When someone asks me what I did during those three long months at home, I can honestly reply I worked and played video games. Many of my gamer friends did the same, and as many of us rushed to buy the Nintendo Switch console, I realized that although our specific interests varied, every one of my friends at some point in time has played with either Animal Crossing New Horizons and/or Hades.
After working from home for a month I was furloughed in late April 2020. In March I had already experienced a sudden increase in my free time, but April left me listless. As spring blossomed outside of my windows, I was forced to stay home with nothing much to do.
2020 was a great year for the video game industry. According to IDC data the global revenue for the industry is expected to increase by 20% next year. As more and more people across the world were forced to stay at home, their behavior changed accordingly. Online games saw a surge in players connecting with each other, and as early as March 2020 there were already reports on live video game streaming views increasing dramatically.
One of the most purchased video games in 2020, with the record 5 million digital copies downloaded in the first month alone, was Animal Crossing New Horizons. In the latest instalment of the 20-year-old series, the player lands on an abandoned island to seek refuge from the modern world. With assistance from Tom Nook, the player becomes responsible for decorating the island and inviting more villagers to move there. The game by itself does not have a finish line: ending credits roll once you invited the maximum amount of villagers and contributed to all the main buildings. However, the adventure on Animal Crossing continues.
This kind of concept in games has always been quite popular – think of the indie game Stardew Valley, or the less recent Harvest Moon. This type of chill and relaxing adventures into farming, or gathering resources, has been known as a “cozy gaming” trend, which has been a rising trend in the industry in the latest years.
Other than decorating the island with flowers and cute paths, the player can donate to the museum’s collection of fish, insects and fossils (among others), and gather special pieces of furniture or clothes. In other words, there is no real conclusion to the game, and this was perfect for a lockdown period with no known ending. Many of my friends have gone on playing for hundreds of hours, and deciding to then restart the game from scratch. The possibilities are truly endless, and it’s up to each player to decorate their island as they please.
When I bought my Switch, I was coming from a stressful month of working from home. Animal Crossing gave me a welcome reprieve from my own reality. In a sense, it was almost as if I could regain some sort of control over my own reality too. In a world that was so quickly spiraling into chaos and confusion and unrest, Animal Crossing gave me a peaceful corner where I could create order as I saw fit. Not only that.
Since its beginnings the series’ focus was about making friends with your local townsfolk, gifting them small objects and receiving in return nice presents and funny conversations. Another very important reason why Animal Crossing New Horizons was so popular was that it allowed for players interactions: some players organized parties and dates on their own islands, hosting others coming from all around the world. It gave me the chance to meet virtually with my friends and have fun with them. The game relies heavily on interaction between players, and in May I even joined a Discord channel to exchange receipts and objects with people from all over the world.
At the height of pandemic restrictions, when human interaction was so far from my everyday life, Animal Crossing was a perfect virtual place to meet others, and maintain social relationships.
Then summer came and, with it, a sense of relaxation. Restrictions were finally being eased, and everyone expected to slowly come back to what was life pre-Covid. Instead, as the second wave hit in autumn, we had to face the reality that the current situation was not going to be resolved so quickly. I decided to leave my job in summer, and after enjoying a relatively happy summer, having to return to restrictions almost as hard as the ones in spring was frustrating to say the least.
In September 2020, as I was scrambling to find a new workplace amidst the pandemic restrictions, a new game was released. Hades, an indie video game produced by Supergiant, hit 700,000 views in the first month since its release. Nominated for Game of the Year 2020, it actually won the Dice Game of the Year 2021 award.
Hades is a very particular game on its own. The story sees Zagreus, the son of Hades, attempt to escape the underworld. The player, acting as Zagreus, guides him again and again through his exploration of the different areas of the netherworld.
The mechanics of the game see the player attempt to beat four dungeons in a roguelike style of play. When inevitably the player ends the run via game over, Zagreus is transported back at home and loses almost all temporary boons and power-ups. The plot actually foresees the game over, and takes it into consideration for unlocking future events. You are expected to fail a number of times. As long as you keep making attempt after attempt, you will eventually get the gist of the game and escape successfully.
This indie roguelike game where Death plays such a main role really hit the nail on its head with its release date coinciding with pent-up frustration about the state of the world getting out of control. As small and big businesses were being affected by the long-standing restrictions with no close end in sight and riots erupted almost everywhere, the pent-up frustration and desire to escape this loop were perfectly echoed in Hades.
Hades gave me a completely different kind of support. While Animal Crossing was a peaceful corner of a virtual reality over which I still had some control, Hades was unpredictable and threw different obstacles in my way each time. If in March I was somehow trying to escape the reality I found myself in, by September I had had a long time to accept what was happening. I was no longer looking for another haven. Instead, I spent my weekends playing into the night as Zagreus.
The comfort of knowing that a game over was not the end, mixed with the stress release that fighting games have always brought me was the perfect mix in a video game. I related to Zagreus in that we both wanted to flee from a world that was a bit too narrow for us, and attempt after attempt I was able to follow him in his escape.
2020 was such a complicated year for many of us. Personally, playing with Animal Crossing New Horizons and Hades gave me a special perspective into my current situation. As I saw many of my friends around me go through the same coping process, and switching from one game to the other, I started thinking how these two games could sum perfectly what I went through emotionally during this year.
A year later, as we face the third wave of Covid, I realise now how much have things changed around me in such a short span of time. I have since moved on to different games, all entertaining in their own way. And, as much as I like them, none will quite compare with the way Animal Crossing and Hades helped me cope in these hard times, and I’ll always be thankful for that.
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