The pandemic hits and the entire world seems to go to hell overnight. I go from planning a move out of the US to hiding in my apartment and spraying my packages with alcohol because nobody knows how COVID spreads. A study comes out right after that claims the virus survives on surfaces for weeks and is transmitted through any contact. Later we find out that this "study" is bogus absolute bullshit because the "researchers" literally sprayed enough virus on the surface to represent 100 people sneezing at once, but nobody knew that then.
Things got worse when the government declared that masks and gloves don't help, which turns out to be total bullshit as well. The line they put forward is, "Masks are like condoms. Used correctly they are 100% effective, but you won't use them correctly, so don't bother using them." Yes, because it takes a Ph.D. in medicine to use both masks and condoms. This one fallacy of false equivalence probably resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people all because some idiots wanted to get reelected.
At that time I thought we were completely screwed. The time frame to produce a vaccine is decades and there was no indication that a COVID vaccine would be different. I imagined it could be 4-10 years before a viable vaccine was developed, and with a constant stream of angry morons refusing to wear masks I just didn't see how it would get better. I fully imagined we all were completely screwed, and at 46 years old I was on the cusp of the age where you die or are severely harmed by the virus.
Sitting there on my couch, watching TV, I bought this little game called Windbound for my Nintendo Switch. I had heard the game used a similar art style to Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild but with something called "survival crafting" which I hadn't really experienced before.
You are all alone in Windbound. Left behind by your people, you are stuck in a strange loop that never ends, transitioning from one small ocean world to the next, trying to survive with nothing. You grab grass, then rocks, and kill animals, and then...you die. A pig kills you usually, and you have to start over. I hated that I kept dying. Killed by a pig. Killed by a bull. Killed by nearly everything because I sucked, but I kept trying.
I dive deep into the game, building better boats, getting better armor, making potions and weapons. I get proficient at killing everything, even giant sandworms, and push the limits of the game on the Switch. I can't stop, and eventually buy the PC version to play on my laptop. I get sucked into that version even more. The graphics are better and it plays better, but still I'm dying and I hate it.
I hate being bad at things so I train. I become obsessed with this world and its loneliness. I get better at using the controller, at killing everything I can, and overcome everything it throws at me. I love the crafting and the fighting, so I look around for more.
Someone on Twitter recommends Subnautica to me so I get it. I jump into an escape pod and crash land in an ocean sized crater on a far away planet. Once again I am all alone, gathering resources to craft items to survive and explore this beautiful undersea world. Subnautica is brutal. Nearly, everything can kill me instantly. I'm reminded of H.P. Lovecraft where humans have no chance against the truly evil things of the world and can only hope to avoid the leviathan horrors around them.
I spend my days dodging truly terrible monsters with their own soundtracks like, "Bring a Medkit" and "Fear the Reaper". At first I'm swimming all alone then I build a tiny little submarine called the Seamoth that takes me to more places to follow the story of the world. Everyone else who crashed with me is dead, and I'm left fighting new creatures that teleport me out of my Seamoth to murder me but why?
They're Warpers, and they are charged with finding any creature with Kharaa infections. Kharaa is a bacterial infection that slowly changes the host at the genetic level eventually killing them. Through the story I find out that the planet is a massive quarantine area because Kharaa killed hundreds of billions of people thousands of years ago. I'm stuck here, all alone, fighting to find a cure.
I'm still dying, but it's not so bad.
I'm on a plane with my son Timmy as it crashes into The Forest leaving me alone to fight cannibals and mutants with nothing but an axe I found on the plane. My first night I think the cannibals are afraid of fire so I craft 4 giant fires which only serves to attract all of them to my location where they immediately kill me.
Turns out, cannibals are not afraid of fire at all. They drag my lifeless body through the forest and leave me hanging upside down in a cave. I think I died so I start the game over again and this time I try to build a house right away...on the ground. The cannibals come while I'm cutting down trees, they attack me in a large group, killing me again. They drag me once again to the cave and leave me there dead.
This time, I realize that I'm not dead but the game has given me a second chance and taken me to a location to gather some items. I crawl out of the cave and explore a camp, then run from the cannibals to hide in the forest. I begin to realize that this game lets you "die" once. It makes dying fun by not making simple stupid mistakes cost you entirely.
I learn to fight the excellently rendered mutants, build house boats to stay alive, crawl through caves looking for my Son Timmy, and still dying as usual, but now dying is starting to become not such a big deal.
Part of my training in The Forest involved watching videos of better players. My favorite gamers to watch are Farket, Broadbent, and Kage848. I learned so much about The Forest from them, but I also learned about another game called 7 Days to Die.
Once again I'm all alone, left naked on a road in the middle of a Zombie Apocalypse. I have to pick up stones and wood to craft rudimentary weapons and fight zombies, dogs, vultures, and bears. The first night I reach the trader after dying 3 or 4 times, then it hits 10pm and the zombies become fast. Even though I saw other people play I had no idea how terrifying it was. I hide in the garage of a house, zombies bash their way in and I have to fight them, but somehow I survive.
The rest of the week is a fight to stay alive as I scrounge for possibly better weapons in garbage cans and locked chests. I'm constantly getting stone axes, stone spears, stone everything. Who are these weird people who had a house full of neanderthal stone tools before they died? It'd be much more probable I'd find a cache of AK47 in a prepper's house before I found a stone sledge hammer. I don't think stone sledge hammers have actually ever existed in human history, but 7 Days to Die has them. A lot of them.
I reach the 7th day and that's the day you die. The game's name comes from a genius mechanic where every 7 days there's a "blood moon" that enrages the zombies so they know exactly where you are and come in a massive horde to kill you. You have to build some kind of base to fight them off, and I'm completely at a loss as to how I could do that.
