Exactly one year ago today, Genshin Impact was released. We were almost six months into the coronavirus pandemic, and now, looking back, I can’t imagine my adventure starting any other way. The fantasy world of Teyvat became my safe harbor in a year filled with grief, uncertainty, and disappointment.
Politicians lied about normalcy in front of the cameras, but I knew that we would never return to the “normalcy” of a pre-pandemic world. Entire industries had been decimated. Medically vulnerable populations would never again enjoy the same level of freedom that they’d had before. And American insurrectionists had permanently threatened the legitimacy of our electoral process. But even as the world hurtled toward macro-disaster, I couldn’t help but mourn the small experiences I could no longer have. I missed eating shrimp crackers with my friend in a borrowed car. I wanted to complain about politics over a bowl of ramen. None of those were possibilities while a deadly virus spread across the world.
Instead, I spent my time air gliding with Amber and mining crystals with Razor. Genshin Impact was just the distraction that I needed. The game went beyond escapism, and showed me how to endure the worst year of my life. With its lush open world and the soft melodies of its soundtrack, my relationship to Genshin Impact was defined by “comfort.” The landscape was largely open and uncluttered, unlike the confined space of my bedroom. Even combat felt less threatening when accompanied by bouncy brass notes and whimsical flutes. The world of Teyvat was gentle, while the pandemic world was more hostile than it had ever been.
The developers had promised us seven different nations to explore, but I wanted to stay in the city-state of Mondstadt. There was never any shortage of boars to hunt, secrets to discover, or chests to collect. Certain dungeons were only available on certain days of the week, which gave me a sense of structure in a world where time had all but collapsed. Mondstadt felt immortal back then, and I was reluctant to leave.
But the Traveler was searching for his lost sister, and I couldn’t keep her waiting forever.
Genshin is a game about longing for old friends and places that no longer exist. Nowhere is this more clear than in the soundtrack, where nostalgic melodies such as “The City Favored By Wind” and “Moon in One’s Cup” were the constant backdrop of my journey. Teyvat’s immortal gods and their divine servants yearn for things that may never exist again. As I listened to stories of past friends and bygone civilizations, I felt that Genshin was enunciating an anxiety that I’d struggled to process during the pandemic.
Our old world was crumbling from willful negligence. Of course, we would try to save it. That’s the obligation of every person who lives on a dying planet. But as climate disaster inches steadily closer, the chances of failure aren’t zero. And a new strain of coronavirus could meaningfully threaten us at any time. What happens if we fail? What if the protagonist never found his sister ever again?
Genshin Impact is careful to avoid committing to happy endings. This is partially because the characters don’t have all the answers, and its world is not wholly kind. But over the course of the year, a particular theme emerged. Before sending the Traveler off to find the most important person in his life, the god of freedom told him: “The destination is not everything.” While I mulled over the best place to catch fish, Zhongli would remind me in his steady baritone: “Every journey has its final day. Don’t rush.” Over the course of months, most repeated voice lines ran the risk of sounding trite and annoying, but his reminder was one that I constantly needed. Don’t rush.
So while Redditors and YouTubers complained that Genshin Impact was too light on endgame content, I hung back. I only grinded resources when I felt like it, and I took month-long breaks when I didn’t. I skipped half of the game’s first major event. I held back from raising my world level difficulty for half a year, despite the increase in drop rewards. As I settled into pandemic life, I made peace with quarantine. I didn’t know how the coronavirus would end, but I still had a life to live.
I didn’t rush it.
In 2020, I was nominated for a prestigious indie game award. After two years of toiling in obscurity, I would be flown to San Francisco for an award ceremony. I would meet game designers that I admired from afar, and they would recognize me as an equal. I was hopeful about the future for the first time in years. I was closer to my dream than I ever had been in my life.
By March, the event was cancelled. I was back to where I started, sending one-way job emails into the endless expanse of the internet.
There’s an expression in Chinese: 机不可失，时不再来. It means that opportunities only come knocking once, and they never return a second time. It felt like the pandemic had permanently shut a door into my face. For a year, I lived in a closed world that required everyone to remain perfectly still. International borders closed and full-time jobs dried up. I was a once-bright star, its light snuffed out.
There were so many people that I did not meet, so many plans that never came to fruition. Similarly, there were many characters that I had failed to obtain through gacha that year. I had started playing Genshin Impact for Diluc, and he never arrived on my account. But even without his fiery abilities, I still had to find some way to beat the ice enemies on my journey. Just like I somehow had to piece my life together, even though I was living in a lockdown.
I made the most out of my pandemic year. I worked freelance jobs out of my bedroom. I built Bennett because I didn’t have Diluc. I built a life around what I had, rather than hoping for miracles. And as some friendships fell away during the isolation of the pandemic, I felt grateful that I’d had the opportunity to spend time speaking with old friends at all. When I failed to summon Ganyu during her banner event, the game still gave me the opportunity to interact with her during her robust character quest. The game’s free-to-play model meant that I would endure even more missed connections with my favorite characters. But in order to survive as a game filled with disappointments, Genshin Impact has to offer players some solace in the face of those disappointments. 2020 was a year of terrible disappointments. Genshin Impact helped me navigate them.
And perhaps that’s why so many of my friends are still playing Genshin Impact. It is a game about managing expectations, and not pinning all your hopes onto one unlikely outcome. Even if I didn’t get the best stats out of Genshin’s artifact dungeons, the azure blue skies seen from Starsnatch Cliffs remain eternally beautiful. And if you listen closely during your travels, the wind will surely carry a hopeful melody to you.