COVID-19 has completely turned the world’s routine on its head and it’s not slowing down in the near future. Jobs have been displaced, families separated, and an unsettling fear of the unknown has blanketed the minds of millions. Like so many others out there, I’ve turned to gaming as a solace, but it’s not just new games that have kept my mind busy - it’s already-beaten favorites as well but with a new twist.
Being at home with the worry of job security, national unrest, what our leaders are working towards and can they finally agree on something in the name of helping - all of these factors have kick-started my brain into overdrive. My over-analytical mind is now overwhelmed by too many scenarios bouncing in my head, which has predictably sent my anxiety careening into the sun. Because of that, I’ve fallen into older games for a feeling of coming home - a feeling of controlling what my mind intakes, which many have been doing as well. One thing I’ve noticed though is with that brain shift, so did my perception of narrative flow and character development.
I feel like when I’m playing a game, no matter how many times previously beaten, I’m playing it for the first time. A good example that I know people will poke fun of me for is about BioWare. I’ve played through the Mass Effect trilogy 31 times and the Dragon Age franchise 23. Jumping back into games like Dragon Age 2 where the common consensus is that it’s too rushed with a slapstick story, I can’t help but to see the beauty in it. The nuance of a character’s body language, the subtle dips in tone, the carefully placed one-liners that provide an underlying layer of foreboding. This crisis has given me an understanding of the development and the creation process far deeper than ever before, which is a feat now that I’m coming up on 16 years working professionally in this industry.
I’ve previously talked about why there’s so much more to Dragon Age 2 than people might initially see as a first impression but this hyperawareness has taken that opinion and given it a spotlight that has forced me to look at other games, games that I might not have enjoyed myself for the first time around.
Ready for another controversial take and one that I know will be met with “that explains why she liked Dragon Age 2”? The Last of Us. The first time I played The Last of Us, I enjoyed the story and appreciated it for what it was but I didn’t see it as this groundbreaking experience that so many do. The narrative, in some way, has been done before and the mechanics irked me like something fierce. I still don’t think it’s that holy grail of gaming that the community praises it for, and that’s a personal opinion that in no way invalidates other experiences, but I will say diving back into it during this past week I’m noticing, for the first time, the tiniest of details that cumulate a much bigger picture: the directional flow of spores that offers a hidden sense of warning. The pinched lip of characters deep in thought, the gruff way humans protect themselves with emotional armor when they are approaching their breaking point.
With everything on with government intervention, that has also made me pay closer attention to how the authorities in-game managed society. The militant approach to controlling the spread of this illness, the heartless interruption of daily life and existential expression - I saw it as unrealistic and therefore that broke the immersion, but the parallels that are seen now make me appreciate the detail of the car door slamming in the background, the curious NPC hovering at the window’s edge, the progression of Joel as a character as he adapts to the changing climate following his own tragic loss.
"I like sometimes gaming can almost feel like an out of body experience with how much I'm able to take in and perceive and how much that altered perception is changing the very foundation of how I approach narratives."
Games like League of Legends, I’m noticing more about player patterns and the color pallet cohesion that offers a sense of calm aesthetically paired up against the audio stylings designed to get players riled up. Games like Call of Duty with the tiniest of added hitches when reloading. Games like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey with the special way the sun glints off of Kassandra’s nose. Games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons with its lulling music and ASMR-like grass rustling.
Gaming has always been a treasured experience of mine with over 30 years of being a part of this community. As a fiction writer in my off time, that has also allowed me to see a different layer of immersion in games but right now? I feel like sometimes gaming can almost feel like an out of body experience with how much I’m able to take in and perceive and how much that altered perception is changing the very foundation of how I approach narratives.
With the renewed vigor of paying attention to nuance and context, my love and respect for the developers of these adventures have also skyrocketed. I’ve always been an advocate for developers in a community that isn’t always the kindest to them. Their craft is exquisite and the layers of involvement are absolutely mind-boggling in a way I don’t think a lot of casual gamers realize. With this heightened awareness that quarantine brings, my admiration has become almost overwhelming with every little detail in these digital journeys offering a little piece of each dev’s soul and heart to the player to cherish.
Quarantine is hard, what’s going on is difficult, and we are all going to be different when we come out of this on the other side. Some of those changes will be adverse at first while others will be stunningly beautiful. Pay attention to yourself, your reactions, your evolution - you’re going to be just fine.