Olga, Omar & Inge by Jordan Gisselbrecht

You’ve been playing this video game for most your life and started up again a few days ago. You play the game in bed continuously, unable to do anything else, not yet understanding why, the air in your bedroom thickening with the smell of your groin and your unwashed hair because you won’t get up to open a window. That would interrupt your play. Even exigencies like going to the bathroom are put off until the last possible moment, and airing out your room further would invite distraction, dissipate the atmosphere of serious inquiry that you’ve carefully built up over these past few days before you’ve even managed to put your question into words. There is no life outside of contemplating this game. You are standing at the door to the temple.

The game is an open-world RPG with badly aged graphics that are nonetheless still beautiful in the wide shots. It looks like an Alaska with Nordic characteristics: mountains, fjords, alpine meadows, cities made of huge stone blocks, wooden homesteads that dot the taiga. The people here are roughly drawn and slowly pantomime through their labors, wearing the same clothes every day, which feels immersive, given the late-medieval-ish time period, but is almost certainly due to technical limitations. You tolerate the game’s limits, like the lore, a rip-off of Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons which mortified you as a kid and became only slightly less embarrassing with time. The music, however, you love. It is Wagnerian, not just cinematic and old fashioned, but striking, scenic, and motify, with genuine personality and added an ambient-electronic twist. In a word, the game is conservative, which appeals to you in your time of extreme disarray. You can go anywhere in this still-beautiful world and do anything: that is what “open world” means. But almost always you are the same kind of person, a thief, murderer, a mess, scum of the earth, which is how you’re playing the game today.

It’s about noon and you’re walking the outskirts of Snow Blight, a farming town at the edge of the map. You cross a field toward a little cabin where a farmer and his young wife, Olga, live. They aren’t connected to any storylines, but they live off a semi-important road, and you’ve gotten to know them over the years because Olga sits out on the front porch to trade with travelers. There’s something about her, this capable, attractive woman married off to some backwater jerk, waiting each day to see who might come down the road. You walk to the woods behind Olga’s house and wait for night, which causes the game to timelapse, the sun and clouds shooting through the sky, then out come the moons and stars. The sky’s transformation is unsettling; the relentless circling of the fake celestial bodies makes you aware that real time is going by, an entire life, and it is well past midnight. They’ve gone to bed by now.

You let yourself into their cabin. A fire is crackling in a pit in the middle of the room. They’re asleep in their bed on top of their blankets, stiffly on their backs and still wearing their day clothes. You creep around the fire over to Olga’s side of the bed. She’s breathing peacefully. Pleasant music is playing. There’s a small smile on her face because that’s the kind of face that she’s been given, and as you watch her features seem to move in the firelight, as if another face is going to take the place of hers. You stab her, and she lets out a slow, sad moan, then goes limp and ragdolls off the bed. There’s a surprising amount of blood; you must have left the settings on high-blood on accident. You’re soaked in it, blood squishing under your boots as you kneel down to search her pockets for gold and jewelry. When you stand up, her husband is behind you.

“Look at what you’ve done,” he says. The camera has locked onto his face, and his lower jaw has clipped up through his mouth and into his palette, the game having tried and failed to animate a certain expression. Shock? Disgust? He looks like an oral cancer patient missing his bottom jaw, and through his twisted up mouth he tells you to leave. You stab him to death too, one blow to the gut, and an unbelievable torrent of blood pours out onto your feet. A dog is barking. You turn to find an Irish wolfhound by the front door, Daisy, which you kill (no witnesses), and your knife skills level up.

The three of them are crumpled up in eerie shapes on the ground. Sometimes, late at night like this, you fool yourself into thinking that you’re not alone, that the NPCs are alive, not in the way characters in books can seem alive because they’re animated by the engine of your reading mind, but alive externally to you, their movements and routines observed through your senses, wandering the fields, pacing the interior cells of their homes, wearing the same clothes, sharing the same news, true, but nonetheless existing separately from you as an energetic, organized, hypnotic motion that is real beyond dispute, like water rippling beneath streetlights at night. Not that she’s moving now. A hot, intense feeling crashes over you, guilt, you realize, and you groan to drown the inexplicable thing out.

