Post-Apocalyptic Badassery in a Mid-Pandemic Wasteland

Whenever I’ve need to get away from the dark melancholy of a world overrun by a deadly viral pandemic I’ve been retreating to a virtual world overturned by a stark nuclear winter.

My Playstation Plus subscription came coupled with a collection of PS4 games that while they don’t showcase the capabilities of my new top-of-the-line, next-gen gaming system are games I never got around to playing much or at all.

Fallout 4 was on both lists, the list of games I hadn’t played much of and the list of games that came along free with the annual subscription I bought from Sony.

And when I logged in to check my trophies and gaming profile I was a little surprised to see that not only hadn’t I earned many of the achievement that go along with this RPG but also that my time-in-game had passed 30 hours over the last couple weeks. Those two data points didn’t exactly jibe.

Fallout 4 is a role playing game (for those unfamiliar with the franchise.) This means that you start off as a character in the game where character is all that really matters. “Character” doesn’t necessarily mean upstanding character, but rather that the point of the game is to develop and enhance the characteristics of your in-game character to advance through a story and accomplish various tasks and goals.

The main big-picture goal is that of finding you abducted son, who was stolen away under shady circumstances while you were locked in a hibernation chamber waiting out two hundred years of post-nuclear fallout.

The small-picture tasks are generally killing undead radiation creatures while you hunt the wasteland for bigger guns and loot to satiate your endless ammunition needs while you make sketchy friendships with settlers by building them crappy shacks to live in and then filling it with mouldering furniture.

Yes, I’ve actually spent more than 30 hours of my life doing this… during a pandemic. Uplifting, huh?

The trickiest part of the new console though is finding games that balance playability and fun on one side with watcher-enjoyment on the other. The PS5 is hooked up to our main television in a common space where schedules usually converge on three people looking to make use of that screen at the same time.

In other words, if I want to play a game (even though it’s the television I bought — welcome to fatherhood!) I get less pushback if its a game that’s entertaining to watch as a spectator.

I’m not one hundred percent sure Fallout 4 is that game but as I progress deeper and deeper I’m finding myself reading up on the lore and in-game plot threads so that I can narrate the backstory to what’s happening to anyone else in the room who finds themselves stuck watching me V.A.T.S. a raider with my nuclear powered shotgun for the two-thousandth time.

Getting trenched in on an RPG is the point of an RPG. Finding immersion in the story, and seeking to drive the plot forward through the progressive adversity of increasingly more difficult is what game makers aim for, I think. I enjoy RPGs because throughout my life, every couple of years, I find myself entrenched in one and loving the time I invest in it.

Some that stand out in my memory are Ultima VII, Final Fantasy VII & IX, Chrono Cross, Skyrim & Breath of the Wild. I’m getting to a point where I could easily see myself adding Fallout 4 to that list… even as it brings a different level of twisted gloom to an already gloomy era.

Reading | The Years of Rice and Salt (Robinson)

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson (2002)

Recently, I searched up and through a variety of online books lists. The point was to get some perspective on my quest to read more this year and to add some titles to my own prospective reading plan.

“Fifty books to read before you’re fifty.”

“The 100 best books of all time.”

“The twenty best books of 2020.”

Or, where I saw mentioned my next read…

“Great books to read during a pandemic.”

A pandemic, huh?

I’ve had a paperback copy of Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history novel The Years of Rice and Salt sitting on my shelf for years. It caught my interest once, but stacks of unread books are not an uncommon sight at our house. Apparently, it was waiting for a global pandemic for it’s moment to shine. It is, after all, about a former global pandemic, one that in the fourteenth century wiped out a third of Europe’s population. But what if, Stanley proposes, the plague had wiped out ninety-nine percent of Europe’s population? Just Europe. Everywhere else had a tough time, but mostly pulled through. And thus the ascendency of Western Europe… um… never happened?

In fact, only last night I completed a very European-ascendant-type novel. Prelude to Foundation offers a far future glimpse of mid-twentieth century Western values transposed many thousands of years into the future. I don’t think it was the point of the book that pretending that the social growth from the 1950s through the 1980s stalled. Yet, Isaac Asimov was telling a light backstory to one of his more famous characters crammed in between a few of his more popular works. What emerged from my perspective was casual social commentary. That book (as I explained to my wife in my frustration between chapters) was as much a dissertation on late twentieth century counter-culture social hang-ups as it was an exploration of any of the fantastic ideas from the Foundation series itself. Prelude to Foundation wowed me as a teenager because I lived in a small city with conservative ideals during that era. The twisting story of a fortune-telling mathematician fleeing those who would use him for their own political means dabbles broadly but simplistically in tackling concepts like gender equality, social movement, and even sexual prudishness as the protagonist blunders through a diverse society. I think it blew my mind that people were questioning this stuff… and in novel form, to boot. But that was thirty years ago. Thirty years later, and having lived through and participated in a variety of social movements, I’d like to believe that I’ve questioned ideals that are far more complex… and that I still am. So, as a recommended starting point for a modern perspective, even if it is a quick, fun read, Prelude to Foundation would not be my go-to.

With my latest pick, NOVEL.2021.03, I’m continuing questioning big ideas about our place in the modern world. For insight on the events of the past that have shaped us I’ve turned to some alternate history fiction. The Years of Rice and Salt as a recommended pandemic read has some obvious parallels to living in a time of contagion-fear.

The vibe I got from the first couple chapters, though, was that fool-hearted self assurance we Westerners all take for granted of that ascendency of Western Europe. It happened, sure. But I think Robinson is going to push hard on the you do know it wasn’t inevitable angle.

