Roughly 6,000 articles I’ve read over the past two weeks have informed me that now has never been a better time to “get into video games.” If you’re unfamiliar, video games are a form of interactive entertainment; they’re kind of like playable movies, in a way.
There are many games you can try during these stressful times. You could play Animal Crossing, in which you perform chores for a delinquent landlord, and which seemingly every review describes as “the game we need right now.” You could play multiplayer games and voice-chat with your friends, or jury-rig a livestream setup that lets you run party games like Jackbox. If you want to spend $300 on used equipment, you can play the novel exercise game Ring Fit Adventure and get buff. You can play a rich, textured role-playing game with a deep and complex narrative.
Or you could play a big, dumb game — which is what I recommend.
The criteria for a big, dumb game is that it’s gotta be big (meaning it’ll take dozens or hundreds of hours to finish) and it’s gotta be dumb (meaning that you can safely ignore the narrative). A month ago, I’d developed a small backlog of big, dumb games that I had put off playing. These are usually open-world action-adventure games filled with mediocre story lines and repetitive mission structures. Why would I waste my precious free time playing them? Now, I have no reason not to.
My big, dumb game of choice for the pandemic is called Borderlands 3. I was sent a free copy when it came out last fall. I installed it and for six months stared at it in my Xbox menu, telling myself, “One day …” It’s an open-world, first-person shooter with some of the worst writing I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing in a video game. It’s perfect. I don’t know what is actually happening in the game anymore, but I get to shoot bad guys and drive a car, and it’s colorful and it should take me at least a couple of dozen hours to see through. There are long, overwritten stretches during which I have a window to check my phone and respond to texts. The game also causes my Xbox to crash completely (the hardware fully shuts down) if I even try to play online with others, which feels like a sign: My big, dumb game is protecting me. (I feel obligated to add that the company that developed this particular game, along with its CEO, has been the subject of various unflattering reports over the past year.)
It’s never been a better time to play the competent, mediocre games you would never otherwise pick up, but which you frequently see on sale for 60 percent off. The nice thing about your game of choice being big is that it feels like a constant. It’s a project you can return to over and over again, a buoy in these unstable times. The nice thing about the game being dumb is that you don’t have to invest much emotionally. You can ignore the story and instead listen to a podcast or Fleetwood Mac’s 1979 double album Tusk (just a suggestion). But at the end you will have, technically, finished a hefty task.
The best types of big, dumb games are the open-world ones. They’re repetitive and narratively weak, often by design. They’re also easily segmented, so you can complete a mission and log off, or complete 25 missions in one butt-numbing sitting. The Assassin’s Creed series features many great examples of a big, dumb game, since you get to run around historical re-creations of cities and shiv famous people. I also recommend Grand Theft Auto–esque cityscape games such as Mafia III. Recent Hideo Kojima titles like Metal Gear Solid V and Death Stranding are totally nonsensical and comfortingly rhythmic and mundane; Bethesda RPGs like Fallout and the Elder Scrolls also work. Consult the crowdsourced database HowLongToBeat if you’re unsure of how long a game might take. Play on the easiest difficulty setting so that you never stop making progress.
Instead of trying to binge 800 shows and movies and constantly getting choice paralysis from the glut of content out there, I have often found myself returning to my one big, dumb game. It is a constant in my life. When I’m not sure exactly what I should be doing in my small apartment, I can just put on the big, dumb game and somehow — bam — two hours are gone. I don’t know where they went, and I don’t remember anything I accomplished. It’s very soothing.