I have to hand it to Black Desert Online — the localization and story (what story?) may be wonky, but they do not skimp on NPCs. They pour them into the villages and cities, enough to make their worlds feel full. Because for every vista like this, which you’d expect (and, if you’re me, you demand):
You get this:
Towns that are full* of people having dialogues that don’t involve you, amidst housing dense enough to conceivably contain all the people who supposedly live there. There are NPCs arguing, muttering, fighting with unruly livestock, decidedly not fighting with unruly livestock —
— ruminating on events entirely more mundane than the grand events that turn the wheel of the main questline or even sidequests, being bored —
— and generally living lives that should and do exist outside the realm of the player’s influence.
Sure, a large part of the world’s fullness must also come from the players themselves, as they gallop or trudge through the streets while AFK, slowing building up whatever stats or horses they’re training at the time. But that’s only part of it. The preponderance of NPCs goes a long way toward making the cities, yes, but also even the smaller towns and villages, feel like places you should be assisting. Because there are people there, totally clueless about the darker things that stalk the world’s hidden corners. And they want to keep it that way.
Black Desert Online recently came to Steam, and seeing it there made me want to re-download it from my previous purchase a year ago. In the intervening months (I gave it up because it became too hot to play in our AC-less house, in the fan-less computer room) I managed to accumulate a generous heap of goodies in my mailbox — apparently every unplanned server downtime or mild inconvenience prompted a generous giftbox to players, which means I’m now running around in a limited-edition frilly pirate ninja getup that while, yes, is ridiculous, is also ridiculously fun:
I know that when I want to hack up orcs, the first thing I reach for is a ribbon-emblazoned bra and hotpants. Can’t forget the velvet jacket with corset lace-up back, though! Wouldn’t want to, ah…catch cold…yeah…
Anyway, I deliberately wanted a game no one else I knew played, because everyone else is presently away on longer weekends than I get. And I wanted something open-world and mindless with a plot I could more or less ignore — but which included repetitive tasks like horse breeding and farming, which ruled out Skyrim, barring more mods than I wish to fiddle with on my new install at the moment.
Hence, Black Desert Online.
*not the best example pictures, because I wanted to also include pretty flowers, but trust me: these are not empty streets!
Daufridi said, very softly, “It is unwise to love anyone or anything too greatly, de Talair. People die, things are taken from us. It is the way of our lives in this world.”
“I have reason to know this. I have lived twenty-three years with that truth.”
“And have therefore moderated your passions?”
“And am therefore resolved that I will not live through the death of my country as I endured the death of the woman I loved.”
It would be obtuse to point out how uneasy such sentiments — even by known, loved characters, from stories we remember — make me now, and for good reason. Even before our current state of national affairs, asking us to make the leap from love of people to love of the place they call home, and the customs that shape that place as unique, is…fraught.
But I keep coming back to it. Uneasily, a little sheepishly, I admit that the stories I value most have that strong current of love of (fictional) country in them. Hell, most of them are even named after the countries in question. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Malafrena. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana. In each instance, the main characters love people, but more than people they love place. And not just the receding knife-points of mountains, or the mirror of a lake, but the customs of the area that mark that place as different from all others.
Of course though — and I regret that I do this now, take things apart this way now; while necessary it is an unpleasant way to look at literature or media of any form; constantly dissecting — in each instance stated above, the characters embracing these poetically nationalist sentiments were of the aristocracy. Landed gentry, in the case of Piera and Itale of Malafrena, and the prince in the case of Alessan of Tigana. Neither author, I don’t believe, asks us to suspend our knowledge of the limits of such sentiments. Both books feature poorer people saying, essentially, that it doesn’t matter who’s in power, the rivers will still flood and life will still be hard. Etc. But their less poetic realities aren’t allowed to eclipse the flowery, insistent love of the landed aristocracy (dispossessed or otherwise) for the lands they call theirs.
I hate that I see that, as an adult looking back on tales I loved. I hate that I can look on my favorite quote from Malafrena, retrieved again and again with love:
“Is it so easy?” he said after so long that Itale, befogged with exercise, fresh air, beer, and well-being, was not sure what he was talking about. “You set out…you set out to make yourself. To make the world. All the things you must do, and see, and learn, and be, you must go through it all. You leave home, come to the city, travel, miss nothing, experience it all, you make yourself, you fill the world with yourself and your purposes, your ambitions, your desires. Until there’s no room left. No room to turn around.”
“There is, here,” Itale put in. “I told you. I’m as empty as that beer-jug. Air, sunlight, silence, space.”
“That won’t last.”
“It will. It’s we who don’t last.”
Estenskar leaned against the doorway, gazing out into the country darkness.
