Gaming During the Pandemic: Not at All What I Imagined It to Be

A look back on gaming, the beauty and the excess.

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I have fond childhood video game memories. Sleepovers with friends as we tried to unlock all the characters in Super Smash Bros. and its sequels. My Pokémon team by my side on long car rides. The battles huddles around the mythical wired connection cables only one friend seemed to have. The journeys to far off worlds fighting off enemy swarms on modes far too difficult for our skill level.

I reveled in the days where games were a portal into a world I wanted to explore, where characters were avatars for the people I hoped I could be. Gaming was summer time, no school, no work, freedom, friendship, adventure. Gaming meant taking a break from everything else going on and simply enjoying my time.

My Pokémon team and I were inseparable in my youth. (Pokémon Sword and Shield: Isle of Armor DLC)

For many years, I firmly believed that gaming would always be there, as a retreat and as a place of solace.

A year and a half into the pandemic, I find myself burdened by the dust settling on my well-used but now untouched consoles. My game library is an eerie scene, filled with a collection of games which hold none of that fantastical energy of youth but rather the staleness of adulthood.

Simply put, I had burnt out of gaming.

Back to the Start of the Pandemic

On March 11th, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Life changed dramatically, with social distancing, quarantining, and work-from-home becoming our new normal.

I admit I was one of the lucky few – I could work-from-home, had home and food security, and my friends and loved ones were largely in similar positions.

Oh, and I could play video games to pass the time.

And at that time, there were so many exciting video games right around the corner. Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Doom Eternal were 9 days away from launch, Persona 5 Royal was slated for the end of March, and Final Fantasy VII REMAKE was finally making it into gamers’ hands in early April. Beyond that, The Last of Us: Part II, Ghost of Tsushima, Cyberpunk 2077, and more all promised exceptional gameplay experiences for the rest of the year to come (although two of these three turned out to be controversial, to say the least).

Deprived of my routine, lacking in regular social company, and trying to stay positive in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, I found the warm embrace of video gaming’s digital world.

A character who starts out as a “vulgar boy” becomes one of your closest allies and friends. The journey to friendship with the game’s many characters is special. (Persona 5)

It was in this time that the social simulators Persona 5 Royal and New Horizons embodied everything I was missing and everything I was searching for. Royal was the existence perhaps I was most looking for during the pandemic: sociality. Although the game is known for its narrative beats, legendary soundtrack, and quality aesthetics, it was the down time with friends I lingered on the most. To sit down at a café, have a conversation in a jazz bar, or workout with an overeager athletic friend. These were the moments I missed the most at the beginning of the pandemic.

New Horizons presented a different type of sociality, one that was less invested in the deep relationships between characters and more interested in the day-to-day milieu. Picking weeds, chopping wood, slowly paying off debt by catching too many Sea Bass in one day – these are activities I normally would have little to no interest in. But there was a sense of purpose: cleaning up and building out the island and seeing my fellow villagers do the same. Even if at the end of the day this whole place was fabricated and the work done all told in 1s and 0s, I felt like I had accomplished something.

When my little enclosed world seemed to have little meaning, video games filled me with a sense of purpose. To interact with virtual friends and work towards some achievable goal. There was a drive to turning on my console that could not be matched by the virtual meetings and classrooms. It got me out of bed every morning, at the very least.

There was a lot of fishing and weed pulling in the first couple days, but even these small tasks felt like they had a purpose. (Animal Crossing: New Horizons)

These first couple of months, I had trouble finding a my new rhythm. The pandemic has been an extremely disorienting time, the start more so than at any other point. I leaned into video games. Luckily, they caught me.

When Safety Becomes a Crutch

It was around June when COVID-19 case numbers in the US started dropping. It was right after the first wave and with summer right around the corner, there was hope that the pandemic was nearing a close. Perhaps it was the social distancing and masking we all did that made a difference and we could slowly find our sense of normal again.

In the moment of tepid optimism, I expected things to slowly return to normal. I signed my lease for another year in anticipation of going back to in-person activities by the fall. I even starting going outdoors, biking, and swimming at the places I could.