The next morning you’re on your way to Jorkonsvarr, the biggest city nearby. You’ve done this walk many times before and do it again now without thinking, which is the point, to get away from empty Snow Blight with as blank a mind as possible. The road is winding through the sunny meadows of a vast plateau, one of the few very wide-open areas in the game. Normally the landscape here invigorates you, but today you feel exposed and surveilled, like a bug crawling across the floor, though you know that no one is watching you, not in a meaningful way. Up ahead is the central mountain range that splits the world in two. You forget the name, but the mountains are magnificent. The game is at its most compelling in its wide shots, and if you turned around, you would have a good view as well onto the valley that you’re fleeing from, though not Snow Blight. At this distance, Olga’s world has been wiped away from the map.

This place reminds you of a road trip you took last year with Omar across the middle of North America, the land flat and open in every direction as far as you could see, your eyes resting on the horizon for hours, straining for some hill or building to disturb the flatness, and getting so used to searching the distance for anything that the inside of the car got unfocused and blurry, your hands, the wheel, Omar’s lap, both of you sitting around at 80 miles per hour waiting for something more interesting to crawl into frame. Not that you’re trying to reminisce, especially not about Omar, but the walk to Jorkonsvarr is long and the mind will wander.

You stop at a village to buy a horse, thinking that will speed things up. First you sell off what you stole. They’ll buy anything here, the lumpy clothes, her ring, even the dog meat. Then you hand the gold over to the horse guy and he lets you ride off with your new horse, Daisy.

While leaving the village, you spot a woman named Inge coming home from her morning hunt. You had forgotten she lives here. Inge the Huntress is one of the rare NPCs who can travel with you on adventures. Her AI is simple, but it’s nice to have someone along who can break up the silence, say things like “Woah,” make the experience feel shared, or at least interrupt a spiral into rumination. It’s also not lost on you that Inge has basically the same character model as Olga, a surprisingly rare coincidence in a game that, despite its sloppy execution on a technical level, is meticulous in the fine details of its world building.

“Hail,” Inge says. She won’t join your party until you’ve earned her trust, so you deliver a letter for her to one of her boyfriends without the other boyfriend noticing. After you do her this favor, she drops her life in the village to follow you.

“Where you go, I go,” she says, already in her hunting clothes, a short-cut dress made of fur and hide. The two of you continue on to Jorkonsvarr, on foot because Inge doesn’t have a horse. Daisy, so quickly abandoned, wanders along a hill nearby. But things feel right; you are surrounded by new friends. On a whim, you veer off the road to follow Daisy—nothing’s making you go to Jorkonsvarr—picking a few flowers as you go. Inge is a few steps behind, silently pouting as she swishes through the grass. It doesn’t matter to her what you do; Inge’s down for whatever. You’re growing attached to her, you realize, and, getting self-conscious about her clothes, which are ludicrously slutty for a woman who makes her living from poaching in the outback. So you get back on the road to Jorkonsvarr, reenergized with purpose: find better clothes for Inge!

You both reach the city by sunset, still enough time to visit the shops if you hurry. You tell the guard to open the gates. “You’re under arrest for murder,” the guard says.

You’re in a jail cell beneath Jorkonsvarr Castle. There’s a lump of straw in the corner and some bread on the ground near the cell door, which is locked. You’re in rags. All your stuff is gone and so is Inge. The whole dungeon is empty.

You thought you had killed all the witnesses at Olga’s, even the dog, but your crime somehow got reported anyway. Shit happens. The game is glitchy, and usually getting arrested isn’t a big deal. You can pay a fine instead of going to jail, and the fines are cheap, even for murder, often cheap enough to pay with whatever you’ve looted from the bodies. It’s easy on purpose. The game wants to help you live out your fantasies, and crime without punishment is a big part of that for most people.

