How The Past Year Got Me Thinking Of Post Apocalyptic Games In A New Light

Illustration for article titled How The Past Year Got Me Thinking Of Post Apocalyptic Games In A New Light
Screenshot: Naughty Dog

Almost every day, I go for a walk with my kid. She’s just over two. There’s a strange serenity in the isolation of entire city blocks when there’s so few people out and about. In the first few months of the pandemic, it felt like we were walking through an abandoned city. I’ve lived in my neighborhood for over five years, but never really explored it. There’s many buildings I’ve passed by for years without taking a look. We got to know them a lot better. Parking lots, corporate offices, a hollow building that was supposed to be a market, and favorite restaurants that had fallen victim to the prolonged shutdown. Whereas before, running into people was part of the fun and joy of going outside, now, we had to be careful. Whenever we did run into people, they mostly wore masks and all I could see were their eyes. I’ve been surprised how expressive people can be with squints, cheek crunches against their masks, and raised brows. I also became acutely aware of the sound of coughing. More than once, I heard strong coughs from people without masks and swerved away.

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I felt a sense of familiarity in what was happening, not from anything I’d experienced in real life. But oddly, games like the first The Last of Us, Nier: Automata, and Breath of the Wild. I know there’s a danger, even flippancy in comparing reality to any type of fiction; I’d never want to trivialize the tragedy that has unfolded over the past year. But the parallels in the vicarious treks through digitally barren lands made me feel like I was living through the postapocalyptic nightmare those games had envisioned.

I wish everything was a videogame I could hit the reset button on. But as the pandemic and the shelter-in-place has gone longer than any of us anticipated, it’s clear this isn’t a game to be beaten. The goal, which seems closer to happening with the arrival of the vaccines, is survival, grueling through a day to day existence. This all takes on a whole new poignancy with a kid.

As a toddler, these are critical years for her growth. Social interactivity is crucial. I’ve wondered to friends and co-workers over zoom what the impact of this social isolation will be. We miss her grandparents. We miss all her relatives and her many cousins, whom we saw just last winter. FaceTime is an appreciated, but inadequate, substitute for real connections. We try to make it work whatever way we can.

One of our favorite places to visit is the campus of UC Berkeley. I attended school there, but most of the time, I was rushing to class or busy studying for a test. This was the first time I got to really see the campus. My kid is very curious and notices things I’ve never seen. If there’s a staircase, she’ll want to climb it. If there’s a door, she’ll try to open it. I’ve honestly seen more of Berkeley in the past year than I did the entire time I attended. She points out strange symbols, wondering what they mean. She’ll find markings on the ground I’d walked over a hundred times without noticing. For her, the world isn’t a place to rush through just to reach the next destination, but something to relish, soak in, and discover. The sense of tactile wonder she has as she feels the grooves, the weirdly shaped walls, and jutting branches on the ground, are the whole point of being outside. She wants to understand how it all works. On my part, it’s uncanny to be on campus and see so few students. When I attended, there were always students rushing about. I lived on the south side of campus (towards Sather Gate) so I rarely visited the Northside. It’s been fascinating for me seeing parts of Berkeley I never knew existed.

My daughter walking at Berkeley
My daughter walking at Berkeley
Photo: Peter Tieryas

Most of the doors are locked, so we can’t enter any of the buildings. Two years ago, I actually reimagined Berkeley for my book, Mecha Samurai Empire, and had spent a few days taking photos and traveling through the campus. But even then, I didn’t get to see as much as I have with my kid. There’s a history behind each building, many anecdotal like with Worcester, the art building that was purportedly built to be shaped like a dragon with scales coming off its windows. I spent a lot of time at the giant building called Tolman that many of the psych majors thought looked like a psychiatric ward. I was shocked when we looked for Tolman and couldn’t find it, wondering if my memory had failed me. When I learned it was demolished a few years back due to structural issues, I felt this wistful sorrow that a place I’d spent so much time was gone and I hadn’t even known about its demise.

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While on a personal level, the trips have been an archaeological dig into my stint at Berkeley, for my daughter, it’s a giant, bustling world full of oaks, pine trees, and architectural marvels. Time goes by fast when we’re wandering. There is something haunting seeing all these magnificent buildings and realizing no one is around. In most of the postapocalyptic games I play, my favorite moments are getting to know the world and wondering about unfamiliar structures. I loved speculating about the past in the empty buildings scattered throughout Nier: Automata, wandering a beautifully destitute America in Death Stranding, and learning about the lore of Breath of the Wild in the random labyrinths. To that end, I realize my daughter often thinks of these buildings as giant labyrinths. They’re puzzles for her as she navigates the dungeon entrance, finding new routes, uncovering paths that have long been unused (well, at least for the past year). Sometimes, we see cryptic messages on the walls, snapshots of life before the pandemic advertising events from early 2020, which seems like forever ago.

