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  • Writer's pictureK Fox

Banished in the Time of Quarantine

Like a lot of people, I’ve been home a lot more often lately. I’ve been trying to fill the time with useful endeavors—you know, those that contribute to growth and personal development. And I’ve been doing a lot of that, sure. (Well, maybe not “a lot.” Some. A small amount. ...Sometimes.)

Ok, well what I have been doing a lot of is gaming. All this extra time at home has led to me digging through my Steam library, finding those old titles I used to love but moved away from, and firing them back up. It’s been a really fun and refreshing exercise. It’s like bumping into an old friend and having some catching up to do and then reliving your favorite memories together. Or maybe it’s more like visiting your hometown: sure, you remember why you left, but it feels good to be there for a little bit, comfortable and surrounded by the familiar, doesn’t it?

One such game that’s drawn me back in during these unpredictable, pandemic-laden times is Banished by Shining Rock Software. It’s from 2014 but holds up just fine, and there are beaucoup mods to spice it up if that’s your thing.

In the game, you start with a few families and supplies (the number of which depends on whether you want to play easy, medium, or hard mode) and a few houses. From there, you have to build your town and help your villagers survive the harsh winters and (hopefully) prosperous summers while expanding your population. Which do you prioritize first? Food or clothing? Firewood or tools? The choices start to pile up quickly.

Your villagers can all take on jobs as laborers, builders, or specialists as you assign. You immediately have a lot you need to balance in order to ensure your town’s survival, but once you know what you’re doing, it feels good to cross things off your mental checklist, accomplishing so much while sitting in one place... during a global pandemic... alone in your house.

Ok, that got a little dark.

Anyway, Banished has plenty of curve balls to throw you, but at the same time, the experience of playing is one that is, at least once you get the hang of it, quite soothing. It feels good to watch your residents live well fed, warmly dressed, well educated lives. It’s fun to keep track of growing families and to watch your town flourish and expand. You get to rely on your own resiliency and careful planning... or fall victim to the lack of them.

Should you trade some of your precious tools for a new type of livestock? Is your town too densely packed to survive the destructive path of an errant tornado? Have you provided enough firewood and stockpiled enough food to get each of your families through the bitter winter months? The questions are stressful to ask but also incredibly satisfying to answer in the affirmative, and once you get into the groove of Banished, more often than not you see your success grow and grow—or at least you get good at bouncing back when you overreach.

When I clicked on the title in my Steam library, I thought my revisiting would be a brief foray for nostalgia’s sake and then I’d move on, but I’ve already logged more hours than I expected on my most recent playthrough, and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon. What drew me back into Banished so completely? I think it’s the pace (slow, steady, ever progressing), the simplicity (there’s lots going on, but overall your duties are straightforward and well defined), and the control (you make all the decisions—you’re essentially the god of your little hamlet, and the success of your villagers is wholly in your hands). In short, the game offers pretty much all the things that we feel like we’re missing right now as the real world around us is turned upside down because of the pandemic.

Off the computer, things might feel like they’re crawling painfully slowly or rushing by in a chaotic hodgepodge of ever-changing circumstances, depending on the day. Nothing feels terribly simple or straightforward right now, and the new rules and rituals that we do finally get comfortable with suddenly change, so that the things we thought we knew become things we regularly have to reexamine, reconsider, and make new decisions about. And it’s no small statement to say that many of us have seen the control seep out of our lives over this last year. So many things that make us who we are and so many decisions we usually make for ourselves have been taken away, and no matter how you feel about that, whether it makes you seethe or you’re more than willing to do so for the sake of the greater good, it has still taken some getting used to, and even after a year, I certainly still don’t feel fully adjusted.

But in Banished, the antithesis is true. Everything comes at you as quickly or slowly as you want. When things are going well, you can watch your villagers speed walk around, fulfilling their duties at a lightning pace, and when something bad happens, you can bring everything to a halt and take all the time you need setting up your answer to whatever disaster has struck, all but ensuring your success. You can plan ahead and watch those careful strategies come to fruition—something that remains fulfilling whether it’s real-life accomplishments or the myriad achievements of the characters on your computer screen. You have all the answers—and the ability to dole them out as you see fit. And finally, unlike that pressing voice in the back of your head in the real world, reminding you lives are on the line in these risky and unprecedented times, if you mess up, the consequences are temporary, lasting just long enough for you to choose a new map and assigning a new name to the replacement town you’d like to build.

Banished has provided some semblance of accomplishment and control that, at least for me, has been missing as of late. While I know we’ll get back to what we consider normal eventually—and we’re well on our way now, I hope—having this escape where I can relax and feel comfort and control again has been medicine I didn’t even realize I needed. While it does get stressful when disaster strikes or your population outpaces your food supply, in the end, it’s a pretty soothing game—especially because you know you know you can make a difference, and unlike what’s going on in the world around us right now, you can see that difference, easily defined and quantified, being made right in front of you in real time. That sort of validation is something that’s been lost in the shuffle for a lot of us lately, but Banished can provide it in small, pixelated doses for those in need of a booster shot while we do what we can to stay home, stay safe, and wait for things to get back to normal.


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