My first horde base was nothing more than a couple of cobblestone pillars attached to a rock. It's the best I could do with what I knew, and it worked for two weeks until Zombies attacked it and broke it, forcing me to run and fight for my life. I didn't die, but I would die many more times during the course of this game. Zombie bears would teleport in and murder me instantly. A room would be booby trapped with 10 zombies blocking you in and no way to survive. Another time I just died because I was teleported to the top of a building trying to enter a trader too early in the morning.
Eventually I get sick of the game's mechanics and start using mods to change it. It's the first time I realize I don't have to put up with the programmer's inability to spawn in bears before you're right next to them. I don't have to put up with the nerfed stone tools they decided would be more fun. There's mods to fix everything, and game styles that make the game enjoyable again. Don't loot. Craft. It is a survival crafting game after all.
Now dying is fun because I reject the premise of the game. I take control of this world that's screwing me over with its stupid stone tools and teleporting bears trying to kill the last survivor.
I need a break from the constant onslaught of Zombies and stumble upon a gorgeous game named Valheim. Its 1990s style graphics with modern rendering technology looks beautifully retro chic. I download it and dive into the world of a dead Viking warrior stuck in a kind of Purgatory expected to prove himself before moving to Valhalla. My task is to defeat a series of increasingly difficult bosses found in increasingly deadly biomes.
The first boss is a training boss, so it's a wimp. Some kind of Electric Deer that tries to shock you to death to a black metal soundtrack that's fitting for a modern anachronistic Viking crafting survival game. I kill the deer easily, and get it's antlers so I can start mining copper and tin to make bronze.
Ohhh mining. The bane of my existence. Every crafting survival game has you either loot, forage, or mine for resources. Valheim focuses almost exclusively on foraging and mining, with the loot being a few gems to sell to a trader who sells you maybe 8 things. You have to cut down so many trees, and hit so many rocks, just to get enough copper and tin to make even basic tools. You need 2 copper and 1 tin to make one piece of bronze, and it's only acquired by smacking a rock, over and over, and over in a monotonous endless job.
You then need to access a series of dungeons called Burial Chambers but be careful, they look exactly like Troll caves and Trolls will mess you up. Even later in the game a Troll can kill you despite your fancy silver sword and shiny silver wolf armor. You scavenge all over the countryside, looking for burial chambers to get a few Surtling cores to make forges and kilns. It is again another grind, and particularly boring if you're stuck in a world like mine where there's none near you.
It takes me 60 hours of game play just to have enough resources to attempt the next boss--The Elder--and of course he kills me. The Elder calls in an army of enemies to kill me 2 or 3 times before I give up and regroup. Trolls, Skeletons, archers, poison spewing shaman, club wielding Greydwarf Brutes, all attack me in addition to the boss and wreck me. I couldn't even stand a chance in my little troll hide armor and level 1 bronze weapons, so I grab my stuff and leave.
I spend the next 10 hours of real time recovering. As I said before, I hate being bad at stuff, but also I don't have to put up with the developer making my life harder. I find a mod that equals out the 2 copper+1 tin==1 bronze bullshit to give me 3 bronze for my work. It's the only ore in the game that is both rare, hard to harvest, and very expensive. I also get a mod to fix the inventory and make crafting a little easier. I'm all alone in a world normally designed for teams of players, so I need all the help I can get.
After all my preparation, I run back to the Elder, ready to brawl. I kill everything in the forest near him while trying to hide from him. I train up in all of my weapons and make the best arrows I can. Finally, I'm ready, run out to where the Elder is at...and he's stuck in the ocean glitched out and easy to beat. I just sit on the shore and snipe him with my bow until he dies then go home. What a let down.
I learn my lesson from this fight, and over prepare for the next boss, Bonemass. I beat Bonemass like it's nothing in under 3 minutes because I prepare everything before I start the fight. I max out all of my armor to top level Iron. I flatten and clear out the ground so nothing can stop me from moving. I kill many Sea Serpents to get their scales and meat for the best shield and food I can get at that time. Then when it comes to the final fight, I smash that giant blob in the face a repeatedly and it's over without much fuss. He couldn't get through my defenses and that was that.
I still die in Valheim, but it's fun because I'm able to grind for the resources to prepare for the next biome and boss. If I die these days it's because I make a stupid mistake, not because I couldn't organize and handle my resource acquisition.
I'm dying, but now it's fun because I'm prepared.
On April 8th I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine. At first I was a tiny bit sick and my arm hurt like I'd been punched. After two days I was 100% and slowly lost interest in these games. I went from obsessively playing for 10+ hours a day to being bored after 1 or 2 hours in the morning. It felt like a pillow had been lifted from my face and I could breathe again, which made me realize what was going on.
These survival crafting games were a coping mechanism for a situation where I was helpless. In the real world I was stuck in my apartment, mostly alone all day, trying to survive a disease that had a good possibility of killing me. Sounds a lot like all of these games doesn't it? A person, all alone in a world full of murderous things, with very little control over the situation. In the games I could change the situation, adapt my environment, get stronger, and beat the invisible hand that was trying to destroy me.
I even went so far as to beat the programmers of the game by installing mods to remove their decisions. 7 Days to Die is only going to give me stone tools? Screw you, I control this world. Installs mod. Valheim wants me to grind up 3 ores to get 1 bronze? Screw you, I control this world. Installs mod.
All joking aside, these games helped me deal with the helplessness of the situation by giving me a similar situation in a fantasy world that I could control. They helped me express these feelings of uselessness, and that's why I don't regret the time I spent in them. When I think of the Pandemic in the coming years I'll have these happy memories of dying from a Sea Monster eating my ship and how it was, sometimes, fun.