It’s a well-known fact that humans are creatures of the natural world, no matter how much time we gamers spend holed up in our rooms.

Even if our homes are our slices of paradise, venturing outside for sunlight, fresh air, and meetups with friends results in an incredible sense of rejuvenation. Then the pandemic hit, and we no longer had a choice in where we spent our time. We were cut off from our friends and many of the environments that we were used to. Suddenly, our homes were feeling less like sanctuaries and more like prisons.

In the wake of COVID-19 and lockdowns across the world, more people than ever have embraced video games as methods of exploration, creation, communication, and escapism. Countless advertisements show friends keeping in touch virtually through rounds of Mario Kart or families gathering in front of the TV to solve puzzles in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

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“…video game worlds take on new meaning and value when they’re one of our only options for exploration, interaction with nature and genuine joy amid a pandemic”

During lockdown, I’ve found myself coming back to four very different games over and over: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Animal Crossing, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX, and Portal 2. In a world where leaving our homes exposes us to an invisible danger, these games stepped in to fill the void where outside activities once were – and became something more important in the process.

The worlds present in video games have always been thought of as inferior to the “real world”. Players have heard condescending policymakers and frustrated parents tell them to stop paying so much attention to virtual worlds for years, but the tables have since turned. Now that our physical space has been constrained so much by COVID-19, games have become an essential way of expanding our horizons and satisfying the human need for exploration and existence within environments we choose, without having to worry about catching a deadly disease. Whether they’re recreations of the world we live in or new creations entirely, video game worlds take on new meaning and value when they’re one of our only options for exploration, interaction with nature and genuine joy amid a pandemic that forces us to spend far too much time inside.

Creed Odyssey 3-min

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

Imagine this: you’re running through a forest. Golden light is streaming down, and the trees are whispering all around you in the wind. You reach the top of the hill you’re on and look down into a valley below. A river winds a lazy path between incredibly tall peaks on its way to the ocean, which is only a stone’s throw away.

Though this sounds like a real-life hike, it’s simply one description of the environment in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. The game’s huge open world frequently functions as a recreation of the real-life natural world, prompting the player to explore its many nooks and crannies to further their adventure across ancient Greece. Even though the game is set in a foreign place and time period, the ecosystem outside of the game’s towns and cities contains universal elements of nature that almost all players are familiar with: trees, mountains, valleys, rivers, the ocean, wildlife, and so on. The natural world is faithfully reconstructed, from sunsets and sunrises to gentle breezes and storms, in order to showcase nature’s beauty and increase player immersion.

The open-world nature of the game further enhances the role of its recreated natural world. Similarly to most open-world games, the player can run around forever in the environment if they want to. The world is absolutely enormous and there are hundreds of objectives to explore; from battles with wild animals to collectible materials and more. Players can spend countless hours just examining every nook and cranny of ancient Greece’s ecosystem if that’s what they’re interested in. Hikers can climb to the top of mountains, which frequently grant screenshot-worthy views, while divers can explore sunken shipwrecks and bring back lost treasure.

Creed Odyssey Swimming-min
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

Exploration in Odyssey can be made less optional by turning quest and objective markers off in the game’s settings. This forces the player to investigate every part of the world and socialise with a variety of NPCs in order to find the people, fights, and treasure that they’re looking for. It makes the game significantly more difficult if the player’s goal is to progress in the main story, but it also makes expeditions across its natural world significantly more valuable. Here, the player is encouraged to use the environment as a tool, looking closely for hints, clues, and directives. They frequently interact directly with the environment. Making use of this setting helps the player feel as though they really are in ancient Greece, increasing their connection with and investment in exploration throughout the game’s world.

“As the pandemic trapped us inside and journeys to parks and natural spaces became limited or impossible, Odyssey’s environment became the only natural environment that I had access to”

Under normal real-life circumstances, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey would simply be an extremely immersive experience; a faithful recreation of some of the natural wonders that many of us witness every day, like sunsets and the wind through the trees. Its release in late 2018, prior to the onslaught of lockdown and stay-at-home orders, meant that many players, myself included, initially experienced it as such. However, under the thumb of COVID-19, it’s taken on a new significance.