Maybe in thirty years those ideas will be just as quaint and simplistic as Asimov getting hot and bothered and writing a full chapter about a secondary character taking her shirt off in public… but we did just watch an attempted (failed) fascist coup of the US government so who can say. Maybe the impacts of Western European culture go a little deeper.

Ok, a lot.

Neglecting all that Anthropomorthic Island-Hopping

Rating: 8 out of 10.

One of the last walks I took through the downtown shopping mall near where my pre-pandemic office was located took me past a video game store where a large stand-up cardboard cutout display heralded the impending arrival of a game of which I was only peripherally aware.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released in late March 2020 to the kind of gloriously suspicious fanfare that actually floated wacky conspiracies that Nintendo had created the COVID-19 virus to coincide with the launch of its lockdown-perfect game. After all, checking into a virtual island daily for multiple hours was a luxury few had until forced to stay home and avoid human contact — by law!

I bought into the hype in early April and ordered a copy from that same mall video game chain (but online) and the Switch cart arrived on my doorstep on one of those blurry days of the spring first wave. We plunked it in, built an island (with a trio of family players) and —

Truth be told, my family kept at the progress long and strong, while my interest faded to other things by early May. My character spent each night in a small, one room house with a cot for a bed, while the other residents built multi-story mansions, elaborate virtual friendships, and checked off the museum bingo card of collectables.

So it seemed pandemic-appropriate that the first of my neglected games for the holiday season saw me booting up the title that had kicked off the first month of what is now a nine-month-long ordeal and a two week stay-at-home (by law!) vacation.

After nine months the family has come close to capping out their own progress. I re-enter the game as a player who missed out on halloween goodies, thanksgiving party supplies, and a summer of curious collectables. My little house invited me in and reminded me of my neglect by releasing an infestation of cockroaches scurrying across the floor.

“You gotta squish them, dad!” The kid informed me.

Yet despite the virtual oppulence that has blossomed all around me, I am no further ahead as a ride-along passenger on our Anthropomorphic Island. My recipe collection lacks. My house is crowded among cultivated gardens and groves looking more like it was in the way of the kid’s inspiration than part of a larger plan.

I ran around the landscape and tried to remember what I was supposed to be doing. I shook some trees, picked up some tree branches, dug a worthless fossil from the ground, and was scolded by some very outgoing animals for disappearing for SEVEN MONTHS! I thought you were avoiding me, they chided.

Maybe I was.

Yes, maybe I was.

The game became something of a meme, landing on multiple lists of pandemic lockdown to-dos.

Did you bake sourdough bread? Check.

Did you grow your hair to your shoulders? Hell, yeah.

Did you binge-watch Netflix? Of course.

Did you play Animal Crossing? Did we ever!

The game has a way of keeping you connected, of course. Unlike mobile app games it can’t send you reminder notifications or nag you to check in, though. Instead, it worms into your brain and implies that this little virtual world is alive and chugging along in real time, and stuff still happens while you were out there in the real world, y’know, working, buying groceries, and trying to stay sane through the wackiest year of your life.

Will I keep checking in? It’s the holidays and it’s so easy to load it up for a few minutes while chilling on the couch — so, yes? It may not satiate that trigger-finger, action-craving gamer urge, but I’ve got an extra reminder to visit more often: Dad? Have you checked your mail? I sent you something. Dad? … Dad?


I have this baed habit of writing an explanation post for something that I’m dabbling in, giving a long-winded overview of my plans to pursue some grand project, and then… nothing. It falls out of mind and out of sight and a few years later I stumble across my public avowal to conduct some grand creative effort and wince at the memory, and the reminder that I never even tried a second time, let alone acheived project nirvana.

So as I write here that I had been struck by some creative lightning this morning and sat down to write out the results as a bit of narrative fiction, you dear reader, should understand that my efforts may vrery easily be a one-off even though I feel compelled to explain myself now.

I was struck by some creative lighting this morning and sat down to write out the results as a bit of narrative fiction.

(See what I did there?)

I may write more of that particular thread. I may not. What is more interesting is that I created a new content type on this website to fulfill the creative hankerings resulting from the oft-felt inspiration to just write something. As a result of today’s efforts, a burst of words that I labelled Cracking Wood for no other reason than the software requires that everything have a name and I prefer words to numbers, symbols and clever taxonomic filing systems for these things.

But the fiction? A mere few hundred words, but words nonetheless.

These words I wrote stemmed out of a couple of juxtaposing streams of thought in my mind.

First and a couple days ago, I wrote that post called The Wandering Guy wherein I lamented my lurking desire to live a more interesting life. Take that as you will, but essentially it’s that slow burn of a mid-life crisis that reminds us of our own mortality and having our lack of thrill-seeking adventure and amazingness throwing into our faces via social media, mocking us, as we’re locked down in our neighbourhoods during a pandemic … it has a way of squeezing out through the cracks.

Second, a few of us met for a short social run last night and as we dodged through the trails we came across a hefty tree fallen across the path. Ten meters tall. I couldn’t have hugged my arms around the trunk. This is not a strange occurance in nature, but we were in a groomed trail in the heart of the city, and the tree was splintered and busted up, branches splayed out all over the place, bits of stressed wood shattered by the crack and impact and whatever forces cause these things. It hung high enough across the way for us to crouch underneith it. “Glad I wasn’t around when that guy fell down.” I had remarked to my group as we squeezed past.

So as far as seeds of inspiration go, that was it: one question to set a character down a metaphorical path. What if some guy who was out there kinda living a life, but not as broadly or amazingly as he felt he should, someone who was already feeling in a bit of a rut — what if he had a tree dropped on him. That’s it. So I started writing. And I posted it here. Unedited. Just… raw.

Enjoy. And maybe — just maybe — there will be more some day.