I awoke with a start at 3am on the morning of November 9th.
I already knew; I could feel it in the pit of my stomach. I had cried myself to sleep when things didn’t look good at around 10 or 11pm and now I knew. Donald Trump was going to be the next President of the United States.
As it has for many people, this election has awakened within me a primal fear and intense anxiety I’ve never experienced before. This is not an exaggeration. As it turns out, there is a scientific explanation for the way myself and countless others have been feeling.
For many people, this presidential election is triggering a visceral fear response hard to put into words. Here are the words you might have been looking for: We are born to fear predators.
During the campaign, therapists warned of the Trump effect. Following the election, suicide hotlines were flooded with calls. The Canadian immigration website crashed. This was all only the beginning. After just one week, the incidence of hate crimes was worse than after 9/11. The Southern Poverty Law Center continues to compile the reported crimes here.
In the days and weeks after, I felt lost, rudderless. Nothing seemed real and there was nowhere to hide from the terror that I felt. Not even in my most beloved refuge: games.
For years now, I had been turning to games in times of stress and anxiety. This positive effect of games has, in fact, been studied and many people can attest to its power.
But, nothing seemed to work for me. Hearthstone (iOS & Android), normally my comfort game of choice, felt too competitive and I typically love to compete. I looked at my games folder and nothing looked appealing. Nothing beckoned with a warm and inviting gesture. Nothing promised comfort and shelter. I felt numb.
Right around that time, forcing myself to keep playing games for Unconsoleable, I downloaded a new featured game from the App Store called The Trail (iOS & Android). I liked the look of its low poly visuals and it was free to play so, why not?
I launched it, not expecting much. An hour later, having completely lost track of time, I suddenly realized I felt something that I hadn’t felt in nearly a week: a sense of peace.
In The Trail, you play as an explorer who has journeyed to a new world. You must walk the proverbial trail between rest spots and collect items which you can then trade or craft into more valuable objects.
You collect things like rabbit fur hides, pebbles, branches, feathers, and much more and fashion them into clothing, footwear, rucksacks, and a myriad other things. All the while, you earn chits for your wares, even if no one buys them, and eventually save up enough to journey to new spots on the map, or buy a tiny, windowless house, which you can then decorate and eventually expand.
Your house also establishes you as part of a town, and the town collectively has goals that you can contribute to. Meanwhile, in your own home, you will create something that is of value to you for crafting and trading purposes; this seems to be randomly assigned and my house is for making cloth. It’s also possible to enter the homes of other townspeople if you want to help them along or you need an item that only their house can make.
I’ve yet to see any other towns besides my own, but there is evidently much more that players will be able to do in the future there. Like elect a mayor.
There are also mini-games of a sort that you can play along the trail. You can chop down trees for their lumber or other goods (provided you’ve crafted an axe), hunt rabbits and other animals if you’ve got the right type of slingshot, and occasionally pull on a naughty raccoon’s tail to get a random item that you probably need.
Some might call a game like this a walking simulator, because while there are goals and quests, it feels very leisurely. It’s possible to collapse between rest spots if you are hungry or cold, but the penalty is minimal. Basically, your rucksack starts shedding its contents while you regain life and other players can take them. This isn’t a huge setback though, as there is always more to collect. And if you’re smart and proactive, you can make sure this almost never happens.
So yes, there are other players. Their user names and locations appear above their heads at various times and it’s evident that this game is global. You see them along the trail as you’re walking or running to the next rest stop. Comically, they may lack pants or a shirt (or both) if they don’t have the necessary ingredients to craft one and no one is selling one during trading time.
The things that can be said to these other explorers or to your character are blessedly limited to five emotes, of which even the taunt is very benign.
My favorite part is the actual walking to and fro. The vistas are beautiful and for someone who rarely enjoys nature for too long in real life, the game offers the opportunity to immerse oneself in it without leaving your couch or bed or cozy armchair. The effects of being outdoors are well-documented and even though you’re not actually doing that here, the design and polish of the game make you feel as though you are.
The sound design, for instance, is so lovely. You really feel as if you’re trudging through a living, breathing forest. The collection of the items is intensely satisfying. You swipe them towards you and they land with a pleasant thwack right in your hand and then into your rucksack.
Sometimes, the camera (which the player only partially controls) will pan out to reveal the broader beauty of the landscape and it’s breathtaking. The overall experience is just so relaxing.
So for me, this game came at just the right time. I’ve been playing it anytime I start to feel too angry due to prolonged exposure to the news or my chest tightens and I start to feel like I’m suffocating a bit.
I also enjoy the feeling of being in the game with other players who I don’t really interact with. It’s a bit like the comfort of being in a crowd with a common purpose, like maybe waiting in line for a beloved movie. You don’t know the other people there, but you know you’re all there for the same reason and there’s a quiet sense of camaraderie that flows from that.
I enjoy the town. Once you’ve purchased a house, you can visit it anytime and contribute to common goals and help other townspeople. It’s a stark counterpoint to the apparent posture of many Americans these days, who only seem to care about themselves and their own welfare.
Gradually, I’ve started to play other games again, both new and old. Life somehow goes on after all, and we at Unconsoleable are still putting out a new episode every week.
Gradually, I’ve rediscovered the joy of old favorites and been able to once again enjoy new games, provided they’re good.
I continue to play The Trail though. I’m collecting and trading and crafting so I can earn enough chits to journey to a new part of the map and I want to keep doing the quests to earn new crafting recipes. I want to keep expanding my house and I want to see my town grow.
There’s more to the game as well; I haven’t the space to tell you about all of it. Just play it.