Save Point: Life Quest

For better or worse, lots of us want to “have it all.” “It” may look different for each of us, but often, there are underlying themes. Caring relationships. Work we have a talent for and that we enjoy. Upward mobility. Security, fun, and comfort. Passion and a sense of purpose. The blueprints around which we build their lives are as many and varied as the brains that dream them up. But any time we want more than one thing, the question of how to have both the new and the old sneaks into play. The more things we want, the longer and wider our reach must become—long enough, wide enough to capture “it all.” The better jugglers we must become, too, since acquiring or establishing things is only half the battle. There’s the maintenance, too. The “having.”

I think this is part of what entices me so much about games, particularly RPGs. Assuming you fight enough, you’re guaranteed a steady income. You almost always have built-in best friends and romances, or at least mutual crushes. Your airship is a kind of home, a traveling hostel for your eccentric companions. In leveling up, you always progress. It is almost impossible to stop progressing. You’d have to play the game for a long time. You’re a hero, a leader, an expert in your field. In the midst of the drama of saving the world, you enjoy lots of pleasures parenthetically. You kind of have it all.

There’s one game I’ve played that takes this idea a little more literally. It’s called Life Quest. In this late-2000s PC game from Big Fish, you take on the role of a recent high school graduate who engages in contests with former peers to see who can achieve certain milestones first—things like getting a job, purchasing a vehicle, adopting a pet, and so on. The game frames these as “friendly rivalries.” It’s a tension presented as the gym buddy idea—if you hold me accountable and I hold you accountable, we’ll be more likely to meet our shared goals. But the contests can stress you out, too. This is part of games, part of why they work—they get under our skin. They make us compete. They make us want to win.

I played Life Quest during a gap year I took between undergrad and grad school. At that time, I was aimless. I’d applied for the Peace Corps and been rejected (thanks, weird dietary stuff). I’d prepared no backup plan. Eventually, I applied to grad school, which launched my career in higher ed. But in the interim, I treaded water, working a demoralizing retail job and wondering how all my friends made flourishing look so easy.

My then-boyfriend played lots of PC games, and I occasionally glanced over his shoulder. Life Quest wasn’t my usual style of game, but he encouraged me to create my own character, and I was quickly drawn in. It felt painfully relatable to my own situation, this series of “friendly rivalries.” In my waking life, I felt like everyone I knew was passing me by. In the game, at least I could eat at fancy restaurants and watch my avatar pull ahead on a literal racetrack that charts your advancement in contrast to the AI’s. Playing Life Quest was simultaneously masochistic and satisfying. It provided a simulated path out of my rut—a kind of vicarious hope. Just by clicking the “work” button repeatedly, I could accrue cash and increase my standing. Just by taking an acting class, I could boost my “charm” points and attract a compatible mate. Happiness, promotion, health, and esteem were all within my reach if I just managed my time and resources correctly. Life was just a puzzle to be solved. A game that was possible to win.

A while back I was up for a big opportunity I didn’t quite get. It was hard not to be disappointed. I had started dreaming about certain milestones I might check off an invisible bucket list I hadn’t known I possessed. Spend a certain amount of money on home furnishings. Take your significant other out on a certain number of dates. These are things the game encourages you to do. Requires you to do, in fact. Life Quest’s soundtrack echoed in my head as I pictured my avatar bursting through some eagerly beckoning, preprogrammed finish line. The compulsory spotlight beaming its conic ray on my smiling avatar. The shower of confetti and fanfare that signified victory raining down on her. Her/me, I should say.

The week I learned I hadn’t gotten the opportunity coincided with a trip out of town. Slipping into the bathtub of a hotel room distant from my daily life, I stared absently at the wallpaper and felt the rising steam from the water warm my skin. I contemplated this setback and what it meant for my wants in life. What it meant for “having it all” and my stretching reach that couldn’t quite hold it. And as Lifetime movie-ish as it may sound, this really happened: my eyes focused on the flower-speckled wallpaper and I realized the cursive letters scrawled like fading ink in its sepia backdrop were partial lines from a seventeenth-century poem by Robert Herrick, a poem that is all about relinquishing that desperate, hungry reach. “Gather ye rosebuds,” the wallpaper cautioned. Something about time. Something about death. The language and the steam interlaced.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

Fortunately or unfortunately for us, depending on your perspective, life doesn’t work like Life Quest might suggest. We aren’t locked into competing with our friends. We aren’t locked into one version of success. Our happiness doesn’t automatically rise with eating, nor does it immediately dwindle when we’re at work. It isn’t a gauge. It isn’t that simple. These days there’s a movement to “gamify” everything, and to some extent, I can get behind that. Life can be devastating. Life can be tedious. I see little harm in thinking in metaphors, in analogies, that lend some levity to one’s daily grind. But it seems important to remember that these things aren’t formulaic. And all games end the same way. All games end.

That time I played Life Quest in my wandering gap year, a glitch caused the screen to black out abruptly while I was dancing with my spouse in a club. No matter how many times I rebooted the game, that was it—I was dancing, then darkness descended. “I guess I died,” I laughed. “Right there in the club. I just die. That’s how my Life Quest ends.”

Reboot. Dance. Flicker. And darkness. That’s how my Life Quest ended.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. The finish line approaches swiftly enough. There is no need for us to chase it.