Play During Quarantine

Group Editorial backup cover

Since the FPS crew are all working at home too right now, we have decided to collect some of our thoughts here on how play factors into our routines along different axes right now. Feel free to join in the discussion either in comments or on our social media channels, and stay safe.
Chris: Follow the author on Twitter Betsy: Follow the author on Twitter Sarah: Follow the author on Twitter

Chris – Elite: Dangerous

I shift in my seat as I swivel the Full Spectrum System Scanner around to get a better look at a distant companion star circling lazily about the compound system I’ve just jumped to. The instrument has a bit of a drift to it, so I constantly have to adjust my frequency to keep it tuned to the right kinds of objects. With a minimum of hassle, I manage to tag all the planets and major moons in the neighborhood: some 34 bodies in all, none of it exploitable. Universal Cartographics doesn’t pay much for discoveries it can’t weaponize, colonize, or both. There’s no profit in lingering here, but I do anyway.

One of the outer moons of the outer planets catches my eye, so I set a course and nudge up the supercruise. I’ve got a little more practice at it now, so I manage not to rocket past the moon at fifty-something c and subject myself to the Loop of Shame. I don’t know what colour the moon actually is as it comes into view; even thousands of light-seconds away, it is saturated in the searing blue of the O-class star blazing at the heart of the system until it glows an eerie purple. After a passable descent and a bit of ambling about to find a suitably smooth stretch of parking space, I bring the ship down, hop into the rover, and find myself in a field of silent stone-like mushrooms, soaking up the bitter blue sun.

I scan a few, log the findings, do a few drifts in the low-grav environment. Off in the distance, mountains tower high enough to pierce the horizon from orbit.

I am seized by a dangerous and impractical scheme.

Chris ED 1

This is life in NGC 6231, 4200 light years from home.

Elite: Dangerous is a massively multiplayer spaceflight sim set in a life-sized version of the Milky Way in the 34th century. It’s a game I’ve criticized in the past for having more than its share of colonial bullshit, but it’s also a game that I love. This is in no small part because I can take a ship and just leave–off, in any direction, away from humanity, away from war, away from debt, away from political subterfuge. I can get lost in the stars, incalculably more stars than any empire can ever hope to conquer.

This admittedly-overwrought romanticized loneliness might be a strange fantasy to wax poetic about in a time of pandemic and quarantine, when many–myself included–so dearly crave the kind of basic human interaction we must do without for the time being. This is more the time for a fuzzy community-building game like Animal Crossing, right?

It absolutely is. And while I understand and appreciate what others see in that game right now, my solace comes from a different kind of game, a different kind of experience. I’ve always turned to the lonely stars in times of personal hardship, not specifically because they’re empty of human beings but because their vastness is a gentle reminder of our smallness. They give me an anchoring point by which to find my bearings when the world beneath my feet shifts, like it has been doing lately.

I’m not doing super great. I will have to politely refuse to answer any questions about the state of my email inbox at this time, as I muddle through all of the professional commitments that, along with a temporarily-adopted bird, are my only roommates. This should be the perfect time to get some dissertation writing done, but I haven’t had the energy. I wonder about the shape of my finances two months from now. I wonder if I’m going to die alone–not imminently, just generally.

Dia Lacina recently wrote–via Animal Crossing, no less–about the value that even maladaptive coping strategies can have in times of crisis. If I’m charting new star systems rather than, say, answering my emails on time, I’d say that’s fairly benign as far as maladaptive coping strategies go. And I do find a lot of peace in it. Elite: Dangerous doesn’t bring me closer to people, real or imaginary. Instead, it reminds me that this difficult moment in time, whether it be weeks or months or more, is small. It is finite, it had a beginning, and it will have an end, as all things do.

Betsy – World of Warcraft Classic 

A lifetime ago, I wrote a thing for us at FPS. It was about the Diablo series, nostalgia, and revisiting the past in the present, but also about playing with a past that never existed. I don’t mean in the sense that many wonderful games writers have talked about–I don’t mean rewriting or reshaping our cultural memories of history. I mean playing a past that just never came to be.

