My husband and I have friends. They are good people. But when the two of us met, in the dorms in college, it was as part of the fabric of your everyday existence that you met and made friends. Everything — your grades, your job, your relationships, your future — was woven into the tapestry of university life, and that included the friends that you made. They were immediately accessible. Hell, they were right across the hall. In a way not really experienced since you are six or seven or so — too young for playground politics to have divided you up into factions yet — friends are physically a part of your life. You pass them on the street and they ask about your test. They see you with a book and want to know if they should read it too.
Our experience was limited to university settings, but it’s not unique to that. My father experienced the same thing in the military, same age. When everything and everyone around you is bent toward a more-or-less common goal, you are placed in a much better position to understand, empathize with, and ultimately befriend your peers. When the thing that brought you together ends, it’s not just that are you scattered to the winds. It’s that the shared experience that enabled you to reach out to people so easily, to make so many of the correct assumptions about their willingness to engage with you, is over.
That’s what adulthood means, among other things. It is a cavernous loss. Maybe you’re too stressed and desperate for a paycheck and some sort of stability, at first, to notice it. But when you catch a chance to breathe you definitely will. Finding friends as an adult is incredibly difficult. All the paths to easy familiarity are gone. As a result, you have fewer friends.
Cackling along with me as the Critical Role party dissolved into laughter on their Twitch stream last night, my husband turned to me through his laughter. “Why didn’t we ever get a group together like this?” he asked. I’d been about to ask the same thing.
I, as usual, was late to the party on Critical Role. I heard about it through an article and tuned in. The next morning, I cancelled our cable TV subscription. If I was rearranging my schedule to catch Twitch feeds now , I figured, cable TV with its so very many layers between me and the people who could benefit from my viewership could bid farewell. (Besides, anything I wanted to watch I could stream through subscription services whose combined monthly payments remained far below a cable payment.)
I have played exactly one tabletop RPG in my life — a riotous game of L5R run by an experienced GM who awarded points for being the absolute shits were supposed to be, as members of the Scorpion clan — but not for lack of wanting to. I could just never find other people who wanted to play. My husband, too, has only played once, and was quickly frustrated by a GM too drunk to do more than fling endless hordes of orcs at a bunch of bored characters.
But both of us delight in the Critical Role exploits — yes, I know, like 20,000 others at a time. It’s the party you always wish you had, right? Enough variety of temperament and taste for awesome story without devolving into petty personal conflict. The saucy, ridiculously ribald bard, the emo druid, the emo rogue, the big lovable brute…I know, I know, everyone has said it before. They’re good at what they do and they did this for fun and now thousands of others can join in. But I guess I always assumed that most of the viewers could watch it and partake in a kind of recollection. “Oh this is like that time when…” “Oh man, he’s gonna make the same mistake I made in that game over spring break when I…” But we don’t have any of that. And more than just appreciating the improv aspect of it (which we very much do, having observed or served comedians in a comedy club for the better part of a decade), or the storybuilding, we spectate the camaraderie. The smirks, jeers and explosive bouts of laughter. We don’t get to resurrect any memories, watching this. There’s no past to look back on. There’s just the knowledge that a handful of people out there are a.) really good at this, and b.) really enjoying doing it. And we pine.
Then last night, when the guest turned out to be Patrick Rothfuss as he’d suggested it might be in his own Twitch stream Wednesday, we got to spectate something else. A writer surrounded by actors, all of them crafters of characters but in necessarily different ways. It was especially intriguing because I’d only first seen Rothfuss’s Twitch feed Wednesday. Prior to that, reading his books, I’d hazarded to imagine that he might seem…I don’t know, overtly earnest or gentle?…in person. But, as he said himself in his stream, he’s got a sharp tongue. Not on Critical Role, though. He was nervous and camera-shy, as I would be too. I wasn’t sure how much of it was that and how much was in-character. Until he got the chance to bring his character out and have The Talk with the druid Keyleth, then experiencing an existential crisis, and I began to pay way too much attention. This is a show, idiot, I told myself firmly. He’s a guest. He’s not talking to you. If he wanted to say anything to the legion of people of whom you’re a part, you should open one of his books. This is not for you. But I listened desperately anyway. “You’re not wrong,” his fatherly warrior tells the druid, of the mess that comes when she does right as badly as it comes when she does wrong. “You’re right. It’s hard. It’s not going to stop being hard, either. Not for a long time.” Comedians joke that people see them and cry “dance, monkey, dance!” In other words, make them laugh. Well, I see authors and want desperately for them to tell me how to be. “Advise, monkey, advise!” Because if everything was all right, I’d be laughing and joking around a table amongst a bevy of like-minded individuals. But it’s not. And I’m not. Please advise.
I may not be a beacon of charisma and charm in a party, or much of a good shot on the still-new-to-me PS4 controller (again, I was and remain primarily a PC gamer), but I can heal. And I do. More even than in ESO, where I’d recently begun rolling out the heals in a surprisingly enjoyable last-ditch effort to hold our keep in Cyrodiil. In Overwatch, though, I always play Mercy.
Like Dragon Age: Inquisition’s multiplayer mode, Overwatch has pre-recorded character voices and interactions, so the people you move around the map do come with their own verbal take on things. I settle for these, and turn the voice chat volume all the way down. I know better than to use the chat myself, and the only people I ever heard speak were either being dicks or had some horrible audio echo issue (enable push-to-talk, for the love of god!) that made the game unplayable for me. And I always play Mercy. At first it was because her caduceus staff auto-targets, and the PS4 controller was too new for me to be any good at aiming anything that didn’t auto-target. But even after I had a few good runs with Tracer early on (which I mention to point out I have zero qualms with being the dealer of damage in such games), I returned to Mercy. Because if you are good, people want to keep you alive. Because they need you. Because they thank you. Because your play of the day is when you bring three people back to life in a blaze of light, enabling your team to snatch a last-minute victory from the jaws of defeat.
As a rule, I never heal. Ever. I remember whining about the girl being stuck as the healer when The Guild first aired. I whine anytime a girl is the cleric, the priestess, the acolyte. I am not nurturing, I protest. I’m not nice.
But I will heal the everloving fuck out of you.
I’m not part of a group of dashing voice actors whose exploits entertain thousands every week, and I couldn’t be. I’m not some storied PVPer known even beyond my own guild or server as a bringer of death (like Slade on vanilla WoW, for example), and I couldn’t be that either. I’m not a storied anything.
I do get an awful lot of thumbs-up emotes, though, when I damage-boost a Reinhardt atop a moving car, or fling myself off a roof to get a McCree back in line-of-sight for heals.
I’ll settle for those.