Illustration for article titled How The Past Year Got Me Thinking Of Post Apocalyptic Games In A New Light
Screenshot: nintendo
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Shigeru Miyamoto was inspired to make The Legend of Zelda based on his adventures through Kyoto. My daughter is so young, I doubt she’ll remember any of our walks. But I’ve wondered, if she does come back to Berkeley when she’s older, will it trigger a sense of déjà vu? Will her subconscious remember our treks during the pandemic?

Just when it seemed like we had found a routine that worked, the fires hit California. All of a sudden, we couldn’t go out because the air quality was so bad. I’m appreciative to have a place to live, but it was hard being stuck in an apartment with a kid who wants to run around and jump everywhere. She has lots of energy and sprinting from the living room to the bedroom just wasn’t cutting it. I’ve apologized to our neighbor downstairs a few times as I know she’s been very loud. I can hear our neighbors upstairs fighting (they also vacuum at odd hours). Stress is impacting everyone. The market for single family homes with backyards is hotter than ever and I understand why. When hell day came (September 9th) and the skies turned completely red from ash, it felt like the end of the world. I actually thought my clocks had broken as it was 10am but dark outside. Had Lavos landed? Had Ganon entered the light world to conquer? Time lost meaning. It felt like we were stuck in a burning morass. The political leadership was something out of a bad video game (I thought a lot about Majora Mask’s mayor refusing to cancel the Carnival of Time despite the moon about to fall on them) and all the witty jabs from news reporters and talk show hosts, funny as they were, didn’t alleviate the sense of despair I felt. What kind of world was my daughter going to grow up in? The depressing struggle to get through the days was onerous. I was convinced I was a failure for not providing my family with better living circumstances.

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You know how in RPGs, you have to grind and grind interminably to get stronger? It’s repetitive and mind-numbing. That’s what everyday life became, except way more difficult. I don’t know how we got through those weeks. Take-out food and ice cream helped. The thing JRPGs have mistaken is that sometimes, grinding doesn’t make you stronger. Sometimes, the daily battles wear down on a person until they’re barely getting by. More combat doesn’t increase attributes. It makes them more fragile, chipping away at their already weary core.

Illustration for article titled How The Past Year Got Me Thinking Of Post Apocalyptic Games In A New Light
Screenshot: Platinum Games
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The constant bombardment of bad news is unrelenting, especially since so much of our connection with the world has to be online. News about the death of good friends feels unreal when I hear about it through social media. Crime has been rising in my neighborhood with multiple carjackings at the local Target where we pick up milk. When we go out locally, I usually take my kid out on the stroller so I can put stuff in there and I sometimes will leave it behind while we walk nearby. We’ve never had any issues, but just a week ago, when we returned, the stroller was gone as someone had stolen it. Who steals a kid’s stroller?

No matter how bad a day I’ve had, no matter how depressed I feel, every morning, my kid is up bright and early, smiling, excited about what awaits. Her exuberance gives me strength when I feel I don’t have the energy to get up. There are nights I get so depressed about everything, I genuinely don’t know how I can go on. Then I see my daughter and I feel hope.

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I hate 2020. Fortunately, 2021 is almost here and with it, vaccinations and an end to the pandemic. I’m wary of being overly optimistic in case more problems pop up. There will be a new definition of normal, if such a thing as “normal” ever existed. I don’t know what that’ll entail and what the long term effects of this year will be. But if there’s one thing I appreciated about 2020, it’s all the extra time I got to spend with my kid. I hope we have many more walks in the years to come, both in real life, and hopefully, in video games too (though she has a few years to go before she can play them).

Peter Tieryas is the author of Mecha Samurai Empire & Cyber Shogun Revolution (Penguin RH). He's written for Kotaku, IGN, & Verge. He was an artist at Sony Pictures & Technical Writer for LucasArts.

DISCUSSION

My son is the same age and I’d just like to share that my experiences, and thoughts, have been remarkably similar a continent away here in Germany.

Trying as this year has been, I’ve really come to appreciate it in many ways, mostly because of my son. As a teacher during lockdown, I got to spend so much more time with him than I could ever have under more normal circumstances. We went out for our daily walks, I watched him learn how to ride his first kick-bike, I was there for every cool ew word or sentence he dropped, and while teaching online and taking care of him certainly was a lot, I will never forget that time.

It also helped me see the shitshow that is 2020 through a child’s eyes. When out of nowhere, he - who hasn’t set foot in a supermarket since March - held a handkerchief to his mouth and told me he was “going grocery shopping. That’s my mask.”, it was so absurd and naive in the best possible way. If he could accept this is “normal” and turn it into a game, then so could I.

They’re remarkably resilient, if we give them the security that we’ll see this through together.