A tiny wizard in traditional robes and alarmingly cute pink pigtails stands in a pixelated room. There’s a bed, a wardrobe, and now, as my character’s joyful landlord has informed her, a cute matching chair.
This is Fantasy Life, the newest game from Level 5. That wizard’s walking around an apartment that rivals any I have ever lived in—and it’s not even real.
I’m standing on the curb outside of my old apartment, looking at the cars go by on Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn. It’s the end of January, 2009. My mother is helping me pack what little belongings I own. I lost my job at a non-profit several days before Christmas, and I’ve been riding out the last month of my lease with packing. I will be flying out the next day to Milwaukee, giving up on my plans.
I had moved to NYC in the summer of 2005, long before the recession.
In the years to come, we would see our national economy tank, fueled by criminal excesses in the financial sector. My generation would realize that the old ways were not feasible for us. Many of us who believed in working hard and “making it” realized that our dreams, built on what our parents had sold us, would never come true. There were no jobs waiting for us, many of us were in over our heads in debt, and “struggling to make it” became the norm.
While we’re frequently chastised as the “selfie” generation, Millennials have rejected the narrative of so many think pieces—that we’re selfish children, more obsessed with technology and pleasure than the ideals of hard work and social programs that served Baby Boomers for years. We’re extended adolescents, huddling in our parent’s basements and enjoying what small material excesses we can afford. Even if we grew up comfortably, or especially if we didn’t, we’ve become used to lacking insurance, safety nets, housing or even income.
Gaming is one of the places where you can see Millennial ironies blossom—despite being an expensive and consumerist pastime, gaming is something we grew up with and have refused to grow out of. The Entertainment Software Association even says the average age of a videogamer is 31. Gaming is no longer a hobby just for kids. It’s a big business, even if so many of us consumers have little disposable income.
I consider it a salve that has eased some of the sting of having little else I could afford and take pride in.
For the low price of one pizza a month, I paid for a World of Warcraft subscription for a long time. Many of us who played WoW extensively often did it because we were between jobs, unemployed, disabled or waiting for something else to come along. It wasn’t odd to hear one of my guildmates wish that making money was as easy as going outside and killing a couple of boars. Chasing achievements, collecting items and powering a character up in Warcraft’s endgame was a source of pride even if it was all digital. It’s easier to justify when there’s 12 million other people doing the same thing.
Gaming has become so intertwined with our own struggles, as both a means of escape as well as a new form of succeeding. It is unsurprising, then, that as gaming has become more technologically advanced we’re seeing more games that focus around simulation and methods of play that cause us to collect, acquire and enjoy a concept of luxury. You can, in a videogame, be anything from a truck driver to a football player and genuinely enjoy it. You can drive a million dollar car or shoot thousands of aliens with your legendary gun.
Life sims, unsurprisingly, have become a popular genre for this reason. They are games that focus on an uncanny set of characters that may or may not resemble you. Our characters settle down in a town somewhere, with a powerful career and a house perfectly decorated to our liking. They toil to improve and we’re rewarded for doing so. They do what we want them to, and we feel a sense of control that we might lack otherwise.
Last summer, my boyfriend got me a Nintendo 3DS XL as a birthday gift, the first console I’ve ever owned. I was so excited; I could finally play Animal Crossing: New Leaf with my friends online. I delighted at creating my own town where I was mayor. I had my own house, a job, and could leisurely spend my days picking fruit, only to turn around to give my hard-earned bells to Tom Nook to make my house bigger.
There was something a little too uncanny about that, despite the cutely themed rooms I had concocted.
As I heard more friends rave about Fantasy Life, I purchased it, wondering if it would enchant me the same way Animal Crossing initially did. It has some of the same earmarks—you do have the ability to customize an apartment or eventually a house. You can collect outfits and pets, even.
However, lurking at the heart of Fantasy Life is something more endearing. The game revolves around the player choosing not a job, but a “life.” You’re encouraged to help fulfill the requests of the villagers around you and increase the collective happiness of the community. You are not limited to one life and some of the choices are not even combat-oriented—if you wanted to sew all day, the game would let you do that as a tailor. A life is skilled up in a myriad of ways, whether it’s idly picking flowers, fighting increasingly strong monsters, or finding giant eggs for an old man. You’re even encouraged, by way of the story, to seek out activities that give you happiness, or “bliss” as it is called. Collecting enough bliss unlocks vanity rewards like companion pets and hairstyles. This hybrid of a sim and a role-playing game is somehow more comforting than other examples of either genre, even if the mechanics feel eerily familiar.
What has kept me from progressing further in Fantasy Life is, to my chagrin, the real life I actually live. I have a full-time job (the first I’ve had since leaving NYC) and work 40 hours a week. While this has allowed me the ability to buy more videogames, my time to play most of them has dwindled significantly. Still, every day on my commute, I have lost myself in Reveria, moving my tiny little wizard around as she gains stars, dosh (the currency of the game), and yes, even bliss. I even have a cat now, though the one I have in real life is superior.
Despite games being designed in a lot of ways to prey on our need for validation and success, I feel that some of them do this with enough charm that I don’t necessarily mind. In a world where so many of us have grown accustomed to being thought of as underachievers, it’s nice to crawl away for a little while and think of ourselves as heroes.
Nico Deyo is a feminist media critic and curmudgeon who lives with in the Midwest. She self-publishes at her blog Apple Cider Mage and can be found on Twitter at @applecidermage.