“Now that I know that I can’t choose,” he said, “now that I’ve finally learned that there are no choices, that I can’t make my way and never could, that it was all deceit and conceit and waste–now that I’ve given up trying to make my way, I can’t find it, I can’t hear the voice. I’m lost. I went too far and there’s no way home.”
–and question whether Estenskar’s idea of home and country remotely lines up with what the uncelebrated, unquoted people of the city think of as home and country. Estenskar, himself as much a poet as Bertran de Talair, and with a similar reputation for moving the masses to action with his words on often political topics, nevertheless speaks — his hard times notwithstanding — from a very different place than most of the populace of Malafrena (which serves as a fictional country straining under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, FYI). The mountain ranges and alpine villages and lakes and quaint country customs he writes of with, yes, love, are as accessible to him as the thronged city streets of pseudo-Vienna. Like Hemingway thumping on about Africa from the north woods of Michigan, it’s easy to sing the praises of Somewhere Else when you can afford to leave, and to pine for Somewhere Else once you have left. Even when your vaunted otherwhere is somewhere you claim, loftily, as home.
For the people who cannot leave, the rose-tinted glasses of distance aren’t a lens through which they get to look. For the people who cannot leave, poems urging them to rise up in the streets and slay those who would rule over them aren’t just words to hoist glasses to in taverns. They’re verses that can and will get them killed. In their homes, sometimes. In front of their families.
When we are asked to believe in the countries of fictional characters, and especially when the vast majority of characters we are shown from the countries in question are appealing and lovable, it can be easy — it feels good — to take them at their word. But when you put the book down and see such sentiments reflected in the real world, about your own country, it doesn’t feel good anymore.
And that sucks. It is a necessary and important resignation to make, I suppose, as someone who lives in the world, but it sucks. We want — I want — to believe in Tigana, in Malafrena, as places as beautiful and deserving of awe and affection as the characters who live there believe them to be. But the characters have time to write about their love of country only because they have the money and leisure with which to do so. And blind flag-waving is dangerous. And you have to be living under a rock not to see the consequences of that playing out today.
It makes the magic on the page less magical, honestly. Necessarily so.
It takes me several listens to add a song to my circuit. Listening to the lyrics requires more attention than I have give; typically if it crops up on a Spotify or Amazon or Pandora playlist or radio, I bother to note down the name of the song when the form of it snaps my attention back to that tab — typically repetitive, building arpeggios or marching drums.
So then, as here, I’ll add the song to a playlist, and meander back to it later, probably weeks later, again leaning into the musical formation that attracted me in the first place. Not really paying attention.
But only on the third or fourth listen do I _hear_ the lyrics. I have to feel like I’m being rocked by the sound first. Such was the case with Josh Ritter’s “Change of Time.” And then a phrase, not even a whole verse but just a phrase — in this case, “the whitecaps of memory” — will tear me out of whatever sore-eyed screen tunnel I’d been staring down and I’ll replay it over and over to hear that one phrase.
The whitecaps of memory, man. Goddamn.
“What are you a sign for?” someone asked me in EverQuest, when I was twelve. I was confused for a moment until I remembered the name I’d chosen for my latest alt — Signe, named for Signe de Barbentain, from A Song for Arbonne, which I was then reading. Here is her introduction:
Some mornings, as today, she woke feeling amazingly young, happy to be alive to see the spring return. It wasn’t altogether a good thing, this brief illusion of youth and vitality, for its passage—and it always passed—made her too achingly aware that she was lying alone in the wide bed. She and Guibor had shared a room and a bed after the older fashion until the very end, a little over a year ago. Arbonne had observed the yearfast for its count and the ceremonies of remembrance scarcely a month past.
A year wasn’t very long at all, really. Not nearly enough time to remember without pain private laughter or public grace, the sound of a voice, resonance of a tread, the keen engagement of a questioning mind or the well-known signs of kindled passion that could spark and court her own.
A passion that had lasted to the end, she thought, lying in bed alone, letting the morning come to her slowly. Even with all their children long since grown or dead, with an entirely new generation of courtiers arising in Barbentain, and younger dukes and barons taking power in strongholds once ruled by the friends—and enemies—of their own youth and prime. With new leaders of the city-states of Portezza, a young, reckless-sounding king in Gorhaut, and an unpredictable one as well, though not young, in Valensa far in the north. All was changing in the world, she thought: the players on the board, the shape of the board itself. Even the rules of the game she and Guibor had played together against them all for so long.
There had been mornings in the year gone by when she had awakened feeling ancient and bone cold, wondering if she had not outlived her time, if she should have died with the husband she’d loved, before the world began to change around her.
Which was weak and unworthy. She knew that, even on the mornings when those chill thoughts came, and she knew it more clearly now, with the birds outside her window singing to welcome the spring back to Arbonne. Change and transience were built into the way Corannos and Rian had made the world. She had accepted and gloried in that truth all her life; it would be shallow and demeaning to lament it now.
