Content Warning: Discussions of COVID-19 and social isolation.
Whether we like it or not, we now live in a video game world. Locked doors, empty streets, vehicles with owners nowhere to be seen and wide open cityscapes that go nowhere. There’s stores but no commerce, there’s restaurants but no patrons.
Increasingly, our reality has turned into a skybox or the aesthetic backdrop for a multiplayer power struggle where the server is empty yet the player remains. But there’s still signs of life, diegetic worldbuilding that hints at a larger narrative.
It’s different from wandering around at 3 AM on a weekday or taking a stroll in the less busy part of town, there’s a persistant overbearing silence previously unknown in urban centers across America. Seattle is so quiet you could hear a pin drop, and if that wasn’t surreal enough, you can go hours without seeing or hearing a single car. Where is everyone?
It takes me back to exploring the empty corridors of add-on maps for Jedi Knight, Half-Life, or Garry’s Mod, feeling out every inch of a ruin built by someone else’s imagination with an endless ambient sound loop. Sometimes it felt meditative, at others it was traumatic and hair-raising, but, no matter what, it stimulated the imagination in a very specific way of knowing you were mostly alone in the game world.
As I take the rare opportunity to step outside of my home to dispose of the trash, I can’t even begin to recognize the city around me. What was once full of hustle and bustle now has parity with a quiet suburb in small town midwestern America. This doesn’t feel like a city at all, not the ones I’m used to at least. Perhaps, long ago, this is exactly what cities felt like: large sprawling structures twinkling with light and a quiet ambiance that rarely indicated the presence of other people late at night, before trains, cars, or airplanes.
It’s not just that we’ve been deprived of regular opportunities to see other humans, it’s also that we now feel we’ve traded places with our video game counter-parts. Our reality has suddenly given way to a fake world, and while a promise of society and opportunity right around the corner when things resume lingers, our lives are on the pause menu.
When open world games were starting to come out in meaningful force back in the day, there were countless stories of the palpable disappointment many felt with each iteration of the Elder Scrolls franchise. Todd Howard told you that you’d be able to climb that mountain, but once you get up there it’s just a few broken polygons. It was bitter-sweet to have this much open range turn out to simply be window dressing. Now we stare at our televisions, our laptop screens, read our news sites and once again experience that surreal after-taste of uncanny disillusionment, we’ll get ‘normal’ back in the form of a DLC season pass with incrementally larger steps as we make our way to Shit Mountain.
In the long run we may encounter improvements, we may even be pleasantly surprised with what awaits us, but until then it’s hard not to feel like we’re living in one of the worst MMORPGs ever made (insert obligatory Fallout 76 launch joke here).
So for now kick back, save your energy, step outside on a late night walk (local ordinances and personal safety permitting) and enjoy the surreal atmosphere. It’s going to be surreal in the coming years to look back on this moment of a skybox planet.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice