“This is a difficult conversation to have, but we are eliminating your position and will have to let you go.”
It happened again. The same words that left me questioning my professional capability and my general self-worth earlier this year were coming out of another person’s mouth and, like last time, they were directed at me. In a quick, piercing sentence, I was laid-off for the second time this year and left to traverse the world of unemployment once more.
Pretty sweet, huh?
Lucky for me, if you want to consider what I am about to say as lucky, the second time didn’t hurt nearly as much as the first. I wasn’t terribly invested in the company — it was a job and a distraction to the ever teasing “what the hell am I going to do with my life?” question. Still, though, there is a specific sting and embarrassment that comes with getting laid-off twice in one year. And, similar to all human beings, I need a job so I can continue perpetuating my irresponsible internet spending habits.
While both times were not about me as an employee — both layoffs were more or less due to company restructuring — there was nothing to stop me from obsessively wondering, “what could have I done better?” and “was I ever a good worker in the first place?”. After the first layoff, my mind was wrought with these thoughts. Every moment I was either thinking about what I could have done differently or worrying about worst case scenarios like my fiance leaving me, moving back into my parents’ house, and never finding work.
When I received my first job offer, I jumped at it immediately out of desperation and fear that nothing else would come along. I was scared, vulnerable, and I wanted to prove that I was, in fact, a good employee. The only thing I have to say to past-Ethan is this: You idiot.
This time around, I am taking an entirely different approach and learning from my mistakes by embracing the terrifying notion that I have no idea what will be next. Sure, I am applying to jobs regularly and seeking opportunities where I can, but I am nowhere near as manically fervent as I was the first time with the application process. If I apply to ten or twenty jobs in a day, that’s great, but if I decide to spend the day writing, reading, or running errands without a single glance at an online job board, then that’s great, too.
As much as this sounds like a line pulled directly from an indie movie, I’m having a better time than I thought I would embracing the unknown. Not only am I actually taking the time to think earnestly about what I want in a career, I have much more time and energy to sink into my hobbies than I did when I was working. I’ve been reading, writing, cooking, running, working around the house, and, as a surprise to exactly no one, playing video games.
If there is one gift unemployment gives you, it’s time, and boy have I been living my best damn life by pouring an unconscionable amount of hours into video games. While I am loving the excess of time, and I have been largely handling my second bout of unemployment with aplomb, those ugly moments of questioning my self-worth and scary, anxious thoughts about the rest of my life still surface frequently enough to make me feel on edge. Again, as a surprise to literally zero people, I leaned on video games to help me digest what I was going through, and what I found was resiliency.
As I pounded through the desert wasteland in my Magnum Opus — a rusted out relic that I somehow, through the magic of RPG mechanics and the mechanical genius of an impish character named Chumbucket, managed to turn into a death machine on wheels — I took stock of the long forgotten landmarks that passed by: A defunct oil rig with its crane still in the air as if there were still people left to operate the machine; skeletons of what I could only assume were cities but were now coated in several inches of dust and bone; wanderers desperately searching for water or eating maggots out of corpses.
The world is desolate, ugly, hard, and violent. But, for better or worse (mostly worse), this is just how things are. This is Mad Max, and it, like me, is angry as hell.
Developer Avalanche Studios’ Mad Max is a strange game. It’s not vibrant, colorful, or warm. It doesn’t have overly memorable characters (not counting character names like Scrotus), save for Max himself and his mechanical savant Chumbucket. There aren’t interesting side quests that broach complicated political or social tensions like in The Witcher. The world itself doesn’t do anything especially groundbreaking for open-world RPGs. But that’s what made the game great for me.
Mad Max doesn’t need to be different because its vicious world doesn’t want to be different. The environments are drab, hopeless, and sepia-ridden. Its characters are tools to push you back out into the world to continue punching, harpooning, throttling, and running over your enemies. Side quests are usually as simple as go here, collect this scrap, kill this person, or overthrow this camp. From the twenty or so hours I’ve played, Mad Max cares about three things: punching, scrap, and cars, and that’s all I needed.
Like I said, I was angry. Angry for having my career cut short twice, angry for being back on my couch looking for jobs, and angry because the people around me seemingly had everything they wanted. If there is anything Mad Max does right, it’s channeling and encouraging anger.
You see, Max is pissed off, too (if you couldn’t tell from the title). Bad men stole his car and he wants it back, now. If you are looking for more to the story, you won’t find anything. That’s everything. It doesn’t bother with highfalutin themes or force a contrived main quest that loses all agency because you decide to do everything but the main quest (see: Fallout 4). Max just wants his car back, even if he has to punch every last person.
Yes, the story is shallow, and yes, we need better stories in video games that, you know, say something, but my state of mind when deciding to play the game was this: I want something to take my anger out on; I want to beat up virtual bad guys, and Mad Max is the perfect medicine. It was self-care, albeit aggressive self-care, but it was cathartic and allowed me to feel productive with my frustration rather than let it stew and have it turn into toxicity. Anger can be doubly troublesome when unemployed and allowing it to run unchecked can lead to a destructive stasis where I am perpetually resentful and blaming others rather than taking responsibility for myself. Mad Max, while maybe not original in its gameplay and mechanics, provided an outlet for my anger through its mean, combative world.
Unfortunately, my time with Mad Max was cut short because soon after I started playing, a sequel to a small, not popular at all franchise was released: Nascar Heat 2. Just kidding, it was Destiny 2.
Fair warning: This next part will have story spoilers for Destiny 2.
Playing through the beginning of Destiny 2 was eerie. After you meet the new big bad that Nathan Fillion so lovingly forgets in the trailer, he takes away your light, kicks you from the top of a very high platform, and you plummet to what should be your death as the Tower, the Guardians’ home and last bastion of humanity, crumbles and is overrun by the Cabal. It was eerie not because I can relate to having my home destroyed by an alien lifeforce (unless if you count Trump), but the notion of having something that guides you stripped away resonated with me completely.
I won’t sit here and tell you in all too trite way that my journey into unemployment is the same as a fictitious space warrior finding their way back to the light. No, I didn’t have the power that makes me immortal ripped away by the leader of a powerful alien race, but I did have my job security taken away twice. Destiny was the last place I expected to feel a personal connection, and yet as I was playing through the opening of the game, I couldn’t help but feel a semblance of familiarity with the vulnerability and hopelessness my ghost and hero were facing.
Playing through those beginning missions, my ghost went out of its way to remind me that without the light from Traveler, if my character dies, there is no coming back. At first I thought it was annoying, but then as I made my way into the first combat area, I started to feel the weight of my robot friend’s words. I couldn’t run and gun as aimlessly as I used to; I actually had to make a concerted effort to stay alive. Sure, the only consequence would be to send me back to the checkpoint if I died, but it still felt as though I needed to be extra careful and like I was wholly unequipped to handle what was in front of me, a sentiment that particularly stuck as I was playing.
I know I said the second layoff didn’t affect me as much as the first, but that doesn’t mean that I was left unscathed and it certainly doesn’t mean that the first one didn’t leave considerable scars. My first layoff was tough. When it happened, my entire body instantly felt heavy and my initial thought was, “I’m fucked”. Not only was my source of income eliminated, but it was a company I thought would allow me to grow and turn into a career. Within the span of a few minutes and a couple sentences, I saw my future screeching to a halt as a million questions raged in my head: What am I going to do? How long can I survive on savings? How am I going to help pay for my wedding? Will there even be a wedding now? Who’s going to want to hire me? What the fuck am I going to do?
After the second time, though I panicked less and had a general idea of what to expect and what to do, I was disillusioned. Even though my skin had thickened significantly, the question of “what am I going to do?” was left unanswered. So, yes, when I saw my guardian tumble out of the sky and have their identity stripped away, in a human way, I understood.
Whereas Mad Max gave me an outlet to divert my anger, Destiny 2 provided the means to actually process what I was going through. As I grew stronger in the game and my Titan started to become a closer image of what she once was, I felt the defeat of losing another job wash away and I started feeling excited to actually discover what I want to do with my life. It felt good to rebuild anew in the game and as more time passed, the game was helping me rediscover my resilience.
I’m still unemployed, but things don’t seem as insurmountable as they did before writing this. I’ve leaned on video games so many times, and every time they are there to support me. Through mental health, personal drama, and now professional turmoil, video games have consistently pulled me through when I was in danger of succumbing to the worst parts of myself. I am optimistic for what’s to come and genuinely excited to finally start searching for what I want.
Until that next step, I am happy to have video games to keep me company.