As we emerge slowly but surely (and, hopefully for the last time) from what for many is their third lockdown, we’re casting our minds back to the year that has been.
With most of our time spent at home and indoors, lifestyles have changed dramatically – for better and for worse.
One thing that’s swelled in popularity is gaming, once seen as the slacker’s alternative to real-world activity, now a necessity in our entertainment-strapped waking hours.
More people than ever have picked up a controller in the past year, and we’ve spent some of our fondest recent memories with virtual characters and worlds.
Here are some of the unsung gaming heroes that defined our lockdowns.
Seemingly coming from nowhere, the PlayStation’s pratformer Fall Guys gave games a colourful, Just a Knockout-like game in which players must traverse a number of obstacle courses as an unwieldy Fall Guy.
Taking battle royale, last-man-standing gameplay and feeding it through a Takeshi’s Castle-style test of slapstick timing and chaotic player interactions brought players in from all demographics, and not even the revelation that the character’s were hiding horrific skeletal structures under the squidgy exteriors could put people off.
The family cat (or dog)
Nintendo’s latest iteration of their world-beating Mario Kart franchise was Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, an augmented reality effort which paired footage beamed live to your Switch control from a physical remote controlled car with cartoonish graphics, allowing you to set up inventive courses around your own floors.
Chair legs became obstacles, cushions imposing barriers. But one household mainstay that we didn’t see becoming such a large part of the experience was household pets.
Soon after the game's release, the internet was flooded with clips of kittens and pubs pawing playfully at Nintendo’s mascot in his plastic cart, looming over him like some kind of kaiju horror.
It was as cute as it was annoying, but seeing cats topple racers will never get old.
Crewmates (and Imposters)
First released in 2018, Among Us found fame two years later when lockdown boredom drove even those who'd never picked up a video games controller before to play it.
Essentially an online version of the part game Mafia, players are chosen at random to be the Imposter, and off fellow Crewmates as everyone goes about their assigned spaceship tasks.
At the end of each round, a group discussion aims to weedle out the murderous member, with players bluffing and double bluffing each other to pin the crime on an innocent Crewmate.
Online retail bots
OK, these guys didn't appear within a video game per se, and to call them heroes is just plain wrong, but many of us struggled to ‘beat’ the bots across all three lockdowns.
When both Sony and Microsoft released their PS5 and Xbox Series X|S consoles at the latter end of 2020, demand was so fierce that all outlets sold out of limit stock almost instantly.
A heightened want of the new machines to quell lockdown boredom coupled with component shortages spurred out by the pandemic meant that the products were scarcer than ever.
It wouldn’t have been too bad, but in the face of unprecedented stock shortages, so-called ‘scalpers’ set up bots, which continuously monitor websites for products that are limited in stock.
The moment they become available, the bot has the user’s payment details ready to go, to secure the items within milliseconds, making it near impossible for a human to compete.
They may have been more of a blight on the gaming landscape over lockdown, but if you managed to secure a new console over one, it was a feeling unlike any other.
Your VR headset
Virtual reality has been around for decades, and has been in a state comparable to the science-fiction dreams of our youths for a number of years now.
But 2020 saw the medium’s first ‘killer app’ in Half Life: Alyx, which took players back to the critically acclaimed gaming universe for a unique adventure that made as much use of the tech as possible.
The level of detail included in the world remains astounding, and the VR gameplay is as tactile and convincing as anything in the real world, making for an altogether more immersive experience.
Players are still playing with Alyx’s world, finding new discoveries all the time.
Travel was off the table for many throughout the lockdown months, and people began to realise they missed life beyond the UK’s borders much more than they previously imagined.
Step in Microsoft Flight Simulator, which allows virtual aviation fans to pilot a number of realistically rendered aircraft through the skies.
But here’s what really made the game special: it included a 1:1 scale replica of planet Earth, using Microsoft’s mapping technology to let you fly over anywhere in the world.
Plus, with scalable control schemes that let your pair back how realistic the game was, anyone could play, from seasoned flight simulator fans to newcomers just wanting to swoop over their back gardens.
But of course, the ultimate lockdown palate cleanser starred your good self – or at least a cutened up virtual version of your good self - as you tended to your very own tropical island in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
Released the same weekend as the UK’s first national lockdown kicked off, the tranquil game was perfectly poised to become the break from reality we all needed during such trying times.
Each day bled into the next in the real world, but in Animal Crossing, your island was kept fresh with real-time events, updates and new content drops, and over a year from its initial release people are still flocking to one of Nintendo’s best performing games in history.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Nintendo planned the whole thing out, given how perfectly events came together to ensure while the world was sheltering from a deadly virus on the outside, our inside lives were spent fishing and catching bugs on our very own paradises.
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