I no longer know how many times I'd gotten within sight of my goal, only to see it slip out of my grasp. Having carried that key—that blasted key!--all the way from the mines to the final stage of the ice caves, my head would fill with visions of the happy moment in which I'd finally hand it over to the Tunnel Man and earn my reward of a shortcut to the temple, when suddenly, misfortune would befall me yet again. I'd be frozen solid by the icy breath of a mammoth, or get trampled by a yeti, or plummet forever into the bottomless abyss.
Misfortune comes in so many wonderful flavors in Spelunky, and you're left with nothing to show for your almost-victories except the knowledge you take with you. You can choose to feel bitter about coming so close and then losing everything you'd worked so hard for. Or you can choose to take encouragement from it, to recognize that if you got this close this time, next time, you might get a little bit closer still. Next time, you might even succeed.
When I finally completed the key run, it was the night of Friday, January 10th here in Bangkok, and I was less than 12 hours away from doing one of the scariest, most personally momentous things I've ever done. I thought about the lessons that video games have taught me that I've taken with me on my journey through life. The games I grew up with were hard as hell. They were cold and unforgiving, and overcoming their challenges demanded grit and determination. It's often said that games today don't demand as much of us, and by and large, I'd say that's true, but there are still those rare, exceptional games like Spelunky and Dark Souls that teach us that nothing worth having comes easily. They push us to earn each and every little victory, and in doing so, they make each little victory meaningful. As it should be.
Part of the reason I love these games so much is because of the way they mirror our lives. Our lives are full of struggles large and small. Victories and setbacks and failures. And although, if we're lucky, we can take comfort and support from family and friends, in the end, there are some things we just need to face on our own.
We all have our battles and challenges in this life. In my life, many of those challenges have been rooted in the fact that I'm transgender, and my ongoing quest to deal with this is what brought me to Thailand. I'm here to have what's referred to as facial feminization surgery. This was something I decided was an important part of my transition as a transgender woman. One of the biggest triggers of my own feelings of gender dysphoria (the deeply unpleasant sense of disconnection between my internal identity and the gender I was assigned at birth) is my face, specifically those particular aspects of my face that lead people to read it as male. Facial feminization surgery aims to reduce or eliminate those aspects.
In Spelunky, where the world is made anew each time you play, every game is an adventure into the unknown. Life itself is often a journey into the unknown, too, and so it is with me and FFS. Of course, there are before-and-after photos of other women who have undergone these procedures, so I have some idea of what the results might be like. But at the same time, every face is different, and there are limitations. How significant will the changes be for me? When this is over, will strangers consistently see me correctly as a woman, or will my jawline still lead people to put me in the boy box? Only time will tell. I spent the first two days of my time here in Thailand sightseeing, visiting sacred places, meditating, looking for a tranquil place inside myself that could accept whatever the next steps of my journey bring or don't bring.
Right now, I'm recovering from the surgery in my hotel room, my face swollen up like a puffer fish. I'm passing the time with books, and movies, and, of course, games. Heroic quests, mainly: Spelunky, and Final Fantasy VI (Thank you, Vita!), and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. All games that speak to us on some level because, like these games, our own lives are quests. Sometimes we know where those quests will take us and sometimes we don't. Sometimes we know what we're looking for, and sometimes we don't. But we have to keep looking anyway.
On Friday night, when I'd finally completed the key run, I texted a friend to share the news of my long-awaited, hard-earned triumph with him. “What's next? Hell?” he asked, referring to Spelunky's true final stage, a tremendous challenge merely to reach, let alone conquer.
“Next is Olmec!” I replied, referring to the boss of the temple. “Then, eventually, maybe hell. One step at a time, in Spelunky as in life.”