The kids are lost in the forest again. This is not news. Fourteen years.... Fourteen years I've been heading into the forest to save the children.
It feels like so much longer. For me, it has been. One more "year" and I can "retire."
"Retire" here is a bit of a misnomer. Sure, everyone talks about it as "retirement," but I can see the quotes hanging in the air when they speak of it. Retirement means death.
Next year, I will die.
"Year" is similarly misleading. You see, I found this shrine in the forest. It promised to bring me back to life if I failed to save the children... if I died before I completed my task. It's brought my tired bones back to life time and time again, and each time I head back to the forest, and each time I die.
The shrine takes from me. It takes my belongings. It takes my awards. Some were given to me in recognition for my accomplishments, and others were gifts from my acquaintances.
The townsfolk love me. Some of them do, anyway. I have two wives and one husband. They live in my house. I bring them the things I find in the forest, along with whatever payment I get for saving the children. They give me those gifts in return.
One of my wives desperately wants children. I don't know if I'm incapable of having any, if she is, or if it's something else... I don't even know if I'm male or female. I suppose that's a problem.
Not knowing your gender kind of kills the idea of having kids.
Would I even want them? My job is saving lost children in the woods. There are no children in the village. Are they all lost? Constant reminders in the forest and the village taunt me, though.
Is my life complete without children?
I don't speak to my family anymore between trips to the forest. One of my wives is jealous of my friendship to another man. Oddly enough she's fine being one of three spouses, but this friendship is too much for her. If I speak to her, she'll divorce me. Instead of opening that wound again, I try to remember the day she convinced me to remove my hood.
My other spouses... I lost their gifts. The price for bringing me back, remember?
I can't bear to speak to them now.
Now I'm in the forest again. Perhaps this time I'll finish. Things aren't looking good. I made a mistake, now an angry spirit of darkness wants my blood. I could nullify it, if I had the right tools. I don't. I'm dead again. I'm buried.
This time, it's an angry, mutated rabbit. I mistakenly imbued a rabbit with a fire spirit, making it hate my very existence. It plucks me up and throws me deep into the forest. I'm lost, along with the children I'm supposed to rescue. I don't make it home.
I can do better.
Now I've found a child, but she's scared and can't walk. I'm trying to get her to safety, but a mischievous wisp steals her away from me and moves her deep into some dark corner of the forest. I'm too tired to continue. Dead again.
Baba Yaga plagues me next. She takes the children and cooks them. I don't know if their end is worse than the spiders, who wrap the still-living children in silk before consuming them whole. When you've died and witnessed death as many times as I have, sometimes you lose perspective on the grisliness of the act itself. Whatever the reason for their demise, they're beyond my ability to save them. The mayor is not pleased.
There are seven missing children this time. The mayor won't let me come home until I've saved at least half. Every time we go to the woods, he reminds me - one year I didn't save enough. My own survival was more important that time. I didn't have a shrine to keep me alive. What happens if I give up a second time? Death. Did he kill me? Did he refuse to return me to the village?
Does it matter?
Seven children again. This time I'm lucky. One is standing near his mother, although not so near that the mother notices. Earlier in my career I might scoff at this - how can you stand so close to your children, searching for them, and not find them? Now I recognize that her ignorance is my luck.
Deep in the woods, I come across a hunter. He doesn't believe in saving the children. Getting lost "builds character." I wish I could pass this responsibility to others like that.
I've found four of the seven - that's more than half. The mayor asks if I want to give up now.
I blurt "Yes" before he finishes. The other three lost children can "build character." They'll probably die. I've done the cost-benefit and determined that... I don't care. I want my "retirement" now.
I've "retired." The villagers bury me. One of my spouses, the husband, cries at my grave. I'm told I found love, got married, and lived "the best possible life." Perhaps now I can find my rest.
After just a moment's peace, though, everything begins again. I'm attacked and lose consciousness. I find the staff. I'm back on the boat. The boatman hopes I'll be better than the last one as we cross the river.
...that was me. I lived "the best possible life." I don't know that I can do better than that. I don't want this staff; I don't want this job.
I see the boatman for who he is - Charon, ferrying me across the river Styx. There is no happy ending coming. My story is already over. This is simply my penance for a past life I cannot remember.
Perhaps I have a choice.
What happens if I stop?
(Cult of the Fiver is my monthly series on great games that can be had for cheap. Want to stay on top of all our recommendations? We have a Steam Curation Page! In Pre-Cult articles, I collect my thoughts about a game I plan to feature in this month's entry.)