It’s difficult to point to a specific date and say, “That’s when the pandemic really started.” I know some people who were already restricting their movements last February, while lads who flat out refuse to abide by social distancing rules are still on the telly almost every day. Sometimes I think of my last pint in a pub, which was some time in early March 2020, and say, “Yeah, that’s it.” But then Animal Crossing had its anniversary last week and it really hit me that we’ve been in this situation for a full year.
We’ve all heard it a million times before – Animal Crossing is the pandemic game. Unbeknownst to Nintendo before the fact, it managed to carve out the perfect launch window for a game designed to foster connections, both with cutesy little villagers and friends and family with islands of their own. While we couldn’t travel to see each other in real life, we could hop on a Dodo Airlines flight and jet off to our mates’ islands in no time. Nicking each other’s rocks, swapping apples for oranges, pole-vaulting across narrow rivers for no reason… hell, people even got married in Animal Crossing.
That’s the thing. I know some of you are still playing Animal Crossing today, and I applaud you. That’s some serious dedication and I’m sure your island paradise is an utter marvel. But I lasted less than a week before I thought, “Jesus, these villagers are a bit of a pain in the arse, aren’t they?” I’m one of those people who doesn’t really care for material things and keeps everything quite basic. When I had a plain little gaff on this cool island filled with weird fish and creepy crawlies, I was content. But Tom Nook kept pressuring me into more loans, the island traders kept wanting me to buy more rubbish, and Blathers – one of the only ones I actually liked – was becoming harder to please. “I wish I bought Doom instead,” I thought to myself (I played Doom Eternal a few months after and it quickly became my third-favourite game of 2020, so yeah, I definitely should have bought Doom instead).
Fortunately, despite the fact I bounced off Animal Crossing hard, I’ve finally found my own pandemic game: Valheim. That’s not to say nothing else stuck with me over the year – I already wrote about how Persona 5 Royal was immensely important to me, and I adored games like Hades, Necrobarista, and loads more besides. But these were all single-player games where I could lose myself in a story, or consciously embrace the elements of it that resonated with our current reality. Valheim is the first multiplayer game I’ve played with friends in a way that genuinely reminded me of being down the pub on a Saturday afternoon, pretending to watch football as an excuse to have a few pints at 5pm instead of 6pm. It’s the video game equivalent of the fourth pint, where you feel a bit woozy but it just makes you do a big stupid smile for about 20 minutes.
The first time I booted up Valheim, I played solo and thought it was fine. I didn’t make it to the first boss – I only played for an hour and was learning the ropes – and just sort of messed around with the different crafting options. I went back once or twice, but it was another one of those good games I wished I had more time for. I didn’t play for a few weeks, until one evening I was on a call with some of my mates and they forced me to log in.
I wasn’t really bothered, but it was Paddy’s Day. As a group of young Irish lads with nowhere to go, we needed something to do, and I was outvoted before I could even cast my suggestion. So I played Valheim, and within about 20 minutes, it finally hit me how amazing this game is when you play it with other people.
It’s similar to Animal Crossing in some ways, right? You’ve got an island where you build a settlement. You can change the lay of the land, conquer rapid rivers with imposing structures, and interact with the local wildlife for various different rewards. Sure, Animal Crossing doesn’t have trolls, but it does have brazenly ruthless ultra-capitalism, which is a whole lot worse.
But Valheim is so much better, at least for me. I respect Animal Crossing and can see why it appeals to people, but Valheim feels so much more productive and collaborative. “Here, I’m after missing that deer,” I’ll say. “Leg it from the other side and we’ll shut it down in the middle.” A mere moment passes before an arrow rips through pockets of air, sending its mark to its maker as we prepare to don our first proper set of armor. That’s what makes this such an incredible game when it comes to value for time – you can spend hours making an elaborate house. You can build ports, sundials, or even roller coasters. But you can also go off into the woods for two minutes and hunt. I’m rubbish at building forts, so I prefer the combat stuff. I’ll go out, beat up a couple of trolls, and come home with enough troll hides to make full sets of armor for two or three people. When I come back, I notice the gaff has an extension now, a little extra outcropping where we’ve nailed down a forge and an anvil. There are two kilns pumping out charcoal to power the smelter. It’s a smooth operation because of how independent all of our jobs are, but also because of how often it’s necessary to reconvene. I’ve got 60 copper and 30 tin from the Black Forest in this cart – you get it all smelted and do us full sets of bronze armor while I go look for Surtling cores.
That’s the beauty of it. You can play Valheim for ten minutes and feel as if you’ve got loads done, but you can also play for eight hours. I know a lot of people do their hour of daily tasks in Animal Crossing as a ritualistic thing, but that style of play never suited me. If I’m playing a game, I’m playing it – I don’t want to run out of stuff to do in 40 minutes. Valheim is perfect because it’s basically 40-minute blocks stacked on top of each other infinitely. It’s compartmentalized enough for you to feel productive in short bursts, but also built in a way that there’s never nothing to do. The result of that is a pretty laid back Viking survival sim that you can play with your mates all weekend without having to commit to any super serious raid stuff like in other games. It’s the closest thing video games have to a pub atmosphere right now – and so I’m more than happy to spend my Friday nights getting plucked up by a Valkyrie and dropped on an island with a few of the lads for the next few months. It may have taken a year, but I’m glad I finally found a game that helps me feel as if I’m still socializing during the pandemic. It’s nice to have a couple of pints over Discord, too – helps sell the whole Viking illusion.
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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