I read the news today and, oh boy, it's pretty bleak out, isn't it? Not that this is especially uncommon, as bad news always travels faster than words on wonderful happenings – but as 2015 comes to a close there's the definite impression that the globe's fizzing on a short fuse. I don't need to go into specifics, as you've all seen the headlines. But sometimes I wonder if it's better to simply look the other way, not watch the TV summaries or read the live feeds on the BBC and Guardian homepages.
That's nonsense, of course – we need to know what is happening around us. All of this matters when you're a citizen of this modern world, enjoying unprecedented connectivity and communication with complete strangers in foreign lands. Ignorance isn't bliss – it's naivety. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't also allow yourself to escape reality for a few hours per week, exploring fantasy dimensions representing safe spaces for role-play, reflection, and just sometimes, as it turns out, visceral bouts of hyper-violence.
See, while video gaming is a maturing medium, today open to tackling themes like terminal illness, depression, suicide and gender dysphoria, it's also where the participant (that's you) can have a whole tonne of fun for just a while, temporarily shutting out any and all chaos consuming the news media. There really is a video game for everyone – anyone claiming that they "don't like video games" simply hasn't been looking – and everyone should have an interactive happy place to call their own, assuming they've access to the essential hardware in the first place. Most people do: that smartphone in your pocket, it's one of the best gaming devices ever created.
I've been thinking about my own video gaming happy places over the past 48 hours or so, the titles I turn to when I just want an hour to myself, to sit and smile at a screen and not worry about the weighty things. I've my share – just regular stuff, pressures and responsibilities that any of us can have, nothing special; but they're there, every single day. And every day I think about disappearing from it all, for a heartbeat in time. Occasionally, I do.
Right now, that usually means Rocket League. It's an online multiplayer arcade sports game where you play football-like most-goals-wins matches inside an enclosed arena, in which the ball is massive and every player is a jet-powered car or truck. I wrote about it at some length in July 2015, but really, that's all you need to know in order to realise it's amazing: rocket cars and (roughly) football rules. Matches last five minutes, unless the scores are tied, in which case golden-goal extra time is played. It's fast, completely hilarious and incredibly competitive, and my retinas remain absolutely fixed on the action. I worry a house fire wouldn't snap my attention from the screen. It's one of my very favourite games of 2015, and not because it offers anything radical. It's simply somewhere that, for 20 minutes at a time (unless the one-more-match bug really bites), I can just forget about everything else.
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Another 2015 game, Guitar Hero Live, is an effective portal to glee for me, so excellently engineered to engender good times that even numbers by Evanescence and Calvin Harris feel like the most inspirational songs to have flowed through my veins since that all-smiles-everywhere circle pit at The Movielife in 2002. Other shows have happened since, but you get my point: GHL manages to make the ordinary, and even the turgid, into moments. And in doing so categorically shuts away the outside world, constantly streaming new songs to strum along to via its TV service, an endless, all-you-can-eat buffet of escapism. Is there a better feeling than full combo-ing Wolf Alice's "Moaning Lisa Smile"? Obviously. But not at the very second that notification pops up on your screen, there's not.
I've had these happy places ever since I began playing games. I'm sure you have, too. An early one for me was The Secret of Monkey Island, something that I can play today (it's great on iOS, if that version is still available, and we published a love letter to the game, here) and feel that same delight I did when I wasn't yet a teenager. It's perfect, supremely silly yet taxing enough (not that I don't know all the puzzles inside out) that the player's brain doesn't turn to mulch. Nintendo's Super Mario series – inspired of level design, bold of palette, boisterous of sound and immediate of control – is a favourite of many, based on the responses I get when asking for other people's go-to games when they need a pick-me-up after a right shitter of a day, or just to slip away from very real horrors for a half-hour. I count Mario Kart 8 as amongst the best remedies for a downer: three laps of Dolphin Shoals and I am brimming with positive vibes, stirred into a hypnotising swirl by that circuit's phenomenal music.
Something that did surprise me, looking at those replies on Twitter and Facebook, was the number of violent games used as a fun-time-forget-about-everything-else comfort blanket slash good-times-rolling step-pepper. One fellow cited Dark Souls, a game so overwhelmingly intimidating that just looking at the box in my cupboard of games (that I'll never finish) makes me nervous. Half-Life 2 doesn't strike me as a happy game, either, but its position as someone's cheery standby makes me realise something that might seem obvious to many, but hasn't been so black and white to me, until now: our video gaming happy places are almost always wrapped in a thick layer of nostalgia. Streets of Rage 2 and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night were wheeled out as responses, both echoes from a gaming era alien to today's CoD T-shirt-wearing teens raised on a steady diet of identikit shooters. It's worth noting that both have excellent modern ports: Streets of Rage 2 on the 3DS is the definitive version IMHO, and Symphony of the Night is up there on PSN for less than a tenner (so get on that).
Beside shout outs for Mario, Zelda games and Keita Takahashi's deliriously singular roll 'em up Katamari series – that's one of my favourite frown-upside-down affairs, too; We Love Katamari will always be stored in the house proper, amongst just a select few PS2 games to have so far avoided the loft – the shootybangs and punchathons felt incongruous, initially. But then it clicked in my head that the last few times I'd fired up the gratuitously violent Grand Theft Auto V on the PS4 – not the online game you understand, because balls to that noise – it was to cruise the game's take on LA and the surrounding area, beneath a beautiful California sunset, while listening to "With Every Heartbeat". Hammering north on the highway to Paleto Bay, Robyn on the stereo and taillights showing the way, no mission in mind: a guaranteed high, however low the previous few hours have left me feeling.
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The first game that had popped into my head when considering my gaming happy places of right now was Hohokum, perhaps not even a "game" at all by certain standards. You zoom a weird snake thing around a bizarre landscape, interacting with inhabitants and unlocking new passages to environments just as weird as what preceded them. It's half interactive art exhibition, half surreal meditation on gaming's fascination with demanding completion of trivial quests to facilitate progression. It's so far away from something like Dark Souls that an outsider looking into gaming for the first time in 20 years wouldn't think they're bound by a medium, although you might call them comparably obtuse of direction. Anyway, I see now that these happy places exist less on the screen and more in the players themselves, often but not always supported by memories of gaming before adulthood and responsibility, when time was available to properly luxuriate in a new adventure and creep into its every corner.
Streets of Rage 2 is a very violent game, with iron bars routinely smacked into skulls and enemies forever wanting to slice strips of the selected protagonist's lovely face. But it's innocent with its menace; crisp of pixels and uncommonly innovative of music, soaked in that near-neon SEGA brightness that the Mega Drive conveyed so well during the battle for 16bit supremacy. Playing it now makes me happy, just as it ever did. Maybe you get the same feeling from Candy Crush or Command & Conquer or Crash Bandicoot or Clash of Clans, makes no difference: you've got your happy place, and that really is an essential, I think, in order to best balance the stresses of our new everyday against a little light. If you want to share your own Monkey Islands with us, please do – VICE Gaming is on Twitter here, or you can comment below.
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