Save Point: Wild ARMs

It’s December, a time to think about endings and beginnings. December, for me, isn’t just filled with thoughts about the holidays, but also reflections on the year that’s passing out of existence and questions about the new one that’s about to start.

I associate Wild ARMs—a fantasy RPG set in a mashup of medieval Europe and the Old West—strongly with both beginnings and endings, so it’s a fitting game to write about this month. Beginnings in part because it was the first game my dad and I played for the PlayStation, endings in part because it has our shared favorite game ending of all time. But there’s more than that, too.

Do you remember LiveJournal? If you’re of a certain age, you probably do. It was one of the social media platforms popular before terms like “social media” became widely circulated—a kind of haven for kids who often felt more comfortable expressing themselves through writing than spoken conversation, or at least who were interested in publishing their adolescent musings for a small audience of friends. I feel almost silly bringing it up because it so precisely typifies a certain era—one of those icons that appears in “You know you grew up in the early ‘00s if…” memes. It’s a largely dead (or at least severely shambling) platform these days, something like Myspace. It’s still there, sure. But it’s kind of a ghost town.

At one time, though, this was an important site/cite for a lot of us. All my friends were on there in junior high and high school. Even the early years of college. Slowly, accounts dwindled away, my own included. But it used to be the place people gathered to share stories, learn more about each other, and offer consolation or cheer. Some of us knew each other face-to-face, some only online. After a friend from school persuaded me to join, I skimmed through others’ journals to get a sense of the tone, the culture. One thing I immediately noticed was that it seemed customary for people to introduce themselves with a semi-lengthy post that gave a sense of who they were and what they hoped to accomplish in creating an online record of their thoughts. After the perfunctory “I made a journal!” entry, I set about this, and the frame of reference I used to do it was Wild ARMs. I was obsessed with the idea of the Dream Chaser, a term the game used to describe people who wandered the wilderness exploring, doing good, taking odd jobs, and basically “seeking their fortune,” to put it in fairy tale parlance. Naturally, all three playable protagonists claimed this label.

What I identified as speaking to me about the idea of the Dream Chaser at the time was the verb-ness of it. A Dream Chaser was someone in constant movement—someone who wanted to travel, yes, but more importantly, someone who was restless inside, who couldn’t be eternally content in one place literally or psychologically. Someone who wanted to have some kind of ineffable meaningful adventure, a journey with a sense of purpose. My greatest fear at the start of tenth grade, when I wrote that entry, was stagnation. I was completely, utterly, unabashedly obsessed with it. Or more, the avoidance of it.

And even as I aged, even as I took a years-long hiatus from gaming, I held this notion close to my chest—a save point, an emotional touchstone. For as long as I had an online journal, some image from Wild ARMs was there in the assortment of my six 100×100-pixel profile images. When, at 21, I met an artist who interviewed people, asking them what their greatest desire was in life and then handing them one of several premade “licenses,” and I described my desire to him, and he smiled and nodded and handed me a small, magenta keychain with the words “DREAM CHASING LICENSE” on it, my heart skipped. This was deep in the gaming hiatus, but that’s a phrase you don’t forget: Dream Chaser. A Dream Chasing License. Too perfect! A decade later, I still have it.

I’ve wondered on and off if this is something everybody wants: the “thrill of the chase,” as the license elaborates. “This license entitles you,” it says, “to chase your dreams across the universe. Enjoy the thrill of the chase and the excitement of catching the things you want most in life.” I wish I knew what the other licenses were. This one so accurately touches on what I described then, at 21, as wanting. What I wanted at 15, what I still want now: that liveliness, basically. Passion. An ongoing process of dreaming and pursuing—the freedom to wander that cycle. I think everybody must want this on some level. But I know there were other licenses, too, other “most desired” things in life.

At the end of Wild ARMs, Princess Cecilia abdicates the throne and continues her adventure with her friends, Jack and Rudy. She explains to her shocked companions, “I will think hard and be honest with myself. […] I’ve decided to live true to the desires of my heart.” While so many fairy tales’ happy endings consist of protagonists ascending to positions of power and comfort—symbolized, so frequently, by royalty—this one ends with the three friends setting off on a new journey, vowing to use their powers for good and to fight against the evil that still prowls the land. As a kid, I was incredibly moved by this: the conclusion that narrowed but then expanded into a new introduction. I know other quest stories end this way. But it was my first time seeing that move, and it jostled something in my heart.

It’s corny to reference, but in 1998, one year after Wild ARMs came out in the U.S., everyone was singing “Closing Time,” which claims that “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” And it makes sense, right? It was 1998. Almost the end of a millennium. It’s probably silly to quote that line like it’s probably silly to miss an extinct site, like it’s probably silly to hold onto a pink slab of plastic that says it’s a “DREAM CHASING LICENSE.” But I think this is the point of this month’s column: that endings and beginnings are recursive, really. That we look back and forward at the same time.

I hope, whatever the desires of your heart, that you have a good new year. That you grant yourself license to chase whatever dream. That your endings also furnish new beginnings.