Things have been kinda rough lately.
I was having a bad day in a bad week in a bad month in kind of a crappy year. My grandfather suddenly passed away a few months ago (he choked while eating, and the paramedics weren’t able to revive him quickly enough). It came as a shock to my whole family. He’d been suffering from dementia for a while, but things were on one of those fleeting upswings you want to grab onto and squeeze for dear life, in a desperate sort of hug. My grandpa and my grandma had recently moved into a really good retirement home, and my grandfather was doing a good job of staying mentally and physically active. I saw him over Christmas, and he was practically his old (read: younger) self again. He told jokes. He poked fun at my grandma for not having her hearing aids. He was generally lucid and cheerful.
That was the last time I ever saw him. I mean, I flew back home and went to the funeral, but the guy in the casket—the waxen amalgam of my grandpa’s withered features—that wasn’t really him. Or at least, it didn’t feel like it. There was a disconnect in my mind, like my grandpa was gonna walk into the church at any second, because god damn it he refused to be late to anything, ever. I teared up when I saw my mom cry.
Since he passed away, things have been rough for my family—especially my mom. My little sister decided to suddenly move in to my dad’s place (note: my parents are divorced) while my mom was still grieving, and my mom took it really hard. I recently went home and visited them, and my mom was just... angry. There was venom to her words, a defensive bite. The whole time, it felt like she was seconds away from getting into a (verbal) fight with my sister, who had, admittedly, been pretty inconsiderate. I’d never seen my mom like that before, though. She’s one of the most caring, self-sacrificing people you’ll ever meet. And she’s so strong. She’s dealt with so much garbage over the years—had to pick up so many messes because nobody else would. It felt like this awful confluence of events finally broke her. I didn’t know what to do. I still don’t.
Ever since I got back from that trip, it’s been weighing on me. The whole thing. Before I knew it, my thoughts were snowballing. My mom, my sister, my grandpa, the future, people on the internet being shitty to each other, people in real life killing each other, Donald Trump (had to get a joke in there somewhere), and so on. I’ve always worried that one day I’d become cynical—that I’d stop liking things—but I don’t think that’s the problem. Now I’m more afraid of becoming resigned, so exhausted by everything that I don’t want to do anything anymore. When I’m not occupied by work or people or whatever, that’s where my mind wanders. It’s not a fun place.
Recently, on a whim I downloaded a Steam game called Shu’s Garden. I thought it looked weird, and I was curious. I booted it up, unaware that I was about to experience one of the most ebulliently joyful things I’ve seen maybe ever. I took control of Shu—a bouncy space cactus—and he whooped with glee as I made him catapult between planetoids. I found other creatures like Shu, and they joined me. We cartwheeled around together for a while—moving like a mix between Sonic The Hedgehog and a Katamari. Little birds showed up. They sang, we whooped, and we accidentally flipped over a space turtle, but it was totally OK. I collected seeds and planted trees. They were such nice trees.
I felt myself doing something I hadn’t done in a while: smiling. I’m not talking some weak-willed half-grin, either. I mean a full-on pearly whites (or kinda yellows; I should go to the dentist) exploding out of my face BEAM of a smile.
Minutes turned into hours. I was captivated. Shu’s Garden is a pretty simple game with no real goals—aside from exploration and spontaneous gardening—but I didn’t want to leave. It was pure joy, winged elation. I didn’t want to stop smiling. Plus, I met a space giraffe, and I had to see what his deal was.
Plenty of games make people happy; plenty of games make me happy. However, it’s something else when a game’s goal—all of its verbs—are about creating joy. For me, the feeling I get from Shu’s Garden bears no resemblance to the adrenaline rush I get from kicking ass in a game like Counter-Strike or experiencing a spellbinding story in something like The Witcher. Each aspect of the game—every leap, every dive, every mechanic, every character, every blade of grass—is imbued with this intoxicating sense of elation. Its environment is alive with bombastic cheer. “Being alive? It fucking rocks,” the game seems to say. “It rocks harder than anything else ever.”
I don’t want every game to be saccharine sweet, but sometimes it’s nice to have a pure place to escape to. Sometimes it’s nice to smile for practically no reason—just because. Contrary to popular belief, there’s value in escapism. We all need a break, occasionally, if nothing else than from our own minds. That’s what Shu’s Garden has become for me. I go there when all of life’s troubles start dragging me down, and I just breathe for a bit. It’s nice.