PodCastle released a single new original in November. And it’s a delightful dive into retro video games, into the fates of two monsters who start out life as a random encounter, expected to flare briefly in the player’s grind to higher levels. Instead, they end up leveling up themselves, and finding that they want more than just the tile they were assigned. The piece is interesting and deep, looking at games, at relationships, at fandom, and at stories. And I’ll get right to my review!
“8-Bit Free Will” by John Wiswell (3763 words)
No Spoilers: This story dives inside a contemporary retro rpg, one where, thanks to an inattentive player, two low level monsters, Hollow Knight and HealBlob, level up. And keep leveling up. Something they were never really supposed to do. And they find, in the space where they don’t de-spawn, that they kinda love each other. And they aren’t entirely satisfied with their roles. But there’s a place inside the game where players can change their roles. So...maybe it works for monsters, too. And as the two move through the game world, they draw a following inside the fandom of the game as their “glitch” takes the shape of an endearing narrative. The two have to find a way to play the game, reach for what they want, and watch out for each other, and the result is a cute, heartwarming tale about a random encounter that becomes a fateful one.
Keywords: Video Games, Roles, Healing, Queer MC, Change, Roleplaying
Review: As a fan of retro rpgs, this story is a particular treat for me. I love the way that it finds these two characters who are in many ways random, designed to be vanquished. Never supposed to be able to wipe out a party. never supposed to be able to level up. But through this kind of luck they do just that, and have to figure themselves out, and who they are, and what they want. And I like that they’re immediately on the same page about a lot of things, in love in part because they are in the their own party, because they are all that they have, and in part because they just fit well together, are both considerate and patient and kind. They both would sacrifice themselves for the other and give up so much for each other. And, more, they are supportive in what the other wants. HealBlob wants to be able to protect Hollow. So they both go in search of being able to do just that. But the game isn’t designed for them. And in the end they can’t break it in the ways they want or need. It’s appropriately tragic that the actual players of the game get to play the game as them, get to have every kind of ending that is satisfying from a traditional narrative point of view. And yet the beings inside the game don’t really get that. Which kinda sucks. But there is something there, a way that sometimes quests are failed, especially when they go against the programming of the world. But that doesn’t mean that the characters are failures. Doesn’t mean their relationship is less real. Doesn’t mean that they can’t still find a way to change the rules, or at least ignore them. And I like that in the end the strongest thing the characters can do is sort of opt out of the game. By staying still, they avoid battles, avoid danger, avoid needing to actually play the game. They are their own people, and safe, and together, and HealBlob doesn’t have to worry about Hollow getting hurt. And it’s just a lovely and moving story about two sprites, the fandom swirling around them, and the nature of games. It’s fun and cute and definitely worth checking out. A great read!