Games as escapism during tough times

We are living in troubling times. Here in the UK we are in our third national lockdown to try and stop the spread of COVID-19, and, with no firm end-date, who knows how long it will last. It’s both a trying and tiring situation, although there are silver linings with the vaccine rollout. Bingeing on all manner of media entertainment and struggling to muster the will to regularly exercise are my two main symptoms of lockdown limbo. And I know I’m not the only one. “Normality” seems a long way away, and with the chilly winter in full flow, quality escapism provides some small relief.

This post is about comfort gaming with a good old fashioned 2D game.

Let’s not get ahead of myself though. This story starts with me playing about 10 hours of The Witcher 3, my very first time trying this beloved game. Ordinarily 10 hours is a good whack of time but in Witcher 3 terms I’ve obviously only just scratched the surface, there’s so much here. This far in I generally-overall-for-the-most-part like it. I hardly know where to begin when talking about it, but hey, here goes: it’s a well written, open world action-RPG with a surprisingly deep playing card minigame that I’m crap at…? The ambition of the open world is really something, with not just one but multiple vast maps to explore. One thing I don’t like, just like in the GTA series, is how much time it takes to simply travel from one location to another – there’s a lot of essentially following GPS instructions on your horse.

Even though the Switch has become my main console of late and I’ve increasingly neglected my older consoles, I still gravitate towards retro-inspired games or indie games that have the air of the familiar about them. After taking the plunge with The Witcher 3, at a certain point I started craving a known quantity, something more suited to quick ‘n’ easy sessions.

I turned to Ori and the Will of the Wisps, a 2D Metroidvania with plenty of charm and a heartfelt story. I really craved a 2D experience – 2D felt so friendly compared with The Witcher 3. Sometimes I just want to run to the right as some fantastical creature. Preferably while hopping and bopping baddies.

Ori certainly scratched that itch – controlling the titular character feels great, especially as you upgrade your abilities. The platforming is highly satisfying and challenging, definitely the highlight of the game for me. The level design and combat are good throughout, albeit not as consistently stellar as Hollow Knight’s (which still gets the nod for my fave Metroidvania).

Another high point is the overall presentation. Ori was funded by Microsoft, like Cuphead before it, and as such the production values are much higher than the norm for this kind of game. As a result of dat budget and some great art and music direction, everything looks and sounds ultra-lush.

The story meanwhile is reminiscent of earnest family films, and I was genuinely surprised by how it wears its heart on its sleeve. While Ori obviously owes a great debt to the world of film, it’s great to play a game that explores wholesome territory and takes it seriously. Core themes and ideas around love, parenthood and the beauty of the natural world aren’t something I see very often in games, not unless it’s buried under several layers of irony.

Dark themes are certainly common in the Metroidvania genre, which skews toward darker sci-fi and horror. It’s also true of Witcher 3, which features buckets of gore and a fantasy story that is decidedly medieval-dystopian. Which is to say, life is extremely cheap for the majority of people you meet during your quests, there is an extreme deficit of hospitality and kindness, and tragedy and villainy are everywhere. I don’t mind dark settings and themes generally, but in the current circumstances I wanted something more inviting.

Rest assured, in Ori there are no chest-bursting aliens, no menacing hill-top castle, no abusive spouses, nope, none. There is instead a pint-sized spirit, Ori, reviving a mystical forest full of cute, downtrodden wildlife to its former glory. Of course there is danger and even a tragic villain, but we’re not exploring moral ambiguities or cycles of violence here – we are searching for Ori’s little lost owl friend who can’t fly on their own!

And there is the story of how I turned to 2D gaming for some relief during these troubled times. Here’s to running to the right. I hope everyone out there is doing well and finding their own ways to manage at the moment. 

5 comments

  1. moresleepneeded

    While it was not a conscious decision to enjoy games with a lighter tone, I have been playing more 2D games during the lockdown periods. Because of the implementation of lockdown, I have been playing computer games more than I did previously and, because I had already bought the NES Classic Mini, I have mostly been playing old NES games. I can understand how it can be enjoyable just to play a game involving running to the right of the screen instead of a more complicated game, it is easy to understand how to play platformer games and to develop a tactic to succeed. Some of the description about Ori and the Will of the Wisps reminded me of Okami and the enjoy I felt playing that game as the hero restored peace and beauty to the world by defeating the various enemies that were poisoning the land.
    Does Ori and the Will of the Wisps maintain the wholesome atmosphere throughout the game? Have you returned to Witcher 3 since playing Ori and the Will of the Wisps? Incidentally, how has lockdown affected your blog?

