Image: The Game Bakers
Where fun is always experienced against a looming danger
The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched on for nearly two years. For some, its various stages of lockdown meant caring for children forced to do their schooling from home. For others, it meant looking after a parent or a sibling. Still, others stayed at home alone. For us, a childless couple in our late thirties, it meant living out our isolation, together.
During this period, the outside world truly became a kind of outside world, not just for the obvious reason — a deadly and contagious virus that could take down us or our loved ones — but also the ways in which that virus suspended our day-to-day grind, forcing us to reflect on what was heartbreakingly meaningful and what was not. Work that was essential was highlighted. Systems of oppression were laid bare and resisted. Senseless acts of violence weighed heavier against the obliterated backdrop of day-to-day distractions. We both began working remotely, trading one-hour commutes for one-second clicks. And with the extra hours returned to our daily life, we were able to spend more time together, even returning to nature: venturing out and finding previously unexplored areas in our Bronx neighborhood, discovering the woodland beauty that lay hidden in our own backyard.
These moments, once limited to nostalgic memory, find stirring reflection in The Game Breakers’ Haven, a video game released amidst the pandemic that impressively captures the feeling of living through, well, the pandemic. In Haven’s soft aesthetic sci-fi narrative, 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 run away from their home world in order to pursue a forbidden romance on a remote, abandoned planet called Source. Playing through the game means exploring the planet’s free-floating islets, gathering delicious alien fruits, pacifying roaming beasts, and cleaning up the environmental damage caused by past colonists. Each night you can retire home. You can cook up what you’ve found. You can lounge together, read books, play board games, get drunk, get intimate, and pass out, only to wake up and spend another day together exploring and having fun.
Image: The Game Bakers
But the fun to be had in Haven is always experienced against the canvas of a looming danger. For Yu and Kay, it’s a vindictive government who won’t allow even small acts of rebellion such as theirs. In our own case, as the world outside became more dangerous (whether from the virus itself or the frightening xenophobic responses to it), we sought comfort in each other and in the two-mile radius of quiet, tree-lined streets around our home.
Hiking around our local wooded paths was not dissimilar from gliding along collecting fruit and magical “Flow” energy in Haven’s Source. Going out, having lively conversations during our several mile walks, and then returning home became more than enough for us. It was simple — and slightly strange — to subsist solely on our love while philosophizing about the horrors of the outside world, wondering if we could safely expand our bubble without inviting infection or other forms of disruption to our newly unembellished life. How long could we live like this? Would we eventually need more than each other and our two cats? In Haven, shutting out the world and tending to your own little sanctuary (aptly called your “Nest”) reflects the lockdown mentality which affected so many of us. (Home Depot, for example, saw record sales in 2020, as everyone bunkered down and invested in improvements for their respective sanctuaries.)
In one memorable scene in Haven, Yu and Kay take a leap of faith off of one of Source’s floating islands to land in the clear blue waters surrounding an idyllic beach below. They then change into bathing suits and frolic in the calm surf. It’s a particularly fantastical scene for a game already enmeshed in fantasy; a vacation taken from what is already a vacation. It reflects, perhaps more than any other section of the game, the detached and groundless sensation of just floating along that is the core of the Haven experience. Floating is most of what you’ll do. Friction, while present, is rarely ever a significant force. The occasional violent run-ins with local wildlife (presented via a turn-based battle mechanic) might get tense at times, but getting defeated just means you’ll be teleported back to your comfortable home to recuperate and relax. Nothing is supposed to be frustrating or particularly difficult. In the rare moments when your characters stop gliding and are forced to walk, they complain the whole way.
Image: The Game Bakers
All fantasies have, on the other end, a grim reality, and Haven certainly has its version of this. Toward 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 back home and snatch them out of their liminal reverie. These figures are villains to be sure, but there is also a hint of hesitation in the young couple: Does it feel right to completely shut out your previous life? Is it healthy to avoid the problems and pitfalls of society, to try to stay in the dream forever? Meanwhile, we bizarrely measured our comfort in our sanctuary against the terror of what we saw lay outside: hospitals filling up, police brutality, and countless examples of the state endangering human life. Walking along the trails by our home, we recognized the privilege of being able to float above so much of the human misery caused by Covid and our deeply flawed society. We’ve grown so much as a couple. But beyond our narrow vision, out of sight, is the world, which we will have to return to in some form or another.
Is it healthy to avoid the problems and pitfalls of society, to try to stay in the dream forever?
The ways in which Haven’s conclusion deals with this dilemma is striking. Both of its potential endings sit at extremes. In one: Yu and Kay disrupt the energy bridge connecting Source and their home planet, effectively cutting themselves off forever. And it’s so naive and innocent that to make the ending at all plausible, the game forces one character to suffer disfiguring injuries just to ground it. In the other: They try and fail to resist, ultimately lose one another, and are returned to their original social roles. This one is so frightening that it ends with a scene of a partially undressed Yu (a strange lover sleeping in the background), blissfully smiling through a sheen of mind-control and annihilated memories.
Cartoonishly exaggerated though these endings may be, they capture some of the anxious anticipation we carry in thinking about the fork in the road ahead. Do we remain in the Berkshires, the sleepy region we escaped New York City for in the midst of the pandemic? Do we exhaust our savings to fix up “this old house” into a more permanent “nest”? Do we buy some chickens, get into gardening and home improvement? Do we effectively embrace this form of early retirement?
Image: The Game Bakers
Or do we return to the city, forgetting the lessons we learned about slowing down and appreciating nature? Do we abandon the mutual joy we experienced as a unit of two, floating outside the corrupting forces of society? Would we wind up like Yu, staring serene and unfocused into the middle distance as we dutifully fulfill our civil roles while foregoing our true purpose?
In the epilogue of the Haven ending where you separate from your home world, Yu and Kay figure out a way to upgrade their jet boots to plant blooms of flowers in their wake. You can spend as much time as you like soaring around and festooning the nearby green hills with swaths of multicolored floral arrangements. It’s a pretty yet hollow substitute for the generative growth of having children, of planting roots. In the ending where Yu and Kay are split up, where their fantasy is shattered, we get a scene showing Kay looking on as a child who is clearly his own, plays in a park. The game seems to admit that fantasies, even those that 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, one must repatriate and reconcile acquired knowledge and experience with that of one’s home.
In avoiding and forgetting the world they left behind, Yu and Kay forestall their potential for growth. In our own lives, we understand that we cannot live forever in a mode of escape. We want to grow. And that means figuring out how to reenter the world, how to relink the many connections that have been severed during this pandemic. Instead of choosing between Haven’s extremes of blissfully ignorant fantasy or depressing social capitulation, we intend to choose a middle path, keeping the lessons we learned and figuring out how to incorporate those lessons with others (something Yu and Kay never figured out how to do). That’s the hope, anyway. For now, all we can do is sit in our nest and wait, for the reverie to end, and for reality to find its way back.