Run. Die. Repeat.
This is how I have gotten through 2020. Not the only way — not my only comfort, of course — but a big one. The pandemic, lockdowns, the election, the world. Things have been rough. Bleak on the good days, horrifying on the bad ones. I don’t sleep a lot anymore. My focus is shattered into a hundred small pieces that I painstakingly assemble into days. I have lost things that I will never get back. We all have, whether we want to cop to it or not. But we find ways to stitch the days into weeks and the weeks into a year that has felt like ten of them or a minute or forever.
Video games have always gotten me through bad times. I’ve used them like medicine, like magic to stave off depression, to re-connect with old friends scattered around the country by the scrambling of adulthood, and to buy myself moments of dissociative calm when the entire world seems to be crumbling. Big, open-world games have always been my thing. Dissolving into the minutiae of imaginary places. Learning to walk through Hyrule or Los Santos or Skellige. Fighting someone else’s monsters when my own seemed too overpowered to even consider.
And you’d think that slipping into the warm bath of alternate worlds would be the ideal balm for 2020 — of shedding this limping half-life of lay-offs and tear gas to roar through the Wasteland with Mad Max, walk with Ellie and Abby in The Last Of Us 2 or Deacon in Days Gone. And I tried. Over and over again, I looked for some escape, some peace in the operatic violence of pixels, a story that wasn’t my own and outcomes that I had some hand in controlling. In the past — in every other moment and every other year — I could trust in the push-button magic to transport me. But not now.
Back in April or May, I couldn’t sleep. An epic run of insomnia. Night after night of rest taken in sips of 15 mins or a half-hour, interrupted by nightmares and racing thoughts and panic that came on like a bear in the room.
Too exhausted for Red Dead, Far Cry or XCom, I took to sleeping with my Switch beside me. Animal Crossing was all anyone could talk about, but I eschewed Tom Nook’s cartoon capitalism for a throwback robots-vs-monsters turn-based game called Into The Breach.
Breach was stupid-simple and stupid-hard both at the same time. You play the game with three massive robots (rendered tiny on the battlefield grid) that fight bug monsters (called the Vek) lunching on various human islands. Each map has objectives and a set number of turns. You fight, gain weapons, gain experience, and then, almost inevitably, sometimes VERY quickly, die.
But because video games, death isn’t death. Death is temporary. And as soon as the lights go out on humanity, one of your pilots gets time-traveled back to the beginning of the battle with all their earned experience to fight again.
Run. Die. Repeat.
It worked on me like swallowing half a Valium — not enough to put me under, but enough that I no longer cared. The repetition was sedating, the complexities of planning each defense and choreographing each series of moves engaging enough to keep my brain from spiraling into whatever doom-loop was waiting for me just on the other side of the Switch’s glowing screen.
Until that spring, I’d never really been a fan of roguelikes — that particular genre of games that exist within an architecture of procedurally generated levels, permadeath, incremental growth and near-infinite repeatability. They’d always seemed pointlessly grind-y to me, deliberately light on story, relentlessly murderous. Breach, though, was only glancingly roguelike in its play/die/play mechanic and minimal carry-over of experience. But for me, it was a gateway, a lifeline. In the feedback loop of fighting and dying and starting again (knowing a little more, having a little more), I found some small, strange comfort. No death was meaningless. No time playing was wasted. Most important, it absolutely ate the vapid hours when sleep wouldn’t come.
After Breach, I started searching out the roguelikes, the grinders, loving (for the first time) the incremental progress and the sense of tiny, pointless accomplishments that led to larger, more satisfying ones.
Dead Cells hooked me for weeks. Gorgeously decrepit, grossly biological, viciously stabby, it is a platformer where you play as a blob of sentient goo animating an endless series of dead bodies in an attempt to escape from a prison island. The lore in Cells is almost vanishingly scant. A note, a message scratched into a wall. There’s little you need to know, and even less offered. There were guards, monsters trapped in the walls, a disease that spread until it wiped almost everything away. You want to escape. You’ll kill anything that stands in your way though, mostly, those things will kill you. Complete a level and you’ll get to turn in whatever cells you’ve collected, gain powers and abilities that will make the next run a little bit easier, allow you to run a little bit further before, inevitably, something will kill you.
Run. Die. Repeat.
Hollow Knight, FTL (by the same two-man studio that made Breach), Darkest Dungeon — I sat with all of them, finished none of them. Hades is on just about everyone’s Game Of The Year lists, and for good reason. It does the same thing — tickles the same neurons, leans into the same model. You are Zagreus, prince of Hell, trying to escape and failing over and over again. But each time you come back stronger, knowing a little bit more. It is an addictive loop, strengthened by permanent upgrades and an engaging story of fathers and mothers and sons, Greek gods and goth-y snark. Zagreus has an attitude. He doesn’t care how often he fails or what misstep or monster finally brings him down. He’ll just heave himself up, shake off the loss and try again.
Screenshot by Jason Sheehan/Double Fine/Bandai Namco Entertainment
But Rad was my perfect encapsulation of moment and madness this year. It is the story of Los Angeles after a double-apocalypse, laid waste and full of mysteries. I went into it as a green-haired punk kid with a baseball bat, smashing everything I saw. But beneath its candy-colored surface (and sweet, rapid-fire, Valley-tinged 80’s references to VCRs and MX missiles), there was something more: a world of abandoned machines and overgrown arcades, hidden facilities and crumbling suburbs. Cassette tapes are the currency in Rad. You spend them on mutations, on health items, on making each run a little bit easier, a little bit longer. Nothing is explained. All the perks and mechanics are opaque until you stumble upon their usefulness. I’d start a run as a boy, die as a crab-legged monstrosity shooting fireballs out of my arms, and then start over again whole. And somehow it felt like doing something. It felt like success.
Because that’s where we all are now. Where we’ve all been for months upon endless months. We sit in our houses like prisoners, make furtive, masked excursions into the ruined world, lose more than we gain. We are living in a grinder of our own design, a roguelike reality awash in violence and disease. Our gains are small ones when they come at all. Every day is Groundhog Day, repeating and repeating, smearing together even as the seasons change, and roguelikes can feel like a comfort because they model our daily lives so horrifyingly well. We wake up, fight our way through Zoom meetings and grocery deliveries, bake bread and binge-watch, struggle to understand how we got here and how we might find our way out again, sleep. We run, die and repeat, and hope that each day we get a little bit stronger, a little bit wiser.
That each day brings us one day closer to something better. Or one day closer to escape.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.