My quarantine crush on Classic actually begins in 2008, during the Burning Crusade DLC. I was lucky to find friends in the game rather quickly, despite jumping into the game totally alone. After I healed a group through a dungeon, they scooped me up into their guild and lives; suddenly I had 200 people at my side for anything and everything from ranting about relationships, learning how to use a top-loading washer for the first time, raids and gear progression advice, complaining about work and school, arguing about music and movies, just being part of Azeroth together.

I hit max level on the day before Wrath of the Lich King came out. My two closest friends–a mage and a warlock–celebrated with me all night, chatting over Vent, drinking, laughing, and playing PvP, our shouts of “For the Horde!” and “LOK’TAR OGAR” collecting together over tinny laptop speakers and shoddy microphones, irritating my college roommates at 4am. We were on the edge of a long promised new world to explore. That beautiful moment of not knowing what’s ahead, but trusting that you would take it on together.

And we did, almost every day, for two years. But things happened that I don’t want to talk about–stories for another time, if they’re even mine to share–but the TL;DR is that our little trio was just gone, irreparably broken. Meanwhile, Blizzard made an interesting choice. WoW was too big to be manageable. There were tons of dungeons and raids and areas that people simply did not utilize much because of the expansions. So they started to phase out original content piece by piece–take out access to this dungeon here, that raid over there, take out this questline back here. The slow rebuilding of WoW’s history took place over a year or two but was tied off with a bow when Cataclysm came out in 2010. The DLC, predictably, starts with the premise of a cataclysmic event that drastically changed the face of Azeroth, a narrative justification for the release of a patch that pushed the gamespace from its past permanently. I stopped playing sometime in 2012, bitter about losing my friends, losing my guild, losing the literal places that meant things to me.

Then in 2019, Blizzard released WoW Classic, which created servers where every single expansion had been wiped away. The first trailer I watched featured a cheery gnome talking about “going back in time!” Ugh. There’s no such thing when you try to go back in time within your own memories.  But my partner, having played WoW since its original release, was ecstatic. Although reluctant, I agreed to make a new character and play through it with my partner, my sibling, and a few friends from grad school as we went “back in time.”

Classic is something not-new that is new. It has been a chance for me to play a game that I know intimately, but have never played. Places I never got to visit, stories I never got to hear, dungeons and raids that disappeared before I could play them. But it hasn’t just been about seeing new parts of this familiar world that I missed experiencing all those years ago; there are also the places I just barely start to remember, flashes of a previous life. Good memories that I got to discover again. Bad ones that had me resting my face in my hands and taking deep breaths to calm down.

There are thousands of stories very much like mine, all twining together into this strange version of WoW. There’s a nearly palpable feeling on my server: “We’re going to do it right this time.” Not “right” as in the most effective or powerful. It’s just different this time and we know how to do it “right.” We know how we wish we had done it in the first place.

Many players in Classic are between 25 and 50 years old. We have jobs, children, spouses, disabilities, mental illness, schedules, nights off the raid schedule. We have interruptions and limitations. But it is understood, at least on my server and especially in my guild, that life will always interrupt gaming and it’s ok to take it a little less seriously and still enjoy the game, its difficulties, its rewards. And right now especially, we’ve rallied. My guild has more than 500 people in it from all over, sharing our own lives and stories in quarantine. We vent, we ask for help and advice, we just talk when we need to take a step back from where life has us all right now.

In my “Thank Goodness You’ve Returned” piece for FPS, I wrote, “When we’ve had 20 years of knowing this familiar place, what greater thing can we create but the version we remember, rather than the version that actually was?”

I have an answer for that now. We’re playing it “right” this time around. That’s how people keep talking about it. We’re making this into a strange, slightly blurry world of second chances and we’re letting go of an old past as we play a new one together. The greatest thing we can create is what we needed it to be then, not what it actually was. When 40 of us get organized enough to gather for raids on Classic, it’s nothing like how it was when I first played twelve years ago.

