The Three Games That Have Left Their Mark on Me During Quarantine
The first game want to talk about today is a game I didn’t have much interest in. I had never played an Animal Crossing game before New Horizons. People play games for a multitude of reasons, whether it’s competition and a challenge, to be immersed in a world, or simply above all because they’re fun. Over the years I realized besides game play, what draws me to the games I play is the story. My favourite games stand up to my favourite books, movies, and shows in terms of narrative. New Horizons is a game that isn’t driven by any story except for the one you choose to make and even then it will mostly be in your head.
For those unfamiliar with the Animal Crossing series, they are games that simulate life. While in New Horizons you do almost have an unchecked amount of power in how you decide to fashion your near blank slate of an island from building rivers and lakes to making cliffs and plateaus and even deciding where every single Villager lives, you are not an all mighty deity. You cannot influence the economy, cannot play with time and the date unless you change the internal clock on your Switch, and cannot choose which visitors you get and when. If it’s 7:52 PM on June 28th in the real world, it is 7:52 PM on June 28th in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. It is a game of slow changes that add up to big changes over time. I’ve played close to 300 hours during quarantine and there’s still so many things I want in order to decorate my island, not to mention hybrid flower colours, and building relationships with my Villagers.
And yet, as much as it might sound like a grind to someone who’s never played it, the world itself is tremendously soothing. There are not many games I have played which I would describe as soothing. Immersive, yes. Gripping, sure. But soothing that is another dimension entirely. Soothing is an island of Villagers who will send you letters and always be willing to talk to you to brighten your day, I don’t think I’ve played a game that has does less to make me smile. Soothing is being able to during the time of a pandemic where I haven’t seen my friends for three months to meet up on each other’s islands for a couple hours before bed with something more to do than just talking on the phone. Truth be told the only reason why I bought New Horizons at the end of April was because my friends kept pressuring me, yes, but I also was seeing the fun they were having and with the level of customization and control to see themselves expressed with what they did with their islands. I’ve had plenty of nights marveling at what friends and even strangers have done with their islands. Every island feels different even if everyone has the same tools and selection of furniture to work with (eventually) but you can see and feel their heart on display.
There are many games that I love and many protagonists and heroes I wish I could be as strong, wise, and sure as. However, there are very few video game worlds that I would actually want to live in if I wasn’t the hero. With Animal Crossing: New Horizons while not perfect is a gaming world that wouldn’t seem so bad because the edges to life are sanded down to fit the palm of your hand and isn’t that why we play games? To have that type of agency over our lives at least for a little while.
Your First Steps
From a game that does not have set end and can played for as long or as little as you like to a game that is designed to be played through in a few hours in one sitting. Journey is a game that came out in 2012 and although I’ve been intrigued by it didn’t get until the Playstation store offered it as a free download in April. I jumped on it right away but did not actually play it for a week or so. I had heard how special it was, had seen reviews and opinions praising it’s depth in it’s simplicity: the controls, art, music, and level design, all elevating each other into a game that is truly something special. I refused to let my first play through be anything casual or unfocused. I wanted to give Journey my full and undivided attention.
I first played Journey a couple of days before I bought New Horizons. It was around 9:30PM and I turned off all the lights and kept my phone in another room. I didn’t know what awaited me but I had an idea I was about to be punched in the heart. I wasn’t wrong but it was so much more than that.
Journey is a simple premise, the title says it all. You start the game and you are dropped in the middle of a desert with fragments of a bygone civilization around you. There is a light in the distance as the sun shines down on you. You climb the first hill you see and you see your destination: a mountain with a giant beam of light in the middle and your journey begins. You can walk, hop, jump, float and glide, and cry out a unique sound to you. That’s it. No fancy power ups besides finding fragments of light on your way that adds to your scarf in order to jump and glide farther. Through this desolate desert you come across your first puzzle to solve and when you solve it you have all the basics you need to get through the game. I won’t spoil the other levels here, except for the final parts of the game, but each level is designed beautifully and with care. They each sing and build on each other when you eventually reach the base of the mountain. Here you find a cold world, one covered in snow, ice, and is bombarded by heavy winds. You continue despite this. You have come too far and yet you do not make it. You collapse seeing the mountain you are trying to climb, so close but so much farther to go.