    • veryverygaming

      Ah, the NES Classic Mini – you can’t get much more simple comfort gaming than that! I like it. What are your favourite games on it?

      Now you mention it, Ori does remind me of Okami. I still haven’t quite beaten Ori, but yes it’s definitely wholesome throughout. I have not returned to Witcher 3, it still feels too overwhelming to me.

      Re: the blog and lockdown… well I’ve continued posting very irregularly, so no change there really 😀 The blog is overdue a makeover and rebranding. I plan to get back to creating video essays and want to bring those two (the blog and video essays) together in one place properly. It *feels like* a lot of work though, and my life has been busier than ever, lockdown be damned, so it’s been tricky to fit it in.

      • moresleepneeded

        I enjoyed most of the games on the NES Classic Mini, but I preferred the games with a more in-depth story and allowed me to either save the game or use passwords to maintain my progress. So far, I have particularly enjoyed the Legend of Zelda games, Kid Icarus, StarTropics, Kirby’s Adventure, Mega Man 2 and Ninja Gaiden. I enjoyed some of Metroid, but I have not completed that game because I reached a difficult part of the game and did not know how to progress. I was actually considering writing a post discussing whether the difficulty of the NES games limited the enjoyment of playing the games or if it made the games enjoyable in a different way to other games.
        When I found out that many countries were adopting Lockdown procedures, I wondered if it would cause views of my posts to increase due to a larger amount of people exploring the internet. This effect not happen. I have, however, been reading articles from a website that discussed the architecture of different locations created for the Legend of Zelda games.
        Have you got any favorite games on the NES Classic Mini? Have you played the NES games before? Have you developed a new interest while Lockdown has been imposed?

        • veryverygaming

          I don’t have an NES Mini but I’ve played quite a few of the games on it through the Wii’s Virtual Console. Metroid is tough. I didn’t enjoy that one back on the Virtual Console, too hard and the lack of proper saves did my head in. All the other games you mentioned I really like for the most part, my faves are Mega Man 2, Kid Icarus and Zelda 2. I enjoy the challenge in general. Except for the end of Ninja Gaiden, that game can go jump off a cliff. Those final few stages were… let’s just say detrimental to my wellbeing. With save states it might be doable but even then I wouldn’t recommend it!

          I would definitely be interested to read any post you make about the difficulty as it’s something I like thinking about. I’ve argued in the past that difficulty helps make something memorable. When I can breeze though things first time without much effort, the experience rarely sticks with me.

          A new interest, yes, I’ve started playing golf. Real life golf, as opposed to virtual! I wanted a fun outdoors activity I could do while everything is closed and that’s what I landed on. I’m very bad but hoping to get better! Also, an old interest, but I’ve gotten back into recording music. Some of that music may show up right here on the blog…

  2. moresleepneeded

    I was interested that you mentioned using save states because I used them when I felt a game was too difficult. Because I wanted to experience the difficulty of the NES games and felt that the games were not designed so that the player could save when they reached hard areas, I tried to limit the amount of save states I used. When I played Ninja Gaiden, however, I felt that the way the game was designed was unfair, particularly as it seemed to change the gameplay so that, if I died fighting a boss, I had to complete 3 levels before reaching the boss again, rather than when I died during a level and I just returned to the beginning of the same level. I used save states while playing Ninja Gaiden so that I did not have to replay levels again when I died.
    I can understand how trying to complete a difficult challenge in a computer game can make it more memorable as the player tries different tactics to overcome the obstacle and the sense of relief when they finally succeed. However, I recently played a game I found hard and I identified a strange effect while playing the game. At first, I found the levels difficult to complete, but I managed to reach the end and progressed onto the next level. When I found the following level hard as well, I was forced to replay the previous level. As I repeated the level, I found it much easier and only encountered difficulty with the later levels. However, I discovered that I stopped enjoying playing the easier level as I just repeated actions at set points to reach the end of level at the optimum speed, rather than trying to develop a strategy and appreciating the design of the game.
    I would be interested to hear the music you record. I remember you mentioned your band during previous articles and I noticed that there were some articles focused on computer game music.
    What games did you enjoy on the Virtual Console? Can you not save the games on the Virtual Console? What genre of music have you recorded?

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