When what you put in your pack means actual life or death, min-maxing takes on new meaning.
Image courtesy of Nintendo
Note: there are story spoilers for Journey ahead!
I stare at my gear, wondering if I'm prepared. I'm adequately shielded from heat, but worry that I won't counteract the cold. For an hour I search my inventory looking for a weak spot. Do I have the right medical supplies to treat poison, burns, light wounds? Am I leaving enough space?
If this were a game, I'd start the mission and see what happens. At worst, I'd fail and have to re-stock potions or replace equipment. But this isn't a dungeon crawl or tough Pokémon battle, it's a week-long trek in the Everest region. If something breaks or I don't have the right equipment, there's no reloading a save. This 30 pounds of stuff needs to keep my heart beating. I'm carrying my life on my back, and I'm concerned it's too heavy.
For decades gamers have joked about carrying capacity. Doomguy can lug seven guns. In Monkey Island, Guybrush Threepwood hauls an idol and a Ming vase in his back pocket. Even D&D's encumbrance rules are forgiving, to put it mildly. In reality, carrying that much weight—like the 70 lbs US troops wear in Iraq—will literally compress your spine until you're shorter. But as I test the weight in my backpack, I can't help but think about how games did, in some manner, prepare me for this.
I'm carrying my life on my back, and I'm concerned it's too heavy.
When you gear up for a raid or in-game mission, you usually start with surveying the parameters and adjusting your equipment accordingly. Will you be engaging from close-range, or far away? Are you likely to encounter enemies that use fire or ice attacks? When raiding a barrow, take a sword that kills undead. If you're entering a snow area, it's time to bench Froslass and cycle in Charmander. You want to bring enough heals and ammo to stay comfortable, but not so much that you can't cycle equipment. Find balance and never, ever fill your inventory.
These cost-benefit calculations are occupying my mental capacity right now. The Himalayas might not be teeming with enemies, but the mountains are threatening enough. Extreme heat and cold will assault you in turn.
At this time of year, temperatures average 65 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and as low as 16 degrees at night. But temperatures are deceptive. UV radiation increases 10% with every 1,000 meters in altitude you gain, and snow doubles your exposure.
And just like a game, you end up changing armor to min/max defense—stripping layers as the day warms and adding them when the sun gives way to shivering night. It's not exactly the same as switching Pokémon mid-fight, but at heart it still has that elemental RPG sense of rock-paper-scissors. In fact, most of my lost sleep comes from agonizing about the cold. I'm from Hawaii, so I'm no stranger to solar punishment—but sub-freezing temperatures are another thing entirely.
Yet the more layers I pack, the faster I reach my load limit of 33 pounds. That's not only a problem when it comes to carrying it (or the overloading the tiny plane that makes the terrifying cliff-top landing in Lukla) it also means deciding what I want to sacrifice in order to stay warm.
In games, as in life, you will always have strengths and weaknesses. Maybe one skill took a backseat as you were grinding another, or you haven't leveled far enough for the challenge you've taken on. And that manifests in your gear.
I have excellent boots and socks, but should probably have a thick puffy jacket for a mid-layer. Instead I'm having to double up fleeces, taking up more space in my pack. Weakness is often a function of what you can afford—equipment costs money, after all, and leveling it up means racking up the credit card debt. My backpack is old, with several zippers trapped shut by corrosion. As long as it's functional I'm not spending $100 to replace it.
But you will have to replace things eventually. Item durability isn't just a controversial inclusion in Zelda: Breath of the Wild—it's real. My big piece of new gear is a set of trekking poles (get them, especially if you have knee problems). My wife and I bought bottom-of-the-market ones for our first trek, not knowing if we'd ever use them again. By the time we were halfway through our second trek, my wife's poles were falling apart, and mine were too battered to stand up to a third outing. Item replacement is unavoidable in adventure sports because all this stuff keeps you alive.
If you think it's obnoxious in games, wait until a seam rips or tent collapses when it's 40 degrees and raining.
