“But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”
– Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.
My foray into Ark: Survival Evolved began like most of my other PC endeavors; un-optimized and incredibly disappointing. The ROG laptop (sporting a GTX 660m) that once brought me optimal joy, had dwindled in competence over the last couple years as graphical demands reached new highs and my Chase banking account, unprecedented lows.
You can imagine my excitement, then, when I discovered that an XBOX ONE port of the dino-centric survival game was rapidly approaching an early access release. But, as it happens, this story isn’t about me. It is the story of one man’s descent into madness; a once noble King dethroned. In an effort to protect his real identity, we’ll call him “Moses.”
I first told Moses about Ark about a month before the game’s release. We had grown tired of yelling at one another while playing Destiny: The Taken King, and all my other gamer friends (grown men ages 27 – 48) were chomping at the bit for a new shared-world experience. A survival title like Ark piqued their interest, as many of them are what some might call “casuals”, daring not dip their toes in the liquid cooled, PC waters.
I spent a whole month overselling the game in the hopes that when it dropped I would finally have friends to play with. Believe this: Ark is a game not meant to be played alone. You can, but it would be the equivalent of jerry-rigging a Dead-Rising-style bladed contraption and attempting to use it as a stool. The tiniest mosquito can prove to be an unbeatable foe when the only weapon at your disposal is a piddling handful of twigs. But I digress.
On the night of its release, as the digital clock on my cable box struck 9pm, we entered into a sacred pact with Ark: Survival Evolved, swearing to it our undying allegiance (and dozens of hours of our adult lives). We were excited. We were impatient. And most of all, we were happy.
Moses, a man who’s download speeds are not to be trifled with, was one of the first to enter the game.
“Kind of underwhelmed,” he typed into the dark abyss that was our group chat.
“Graphics are terrible. Dying a lot.”
Worried that the learning curve might be too steep for my other friends, I scrambled to utter reassurances that everything would make sense once we we had all joined forces. If I wanted any chance in hell at riding a velociraptor into glorious battle, I had to lead my clan straight and true.
“Stay on the beach!” I typed. “We’ll craft a fire and use it as a beacon to find one another!”
As I said this, my bald hulking caveman, who I of course named “Jack Reacher,” was just gaining consciousness on a small beach strip. Over the course of an hour, one by one, each of our friends found their way to a small thatch hut; a warm fire crackled on the sand outside.
“We need more thatch,” Moses remarked, quickly assuming a leadership role within the tribe. His earlier concerns about the game seemed to have completely vanished.
“There’s a guy named ‘Throbbin Williams’ building his hut just up the river, and I don’t like it one bit,” he said as his character placed a sturdy roof over our heads.
We all agreed that if we wanted any chance at surviving the night, we would have to assign chores and keep our efficiency at a competitive level. That’s how families did it, and that’s what we were now: a family. And so we communicated. We watched out for one another. And most of all, we were happy… right up until the point a character named “Grognak the Barbarian” demolished our meager thatch wall and slaughtered us all in a matter of seconds.
The prospect of respawning without a shred of worldly possesions left most of us with a heavy heart. But not Moses. No, he was determined to find a better base location, craft more efficient weapons, and establish a steady supply of resources so as to attain something even greater: Steel pikes.
The base grew alongside our morale. Our humble tribe worked happily and peacefully together, and things were good. We befriended a group of French people who had a similar-sized base established in the resource-rich vicinity. Our mutual hatred of Throbbin Williams and his band of rapists and murderers brought us together. Significant milestones were achieved: Our first steel tools. Our first set of leather armor. Our first ridable dinosaur.
In an ultimate twist of irony, over the weeks I had grown to become one of the more casual presences on Ark‘s island. A “real-life” relationship had gradually taken precedence over the concerns of our Ark tribe because I was finding it difficult to explain to my girlfriend that I couldn’t go out that night due to my prior obligation of harvesting tintoberries.
When I did return to the island, things had begun to change. The once peaceful French had ridden into our camp on a Tyrannosaurus Rex and waged all-out war in the dead of night. One of our tribesmen, we’ll call him “Jeff,” had a penchant for logging in, “borrowing” other tribesmen’s coveted dinosaurs, getting them summarily killed, and silently logging out. Dinosaurs were no longer given names. They grew to be labeled “So-and-So’s Stego.” Tensions were clearly on the rise. This is one of the major issues with Ark: it takes so long to create anything substantial within the game that once you do so, it’s difficult not to become wildly paranoid that it will all be taken away.
Amidst these growing concerns, Moses nonetheless ruled with a stern but fair hand, and it was not long before our tribe became one of the major nations on the server. We had learned how to play by the game’s rules now, and the results were increasingly terrifying. I’ll never forget standing on a mountain next to Moses, quietly farming for berries and stone.
“Shit, I’m hungry,” he said, his voice completely devoid of passion.
“There’s plenty of food back at base,” I replied.
“I don’t eat food anymore,” he said, before hurling his body off the cliff. “I just kill myself and respawn at the base.”
I felt as if I was witnessing Neo learning to harness the power of the Matrix. And I was scared.
But Throbbin Williams wasn’t. When he finally came for us, he did so in broad daylight, quietly drifting upriver on a floating fortress. While we had been arguing about who took who’s Steel Pike, Throbbin had been building his mobile fortress, biding his time. Watching. Waiting.
We stood on our lookout tower, us few, helpless as Throbbin and his men rode in on sabertooth tigers. It wasn’t long before they had breached the outer wall and then our main door, gaining access to our hard-earned inner-sanctum. As my screen turned to black, my last vision was one of Moses battling an army by himself on a nearby hillside. Noble till the end.
“That’s it. I’m done,” his shaky voice echoed into my headset. Another friend chimed in, “If only there was a way we could play on our own server…”
“Well, you can, but you need a second XBOX to set up a dedicated server,” I lamented. Surely no one of sound mind would purchase a second gaming console just to accomplish this.
The next day a picture of two XBOX’s, side by side, popped up in our group chat. With renewed vigor, Moses explained to us that as an Admin he was going to be able to tweak all the properties of the server. Faster crafting, more forgiving health meters, and most importantly… no Throbbin.
We rushed back into the island immediately. The promise of only artificially-intelligent threats brought with it a sense of freedom and comfort. Although our beginnings were humble, the stakes seemed more negotiable and morale grew high once more.
But something was missing. Without the threat of other players, everyone was free to wander off into the wilderness alone. Sure they would be eaten, but could always respawn in the safety of their beds. Moses began constructing a colossal fortress in the freezing mountains, only gracing us with his presence every so often, flying in on a giant eagle to cast his imperial gaze upon us. He was amassing a vast well of power, both physical and spiritual.
As time went on, we heard less and less from Moses. When he did speak, it was in brief sentences which mostly pertained to his virtual achievements. Occasionally a picture would show up in our group chat of a towering Brontosaurus, complete with a mobile base atop its back. We were impressed, perhaps even jealous, but life had pulled most of us away from the game for one reason or another. The amount of time in between my play sessions became greater and greater, and its grip began to loosen. Late at night as I booted up my XBOX to watch something on Netflix, I would often see Moses in my friends list, “playing Ark: Survival Evolved.”
I often wondered what he was doing in there: a lonely king atop a barren mountain in total control, an army of eagles spread out before him. But a subject-less Kingdom is not worth ruling, lest ye aspire to madness.
Luckily, Elder Scrolls Online went on sale over the Christmas Holiday, allowing Moses to abandon the island for good. But on a clear day, if you climb to the highest peak of Ark‘s massive island, you can still hear the cries of the great eagles and their fearless leader, Moses