The COVID-19 pandemic has been going on for almost two years. For some, its different stages of confinement involved taking care of children forced to do their home schooling. For others, it meant caring for a parent or sibling. Yet others were left home alone. For us, a childless couple in their thirties, that meant living our isolation, together.
During this period, the outside world really became a kind of out world, not just for the obvious reason – a deadly, contagious virus that could bring down us or our loved ones – but also the way this virus put our daily routine on hold, forcing us to think about what was heartbreaking and what not. was not. The work that was essential was highlighted. Systems of oppression have been exposed and resisted. The senseless acts of violence weighed more heavily against the erased backdrop of everyday distractions. We both started working remotely, trading hour-long commutes for clicks of a second. And with the extra hours devoted to our daily lives, we were able to spend more time together, even return to nature: venturing out and finding previously unexplored areas in our neighborhood in the Bronx, discovering the beauty of the woods that lurked in our own backyard.
These moments, once limited to nostalgic memory, find a moving reflection in The Game Breakers’ Haven, a video game released in the midst of the pandemic that impressively captures the feeling of experiencing, well, the pandemic. In Haven’s soft aesthetic sci-fi story, you control (either, as we did, through cooperative play or individually) Yu and Kay, a young couple, who are promised to others through strict arranged marriages. They decide to flee their homeworld in order to pursue a forbidden romance on a distant and forsaken planet called Source. Playing the game means exploring the floating islets of the planet, picking delicious alien fruit, appeasing stray beasts, and cleaning up environmental damage caused by ancient settlers. Every night you can retire to your home. You can prepare what you find. You can relax together, read books, play board games, get drunk, get intimate, and pass out, only to wake up and have another day together exploring and having fun.
But the pleasure of being in Haven is always lived against the web of imminent danger. For Yu and Kay, this is a vindictive government that will not allow even small acts of rebellion like theirs. In our own case, as the outside world became more dangerous (whether it was from the virus itself or frightening xenophobic responses), we sought solace in each other and within the two-mile radius of the streets. quiet and tree lined around our house. .
Hiking around our local woodland trails was no different from gliding along collecting fruit and the magical energy “Flux” in Haven’s Source. Going out, having lively conversations during our mile-long walks, and then coming home has become more than enough for us. It was simple – and slightly odd – to subsist on our love alone while philosophizing about the horrors of the outside world, wondering if we could safely expand our bubble without inviting infection or other forms of disturbance. our newly disembellished life. How long can we live like this? Would we finally need more than the other and our two cats? In Haven, shutting down the world, and caring for your own little sanctuary (aptly called your “Nest”) reflects the lockdown mentality that has affected so many of us. (Home Depot, for example, had record sales in 2020, as everyone fell back and invested in upgrades for their respective sanctuaries.)
In a memorable scene from Haven, Yu and Kay take a leap of faith off one of Source’s floating islands to land in the clear blue waters surrounding an idyllic beach below. They then change into swimsuits and frolic in the calm waves. It’s a particularly fantastic scene for a game already entangled in fantasy; a vacation taken on what is already a vacation. It reflects, perhaps more than any other section of the game, the detached and groundless feeling of simply floating along that is at the heart of the game. Haven experience. Floating is most of what you will be doing. Friction, although present, is rarely a significant force. The occasional violent clashes with local wildlife (presented via a turn-based combat mechanic) can get tense at times, but being defeated simply means you’ll be teleported back to your comfortable home to recuperate and relax. Nothing is meant to be frustrating or particularly difficult. On the rare occasion that your characters stop high and are forced to walk, they’re complaining all the way.
All fantasies have a grim reality at the other end, and Haven certainly has his version of that. Towards the end of the game, Yu and Kay are threatened by their parents and other authority figures from their home planet, who seek to bring them home and tear them away from their liminal reverie. These characters are of course villains, but there is also a hint of hesitation in the young couple: does it seem right to you to exclude your life from before? Is it healthy to avoid the problems and pitfalls of society, to try to stay in the dream forever? Meanwhile, we’ve oddly measured our comfort in our sanctuary versus the terror of what we’ve seen outside: hospitals filling up, police brutality, and countless examples of the state taking lives. humans in danger. As we walked along the pathways near our home, we recognized the privilege of being able to float above so much human misery caused by Covid and our deeply flawed society. We have grown so much as a couple. But beyond our narrow vision, out of sight, is the world, to which we will have to come back in one form or another.
The ways in which Haven’s The conclusion deals with this dilemma is striking. Its two potential endings are at extremes. In one: Yu and Kay disrupt the energy bridge connecting Source and their home planet, thus cutting each other forever. And it’s so naive and innocent that to make the ending plausible, the game forces a character to suffer disfiguring injuries just to found it. In the other: they try and fail to resist, end up losing themselves and regaining their original social role. This one is so creepy that it ends with a scene of a partially undressed Yu (a strange sleeping lover in the background), smiling happily through a burst of mind control and shattered memories.
While exaggerated caricatures are these endings, they capture some of the anxious anticipation we carry as we think about the fork in the road ahead. Are we staying in the Berkshires, the sleepy region for which we fled New York City amid the pandemic? Are we exhausting our savings to turn “this old house” into a more permanent “nest”? Are we buying chickens, getting into gardening and home improvement? Are we effectively adopting this form of early retirement?
Or do we go back to the city forgetting the lessons learned about slowing down and appreciating nature? Do we let go of the mutual joy we have experienced as a unit of two, floating apart from the corrupting forces of society? Would we end up as Yu, staring serene and hazy in the middle of the distance as we dutifully fulfill our civilian roles while relinquishing our true purpose?
In the epilogue of the Haven ending where you separate from your homeworld, Yu and Kay find a way to upgrade their throwing boots to plant flowers in their wake. You can spend as much time as you want soaring and decorating the lush green hills near strips of multi-colored flower arrangements. It’s a pretty but hollow substitute for generative growth to have children, to plant roots. In the end where Yu and Kay are separated, where their fantasy is shattered, we get a scene showing Kay looking like a child who is clearly hers, playing in a park. The game seems to admit that fantasies, even the ones its players spend so much time cultivating, are spaces in which time does not progress, in which change and growth cannot really happen. To grow, you have to repatriate and reconcile the knowledge and experience acquired with that of your home.
By avoiding and forgetting the world they left behind, Yu and Kay are ahead of their potential for growth. In our own lives, we understand that we cannot live in an escape mode forever. We want to grow. And that means figuring out how to get back into the world, how to reconnect the many connections that were severed during this pandemic. Instead of choosing between Haven’s extremes of a blissfully ignorant fantasy or depressing social surrender, we intend to choose a middle path, keeping the lessons we’ve learned and figuring out how to integrate those lessons with others (something Yu and Kay never figured out how to do it). It is hope, anyway. For now, all we can do is sit in our nest and wait for the reverie to end and reality to find its way back.