Because I was a male teenager in the first decade of this millennium I have many memories regarding video games, most of them concrete and linked to specific titles. I remember accruing weeks of playtime on the best first-person shooters of all-time, Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3. I recall many nights spent playing Grand Theft Auto, during which I ran over policemen, hit pedestrians with baseball bats, fought in gang wars, shot the odd prostitute in the back with a sniper rifle, and stole tanks from military bases. I also have fond memories of the time I spent playing Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.
ESO is a fantasy role-playing game set in the province of Cyrodiil. The main story is trope-ish; something bad happens, the world is threatened by evil, and you, the player, are the only one who can save it. But the main story is of secondary importance. What makes Elder Scrolls: Oblivion so great are the side quests and the miscellany. There’s a reason the IGN review of the game begins with the question, “How much free time do you have?”
There are immersive and expansive story-lines for the Thief’s Guild, the Mage’s Guild, the Fighter’s Guild and The Dark Brotherhood (a band of assassins). You can fight your way to gladiator-champion status in the Arena. Or you can decline to do any of that, and instead spend your time walking to every city and village, or helping citizens who are in need, or seeking the best armour and weapons, or becoming a potions master, or bartering and trading in order to buy houses, or slaying the despicable creatures that roam the countryside and lurk in dungeons and caves, or being an infamous nuisance to the various city guards, or enchanting objects and creating spells that summon demons and scorch the earth with fire, or figuring out how to live and feed as a blood-lusting vampire.
In fact, one general recollection I have—not specific, as it was a regular occurrence whilst playing the game—is the excitement that accompanied the killing of a particularly powerful NPC. It wasn’t that my strongest spells, most fearsome weapons and most devious stratagems were almost not enough. It was more the cycles of struggle and reward. It was thrilling to hit that most evil of enemies with a spell of paralysis and then use my Daedric Bow to stick an arrow in their chest, putting an eternal end to their terrible existence at exactly the moment in which one more blow from their two-handed great-sword would of slain me. It was satisfying to see their body keel over, and to release the breath and tension I had been subconsciously hoarding in my torso. A feeling of relief spread through me as I sheathed my weapons, approached the carcass collapsed on the ground and rummaged through the body for items of value. And a smile would grace my lips if I found something that could be of use, now or in the future. But if I found nothing of value? If I’d almost given my life to bring that doer of evil deeds down and received nothing in return? No matter. It was experience for the next fight, for the next inevitable encounter with an adversary whose prowess and in-game renown was almost equal to my own.
This sense of certain exertion for a possible reward that characterised my time playing ESO is akin to my time spent reading. Books, like NPCs in ESO, are sometimes easy and sometimes hard. Like NPCs, I either seek them our or they find me, sometimes at the best moment, and sometimes at the worst. Like NPCs, upon defeating them, they could offer me the reward I need, the thing that I most seek. Or they could offer me nothing except the knowledge and competence that comes with having dispatched them.
Taking the comparison of classical elements of role-playing games and books further, it’s possible to say that books are very much like loot boxes. The rewards they offer correspond roughly to the skill or resources required to win them, but in equal measure, they don’t. What is found in a loot box is always partially randomised, which means it’s possible for the newest, most novice of players to find the most fantastical of boons. I can attest to this: as a young man I have read many books concerning ideas and stories and people beyond my years and capacities, and to this day—and I suspect, far into the future—they continue to offer rewards.
Perhaps then, owing to the transitions that book undergo as we reconsider and re-read them, books are the ultimate loot box; every time we open them up, they have something different to offer. They can soothe or inflame, inspire or compose, walk us through a maze or teach us how to travel alone. They can teach us a new truth, reaffirm an old one, or offer evidence of a falsity. They can build us up, break us down, confirm our perceptions or refactor them. Books, like loot boxes, change the player, and thus change how he plays the game.