At the beginning of the pandemic, depressed from losing steady freelance work and my social life in the city, I promised my wife: no postapocalyptic video games, no Armageddon hand-wringing. We’d just moved 45 minutes from Manhattan to a 100-year-old fixer-upper, because we both felt that living in a 450-square-foot apartment wasn’t sustainable forever and we wanted more space that we could actually afford.
When we moved I felt out of place, a lifelong city girl trapped in a suburban town, far from walkable distance to friends and my favorite hangouts. When I told people that I was moving to Jersey, they’d say, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry” and pat my shoulder. My wife loved living amongst the deer and woods. She couldn’t understand that not being able to go for a walk and eat questionably safe street meat at 1:00 am felt stifling to me. We were living in an updated version of Green Acres played by two biracial, middle-aged geeks.
Suddenly Covid-19 hit and ravaged New York, and everything changed. The weekly trips I took to the city for meetings, classes, or appointments that provided some feeling of freedom were all gone. Living in the ’burbs already felt claustrophobic to me—now it felt like full-on imprisonment.
I struggled to play open-world RPGs with idyllic views of fictional meadows and forests. After a while, I could barely bring myself to keep going into my gaming room, a converted closet with a single-window to the outdoors. I’d compare the waterfalls and trees in Skyrim against the walls of my tiny office, which seemed smaller and more suffocating as the weeks dragged on.
Eventually, I ended up turning to games about worlds ripped apart by war, violence, and human depravity. Unexpectedly, they made me feel much better. It wasn’t immersing myself in dystopian suffering that helped me to see things from a different perspective, but, rather, imagining how fictional people defeated insurmountable odds in worlds staged after the collapse of civilization that made me hopeful for the future.
Fallout 4: Finding More Than a Friend in a Good, Good Neighbor
I went back and started up Fallout 4, arguably my least favorite game in the series. The protagonist’s default spouse didn’t seem to have a lot of screen time to develop a personality, and I felt little incentive to play all of the quests when the main one involves searching for the main character’s son. After all, what monster would spend 40 hours doing side missions knowing that their child’s been kidnapped?
In my new playthrough, I created Bobby Sue, an I Love Lucy lookalike who beats people up with a giant lead pipe. Giving up hope on her lost son, Bobby Sue decided to live out her dreams of the theater degree she never pursued in the apocalypse, slapping on costume pieces like wigs or a tricorne hat and defending small villages by breaking the kneecaps of Super Mutants. Bobby Sue eventually found a love interest in Magnolia, a lounge singer played by Lynda Carter at a run-down old bar. I made a point to walk into the Third Rail at the end of each job, order a whiskey, then quietly toss a mutated fern flower I’d found onto the stage as Magnolia finished her song. Throughout each of the Fallout games, the background music makes so much of the story and sets the mood. Playing Billie Holiday while looking at the dilapidated skyscrapers and irradiated plains is an ironic look at the past, a commentary of corny, simpler, bygone times. Yet had everything good in this world died if Magnolia’s songs still stirred the heart of the protagonist each time?
Bobby Sue may not ever find her lost son, but for now she’s having too much fun making eyes at the original Wonder Woman and getting drunk while dressed up like Alexander Hamilton. There was something endearing about this dainty slip of a woman with a Donna Reed haircut that had enough strength to lift a sledgehammer above her head and take down four men. In a world bereft of everything she ever knew or loved, she ended up finding one thing: herself.