She boots up Dreams of Apocalyptica, clipping her fingernails on the couch while she waits for the game to load. Yellow crescent-shaped slivers catch between the blades, and then fall onto her dark pink sweatpants.
Just glancing at her laptop on the coffee table, its screen cocked, dust motes playing visibly across its face, makes her heart squirm and glisten with a slippery jolt of dopamine. After a day of work, tiring and emotionally void, the rush is better than anything. Dopamine feels so good moving through her body that she often fantasizes it will heal her many ailments; a miracle hormone like a string of pearls sleeved into her bloodstream, clearing the path of chronic cholesterol build-up and the molecular memories of her anxiety, disordered eating, and many latent childhood fears.
In Dreams of Apocalyptica, she plays as a vaguely humanoid blob with purple elfin ears, fuzzy green hair, and huge, glittering red eyes. She wields a sword with a golden tassel, though she uses it only on the poison-spitting skeletons that live in the procedurally generated forests. Her task is to rebuild the kingdom after a cataclysmic event, in coalition with a hundred-thousand other casual players, a responsibility she takes more seriously than anything, including her 9-5 and her handful of decaying friendships. In Dreams of Apocalyptica, she has something nothing else can provide: purpose.
Today, her goal is to collect enough wood and stone to finally complete the ruined temple in one of the little coastal towns in the kingdom. She’s been working towards this for the better part of a month. The moment she finishes slotting in the last block, a sparkling dust cloud and musical cue will trigger, and, once the dust settles, her squarish, pixelated temple-on-the-sea will reveal itself. She smiles at the thought of it: the repeated loop of royalty-free wave sounds coupled with the digital light on the frothy tide, the cheap marble pattern ripped from a game developer’s CD of textures circa 1999. Beauty itself, arriving via cranky modem, unfurling onto her screen like a many-petaled lotus.
It doesn’t matter that it’s meaningless in every real sense—forty hours of point-and-click culminating in a clump of clunky code stored in a distant Palo Alto server. But, if anything, the frivolity of building a digital temple in a cheap game, the triviality of it, makes its existence all the more important. It proves life still holds some joy accessible to her.
It takes a few in-game minutes to jog up the incline where she had last saved; her avatar moves fluidly with no trace of tiredness. She spends a few moments collecting stray resources in her path, organizing her inventory methodically, diligently. It feels satisfying to have a job to do, a goal to meet, a fate to be fulfilled. The buzzy crush of dopamine in her blood rises again.
At the top of the hill, she clears the area of skeletons roaming beyond their bounds and, sheathing her hero’s sword, turns her attention to the temple. It’s late evening in Apocalyptica, and also in her real world; the dark evening rustles behind her bedroom curtains. The laptop shines like a searchlight in the darkness, ringing her face in neon. But inside the evening of the game, most details are obscured between the setting of the sun and the rising of the pixelated stars. Shadows are particularly poorly rendered in-game, transforming well-known vistas and objects into foreign, choppily framed blends of black and gray. It’s a visual problem too big for any developer patch, and bad enough that she almost doesn’t notice the graffiti as she does a lap of the temple.
She stops in her tracks and moves backward, reorienting the camera toward the temple’s outer wall, the side facing the ocean. Someone has scribbled a phrase in jet-black across the pink marble, using the game’s inelegant paint tool. The graffiti spans the entire wall. She has to back up several paces to read it in its entirety.
FLOOD THE ZONE, it says. The last stroke of the E is sloppy, dripping down to the dirt. She suppresses a flash of absolute rage at the vandal, hand cramping painfully around her mouse. The feeling disappears as abruptly as it came, as is often the nature of emotions catalyzed in-game.
FLOOD THE ZONE. She Googles it on her phone. Nothing. The official Apocalyptica forums have daily threads on farming, building, and fighting, but nothing about a flood. But she doesn’t expect much from the official game forums, so this isn’t altogether surprising. She thumbs over to her bookmarks and navigates to DewEyed’s streaming page. DewEyed is one of Apocalyptica‘s most popular streamers, and a favorite source of reliable knowledge on the game. Like many gamer girls on the platform, her initial notoriety stemmed from the surprise factor of her gender and her appeal as a target of lustful projection, which she leans into without apparent objection. Today, she is wearing floppy rabbit ears attached to a black plastic headband and is narrating her rebuilding project in a signature baby voice. In addition to marketing acumen, DewEyed is a truly competent player of the game. She’s been working on a grain silo for two weeks, an infamous build in Apocalyptica due to the constant danger of grain entrapment.
She watches the stream carefully. DewEyed is as cheerful as ever, biting back at haters on stream with irrepressible verve. Her grain silo is untouched by confusing messages. Chat is filled with sexual innuendo and emoji tongues. No flood.
She puts her phone down. Her laptop screen has gone black from inactivity; tentatively, she touches the mouse and the screen returns to life. The vandalized stone temple, nearly finished, stares back at her. She walks over to the cliff’s edge until the game won’t let her go any farther, casting her gaze like a net into the waves lapping against the shore below. For the first time, she notices that the sound of the tide is out of sync with the motion: she hears the crash well before the water meets the shore.
Turning back to the temple, she empties her inventory onto the ground and, after a moment’s consideration, picks out the wood and rope. The stone she leaves behind, glinting in the dark blue light. In the crafting menu, she pulls down the search bar and types in raft.