Pandemic Game Therapy
Games and tabletop adventures that brought comfort during the COVID-19 pandemic
It is time to say goodbye to 2020. The past 10 months have brought with it a grief that’s impossible to capture. While there is finally light at the end of the tunnel, in no way has it brought an end to this pandemic or its emotional toll.
2020 left my soul heavy with anxiety and grim news, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Hope and comfort came not only through people finding safe ways to connect, but through creative projects and games.
So if you’re feeling untethered, or just burned out from this past year, check out this short list of games that gave me comfort and company, even in the darkest of hours.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
On a little island in the middle of nowhere, my house sits on the cliffside surrounded by flowers. My day is spent watering said flowers, planting trees, saying hi to my neighbors, and crafting furniture for my home. It’s simple, peaceful, and predictable. In this past trainwreck of a year, that’s exactly what I need.
New Horizons allows players to live on an island with animal islanders (most adorable, a few questionable) who want to share their happiness with you. Disappear for weeks and they’ll rush to you when you return, happy you’re back and hoping you’re okay.
You can even bring friends to your island, share resources, and hold gatherings that range from “How to Play D&D” sessions to weddings!
“Animal Crossing takes a different route to connection — players engage in everyday actions (such as arranging their home or gathering fruits) that could even be characterized as meditative.” — Katherine Isbister
For me, I appreciated the sincereness that came through the islanders as you deepen your relationship with them. All of them have different personalities and interests, leaving for unique encounters and fun dialogue. Whoever you form strong bonds with, they’ll always be the one in the forefront when it comes to holding events for you (like your birthday) and sending you encouraging messages.
There are good days and learning moments in this virtual world, where you sometimes act as a mediator or as a confidant. But all in all, there is peacefulness and kindness on the island that is in short supply in the real world.
So if you ever need a place to escape, hop on a plane and make your way to your own island in New Horizons.
At first glance, Hades is a roguelike game with an easy-to-understand plot: Fight your way out of the Underworld as the demigod Zagreus to reach the surface (a place denied to him). Die and reappear back at the beginning.
Brush the dirt and blood off your shoulders and try again.
It sounds like a chore, but it never became one. Each time Zagreus died, the plot thickened. More of the lore behind Hades unfolded, my relationships with gods and the chthonic beings that lived in the Underworld deepened. There were times I even looked forward to failing because it meant I could reach out to Thanatos or check-in with my mentor, Achilles.
However, what truly drew me to Hades was how real Zagreus’ struggle felt despite the mythical backdrop. I would argue that it’s all thanks to writers using elements often found in Greek Tragedies.
Zagreus plays the role of the tragic hero with an impossible goal that is not only prevented by his own pride (thinking he can totally take on ‘Lernie’ his first time), but by an unavoidable death (he will die of natural causes moments after he reaches the surface). The tragedy deepens when he finds that his real mother lives on the surface, a well-guarded secret.
Heck, there are even epic songs sung throughout, another check on the Greek tragedy list.
My heart broke as I watched Zagreus try to squeeze a lifetime of interactions and questions into a single moment with his mother. It’s earnest, desperate, and familiar. Two minutes tick by and the death he’s been trying to keep at bay grabs him. He’s tossed back to the start, but only to get up and fight over and over again. All for those brief moments.
Greek tragedies often explore issues humans grapple with. In Hades, we see these issues in not only Zagreus, but in all the cast members. Unhealthy relationships with other family members, feeling like an outsider, the highs and lows seen in friendships, and the desire to connect with a parent.
For me, I empathize with Zagreus’ fight to see his mother on the surface. I lost my mother abruptly when I was young, and if I was Zagreus, I, too, would go through hell and back to have another moment.
There is a catharsis in the story (which I won’t spoil) and a found family in the Underworld. Zagreus grows as a character throughout his journey, strengthening bonds with those around him.
What’s great about this game is that even when you think you’re finished, you’re not. Keep on fighting through the Underworld and more lore will appear. The promise of further tragedy looms in the form of Demeter and the other Olympian gods. But for now, I’m content racing about the Underworld and spending precious moments with my Underworld family.
Into the Motherlands
2020 brought with it a dismal fall, but every Sunday I had something to look forward to: the next episode of Into the Motherlands.
Into the Mother Lands is a new sci-fi odyssey RPG that aired in October, taking players and audience members to the Planet Musalia. This Twitch-sponsored project features talented POC writers, artists, and cast members who brought a stunning universe and characters to life through storytelling and dice rolls.
The first season focuses on four characters — Invicta, Ikemba, Cyla-919, Ilay — who are new recruits for an organization called TORCH. This organization sends out agents to support other planets and groups all over. The story begins with the characters learning of their new roles, of each other, and an issue revolving around water accessibility on a Haathorei moon.
What I love about Into the Motherlands is that we watch these characters evolve from strangers who must work with each other into friends and allies. It’s natural, earnest, and sometimes messy (how can we forget Cyla-919’s first attempt to bond with Invicta during dinner). With the combination of incredible story opportunities provided by Storyteller Eugenio and acting by the cast, we watch the characters fumble, learn, and grow together.
The phenomenal acting between cast members and nail biting story makes it impossible to turn away from the screen. There have been many times where I found myself shouting in excitement, sitting back in horror (the season finale’s creatures were terrifying), to tearing up during the live sessions.
At its core, Motherlands shares the stories of four incredible characters who not only are trying to help those in need, but better themselves. Watching them overcome obstacles, work together, and find moments of joy even in the darkest of moments left me inspired and hopeful.
I hope you, too, can take a trip to the stars and Into the Motherlands.
Dishonored: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game
So you’re in the middle of a pandemic, the rich are getting richer, and enough is enough. Am I talking about 2020 or Dishonored?
Dishonored: The Roleplaying Game hit the shelves this spring, allowing players to not only navigate the Dishonored universe, but create their own stories. Perhaps you wish to be apart of Daud’s assassins or to be a researcher studying heretical objects. The possibilities are endless.
In 2020, many found TTRPGs moving from the physical table to online venues. With the release of the rulebook, I found new ways to connect with friends and create stories together through a series I’ve always enjoyed.
The rulebook provides thorough background information, unique mechanics that are true to the Dishonored atmosphere, and other helpful resources to get players started. It, also, has led to homemade tools and adventures from the Dishonored community.
I have found incredible joy acting as Game Master. It has become a way to bring those unfamiliar to the Dishonored universe into it and watch those “ah, I know this character” flash across the face of veteran fans.
Being able to watch stories unfold and characters navigate the different spaces across the Isles leaves for memorable moments and that human connection so badly needed in a time like this.
2020 has brought with it incredible strife and grief, which we are still feeling today as we enter this new year. Thanks to the creative minds behind so many games, projects, television shows, and movies, we can escape to fantastical worlds, connect with friends, and continue to look forward to a better tomorrow.
Were there any games that comforted you in 2020 that wasn’t on the list?
Let me know!
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