If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can still call up the smell of that Subway restaurant. The thick, preservative-laden bread mingling with burnt basil and Asiago.
The clear plastic bag, twined around two of my fingers, swung with a comforting weight as I walked the few blocks from the store back to the house I was renting with four other people. A foot-long sub was enough to cover a whole day of eating while I mainlined Everquest and tried to ignore the crushing wave of adulthood cresting above my head. I was 18 years old and I didn’t really know how to cook for myself. I leaned on my dad to help cover rent while I went to school to study for computer certification exams. I took the first job I was offered at a call center, to avoid being tested.
These were the halcyon days of my youth sputtering to a close as I slid into the gaping abyss of a corporate job. My team leader would pull me aside, breathe his onion breath in my face, and complain that my clocking in two minutes late after break would make him look bad. In the depths of that routine haze, life was a dull drudging from a day job I detested to the video games I yearned to be playing instead. Everquest ate up every spare moment between bites of day old Subway melts.
I was depressed and I was lost. I didn’t have a language for the deep yearning I felt or the way that playing games almost, but not quite, filled the void. They were a coping mechanism that became a prison because nothing else seemed to work. It wasn’t until I faked being sick to skip a family Easter gathering so I could play Everquest instead of facing them that I realized the whole edifice I’d made was caving in on itself.
The thing about depression and dark slumps is that they make you so utterly self-obsessed, your misery so thorough, that you grasp for whatever brings you even the faintest flicker of light in an otherwise dim existence. Everquest filled many needs for a sense of advancement and accomplishment when I felt so stuck in my life.
Reaching out to friends and family on Easter would have been the right move, but part of the strategy to prop myself up was convincing the people closest to me I had it all together. When I felt most at sea, the last thing I wanted to do was look my parents in the eye. Keeping them in the dark made them co-conspirators in a game they didn't even know they were playing.
In the process of obsessing over loot drops and spawn rates, I accidentally became friends with my guild. Some were older adults with kids and full-time jobs offering advice and encouragement. Some of them seemed to be even worse off than I, and I found myself propping them up in their own darkest moments. One of them is my wife now. Everquest was the road we walked on, but we were the ones putting ourselves out there and connecting in real ways.
Under the camouflage of meeting up for a raid, or while fleeing Orc trains at 3AM, camaraderie with someone I barely knew was the least vulnerable way to open my heart. In those tentative days I talked to party members about my deepest fears while we waited for mana to recharge in the dead of night. Instead of shying away, they shared their own stories, and we’d create a caring, beautiful space together. In my darkest moments I thought my life would be an unending treadmill of hating work, eating food I didn’t even like anymore, and desperately clawing at my games to save me. The people I played with were there to listen when I felt like a failure before I’d even gotten off the launch pad.
Eighteen years later, I can see I had some intuitive sense of how crucial this was for me because it kindled a deep love and appreciation for online community that went beyond high-fiving after a good kill or collecting loot together.
I quit Everquest after a year and bounced around MMORPGs trying to recapture the same magic. It was never the gameplay or the loot systems though; it was the people and the warmth of our connection that made it feel so vital and alive. As I learned to fill the need for friends and connection in the real world and different ways online, the genre lost its luster.
Multiplayer games were a lighthouse I could use to navigate the choppy waters of adulthood and eventually save myself from smashing into the rocks. Even as I’ve long since moved on from the genre, the unique blend of playing and conversation remains one the sneakiest, most surprising ways to form deep bonds with people I’ve never laid eyes on.
But it would not have happened if I wasn't willing to put myself out on a limb, and give someone a chance to catch me.