Retreading Familiar Ground in Animal Crossing: New Horizons

The first and only Animal Crossing game I’ve ever played longer than a day (I borrowed one in college but didn’t have the time to do more than make a character) was the original one on the GameCube. That isn’t a result of a lack of willingness on my part so much as a result of my disconnect from buying new games during college (I think the only new game I got while I was in college was Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword) and my lack of free time as a post-college adult. I’ve always had something come up that make a time-intensive and daily play game like Animal Crossing prohibitive.

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Tabletop Highlight: Role-playing

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had with my ex a long while ago, one day when we were out to breakfast. I was talking about a Dungeons and Dragons character I was making and how I wanted to role-play them. I made the comment that they were nothing like me, and she took issue with that. After a bit of back and forth, as I asked her to explain what she meant, she eventually said “you can’t be someone you’re not. If there’s no trace of them inside you, then you can’t play them and wouldn’t even want to. Any character you make is going to have a bit of you inside them.” I disagreed back then but ultimately dropped it (which is too bad, since it turns out that her view that people couldn’t change into or try to be something they weren’t already informed a lot of my reasons for ending things last summer) since she wasn’t willing to actually engage with my thoughts on the matter.

The thing is, I constantly play people I’m not. I create characters in games who look nothing like me and who do things I wouldn’t dream of doing. I role-play my way through decisions and choices I’d absolutely do differently if I were actually faced with that situation. I pretend to be evil or a sadistic, murderous asshole in order to play out a character I’ve created. I’m a Dungeon Master and I actually role-play the bad guys. I play chaotic-aligned characters who do whatever they want because they only care about myself despite the fact that I feel guilty even pretending to not care about other people. I’m constantly pretending to be someone I’m not for tabletop RPGs and video games and I’m constantly consciously stripping away my preferences and thoughts in order to be someone else.

Role-playing is my favorite kind of escapism for just that reason, to be honest. There are days when I don’t want to be me anymore. Maybe I’m tired from a day full of mind-boggling information that makes me question the sanity of people around me, or maybe I’ve worn down from a day of trying to be more forceful so people actually listen to me when I know I’m right. Either way, being able to step out of my life and into someone else’s gives me a break from whatever it was that wore me out so I can approach whatever problems I have with a somewhat refreshed mind. It doesn’t fix anything, but it can give me the time and mental space needed to be able to fix whatever is going on. The biggest downside is that I have a tendency to get caught up in it, lose track of time, and stay up way too late while playing whatever game has caught my attention. Tabletop RPGs don’t have this same problem because they’re reliant on other people who generally don’t want to play for as long as I do, but they also hold my attention less because it is difficult to stay in whatever role I’m playing if other people aren’t even trying to stick to their character.

Not even reading helps me escape as thoroughly as role-playing does. I love books and always will, but you’re still you, even if you’re still caught up in the story. As much as I like Chris Amann and think he’s an awesome dude, sometimes I really need to just be someone else for a while rather than just get away from my problems. Video games are my favorite way to get the experience because just playing as a character in a game can make you feel things. The controls for the Nintendo Switch version of the Doom remake feel like I’m piloting a donkey on rocket skates over slick ice, but damn if I don’t feel like a total badass as I rip apart enemies and just storm through levels without a care in the world. There’s almost no role-playing in Doom because it’s just some dude on a demon murdering spree, running around until he’s killed all the demons or died, but I still get a sense of escapism from that. When I play a game specifically designed for role-playing, like Pathfinder: Kingmaker or Dragon Age, I can literally forget about the guy sitting in the chair until something happens to pull me out of my game.

There is, of course, a point when this goes too far. It’s never good to entirely lose focus on who you are or what is a part of the real world and what isn’t. Doing so causes way more problems than it could even pretend to fix and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of staying just short of that line. I occasionally overindulge, but I’m generally not consciously choosing to play a game for twelve hours. I just lost track of time and didn’t think to set an alarm or something to pull me back out again. Additionally, I also tend to play most games with the same moral compass that I have in the real world, to keep myself anchored to the identity that produced and refined it. Even though I can be someone who is nothing like me doesn’t mean I have to be. I like characters who allow me to explore different ways I could be. For instance, my Pathfinder: Kingmaker is pretty much me (in terms of personality and morality), but without the firm belief that society benefits from structures and order. My Pathfinder: Kingmaker character believes that structures are order are necessary evils that can’t be avoided if you want to be a part of society, so she tends to support the local government and it’s laws while still promoting personal freedom and self-expression. It’s a fun idea to explore since it makes me reflect on the places where my belief in order and structure falls short of doing the most good possible.

