Video games got me through the pandemic’s first year

Good lord, it’s really been a year hasn’t it. A whole year has gone by since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Relatedly, this post is going up on the one-year anniversary of when I began working from home. It’s a bleak anniversary, but it’s not enough to make me go back on my promise to fight against doomscrolling. I’m covering this one the happy way, by highlighting the video games that have helped make the past year ever so slightly less horrible for me.

A theme you’ll notice is that these video games came out long before 2020. I got through a lot of my backlog thanks to the free time that comes from not having to commute to work (and later not having to work at all). I doubt I would have played most of these games had 2020 and 2021 been normal years. So, here’s a look at the video games getting me through the pandemic.

That said, I have already talked about playing Nier: Automata and 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim in a previous post, so I won’t be covering them again here. Both are excellent though, and I highly recommend them. Here’s what else I’ve been enjoying.

Pokémon Go

For those of you who slept through 2016, Pokémon Go is an augmented-reality mobile game that lets you catch Pokémon in the app while walking around in real life. I didn’t start playing it during the pandemic, but I did significantly increase how often I fired it up. I realized last March I needed something to spice up my daily walks. Pokémon Go was the obvious choice.

Since lockdowns began, Pokémon Go’s developers, Niantic, have implemented a ton of new features and quality-of-life improvements to make the game more enjoyable, and to work better in an era of physical distancing. You can now be much farther away from Pokéstops and Gyms when interacting with them, and you can even do raid battles remotely. Raids are events where multiple trainers take on a strong Pokémon at a gym, usually a strongly social activity. Last March, I figured I wouldn’t get to do another raid for months, but I’ve ended up completing far more in the past year than I did in all my time playing pre-pandemic because of the convenience of remote raids.

Niantic also introduced a new type of egg, introduced more Pokémon, and held events that keep the game feeling fresh. It’s weird to think back on what Pokémon Go was like a year ago. I hope they never roll back some of the pandemic-related changes they’ve made. I think those changes led to a stronger product.

Verdict: If you haven’t played this game since 2016, you’re going to be blown away. I strongly recommend playing to fill short bursts of free time or to augment your daily walks.

Zero Escape: The Nonary Games

I have no idea how I managed to avoid playing Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors back in 2010 when it came out. Back then I gamed mostly on a Nintendo DS, and weird visual novel puzzle games like this were my jam. I knew about the game and everything, but I just never picked it up. A decade later, it went on sale on the Playstation Store as part of a collection with its sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward, so I finally checked it out.

The premise of both games is that you’ve been drugged and taken to a bizarre facility to play something called the Nonary Game, which is being led by a mysterious entity called Zero. Essentially, you and a bunch of strangers must play escape room games while your life is on the line. Nice and light content, you know, to keep your mind off the world outside. Oh, and in the second one there is a pandemic going on outside! One of the pieces of evidence you find tries to impress upon you the seriousness of the situation by mentioning that 100,000 people had caught the disease. How cute! In late May and early June when I played these games, there were roughly that many cases of COVID-19 being reported globally each day.

Despite the bleak setting, these games were incredibly engaging and fun. I found the puzzles challenging but well designed and I enjoyed navigating the branching storylines. A nice feature of playing decade-old video games is that if you’re ever stuck on something, there are hundreds of guides online offering advice. But when playing these games, I often found myself grabbing a pen and paper to work out puzzles. Those scraps of paper must have been an interesting sight for anyone going through my recycling bin.

The games’ story is an interesting take on science fiction, more in line with a lot of contemporary literary sci-fi than the traditional space-western or intergalactic-war styles that dominate the genre in popular culture. It’s not immediately apparent you’re in a near-future setting, and the game does a great job of blending reality into the fiction to add legitimacy to what’s happening. I will warn you though, the story goes off the rails in the second game.

Verdict: If you love escape rooms or solving puzzles, you’ll love these video games.

Persona 5

Persona 5 is a JRPG that ditches the usual high-fantasy or sci-fi setting in favour of the present-day. You play as a high school student who gets put on probation after an altercation with a creepy drunk guy who was harassing a woman. Naturally, you and your scrappy group of friends gain access to a place called the “Metaverse,” where you must storm the “palaces” of deeply corrupted people. You know, normal high school stuff.

I definitely would not have played Persona 5 if I had not been in lock down. The game is well over 100 hours long, and I was intimidated. My thinking pre-COVID was I would likely get 80-90 hours in before abandoning it for something else. It’s never a good feeling to leave a game on read like that. Instead I just pretended it wasn’t there (like what I do with texts and emails I don’t want to answer). But once we were all placed under house arrest, I figured I finally had the time on my hands to ensure I played the whole thing.

What I was not expecting was how gripping the story would be. In hindsight, I doubt I would have abandoned P5 even if I had played it before 2020. Your squad is full of a bunch of goofy, lovable misfits, and the corrupted people you must defeat are all despicable. Your connections to your crew and desire to see the enemy punished gives you a reason to keep going. But what I loved most were the social sim elements. Maybe that’s related to the whole lock down thing. Either way, I love any game where you can build relationships with the non-playable characters. You learn so much about each person’s backstory, which deepens the world. I guess I appreciated the escapism.

The more I write about P5 the more I wonder whether it was more of a coping mechanism than I thought.