  • ope there used to be a ledge there i think? i need a rez now
  • Im not going to rez you until you promise to stay away from the edge
  • Hey, I just logged in to update!!! The delivery went great, my wife’s a trooper. We’re bringing our daughter home tomorrow! Later all!!!!
  • Grats!
  • Graz!
  • Hey congrats man
  • Wait guys I haven’t tanked this for 15 years what do we do?
  • Grats!
  • its ok if we wipe it happens
  • did you seriously just make a mongoose elixir during combat? Dang respect!
  • Hey I know I signed up for raid but it was a long day at work and I’m too tired
  • Yeah that’s cool, do you what need to do
  • I would be exhausted if I worked in the hospital like you do. Go to sleep!
  • feel better and rest!
  • i bet I can make another elixir before you finish clearing that trash mob
  • …I still need that rez
  • holy shit, I’ve never seen ragnaros before im pumped
  • nobody wants DKP, let’s just gear up the person who needs it most
  • yeah fuck DKP
  • i  already got a good piece of gear today so we should roll for it
  • We’re all here to help each other 🙂
  • Loot the stupid core hound so I can get the crafting material from it
  • Whose loot is that?
  • Who needs to loot the dog?
  • Fine i promise now rez plzzzz
  • LOOT THE DOGS
  • DOOT THE LOGS
  • Wait hold on I’m catching baby aggro. give me fifteen to minutes to feed him
  • Ok 15 min break we pull Rag at 8:37 server time.
  • Hey don’t stand in the LAVA

Ok, so that last one hasn’t changed and probably never will.

Patrick – Building a PC and Control

I’d done this before, but my hands were still shaking. Given the current situation, if I somehow messed something up, it would be weeks before I could get a replacement. I’d be stuck using my phone for work and the internet. But I wanted to play Control (Remedy Entertainment, 2019) on high settings, so this was a risk I had to take.

After years of coasting on the same set-up, I was spurred to upgrade my computer after buying a new monitor and bigger chassis (in addition to getting a decent income tax return). For those interested, I settled on a Ryzen 5 3600x (decently high end for a bit of future-proofing) and an AMD RX 580 (older but affordable and a considerable step up from my R9 270X). The new processor required a new motherboard and new compatible RAM. I wasn’t changing the hard drives or the OS, but I was going to be replacing some pretty critical parts. A lot of opportunities to mess things up.

Everything finally arrived on the afternoon of Saturday, March 28. Surrounded by all the needed components and tools, I splayed everything out on the kitchen table for the task at hand. Taking out the old hardware and installing the new parts was time-consuming, but once I was able to calm my quivering hands, it was straightforward and enjoyable. Screwing things in, plugging in cables, and organizing wires was comforting. The motherboard even had a connection to control the RGB lights on my case fans (very exciting and very useless).

As the day reached the early evening, all was assembled, and it was time to plug the whole thing in. I put it under the desk and in went the power cord, ethernet, mouse, keyboard, USB hub, speakers, line-in from my record player, display, and Bluetooth dongle. I hit the power button: fans turned on, lit up, and that was it. There was nothing displayed, no image. I held off on installing the graphics card just in case something like this happened–one less thing to dismantle. I powered down the computer, checked connections, and hit the power button again. Still nothing. What followed was an hour or two (or more, it was all a blur) of reading tech help forums and frustratingly trying numerous different arrangements of cords and components with no success. I was devastated. Was my motherboard faulty, or worse, had I broken something? Nothing was working, and I was losing hope. It wasn’t until one comment suggested that my particular motherboard (AsRock B450m) and CPU relied on the GPU to drive the display. And that was the answer. After the RX 580 was in and connected to the screen, everything booted up beautifully.

All I could do was lay on the ground, sweaty and victorious.

