I’ve been playing Path of Exile for a good while now – since, ah… Talisman league, so about four years. I’ve spent a lot of time on it, Steam tells me I’m just shy of 2000 hours, plus some on the game’s own client before I discovered it was on Steam, but in all that time I haven’t really “gotten good,” or not so’s you’d notice. I make it to maps every league, I’ve killed the Shaper and the Elder once apiece, but I’m scared of human interaction so I don’t trade with other players, which means my gear’s always a mismatched tuxedo stitched together from scalps and stolen pants. And when you’re not making it to the hardest content anyway, it doesn’t matter if you’re a bit bad. I still have fun.
It’s an incredibly dense game, and you can go down that rabbit hole just about as far as you fuckin’ please, but the fact is I just want an endless grind. I don’t actually care about winning, I just like that the drops don’t stop and the world is weird and bloody and beautiful.
One of the characters in that game is a dude named Izaro. Actually, he’s dead, but it didn’t take – a lot of the people you’ll meet are dead, or have died multiple times; you will too, it’s just something you’re going to have to get used to in Wraeclast. Short version is, Izaro was an emperor who couldn’t sire an heir, and so he built a huge labyrinth of traps and promised his throne to the first person to survive it.
A kid named Chitus Perandus used his family’s vast wealth to buy plans of the place, and cleared it easily on his first try. As he’d promised, Izaro gave his throne to Perandus, who then promptly imprisoned Izaro in his own labyrinth. So then Izaro’s like, “Okay, first heir didn’t work out so good, this might take some time. No point in scrapping a good idea.” He prays to the Goddess of Justice for the power to judge and test the worthy for as long as it might take to find an heir. The Goddess of Justice kind of, uh… takes over his body? Or they fucked like bunnies and fused together? It’s probably thaumaturgy. Anyway, they’re one immortal being now, who sits in the Lord’s Labyrinth ready to test you for the throne of an empire that fell three hundred years ago. What he actually can do is give you treasure and Ascendancy points, another form of progression for your character.
What I like about Izaro is his attitude. He talks to you throughout the Labyrinth, as you stagger into traps, get mobbed by statues come to life, and fight Izaro and his goddess three separate times. In one room of the Labyrinth you can find Argus, a huge monstrous beast known as Izaro’s “dog,” and killing Argus gets you another key to the treasure vaults and a mournful comment from Izaro, but even then, no rage, no hostility. No matter what you do, no matter whether you win or lose or how stupidly you die, Izaro never criticizes you. He offers sage advice most of the time, sometimes pointedly targeted at your most recent stumble, in the form of lessons to a protege, or an heir:
“Decisions don’t kill people… consequences do.”
“A wise emperor knows when to circumvent a troubling situation.”
“Astute perception may yield a wealth of insight.”
When you beat him and take his throne – he’s not up on current events, so don’t tell him what happened to the empire – he praises you. The voice actor is amazing, and he never sounds angry, never sounds like he doubts the aspirant’s abilities at all, just offers insight and advice. His cry of triumph when you defeat him is one of the most inspiring sounds I’ve ever heard; it makes me feel like I just punched God.
It’s perhaps more deeply moving to me as someone who’s still learning that it’s possible to improve without being cruel to myself. The brutal lessons I was taught were “for my own good” were just sloppy, clumsy instruction, and pain is not the best teacher. It blows my mind that this is still a somewhat controversial statement to make, but I have never in my life seen cruelty make someone do better, at anything. Everyone’s got a story of some athlete whose family abused them until they won the Olympic gold, and that’s great and all, but when you start reading up on the rates of suicide among Olympians, you start to wonder if that’s what winning looks like.
Everyone’s got a parent who said, “hey, my folks beat the shit out of me, and I turned out okay.” And I don’t think there’s a single kid who had to listen to that who wasn’t biting their lip to keep from saying, “Are you sure you turned out okay? Because from here it looks like you turned into someone who would heartily endorse injuring, degrading and mentally subjugating a child, and that’s not anywhere in my definition of okay.” No. No one was ever improved by cruelty. Some people have been able to improve despite cruelty. If you were treated badly and you turned that experience into success, that choice and that victory is yours. It does not belong to your abusers. Or, as Izaro puts it:
“When bound by faith and respect, the flock will overwhelm the wolves.”
The sun in the plaza hangs in the sky;
it’s five in the afternoon all day long.
Wind in the broken columns sings a song
of victory, and worthy ways to die.
No empire now for Izaro’s heirs,
but no Perandus could pay them to stop
flogging the old man each day till he drops.
Pursuit of power – a grotesque affair.
His children all, he leads us through the fog,
introducing each new device with glee,
cutting down dilettantes and demagogues.
A toymaker trapped in his own workshop
with his last breath praises his enemy,
even the ones who stopped to kill his dog.