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Side Quest

A Guest Column
by Bijan Stephen
Illustration by Kristen Radtke

Side Quest

Bijan Stephen
6 Snaps

Non-exhaustive list of video games mentioned:

  • Night in the Woods
  • What Remains of Edith Finch
  • EarthBound
  • The Last of Us

If you were feeling cheeky, you could call the first chapter of As I Lay Dying a walking simulator. The language William Faulkner gives his first narrator, Darl, is just as spare, evocative, and engrossing. “Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file,” he writes. “Although I am fifteen feet ahead of him, anyone watching us from the cottonhouse can see Jewel’s frayed and broken straw hat a full head above my own.” Eventually, Darl and Jewel come across Cash, who’s fitting together a beautiful box: “A good carpenter. Addie Bundren could not want a better one, a better box to lie in. It will give her confidence and comfort. I go on to the house, followed by the Chuck. Chuck. Chuck. of the adze.” 

The first time I read that chapter, I felt a frisson of something. A spark in my soul. Don’t you feel like you’re there? 

As I Lay Dying was published in 1930, when games were analog and film was celluloid. Novels were about as close as you could get to immersive, first-person entertainment. When you read, as you are now, you create a world with the author, which means you have some agency in how the thing is constructed in your mind.

But what I’m particularly interested in is embodiment. In how Faulkner puts you in his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, for example, or how the entire point of video games like Night in the Woods and What Remains of Edith Finch is to immerse you, the player, in a place. NITW is about a depressed, dissociating college dropout returning to her small, bright suburban town; it shows how relationships that seemed set in stone can change and deepen over time. You become the protagonist, and you get to choose how her life unfolds. Edith Finch is about a generational curse. As Edith, you play through episodes that elaborate the fates that befell her ancestors. It’s another story told from the first-person perspective, and one that wouldn’t work as well if you didn’t embody the protagonist. Because in these two games, like many others, you’re given a prosthetic body to make your own. 

And how that prosthetic body functions! In most games, it becomes supranormal: its functions are represented by bars and meters; its capacities are enhanced. In a word, video games tend to make you superhuman, if only to satisfy a plot about collecting bananas or gathering coins. What makes NITW and Edith Finch different is that they tell a more subtle kind of story: they work because of how much nuance has gone into the writing and how much work has gone into creating accessible, lived-in worlds—places that feel as real as Yoknapatawpha County. 

It’s easy to feel at home in Possum Springs, for example, the fictional town where NITW is set, because so much of the story revolves around talking to the characters that live there about their everyday lives. The spooky house that you explore in Edith Finch feels plausibly lived-in because so much of the plot is told through environmental detail. One of the first things you see is a table that’s set for dinner, complete with forgotten containers of Chinese food. It felt eerily familiar.

I’ve been thinking about those kinds of plots as they relate to my own life lately, because so much of it has been disrupted by the ongoing pandemic. I now spend more time inside, away from other people. I don’t use my body like I used to a few short months ago; I don’t even walk around Brooklyn much anymore. A friend of mine who’s a game developer posted an unfortunately relatable tweet the other day, noting that she—a semi-competitive power lifter in the before times—had stopped exercising altogether.

To break that particular bad habit, I got myself a bike—a vintage, early-morning-blue Bianchi. I figured I should be able to get around my city even if I was squeamish about taking the subway. In retrospect, it felt a little like that moment in EarthBound—a seminal ’90s role-playing game—when you receive a bicycle. Quoth the EarthBound wiki page: “The Bicycle is an item in EarthBound. It allows Ness to move faster, and is donated by the cashier staffing the store Punk-Sure.” 

I can get around faster now. It feels like I acquired an upgrade. Normal to supranormal.

Part of the reason I’m interested in embodiment is because my life feels extremely curtailed now, as though I’m an animal kept in a pen; my bike has been parked at a friend’s house for weeks now. My new routine has shrunk: I get up, I work, I play a video game and have a few drinks, and then I sleep. Sometimes I go to the park and see friends, but only if the weather is right and everyone is feeling up to it, emotionally speaking. Embodiment in games acts as a surrogate for travel: I go somewhere else, somewhere that doesn’t necessarily intersect with the physical plane we inhabit. Games also contain the most distinct places I visit: going from Fortnite, which is a third-person battle royale and building simulator, to Biped, a cute 3-D puzzle platformer, can feel like traveling to another country. Sometimes it can even feel like being free, if only for a minute. And it’s an order of magnitude easier to meet your friends on, say, Fortnite’s Battle Bus, as opposed to schlepping your human bodies somewhere. 

Real life can be hard to care about when you’re immersed in a virtual world, which is partly why so many people play video games in the first place—they’re one of the easiest, most literal ways to escape. There are so few salves for modern life, despite what marketing gurus would have you believe. But what I can say is that exploring the world of NITW as Mae, the protagonist—venturing around a digital landscape that feels suspiciously like the small town I grew up in—stops the squeaky hamster wheel of my brain, at least for a little while. 

You could call NITW a walking simulator, although I’d argue that it’s more of a conversation sim. It nails the exact experience of being in your early twenties and not knowing what to do as the bottom falls out from under you. It’s also incredibly sharp on the value of relationships, because those are what build your character back up. In the game you learn to trust people, and then to rely on them.

I think both have gotten more rare during the pandemic, if only because now anyone could be the person who’d give you a life-threatening disease for which there is no cure. Back in March, when New York City was going through the worst of the pandemic, I wrote a piece for my quarantine blog about The Last of Us, a video game about a fictional fungal pandemic that decimates American society. 

When me and my girlfriend were walking to the (stocked!) grocery store near my house last night, I saw a man get out of a beat-up pickup truck, cough a few times, adjust his hat, and then walk into the store ahead of us. I shivered. Because a cough means something different now. I thought of Ellie and Joel and how, in the game, you’re tasked mostly with sneaking around the zombies you encounter—because they’re fast and strong, and while Joel is basically superhuman he does get overwhelmed, and when he dies so does she. I wanted to sneak through the crowded, narrow aisles, hiding from the maybe-infected.

To put it another way, COVID-19 has gamified my life. Or perhaps video game logic is the only thing that feels like it maps accurately onto the spread of this virus. (I say this, though I am a person with a degree in biology.) And while the situation has changed a lot in New York, it’s still grim. Our governor, who botched the city’s initial response to the pandemic in a way that killed thirty thousand people, has recently gotten himself a deal to write a book about how he handled it. Presumably he won’t mention his failures, or at least none of the ones that matter. 

Nevertheless this governor is one of the good ones. He handled his trial better than his peers in other states. There has been a collective failure, a breach of the social contract, and in the end, it’s felt to me like a loss of control—the car is sliding off the highway, directly into whatever lies beyond the unknown, unkempt brush. A game might consider this a failure state, but real life has no such guardrails. 

The part I haven’t mentioned is how hard it’s been for me to read since all this began. That bit of As I Lay Dying is about as far as I’ve managed to get in the book; the only novels I’ve been consuming are firmly bad fantasy, stuff I read because it’s not real. There has been so much death. I can’t even begin to tell you about April’s formerly relentless sirens or the eerie quiet they shattered. Being in a virtual world felt safe then, as it still feels safe now. In games there’s death too. But it’s never permanent. 

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