Before her name even rose on the page, I knew she was the one I’d named my character after, so long ago. I can’t explain — I suppose it has little place, at the moment; we are too concerned with surviving the next few years to even imagine growing old, to have obtained safety and sanity as a planet long enough to get there — how valuable, how much of a blueprint, the women of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books were for me, growing up. But I can recognize them when they appear, even when I haven’t read the book for years; even when I haven’t, as in this case, finished it.*
Of course I gravitated to Signe. She had loved lastingly, and managed to survive even the cavernous loss of that love. She remained capable of recognizing change in the world without balking at it, or blaming it for her own losses.
Bertran, too, though — now that I’ve read further and decided, in fact, to post this. It would be disingenuous to parade around Kay’s women as the only or chief reason to read his books. It’s broader than that. Bertran de Talair, like Alessan (and Dianora!) of Tigana, like Crispin of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, like basically everyone in Lions of Al-Rassan, which I will love until I die, Kay’s characters provide roadmaps to (and through) loss. I do not wish to be thought excessively morbid here, but those are rather important. Knowing people can recover (or not); knowing the multitudinous ways in which your courage and self-regard and faith can fracture and dissolve in the face of the absence of what you most loved, and still do: that’s really fucking important. And while that’s not the point of any of these books — of any of these characters — it is what makes them fiercely lovable. Show me how to put yourself back together again. That it can be done.
They don’t all do it in the same way, of course. That would be trite, boring, and unrealistic. And you’re not always looking at the loss of a romantic partner, either: a country, a kingdom, a child. So many things lost, reflecting so many ways people falter and fail to protect themselves against fate. Against time.
You can see, can’t you, how important — how valuable — it is, to see such things portrayed? The fact that the world portrayed may or may not have magic in it, or gods who answer, or names of places and people that evoke those of the real world — that’s all dressing on the side. That’s not why I keep Kay’s books on reserve like bottles of wine in a basement, seeking a particular, rare vintage when the occasion calls for it. People misunderstand, I think, when I try to sing his books’ praises to them. “Oh, so you want to read about history without really reading about history,” is the typical response. No, I don’t. I want to see how people grow old and love and die in a world close enough to this one to offer advice. And I want to know that though there are very, very different people marching toward that end down very different paths, they can still get there without breaking along the way. Possibly while happy. Or with the memory of happiness still alive within them.
I named myself after Signe when I was twelve, when my mother and even her own mother were still healthy. I had barely scratched the surface of adolescence, and the only premonition of its moody unwieldiness I’d yet had to suffer was a military brat’s move to a new city. There was no sprawling, neon-lit reason for me to look at someone like Signe and think that I could or should learn from her, become her, in a game or in the world.
No reason, except that even twelve year olds aren’t dumb. You don’t have to see the grasping roots of illness dismantling those you love to know it can happen. You don’t have to have begged the school secretary for quarters to call home and make sure the bombing didn’t take your father, to know it can happen. (For reference, Columbine occurred when I was twelve: even us nostalgic 90s kids knew we could die in an instant.) You know these things happen. That you cannot escape all of them. What you don’t know, as a twelve or a twenty or a thirty year old, is how to deal with them. What you are supposed to do. Who you are supposed to be. More than the jeweled mosaics or mountain town mysticism; more than the palaces and priesthoods and resurrected social strictures of cultures long extinct, this is why you read Guy Gavriel Kay’s books. Because his characters suffer the same wounds we do, and manage, if not always to be better for it, at least to make a kind of sense of the aftermath. To make sense as aftermath.
That is something worth learning. If we are to serve as signs for others, willing or otherwise, let us at least point toward knowledge worth knowing.
*It would make a better story to say I didn’t finish it for the same reason I didn’t finish The Bell Jar — I was hit by a car while riding my bicycle, book in my coat pocket, and never recovered it from the scene of the accident. But A Song for Arbonne disappeared years before that; I don’t know why. My father purged everything in our house, my books included, in a fury over my mother’s decline, so my original copy is long gone. I’ve always remembered to return to it, though. It’s the last of Kay’s alternate histories I’ve not yet read. The real last — in that I haven’t finished it.
This book. Oh my god, this book.
I had to stop reading it for awhile. I was reading it as my mom died, though I didn’t know it. And afterwards, reading a letter where a father lied so earnestly to his daughter, saying he was safe when he was in chains, saying he was fed well when he was starving, I burst into tears and set it aside for a time. I am usually, vainly, proud of myself when books make me cry. A kind of triumph over the accusations of heartlessness my mother hurled at me when I was little and stubborn and she was entering menopause and also stubborn. But the accusations lingered long after, I’m sure, she had any recollection of directing them at me, and I am always secretly pleased when a book (or a game, or a movie) moves me to tears. Liquid proof of my humanity, Mom.
