These past 14 or so months have been an endless time loop for the majority of people; regardless of age, occupation, or status, the pandemic and consequent quarantine periods have forced most businesses to utilize remote work practices, and most households to become a makeshift workplace, and entertainment center, as well as being…a house! Even for me, someone who considered themselves more of a “house cat” rather than an outgoing individual, these past months made me realize just how much stuff I did outside of home and how much I’ve missed them; just the simple fact that I used to stay at home, didn’t mean I wasn’t having people over or I wasn’t going over to a friend’s house, a fact I won’t forget when the “old ways” return. However, as we edge closer and closer to returning to “normal”, I find myself feeling the toll of social distancing even more and I also find myself drawn towards experiences that remind me of that…or allow me to break the shit out of it; I never thought that the games I would be most into during a yearlong quarantine would be Loop Hero ( a game about running the same loop over and over again in a hopelessly bleak setting) and Dysmantle (a survival, early access game where I get to break down houses with a baseball bat). However, the more I think about those games and why they grabbed me so hard, the more sense it makes.
Take Dysmantle, for example. Clearly, the fact that I can break walls out of houses – similar to the ones I find myself confined in on a daily basis – seems therapeutic enough, but I’ve played this game for close to 20 hours and that is not something you can realistically do for the first 10 hours, so what have I been doing for the first half of the game and is destroying walls really enough to carry a game? The answer is, obviously, no; I dismantled (see what they did there?!) everything I could, I got resources, I found a near campsite to deposit them, I crafted/upgraded something new, I explored a new/old place to find new stuff to break down, rinse repeat. Since this is an early access title currently, a lot of the filler or overwhelming crafting systems are not in place yet, so I can be as casual as I want to be and not feel like I’m stagnating or being inefficient, and most goals I set for my character, can be achieved within a single session. Having said that, you can take a bat (which I don’t have) and absolutely demolish a CRT monitor (which I also don’t have) and everyone should get to live through that, even in make believe game worlds! The fun doesn’t stop there either; toasters, old game consoles, beds, drawers, you name it! Yeah, there are zombies you can smack around too, but zombies are nothing compared to slashing huge tractor tires with a katana! What I enjoy the most though is not necessarily the release of frustration (this isn’t a particularly challenging game where beating it will be a process of learning and mastering), but how it allows me to stare at the same screen I’ve been staring at for the whole day and achieve something I want to, just by having the patience and the commitment to do so. I see a house, I take care of those pesky zombies, and I slowly and systematically break it down, collect the resources, build something new, and marvel at the place where something used to be, before I decided to dismantle it; also, as a fan of Ron Livingston and Office Space, destroying an old electronic appliance with a bat in an empty field with dramatic music blaring has been a life-long dream of mine and games are the best form of wish fulfillment!
However, I am less surprised that I love Dysmantle and more relieved; I’m always suckered into buying a survival game, spend a couple of hours with it, and drop it for the same exact reasons I dropped the previous survival games I tried. When Devolver Digital announced Loop Hero I thought “this is going straight to my wishlist and won’t go into my library until a 75% discount”, because of how little intersect the game seemed to have with my interests. I find idle games boring and the look/premise of the game did nothing for me; in fact, the only reason I knew of its existence came from fondness of the publisher’s previous games. Then the buzz started coming in and I found a good deal, so I took the plunge and I couldn’t be more surprised by it; in all ways, it is exactly the game they promoted it as, but I also learned that it is – in essence – a puzzle game. You loop endlessly to gather resources and loot by placing buildings and tiles around the map that spawn creatures or have specific attributes; reach a specific threshold and a boss will spawn. If you die, you lose 70% of your resources; if you retreat you lose 40%; if you retreat while in camp, you keep everything. You have a hub space outside of the loop where you can build structures, using your resources, that give you new cards (buildings and tiles for the loop), better stats, better starting gear. I relished the challenge and puzzle-like nature of figuring out the right balance between having enough stuff on the map to get the resources, the loot, and spawn the boss, while also not damning my character to a loop that they will barely get out off; even getting that balance wrong, there is skill in understanding that before it is too late and taking the right risks at the right time. I don’t think you need to be in “galaxy brain” mode to see where I’m going with this. Working from home has a lot to do with maintaining balance; doing your job in the same room you usually relax can be challenging, but not leaving the house for days at a time can be a living hell for people and Loop Hero’s core loop is a reflection of that real struggle in an entertaining and fun new perspective. My reason for falling in love with it though is the evocative and strongly-worded story; the game literally begins in darkness and our character remembers nothing. They do not know what the world was nor what the world is; they stumble upon a path and they follow it endlessly and with each new bit of information the world seems grimmer. Creatures exist that don’t want humanity to survive and try to finish the job that the apocalypse failed to do. Each new human is a reminder of how screwed humanity is, with no one being able to remember anything and the further away they go from the hub, the more lost they are. Even the bosses reveal new tidbits of despairing information like how God has forsaken us and really wants to correct his “mistake”; however, while that satisfies our masochistic lust for personal fears to be represented in their worst extend and have characters deal with that so we can experience it through them, a tragedy this is not. Our character simply refuses to give in, not even for a second; when they die, they get right back out on the loop and go again; when the bosses reveal their “truths” they dismiss them, regardless of how truthful they are; when they meet the creatures that could share the world with, but they don’t want us to keep existing, our character fights. They are going to bring back humanity from the brink of extinction regardless of who stands in their way, and that is a bright light of optimism in the face of complete despair I want to have every day while the real-world situation keeps going.
I am surprised by how much I like both these games and I’m excited to have them right now and have their niche, specific ‘medicine’ to help me through these times. I’m not that much of an outgoing individual and even I have been hit hard by what is happening in the world, so having a game to reflect that and ‘gameify’ it, while also being incredibly optimistic is something I truly cherish. Regardless, at the end of the day, I’ll put on some tunes and use my upgraded bat to smash the crap out of that freaking microwave and get some electronic parts out of it. That’s a pretty good way to let off some steam and relax at the end of another loop (and a lot less expensive!).