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You've Been Poisoned

Purple Bubbles and Chartreuse Clouds

Published onJan 10, 2021
You've Been Poisoned

I’m sorry, but it’s true. Your health bar is green and draining, your vision is blurry and swimming, wreathed with purple bubbles and miasmatic chartreuse clouds. Classic videogame poisoning. Mercifully, I’ve left you an antidote at the very end of this piece. Get there efficiently and you have a solid chance at surviving.

A more prudent player would have prepped for this. You could have spent your hard-earned coins on antidotes, knowing death is always the more expensive option. You could have moved more cautiously, tending to any infection among your allies with immediacy.

But maybe you’re reckless and impatient. Or worse, you lack the resources necessary to prep. So you risk it. You move as fast as you can, glancing around every dungeon and public space with frantic eyes, lest the miasma seeps into your exposed nostrils.

Poison, toxins, disease—they reorder things: your priorities, your calm control of a given situation. They disorient you. They wedge their way into your normal life pattern, introducing an array of new pressures you’re forced to consider. They clarify what’s most important to you, yet impel you to act rashly, erratically.

In Hunt: Showdown (2019), a competitive multiplayer shooter with environmental hazards, poison drains your life, prevents you from healing, worsens over time, and emanates from an object in the environment (a hive-zombie, a venomous trip-mine). Do you panic and run, fleeing the source of the poison but potentially revealing your position to enemy snipers? Do you attack the nearby hive-zombie, or will that reaction put you in danger? How far out of your way do you go to avoid them? Do you spend your precious hunt dollars and limited inventory slots on antidote shots before the game? During a firefight, being poisoned forces you to make snap decisions. Your next few actions become decisive. Physically you can feel it: your heart rate spikes, you clench your jaw.

In Pokémon games, poison is one of the few sources of damage that can occur outside of battle. Once one of your Pokémon is poisoned, every fourth step in the gameworld applies damage to your poisoned companion, turning the game into a pathfinding challenge as you try to efficiently retrace your path to a healing center.

In No Man’s Sky (2016), entire planets can have a “Toxic” biome. Their surfaces are muddy, covered with a sickly green sheen. Bulbous poison sacs bulge from slimy crevasses and the rancid shores of oozing rivers, while acrid rain lashes your decomposing space suit. Other biomes feature poison-like conditions: extreme temperatures, boiling hurricanes, irradiated wastelands, each draining your life and exerting downward pressure, again tying survival to efficiency of movement and resource management.

I’ve played these games a lot during the ongoing pandemic. Their poison mechanics differ, but the effect is the same: they increase pressure on the player to act carefully, they reorder the player’s priorities, they reward preparation (and by proxy, having ample resources to prepare with), and they change the way the player physically moves through a space.

There are clear parallels to the fabric of COVID life. For instance, I’ve found myself moving through populated grocery stores with maximum “battlefield awareness” and pathfinding efficiency, meticulously planning my route through the shelves and affording a wide berth to other patrons. My personal priorities have become more specific and short-term, too, with higher stakes: I don’t plan to vaguely “travel more” this year; instead, I hope to host my parents at some point in early May, if that seems viable. After all, long-term goals are a luxury for those whose short-term goals are manageable. And of course, avoiding infection is dependent on one’s resources. While the wealthy hoard rapid tests and outsource their risk to delivery drivers, service workers are forced to interact with the public to survive (Can I afford the antidote potion? Can I afford healthcare?).

But maybe the strongest parallel is the psychological miasma, the low-simmering panic brought on by the heightened stakes all around me. Like in the aforementioned games, the freedom and play that I’m usually drawn to in life has been replaced with disease-oriented action. In places where I might typically act with spontaneity or encounter rote banality, I must instead contend with a nebulous life-and-death scenario. Where I might typically explore and play outside of goal-driven behavior, I’m instead focused on efficiency and safety.

You feel that low-simmering panic too. Don’t forget, after all, that you were poisoned in paragraph one, and the only thing that brought you to this sentence is your goal-driven desire for the antidote, and the predictable pathfinding of eyes on well-worn prose. Or maybe you skipped ahead speedrun-style, which I must commend. Either way, you earned it. Keep a cool head out there.

May Regan:

This was really cool! It made me angry all over again at the likes of Kelly Loeffler, who is an American politician who knew about the pandemic early and took the time to arrange her stocks. It’s like she knew the upcoming area had poison, and used the time to buy all the antidotes. Argh!

Anyways, there’s a subtle difference between the ‘game world’ of your piece and the real world, which is that in the game you’ve already been poisoned, and in the real world there’s a threat of disease. Pushing the game world version more could potentially distract from the real world, but I wonder if there’s a way to arrange the piece that raises tension? I think it’s a big ask with a limited word count, but I know when I’m poisoned in a game, seeing my health slowly tick down makes me more and more panicked. I wonder if there’s a way to do that in here?

Either way, I think you have a cogent and relatable piece here. You’ve managed to tell me how I’ve felt this past year without realizing it. You should be very proud!

August Smith:

Yeah, Loeffler is exploiting a mechanic that needs to be patched out STAT.

That’s a good point! I’d like to figure out how to extend the “youre poisoned” conceit while ratcheting it up, all while somehow keeping in the examples. I might have to just expand this into a longer thing elsewhere.

Florence Walker:

Wonderful piece! The framing device has real flair to it - I felt immediately engaged and emotionally involved, which only served to heighten the reading experience. Also - and this is particularly impressive to me given it’s something I struggle with a bit - you maintain a really sensitive, granular view of how gameplay mechanics shape the player’s thoughts and actions.

I do wonder if it might be worth altering the structure, though? It feels as if all the video game examples of poisoning and how it impacts you are divided from the all the real-world examples. I think moving from the video game to the real-world is the right choice, but the comparisons might benefit from being emphasised more. I can see some strong points of connection between the two ‘sections’, but interweaving them would likely make them more apparent.

On the other hand, I do enjoy how the current structure effectively turns the essay into a conceptual pathfinding exercise of the kind you describe in Pokemon!

August Smith:

Thank you for the kind words! You definitely got what I was going for. And I agree with your note, in my next draft I need to blend the two “worlds” more, and draw the comparisons and parallels more directly. Strengthen the analogy, as it were. Thinking of reading as a kind of pathfinding exercise is really cool, btw, there’s something there to write about I’m sure.