Warning: There may be spoilers for the video game Red Dead Redemption 2 in the final paragraph.
Dear Diary, it’s Matt again. How have you been? Going out, having a cappuccino, a glass of wine, going to the cinema? What, me? No, I’ve been a total homebody. Barely left the house, except for the occasional brief stroll. Though that’s not entirely true: I did leave the house – just virtually.
Especially now over Easter, I’ve been putting in a fair few hours in Virtual Reality, donning my snazzy (translate: silly-looking) VR headsets and escaping to lower-res shores. So where does one go during a pandemic? In my case, it’s mainly been two places lately – and neither could really be described as great escapist fare.
Ironically, one of the two games I’ve been playing in VR is called (wait for it…) Alien: Isolation, a game I’ve written about before. It is a video-game sequel to Ridley Scott’s original Alien, and thanks to the magic of fan modifications, it can be played entirely in VR. So here I am, creeping around a mostly-but-unfortunately-not-entirely deserted space station, staying away from the handful of other people because they’re dangerous. Yes, social distancing is very much the name of the game – even more so when it comes to the other one stalking the corridors of Sevastopol Station: a deadly organism that has bad things in mind for you, and in this case it doesn’t matter how old you are and what other conditions you may have, you and everyone else is very much in the risk group. If only this alien was susceptible to human bacteria or viruses, like those shortsighted invaders from Mars that H.G. Wells wrote about! And if you face a Gigeresque creature with acid for blood and a second jaw, a face mask isn’t going to help much.
So on to the next slice of VR goodness: Half-Life: Alyx, the continuation of a story that was left in limbo thirteen years ago. No slime-dripping xenomorphs in this one, just your bog-standard multidimensional invasion force – but again, the world of the game is eerily familiar: curfews are in place, people stay inside, because the outside is dangerous. Combine soldiers won’t just give you a stern talking to and a fine if they see you gallivanting around the deserted streets of City 17, so most of the time you’re decidedly safer if you just stay out of sight.
City 17 is very much inspired by Soviet cities, and there are signposts and posters everywhere telling you to behave, or else… and one of the signs I found in an abandoned industrial plant instructed me – though in Cyrillic writing – to wash my hands. I kid you not. The empty flats I explore may hold the occasional clip of ammunition, but there’s little food that isn’t tinned, and there’s a distinct lack of toilet paper in the dingy bathrooms. Is this what we’ll have to look forward to in a few months, if the lockdown persists? That is, when we’re not engaged in shootouts with soldiers patrolling the streets and evading headcrabs scuttling around looking for a cranium to hug tight?
Why do I do this to myself during a global pandemic? Why do I seek out the dystopias and the isolation, even in as escapist a medium as video games? Is it that in games, I still have more control over the situation, and I can look at the things that frighten me over the barrel of a gun or a flamethrower? There’s definitely a sense of catharsis that comes with the action of games. And it’s not as if I only play Alien: Isolation and Half-Life: Alyx these days. No, a lot of my gaming time is spend in the dying Old West of Red Dead Redemption 2, where I’m mostly ignoring the plot and instead heading to the woods… fending for myself…far away from people… and my character has a persistent cough and may just be suffering from a respiratory illness that I may have caught when some dude coughed in my face…