by Katie Iser
The curious week between December 26th and January 2nd is my favorite time to disappear. A time when most office jobs are quiet and empty. Everyone is exhausted from the traditional holiday marathon of events, traditions, and expectations. This year more than ever, I needed the emptiness of that week. After crawling over the finish line of my master’s program, paying off my student debt, and trying to make the holidays work during a COVID surge, I wanted nothing more than to enter a vegetative state with just my Nintendo Switch and my blankets. There were new games I desperately wanted to play, however, I found myself returning to two games that I had already sunken hundreds of hours in: Stardew Valley and Breath of the Wild.
When Stardew Valley first came out, I was a junior in college. If you aren’t familiar with the indie game, it was solo-developed by Eric Barone, under the alias of ConcernedApe, over the course of four years. Many players were immediately taken by the charm of the Harvest Moon-inspired game. Just the year before I had begun to have panic attacks and extreme anxiety that I could find seemingly no relief for. I fondly remember nights when my roommates were busy and I was stuck in the apartment (I didn’t have a car at the time), so I would sit at my grandmother’s old desk for hours playing Stardew Valley on my laptop. The menu music would immediately soothe my frayed nerves. I could escape into the games discreetly timed days with simple tasks I wanted to complete and goals to work towards. The game never truly ends so when something didn’t go right, I could put my character to sleep and try again the next day.
I began Breath of the Wild one winter while living with my parents, post-undergrad. I had caught a terrible bug (this was pre-COVID), effectively putting me out of commission for half of January. I would don my Comfy (essentially an oversized hoodie)—morphing into a giant Beanie Baby with a human head and small human hands—and sit in the basement exploring Hyrule. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is very different from Stardew Valley, in that it was a massively popular open-world game released by a beloved multinational video game company, Nintendo, and yet, it would give me the same feeling of comfort. I loved the peaceful fields of this game. I know many complained about how easily weapons broke in the game, but I loved the impermanence. It reminded me that I could wander and find new things and lose things along the way. In the end, I could die and try things again, just knowing that next time, I could be better prepared. I never used the horses in the game, preferring the slow quiet of walking through the woods and picking up mushrooms to accomplishing the main goals of the game.
Now in 2021, with multiple games available for me to play, I restart these two. I erase my hours and hours of progress in Breath of the Wild and I don’t even care. All for another chance to lose myself in peaceful exploration of these worlds. No one can judge my failures or missteps. I can always try again. In the New Yorker article “Pokémon and the First Wave of Digital Nostalgia," Kyle Chayka reflects on the allure of retro video games and the joy of performing for oneself when playing a game. I love that when I play my performance is lighthearted, silly, and brash. I take chances, I die, I try again. I seldom ever let myself perform this way in real life. There is so much pressure, no room for chances. These games remind me to be more kind to myself. This message carries over into my writing practice; “don’t take yourself so seriously” I remind myself again and again.
In this slog of a winter many of us turn to shows, games, podcasts, and more for content and distraction from days that meld together. I often find myself binging podcasts and shows constantly to block out the monotony, but it just ends up dominating my free mental space. This year, however, rather than trying to conquer the new, I would instead like to revisit the old. I encourage you to revisit something that brings you joy, whether to experience that joy again, or to experience something new altogether!