The ship is on fire. Again.
Actually, now I’m on fire. This is bad. We’re roughly an hour into a three-hour loot run on Sea of Thieves and death has come to my door for the umpteenth time. I should, as the game instructs, offer my soul to the ferryman, but luckily my crewmate revives me (again) and we resume our pained efforts to not sink. The whole thing would be less embarrassing if it wasn’t streaming live on Twitch, but being mortified in front of one’s friends has always been half of the fun of gaming. (Right?)
It’s also what happens when you haven’t played a video game in about a decade. I used to love gaming—and still nurse a mild Mario Kart habit—but it hasn’t been a regular part of my media diet in a long time. Yet, recently it’d been calling to me again. Perhaps it was late-stage Covid-19 lockdown malaise, but like in an actual siren song, gaming called me here, to the deck of a digital ship, hoping to get revived.
This all started back in January. I’d recently gotten caught up in the TikTok sea chantey craze and apparently didn’t know when to shut up about it. Somehow I’d become the go-to person on Slack when anyone wanted to talk about 19th century mariner songs. Eventually, my hype fell on Games editor Saira Mueller’s ears and she suggested it would be fun if we asked the UK a cappella group The Longest Johns to join us on Twitch to play Sea of Thieves and sing some songs. “Sure!” I said, knowing full well I could only do one of those things with any certainty. I forged ahead thinking that the Johns were a long shot.
The band emailed me back in an hour: “Yes, we’d love to.” Oh. At this point, I started to panic. Not only did I not know anything about playing Sea of Thieves, I also didn’t own a PC. Or an Xbox. Or anything on which to play it. Or know how to stream. I got a Razer Blade 15, loaded up Xbox Game Pass, and attempted to not let my sweaty palms muck up the laptop’s shimmering rainbow keyboard.
The learning curve on Sea of Thieves took about four days to overcome. (The damage my dignity required a lot more time to heal.) Half of this was just learning keystrokes and commands; the other half was getting reacquainted with using a PC after 16 years using a Mac. Did you know the two-finger swipe that allows you to scroll down on a Mac will make you pull out your sword on Sea of Thieves? I do now! It will also retrieve your pistol. (All apologies to the various shopkeepers I accidentally shot.) I found myself Googling “How to eat a banana, Sea of Thieves,” and one time, frantically, “video game swimming?!” The latter did not produce the desired results. But, like a pirate who spots a doubloon in the sand, I picked it up.
I was not, however, ready to play for three hours with seasoned gamers. I know this now. Yet, when I hopped online to stream with the Longest Johns, that’s exactly what we did. Luckily, they took pity. Jonathan “JD” Darley channeled instructions about how to use buckets when the ship got flooded and revived my slumped-over corpse more times than I could count. We scored treasure, made sales, and obliterated Flameheart’s ghost ships.
We also sang. Back when the sea chantey craze took off, the Longest Johns garnered some attention because in 2018 they’d recorded a version of “Soon May the Wellerman Come,” which was the track most people on TikTok were singing. During our Twitch stream, we sang that one and many others, including a song I’d never heard called “Here’s a Health to the Company,” which, in a somewhat poetic turn, is all about appreciating moments before they pass. “Let us drink and be merry, all grief to refrain,” the chorus goes, “for we may or might never all meet here again.” It was, Darley said, “a dedication to the uniqueness of every time you get to sing and spend time with people.”
Gaming has changed so much in the time since I stopped playing, I have often feared it’s long since bypassed my skill level. I can’t play like Saira, or even like the average teenager, but I’m glad it was not impossible to return to button-mashing years after my last attempt. And to realize that sometimes, in the waning days of a pandemic, it helps to appreciate where you are because you’ll never go there again.