The video games that helped us through the pandemic this past year

Chris DeGraw/Digital Trends

We won’t sugarcoat it: It’s downright depressing that we’re writing about passing the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last March, the public health crisis forced people to stay inside and isolate away from their loved ones. Many hoped it would last a few months, or at least be done by summer. A year later, we’re still not out of the woods, even with the current vaccine rollout.

It admittedly feels a little wrong to call the past 12 months a “good year” for video games considering that it was such an awful one in so many other, much more important respects. Regardless, video games did rise to the occasion in an important way that’s worth celebrating. When isolation pushed us away from our friends and families, video games were there to bridge those physical gaps. When we were simply lost for what to do inside our apartments, games stepped in to fill the silence.

It’s not just that video games helped kill time; they taught us how to become comfortable in digital spaces. Animal Crossing: New Horizons served as a tutorial for the rest of the pandemic as players used it to create makeshift birthday parties, weddings, and campaign rallies. Among Us offered a kind of entertainment that proved to be a suitable replacement for in-person board game nights. And, of course, Fortnite continued to raise the bar for what a metaverse can be with water cooler events like live concerts.

Everyone has a different story about what games helped them through the past 12 months of a tragic period of history. Here are just a few of the games that filled some of those gaps in our own lives

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Animal Crossing New Horizons Bridges

The pandemic stopped 27 years of tradition for me. I’m one of the oldest of 16 cousins. When you grow up with such a large family spread across a tiny town, going from seeing each other virtually every day to not at all feels like nature is prematurely forcing you apart. In the Nintendo DS days, Animal Crossing: Wild World gave us kids a means to bond with not just each other, but our aunts — a long line of sisters — as well.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was like a time machine. It gave us a way to unleash the pent-up family banter usually released steadily over fleeting real-life visits. Characters like a jacked cartoon tiger kept me in touch with family just out of reach, friends whose wedding plans had been ruined, and a partner who, just a few months later, would move in to start his first real job. — Josh Brown

The Last of Us Part II

The Last of Us Part II

We moved to a house around an hour from the city a couple of years ago, but I still count myself as a city girl at heart. The pandemic changed all that as weekends became more about long country walks and travel into the city became impossible. But one positive thing to come from the pandemic is all the gaming time I’ve suddenly found myself with.

Pre-pandemic, The Last of Us was probably the video game that blew me away the most. The graphics, the story, the music, the characters — it all resonated with me on every level.  I’d been searching for a game I’d love as much ever since — so I was superexcited for the follow-up, and was waiting patiently for it to land on my doorstep.

I wasn’t disappointed. For me, it wasn’t only a huge rush of nostalgia and fondness for the first game — with memories of where I was living and what was happening in my life back then, and how different that was from the way things are right now (!) — it was also an excuse to totally lose myself and ignore the madness going on around me in the world. Exploring a postapocalyptic America felt very different this time around, and eerily close to our reality.

I’d love to say I binged through it at top speed, but I took my time, dragging it out over a couple of weeks and savoring every moment. Yes, I was shocked (and shed a tear) at “that moment” early on — no spoilers — but it didn’t detract from the fantastic narrative and gorgeous graphics that sucked me in and kept me holding my breath even after the end credits rolled. It was exactly what I needed to take my mind off everything and lose myself in the story. — Paula Beaton

Marvel’s Spider-Man

After a month of working from home early on during the pandemic, I actually missed going into our office in New York City. Granted, it’s a two-hour commute one-way for me. That’s where Marvel’s Spider-Man came to the rescue because you’re put into the role of the webslinger zipping throughout the Big Apple. The Grand Theft Auto open-world style of the game is impressive, mainly because the developers did a wonderful job of re-creating the city — from the people on the streets to some of the iconic landmarks.

I managed to get through the entire single-player campaign and downloadable content. Heck, I even walked the same route from Penn Station all the way to our office on 7th Ave — and managed to sneak up to one of the windows on the 18th floor to see if my desk was still there! — John Velasco

Blaseball

Blaseball

One thing that I didn’t realize I’d miss so much during the pandemic was sports. While I’m not the most hardcore fan I know, football Sundays have become important to me in recent years. It’s something that keeps all of my hometown friends who live in NYC united as we gather once a week to root for the Patriots (I’m from Massachusetts, I’m sorry). It’s not so much that I care about the game itself — it’s more about the sociological bonding. It just feels good to cheer alongside other people and support each other through collective victories and defeats. Sports eventually started up again, but it wasn’t the same without a room full of friends high-fiving over every touchdown.

