ST. PETERSBURG — It’s 2014, and you’re relaxing with your best friend in a pastel-hued Florida condo the day after Thanksgiving. She’s checking Facebook and you’re on your iPad, playing a video game called Plague, Inc.
“You try to kill the entire world with a virus or a fungus,” you explain. “I mutated my virus to be more contagious. It’s now spreading in Europe.”
She shoots you a horrified look. You show her the screen and turn up the volume to an ominous musical score with people coughing in the background. You both laugh.
“Can you imagine?” she says.
You snort and take a sip of wine. “This could never happen in real life.”
It's April of 2020 and everything’s overwhelming. You want to claw your way out of your skin. You binged Tiger King, canned 40 pounds of tomatoes and are sick of Zoom calls. Animal Crossing could be just the diversion you need.
At first you’re captivated by the game on your Nintendo Switch. It’s a salve for your soul, with the happy animals and pretty, tropical settings. You snicker when Isabelle, a canine secretary, announces there’s no breaking news on your island.
“I miss the days of no breaking news,” you mutter, and glance up at the ominous CNN ticker.
Dog walks become your only outdoor outing. You debate with friends online about whether Dr. Fauci is a silver fox. You brag that grocery delivery had all the items on your list. Somehow, that fact makes you feel hollow and you return to Animal Crossing to zone out.
In the game, you make a killing on turnips and pay off your virtual mortgage to Tom Nook, a capitalist raccoon who runs your island.
More than 50,000 Americans have died. You’re too numb to cry.
You miss hugs.
It's late October 2020, and you haven’t played Animal Crossing in weeks because it seems pointless and repetitive. The cute animal characters are gratingly twee and you’ve whacked that annoying jock rooster with a net in hopes he’ll move. There’s still no news on your virtual island and everything feels stale.
There’s a crushing amount of news in real life, though. Too much news. In the United States, more than 240,000 people are dead.
In between watching CNN and doomscrolling Twitter, you read about Spiritfarer. It’s billed as a “cozy management game about dying,” where you ferry others to the afterlife. How appropriate for 2020, you think.
The spirits are animals, but they’re not adorable. They’re snarky and difficult, and they occasionally swear. You become attached to Summer, a snake in a green cloak. You sail the seas of purgatory, gathering other lost souls.
Soon, you realize the point isn’t to bring these flawed characters to the afterlife, but to care for them during their final journeys. You cook their favorite meals (Summer loves grain salad) and carry out their last requests. You wonder if there’s a lesson in this somewhere, but you push that thought out of your mind because your heart is already cracked in two.
The best part, you discover, is that you can hug the spirits. Hugging nourishes them. You wonder if you can get an endorphin rush from a virtual hug.
You tell your best friend about the game in a text, because there’s no way in hell the two of you are doing a Zoom call. You miss your best friend.
You dread ferrying Summer to the afterlife and put it off for days. When the time comes, she gives a little speech.
“The only lesson I have left is to show you what you’re made of," she says. "This is the last thing that I can teach you. That all things change, that all things end.”
And then you put down your game, and cry.