As the pandemic trapped us inside and journeys to parks and natural spaces became limited or impossible, Odyssey’s environment became the only natural environment that I had access to. It rose from its status as a recreation to being a world of its own existence; its everyday wonders amplified because we can’t feel the real sun on our skin or the real wind in our hair. In the game, we can watch the world progress as it would naturally, albeit in a condensed form. This virtual environment becomes even more of a solace than it already was, a world in which in-person social interaction and exploration are still encouraged. When the real becomes increasingly unknown to us, does the reconstruction not become more real?


Animal Crossing

While Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s environments are very close to the real world in experience, Animal Crossing’s are arguably even closer. This charming and relaxing simulation franchise was everywhere at the beginning of 2020 thanks to the release of its newest instalment, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, right before lockdown came into effect. Players everywhere were sharing custom designs, showing off their town layouts, and trading villagers in an effort to create the perfect island paradise. Many saw it as a much-needed escape from the creeping danger of COVID-19 as it began to spread around the world.

What is it that gives Animal Crossing its reputation as one of gaming’s most relaxing adventures? Like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, the game mirrors the natural environments of the real world. It runs in real time; the sun rises and sets and the weather changes just as it does in the real world. Animal Crossing adds an additional layer of depth onto its environments by showcasing the passing of seasons and the associated changing of wildlife. In the winter, snow covers the ground and certain bugs and fish are unavailable to catch, while in the spring, the cherry blossoms bloom and the snowfall turns to rain, and so on. Players have been stuck inside for about a year now thanks to COVID-19, meaning that most have been unable to witness the cycle of the seasons in the real world as much as they would normally. The changing of Animal Crossing: New Horizons‘ seasons allows us to observe the progression of the natural world more clearly than we can in the physical world right now.

Animal Crossing New Horizons
Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Watching the seasons progress in-game has also become an important marker of time in an era where our space is almost entirely static. A large number of memes have arisen on social media that joke about how strange time feels in quarantine, claiming that March 2020 never really ended or that putting up your Christmas tree in October is fine under the circumstances because time doesn’t matter anymore. When your surroundings don’t change, it becomes difficult to keep track of time; this is another area in which the natural world normally gives us significant assistance. Animal Crossing has helped me in this regard by assuring me that time is indeed still passing and that the natural world is going on as is always has. It has allowed me to play through my own little slice of nature, providing me with a significant sense of reassurance.

“When you’re wandering around under the trees with your animal villagers, listening to the roll of the ocean and the lazy buzz of bees, you’re in harmony with your environment – a necessity and a pleasure that was stolen from us by COVID-19 and restored by Animal Crossing.”

Animal Crossing is undoubtedly a calming, carefree experience. Interestingly, many of its critics cite this as one of its biggest issues. Some players say that the reason they aren’t able to get into the franchise is because it doesn’t contain truly meaningful progression. I remember reading an early strategy guide for the franchise’s Gamecube instalment that said, “The game has a beginning and a middle, but no end.” The franchise’s goal is not to provide the player with an artificial sense of progression, but to exist as part of a simulated world to explore and interact with.

Despite this, thanks to our current pandemic circumstances, simply watching the seasons go by in one’s virtual town is a marker of progress that is not otherwise available to us. As mentioned earlier, Animal Crossing also contains a variety of bugs, fish, and sea creatures that are unique to each season. Players must pay attention to the nuances of the franchise’s natural world in order to expand their wildlife collection.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Animal Crossing’s mirror of the seasons really did give me a sense of progress that COVID-19 had taken away. When backed into a corner by the virus, I did my best to move forward in the smallest ways; ways that would seem meaningless if we weren’t in the dire pandemic situation we now find ourselves in. Animal Crossing, a game about stopping to smell the roses and watching the clouds go by, provides me with a sense of personal and natural progression via my little town’s simulation of the real world. When you’re wandering around under the trees with your animal villagers, listening to the roll of the ocean and the lazy buzz of bees, you’re in harmony with your environment – a necessity and a pleasure that was stolen from us by COVID-19 and restored by Animal Crossing.


Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX

While the player character has already achieved harmony with their environment in Animal Crossing, the path to the same goal is a little more complicated – but no less compelling – in Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX. This recent Switch game is a remake of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Red Rescue Team and Blue Rescue Team, two of the Pokémon series’ most-loved spin-off games.

Rescue Team DX, a Rogue-like dungeon exploration game, features a human who has been mysteriously transformed into a Pokémon. They decide to team up with others and form a rescue team to assist Pokémon who have been affected by natural disasters in “dungeons” across the world. Over the course of the game’s story, the player character learns about why they became a Pokémon and takes steps to put the natural world back into balance to stop the disasters, which is shown to have a positive effect on all of the NPC Pokémon. It’s a fun and interesting game that keeps the “catch ‘em all” mentality alive in a different way – players can recruit defeated Pokémon to their rescue team, growing their base in the process.

Pokémon Mystery Dungeon Rescue Team DX

It’s impossible to discuss Pokémon’s environments without considering the series’ original goals in that department. Pokémon creator Satoshi Tajiri has said before that in creating the games, he wanted to give children access to the green spaces and freeform play that many of them lacked in the real world. Rescue Team DX’s world map is evidence of this goal: the game’s dungeons consist of every type of natural environment, from real-life features like mountains and deserts to more fantastic areas like perpetually-frozen forests and fields where lightning strikes continually. These dungeons are the roguelike backbone of the game in that they change form every time the player character enters them, meaning that no two adventures are exactly alike. This, combined with the large amount of unique dungeon styles that all contain their own Pokémon, treasures, and bosses, means that the game is almost infinitely replayable, allowing players to experience these natural wonders again and again in new ways.

“In the time of lockdown, any world that brings us solace holds a tremendous amount of power.”

As I played the game during quarantine, I found this replayability to be very soothing. Finding myself in new surroundings during every “exploration” – an important term that’s used frequently in Pokémon Mystery Dungeon Rescue Team DX – was a counter to the unchanging home surroundings that the pandemic has given to many of us. Being presented with new environments and new dungeon layouts satisfies something in me that’s restless and wants to explore, and it allows me to do so in a way that doesn’t put myself or others at risk.

Perhaps other Rogue-likes would invoke similar feelings, but Rescue Team DX stands out from the rest. Its beautiful art and huge explorable environment make its world feel even more real. It’s different from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Animal Crossing in that it doesn’t try to mirror the real world as we see it; instead, it creates a lush, colourful, almost idealised cartoon world that many of us would likely choose over the real world if we could. How many fans would say no to the opportunity to turn into a Pokémon and be transported into their world? At the end of the main story, the player character decides to stay in the Pokémon world thanks to the characters they’ve met and the relationships they’ve built. It’s obviously a place we’d want to be. In the time of lockdown, any world that brings us solace holds a tremendous amount of power.

It’s important to note that Pokémon Mystery Dungeon Rescue Team DX’s world is separate from the worlds in which humans and Pokémon interact. It’s very different from, say, the Galar region in Pokémon Sword and Shield or the Sinnoh region in the upcoming Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. In the rescue team world, Pokémon live among one another in both natural spaces and organised towns. It’s implied that the human world exists somewhere, as the player character was previously a human, but the two worlds never directly intersect in the game.

Pokémon Mystery Dungeon Rescue Team DX

Despite this distinction, Rescue Team DX’s environment contains evidence that humans once lived there, but also shows that these locations have since been “reclaimed” by nature and Pokémon. Pokémon live in places like the Power Plant, where it appears that humans used to work. In Red Rescue Team and Blue Rescue Team, the Power Plant was in an area called the Ruins, implying that it’s been there for a long time and that it was once part of another civilisation. It’s plausible to believe that this means humans were once a part of this environment, but for whatever reason, they are no longer present and their structures are in decay, leaving nature and Pokémon to overtake the world on their own. The main character’s state of being as a human who has turned into a Pokémon (and ultimately elects to stay in that form) implies that the human world exists simultaneously but separate from the Pokémon-only world. There must be humans somewhere… just not in this world – anymore.

