I’d always figured that the reason I couldn’t play all the games I wanted to was because of two full-time jobs and, you know, all that life stuff: visiting family, shopping, socialising, eating out, parents’ evenings, and so on, ad nauseam. Well, we can’t do any of that life stuff, at least not right now, but guess what? Turns out I’m still not playing all the games I want to.
Up until this point, I think I’ve been coping quite well with lockdown. I’m already pretty disciplined at working from home, have a comfortable home office already set up, and – thankfully – half-decent WiFi. I have a partner and son I only want to kill about 33 per cent of the time – trust me, that’s pretty low in our house – and it’s afforded us the unintended bonus of spending 24/7 of the last few months with our terminally-ill pup, Wesker (he’s still hanging on in there).
Yet, despite the extra time afforded to me since lockdown, my prohibitively long to-be-played list remains prohibitively long. It’s not that I haven’t been playing games; I’m still on Apex Legends three or four times a week and regularly play games for review purposes. But just like all the other grand plans I had when lockdown first fell – decorating, finishing that book I’ve been writing for a decade, learning to cook, sorting out our rank garden (which we’re fortunate to have, I know) – instead of powering through Horizon Zero Dawn or Breath Of The Wild, I’ve found myself boomeranging to my old favourites as if they’re booty calls with a boyfriend I can’t quite be bothered to break up with.
I gave myself a bit of a hard time about it at first, too. How is it possible to complain that you don’t have enough time to give new games a try when you’re playing Uncharted 4 again, or Share Playing a pal’s first attempt at Dishonored? My brother has burned through about five or six full singleplayer campaigns. Me? I’m fucking about with games I’ve already played countless times before.
It’s not even that these games are particularly wholesome, either. Dishonored is a game about a plague rampaging through the world, disproportionately affecting the poor and needy as an elitist upper class sit idly by, watching it happen (it’s a little on the nose, to be honest). Both Apex and Uncharted offer mindless, needless murder but, while they’re admittedly excellent stress relievers, I’ve already played them to death. So while I could argue that the hour or so each day I spend dashing around ‘YuccaVee’, my Animal Crossing island, is super sugary and wonderful for my mental wellbeing, the others are – at least on paper anyway – very definitely not. And yet these are the games I return to again and again.
They’re familiar places to me. These are backdrops I know as well as my own bedroom, places that I know and love, and have explored with gleeful abandon. I remember their secrets and their shortcuts, the good stuff and the bad. My first visit to the craggy shores of Dishonored’s Dunwall way back in 2012 came in the middle of a personal crisis, and despite its gloomy, grey skies and sick, impoverished people, it was a virtual escape tunnel. A place I could temporarily suspend my own unhappy existence and live someone else’s for a bit. You’d think returning to a game played at such a time would serve only to subliminally remind me of my misery, but, strangely, they’re not grim memories. It reminds me that things were utter shit, yes, but also that those shit times did get better. It reminds me that this too shall pass.
It’s comfort gaming, isn’t it? The equivalent of your nan’s bread and butter pudding. Your mum’s special roast potatoes. Games that, for a myriad of reasons, soothe your soul. And while many games like Animal Crossing offer wholesome and routine busywork, it turns out some comfort games don’t even have to have a particularly calming conceit; they just need to be well-known to you. Whether it’s tearing up the streets of Los Santos, wandering through your blocktastic paradise, or watching Joel make that decision, our favourite games are special because we know them inside out.
That’s why I keep returning to these old favourites. I’m playing these games because they’re well-worn and familiar and right now, nothing else in my world is remotely well-worn or familiar. Everything beyond my console seems impossibly grim and disturbing with no respite in sight, but within it are worlds and characters and places that are predictable to me. This is why I’ve rebounded to second-, third-, fourth-playthroughs; I don’t need the stress of unreliable narrators or unexpected plot twists when the world is already of unreliable narrators and unexpected fucking plot twists right now. I just want to be lost in the relative safety of a virtual world in the hope that when I eventually do return to our own reality, things won’t feel so hopeless.