• Gabriel Featherstone

"A Horny Xylophone Made of Bones": How Video Games Kept Me Sane During Covid



In Bioshock - everyone’s favourite cerebral underwater murder simulator - the player character can recover from any injury, no matter how severe, by eating some crisps out of a bin. If only emotional and psychological injuries in the real world were so easily resolved! Like every other person trapped on this plague-ravaged Hellworld, I’ve had a bit of a difficult year. Spending a horrifying length of time cowering from a deadly virus, in a flat infested with agonizing mementos of a traumatically concluded relationship, while also having to cope with the psychological fallout of a massively restricted social life, the cruelty and incompetence of the Conservative government, and most of the things that bring me joy either becoming illegal or offputtingly stressful, has sorely tested the structural integrity of my mind.

"Half-Life" by Valve. Image courtesy of IDGB

Thankfully, I have managed to postpone total psychological ruination by committing to a wide variety of activities and coping strategies, including therapy, alcoholism, and attempting to make the perfect egg sandwich after being enraptured by the one Harley Quinn eats in that film where Obi-Wan peels people’s faces off. One activity that has consistently brought me a lot of comfort during These Uncertain Times has been playing loads of video games until my eyes look and feel like huge wads of uncooked chicken stuffed in a plug socket: tight, raw and unhealthily pink.

I began my pandemic video gaming odyssey by revisiting some of my favourite games. I completed Half-Life and both of its expansion packs, probably for the millionth time, and it felt like being hugged by an old friend for an entire week. I finally completed Super Mario Sunshine, a tropical community service simulator that used to regularly crush my spirit when I was a child. Defeating this game, the closest thing I have to a childhood nemesis, made me feel like Captain Ahab obliterating Moby Dick with a giant laser death cannon from space. I played Batman: Arkham Asylum and was amazed by how astonishingly great it is, before being brutally disappointed by its embarrassingly shit final act. The ending of Arkham Asylum is comparable to Citizen Kane ending with Charles Foster Kane challenging Peter Griffin to a “who can do the smelliest fart?” contest. It really is an appalling letdown.

"Super Mario Sunshine" by Nintendo. Image courtesy of IDGB

Fearing that traditional video games might not be immersive enough to prevent any blunt fragments of reality from shattering the porcelain remnants of my psyche, I decided to spunk a chunk of my student loan on a PSVR. Virtual Reality is an amazing new technology that allows you to escape from your nightmarish life by literally sticking your head up a computer. Using this fantabulous futuristic contraption, I was able to sequester myself in several breathtakingly immersive simulations of situations that were significantly less stressful than the day-to-day realities of quarantine living. These included being attacked by a massive fuck-off shark in PSVR Worlds, chased by unkillable redneck mutants in Resident Evil 7, and screamed at by giant pigs in Until Dawn: Rush of Blood’s nightmarish abattoir full of murder clowns.


In The London Heist segment of PSVR Worlds, the player character is tied to a chair and threatened with blowtorch torture by a brutal thug with no respect for their personal space. This might have been disconcerting before social distancing, but in the context of quarantine I was utterly exhilarated to be safely sitting within two metres of a person from outside my household, even if they were an imaginary murderer who didn’t much like the cut of my gib.

"Until Dawn: Rush of Blood" by Supermassive Games. Image courtesy of IDGB

My favourite game on the PSVR is Accounting +, an irreverent and unpredictable descent into madness co-created by the co-creator of Rick & Morty and one of the guys who made The Stanley Parable. The player character is a hapless accountant, with computer mouse icons for hands, who gets lost in a virtual world full of obscene cartoon characters and deadly danger. Depending on the player’s choices, The Accountant might find themselves acquiescing to the strange demands of a horny sentient xylophone made of bones, being mocked and cajoled into smashing a window by (and with) a judgemental talking brick, or ritualistically summoning Satan by throwing a chip down some stairs and then eating a big plate of poo. I loved every minute I spent exploring this artfully crass fever dreamscape, which is essentially a bunch of absurd escape rooms sellotaped together. Also, the soundtrack is better than Christ.


VR is something I would have loved when I was a child, and contemptuously dismissed as being a frivolous toy for idiots when I was an insufferable teenager. When I was seventeen I had a pretentious existential crisis and ended up dismissing all video games as being time-wasting, brain-defiling instruments of Satan. Life is short and unpredictable, I reasoned, so why would I want to waste any of it exploring an artificial world, doing things that don’t matter in places that don’t exist? I abandoned this narrow-sighted opinion long before the pandemic started, but during the age of Covid I’ve come to fully realise how powerful and diverse games are as a medium and how uniquely suited they are for helping people combat feelings of depression and isolation.


"Accounting +" by Crows Crows Crows & Squanch Games. Image courtesy of IDGB

The sheer variety of experiences that video games offer is exhilarating. During the last three days I’ve terrorised a small village as a sadistic goose who loves trapping people in garages (Untitled Goose Game); rescued my toilet phobic boyfriend from a magic toilet-themed serial killer who lives in a big toilet (Death Flush); been moved to tears by a complex examination of a deteriorating friendship and the pitfalls of judging an artist solely on your analysis of their art (The Beginner’s Guide); helped an orange cat develop an appreciation for modern art while coming to terms with their own mortality (Bubsy 3-D: Bubsy Visits The James Turrell Retrospective); blasted loads of murderous scarecrows to smithereens with a shotgun that appeared to be twice the size of a border collie (DUSK); played a soothing, low-stakes round of mini-golf (Gone Golfing) and helped a clumsy octopus prepare breakfast for his delightful human family (Octodad: Dadliest Catch.)


The enormous diversity of experiences and adventures the medium offers are a sublime tonic for the soul-eroding boredom of lockdown, where diverse real-world experiences are rare and the weeks and months all blend together into a horrible morass of repetition, frustration and casual terror.

"Untitled Goose Game" by House House. Image courtesy of IDGB

Also, in a world dominated by misery, where many people feel trapped and powerless on the fear-and-isolation flavoured rollercoaster of pain, video games can provide distraction and an uplifting sense of accomplishment. I might be horrified and frustrated by almost every aspect of pandemic living, but successfully navigating a sentient pizza away from some ghosts or helping Crash Bandicoot jump over a chasm makes me feel, for a short while, like I’m somewhere else, far away from here, with a modicum of control over my destiny, and that’s exactly how I need to feel right now.


I’m told that online gaming is great for combating loneliness, but I keep getting thrown out of Left 4 Dead 2 games by aggressive strangers who don’t think I’m very good at pretending to be a zombie, so I can’t really confirm that from personal experience.


Video games are great and I heartily recommend playing loads of them constantly for the rest of your life.

"The Beginner's Guide" by Everything Unlimited LTD. Image courtesy of IDGB