My optimism was misplaced. Cases surged through the summer and winter. Too many stopped partaking in the precautions necessary to quell the virus. Plans to return to normal stopped. It was back to social distancing, but now with an added fear that this virus worked beyond the scope of our knowledge.

It was sudden but I was back. Back within the walls which seemed to have shrunk ever so slightly. I leaned deeper into video games as a way to soothe the unending reality.

What differed about this moment and the one that came before was a sense of lost hope. This was true, too, with video games.

Even if the games did have their bright spots, they began to feel paper-thin after the first couple months of 2020. (Paper Mario: The Origami King)

During the last couple months of 2020 and into 2021, the momentum within the gaming world ground to a halt. The first half of 2020 was stacked with once-in-a-generation games, each one in some way pushing its game, franchise, or genre into unexplored territory. The second half just couldn’t match up.

Understandably, many games were delayed due to COVID-19 and new work-from-home realities. Development teams around the world deserve credit for continuing to work through the hardships of the pandemic and persevering (admittedly, sometimes against their will).

It is certainly not their fault that the pernicious gaming machine roared louder and more ferociously than ever before in late 2020. Remakes flooded the marketplace, with little in the way of new IPs or creativity. Imagine spending several months playing games you’ve already played, with slightly new graphics but at a much higher price. It left a bitter taste in my mouth, one that couldn’t be erased by nostalgia.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars perhaps was the biggest let-down in this regard. A compilation of Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy should be an indisputable homerun. Much more so because it was released as part of Super Mario’s 35th Anniversary. Yet the only thing undeniable about the game was that it was undeniably minimal effort.

Nintendo didn’t even put the effort into porting over Super Mario Galaxy 2, the game seemingly disappearing into the nether even in the advertising. For the most iconic video game character, on his 35th anniversary, and with three of his most beloved entries, Nintendo dropped the ball. The company preyed on our nostalgia and manufactured limited availability to create one of the most disappointing video game experiences of the pandemic.

But it wasn’t just remakes that fell flat; it was also the new IPs. They promised to burst onto the scene with a completely new worlds, next-generation gameplay, and experiences like no other. Expecting development to match pre-pandemic levels is unreasonable – perhaps why there were so many remakes – so developers should be pardoned in critiques of games at this time. But the fact that so many subpar games released nonetheless says a lot about the industry’s sharp move away from gaming as a creative task and towards monetization opportunities.

A world like this was expected. Instead, we got something a little more lifeless. (Cyberpunk 2077) PC: CD Projekt Red

Cyberpunk 2077 was supposed to be The Game – not just of 2020, but of all time. Marketing promised everything under the sun. From NPCs who would have live their own life to branching stories with significant player input, Cyberpunk 2077 was poised to leap multiple generations in terms of gaming technology.

Well, we all know how that one turned out (very poorly, if you ask almost anyone on the internet).

Industry-wide, it’s almost become standard to overpromise and rectify later. To get as many pre-orders and full price sales fills the pockets of industry leaders but hurts consumers at the end of the day.

These strategies include heaps of DLC, lootboxes, yearly “refreshes” on games, pre-order exclusive bonuses, and upcharging with the release of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S, among others.

When gaming became the focus of my life, these pain points became glaringly obvious. Beyond the lack of entertainment value from these less-than-stellar games, how could I continue deeply supporting and relying on an industry invested in such manipulative practices?

I put my controllers down and walked away.

For Now, Coda

The beauty of gaming still exists. I still feel its pull every now and then. (Hollow Knight)

I remember one particular winter morning in my childhood, waking up bright-eyed and excited about the day to come. I was still in my pyjamas as I rushed out of bed into my family’s living room. There was a certain twinkle and magic which was more than visible in the stillness of the not-yet morning.

As my parents arose from all my rustling, we all gathered around a small pile of wrapped gifts located in the far corner of a room. One particularly large, very square box caught my attention, and with a soft firmness, I ripped apart the paper which separated me from what I truly desired. Inside was a Nintendo GameCube, almost gleaming in all its brilliance.

