Before we go any further, I must confess: I have found poetry in carnage. My life has become an endless, accelerating stream of strongboxes popping, bodies exploding, weapons clattering to the ground, gems slotting into armor, orbs being consumed for the good of my protagonist, a maudlin, over-muscled brute named Ossau… and I fucking love it.
I know, I know, it shouldn’t be so. The world of Free to Play is, by all accounts, a wasteland of unplayable garbage into which Refined Gamers dare not wander, let alone find something among the rubble that they’re willing to endorse. But there it is. Path of Exile is a damn good game, and it refuses to sully its greatness by allowing players to microtransact their way to victory. The items you can buy with real money are either cosmetic or storage-related, and you know what? I did end up paying 20 bucks to get extra tabs in my stash, but that was mostly because I was enjoying the game so much that I wanted to contribute to its development.
So how can a Diablo clone created by New Zealanders be so damn engrossing that I’m willing to sink over 50 hours (and counting) into it? Well, have a seat and let me tell you about the interconnectedness of all things. In Path of Exile, it is so. Every piece of armor, every ring, every weapon, strongbox, monster, skill, every necklace, gem, orb, even… even me. We are all, without exception, composed of a wide set of variables, all affecting each other, modifying each other, inextricable linked in some specific way. Behold the skill tree:
The result is that everything in the game has value in relation to something else. There is no gold. “Currency” exists in the form of orbs and shards, each of them having the power to enhance or “reroll” other items in some way. Rerolling, in fact, is at the essence of the Path of Exile experience: it is the process by which a set of stats or attributes get fed through a Random Number Generator, changing them permanently. Rerolling is a form of gambling. I love gambling. I love Path of Exile.
But is that where the poetry of the game truly lies? Well, not really. In accordance with the “A”, ARPG’s are all about action, and Path of Exile is no exception: you spend the majority of your time beating, slashing, burning, freezing, lashing, whipping, and crushing an endless stream of things. Now you might be thinking: “Julian, that sounds really, really dumb. Like something only a teenage boy would enjoy.” Shelve your ignorance, oh straw-man of my invention. You have not seen what I’ve seen, heard what I’ve heard, experienced what I’ve experienced.
Behold the haiku of dialogue interrupted, the rhythmic churn of death’s wheel, genocide abstracted, violence and the human psyche stripped to its barest elements, gore as art material, piles of corpses as gothic architecture, repetitive mouse clicks as the gaming equivalent of dancing to hypnotic techno until the sun rises. These are the shapes that have surfaced from the depths in my hours spent playing Path of Exile.
And then there are the holes. Whether it be the dark and ovoid travel portals, the (inevitably blocked) orifices through which one must travel to the next level, or the endless pockmark of “slots” present in most objects in Wraeclast… voids are at the center of the game world, and each of them screams: fill me! Push through me! Burn me open! Step into me that I may erupt gore in tantric waves, each beating in rapid succession upon the shores of your consciousness, stripping your bones to a golden, perfect core!
So that’s what I’ve been doing. Over and over. Because when Path of Exile ends, it starts all over again at a higher difficulty, and one can’t help but wonder what is hiding behind the next door, locked in the next strongbox, or buried deep in the pulp of the next fiend’s innards. Each screen full of monsters is a blank canvas calling for my crimson brush. Me: gamer, gambler, homicidal exile, artist.