Between March and September 2020, I left the house exactly three times. Once was to go to the doctors, once to the vets and once to attend a drive-in, socially-distanced open-air concert. Though it might feel like this year has been a leveller like no other, ensuring that everyone has had a unilaterally shitty time, your ability to keep on keeping on will still have been impacted by your own personal circumstances.
Consequently, we’ve all had to cultivate new ways of coping with our strange and alien new normal. For some, it’s involved exercise and regular walks. For others, it’s been listening parties and family quiz nights over Zoom. For me, it’s been gaming. New games, old games, favourite games, great games, shit games – I’ve played more in a year than I ever have before, and I’m pretty sure that without them, I might not have escaped 2020 at all.
So while yes, I only left the house three times in six months, that doesn’t mean I’ve felt cooped up at all. I’ve travelled through Saxon-era England, razing villages and raising hell. I’ve opened up my mechanical wings and soared above the mythical world of Golden Isle. I’ve crept past the undead hordes of a post-apocalyptic Seattle and stomped through the neon-soaked streets of a post-Brexit London. I’ve even had the luxury of my own private tropical island, and when you stand still there and breathe deeply, all you can hear is the wind whistling through the fruit trees and the waves breaking softly on the sand.
If you’d asked me before 2020 if gaming offered escapism, I’d have looked at you funny and said, “Yeah, of course”. Ask me now, though, and you’d better settle in for a long, meandering sermon complete with slides and comfort breaks and a Harvard-referenced bibliography. Games don’t just offer escapism anymore; they’re now a lifeline. They connect us to an infinite number of worlds, and somehow even the terrible ones are at times preferable to our own narrow, grim existence. It’s little wonder 2020 has demonstrated the gaming industry is “resilient in the face of the pandemic” and seen companies like Nintendo triple its profits; for many of us, gaming has been our only means of escape.
I have a number of games in my mental filing cabinet that became crutches at particularly miserable times in my life. Silent Hill 2, as bizarre as it sounds, helped me process the grief of losing a baby. Dishonored offered respite from a messy breakup with a sister-like best friend. Even Candy Crush Saga helped me forget I was briefly jobless and penniless, even if I did have to eventually delete it from my phone after spending money I didn’t have on virtual bloody lollipops. But this year? This year isn’t populated by one or two games that helped me get through it; this year, every game I’ve played has helped me get through it.
But more than that, it’s been a means for me to stay connected with the people I love. My old Destiny clan, which died a slow, lingering death at the start of Destiny 2, is back together and chatting regularly again as a consequence of lockdown. It’s how I keep in touch with my brother and, by proxy, the rest of my family. I don’t know why it’s different for me, but chatting shit over a mic as you jump into Apex Legends’ King’s Canyon feels so much more natural to me than staring at each other over Zoom. Plus the PS5’s new screen-in-screen Share Play –- which now lets you stream your gameplay to an entire party, not just one pal – has had me crying with laughter as we all attempt to beat each other’s time trials in Astro’s Playroom.
There are just a handful of days left in 2020. We’ve still a long way to go until life returns to any semblance of normality, and I know that 2021 will not necessarily be the silver bullet that puts an end to our collective misery. But like most of us who are still scared and grieving, I cannot wait to put this broken, headfuck of a year behind us, and can’t help but wonder how much harder 2020 would’ve been without the connections and companionship of video games.