Verdict: Yeah it’s long, but life isn’t going back to normal any time soon. You have time to play it. Though you should probably play the expanded P5 Royal version rather than the original like I did.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Look, the game’s fantastic, but I need to complain about gatekeeping for a second. No series underscores the senselessness of this behaviour better than Fire Emblem. When I was in high school, I was the only person I knew who played Fire Emblem games. It was awful. I explored a deep, rich world filled with dozens of characters, but I had no one to talk to about it. Instead, I had to treat everything as my own private adventure, despite a desperate yearning to share it with someone else. It was an incredible contrast when I finally played Fire Emblem: Three Houses a year after its release and my friends were still posting fan art and discussing the characters online. (In fact, they still are.)

And yet, today there are still sad, pathetic nerds who would try to stop people from enjoying their hobby. I guess because they don’t want it to go mainstream. Fire Emblem is as close to mainstream as a game like it can get and it makes the experience significantly more enjoyable. There is a community now, and its members engage with the characters in ways I would never think of on my own, they create fan art I could never create, and they do cosplays that make my jaw drop. This is what I craved when I was playing the games alone in my parents’ basement 15 years ago. I’m so glad that today people see the beauty in these weird anime chess life sim games.

Of course, people who gatekeep are often motivated by racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, which tells you everything you need to know about them. If you do this, re-examine your choices immediately. You are capable of changing yourself for the better, so do it and stop being a terrible human.

As for the game, weird anime chess life sim sums it up. You’re a new professor at a military school for elites and you get to teach one of the three houses, hence the title. Each house is based on a nation from which its students originate. You spend time interacting with students, defending territory from bandits, and playing war games with the other houses. Until things go awry anyway.

The life sim elements are the best I’ve seen in a Fire Emblem game, and I loved the characters. Each one felt fleshed out, with real passions, motivations, and flaws. The battles are as good as they are in any other Fire Emblem. They take place on a map with a grid, like a chess board but much larger. You move your characters around and battle enemy units until you complete your objective (such as defeating all enemy units). Also, you can interact with the cats and dogs who roam the school.

Verdict: This is one of my favourites in the franchise. It’s a great starting point if you’ve never played a Fire Emblem game or a strategy-based RPG.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I have no idea how I managed to not play Breath of the Wild until 2020, but I’m glad I didn’t. This is an open-world adventure unlike any other in the Legend of Zelda franchise. I probably don’t need to explain much, since it is by far the best-selling Zelda game. Chances are good you’ve played it.

I probably also don’t need to explain why a game that lets you go anywhere and do just about anything (except climb in the rain) was especially enjoyable during a year where I was forced to spend most of my time at home. While playing, I got to (vicariously) go on adventures, with no fear of catching a deadly virus. I experienced a freedom that was sorely missing from my real life.

Then I accidentally triggered the final boss battle and I was back to everyday life. A friend told me it’s common to accidentally start this fight while exploring Hyrule castle, but I can’t find any reporting on it. Which is weird, because people love writing about BotW. I still see new articles popping up constantly. I suppose that’s because everyone is hyped for the forthcoming sequel, but it also seems likely that this game is going to go down in history as one of the top Zelda games.

Verdict: I would be surprised if you haven’t played this game. It’s as good as everyone says it is, so play it!

Danganronpa 1.2 Reload (the first two Danganronpa video games)

Finally, games that take place in a world I don’t want to live in. Both Danganronpa games feature an ensemble cast of more than a dozen ultra-talented students who get locked in a prestigious high school. You play as the one normal kid who got in via lottery. The way to get out is simple: murder a classmate, then have the survivors convict someone else. The sadistic bear robot that is apparently running the school will then kill every one of them and let you go. However, if they figure out it was you, the bear will theatrically kill you instead.

The games are basically Ace Attorney meets the Joker. They are visual novels that let you interact with your classmates, investigate murders, and then take part in trials where literally everyone’s life is on the line. So not really the most relaxing way to spend your time.

Still, I love investigation-style visual novels, so I was hooked despite the grim subject matter. Both games try to lighten the mood with some poorly aged crass humour. In other words, even the funny parts are somewhat shocking. Sometimes you just need to embrace darkness, you know? It’s probably going to be a surprise to no one that I played these games toward the end of 2020, post-layoff, when the sun was only out a few hours a day and life was feeling particularly bleak.

There is a third game, and I’m looking to play that shortly. Though I’ll be honest, these aren’t games you can go into without a little mental preparation.

Verdict: If “Ace Attorney meets the Joker” isn’t selling it for you, nothing will.

Video Games by Lana Del Rey has been stuck in my head since I started writing

So what have we learned?

  1. Video games that let you explore rich, expansive worlds are particularly enjoyable during a pandemic.
  2. Social sim games offer similarly rewarding gameplay in this era.
  3. I am a massive nerd who prefers video games with as little actual gameplay as possible.
  4. Danganronpa is basically just reskinned Joker fanfiction (like how Fifty Shades of Grey was just Twilight fanfiction before the author changed the names).

What video games have you played during the pandemic? Or are you someone who has turned to other media, such as TV or books? Let me know on Twitter or in the comments.

Next week I’ll be talking about how my bookshelf and I have been getting along during the pandemic. The art I have in mind for it is a take on the classic “why can’t I hold all these limes” meme, except with me holding all these books I haven’t read despite nearly limitless free time. It’s going to be a fun one.

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