The GameCube was the perfect system for me. The missteps, flaws, and passionate experimentation that defined the platform and its games matched my own feelings of insecurity and soul searching in my youth. The highs were high, and the lows were low. But neither games nor I would have gotten to where we are now without these experiments. In a way, gaming and I grew up together.

It has been almost 20 years since I received that gift, and while the beauty of the moment remains, gaming doesn’t quite mean the same to me as it did then. As I grew older, more things came to occupy my time – friendships, school, and work, among others – and I slowly drifted away from the medium.

The realities of social distancing and working-at-home brought me closer to gaming again, for better and for worse. The depth of my fall into Mushroom Kingdom, Hyrule, post-apocalyptic US, Hollownest, and more gave me so much joy in a time when there was so little of it. Yet, it gave me a first-hand look at the monsters gaming lets lurk within. Lost was the magic, in its place avarice.

Gaming has changed. I have also changed. Gaming through the pandemic has helped me see clearly the monetization tactics, the short cuts, and the false promises the industry has begun to brazenly lean into.

It’s ok for me to ask for more. It’s ok for me to ask for better. As I continue to play games, I also know it’s ok for me to step away when the time is right, to put down my controllers until the next time a game can capture the magic I need.

For many, this moment was the magic of gaming. The biggest collaboration in gaming of history spanning our favorite games. (Super Smash Brothers Ultimate) PC: Nintendo

30+ (and Counting) Games/DLC I Reviewed During the Pandemic

Below you’ll find all the games I have reviewed since the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Even through this period of reevaluations, I still needed to review games for TechTheLead. There were good games, bad games, but all were games that helped me come to a place that I am now. There are also handful on games I played that are not on here (for example, Doom Eternal, which was wonderfully reviewed by a fellow editor). Those were either replays of games I had played, games not really for reviewing, or games I could not finish enough to review.

Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX (April 2nd, 2020)

Animal Crossing: New Horizons (April 11th, 2020)

Nioh 2 (April 15th, 2020)

Resident Evil 3 Remake (April 23rd, 2020)

Final Fantasy VII REMAKE (May 23rd, 2020)

Persona 5 Royal (May 27th, 2020)

Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition (June 15th, 2020)

Pokémon Sword & Shield: The Isle of Armor (June 19th, 2020)

Smash Ultimate Min Min DLC (July 1st, 2020)

The Last of Us: Part II (July 17th, 2020)

Stardew Valley (July 21st, 2020)

Paper Mario: The Origami King (August 12th, 2020)

Ghost of Tsushima (August 23rd, 2020)

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 (September 23rd, 2020)

Super Mario 3D All-Stars (October 15th, 2020)

Pokémon Sword & Shield: The Crown Tundra (November 6th, 2020)

Pikmin 3 Deluxe (November 26th, 2020)

Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity (November 30th, 2020)

Smash Ultimate Sephiroth DLC (December 27th, 2020)

Indie Games – Spelunky 2, Among Us, inBento, Hollow Knight (January 5th, 2021)

Cyberpunk 2077 (February 1st, 2021)

Monster Hunter Rise Demo (February 5th, 2021)

Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury (April 18th, 2021)

Persona 5 Strikers (April 30th, 2021)

Hades (May 12th, 2021)

Ori and the Blind Forest / Ori and the Will of the Wisps (June 28th, 2021)

Smash Ultimate Kazuya DLC (July 1st, 2021)

Mario Golf: Super Rush (July 3rd, 2021)

Scarlet Nexus (July 26th, 2021)

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD (August 7th, 2021)

WarioWare: Get It Together (Demo) (August 21st, 2021)

Deltarune Chapter 2 (October 12th, 2021)

Metroid Dread (October 20th, 2021)

Smash Ultimate Sora DLC (October 20th, 2021)

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Gaming During the Pandemic: Not at All What I Imagined It to Be
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