All that being said, it’s still mostly about escapism for me. I don’t really sit down to play Pathfinder: Kingmaker with the thought that I should explore a particular kind of moral quandary. I just play the game to get away and wind up getting opportunities to reflect on what it means to be a good and just ruler. Role-playing is a lot of fun and can be an opportunity for reflection and growth, even if it’s a rather slow one.

Escaping Through Video Games: No Man’s Survival Craft

I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite things about video games is their ability to take the player away from their present situation. Whether the player is avoiding eye contact on the bus via phone Tetris or Sudoku (my personal preferences) or trying to get away from a bad day by delving as deeply as possible into their favorite RPG (Skyrim), these games provide a quick escape from the primary world. For a lot of people, that’s all they really need: a break from the pressures of their life and the opportunity to put it all away for a little while.

I enjoy that kind of escape immensely, almost as much as I enjoy reading. However, when I’m at my most stressed, at my most worn, when my OCD and anxiety are at their worst, this level of escape either isn’t possible or only puts my problems off until I stop playing (and I can’t tell you the number of nights I’m played games or read books until I’m falling asleep in order to put off that moment when they all come rushing back). I always need something that takes it a step further, that provides something beyond just the escape of a different world.

For a long time, that something was Minecraft. I’ve been playing it since my sophomore year of college and I’ve probably logged more hours to it than every other game I’ve played since. It was a world that was constantly changing and improving, a world where I was in complete control of the world provided I placed enough torches out to prevent Creepers from spawning. I could imagine whatever I liked and, with enough work, the game would come to reflect it. I leveled mountains, built lakes, and created entire mine cart pathways that took more than 10 minutes to go from the central hub at any of the ends.

Unfortunately for me, the game has lost a lot of its appeal as it has added a lot of features and items to create an adventure mode. The more features they added to make it an adventure game (The End, XP, potions), the less interesting and fulfilling it became for me. Even the exploring and building aspects that I loved started to become boring and monotonous, good only for a couple of hours at a time before I lost interest.

Then along came ARK: Survival Evolved. This seemed like exactly what I had been looking for: a game focused on taming the environment and surviving the harsh realities of life on an island inhabited by dinosaurs. I can’t tell you how much fun it was for me to make a character with maximum movement speed whose whole purpose was to give me the ability to run up to a T-Rex, punch it in the butt, and run away before it could hit me. All while cackling like a madman, of course. Unfortunately, that quickly went the way of Minecraft as well. As soon as survival stopped being an issue, I lost interest. Leveling up became a necessary chore and finding enough resources to feed myself and my pets was simple. I tried to challenge myself with made up games and the idea of making a base my character could carry to the middle of the island and deploy, throwing myself into the most dangerous area in the game. Even that started to bore me when nothing even tried to attack my new base.

For a long time, I listlessly cycled through these two games, trying to recapture my earlier feeling of tranquility and happiness. Almost nine months passed before I found a glimmer of hope. One of my friends had called for all to board the hype train for a game that was set to come out the next week: No Man’s Sky.

Now, as anyone can tell you, the hype train and marketing team killed any chance No Man’s Sky had of being a success. They promised more than any game could hope to deliver and left an enormous and outraged fan-base with a game they hated. I, however, managed to avoid the hype train until the week before the game came out. Everything I read pointed toward simple resource gathering, space exploration, and the quiet wonder of finding something new on every planet.

Judged based on those scales, the game is amazing. I get to fly from world to world, collecting resources I can sell to purchase more hyperdrive fuel or to outright buy a better spaceship. I can spend time getting to know the language of the locals through exploring their planets and interacting with them, my status in their society changing based on how I interacted with the few people I ran into during my travels. Sure, a lot of the actual exploration parts can get a little monotonous, but there’s always a new cave to find, a new word to learn, or a new pillar of gold to mine. I’ve named a half a dozen star systems and about four times as many planets. I’ve left my mark on the universe of the game and have yet to find another player.

