On a crisp April morning a little over four months ago, I packed up all my possessions in a few boxes and bags in a Ford Taurus. I then drove over fifteen hours north to Boston, Massachusetts with little more than a reservation at an Airbnb waiting for me once I got there.
As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” For me, that step was out the painted, red door of my parents’ home to embrace the insanity of the Northeast.
For our protagonist in West of Loathing that one step is out the shakily-drawn door of their parents’ home towards the wacky, sometimes unbelievable planes of places like “Fort Unnecessary” and “Roy Bean’s House” in a mission to head West.
West … of Loathing.
West of Loathing is a hilarious stick-person RPG created by studio team Asymmetric, who have run their free, web-based stick-figure RPG Kingdom of Loathing, for nearly a decade. WoL takes the best bits of KoL and pinpoints the focus, replacing the open-world adventuring with a more personal experience set on a squiggly-lined path. It’s executed in classic RPG style—walk, dialogue box, dialogue box, walk, pick up something, dialogue box, dialogue box—and the one-two-punch of cleverly-written jokes and biting wit will bring a chuckle to even the most dour of gamers.
But beyond the invisible horses, cowboy roadkill photographers, and a man dressed as a cactus who just wants to read his newspaper in peace, I found a rather true-to-life re-telling of someone on an adventure to find their place in this often out-of-place world.
What I adore about this game is that it seems simple enough—you wake up, leave your bedroom, say your “goodbyes,” and climb onto the back of a hay cart to find your fortune in the West. You want to be a star, after all, and you’ll never get the chance if you stay in Loathing under Mom and Pop’s roof.
What develops from here is quite extraordinary. You don’t encounter a wizard who gives you an epic quest to find an enchanter. No dragons swoop out of the sky. There are no armies needing your guidance.
You meet people.
Some of these people are extremely nice and helpful while others—all you can do is buy them a flower or find something they need, then hope for the best. Like in any RPG, you attain quests. But these aren’t typical quests. You have to find the mayor’s missing soap. You have to find a sauce recipe for Doug in the kitchen because he’s invented a new culinary masterpiece: The Hot Doug (later to be changed to The Hot Dog due to copyright issues, of course). You have to buy a horse only to find out later that it has severe anxiety issues.
While funny and clever, I find this very similar to my own experience traveling through places unknown. I may never need to find a mayor’s missing soap, but things do get wacky. Sometimes people don’t talk to me. Sometimes the only things I’ve accomplished for the day are applying for a lumber permit or clearing a rock pile.
What I find refreshing is that West of Loathing never focuses on the character’s destination beyond those first few moments in the game. In fact, as I was playing, I found myself caring less about going “West” and more about how I would get the closed-mouth girl at the bar, with the two pea shooters strapped to her hips, to finally talk to me. Or about finding the missing jail cell door that was apparently taken by goblins to “Cavern Canyon.” Or about helping a townsperson discover his passion for being a DJ.
The game becomes less about finding your own fortune (which is measured in meat, of course) and oddly transforms into a silly adventure about helping others despite your own wants or needs. It makes the player forget where they’re going and to instead welcome the insanity of now. It never takes itself too seriously—which, I think, is a lesson we all need to learn about ourselves. Not to mention that it’s hard to take yourself seriously when you’re shoveling horse manure for experience points.
Another nice feature is that West of Loathing manages to have sharp wit and sarcasm without cutting into its’ players or poking fun at the world they live in. You’ll find yourself smiling with every mouse click as Asymmetric has sprinkled their trademark humor into every aspect of the players’ journey. And with over eleven hours of glorious stick-figure gameplay, it’s quite a journey, indeed. Its a journey that starts as soon as you point your character outside their comfort zone, hop onto the back of a hay cart, and let the road carry you where it may.
Whether that road be be leading you away from West Virginia or away from Loathing, West of Loathing teaches us that it’s not the destination that’s important, but all of the goblins, six shooters, anxiety-ridden horses, cowboy clown circuses, and crates of dynamite that lie in between.