You start Journey alone and by all accounts it tricks you into thinking it is a solo mission. And yet, despite not being able to communicate through English whether it’s into a headset or an in game keyboard, you will meet fellow travelers on the same journey as you to reach the light at the top of the mountain. The game can be finished solo and you do not need to keep up or wait with the travelers you meet however, each time I’ve come across a stranger in these unfamiliar lands I have tried my best to stay with them. As beautiful and wonderfully designed Journey is on your own, it is more fun to explore it with another person even if all you can say to them is your one unique sound. Even if you decide to go it alone you won’t stop encountering new travelers, a constant reminder that we are never alone on our journeys.
You’ve failed to your reach your destination, game over right? Wrong. The caretakers of the ruin you have come across this game come together and take care of you before you pass. And you realize then, what the game was hinting at all along, the caretakers who revive you now and help you get over the last obstacle, have walked the same paths you have. We are not enveloped by those who have traversed the paths we are discovering for ourselves, we stand on their shoulders, they are with us even if it means it is in our hearts and our memories.
Journey uses sound in a way that no other video game I’ve played. Yes, the soundtrack is gorgeous and probably in my top five favourite video game soundtracks off the top of my head (the others being in particular order: Final Fantasy III/VI, Persona 4: Golden, Chrono Trigger, and I know this is cheating but Super Smash Bros: Ultimate). I don’t know how else to describe the levels other than they each are a distinct song, one that is showcased not only through sound but through sight and touch as well. I’ve been playing games for two decades and there are games that remind me of plenty of other genres and mediums, Journey is the only game that comes to mind that reminds me of an album.
I Am Thou…
My first Persona game was Persona 5 which was released in 2017, I didn’t know anything about the series besides that it was JRPG and at the time was looking for something to cleanse the bad aftertaste that was Mass Effect: Andromeda. Since I was late to the party I had to go to a couple of different places in the city to find myself a physical copy. It was over the top, stylish, and felt so sure of itself from the opening movie onward. I have played through this marathon of a game a few times now and when I saw Royal announced it easily became my most anticipated game of 2020.
Persona 5: The Royal has a lot of things to explain, yes at it’s core it is a turned-based JRPG where you must go through levels solving puzzles, defeating enemies, leveling up and gaining new abilities to get to a boss fight. However, that’s not my favourite part of the game. My favourite parts of Persona is the stuff you do outside of battle and going through the dungeons, it’s running around town and doing everyday things such as hanging out with your friends, going to the gym, studying, running errands, and working part time jobs. This does sound silly but it is necessary because the bonds you forge in your day-to-day life pay dividends when you’re fighting and exploring.
Persona 5: The Royal is a game where you play as a second year Japanese transfer student from a small town to Tokyo. On your first day of school you find an app installed on your phone that allows you to travel into the collective subconscious of society as well as palaces of the distorted and corrupt hearts of vile adults. You go into this shadow world to right the wrongs of the real world. Persona is not a casual nor simple experience. It is a commitment, hell at the beginning of the game you literally sign a contract.
Despite playing through Persona 5 a few times I couldn’t wait to dive into Royal and my anticipation was rewarded, even if I knew for the most part where each character’s story was headed it was nice to spend time with all of my friends again and go through an old and yet new adventure again. During a time when I haven’t been able to see my friends and even though Royal came out near the beginning of quarantine it was nice to hang out with friends in that world when it wasn’t an option to do so in my own life and while JRPGs will never have the mass appeal that something like New Horizons has, it won’t keep me from loving it even if none of my friends have ever heard of it.
The world is breaking and I do hope we find something better and choose something new when this is all over and maybe that’s why Royal’s release feels like something I needed more than the soothing world of New Horizons and the unflinching beauty of Journey because here comes a game that makes you earn almost everything, a game that is about teenagers finding their rebel heart to break the chains of social captivity in order to bring justice to evil adults. And in a time when power seems even more desperate to protect their power instead of people, what else would resonate brighter?
I won’t spoil the story here (if you’re interested in the story I’m currently streaming a play through of Persona 5: The Royal over on Twitch) but know that none of the characters simply just up to their demons and brush them off with ease. They stumble, lose sight of their goals and convictions, and even give into their desires, however, they understand it’s all a part of life and growth isn’t linear and choose what is right and ultimately what direction they want to take their lives. Choose not to shy away from the darkness and the shadow, only by facing it can it not spread any further. So I’ll leave you with this dear reader, a lesson a talking cat has shared with me and hopefully continue to share with me many more times, “The whole world is a product of cognition. It can be freely re-made. The same goes for you, and everyone else. The world will shine brightly as long as you hold hope in your hearts. Remember there’s no such thing as the ‘real’ world. What each person sees and feels, those are what shape reality. This is what gives the world infinite potential.”