Gaming through the apocalypse

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The world is ending. A deadly, seemingly incurable disease rages across your hometown, where you’re trapped. Distrust and paranoia are widespread. The government’s corruption has led to inaction and profiteering. The economy is in shambles. This is the cold, unforgiving world of “Pathologic 2,” and maybe it hits a little too close to home right now.

On Sunday, driving down Interstate 580 in an attempt to get out of my house for a brief moment, I noticed that my car was making an unfamiliar thumping noise. After pulling over onto the shoulder of the freeway, I discovered that my tire had been eaten up by concrete and metal. I texted my family and waited for them to bring me a carjack. Standing there, in the middle of nowhere, I took a deep breath. I was caught in between the road, with cars speeding only feet behind me, and miles of open, rolling, green hills. Windmills towered over me. I felt small.

When I did get home, I booted up a new farm on “Stardew Valley.” Driving through the Central Valley instills that get-away-from-everything-and-farm desire in me. At the beginning of the game, the main character’s dying grandpa turns and says, “There will come a day when you feel crushed by the burden of modern life, and your bright spirit will fade before a growing emptiness.”

I don’t like overusing metaphors, but that hit me like a ton of bricks. I had played “Stardew Valley” a few times before, but only now does that quote seem so eerily prescient. Modern life is suffocating. Worse, there is little to nothing that can be done about it. The tools we have for dealing with crises are often insufficient. Some tools work differently for different people. For me, it is video games which work particularly well.

In a world that seems to constantly spiral out of control, video games are one of the greatest artistic tools I have for expressing agency in my own life. When I am frustrated with the incompetency or malevolence of our leadership, I can start up “Civilization” and lead a nation. When I’m confused or lost, “The Witness” gives me a sense of purpose and accomplishment. When “The Witness” makes me feel lonely, I can play “Halo” and be screamed at by people far more experienced at the game than I am. These video games have their ups and downs, but they teach me how to answer questions: when the world around me is nothing but calamity, what will I do? When I am unsure of myself, how do I act?

I remind myself that these are coping mechanisms. It’s escapism. Video games are not reality, no matter how enchanting or real they can seem. And many of them are pure commodity, products to be bought and consumed rather than art to be felt and experienced. Despite this, many can serve to help us process our emotions and understand why we feel the way we do about the world at large. 

The impossible worlds of video games and the self-insertion they demand draw emotional connections I’d never before thought possible. When I was standing under those windmills on I-580, I was reminded of the towering behemoths of “Shadow of the Colossus.” Sure, I felt small on the highway. But I felt even smaller on the hand of Malus, an insignificant fleck in an uncaring world. The ability of video games to amplify emotion is unparalleled. If I’m watching a movie or listening to music, I see other people fighting or laughing or falling in love — other people, through whom I live vicariously. 

In a video game, even though it’s not technically me, it still, in a very odd, very real way, is. The actions and choices are mine. The emotions are undeniably mine. And when I play “Pathologic 2” and see the similarities between the steppe and the place that I call home, I can’t help but feel a connection to Artemy Burakh as he desperately tries to save the world. His actions are my own, even if I’m not explicitly him. 

I beat “Portal 2” for the umpteenth time recently. At the end, a chorus of turrets sings opera as you rise out of the lab in which the main game takes place. You are violently thrust into a golden field of grain, shoved into the brutality of the real world. This part doesn’t always make me cry, but it did this time. Everything seems to be crashing down around my ears. It seems easy to despair. But, with the right tools, I can figure out how to channel my despair. Video games have a tendency to be viewed as childish. Sometimes, maybe they are. But for now, they help me keep sight of what matters most in life. 

I miss my friends. I’m going to see if any of them are playing “Minecraft.”

Contact Crew Bittner at [email protected]. Tweet him at @weakandrewwk.