You, however, are discombobulated and playing like shit, i.e., blowing all your gold on a horse, then immediately abandoning it. Now you’re locked up like the broke, violent, stupid thing that you are, blushing because you’ve become mired once again in this game made for children, a game that you cannot do anything interesting with because of your vacuous, smartphone-poisoned imagination and piss-poor gaming skills. If you were an alcoholic, which you probably are when you’re not playing this game, you’d be the kind of drinker without the vision to go on scary end-of-the-world benders, strange men, ugly dawns, chest infections. No, you would drink and drink and melt into a nostalgic, weepy, constipated little nothing, a dried flower pressed into one of the books you buy but never read because you always end up playing this game instead. Olga wasn’t real! She was a paper cutout, a nobody with the sad little job of making a far-out corner of the fake world feel more lived in, who could perform this duty well enough, but only if you didn’t stop to think about it too hard. But you did stop, and even then, instead of using a few mods to turn her into a sex doll like a more conventional compulsive player (heterosexual) might have, you poured all your guilt and shame into her. She wasn’t real, but here she goes through your mind anyway, getting up early, stretching and yawning as she walks to the doorway of her cabin, squinting in the morning sunshine, her bare feet cold on the dirt floor now that she’s far away from the fire. Outside the farm is still drowsing in the shadows because the sun has yet to clear the mountains, but the clouds up above are all shot through with gold, and the sky is like cream, or does not even have a color yet. Her husband Jakov has already started his day among the grain, his pants dark and wet with dew. Beyond him and the field lies the road, and who knows what might come down it today?

You’ve stopped moving for long enough that the game has entered an idle state, the camera slowly rotating around your character at the edge of the cell. You belong in jail. Were it up to you, you’d die here. But it isn’t and you won’t, and you’re afraid that if you just sit here you’ll fall asleep, wake up, and remember that Omar is gone. So you click the pile of straw and serve your time.

You get out of jail a few months later, all your stuff still gone and dressed in rags. The people hiss at you as they walk by, but you’re free, and for your first act of freedom you go look for Inge. She would have gone home after your arrest to wait for you to rejoin the game, like everyone else.

The walk to her village is long and boring, but you’ve always been a little obsessive and your instincts tell you that Inge has joined Olga at the center of your predicament, the game’s organizing mystery, the reason you must keep playing. You dream about this kind of walking a lot, goal-oriented, mindless, incessant marches through streets and tunnels collected from different cities you’ve lived in. For a long time, you understood these amalgamated cities to be symbols for things like sexual repression, a longing for wholeness—and maybe they are, once intellectualized—but now you think that these cities’ true subject is the walking itself, a walking which forms the spiritual core of this game and games like it, and your life, by virtue of playing these games so much, digging dark tunnels through the back of your mind to facilitate the reenactment of virtual movement. You do this walking in real life too, gone for a whole day to roam the streets for roaming’s sake, looking at buildings without forcing your understanding of them into words, without even organizing the land into a mental map, and coming home exhausted, uncomprehending, unable to explain where you went or why. You’ve never been an easy person to live with.

Inge is on top of a hill near her village, chopping wood in her everyday dress. The sun in the sky behind her is enormous. You touch her so she’ll talk to you.

“Where you go, I go,” she says.

That’s wrong. ‘Where you go, I go’ is her adventuring dialogue, the Q-anon-y thing she says after she’s joined your party as a mercenary. But Inge is clearly still in civilian mode, busy with her chores and not following you. A piece of cordwood appears in her hand and she clumsily sets it on the chopping block, then she swings down her ax and the wood splits into two pieces that vanish before they hit the ground. Another piece of cordwood appears in her hand and she repeats herself.

“Where you go, I go,” Inge sings. She bends over the wood pile, focused on her work. No matter how many times you try, you can’t get her to follow you, or even get gossip about her boyfriends in the village. Your arrest must have somehow caught her in this loop. You draw your knife—a quick knock on the head might reset her dialogue—and press the stab button but, to your horror, the game plays a cut scene: you appear behind Inge, pull her against you, and slit her throat. Blood spurts across the air in sickening pulses, a drop or two landing on the camera lens. She’s still grabbing at her throat when you toss her aside. By the time you’re back in control, she’s dead.

You quit and reload outside Jorkonsvarr jail, all your stuff still gone and wearing only rags. The people hiss at you as they walk by. You pause and turn the settings down to normal-blood, then head back out for Inge.