In fact, those conditions led to our worst day of trekking—and our worst gear-related malfunction. We were two hours from Ghorepani, on the Annapurna Circuit, when a thunderstorm caught us. Raindrops thumped on our hoods and ran down the creases of our jackets. Water wormed its chill fingers inside our waterproof layer, straight to the wool shirts we wore as a base. The mercury dropped to the mid-50s. We got clammy and half-ran our way to the next teahouse, if only because moving kept us warm.
Item durability isn't just a controversial inclusion in Zelda: Breath of the Wild—it's real.
But this wasn't gear failure—it was human error. We had done the equivalent of holding onto an item or conserving ammunition for a boss fight, then realizing this was the boss fight. It's my worst gameplay behavior. I'm always saving ammo for an emergency, or high-value heals for when I'm nearly dead. At times it's killed me, but more often I manage to make it to the end of a level, battered and harried, with a key item still unused.
That's what happened here. Both of us had pocket raincoats, but hey, it wasn't really raining that hard, right? No sense blowing that one-use poncho on a drizzle. We didn't pull them on until we were soaked, and by then it was too late. We also forgot to put rain guards on our backpacks, leaving everything inside damp.
Somehow, I think that won't make the montage of Great Moments in Inventory Management.
But if there's one thing I do right, it's take plenty of heals. I pack first-aid kits like I'm vacationing at Omaha Beach. When we finally arrived, soaked, at the teahouse, I had enough cough meds and throat lozenges to fight an epidemic. It's a problem, really. I've never used more than 5% of the kit, so you could argue it's not worth the extra weight.
But when you're days from the nearest hospital, a giant case of triangle bandages and high-dose antibiotics serves a psychological need as much as a physical one. There are real concerns, of course—we have emergency medications in case the altitude starts filling our brains or lungs with fluid—but it's unlikely I'll get to break out my shiny new bandage scissors.
Again, this has always been my MO. Stock up on heals, even to the detriment of attack buffs or enemy debuffs. Given the option, I will always, always choose a health increase as my first character upgrade, and my Pokémon Bag is more lopsided than a two-party election in Georgia. I've been known to leave a trail of minor heals behind me like breadcrumbs, just so I can clear space for new items. Do I need that many? No, but it makes me feel better and I have more fun.
Reading this, you might wonder why I'd "vacation" in a place that could blow up my brain and strangle my lungs; where the water needs iodine and I sleep huddled inside a mummy bag at night. It's a fair question, and we wonder ourselves sometimes. Last night as we were prepping our bags, my wife mentioned that—if we were going to Taipei—we'd be making lists of where to get the best ice cream burritos. Instead we're trying to figure out how we'll keep from getting frostbite.
The reason we do it is very game-like: the call of adventure. Any gamer will understand it. It's the same sense of wonder you feel when you look at the mountains in Breath of the Wild or Skyrim and think: "I'm going there." It's the pride of cresting a tough ridge and knowing you can keep going. Trekking feels more like a project than a vacation. It's grinding toward the next, harder level, then grinding past that.
But mortality, so permanent in this offline world, ads a limiting note. We're going to see Everest, but have too much fear to climb it. The thin air and frigid temperatures of Base Camp put it beyond both capability and desire. We aren't climbers. We don't summit.
Every trek I've been on, I find myself thinking about Journey. Not because trekking is a spiritual pilgrimage, but because of the last scene, where the Journeyman die just short of the mountain summit. The same thing happens on Everest all the time, and peaks are known to close due to extreme danger. A few like Machapuchare, "the Fishtail" are sacred and closed to climbers, while others like Mount Siple in Antarctica are simply too remote.
Like in Journey, climbing a mountain means accepting the possibility of death—and some, the inevitability. To climb takes more than good gear—you need sprit, courage, and a will to risk your own mortal fragility.
That's fine for other people, I suppose, but personally I'm not interested in looking death in the face. Give me a good viewpoint, a cup of cocoa, and the coward's favorite item: binoculars.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp