going to somersault around? Am I always going to want the alarm to ring at 7:45? Or is this something mutable, like a helmet I can take off? Does it matter if I end Mira’s life as Claire or Raul if the outcome is always, always the same? Or does it make a difference if it’s a quick bolt or a slow stab that knocks her HP to zero?
I want to know not if there is such a thing as agency, but how far it extends. Really—not in a saccharine way, in a bare-knuckled, honest way. We bang our heads against so many walls; we scour the room for potions that will turn the cursed wife back. How do we know which scenario we’re in: one with branching endings, or one where the outcome is set? When can we safely write over the file and say, “There was nothing we could do”?
Maybe this is where we get the platitude, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey that counts.” Maybe it does matter, if only to me, whether I get through this fight as quickly as possible, mouthing apologies. Maybe it matters that I let Haedrig talk, that I visit and witness him grieve. That I don’t button mash through his sorrow. Maybe the what is sometimes fixed, but the agency lies in the how.
And maybe in that how lies the power to write a new story. Maybe next time I play, I’ll name my demon hunter Mira and pretend I’m in some kind of time travel paradox. Maybe next time my husband sets his alarm for 7:48, I won’t try to snatch his phone. The game gives us tools—small things we can change. Maybe this is where agency lies.