Some people call resetting the game like this cheating. You wouldn’t use that word. There’s no rule against it. It just slightly stinks of cowardice, the fundamental self-loathing of the kind of person who can’t live with his own choices even in an imaginary world. So you rationalize: you didn’t mean to kill her. That was the game’s fault. And what’s the problem here anyway? Isn’t doubling back and trying something different an important pleasure in these games too? Embracing the full possibilities of a life that cannot be held on just one pass through.

Inge is alive when you reach her village, though this shouldn’t have surprised you. She’s tending her vegetable garden this time.

“Where you go, I go,” she says.

You sigh. Whatever’s wrong with her is beyond your power to fix. You leave her to her weeding, having decided that she’s canonically dead, a ghost here to haunt you if you ever feel like coming back. Before you go, though, you drop at her feet the flowers that you picked in the meadow the other day, on your way to Jorkonsvarr. The game failed to remove the flowers from your inventory after your arrest, as if the glitch was intentional.

The sun is rising. You have retreated deep into the wilderness, deliriously tired, afraid you might end up killing another woman if you stayed close to town, an easy enough mistake to make in this game. You find Omar not long afterwards, camped out on a bluff up in the high country.

Oh, you say, when you see him. It really is Omar, in the flesh, sort of, same round face, short black hair, and soft brown skin. He watches you without a word as you approach him on the ledge.

“Hail, traveler,” he says. His name here is ‘Poacher,’ and his cliff has a terrific view. From here you can see the entire top-left quarter of the map, from the mining town of Lost Rock, directly below, to far away where the seam of the skybox meets the Western Sea. Maybe he’s come up here to look for game, though now he pays the view no mind, busy cleaning a piece of deer hide in his lap, making a sweeping motion down his thigh over and over again. His eyes are on you, not his work, and you touch him so he’ll speak.

“Aye,” he says, that deep voice. You touch him again.

“Hail, traveler,” he says.



Then he says nothing.

Then, unprompted, he says, “There’s no harm in what I’m doing.”

You flinch, but realize he must be talking about the poaching. That’s who he is here, all he does. Then this Omar gets up and wanders a few feet away. He even walks like Omar, purposeful and slightly unsteady, like a drunk or a dancer.

“Dark times are these,” he says.

You tell yourself that he isn’t actually Omar. You’re not the kind of person to make up stories, to supply a fantastical explanation just because an ordinary one isn’t immediately available. You’ve simply gotten things backwards. Omar hasn’t returned to you as the Poacher; the Poacher came to you in real life as Omar. This spot in the game is kind of famous. The view is spectacular and isn’t far from where all new games are loaded into the map, a five-minute walk at most. The main quest brings you down this very trail, in fact, and every time the Poacher will be there, masculine and at ease, encouraging players to linger and enjoy the view. Streamers have picked up on the homoeroticism of the situation, and there are hundreds of videos online of the Poacher getting sexually tortured in various ways. He also appears fairly often in fan-made erotica, usually paired with Bjorn Twice-Pierced, another fan favorite. But you did them all one better and got yourself a real-life version. You just didn’t realize it until right now.

“Aye,” he says.

You kill the Poacher, without really thinking about it. It’s the most meaningful interaction that the game allows. He puts up a fight, but goes down quickly. There’s a moderate amount blood on the grass, some of it yours, and a bit on the camera again too. Your knife skills have leveled up. You drag him toward the cliff to toss him over the side before you start feeling regret. He keeps getting stuck on invisible snags in the level geometry, but you eventually get him to the edge and kick him over. Down Omar goes to the town of Lost Rock, grunting when he hits the ground far below, although he’s already dead. You feel light and vacant, on the cusp of welcoming in something big.


You turn around with your knife still drawn, expecting a guard and ready to die. Instead it’s Inge, back in her fur-lined hunting gear, an arrow ready in her bow. Miraculously, she has snapped out of her bug.

“Where to?” she asks.

“Come along,” you say, your heart swelling, already running down the trail along the bluff. There are many more poachers out here for you both to find. Your day is just getting started.

Jordan Gisselbrecht lives in Baltimore with his boyfriend and cat. His fiction has appeared in PRISM international, New Delta Review, Salt Hill Journal, and elsewhere, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. You can find him on X at @jaygisselbrecht