The Harpy Room
There is a level close toward the end of the video game God of War that almost killed my spirit. I don't say that lightly.
The perennially pissed off demi-God Kratos, on his quest to retrieve Pandora's box in the bowels of the deceased architect's tomb, must first traverse a room of devious construction. It's a simple enough room by design - approximately 250 feet long and 70 feet wide. The left and right walls are made entirely of large circular grinders that hurt you when you touch them. The entire floor is comprised of conveyor belts that move this way and that, so if you stand still for more than a few seconds, you're mashed into a grinder. So, the way to get through the room seems pretty simple: just avoid the grinders and get to the far end of the room.
Once you enter the room, all your exits become blocked by walls of fire, and a punishing onslaught of enemy attacks begins - an onslaught that seems to go on forever.
At intervals, three small raised platforms lay on the left and right of the screen. At the far end of the room, a tiny area of floor lies just under the blocks exit. The platforms and floor are occupied by demon archers. These are the 'safe' areas, only they're not safe because of the archers, and because standing on them for more than a second results in instant death by giant flame burst.
You must clear the platforms and floor of the archers, striking at them repeatedly, because they are strong, and once killed, regenerate multiple times before disappearing for good.
There are virtually no safe areas to stand that don't end in death. Stand too long on the floor - it's into a grinder. Stand where an archer is for longer than "one-mississippi,' and you're dead. So, you must make deft jumps through out the room, utilizing your special attacks to pick off archers, jumping on and off platforms quickly to avoid the flame, and jumping on and off the floor to avoid the grinders. Over time, the archers eventually stop regenerating. It's a pain, but it's do-able.
I almost forgot to mention - the room is full of flying harpies who dive bomb you with a constant barrage of punishing explosives. They take up almost every bit of space in the air, and they regenerate for what seems like forever. Kill one? Now two appear. Kill five? Ten more on their way.
What does this mean? In short, it means death. Lots of it. As in, over and over again. Death by dive bomb, death by flaming arrow, death by grinder, death by flame burst. You see, you can't exit the room until all the enemies are dead, but you have no idea how many are left.
You might dodge, but the conveyors make the predictability of dodging impossible. To make things extra tough, the harpies are largely off-screen, and it's hard to gauge distance. You're given only a half second warning before a bomb hits, so you'd better be quick. The easiest way seems to involve using special jumping attacks to neutralize the harpies, but there are so many of them that trying this in anything less than a super-controlled manner results in death by bombs that cannot be defended against.
I wasn't able to figure out how to pass this room. I watched videos of the room and watched as other players passed the room, deftly rolling around on the conveyors and taking out the harpies with ease. I tried replicating their movements and stumbled. I simply wasn't coordinated enough.
I looked for help online and was frustrated with advice like:
"Just kill the harpies and archers with your magic and move through the room."
"This room is easy enough - just avoid the flame and the grinders and you'll be fine as long as you have enough magic."
"What a let down. I passed this room on my first try with health to spare. I expected a challenge."
"Probably the easiest part of the game - as long as you have your magic meter filled."
I tried to pass the room on sheer will. And I tried. I tried adjusting tactics. I tried doubling back with an old save to track down some 'magic power,' to use in the room. No magic anywhere. None. There was nothing I could do. I had to either change difficulties - obscenely enough, I was playing on 'normal mode' and the game repeatedly asked me if I wanted to switch to 'easy' mode.
No, god dammit, I said. I will not switch to easy. I've come this far on normal and see going to easy as giving up. It's failure to give up. I have to keep trying.
Why did it matter so much? It's only a stupid video game. Video games are violent and they get guys like me worked up when we're frustrated. I'm not a great gamer anyway. I played video games more as a kid, but nowadays I don't work at it. It doesn't take up all of my time. It's a hobby that, as I get older, demands less and less of my time. I don't usually even like a challenge. I get frustrated by challenges. I get angry and I start feeling unskilled, then I feel petty for even feeling that way.
I hate competitive games for this reason. I avoid multiplayer. I'm just not very good. I used to even lose my temper at the bar while getting my ass kicked at Foosball because my opponent giggled because he was having so much fun as he repeatedly pummeled me. Why did I get so angry? He was only enjoying himself, and I took it personally. I took it as mockery of my abilities, even though deep down I knew he wasn't trying to mock me.
It's safe to say that I avoid challenges to avoid some pretty raw memories.
There are toxic roots in how I feel about competition. I hated P.E. I hear others say this too, but they weren't bullied like I was. I was not physically coordinated like most others. I was berated by the coach in front of the whole class because I wasn't able to touch my toes due to a spine problem. For not knowing the proper hike stance, for not properly shielding my eyes from the sun while trying to catch a football, for not throwing the softball like a boy, and a million other deficiencies, I received all kinds of physical punishments from my frustrated classmates. Instead, I busied myself at home with drawing and writing and playing video games. How could I give a damn about touch football and kickball and softball when I associated those things with fear, embarrassment and shame?