“…even when times are difficult and stress is high, we find a way to shape our environment into a useful, meaningful, positive thing”

These themes of natural growth and the reclamation of human structures are part of the game’s overall positive feelings toward all types of natural worlds, even virtual ones. What does it mean when a human space, like the Power Plant, is no longer inhabited by humans? We’ve all seen recent pictures of empty places like malls, stores and restaurants; places that are usually busy and bustling but that are now eerily deserted thanks to the pandemic. Though these real-world spaces are far from a state of natural reclamation, they’re similar to the Power Plant in that they are all human-centric spaces devoid of those they were designed for.

In any other context, including a COVID-19 context, seeing these empty spaces is a sad, nostalgic feeling; we miss inhabiting those environments that were constructed for us. However, the presence of abandoned spaces in Pokémon Mystery Dungeon Rescue Team DX is a positive, even happy occurrence, as Pokémon have learned to live in harmony in an environment that wasn’t designed for them – yet suits them quite well, when you consider that electric-type Pokémon frequently inhabit the Power Plant. It’s a testament to the resilience of nature and of living beings: even when times are difficult and stress is high, we find a way to shape our environment into a useful, meaningful, positive thing.


Portal 2

If we’re discussing natural reclamation and human-centric spaces devoid of those they were designed for, we can’t not talk about the world of Portal 2. Originally released in 2011, I first played the game as a high school student in 2014. It’s not an exaggeration when I say that Portal 2 is the reason I work in games – that’s the kind of impact it had on me. I didn’t revisit its world until a few months ago on a whim when I was looking for a co-op title to play with my partner. One thing led to another, and suddenly we had beaten the entire single-player story again. Playing the game during quarantine gave me a new perspective on its dingy, dark environments.

Similarly and yet not similarly to Pokémon Mystery Dungeon Rescue Team DX, Portal 2 presents a space made for humans that… doesn’t have any humans in it. The broken rooms of Aperture Laboratories have decayed and been reclaimed in many cases by nature. The facility has grown “wild”; many of the game’s early test chambers have plants and trees growing over or into parts of the room. Video screens, elevators and other modern items are broken or in disarray. This contrast between the thriving natural and the struggling artificial showcases the idea that nature’s course is inevitable; at some point, even the sturdiest and most advanced of human structures will return to a green state.

Portal 2

The voiceovers and short videos that accompany these early test chambers give glimpses as to what the facility was like before its decay (which can also be seen in the original Portal): a bustling, pristine space full of people. These glimpses serve to make the environment feel even more empty and to make the player character, the lone (live) human in the facility, feel even more isolated. When you put everything together, it makes for an unsettling and lonely world – a world you want to explore more. What happened at Aperture? How did it go from the active facility seen in the first game to this crumbled, half-functioning space?

Portal 2 is an extremely linear game, both in narrative and in gameplay, but it offers a significant amount of exploration potential for players who want to know more than what’s explicitly told. The game’s moody lighting and layered sound design frequently direct players to hidden chambers and points of interest that they may have missed otherwise. Portal 2 rewards intrepid explorers with a wealth of story hints, achievements, and interesting landscapes, which tells me that the game wants you to explore within its limited confines. The linearity of the game doesn’t detract from this in the slightest; in fact, it enhances it. The hints, clues, and titbits that you find become much more meaningful when they’re all service to one specific story and set of predefined player actions. The player discovers that this tale of history, escape, and revenge becomes even deeper when they consider the myriad of information hidden throughout the game’s environment. Portal 2 is asking you to explore.

“In lieu of being able to visit the outside world, another place that practically begs you to explore, Portal 2 gave me the opportunity to delve into a different world.”

