video games, social distancing, isolation, COVID-19: Doom Eternal, Animal Crossing: New Horizons

These are strange times we’re living in. Cities have ostensibly shut down across the globe, words like “social distancing” and “quarantine” have become a part of our daily vocabulary, and society itself has come to an uneasy standstill during this turbulent moment in history. Sports have ended abruptly, major concerts and conferences have been canceled, and the massive slate of films set to kick off the unofficial start of the summer movie season have by and large been postponed. And so it’s with this in mind, as we weather the storm from inside our homes, that video games have become a more important form of communication, catharsis, and escapism than they ever have before.

It’s strange to think that the necessity for us to stay indoors coincided with one of the most exciting few weeks of video game releases in recent memory. Earlier this month we had Ori and the Will of the Wisps, which took the gorgeous visuals of the original, expanded upon the Metroidvania mechanics, and drew some inspiration from the wonderful Hollow Knight to create an absolutely fantastic sequel. The emotional, Pixar-esque story beats set around your mission to cure the world of a shadowy blight provided countless tender and timely moments.

Just a bit later in the month on March 20, we saw the release of not one, but two remarkable new games that are the absolute polar opposite of each other. And both fill an incredibly unique, important, and much-appreciated role. First off was Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons. This serene time sink of a simulator puts players in a colorful sandbox brimming with charm, allows you to create a schedule filled with very achievable micro-goals, and ultimately lets you feel like you have some modicum of control in the world. The ability to visit your friends’ islands also creates a sense of community and fellowship, the importance of which at this moment can’t be understated. Seeing my Twitter feed light up with folks posting screenshots, trading fruit, visiting each other’s islands, discovering secrets together, and just sharing a sunset over the water in a time when you can’t do that in real life is genuinely heartwarming.

video games, social distancing, isolation, COVID-19: Doom Eternal, Animal Crossing: New Horizons

And at the other end of the spectrum we have Doom Eternal. Like its fantastic predecessor Doom (2016), Eternal provides a raw, cathartic power trip. This series specializes in the ability to place you in a zen-like trance while you shred your way through the demons of Hell. The self-aware nature of the slapstick violence and gore can’t help but put a smile on your face. Sometimes, a bit of ripping and tearing is exactly what’s needed in order to take your mind off things. Plus, the new game is absolutely brimming with secrets, challenges, and a distinct multiplayer mode to occupy a nice chunk of your time.

Switching gears, you might not be able to spend time in person with your real-life pals, but Persona 5 Royal will soon be here to somewhat fill that void. If you’ve ever invested time into the incredible JRPG series, you’ll know that you end up developing a genuine bond with your crew of investigators, detectives, and, in the case of Persona 5, Phantom Thieves. Watching your connection with these folks grow over the course of the school year provides a tangible sense of accomplishment, and the addition of so much new content in Royal makes it worth experiencing even if you’ve already made your way through the original a few years back. The magic of Persona is in those quiet moments when you take the day off from fighting evil and instead wander around Tokyo to, for a short while, live your life as a normal student would. A bit of normalcy sounds nice right about now.

A similar feeling of hanging out with old friends is what we’ll find in Final Fantasy VII Remake. It’s still wild to me that not only does this game exist, but that we’re so close to the first chapter’s release. The recent PlayStation 4 demo gave us all a chance to admire just how gorgeous Square’s recreation of Midgar is, how expansive the battle system — which seems to be pulling elements of Final Fantasy XIII, Kingdom Hearts 3, and the original FFVII together — now is, and just how fleshed out those opening few hours of the original game have become. So many moments from that classic RPG are ingrained in our collective memory, so it’ll be an absolute trip to experience them again in a beautiful 3D world.

video games, social distancing, isolation, COVID-19: Half-Life: Alyx, Final Fantasy VII Remake, Ori and the Will of the Wisps

And while we’re on the topic of video games we’ve been waiting quite some time for, it’s also surreal to think that the next chapter in the Half-Life saga is not only here, but somehow lives up to the extremely high bar set by its predecessors. Half-Life: Alyx seems to be the “killer app” VR as a whole has been striving towards, setting a new standard for the platform. The level of detail, interactivity, and world-building on display rivals anything else we’ve seen. And what screams “escapism” more than strapping on a headset, being transported to a completely different world, and smashing a few headcrabs?

If smaller games are more your speed, a slew of original indies have come out in the past year that are well worth tracking down and experiencing. The nautical mystery Return of the Obra Dinn, the mind-bending language puzzler Baba Is You, the space-faring time loop Outer Wilds, and the effervescent music-video-come-to-life Sayonara Wild Hearts all do things in their respective genres that I’ve never seen done before. They all exude such wonderful amounts of passion and creativity that it makes you want to go and create something of your own. And then there’s Kind Words, an atmospheric experience built around sending and replying to short, anonymous messages that has proven to be a source of pure goodness in a time where that’s much needed.

A few months back, no one could’ve imagined what 2020 had in store for us. It’s strange to look back at my time last November playing through Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, not knowing that its themes of isolation, invisible enemies, and a desperate desire for human connection would be so prescient, but here we are. In the midst of extremely uncertain times, video games have once again proven to be a tool to entertain, embolden, teach, and bring us together, and there’s no greater compliment I can give the medium than that.

Marty Sliva
Marty Sliva has been writing about video games, popular culture, and the 1995 film Babe professionally for the past decade. You can follow him on Twitter @McBiggitty.

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