At least with video games, I could eek my way through a single player experience like 'Metroid' or 'Zelda,' on my own time and in my own way. Social games and sports forced me to compare my skills with others, and the expectation was that I be good right away. I was never given the chance to try and fail a hundred times before getting it right. I had to be good the first time, in front of everyone, and didn't have the luxury of failing around friends, because I didn't really have any.
This goes back to my pride about not letting the harpy room defeat me. I've played rough sections in games before and just given up because it wasn't worth it. If I couldn't do it after the first few tries, I'd figure - well, I'm just not good enough. I should do something I'm good at. I shouldn't keep trying, cause each time I try and fail I risk punishment, either from myself or from others. I therefore often took the path of least resistance, even if that meant going the long way around a line of cars because the slowpokes in front of me won't move. Even if it meant inconveniencing myself to avoid confrontation.
But sometimes you are given the smallest opportunities to deviate from the safe path, and risk frustration and embarrassment. I was given that chance in the privacy of my home, with a video game. With a thing that has no real world consequence. And I failed, again and again. I tried and tried and convinced myself it was useless. With that, I turned off the console and tried to put it out of my mind.
About a week later, I found myself at home alone after work, and I felt a sudden urge to push through the harpy room. I had to drive up to the city later that night, and had a few hours to kill, so I put in the game and began the slog through that archer infested gauntlet all over again. Predictably, I began to die, again and again.
But then something happened. Call it a devil may care buzz, or sheer momentum, but I started thinking about that safe spot on the floor near the exit. I counted the exact number of seconds it took for the game to send that awful burst of instant death flame out from the wall. I ignored the flying hordes of harpies and focused on the archers first. I stepped up on the platforms, used a single advanced attack, then jumped away to the opposite platform before the flame arrived. I moved steadily forward, taking my lumps from the explosive bombs. Once I'd cleared the small floor space - the once spot of floor not moving - of its archers, I used it as a base of operations.
By now, only the harpies were left, but they were legion. There must have been at least fifty of them, and they took multiple hits to bring down. They came at me from a space off-screen, a place below and out of sight. So I struck downward with my blades, counting the seconds until the hint of flame appeared. Then I jumped, and the flames blinked out. I doubled back in the air, and landed on the floor once again, and voila - the timer reset to zero. I had another second or two before the next flame, so I struck downward, killing off-screen harpies, keeping them at bay, then I jumped to re-set the flame counter.
I did this again and again. I did this for ten minutes or more. I didn't think about how often I was hitting the harpies, or how efficient I might be if I stepped into the fray. I played a defensive game - arguably, my best strategy anyway - and before long, began to feel like the endless harpies' ranks had begun to thin. Before long, I knew the only ones left were at the bottom of the room, and they weren't coming up to my safe spot on the floor.
I'd have to go to them. So I did. I stepped out from my safe spot toward the five or six stray harpies remaining. They lingered around the edges of the screen, near the meat grinders, dropping bombs at random intervals. A few bombs hit me immediately and my health counter went to near-zero. But I pushed forward, spurred on by adrenalin, and knocked the last one away.
With that, the flame barriers on the exit melted away, and a triumphant fanfare signaled my victory. I'd done it. I hopped cautiously through the door, scarcely believing I'd done it, my heart racing.
I know what some might think. "It's just a video game level! Why get so worked up about something so trivial? What about improving your community? What about improving your relationships? What about the things that really matter?"
In the grand scheme, video games are a safe retreat from the real problems of the world. I once played them when I had panic attacks, and the attacks subsided. I played them when I was depressed or fixated on something in the real world I had no control over. I rarely overdid it, but they have a role to play in my life.
It's sometimes in the small, trivial victories that we find the encouragement and the courage to grow our ambitions a bit larger. It's in the private moments of victory, where we conquer our pride, or our hubris, or our sense of entitlement, our sense of what we can accomplish grows by small measures. I won a victory that night, and it was against something I'd told myself was hopeless and impossible. I'd resigned myself to never try again, but something in me disregarded that warning and tried again, and succeeded. I did it. I may not have had the skills that others had. I was not able to to beat the room the way everyone else did - I beat it my way, using my specific strengths to cheat fate. It is for that reason - that I passed the room despite my deficiencies and weaknesses - that I took so much pride in my accomplishment.
It may be just a game, but that is a big deal.
That same night, after my victory in the harpy room, I went on to finish the game. The sneering, angry Kratos, under my command, climbed the pits of Hades and went on to defeat Ares. None of that seemed to matter, though, because nothing was ever as difficult or satisfying as passing that harpy room.
I say these are the victories we can savor the most - the private victories, the small gestures of triumph that we share with ourselves alone. These small victories don't over-inflate our egos; they take the small doubts that linger around the edges of our minds and sweep them away like a duster with cobwebs. They expand, ever so slightly, the promise that even in the darkest moments, we can accomplish anything we set our minds to, in spite of the odds.