Spoilers to follow, for the thing to which the title alludes.
Yesterday I killed a man, and it was an accident.
I approached him on the end of a pier. He looked friendly, so I pressed the button to talk. But the button to talk and the button to attack – to sweep, actually – are the same button, just another fact about how limited our verb set can be in video games. So I pressed the “attack” button, and I struck him. I thought perhaps I just wasn’t close enough, and so I tried again, stepping into it this time. This was definitely an attack, and, with this hit, it pushed the man off of the pier, into a hungry whirlpool. The pool darkened immediately, shading red with his blood.
I don’t feel guilt in video games, I told myself, so why should Anodyne be any different? Still, it stuck with me, because it had been an accident. The man had been fishing. If this were the Legend of Zelda, which it this game obviously mimics, the man probably would’ve given me a pole and shown me how to fish. But all I can do here is sweep.
I went for a walk up the pier, still a little confused and dizzy about what had happened. I navigated across the beach and around a little cliff, and there I found a treasure chest. Inside the chest was a trading card. The card bore the image of the fisherman I had just murdered.
I told myself that I still don’t feel guilt in videogames.
I walked back toward where I had come from, toward the blood-red whirlpool. Oddly enough, it struck me this time not as a hazard, but… a portal. I jumped in. What’s the worst that could happen: I could die? Acceptable enough. Temporary.
I did not die. Instead, I was taken to a bizarre underwater zone, stained with red. Eyeless creatures of the deep, peaceful but hideous, wandered the gore-toned underworld.
I wondered if I was on the path to a bad ending. It wasn’t too late to reset.
But I pressed on. Gradually, I found doors, doors with mouths that lead to an underground place. All the doors lead to different sections of the same map. And then the place stopped being alien, and became instantly familiar. It was Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past, the Skull Woods, a “Dungeon of Many Doors.” The insides ran red with rivers of blood but now that this place was a familiar place I was less deterred. I was supposed to be here, after all. I found the second dungeon in Anodyne.
I fought through it. I read taunting text on rock monoliths. I rode dust rafts on crimson rivers. I defeated the boss monster, a tentacle thing, a battle swimming in gore. The Sage, my mentor, but a liar, had already beaten me to the end, though. He congratulated me on this victory. “You had to conquer not only this monster but also your own fears to prevail!”
Hey, Sage, screw you. How is it you get back here every time, beating me to every treasure room to greet me, even though I’m the one that had to fight my way inside? It made me feel redundant: pointless, but then again how many countless games have I played where “I save the world” and you never really save the world. I collect the treasure, and go.
What I’ve written here is strangely close to “new games journalism” and yet, it’s also a great example of why I don’t generally cotton to it. What I wrote presupposes that my experience was unique. It really wasn’t. The feelings of guilt – okay, I felt it a little – and uncertainty, and anger, are elicited by the game’s design. They are pre-ordained in just that way.
If you haven’t played through that second dungeon in Anodyne, you don’t know what you have in store until you discover this sequence of events for yourself. That’s why I had to start this story with a sloppy, ugly little “spoiler warning” instead of my – I thought, much punchier! – real opening line. If, on the other hand, you have played that second dungeon in Anodyne, then none of this is new to you. The sequence of events that I went through is how a player is supposed to find, and beat, the second dungeon in Anodyne.
I did it because I thought I knew the language of games, and the language was flipped on me. I jumped into the whirlpool because I was told to explore The Land, and I did. I got the second key; I turned on the power grid.
If anyone ever suggests to you that interactivity precludes author’s intent, feel free to show them Anodyne, a game where anyone who plays past the second dungeon pushes an innocent man off of a pier.
It was an accident. It probably always is.