I am alone in the universe and, for the first time ever, that idea is uplifting. I have no demands but those of fueling my exosuit and my spaceship. I can go wherever I like, do whatever I like, and just enjoy the scenery. I am alone in the universe and I am fine with that.

I know a lot of people hate the game and I know a lot of people want them to add a story or features to make it more action oriented. I don’t. Sure, it’d be nice if the flying controls were better or if it was easier to fight off space pirates, but I’m fine with things the way they are right now. It is refreshing to play a game that is just so calm and relaxing. Even the soundtrack is relaxing.

If you like action games, if you want to go on a bad-ass adventure to save the universe, don’t buy No Man’s Sky. If you want to just wander around the universe just to see what’s going on someplace else, buy this game and let it take you to places you never expected. Let it take you away from everything you want to leave behind and escape into this nigh-limitless universe.

Take a Chill Pill

I have a hard time relaxing. I get the concept pretty well, but the actual execution often eludes me. You could ask any of the people I’m close to and they’d all tell you that I constantly complain about being tired and needing to relax. It is a constant state of being for me, one that I can’t seem to get a handle on despite my success managing most of my other issues.

Anxiety? Got a cure for that. OCD acting up? I got a remedy to take it down. Feeling super depressed? No worries, I got that covered! Feeling kind of tense of wound up? Well, shit, I suppose there’s video games? No, that’s not working… Books! Well, that didn’t work either, though I really should read more that author. How about taking a vacation? Shoot, I’m all out of ideas. And so on.

A lot of the suggestions for relaxing is finding something that frees your mind of your concerns and genuinely brings you joy. That eliminates meditation because, while pleasant, I wouldn’t really say that I enjoy it. Its more like medicine I don’t mind taking. Exercise is also very good for relaxing, but that tends to only work for physical relaxation and I get plenty of that. Hanging out with my close friends is also very rewarding, but it takes energy to do that, energy I need if I’m going to get through another tense, wound-up day.

I’ve had various things from time to time that help with the whole relaxation thing. At certain points in my life it was the relationships I had. Just spending time around a partner who expects nothing from you but is still a comfort to be around is one of the most relaxing things I’ve ever experienced. I’ve had a game or two I could play to really just cut loose and let everything slip away. Minecraft was that game for several years and Pokemon can be from time to time, though both tend to lose this ability if I play them much.

Dungeons and Dragons is also very relaxing. It is always fun to take leaving yourself behind for a bit more literally than usual. I enjoy role-playing immensely and love building worlds/situations for my players to work through. It has a level of freedom and independence that video games have yet to truly capture. The first virtual reality D&D campaigns with fully interactable environments are going to be freaking awesome.

The truth is that I’m not sure I really can relax. Hell, I worry about not being able to relax. How messed up is that? I can’t seem to relax so I’m getting more tense and stressed out, which is why I need to relax in the first place so I’m only needing to relax more as I worry about not being able to relax.

I even bought some of those relaxation/meditation candles to burn in the evenings when I’m trying to calm down and unwind before bed. All I’ve wound up getting is a rather pleasant smelling bedroom. Which, you know, is nice, but not exactly what I was going for. I’ve installed light alteration applications on all my electronic devices to test the hypothesis that all this blue light is making me tense. I’m only a week in, but I’m not seeing much change in terms of LESS stress and tension.

I have one hope right now. One potential chance at something that might relax me. A new game coming out this weekend is supposed to be super visually stunning, sound great, and just be a chill way to hang out and just BE. No Man’s Sky. Comes out sometime on the 12th. A lot of those playing it on the PS4 (release date was the 8th and 9th for two major markets), not to mention articles that interviewed developers and testers, all seem to indicate that this game is just that. No major multiplayer stuff, no need to interact with people unless I want to, and a glorious, vast universe to explore with no agenda other than to find what’s out there.

That would be amazing. I really hope this game is everything I’m expecting it to be. I could REALLY do with some R&R.

If you’d like a review of the game, check back on Saturday or Sunday. I promise I’ll tear myself away from it long enough to post my initial reactions to it no later than 24 hours after I start playing it.