Enter Blaseball, an absurdist online baseball simulator that literally came out of left field. Developed by The Game Band, Blaseball began as a minimalist idle game where players could watch and bet on games between fake teams like the Breckenridge Jazz Hands. To supplement the experience, players can join a community Discord to connect with other fans. Since the game is mostly a text adventure told through box scores, fans took it upon themselves to fill in the gaps by drawing its faceless batters, creating countless pages of lore, and even forming real-life bands based in its universe.

Blaseball works so well because it captures the essence of why sports are so enjoyable. A regular football game isn’t as exciting without fans working together to craft narratives and build order out of statistics. In a time where sports just aren’t as fun to watch, Blaseball offers a safe, modern alternative that’s filled with the same highs and a lot more peanuts — way too many peanuts. — Giovanni Colantonio

Fallout 76

I’ve never reached the end of Fallout 4. I’m sorry. I’m a horrible gamer. Maybe that’s why I gravitated to Fallout 76 — because the only ending is when I log out. It’s a persistent world where I can roam and loot and bang the crap out Mole Miners and Raiders and Mutants. Forget guns: I like in-your-face combat. Plus, there’s just something special about the atompunk atmosphere and the retro music blasting through my speakers that no other game (outside Fallout 4) can match.

And while I normally play solo or alongside my son, there’s a certain satisfaction in wandering West Virginia and hearing the jingle-jingle-jingle of each step taken in my Northern Lights power armor, knowing I’m not alone and I probably look and sound like Christmas to everyone else. Now looking back, they were (and still are) good times during a difficult year of isolation and uncertainty. — Kevin Parrish

MLB The Show 20

MLB The Show 20 Review

The first time COVID really hit home for my 9-year-old son was when Major League Baseball shut down. He was supposed to go see the Mets on Opening Day at Citi Field with his grandfather, and he was crushed when he found out that wasn’t going to happen. I bought him a digital copy of MLB The Show 20, which was released only a few days after our schools shut down, and man, did we get a lot of mileage out of that one game. He played it for hours every day last spring and summer, quickly tiring of the exhibition modes and getting seriously into Road to the Show before begging us for online access so he could play Diamond Dynasty.

The insane amount of screen time was no concern for two parents who were both trying to work at home with three kids, and since he spent most of his time playing against/FaceTiming with his cousin in Connecticut, it became a desperately needed social outlet. I went easy on him when we started playing head-to-head, but it didn’t take him long to start manhandling me, so I had to sneak my games in after he was asleep. — Brian Sutch

Rocket League

After the first full week of lockdown, my friends and I realized we hated Zoom hangouts. You know why — they’re forced, uncomfortable, and just generally unpleasant — but the main reason we hated them was that they had to be planned and scheduled ahead of time. For a group so accustomed to spontaneous meetups in the Before Times, the transition to rigid, routinized interactions wasn’t just uncomfortable — it was untenable. We needed an activity that was actually fun, that could be done spontaneously, and that didn’t feel like extra innings of working from home. What we needed was a game.

After some debate, we eventually landed on Rocket League — one of the few multiplayer games that’s truly cross-platform and could be played by all of us, regardless of the hardware we owned. That was the main reason we picked it, but we soon realized that Rocket League has a lot more going for it than being cross-platform. It’s also short. You can set up and play a round in less than 7 minutes, which is great for spontaneity and random midday matches. It’s also open-ended, and can be played intensely when you’re feeling competitive, or mindlessly when you just want something to do while you talk. Best of all, despite its simple premise (it’s really just car soccer) ,the game hits that sweet spot between easy to learn and hard to master, so we haven’t grown too bored with it even after a year of play.

Thanks to Rocket league, I didn’t just stay in touch with my friends during the pandemic — we practically didn’t miss a beat. — Drew Prindle

PS Plus Monthly Games

The pandemic changed a lot of things, including my gaming habits. Instead of spending a few months on a single game, I found myself cruising through titles much more quickly, happy to have an entertaining distraction that kept me from doomscrolling social media. That increased gaming left me with a new problem that kept popping up: What to play next?

Fortunately, years of adding the free games that come with my PlayStation Plus subscription each month resulted in an intimidating backlog of games in my library I’d been hoping to get around to playing someday. And now that day had come.

Over the last year, I finally crossed off a long list of older titles I was interested in at one point or another, including Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Beyond: Two Souls, and Just Cause 4. I finally learned what the fuss was about with the Yakuza franchise, thanks to the PS Plus free edition of Yakuza Kiwami, and got to experience the fun of Star Wars: Battlefront II in all its post-release, post-loot crate glory. That’s a lot of good gaming for the low, low price of, well… the PS Plus subscription I already had. I’m a completionist, so I’ll probably never reach the point when I’ve played all of the games in PS Plus library, but when I needed something to keep my mind off … everything … the vault of free PS Plus games provided just that. — Rick Marshall

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