The COVID-19 coronavirus is hollowing out the world. As we attempt to halt the spread of the disease, schools, sports leagues, film productions, and massive annual events have shuttered entirely. Governments and many offices have transitioned to work-for-home, while millions of others who work at closed businesses are out of a job. I walked to my bank recently and I could feel the absence, the fear and worry. Almost no one was out on the roads, and the occasional person I did meet gave me a wide berth, roughly the six feet of space required for social distancing. It feels like half of the world's population just disappeared, like HBO's The Leftovers, or Avengers: Endgame. With so many disasters kicking off 2020 after a horrendous 2019, it feels like we're in the apocalypse.
In the midst of all of this, I've been playing Wasteland 3, an apocalyptic world admittedly more reminiscent of Mad Max than our own blighted reality. Now might not seem like the greatest time to play a game set in a dystopic, but I admit to finding some small measure of solace in Wasteland 3.
I struggle with what feels like a lack of meaning at times. It's hard to look at the absolute deluge of human misery and go, "Yeah, I'm going to play and write about video games." But I kept coming back to Wasteland 3 for some reason, kept scrapping the standard previews I was writing for the game. And I realized last night, it made me feel better to be in that bleak, bleak world. It made reality seem… not as bad. Even for a bit.
I'm a dude sitting in my apartment, quarantined because someone in my household might have the coronavirus—"might" because they're rationing tests—and worrying a bit about ongoing finances and general household supplies. At the same time, I'm one of the Arizona Rangers, trapped in the frozen wilds of Colorado after an ambush. I'm the last line of defense for an entire state in a post-nuclear apocalypse, turning desperately to the ad-hoc leadership of Colorado, hoping for food and supplies. My entire peacekeeper force has been cut down to mere survivors by the Dorsey gang, a family of anarchic, potentially cannibal, raiders. One situation isn't real, but being much much dire makes me feel a bit better.
As usual, I make my first ranger look visually like me. I outfit him with a sniper rifle and skills like Lockpicking and Sneaky Shit. (Yes, the skill is actually called that.) I choose Desert Cat as my background, increasing my Perception attribute. I skipped odd Quirks like Way of the Squeezins, which increases your damage by 50% while drunk, but lowers your overall Action Points by two, and Goat Killer, which increases your critical chance because… your mother was killed by a goat?
My Ranger crew is in Colorado at the behest of the Patriarch, a modern day Zeus, who reigns over Colorado with a massive hammer wrapped in the colors of the American flag. The Patriarch has one condition for providing help to Arizona: find and arrest his errant children, Victory, Valor, and Liberty. Other characters fill out the opening hours of Wasteland 3 available in this demo, like Austin Pease, a hopeful young journalist set for the gallows for helping the Dorseys, something he only did because his family was starving. There are numerous factions to navigate, like the squatting wastelanders in the new headquarters the Patriarch gave me or the Gippers, a quasi-religious group that worships Ronald Reagan.
There's also Lucia Wesson, the haughty daughter of one of the Hundred Families, the new one percent in Colorado's slowly growing civilization. She'll join your party as one of the handful of bespoke characters with their own personality and backstory, as opposed to the generic characters you can choose from an existing pool, or create yourself. These characters react to your choices; Lucia will turn her nose up at killing a group of teenagers (I HAD TO!) because she's far more idealistic, while Marshal Kwon is a soldier and far more pragmatic in that regard.
The normal of Wasteland 3 is a harsh winter landscape, full of murderous raiders, wildlife, and errant automatons. When faced by the horrors of Wasteland 3, the world itself doesn't seem so bad. I can look out my window and still see the occasional person walking their dog rather than fleeing from raiders. Things are very bad, but civilization is still here. I'm not having a detailed conversation with a man wearing what appears to be cat skulls on his shirt.
I've played several games over the past two weeks whose focus is navigating the last vestiges of humanity, including Doom Eternal and The Division 2. There's a certain level of comfort I draw from them; they're a window into a harsher unreality that makes my own world feel like something I can deal with. And that's why games and entertainment still remain important, despite how meaningless they can look when placed next to real pain and loss.
These are gateways to worlds that are better and worse than our own, each of which fulfills a need in someone. Maybe you need to decide to let someone die in Wasteland 3, or maybe you murder scores of demons in Doom Eternal, just to feel like you have some control over your life. Perhaps you need the sheer connection that comes from raiding together in Final Fantasy 14 or The Division 2, or visiting a village in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Gaming is a respite from reality, an outlet for your anger or despair, a way to understand something about yourself or others. It can be a way to simply bring people together when you're very far apart in reality.
Wasteland 3 is pretty damn good for an RPG in the style of the old Fallout games. I could talk more about the nitty-gritty, the mechanics, the skill checks, and the characters. But none of that really matters in comparison to the ability to just get away from our world for a bit. It provides some solace as we contend with the innumerable disasters of the moment. It shows that we haven't fallen too far just yet.