Except, she’s dead now, and the tenderness of a father in the book is more than I could bear.
And I still can’t discuss most of it, because every single person I have endeavored to spare any plot line, ever, scoffs at the idea of spoilers. “It’s not about the plot,” they say. “It’s about the prose. Go ahead, spoil me. I don’t mind.” Well, I mind. And you’re wrong. When the construction of a story, the way you find out one piece of information, and the timing of that discovery as it relates to the next piece and the next, does not add up to some orderly chronological march down a straight path but rather builds out in fractals, forward and then back, spiraling, in a complex conflagration of memories that precede, sometimes, the shattering that carved them out, and are followed by the poetic justice that explains why that shattering was necessary — well, then yes. It does matter. And I’m not ruining that for you, any of you. It is important.
Which is frustrating, because I know no one else who has read this book. A guy walked in the other day, laughed at his girlfriend’s suggestion that he read something she recognized — “I’m not really a book kind of guy” — and walked out. People here do not read. And everyone I know who reads elsewhere has not read this. Or is too busy.
No, I’m not putting a spoiler tag in and then talking anyway. Go find it and read it. All the Light We Cannot See. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
I will say, though, that parts of it…were honed-edge ice picks chiseled to just the right length, aimed at just the right angle, to cut my heart wide the fuck open. God. The timing, to have read this book when I did. My mother would have loved this book, had she lived to read it. Not just lived, but had she remained someone capable of reading, of knowing the meaning behind words. She had not been able to for years, by the time she died.
Except for “I’ll meet you across the sea,” which was the last thing she ever read to me, on my shirt as I moved her into a dementia care facility. Her reading of which hurt me more than anything I have experienced in thirty years of life.
Anyway, she would have loved this book. Please read it.
And if you get the version pictured above, understand that every child of someone like my mother lives for a page 523, and we never get it. We never will. The removal of even the delusion that we might get a page 523 is what hits us, when they die. Even though the version of them we knew has already been dead for years. We always, maybe encouraged by media but more because we are human, hope for that.
And now it’s out of reach forever.
Look at how many views that has. He explains, in the book, how it is played. I never knew; I know nothing about music. I know this song is used often for pathos, but I don’t think it’s without reason.
The best moments in All the Light We Cannot See are times when he says things he does not have to say. They are like gifts.
“The last technician,” says Neumann one, “didn’t find anything.”
“It’s good equipment,” says Werner. “I should have them both functioning in an hour.”
A gentleness flows into Volkheimer’s eyes and hangs there a moment. “Pfennig,” he says, looking at Werner, “is nothing like our last technician.”
That moment was completely unnecessary. That little bit of description. It’s just a gift. Before this line of work, I for years studied memorials to the dead, built by those who should have stopped them from becoming dead, and didn’t. I kept wondering when a book like this would come along, and how it would be received. There was All Quiet on the Western Front, of course, but that’s the wrong war (though it’s always what people pointed to when I asked about this). And though it starts young, it doesn’t start young enough: it doesn’t humanize children who were taught to dehumanize others from, almost, the cradle. Children who grew up killing, and whose own chlidren, in the 70s and 80s, demanded answers they couldn’t or wouldn’t give for what they did.
We don’t need to know, verbatim, that Volkheimer is still capable of tenderness. We could have guessed it from actions he takes elsewhere. We don’t need to have it spelled out for us like this. But it’s a gift that he does it. It tangles things for us. Werner, we have already been brought to believe, doubts the morality of what he is doing, and the majority of those for whom he does it (though he, like the vast majority of his countrymen, lack the courage to turn that discomfort into subversive action). We are being asked, throughout the pass, to give him a moral pass, for his doubt. But Volkheimer? All the others? What right to our forgiveness have they? Werner is a liability for them at this point: if he can question why they do these things, wage this war, why aren’t they? Would it not be easier to paint them with a red brush of condemnation and dismiss them all as morally bankrupt?
It would be easier. And we still might. But it is going to be messy for us, with moments like this with Volkheimer carved into our brains. That’s why I love these tiny little descriptive gifts. Things should be messy. Moments like this ensure they are.
His footfalls across the landing. One-pause-two one-pause-two. Wheezing. Climbing again.
If he touches me, she thinks, I will tear out his eyes.
This is coming from a blind girl. Think on that. I missed it at first, riveted and riotously sororal in the face of a sentiment I’d felt myself more than once. But she’s blind. She has not seen since she was six. She can move in the world and has learned to live in it fully, but this is her threat. This, as she is torn asunder, is what she will do to him. If he ends her, he will be forced to live as her. Let him learn how it is. Let him live it.
That is way more powerful than I caught, the first read through.