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Image courtesy of Falmung

A Light in the Darkness: Portable Gaming in Hurricane-Wrecked Puerto Rico

Patrick Klepek

Patrick Klepek

Falmung hasn't had power for months. It's unclear when he'll get power back. For now, he focuses on charging his devices.

Image courtesy of Falmung

In a dark room, on a small desk, a screen pulses to life, and Mario begins jumping. A Switch, running Super Mario Odyssey, is one of the only sources of light when the sun sets on Falmung’s small Puerto Rican apartment, sapped of electricity for months.

Nothing's been the same since Hurricane Maria.

Falmung, who was born in Germany but settled in Puerto Rico when his military father wanted to return home, was huddling in his parents house when Maria began dismantling the island of Puerto Rico this past September. A few years back, his parents had invested in a diesel power generator, thanks to the rolling blackouts that constantly disrupted the area. It proved useful for for the arrival of Maria, whose widespread and lingering destruction largely destroyed Puerto Rico’s electrical grid, leaving many still without power—including Falmung.

“After the hurricane hit, the lights of our house powered by the power generator were the only light that could be seen for miles,” he told me over email this week.

I met Falmung, who asked to go by his Internet pseudonym after a Waypoint reader pointed me towards the Xenoblade Chronicles 2subreddit, where Falmung was talking with players about the criticisms leveled against the game in Switch’s portable mode. (More than others, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 doesn’t look nearly as good on the go.)

He mentioned how much he was looking forward to playing Xenoblade Chronicles 2 in portable, regardless of how it looked, because it was keeping him distracted from Maria’s devastation. Though Falmung took shelter at his parents when the storm hit, he doesn’t live with them full-time. At Falmung’s apartment, there is no power.

“When I return home [from work],” he said, “the sun is already going down and in a few minutes, everything goes dark. When the darkness hits, the silent street is filled with the roaring sound of power generators, and those houses alone are the only lights visible.”

More than six utility poles snapped near his apartment during the hurricane, and there’s no indication when anything will be fixed. According to statusPR, which tracks the slow recovery efforts in Puero Rico, 68% of the territory’s power has been restored, but generators are one thing, poles are another. You need both.

The 28-year-old programmer analyst and software developer spends the work week at his apartment, where he’s found solace in a new companion: his Switch. As a machine capable of running high-end console games and functioning as a portable, it’s transformed games from a hobby into an escape from Puerto Rico’s ongoing nightmare.

“When I’m gaming I feel immersed in the experience and I forget all about my daily problems,” he said. “I simply do not know what I would be doing right now if I didn’t have my portable gaming devices. With no electricity, there are simply few things to do, especially at night. To me gaming is truly a beacon of hope.”

Before Maria, Falmung was largely a PC and PS4 player, with his portable devices only getting occasional use because he found them awkward. Now, they’ve become his life.

“When I return home [from work], the sun is already going down and in a few minutes, everything goes dark. When the darkness hits, the silent street is filled with the roaring sound of power generators."

Thankfully, his work has access to both a power generator and Internet, letting him charge devices before leaving for the day. The Switch’s battery tends to last him just long enough to get through the night. The next day, he charges all over again.

When the weekend arrives, he drives two hours to his parents, whose access to a generator and microwave-based Internet give Falmung a return to relative normalcy

“During this weekend is the only time when I can have a close semblance to what my life was before the hurricane,” he said.

That normalcy is achieved by keeping the generator running. Right after the hurricane hit, people scrambled to nearby gas stations to stock up on gasoline and diesel to fuel power generators. Because so much debris lined the streets of Puerto Rico, however, it didn’t take long for gas stations to begin running low. The lines were huge.

“During those long lines,” he said, “I had my 3DS with me as entertainment. Being able to game on the go made those long lines every day more bearable. When my 3DS would run out of battery, I’d switch to my PS Vita, and when that ran out of battery I’d switch to my Switch.”

Falmung was able to grind through the batteries of multiple devices because the lines took as long as 12 hours to sit through. Even then, fuel rationing meant they were often unable to completely fill the generator. That meant another trip to the line, and another round of patient waiting, with games one of the few ways to stay distracted.

The cycle continues. Each night, he recharges. Because cell phone service has been so limited, he keeps his cellphone off to try and conserve the battery. He download games and audio books to accompany the long drives to and from his parents.

(Falmung, a big JRPG fan, largely shifted to buying games digitally after GameStop left in 2016, citing “ongoing business challenges and increased governmental restraints.”)

It remains unclear when this cycle might change. Despite President Trump’s smugly grading his administration’s relief efforts as a “10,” there are few signs Falumng (and the rest of Puerto Rico) can expect a full recovery anytime soon. The US government appears content letting Puerto Rico fend for itself, one utility pole at a time.

For the moment, though, Falmung is thankful he still has games.

“When I walk back to my room in complete darkness, with my flashlight in hand,” he said, “I can see the only light visible in the darkness is the illuminated screen of my Switch welcoming back into a colorful world.”

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com.

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