This request to explore runs counter to what we’re experiencing in the real world right now: an instruction to stay home, to save your adventures for another time. In lieu of being able to visit the outside world, another place that practically begs you to explore, Portal 2 gave me the opportunity to delve into a different world. The environment of Aperture isn’t necessarily beautiful or happy, nor does it contain the sort of uplifting and positive themes that many of us have come to rely on during the pandemic; however, this makes it rather refreshing to me. Instead, it’s detailed and compelling, like any good mystery should be. (No other game makes me put on my tin foil hat like Portal 2 does.)

In the game’s second half, the presence of the natural and the idea of reclamation gives way to structures that are fully artificial, but still broken. The progression of previous iterations of the Aperture facility considers an alternate history, one whose goal is to make the player ask: what if things had turned out this way in the real world? What if such a place had existed? This alternate history aspect is mostly played up for tragicomedy by the game, but it made me think about what the world would be like if other major events had been different. What if, say, the pandemic had never happened?

Portal 2

Exploring old test chambers gave me the sense that I was a visitor in another time and space, free of the restrictions that come with the world we live in now. This feeling isn’t unique to Portal 2; in fact, I felt the same way while playing all of the games discussed in this essay. However, the feeling was strongest while exploring Aperture simply because of all of the game’s details. The test chambers are dated, and watchful players can construct an almost-complete alternate timeline based on the voiceovers, wall signs, and other environmental elements within the game. The relatively recent “occurrence” of these events in the game’s history and the significant number of details makes it all the more believable.

In Portal 2, sometimes you’re finding the tiny details, and sometimes you are the tiny detail. The game’s incredible sense of visual scale constantly makes the environment feel massive and you miniscule by comparison. There are several segments where you have to unlock huge hatches, make death-defying jumps, and follow lengthy pipelines. These sequences serve to remind the player that they are constantly at odds with their environment, an intruder in a space that was not designed for them. When I look up at a hatch that seems as though it’s several stories high, I feel smaller than I’ve ever felt.

“We are truly living in strange times if the unsettling, dangerous world of Aperture is considered a solace – yet here we are.”

This feeling is a pleasant contrast to the physical spaces we’ve been inhabiting due to COVID-19. The less we’re able to leave our rooms, apartments, and homes, the smaller and more constricting they feel. In real life, I feel too large for my environment, frequently constrained by its size; travelling to see things that are much larger than me, whether they be mountains or skyscrapers, is a luxury that seems further out of my grasp than ever. In the absence of these real-life forces, the enormity of the environment in Portal 2 serves not only as an impetus to explore, but a reminder that in the grand scheme of things, we are truly very small. In normal times, this would be a distressing or even existential crisis-causing reminder, but in today’s locked-down world, it’s strangely comforting. We are truly living in strange times if the unsettling, dangerous world of Aperture is considered a solace – yet here we are.

***

Over the course of playing these games – and many more – under the physical and mental effects of lockdown, their worlds slowly became more real to me than the outside world. Increasingly, the outside world was a dream, a fleeting memory of something that I had experienced in the past. Though this may sound dramatic, consider that recent generations have no precedent for this kind of large-scale biological event – not in my lifetime, my parents’ lifetime, or even my grandparents’ lifetime.

As I unwillingly turned my back on the natural world, the presence of virtual worlds acted as both a salve to help me get through quarantine and a hidden wealth of new experiences and adventures in those games I loved the most. Worlds in the games I played were populated with interesting people, new places to explore, and important considerations to make. It’s exactly what the real world is made up of, but that’s more than a little inaccessible right now.

In the absence of access to the real world, game worlds become infinitely more real in that they provide us with many of the necessities of the outdoor world while also giving us the adventures we crave. In light of such a situation as the pandemic, there is no question in my mind now that the worlds and environments of games can be as powerful and necessary to players as the real world itself. They can function as both a replacement of the real world and new spaces that run parallel to it. Video games give us opportunities we wouldn’t have had otherwise in a state none of us ever thought we’d find ourselves in.