With my PC humming, it was time to tweak. After downloading drivers and getting everything running smoothly, I finally booted up Control. I had been playing it for a few days on my old set-up with the new GPU, but it was slow and ugly. Now it loaded quickly, ran smooth, and looked great, but something wasn’t right, it wasn’t perfect. It either looked too cloudy, or the controls weren’t responsive enough, or it wasn’t running fast enough. Whether imaginary or not, I spent a good chunk of my Sunday and free time during the week breaking up play sessions with extensive tweaking. It felt like I spent more time in settings menus or disconnecting and reconnecting different controllers than playing the game. It wasn’t until Wednesday, when I actually finished the game, that I promised myself I would stay out of the settings for a while. My Xbox One controller would go wonky intermittently and I’d need to reset the Bluetooth connection, but I was determined to quit tweaking (that being said, if anyone has any ideas about what’s happening there, I’d love to hear them).

Overall, I liked Control. The combat is a little annoying, the story is cool, and the aesthetic is fantastic. The descent into PC configuration hell was harrowing but took my mind off the world, and for that I am thankful.

I’ve also been playing the new Animal Crossing.

Sarah – Building a new world

My partner has been trying to get me into Minecraft for a long time. He loves it and is convinced I would as well, but the idea of an open sandbox style game where you can do anything you want with absolutely no structure, guidance, or tasks/quests gives me anxiety. I need to be told what to do and get that nice rush of happy brain chemicals that come when I complete said task and move on to the next one. I do like the idea of crafting and building though, and I definitely love farming and killing monsters. After all, Rune Factory is one of my favourite series of all time, which is basically Harvest Moon but with monsters, boss battles, and dungeon crawling. So, he bought me Dragon Quest Builders 2. I loved Dragon Quest VIII and I am excited to eventually get around to playing Dragon Quest XI which is apparently a good successor to VIII. And DQB is basically Minecraft + Rune Factory/Harvest Moon + Dragon Quest. Needless to say, it’s perfect for binging and for distracting me from the general malaise of pandemic existence.

I made a room! Wow!

I made a room! Wow!

The plot – what little of it there is – focuses on loss of memory and identity (a common theme in JRPGs) and the Power of Friendship™ (possibly the most JRPG theme of all time, especially [SPOILER] when the Power of Friendship is used to kill a god. Yep, that also happens in this game). It also unpacks the perceived tensions between the forces of creation and destruction. You play as a builder, an agent of creation, in a world decimated by a widespread cult-like belief that destruction is good and sacred, while creation is evil. Because of this cult of destruction – which worships a monstrous God of Destruction and is run by high-level monsters – everyone fears acts of creation like building and lives in squalor, misery, and fear amongst the ruins of their destroyed civilizations. You quickly change their minds, however, as you build farms and houses for them to live in and show them the beauty and magic of creation. I won’t go into spoilers here, but in the end you and your best friend, an adorably chibi demonic-looking dude named Malroth who is hopelessly inept at building, realize that creation and destruction are not opposing forces. Rather, as you discover, they are complementary forces, working in tandem – without creation there would be nothing to destroy, and destruction paves the way for new creation. Like a forest fire, or building new cities on top of ruins, or repopulating the post-apocalyptic Wasteland, or building a more hopeful and just society in the aftermath of a global pandemic.

We high five a lot in this game.

We high five a lot in this game.

The game was thoroughly enjoyable and absolutely addictive. Although you can spend eternity building at your leisure, once the post-game quests were all complete, I lost interest. But what has stuck with me is this idea of creation and destruction and how poignant it is given our current situation. Activists are calling to not just “return to normal” and to instead envision and start building a better world. A world that doesn’t leave people absolutely helpless and victimized, marginalized and trapped in cycles of poverty or abuse or violence. One that doesn’t subscribe to a capitalist, misogynist, ableist, racist cisheteropatriarchy. One that allows humanity to actually live on this planet without destroying it. One that is better prepared for global crises. I’m not saying that this is a good thing, not by any means. But we are a destructive species, both towards ourselves and towards Earth’s nonhuman population. This is not the first time we’ve caused, attempted, or had to face our own destruction and it likely won’t be our last. But in the face of destruction we must remember that we can turn to creation and build a world we want to live in.