2020: Flickers of Apocalypse

It’s not what you think. Apocalypse, in its modern definition, means destruction, devastation, the end of all things. However, in its original meaning, it connotes an unveiling, a new understanding, a revelation. Apocalypses are going to happen, the only question is how will they work and what they will mean. We, of course, live in an incredibly overwhelming and distressing time, but not a unique one. This brings me a lot of comfort. I trust that yet more things will be unveiled and that the unveiling will be filled with righteous rage and joyous overturning.

In a year where we all, I think, felt the weight of that, here are some games that inspired me to continue.

Marginalia

Horror is home grown. It whispers from the books on your shelf, from the wood and concrete underneath your feet. Signs of it lingers on signposts, on the text of monuments, in the breath of a lover in the winter breeze. Marginalia knows this, so it gives its horror in footnotes of colonial history. Haunted settlers built towns doomed to die and then decay into ghosts. Old covens of witches called distant lights that linger in the mountains above the forest. You go deeper and deeper until you find its heart. America is haunted, it will shatter before it survives.

EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY

In games, we are very very bad at caring for each other. This is because games, such as they are, are not “real” communities. We are professional networks, friendships, small pockets of discord servers and Destiny clans. Whatever systems of accountability that do exist will ultimately land on the side of the powerful. That breaks bad. Often. EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY recognizes that the systems that promised to care for you, cannot and will not. This plays mostly through dark comedy, bunnies torn in two giving presentations on their injuries, while other creatures cheer “You’re so valid” and do nothing. Yet it is also shockingly empathetic and tender. In the few moments when Nathalie speaks directly to the “player,” it has the intimate feeling of a midnight conversation. They assure us that, “You have just as much a right to exist as the one that hurt you.” There is so much rightful bitterness, rage, and anger, but with that and through it and around it, there are means of care, of tenderness. They often in fact go hand in hand.

Disco Elysium

I’ve already written at length about Disco Elysium’s particular brand of apocalypse, so here I wish to focus on something small. Through the course of exploring the few city streets that make up Disco Elysium’s world, you find a dead man. Bottle in hand, drunk, he crashed into a railing nearby. You find the aftermath. His wife, you will discover, lives across the way. You have to tell her what happened. Despite the game’s, not undeserved, reputation as prickly and abrasive, this is a moment of empathy for the forsaken. The entire game takes up two city blocks, concerns itself with the dead and the broken, those who have been long abandoned by the liberal order. This is significant to me because, as the next generation promises ever bigger worlds and larger experiences, Disco decides that a city block is enough. It is far from radical, but it is a game that concerns itself with smallness, with unveiling the way the world makes and breaks us all.

Don’t Wake the Night

People have gathered for a ritual, central to this community’s system of solving conflict. The player is a spirit. They are there to observe, make one choice, and then leave. In interviews, developer Santo Averio-Ojeda puts forth that the game intentionally avoids “settler gaze[’s]”  attempts to evade easy classification or the condescending “understanding” of institutional whiteness. This is most evident in how the game sets up something like a trial, but gives the player no means to review the facts, conclude what happened, or who is at fault. However, it also avoids that gaze by means of time. It is ambiguous where and when it takes place. The community is indigenous and unbound from binary genders. The game focuses on a small communal conflict. Though there is a lot of hinting at the roles and movements of this community, there is little heard of other communities . Does it take place long ago, recently, in the far future, or some other world entirely? That evasion of specificity is a powerful rhetorical device. It shows the truth that these communities existed, exist, and will continue. If it could happen at all, it can happen again.

Pathologic 2

As the plague ran through the town, the indigenous people of the steppe called a ritual together. They went to the rocks outside of the town to sacrifice a bull. For this, they require Artemy Burakh, a Menkhu, one who is allow to cut open bodies. So I took Artemy’s body, his heart, and I went up to the hill. He cut open the bull, helped perform the ritual. Afterwards, in gratitude, the people of the steppe gave him meat. Since Artemy had returned to the town, he had not found a home, nor someone to break bread and meat with. Now, he had enough food to last him days. On the other side of the screen, I nearly wept. It’s difficult to work through Pathologic’s insistence on fragility, but that insistence makes the simple acts of communal care feel like a miracle. It is hard to live in this world, where we are made to fend for ourselves, to live alone. When Artemy walked away from the stones, a vision of a new earth was in my hands, streaked blood red.

Dandelions

All we have has to be enough. A spot of dirt, a studio apartment, scribbles in notebooks, spare change, a lingering embrace. We run away from home, over and over again if we need to, for scraps and fragments of the life that should be. It’s hard, but sometimes we feel that effort stretch out to the stars. It’s something. It’s everything.