How Playing Over 1000 Hours of 'Into the Breach' Helped Me Survive 2018
You've heard of games as self-care, so here's to games of self-preservation.
A couple of days a week, I work from home. I wake up, usually with two of my three pets snuggling close by. I head over to my computer and check in with my colleagues and begin planning my day. I get my breakfast and coffee and prep on podcast topics, or begin edits on a piece, or check up on admin tasks, or get down to the process of actually writing or editing video. Somewhere in this morning process, at least from about February on, I would open my gaming laptop, and start a game of Into the Breach. It wasn’t my primary focus, not until the day’s usual warm-up tasks were done. But it’d be there, humming in the background, the game ready and eager for my next turn.
This lasted from my early days with the game, struggling to complete even the first island, to my first breakthroughs in prioritizing actions (somehow, being an EMT made this game easier for me), all the way to my time completing every achievement. And far past that.
It lasts to this day, with well over 1000 hours into my steam save, and dozens more on my Switch. I still play at lunch during the work day, whether at home or in the office, and during the rare idle time on weekends between my other activities and jobs and competitions and such. Into the Breach—Subset Games’ tactical mech-vs-giant-bug masterpiece—has been my one constant in 2018, a year of unadulterated hell in almost every other aspect.
I’m being dramatic, but not entirely inaccurate. 2018 has been horrible for everyone on planet Earth, except for maybe, right wing opinion columnists. The rise of fascism across the globe, the prevalence of hate crimes and other forms of state-sanctioned evil, the sheer, evil stupidity of everything falling apart around us. But hey, we need to keep making money for the company, so...
My personal life fell completely apart mid-year, when a serious long-term relationship melted away. (In a moment of great irony, I was wearing my Rift Walkers t-shirt as I was being dumped.) This was not my first rodeo. I’ve had several multi-year relationships fall apart before. I’ve moved across the country for a partner before. But this time, it was enough to essentially break me.
My life looks radically different now than it did a few months ago, in both some truly terrible ways and in some meaningfully wonderful ways. But Into the Breach was there, and steady, as my life felt like it fell apart around me, and reshaped itself. I picked up the pieces, hour by hour, and day by day, and week by week. Sometimes I imagined the sound effects and UI elements from the game as I completed other tasks and went about the business of surviving in the earliest weeks.
I played the game while cuddling one of my cats, with the sick knowledge that I’d be saying goodbye to one of them as she’d be leaving with my ex. I did a quick run when I found myself staring into space, just trying to count the seconds until I could go to sleep or go to grappling, or do something—anything—that wasn’t staring at the walls. I needed something to latch onto as I rode the waves of anguish and grief that accompany this kind of thing. To escape the sick feeling that just takes over again if you forget for even one second that this person that means the world to you doesn’t love you anymore.
It has been a life-saver and a sanity saver for me.
Sure, you could make the easy metaphor about playing a game with set rules (and near-perfect information, as you get with ITB’s clean interface) and direct feedback, but more than anything, it was engaging. It was a distraction that actually worked and got my mind off of things, just a little. ITB is a difficult game that ramps up in complication with every island you visit. After 1000 hours, I still lose all the time, especially with my less-favored teams. And you can totally get screwed in the game, though you can usually swing things back your way with careful planning. It was strong enough, compelling enough, interesting enough—and to use a term we like on the podcast sometimes—sticky enough to stay with me through everything.
Thematically and narratively, ITB also felt oddly comforting. It’s a game about an impossible, miserable reality, and the need to fight it with your dying breath. Your squad is a crew of time travelers who represent the last real chance humanity has to survive against overwhelming odds. It’s you and your three little mechs against (across up to five islands of battle) dozens of angry giant bugs hell-bent on destruction. Your defenses (think health bar) never go above a paltry percentage. Your work is always cut out for you. And you will eat shit again and again, fail the billions of people who were relying on you, only to start over again. Their deaths will never be erased.
There’s nothing good about this reality, other than the possibility of another timeline. Maybe, this time, you can play all the way to the end. And even when you do succeed: all you can do is try again, in another timeline. There is only struggle.
It’s not lost on me that I‘ve spent this difficult year playing a game about time travel and do-overs and alternate timelines. It’s impossible not to wonder if there was another path here, in my own life. It’s easy to think of the many tweets portending that our current hate-and-late-capitalism fueled reality is the “darkest timeline,” and wonder, if we did some things differently, would we still be here? Maybe if we fought a little harder last time? Made a few more calls to family before the last election? If we paid more attention to work-life balance?
Into the Breach wasn’t the only game that helped me take care of myself this year. Prey: Mooncrash offered a perfect distillation of what I loved about my 2017 game of the year, and I was deep into that in the weeks leading up to and succeeding my breakup. I played it constantly, right up until my ex took the Playstation 4 we once shared, and it was the very first thing I downloaded on my brand-new PS4.
There have been times where I’ve found solace in softer, gentler, more traditionally “self-care” games, before 2018’s hard sci-fi gave me relief. In another time, I turned to the Animal Crossing games: especially New Leaf, to get over the pain of moving away from San Francisco. It wasn’t an easy transition for me, as SF was the first place I ever felt at home, and ever truly felt comfortable being queer and visibly so. To help me have a portable cozy fix, my ex bought those games for me. We vlogged a bunch on an old YouTube channel we shared, playing the game as we traveled to NYC looking for a new home in the city. It’s too close. It still is—I’ll tear up if I hear any Animal Crossing music.
So here in 2018, my “companions” looked maybe a little rougher or worse for wear. They were unforgiving games, harder than most of the things I typically fall in love with, game-wise. But they were exactly what I had to have in 2018, what I required to help me through a difficult time, and what I needed, thematically, to get up off my ass and continue fighting another day.